Indian Tree Preserve to Big Rock

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Most years I try to go on a special hike to celebrate National Trails Day on the first Saturday of June.  The National Trails Day tag line – hit the trail, make new friends, find an adventure – appeals to me.  This year I had the opportunity to participate in a group hike that covered both private property and public open space in Marin County.  The publicly accessible portion of the hike was mainly in Lucas Valley Open Space Preserve with a short section in Indian Tree Open Space Preserve.  Both of these preserves are part of the Marin County parks network.  The section of trail within Lucas Valley Open Space Preserve is also dedicated as part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail.

The hike featured some beautiful views of Marin County, as well as a surprising number of wildflowers still in bloom.  Although there had been above-average rainfall for the first time in several years, a situation that produced wonderful wildflower spring blooms, the local hillsides had already changed to the typical summer golden hue, suggesting that the wildflower season might be nearly complete.  So it was a pleasant surprise to encounter a nice variety of wildflowers.

The stars of the wildflower show were clarkias, which are often called farewell to spring since they bloom late in the season.  I saw two species of clarkia during the hike, but perhaps the “true” farewell to spring is Clarkia amoena, with delicately colored petals with a darker splotch on each petal.  If this is an annual farewell to spring wildflowers, it is certainly a beautiful one!

image of farewell to spring

Farewell to spring

The hike was organized as a point-to-point hike.  We met at the ending point at Big Rock on Lucas Valley Rd and were bussed to the beginning point at the edge of Indian Tree Open Space Preserve, shown as the orange dot on the GPS track.

GPS track

GPS track

After just a half mile of hiking we had passed through a corner of Indian Tree and entered the privately-owned Hill Ranch.  Our hike leader had obtained clearance for our group to hike across the ranch to Lucas Valley Open Space Preserve.  The hike through the ranch was a gradual ascent to a ridge with stunning views.  From the ridge-top we hiked down through Lucas Valley to our waiting cars at Big Rock.  The total distance for the hike was 9.1 miles, with a little over 2000 feet of climbing.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

On the way to and through Indian Tree Open Space Preserve we almost immediately found several yellow mariposa lilies (Calochortus luteus); this one was being visited by a couple of small insects.

image of yellow mariposa lily

Yellow mariposa lily

We also saw yellow sticky monkeyflower (Mimulus auranticus), rattlesnake grass (Briza maxima) growing among ferns, and, as we climbed, our first views across golden grassy hills.  There was also some Ithuriel’s spear (Triteleia laxa), also known as Wally basket.  The blossoms grow in clusters, each blossom on a leafless stem.  In general the Ithuriel’s spear we found was unusually intense in color, like this example.

image of Ithuriel’s spear

Ithuriel’s spear

A related wildflower that we saw throughout the hike is harvest brodiaea (Brodiaea elegans).  The plant’s growth pattern often has the appearance of single stem with a single flower.  The shading of the petals from green to white to purple, as well as the line down the center of each petal, is typical of this species.

image of harvest brodiaea

Harvest brodiaea

A short distance, perhaps 0.25 mile, after we entered the Hill Ranch property we reached the end of the initial climb (see elevation profile above).  From this spot we had a great view of Mt St Helena about 40 miles away, due north.

image of Mt St Helena

Mt St Helena

From the same location we could also see Mt Diablo in the East Bay, a similar distance away to the southeast.  We would see Mt Diablo again later (see below).

For the next 2.5 miles or so we followed ranch roads, generally heading toward a higher ridge with communication towers on top.  The topography is what I call gently rolling, without significant ascents or descents.  In this section we passed a field where a donkey and a horse were grazing and playing with each other.  We also passed miniature lupine (Lupinus bicolor), hedge nettle (Stachys sp.), pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea), and paintbrush (Castilleja sp.).  In addition there were several areas with winecup clarkia (Clarkia purpurea), with intensely colored petals.

image of winecup clarkia

Winecup clarkia

In several places along the trail we encountered a plant with clusters of pretty, bright pink blossoms: slender centaury (Centaurium tenuiflorum).

image of slender centaury

Slender centaury

About 3 miles into the hike we had a nice, though a bit hazy, view of San Pablo Bay.  After that the trail began to climb, gaining almost 900 feet in about 1.5 miles.  We saw some peak rushrose (Heliathemum scoparium), which I recognized from a recent hike at Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve in the South Bay.

We also passed quite a bit of chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum), a common chaparral shrub.  Chamise is characterized by slender heads of tiny white flowers at the ends of the branches.

image of chamise


Around midway up the climb there was a spot where we could see, right in front of us, how the trail would climb right up the side of one of the hills.  The communication tower in the background at the right was at the location where we would go over the ridge, Buck’s Ridge.

image of trail climbing a hill in Hill Ranch

Trail climbing a hill in Hill Ranch

As we climbed this hill I stopped to photograph some golden yarrow (Eriolhyllum confertiflorum).  The very similar flower I’d seen at Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve may be a related species that is sometimes called seaside golden yarrow.

image of golden yarrow

Golden yarrow

During the climb the “lead” hikers stopped from time to time to wait for others to catch up, since we were supposed to stay more-or-less together as we hiked in Hill Ranch.  In one place, about 1650 feet elevation, there was a large rock outcropping from which there was a nice view across San Pablo Bay.  (Apparently there was a place on the back side of the rock where it was a fairly easy scramble to the top!)

image of view toward San Pablo Bay

View toward San Pablo Bay

There were more farewell to spring (Clarkia amoena) in this area, indeed nearly throughout the hike.  In some of the blossoms the spots were especially brilliant.

image of farewell to spring

Farewell to spring

Five miles from the starting trailhead we reached the top of Buck’s Ridge and quickly found a perfect spot for a lunch break.  We enjoyed a great view of Mt Tamalpais and a fog layer extending over most of San Francisco.  Just outside the left side of the picture is Tiburon Peninsula.  The banner photo for this post is a panorama taken from the top of the ridge, with Mt Diablo at the left, Mt Tamalpais at the right, and San Pablo Bay, Tiburon, and the north San Francisco Bay between.

image of Mt Tamalpais and fog over San Francisco: view from Buck's Ridge

Mt Tamalpais and fog over San Francisco: view from Buck’s Ridge

Near our lunch spot I noticed a type of low thistle, which I think is brownie thistle (Cirsium quercetorum), and a few California poppies (Eschscholzia californica).

Our lunch spot was essentially on the border of Lucas Valley Open Space Preserve, near the top of Buck’s Ridge.  After lunch we began the descent down the south side of the ridge, on the Bay Area Ridge Trail, toward Big Rock.  Along the way there were nice views down the side of the ridge, in one area overlooking a portion of George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch movie sound production facility.  (By the way, Lucas Valley is named after a different Mr Lucas!)

