The alligator lizard woke us right up and there was little chance of either one of us dozing off again. We checked the temperature and it was 91 degrees. So much for it being 81 with some cloud cover! The chances of any deer moving was slim at best. Both of us being former ruggers (rugby players), we opted to pass the time with some good old boy stories. Let me tell you, we had some funny ones to share and they were hilarious. We literally laughed the time away.
The shadows and hillsides were vacant of any wildlife. The only things moving were turkey vultures and red-tailed hawks. The vultures must have been anticipating us killing something because they kept coming right over us and circling. Sorry to disappoint you guys!
Seeing nothing, we devised our plan for the evening watch. We decided on two spots on a nearby hillside, about 50 yards away from one another. Michael would watch the upper side and ridge crest while I scanned the bottom of the valley and distant hillside. We knew once it was dark that we would have some hiking to do to get out. That's when we came up with the plan that would test our meddle.
The hillside we were going to be sitting watch on had a slope downward into a valley that led right out to the road. It would cut off a mile of walking and it wasn't as steep as the side we came in on. We must have talked about this two or three times and decided it was a great plan. We then waited for 5:00 PM and went on watch.
We each got to our respective spots and started glassing. The grass where I was standing was much taller than where Michael was, but I didn't think about it much. This would later come to nearly bite me in the arse. So we sat and glassed and scanned and glassed. Nothing. The sunset was beautiful, so I decided to take a few photos and text them back to my wife.
|What a beautiful sunset with Los Angeles on the left and the mountains on the right.|
I sent them, told her I loved her and put the phone away. That's when the evening took a turn and the adrenaline started to seep into my bloodstream. I immediately noticed a black spot on the adjoining ridge that hadn't been there five minutes before. It was right in the spot where the two other hunters had posted up that morning. I slowly raised my binoculars and saw my first Southern California black bear in the wild. He was sniffing the spot where the hunters had sat and was taking his time. 300 yards away isn't very far when sitting on a barren hillside. My heart was racing! The bear was absolutely beautiful. He was very large and had a full coat of brownish-black fur that almost glowed in the sun. This bear was not starving either! I am no expert, but I would estimate him in the 250 lb. range. Hell, I am 205 and I assumed this bear would dwarf me.
|The crappy photo from my phone does not do the bear any justice.|
When Michael reached my vantage point I shared my story. He couldn't believe it and we both decided we should start heading out while we had a little bit of light left. We stuck to our plan of heading down into the valley and out to the road. I was a bit on edge because if you follow my blog at all you know that I like to pack lunches that consist of peanut butter and bacon with a dab of honey. Gee, you think a bear might like to snack on one? Even though I had eaten my sandwiches, I still had the baggies in my pack. Empty, smelly bags of sweet, delicious peanut-buttery, bacon-laden goodness. Crap!
Down the hill we went, side-stepping along the way to avoid slipping. The grass was void of any water, which made it slick and tough to keep your footing. The earth suddenly turned to rock and sand in spots, which made it even more treacherous. We still felt good, but the vegetation was starting to grow taller as we walked downhill. Not a good sign!
I then stepped over an embankment to what could have been my downfall. Five feet away was a Southern Pacific rattlesnake moving away from me in the grass. I immediately shouted to Michael, who was only feet behind me to stop as there was a rattlesnake right in front of me. Now, to give you an idea of what I saw, here is a photo of a Southern Pacific rattler.
|Southern Pacific Rattlesnake - © Ross Padilla (used with permission)|
See those rings that go up the body, dark to light to dark before they turn to the diamond-like pattern? Yeah, that's all that I saw. All one and a half feet of them. What does that say to me? It says that the snake I was watching slither away was probably a four foot, muscle laden fire hose with fangs.
This was about the time that I was very thankful I was a former Boy Scout and on each hunt I come prepared. People poke fun and joke about the gear I carry, but it doesn't bother me. I know that each item in my pack is there for a specific reason. My 150 Lumen headlamp and powerful flashlight are two items I won't leave home without when hunting. Using the headlamp to see well ahead (in case glimmering eyes should appear) and the flashlight to light up the immediate trail my confidence in seeing something before I stepped on it made me feel better. Sure, it was only slightly better, but it was something!
With the adrenaline traveling at Mach 1 through my veins, I scanned the land ahead of us. One way was a sheer drop off to no-man's land and the other was through a cactus patch. Seriously, I thought? You bet. A cactus patch fifty feet wide and ten foot deep. I was wearing the snake boots, so I went first stepping on the cactus, kicking it out of the way and making a path for us to get through. Every step was filled with thoughts of rattlesnakes or falling down and turning into a pin cushion.
Now, you might wonder whose bright idea it was to trek this route. While we both discussed it and came up with the plan, I humbly admit that I think I was the planner who conjured up this exit strategy in the first place. Brilliant, Al, just brilliant!
We made it through the cactus patch to the floor of the valley. Whew! We felt we were nearing the end of our hike, but little did we know this was where we would be tested physically, mentally and emotionally.