I also found a cluster of purple sand spurry (Spergularia rubra) next to the trail.

image of purple sand spurry

Purple sand spurry

There was also some narrow-leaved mule’s ear (Wyethia angustifolia) as well as bush poppy (Dendromecon rigida).

image of bush poppy

Bush poppy

About halfway down from the ridge, around 1100 feet elevation, there is a horse trough that is maintained by a local equestrian group.  Here there were several types of wildflower, including seep spring monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus).  Shortly after this the trail crosses two bridges across the same stream (there is a switchback between the bridges).  Near one of the bridges there was a beautiful California buckeye (Aesculus californica).  Later on there were several spots from which you could look back up the hill generally toward Buck’s Ridge.

A bit farther along I found some beautiful late-season blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum).

image of blue-eyed grass

Blue-eyed grass

Approaching the end of the trail we passed a father and child who were flying kites in the breeze.  The kites were rather spectacular: colorful eagle-like birds with long colorful streamers.  The child was doing especially well flying one of the kites.

image of kite-flying not far from Big Rock

Kite-flying not far from Big Rock

The Big Rock trailhead is easy to find along the road: besides being located at a small summit, the rock itself is quite impressive.

image of Big Rock

Big Rock

Leading to the trailhead parking, basically a wide shoulder along the southwest side of the road, a culvert passes under Lucas Valley Road providing safe passage for hikers.  The Bay Area Ridge Trail continues over the next ridge, Loma Alta, to Sir Francis Drake Blvd.

It was a special treat to be able to hike across privately-owned property connecting two open space preserves: a great way to enjoy National Trails Day with a group of fellow hiking enthusiasts.

Posted in Bay Area Ridge Trail, Marin County, wildflower hikes | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve

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Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve is a small (552 acres, a bit under 1 square mile) reserve managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in Santa Cruz County, in the Santa Cruz Mountains.  The reserve protects one of only a few areas of a unique habitat referred to as the Santa Cruz Sandhills, which are covered with outcrops of Zayante soil.  This special soil evolved from sediment from a 15 million year old former.  The soil is coarse sand and incorporates a variety of marine fossils.

I learned about the reserve in the context of its unique flora and fauna.  Because the soil is low in water content and nutrients, the ecosystem is distinct from the surrounding typical moisture-loving coastal redwood and mixed evergreen forest.  Two endemic subsystems include sand chaparral, with shrubs including manzanita, and so-called sand parkland, with sparse stands of ponderosa pines and an understory that includes native wildflowers.  The Santa Cruz Sandhills are home to at least four plant species and three animal species that are endemic: found only there.

Intrigued, I created an opportunity to visit.  There are a few trails, all of which emanate from a single entry point into the reserve.  Off-trail exploration that could damage sensitive plants and animals is discouraged.  Across the road from the entry point there is a modest staging area with a small map of the reserve.  Portions of the reserve were damaged in the 2008 Martin Fire, and the reserve re-opened in 2009.  It is only open to walkers.

It was easy to find the trail entry point at a small break in the modest barbed-wire type fence along the side of the road.  Immediately upon entering the reserve the sandy trail passes through chaparral, with wildflowers in evidence.  An immediate highlight was a low-growing plant with clusters of small pink flowers: Ben Lomond spineflower (Chorizanthe pungens var. hartwegiana), one of the plants endemic to the very localized area and habitat.  For this reason the Ben Lomond spineflower is listed as federally endangered and as rare, threatened, or endangered in California.  Within the reserve it is common, and I think it is very pretty.

photo of Ben Lomond spineflower

Ben Lomond spineflower

The GPS track shows an overview of my exploration of Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve; the orange dot shows the location of the staging area across the road.  Within feet a trail splits off to the right, to the south.  I decided I would explore the northern portion of the reserve first, so I continued straight for about 0.2 mile to a T intersection, where I initially turned left.  It is my understanding that volunteers help keep the (informal) trails sufficiently open for walking, but in three locations on the eastern part of the reserve I turned around when it became difficult to continue due to branches or simply thick growth across the trail; this was after the trail left sand chaparral and entered sand parkland.  After that I explored in the southwestern portion of the reserve, with my turnaround points determined to some extent by time considerations.

GPS track

GPS track

My entire hike was only about 5 miles but took me over 4 hours.  This was mainly due to stopping to admire and/or take photographs.  My walking pace was also slower on the parts of the trail that were very sandy.  The elevation gain/loss was quite modest, about 600 feet.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

A very common plant in the reserve is peak rushrose (Helianthemum scoparium), a small shrub that grows in sandy areas, generally in hills or low mountains.  The flowers are bright yellow with five petals.  Like the Ben Lomond spineflower, this was a first-time observation for me.

photo of peak rushrose

Peak rushrose

Another common plant is yerba santa (Eriodictyon californicum).  I have seen yerba santa in a variety of other places, mostly if not always in dry conditions.

photo of yerba santa

Yerba santa

According to one description of the reserve, Bonny Doon manzanita (Arctostaphylos silvicola), or silverleaf manzanita, is the dominant plant of sand chaparral.  I saw quite a bit of manzanita during my walk, and I presume it was all this species, which is another of the four plants endemic to the local area.  From a distance it looks generally like many other medium-sized manzanitas, though the leaves are more of a silvery-grey color.

photo of Bonny Doon manzanita

Bonny Doon manzanita

Yet another early find, also found throughout the reserve, was bush poppy (Dendromecon rigida).  This is a shrub with bright yellow flowers that certainly look like poppies, e.g. they have 4 petals.

photo of bush poppy

Bush poppy

I took a very short detour on an informal side trail, and just as I was ready to turn around I found a cluster of spiky plants less than 12” tall.  I think it is everlasting nest straw (Stylocline gnaphaloides), or possibly California cottonrose (Logfia filaginoides).  I’ve never seen either one before, so I am not positive about the identification.  Both of these plants are listed on the iNaturalist site for the reserve.

photo of everlasting nest straw, or possibly California cottonrose

Everlasting nest straw, or possibly California cottonrose

In addition to new finds, in the first part of the trail I also saw more common wildflowers, including blue dicks (Dichelestemma capitatum), common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and yellow sticky monkeyflower (Mimulus auranticus).

All of these observations were made before I had reached the T intersection barely 0.2 miles into my hike.  It took me almost a half hour to get that far!

This is a typical view of the trail in the sand chaparral area.  The sand was sufficiently deep that walking required a surprising amount of effort.  I had brought – and I used – hiking poles to help make walking a bit easier.  The hill in the background is in the far north of the reserve in an area that is closed to the public.

photo of trail in sand chaparral area of Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve

Trail in sand chaparral area of Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve

After turning left at the T intersection I walked generally north, then east, climbing about 100 feet before turning around.  In this section of trail I found one, or possibly two, species of paintbrush (Castilleja sp) and even some ferns that seemed happy to grow in the sunny, sandy, and dry habitat.  In addition, I found some wartleaf ceanothus (Ceanothus papillosus).  The species name papillosus is in reference to the knobby structure or texture of the leaves.  Similar to other ceanothus, the individual blossoms are quite small, only a couple of mm across.

photo of wartleaf ceanothus

Wartleaf ceanothus

An interesting find was some horkelia, I believe either wedgeleaf horkelia (Horkelia cuneate) or Point Reyes horkelia (H. marinensis); both are on the iNaturalist list for Bonny Doon.  The leaves, in another photo, look somewhat more like Point Reyes horkelia, but not quite like any of the pictures on the Calflora site.

photo of wedgeleaf horkelia or Point Reyes horkelia

Wedgeleaf horkelia or Point Reyes horkelia

I was particularly on the lookout for Santa Cruz wallflower (Erysimum teretifolium) but did not find it.  Instead, I found quite a few of another type of wildflower with clusters of yellow flowers on a long stem.  These “mystery” flowers appear to be composites, with 5 pairs of ray flowers and numerous disc flowers in the center.  If you look closely at the picture you can see distinctive structures within the disc flowers, each with a pair of circular loops on a single stalk.  (I’m not using proper botanical vocabulary here.)  The Santa Cruz wallflower is yellow but, like other wallflowers, is not a composite and has 4 petals.

Update: While researching a very similar flower observed on another hike I have concluded that this is probably seaside golden yarrow (Eriophyllum staechadifolium), sometimes called lizard tail, or possibly golden yarrow (E. confertiflorum).

photo of seaside golden yarrow, I think

Seaside golden yarrow, I think

Finally, in the sand chaparral I found, among Ben Lomond spineflowers, an example of variable linanthus (Leptosiphon parviflorus).  This small flower is usually white, but is occasionally yellow.

photo of variable linanthus

Variable linanthus

Particularly in the sand chaparral part of the reserve, there is ample evidence of the 2008 Martin Fire.  Although to me the chaparral itself looks like it has recovered nicely, perhaps even fully, there are numerous charred trees that serve as a reminder of the fire.  The fire started within the reserve and is thought to have been started by trespassers in the off-limits northern area.

photo of charred tree is a reminder of the 2008 Martin Fire

Charred tree is a reminder of the 2008 Martin Fire

After returning to the T intersection I continued to the southeast into a sand parkland area, where the trail passed through much denser chaparral, with a mixture of trees.  In some areas the trail was barely wide enough for me to walk comfortably without worrying too much about what types of plants I was brushing against.

photo of trail in sand parkland area of Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve

Trail in sand parkland area of Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve

Some of the trees in this area include Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, which is common in the Sierras but uncommon near the coast, a few types of oak, and coastal redwood.  There was a group of taller trees that towered above the surrounding forest.

photo of group of tall trees

Group of tall trees

In the northern area of the preserve I found a tarweed, possibly grassy tarweed (Madia gracilis), or woodland madia (Anisocarpus madioides) – these two wildflowers look quite similar, so I might be missing another characteristic that would distinguish them.  I also found California everlasting (Pseudognaphalium californicum) and chaparral pea (Pickeringi montana).  At a moment when I was dealing with my hiking poles and camera on the narrow clear portion of the trail, I managed to knock my GPS unit off my waist pack and onto the ground.  By the time I noticed it and raced back to find it, it turned into a 20-minute detour and nearly a mile of extra hiking that is not included in my hiking distance.

In any case, after exploring the trail further and encountering essentially-blocked trails, I retraced my original path back to the side trail nearly at the beginning of my hike.  Instead of completing a loop as originally planned, I hiked south from the entry point, initially near the road.  After about 0.2 mile and crossing a dirt road I came to a Y intersection, where I initially took the left fork.  I proceeded about 0.5 mile, slightly past a small creek crossing, where I found some western azalea (Rhododendron occidetale).  The blossoms have beautiful yellow markings and long reproductive parts that extend well past the petals.

photo of western azalea

Western azalea

There were several other moisture-loving plants nearby, including common monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus), a type of hedgenettle, and pink honeysuckle (Lonicera hispidula).  There was also a quite pretty flower with a striking long lower petal.  Although not showing clearly in this picture, there were a few darker spots deep in the throat of the flower.

photo of white wildflower with long lower petal

White wildflower with long lower petal

I had thought the two paths from the Y might form a loop I could hike around.  However, after photographing the white wildflower I decided to return to the Y and explore the other branch of the trail.  I only covered about 0.3 mile on this trail before returning to the trailhead due to a time constraint.  Along the way I heard, and then saw, a spotted towhee (Pipilo maculatus) about 15 feet up in a tree perhaps 10 meters off the trail.  My best picture is still a bit grainy due to the extreme zoom I needed to use, but it’s good enough for the identification.

photo of spotted towhee

Spotted towhee

This section of trail also passed close to a tiny creek where there were moisture-loving plants.  I was startled to suddenly see both purple and white forms of purple foxglove (Digitalis purpurea).  Although the plants are poisonous the flowers are quite pretty, with lovely purple spots on the inside of the petals.

photo of white form of purple foxglove

White form of purple foxglove

After this sighting I returned to the trailhead, with a California poppy and a few lupines along the way.

When I planned my visit to Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve I had targeted the four plants that are endemic to the Santa Cruz Sandhills, along with two others that are only slightly more widespread in the Santa Cruz Mountains.  Of my six target plants I only saw two: Bonny Doon manzanita and Ben Lomond spineflower.  Perhaps another time I will be able to find Santa Cruz wallflower, Ben Lomond buckwheat, Santa Cruz cypress, and Santa Cruz monkeyflower.  It would certainly be fun to try!

Posted in Santa Cruz County, wildflower hikes | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

March for Science San Francisco

Shortly after the widespread Women’s Marches were held on 21 January 2017, I began to hear hints that a March for Science was being organized for Washington, DC, to be held on 22 April 2017, Earth Day.  This march was promptly endorsed by numerous scientific organizations including my primary professional society, the American Physical Society, as well as national and local chapters of other organizations, such as my local Palo Alto chapter of the Association of Women in Science.  I wasn’t prepared to travel to Washington so I was glad to hear that there would be marches in San Francisco as well as several other locations in the Bay Area.

When all was said and done, it has been reported that there were some 600 satellite marches in cities on six continents, in addition to support from scientists in Antarctica.  The stated goal of the organizers was to champion and defend science and scientific integrity.  Because the marches were held on Earth Day there was a close connection to related topics such as climate change.

I decided not to make a sign, but instead to wear my pink “pussy hat” and a pink jacket that I had worn for the women’s march in January.  The San Francisco event was scheduled to begin with speakers at Justin Herman Plaza, followed by a nearly 2-mile march down Market Street to Civic Center Plaza, where there would be a science festival.  Due to another commitment I arrived at Justin Herman Plaza about 30 minutes after the speeches had begun.  The crowd had already overflowed from the plaza into the perimeter areas.