A few more steps brought us to thick brush with trails going through it. We chose a trail and began descending deeper into it only to be met by poison oak in small batches. We both knew this was a bad sign because we were both sweating a great deal from the hike, but also because the canopy of trees around us held in the humidity. The second part of the equation here is the most important - Michael is highly allergic to poison oak. He's so allergic that if he looks at it funny he gets it. Every move we made now had to be carefully calculated.
We discussed how we wanted to attack and decided to stick to the trail avoiding the poison oak and to get around it. We were only about 100 yards from the main trail leading us out, but we needed to hurdle the issues we were facing. The issues being the trail we were on was heading right for the ridge the bear was on and the trees around us were all fig trees. Bears LOVE figs! Then we had to be on our guard for rattlesnakes, loose rocks, poison oak and mountain lions.
We searched with our headlamps and flashlights and found a well used trail near the base of the dried up creek bed. It was on the far side, so we'd have to cross it, but it was away from the poison oak. We ducked under branches, over some rocks and into a very small clearing where I found a rattlesnake skeleton. Just great, I thought. What else was in store for us? We were sure to grab a drink of water each time we stopped to avoid dehydration. Our water levels were getting low, but with our careful planning we should have enough to make it out.
The brush got thicker and the trail led us to a steep drop into the creek bed. We looked down it and there was poison oak on one side, a huge boulder on the other and a trail leading out. Little did we know that this was to be the most intense, yet very simple deciding factor in our trek. We had to lower ourselves into the creek bed, about a five foot drop, in order to start down the trail again. Michael dropped his pack, slid down and I handed him his pack. I handed him my pack and I though he was going to lose an arm. 'Damn your pack is heavy!' I had to laugh because it hadn't phased me much on my back, but handing it over made me realize how much weight I truly carried.
With our packs secured to our backs, Michael took the lead. He climbed to the side of the boulder, only to realize there was poison oak all around it. He had to find handholds along it to be sure not to touch any of the leaves or branches. I followed the same way. What loomed in front of us not only shot streams of adrenaline through our bodies, but also had us very concerned. There were 6'-7' tall bushes of poison oak, full of leaves all around us. We hadn't seen them from the trail we came in on because the boulder had covered our view. There was no possible way we could go forward, so we had no other choice but to backtrack.
Keeping a level head was the key factor in getting us out safely. While we both had concerns, we stopped, drank some water and offered up ideas and possible options. Michael came up with the best calculated idea. As he was the guy who knew his poison oak like I know chocolate chip cookies, he lead the way up the hill. We decided the ONLY way around the oak was to head for high ground, away from the creek bed and to find a well-used animal trail to get us out. We didn't even hesitate. We found a way, hit the trail and hiked up the steep hillside. It didn't even feel steep at this point. We just hoofed it, climbed over branches and avoided any sign of poison oak. It was a glorious feeling climbing up and away from the poison oak.
We did have to trudge through another cactus patch, but we agreed that we'd take cactus spines over seeping blisters of itchy agony any day. We made it through the cactus and stopped in another clearing to get our bearings. The main trail could be seen from our elevated vantage point! It was then that I looked down and thanked God that I wasn't arachnophobic. Walking by my boot was a very large tarantula. It was the only one I have ever encountered outside of a pet store. Now I don't mind spiders, so long as they are not crawling on my skin. Seeing it on the ground was so cool! I loved it! We had seen just about every kind of animal, minus a lion. This was where Michael told me to bite my tongue as we really didn't want to see one. Right on!
Over the rise we hiked, into a clearing and a then quick break before heading through the very last cactus patch. Michael found a dog collar laying there in the clearing which brought an ominous, uneasy feeling. Someone's dog had probably died out there. Not wanting to touch it (the leather will hold poison oak oil all too well) we crossed over it and down the hill. Freedom at last!
When our feet touched the main trail we were ecstatic! We still had a mile to hike out, but it was away from any poison oak and cactus. We could see well ahead with our headlamps should we have encountered a lion, bear or rattlesnake. As luck would have it, the only thing we encountered was a cool breeze.
Our 'short-cut' took us one hour and fifteen minutes. Our water ran out right when we got to my vehicle. Talk about good planning! Make fun of the weight of my pack all you want, but I sure am glad we had plenty of H2O! While we didn't kill any deer, we still had quite an adventure! Who would have guessed that it would turn out like it did. It was one of the craziest, but invigorating, adrenaline fueled hunts I have ever been on. I can now say we know much of the area that we didn't before and I have seen living creatures big, small, venomous, and carnivorous! Along the way we picked up a few Mylar balloons and spotted 3 more in other areas. We did our part to pick up the ones we did find and throw them away int he trash.
When I got home and took off my snake-proof boots, I realized that snake-proof does not mean cactus proof. Sticking out of my big toe was a very large cactus spine that I hadn't felt at all during our hike. I sure felt it now when I had to pluck it from my skin. Next time I'll be more careful.
In the future, we will stick to our original plan. Hike out the way we came in! Oh, and if a big deer, or bear, is heading toward this spot, well, I may just pass up the shot so I don't have to haul an animal out of that valley... ever! Then again, adventure may taunt us with her soft, sweet voice and we may again find us in her grip. Adventure awaits and who am I to keep her waiting!