From my vantage point I could see that it was a good-sized crowd, although I could not actually hear the speeches due to a lack of loudspeakers anywhere near where I was standing.  Someone near me commented that she’d been worried that she would arrive and find only a few dozen other participants. I commented that there is such a large population of scientists in the Bay Area that that would not be a concern.  However, I noted that there only seemed to be a few signs, mostly around the edge of the crowd (see left picture).  Shortly after that the emcee, who was introducing the speakers, apparently encouraged the crowd to raise their signs – and suddenly there was a virtual sea of signs filling the plaza (see right picture)!

image of pre-march crowd at Justin Herman Plaza, as I arrived (left) and later when the emcee asked marchers to raise their signs (right)

Pre-march crowd at Justin Herman Plaza, as I arrived (left) and later when the emcee asked marchers to raise their signs (right)

After all of the scheduled speakers it was time for the crowd to make its way to Market Street to begin the march.  From my location across the plaza it took about 25 minutes just to reach the street, which was still quite congested.  The march simply continued along Market Street to Civic Center Plaza in front of City Hall, as shown on the GPS track.  The orange dot denotes my location for the speeches.  The route to Civic Center is about 2 miles with virtually no elevation change.

GPS track

GPS track

The march itself was friendly and upbeat.  At times a cheer would start and make its way like a wave through the marchers.  At other times chants began: “Science, not silence” or “Let’s go science,” the latter followed by a clapping version of the cadence that follows the home team chant at a ball game.  In fact, in this chant “science” sounded a lot like “Giants.”

The nature of such a march is that there are signs, and some of the signs have a political message.  Here is one regarding science funding.

image of “Fund science, not walls”

“Fund science, not walls”

There were numerous calls to make something great again; this one had an Earth Day theme.

image of supporting the Great Barrier Reef

Supporting the Great Barrier Reef

There were many signs that were supportive of science.

image of “we love science”

“We love science”

There was even a large banner.

image of science banner

Science banner

Of course, many signs were at least slightly political as well as scientific. On this sign I appreciated the incorporation of science in the letters.

image of “in science we trust”

“In science we trust”

Other ways to support science included statements of achievements made by science.  Many of those achievements were facilitated by funding at such an early stage of research that the target result had not even been identified.  A funding culture too focused on specific results, or too focused on immediate results, or significantly reduced funding levels, will have negative consequences down the road.

image of polio prevention

Polio prevention

There were other signs about smallpox: “Remember smallpox?  Neither do I” that referred to cures or prevention (e.g. vaccines) discovered through funding of science.  Of course, there were many other examples of achievements across the scientific spectrum.

I noted several individuals and small groups wearing lab coats.  Some of the lab coats themselves were signs.  I especially liked this one, since our future progress critically relies on young people choosing to embark on scientific careers.

image of lab coat sign: “scientist in training”

Lab coat sign: “scientist in training”

Because of the Earth Day connection there were numerous signs that would normally be found at Earth Day celebrations.  And of course it is difficult, in the current national political climate, to completely avoid making a political statement.

image of “I’m with her”

“I’m with her”

However, this flag may have succeeded: no words needed.

image of Earth flag

Earth flag

The message on this sign tied together the main themes of science and Earth.

image of “for my grandchildren and their children”

“For my grandchildren and their children”

And then there were a few silly signs, like this one.

image of sign at the March for Science

Sign at the March for Science

I confess that, as a scientist, I especially appreciated that there were a large number of nerdy signs. Yes, scientists can be, in spite of stereotypical depictions, resistors as well as transformers.

image of resistors and transformers

Resistors and transformers

In some cases it helped to know enough science to appreciate the word play.  (Schist is a type of rock.)

image of schist happens…

Schist happens…

I thought this support of alternative energy was quite clever.

image of (wind) power to the people

(Wind) power to the people

And finally, one of my favorites included a great mathematics-inspired word play.  (The square root of minus one is imaginary, in case you’ve not studied enough math to encounter this concept.)

image of alt facts are…

Alt facts are…

These pictures represent only a sampling of the signs I saw, which were in turn only a fraction of all of the signs. I appreciate and admire the creativity behind so many of the signs, as well as the diversity of the messages.

I have not yet found reports of attendance at the San Francisco or other March for Science events, but I hope that appropriate publicity continues to raise public awareness about science and the benefits it provides to society.

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Tahoe Donner snowshoe hike to Hawk’s Peak

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This was not the first time I’ve snowshoed up to Hawk’s Peak, at the Tahoe Donner Cross-Country Ski Area (see here for another post).  However, it was the first time I went all the way up, and part way down, using the new network of snowshoe-only trails.  I thought I would write a short post to highlight this new trail network.

Hawk’s Peak is, at 7729 feet elevation, the highest point within Tahoe Donner.  For those who enjoy a view, it’s a nice reward at the end of a nearly 1100-foot climb.  Here is a sample of the view from high above the Alder Creek Adventure Center at the base of the ski area.

photo of view of the Carson Range

View of the Carson Range

The GPS track shows my route, beginning at the orange dot which denotes the Adventure Center.  I had decided in advance that I would go as directly as possible up to Hawk’s Peak and then come down by a more circuitous route, depending on which of the other snowshoe trails I could find.  (My previous snowshoe hikes have been along the groomed trail system; this was my first time trying a trek on snowshoe-only trails.)

GPS track

GPS track

For the uphill trek I started out from the Adventure Center on Tim’s Trek, which begins next to the parking area and traverses to intersection 3, Moondance Hut.  From Moondance, Snowshow basically goes straight uphill toward Hawk’s Peak, crossing some 7 groomed cross-country ski trails along the way.  Below 7000 feet elevation (the 4th trail crossing on Snowshow) the grade is noticeable but reasonable, at 7%.  Above this elevation Snowshow gets much steeper and averages over 23% grade the rest of the way up to the top.  At elevation, that’s a pretty good workout!

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

Regarding wayfinding, I found that it was easy to find and follow both Tim’s Trek and Snowshow.  Although not nearly as well-defined – or wide – as the ski trails, the snowshoe trails seem to have been marked by some kind of small groomer.  In areas where the trails wind among trees, there are discreet signs that mark the way.

photo of signage along a snowshoe-only trail

Signage along a snowshoe-only trail

The signage along the gloomed ski trails is a bit different.  On the previous day I had cross-country skied and noticed that many of the signposts were buried in snow almost up to the signs themselves.  This was on the closing weekend of what had been a well above average snow season.

photo of sign, nearly buried in snow, marking a groomed cross-country ski trail

Sign, nearly buried in snow, marking a groomed cross-country ski trail

Snowshow is mostly on open slopes and, as noted, was easy to follow.   Although a little hard to see in the picture, on the left are swooping tracks left by a skier descending off-piste between two of the many groomed trail crossings.

photo of Snowshow heading up to Hawk’s Peak

Snowshow heading up to Hawk’s Peak

I have noted previously that sometimes the shortest hiking distance between two points is not a straight line, but rather the trail.  In the case of Snowshow, these two paths were actually the same.  Of course, relatively few hiking trails are built with a 23% grade, because there are usually gentler options.  This hike demonstrated that, when the snow is in good condition, showshoeing up such a steep grade is not as difficult as I thought it would be!

Snowshow tees at a relatively new groomed ski trail that goes right up to the rocks that mark the top of Hawk’s Peak.  So the last hundred yards or so was easier going.

The views from Hawk’s Peak are always impressive.  Perhaps my favorite is what I consider to be one of the iconic views of the Pacific Crest, featuring Tinker Knob at the center of the picture.

photo of Pacific Crest view from Hawk’s Peak

Pacific Crest view from Hawk’s Peak

On this occasion I did not linger at Hawk’s Peak, though I usually stop for a snack while enjoying the marvelous views.  It was quite windy up top, and I was kind of flirting with a wind advisory, so I felt it was prudent to begin descending fairly promptly to lower elevations.

Instead of following Snowshow straight back down the hill I had decided to follow Crazy Horse and Dogs in Space, both groomed ski trails, to another viewpoint.  In order to get there I followed the new groomed trail, I think Drifter, past the top of Snowshow and across Andromeda to intersection 11.  From the intersection I followed the lower part of Crazy Horse to Dogs in Space.  Along the way I noticed some pretty pine boughs, like this one, here and there along the edge of the groomed ski trail, each bough in its own small depression in the snow.

photo of pine bough in the snow

Pine bough in the snow

The viewpoint on Dogs in Space is quite nice.  There was much less wind than at the top of Hawk’s Peak, so I spent some time enjoying the view of the Carson Range to the east.  The “banner picture” for this post is a panorama stitched together from 4 separate photos taken here.

I should also note that there is now a network of the lower-elevation cross-country ski trails where dogs are allowed.  This viewpoint is the highest point of the dog trails, though on this visit I had the views to myself.  There is even a picnic table under the trees.

A bit farther along I noticed several young pine trees with an unusual characteristic: in addition to the usual needles (long ones, in groups of three) along and at the tips of branches there was an array of needles around the trunk, almost like a tutu.  I don’t remember ever seeing that before.  I presume that the tree is either a Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi) or a ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) , more likely a Jeffrey pine due to the elevation.  In addition, I was on my way to a place where I hoped to find the Jeffrey Pine snowshoe trail.  I wonder if the “tutu” phenomenon only occurs on young trees.

photo of young pine tree with a tutu of needles

Young pine tree with a tutu of needles

After leaving the viewpoint on Dogs in Space I continued downhill to intersection 6, where I found Jeffrey Pine, another snowshoe trail.  It had quite a bit of the helpful yellow signage as it wound among the trees on the lower part of the hill that eventually goes up to Hawk’s Peak.

The trails in the Cross-Country Ski Area cross several creeks, some named and some not.  As the snow melts there will be ample water flowing in these streams throughout the spring.  I actually took this picture the previous day while cross-country skiing in the Euer Valley; I believe it’s Coyote Creek, since it’s near a location called Coyote Crossing and the Coyote Hut.  In any case, it seems to be a subsidiary of Independence Creek, which winds its picturesque way along the valley floor.  This was the prettiest of the creek crossings I encountered in my two days at the Tahoe Donner Cross-Country Ski Area.

photo of Coyote Creek, in Euer Valley

Coyote Creek, in Euer Valley

After following Jeffrey Pine for most of its length I left the snowshoe trail and finished my trek on the Rough Rider, Practice Hill, and Night Hawk ski trails.  Most of the route for this hike was on trails I had not been on previously, and I was glad to have had the opportunity to explore several of the relatively new snowshoe-only trails.

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Wildflower interpretive walk at Sutter Buttes

stats box

Most first-time visitors to the northern part of California’s Central Valley take special note of the Sutter Buttes and wonder what they are.  They look like – and are – a mountain range that simply rises from the valley floor in northern Sutter County near Yuba City.  More specifically, the Buttes are a circular formation of volcanic lava domes about 10 miles in diameter, sometimes called the world’s smallest mountain range.  Although there is a small parcel of land that belongs to California State Parks, this park parcel is not open to the public.  The remainder of the Buttes is private property and is accessible to the public only through Middle Mountain Interpretive Hikes, which leads hikes and interpretive walks.  My visit, with a group of fellow wildflower enthusiasts, was made possible via a docent-led wildflower interpretive walk.

The wildflowers are especially plentiful and beautiful in the spring, after winter rains and before summer heat sets in.  The Central Valley is notoriously warm in summer, and the heat is magnified in the Buttes.  After the plentiful rains of the 2016-17 winter season the hilly areas of the Buttes have become a lush green wonderland.  Much of the land is grazed by cattle or sheep, and the grassy hills are dotted with oaks, many blue oaks (Quercus douglasii).

picture of lush green landscape of the Sutter Buttes in spring

Lush green landscape of the Sutter Buttes in spring

The walk was basically a loop with an extension, totaling just over 4 miles.  The orange dot on the GPS track shows the starting point.  There are no formal trails in the Buttes, though there are a few ranch roads and informal trails.

GPS track

GPS track

Although the initial climb up to a small ridge was steep enough to get everyone’s circulation going, the elevation gains were relatively modest (less than 800 feet total gain) and moderate.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

The walk began with an introduction to the native Maidu people and their culture (see, for example, this article).  As visitors to a relatively undisturbed part of their land, including the mountains with special significance, we were encouraged to treat the area and its natural resources with appropriate respect.  Some of the numerous rocks were probably acorn grinding rocks.  Also, rock walls may have defined land parcels later owned by European immigrants who began the ranching activities that continue to the present.  Near one of the rock walls was a sign noting “snake xing,” a reminder that in warm weather rattlesnakes are active in the area.

picture of rock wall in the Sierra Buttes

Rock wall in the Sierra Buttes

In other areas of California (for example, Anza-Borrego State Park and Carrizo Plains National Monument) the spring 2017 wildflower blooms are being characterized as super-blooms, with acres and miles of colorful carpets of flowers.  The Sutter Buttes wildflowers are perhaps more typical of spring wildflower blooms, with more subtle colors and a preponderance of smaller-sized blooms.  We saw a nice variety of wildflowers: some familiar to me and some new ones.  It’s always a good wildflower day when I find and identify – sometimes with assistance – a few new species!

Some of the familiar species included filaree (Erodium sp.), seep monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus), popcorn flower (Plagiobothrys sp.), miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata or C. parviflora), and blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum), as well as a few early Ithuriel’s spear (Triteleia laxa) and ookow (Dichelostemma congestum).  An interesting note: the several filaree species are all non-natives, and most have long, pointed “bills” to which the seeds are attached.  I have seen these many times, and the bills are typically about 1 inch long; the ones we saw here were more like 3 to 4 inches long!

The initial hillside we walked up was a treasure trove of flowers, though many were small and so you needed to pay attention to what was nearby.  We took our time: in fact, we spent an hour and 20 minutes just walking about a half mile to the top of the ridge!  One of my favorites was wild carnation (Petrorhagia dubia), also called hairypink or pink grass.  Although it is a non-native, the detail in the petals is exquisite.  The pink color is even more intense than it appears in the picture.

picrure of wild carnation with exquisite detail in the petals

Wild carnation has exquisite detail in the petals

Scattered here and there was fiddleneck, probably common fiddleneck (Amsinckia intermedia) based on the coloration of the blossoms.  I am beginning to appreciate that the differing colors of fields of fiddleneck are due to the differences in the coloration of the individual blossoms.  These blossoms were mostly yellow, with subtle orange highlights.

picture of common fiddleneck, I think

Common fiddleneck, I think

One of the “new” species was valley tassel (Castilleja attenuata), also called narrow-leaved owl’s clover.  The blossoms on this plant were only beginning to develop the small spots that give rise to the owl-like appearance, which can only be appreciated up close.  Note the filaree “bill” in the background.

picture of valley tassel

Valley tassel

Another “new” species was Sierra mock stonecrop (Sedella pumila), also called dwarf cliff sedum.  The blossoms are less than 1/2 inch in diameter.

picture of Sierra mock stonecrop

Sierra mock stonecrop

We saw others on the hillside that I did not successfully photograph, including pretty face (Triteleia ixioides), rose clover (Trifolium hirtum), cowbag clover (Trifolium depauperatum), and baby star (Leptosiphon bicolor).  The last two were first-timers, and I was a bit disappointed that I did not get any good pictures – but they were also hard to photograph!

We did take occasional breaks from the wildflowers to appreciate the scenery around us.  The weather forecast for the day had been unsettled.  We were fortunate that there was no rain, but some low clouds created a misty feel around some of the rocky formations.

picture of mist around a nearby rock formation

Mist around a nearby rock formation

As we continued up the hill, we noted some phacelia.  Because of the location it is tempting to identify it as rock phacelia (Phacelia egena) but there are other possibilities that are difficult for me to distinguish, especially since I was not careful to note the leaf shape.

picture of phacelia growing next to a lichen-covered rock

Phacelia growing next to a lichen-covered rock

Another favorite is Douglas’ violet (Viola douglasii).  The back side of the petals is a dark maroon/purple color, as is the pretty and delicate pattern on the front of the petals.

picture of Douglas’ violet

Douglas’ violet

We also found some fringepod (Thysanocarpus curvipes, I think) or hairy lacepod.  I think the picture shows seed pods rather than blossoms, but they illustrate the origin of the common name lacepod.  They were hard to photograph, and I was lucky to get this picture!

picture of fringepod, with delicate holes

Fringepod, with delicate holes

Finally we reached the top of the hillside, after finding what seemed like an amazing variety of wildflowers, and descended as we continued on our loop route.  Soon we found our first cluster of baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii).  This blossom held a couple of drops of dew or rain, and the petals looked as though they had been a small snack for a critter.

picture of baby blue eyes

Baby blue eyes

During the course of the walk we encountered several gray mule ears (Wyethia helenioides).  I thought the size of the central cluster of disc flowers, compared to the ray flowers, was impressive.

picture of gray mule ears

Gray mule ears

A bit farther down the hill we found two interesting types of clover.  First was tomcat clover (Trifolium wildenovii), which I’ve seen a few times previously.

picture of tomcat clover

Tomcat clover

A few minutes later we found some white-tipped clover (Trifolium variegatum), which happened to be a new species for me.  Note that the colors are similar, but the patterns different, for these two species of clover.

picture of white-tipped clover

White-tipped clover

In a few places we found lupine: relatively small plants, perhaps 8-10 inches tall.  The blossoms had white areas with small purple spots.  There are many species of lupine, and these characteristics – along with the location and month – most likely narrowed the possibilities to sky lupine (Lupinus nanus) or bicolor lupine (Lupinus bicolor).

picture of sky lupine or bicolor lupine

Sky lupine or bicolor lupine

A special find was California plantain (Plantago erecta).  In some geographic areas, this plant is a critical food source for certain endangered butterfly species.  I am not aware that there is a similar situation in the Sutter Buttes, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some local butterflies favor it.  The plant is quite small, perhaps 3 inches tall with the flower head about 1/2 inch tall, and is usually very difficult to photograph since it often grows among other grasses and plants.  Someone had pulled one of the plants to pass around for us to view using magnifying glasses, and this facilitated my picture.

picture of California plantain

California plantain

We also found some woodland star.  I have seen this flower many times before, but as a result of this walk I learned that there are several different species that can be difficult to distinguish – at least, for me.  I think this is either common woodland star (Lithophragma affine) or Bolander’s woodland star (Lithophragma bolanderi).

picture of woodland star

Woodland star

We passed a nice example of an acorn granary: a dead oak tree in which acorn woodpeckers had stored hundreds, if not thousands, of acorns by making rows of holes and storing an acorn in each hole.

Where the GPS track shows a right turn we again began to climb.  Throughout the walk we came to fences separating either property parcels or grazing areas.  As we approached one such fence we had a nice view of a formation known as Twin Peaks, less than 2 miles away.

picture of Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks

On the out-and-back portion of the walk we were in search of a few specific things.  One was a small cluster of Chinese houses (Collinsia heterophylla), with beautiful purple and white petals.

picture of Chinese houses

Chinese houses

Another was some canyon larkspur (Delphinium nudicaule), which were even more of an orange color than the picture shows.

picture of canyon larkspur

Canyon larkspur

After reaching a fence where the informal path we were following became quite overgrown, we turned around, retraced our path downhill, and completed the loop to our starting point.  For most of us it was a first-time visit to the Sutter Buttes, and we were pleased that we had seen so much variety in the wildflowers – and that we had not been rained upon.  Several of us were already making plans to return some other time, either for another wildflower walk or for one of the guided hikes.

After I left Yuba City and was on my return to the Bay Area, I noted numerous sunflower-like plants growing next to the road’s shoulder and stopped to take pictures.  It turns out that they are common sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), most likely escapees from the local farming areas, which typically rotate crops (sunflower is one of the crops).  The profusion of ray flowers is the key characteristic for identifying this sunflower species; all candidate sunflowers typically bloom later in the year, so this was a bit of a surprise.

picture of common sunflower along the road

Common sunflower along the road

Somehow, a surprise wildflower sighting seemed a fitting end to a day full of wildflower finds.

Posted in Central Valley, Sutter County, wildflower hikes | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Garden of the Gods: Perkins Central Garden Trail

stas box

In conjunction with attending the 2017 World Synchronized Skating Championships in Colorado Springs, my girlfriends and I paid a visit to nearby Garden of the Gods Park.  This beautiful park has been designated as a National Natural Landmark under a federal program in the Department of the Interior, associated with the National Park Service.  It is one of over 600 such designated sites across the nation which were desigated “to recognize and encourage the conservation of sites that contain outstanding biological and geological resources” (this quote is from the web site).

Garden of the Gods is also a city park belonging to Colorado Springs.  It was given to the city in 1909 by the children of Charles Elliott Perkins, fulfilling his desire that it be maintained as a park free for the public to enjoy.  It is truly an extraordinary city resource.

The Visitor Center is located just outside the park across N 30th Street.  First-time visitors are strongly encouraged to go to the Visitor Center before going to the park, since that is the only place maps are available.  (They are not on the web site.)  When you receive a map you also receive information about driving on the park roads, most of which are one-way with no stopping permitted on the roadway – even though it is very tempting to stop and gawk at the astonishingly beautiful scenery.

From the Visitor Center there is a stunning overview of the park (see the banner photo for this post), including Pikes Peak between two of the larger rock formations.

picture of Pikes Peak viewed from Garden of the Gods’ Visitor Center

Pikes Peak viewed from Garden of the Gods’ Visitor Center

After our orientation we proceeded to drive into the park entrance and then counterclockwise around the one-way Juniper Way Loop.  Our plan was to park at the north main parking lot and hike the Perkins Central Garden Trail.  The trail is really more like a walk than a hike: it is only about 1.2 miles long and is paved, essentially like a sidewalk, with grades that are gentle enough for wheelchair access.  It is likely busy any time, but was certainly so for our visit on a beautiful Saturday morning in early April.  We were lucky that another vehicle was ready to vacate a parking spot just as we approached driving down the aisle.

Immediately adjacent to the parking area there is an impressive wall of red sandstone.

picture of red sandstone formation adjacent to the north main parking lot

Red sandstone formation adjacent to the north main parking lot

Also adjacent to the parking area, before we started actually walking along the trail, I noticed a black-billed magpie (Pica hudsonia) in a nearby conifer bush (most likely juniper).

picture of black-billed magpie

Black-billed magpie

The GPS track shows the configuration of the loop, with the orange dot denoting the trailhead at the parking area.  The trail is in a semi-loop or balloon configuration.  The balloon string is about 1/4 mile long and the loop itself is about 3/4 mile.  The total elevation gain is only about 135 feet and is very gentle.

GPS track

GPS track

I was interested to note that the park is “rock climber friendly.”  Of course, the rock formations are a natural draw to climbers.  A notable aspect was several areas where there was a fence with a gate, as well as signage indicating that entry was only for climbers with permits and proper equipment.  (Permits are obtained at the Visitor Center.)  We saw a couple of climbers on the trail but not actually climbing.

The Central Garden Trail goes through the heart of the park, passing numerous impressive formations, mostly red sandstone.  This is an example of the view along the first part of the trail.  The largest formation, closest on the right, is North Gateway Rock.

picture of rock formations along the Central Garden Trail

Rock formations along the Central Garden Trail

Within North Gateway Rock there is a smaller formation called Kissing Camels.  It is visible from both sides, since one side of the loop passes the other side of North Gateway Rock.  In this view I deliberately didn’t zoom in, in order to provide a bit of scale.  But the camels are easy to spot!

picture of Kissing Camels

Kissing Camels

We went around the loop in the counterclockwise direction.  The west side of the loop is essentially at the edge of the main rock garden and passes a few isolated formations.  All seem to show the results of erosion over millennia, forming fantastic shapes with various interesting cavities and cracks.

picture of rock formation on the west side of the loop

Rock formation on the west side of the loop

Raucous bird calls announced the presence of scrub jays, presumably, based on range, Woodhouse’s scrub jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii).  The one picture I snapped was good enough to confirm the scrub jay identification and darker gray coloration of the Woodhouse’s scrub jay.

picture of Woodhouse’s scrub jay, I think

Woodhouse’s scrub jay, I think

A bit farther along there was an especially interesting-looking formation with several jagged vertical layers.  Such layers were originally horizontal, then were thrust upward into a vertical orientation by geological forces.  The contrast between the red rock and green foliage was beautiful.

picture of layered formation on the west side of the loop

Layered formation on the west side of the loop

The south end of the loop passes by Three Graces.  Clearly some visitors like to try to climb up one of the cracks – and other visitors like to watch.

picture of Three Graces

Three Graces

As the loop curves to go north the trail passes South Gateway Rock, which features areas of lighter color rock.  Some of the lighter rock is identified in park signage as gravelly composite.

picture of South Gateway Rock featuring two colors of rock

South Gateway Rock features two colors of rock

A distinctive formation at the junction of the trail’s balloon string and loop is called Sentinel Rock.  I can imagine a few different forms in different parts of this formation.  For example, the front part looks like two legs and feet, and I see a face in the upper part, with a lop-sided nose and mouth.

picture of Sentinel Rock

Sentinel Rock

Along the main trail back to the trailhead, one of my girlfriends pointed out this rock, noting its resemblance to a skull.  Its flat-topped shape is in contrast to a different Skull Rock I saw on a recent trip to Joshua Tree National Park.

picture of rock resembling a skull

Rock resembling a skull

After we returned to the car we continued our drive around the Juniper Way Loop, which passes other interesting formations.  Since traffic was busy and there wasn’t a safe/legal place to pull over, I resorted to taking a couple of pictures out the car window.

picture of view from car, driving Juniper Way Loop

View from car, driving Juniper Way Loop

After completing the Juniper Way Loop we returned to the Visitor Center for a lunch break and more opportunities to enjoy spectacular views of the park.  Our visit was brief, but it would be easy to spend an entire day (or more!) enjoying Garden of the Gods and its 15 miles of hiking trails.

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2017 World Synchronized Skating Championships, Colorado Springs

The 2017 World Synchronized Skating Championships were the 18th world championship event for the sport of synchronized skating.  I have been fortunate to find a way to attend each of the championships that have been held in North America (USA or Canada), as well as a few in Europe.  For 2017 I attended the event in Colorado Springs with two skating friends; we’d skated together on an adult synchro team a number of years ago and remain close friends.  It was a much-anticipated road trip.

At the world championship level each team has 16 skaters.  Teams can be coed but are typically all-female.  Out of 24 teams there were fewer than a dozen men.  Participating countries send one team, except that the five countries that placed the highest at the previous world championship can send two teams.  For 2017 the countries with two teams were, in alphabetical order, Canada, Finland, Russia, Sweden, and the United States.

Outside the competition arena in Colorado Springs there is a model of a Zamboni ice surfacer.  This was a popular place for attendees to pose for pictures – and imagine what it might be like to drive a Zamboni.

photo of on the Zamboni outside the competition arena

On the Zamboni outside the competition arena

Colorado Springs is in a stunning setting just east of the Rocky Mountains.  This was the view from our motel room less than a mile from the arena.  Sure, the nearby businesses were a reminder that we were in town, but the mountains were not far away.

photo of lovely view from our motel room

Lovely view from our motel room

From the entrance area of the arena there was a spectacular view across the parking lot of Pikes Peak.  With a peak elevation of 14,115 feet it is the highest peak in the southern Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, and it is just 12 miles from downtown Colorado Springs.

photo of Pikes Peak viewed from the competition arena

Pikes Peak viewed from the competition arena

Colorado Springs is the home of the World Figure Skating Museum and Hall of Fame, a must-see museum for figure skating aficionados.  We visited the museum our first morning, at least my third visit to the museum.  The exhibits are updated every year as new national and/or world champions are crowned.

We stopped by the arena near the end of the official practice sessions and watched the last few teams practice.  One of the USA teams was the Haydenettes, who have been national champions over 20 times – obviously not with the same individual skaters.  They have a nice tradition that they carry out at the end of their practice session.  Because there is a small audience for the practices, they do a bow at the end of their session, just before leaving the ice.  And they bow in a perfect H formation.

phoo of the USA’s Haydenettes taking their traditional bow at the end of a practice session

The USA’s Haydenettes take their traditional bow at the end of a practice session

The competition began that evening.  Before the opening ceremony the jumbotron displayed the event logo and showed movie clips to get the crowd warmed up.

photo of competition logo on the jumbotron

Competition logo on the jumbotron

In the opening ceremony skaters from the local figure skating club carried flags for each of the participating nations.  I was once fortunate to carry a national flag in the opening ceremony of an international event and, especially for a skater who is never going to be a competitor in the event, it is a source of great excitement.

photo of participating country flags in the opening ceremony of Synchro Worlds 2017

Participating country flags in the opening ceremony of Synchro Worlds 2017

As with the other figure skating disciplines (ladies, men, pairs, and dance) there are two programs in the competition.  The first program is the short program, and it typically contains 6 required elements.  These elements are selected each year by the International Skating Union (ISU) and publicized to teams worldwide.

The sequence in which the teams skate has been determined by a so-called draw ceremony the previous evening, and printed sheets with the skating order are available in the lobby for audience members.  Some countries always have a large contingent in the audience, no matter where the event is held, and of course there are always many attendees from the host country.  When the event is held in the United States there is always a sizeable Canadian crowd, and vice versa.  Especially when one of the home teams makes its entrance the noise is deafening – and the excitement is palpable.

We were sitting directly opposite the always large and enthusiastic crowd of supporters for the Finnish teams, nearly filling an entire section (plus another one elsewhere in the arena).  They always come equipped with flags, horns, and special touches like the shirts with letters to spell a message, so everyone needs to sit in the correct sequence in the seats.

photo of Finnish team supporters

Finnish team supporters

After their skate, each team gathers in the kiss & cry area for an official photo.  From our seats we had a good view of the kiss & cry.  This is one of the Finnish teams, Marigold Ice Unity, after their short program to a bullfight-themed medley.  The picture is a bit grainy because I was at least 100 feet away.

photo of Team Finland, Marigold Ice Unity, in the kiss & cry area after their short program

Team Finland, Marigold Ice Unity, in the kiss & cry area after their short program

The long program, or free skate, has a wider variety of elements.  When I skated synchro there were five basic elements, and a well-rounded program would include all of them.  Today there are thirteen identified types of element, and again a well-rounded program includes a variety of these elements.

The judging system is a point-based system, with technical and so-called component (or artistic) scores.  The technical score includes the base points assigned by the ISU, with additions for greater difficulty and with additions and subtractions for how well it was executed.  The component score includes an assessment of skating skills, transitions, performance, composition, and interpretation.  A deduction is applied for falls, costume or time violations, etc. This judging system is similar to the other figure skating disciplines.

A relatively new type of element for synchronized skating is the pair element, in which pairs of skaters perform the element.  Two popular pair elements are pair spins and pair pivots, or death spirals.  Here is one pair performing what I call a death spiral, since it resembles the death spiral that is a highlight of a pairs program.

photo of pair element: death spiral (one pair)

Pair element: death spiral (one pair)

I took a short video clip of one team doing death spirals and clipped out a frame from the video.  In a well-executed element all the pairs rotate in a synchronized manner – and in addition their locations on the ice make an intentional formation.  This is extremely difficult to do! – but it is quite impressive when done well, as here.

photo of pair element: death spiral (entire team)

Pair element: death spiral (entire team)

Perhaps the most spectacular element is the group lift.  Usually three skaters lift a fourth.  When this element was first introduced the positions of the skater in the air were fairly basic, but now the positions are more and more difficult and daring.  Here is a lift performed by Team Hungary.  The skater in the air is supported by her legs and hands only.  She needs a lot of core body strength to hold the position and make it look pleasing.  And the lifters need to be comfortable holding up roughly 1/3 of their body weight while skating; the lifts typically cover quite a bit of distance on the ice.

photo of lift performed by Team Hungary

Lift performed by Team Hungary

This year there was a new variation in the group lifts performed by a few teams, here demonstrated by Team Japan.  After three skaters help the fourth mount the lift, one of the “holders” skates away for several seconds.  In some cases this skater returned to assist with the dismount and in other cases not.  Now imagine holding up half your body weight!  It is also notable that the four group lifts are both rotating and moving across the ice.  Ideally the motion and rotation of the four groups are synchronized.  In this photo the synchronization is virtually perfect.  Spectacular!

photo of lift performed by Team Japan

Lift performed by Team Japan

Immediately after the long program there is a medal ceremony.  For 2017 the gold medal was won by Team Russia (Team Paradise) for the second consecutive year.  The silver medal was won by Team Finland (Marigold Ice Unity), and the difference between gold and silver was just 0.12 point: very close indeed.  The bronze medal was won by Team Canada (Nexxice), and Team USA (Haydenettes) came in fourth.  This picture is an overview of the medal ceremony.  For some reason I am always amused by the cluster of official photographers on the small mat in front of the skaters.  The row of individuals at the left of Team Finland includes Jason Brown, Max Aaron, and Joshua Farris, all of whom train locally and are nationally ranked skaters; they were about to present each skater with the placement medal.  I expect it was a bit of a thrill both for the guys and for the team members to participate in this ceremony.

photo of medal ceremony

Medal ceremony

The many innovative programs mad for an exciting world championship event.  Next year Synchro Worlds will be in Stockholm, Sweden.  I wonder if I’ll be lucky enough to be able to attend?

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