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Creek Running North

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February 10, 2006

Watching tule elk

Coming home from the Mojave means rolling down the west side of Tehachapi Pass, then a few miles of stop-and-go on the Stockdale Highway through Bakersfield. I pick up speed on the two-lane past the Kern River as I approach Interstate 5. From there, it is a long slog in high-speed freeway traffic, five hours at 85 per to get to the Altamont windmills and home.

Last week I paused at the onramp, then swerved and avoided the freeway after all. Instead, I rolled past a mile or two of new-plowed cotton fields, flat as fresh-ironed corduroy on a kitchen table, and pulled into a little park.

A herd of tule elk drowsed sunnily across the fence.

I am the kind of person that annoys the usual tourist. I once stood at Mather Point at the Grand Canyon, seemingly oblivious to the panorama, and exclaimed in wonder at an iridescent yellow beetle on the pavement. I dropped to my knees to watch it, the camera-wielders stepping gingerly around me as if past a beggar. Last week at the Tule Elk State Reserve I grabbed my binoculars, walked to the observation platform, and stood with my back to the tule elk for a while. Male killdeers were battling for territory in the parking lot.

When Henry Miller claimed this land in the Nineteenth century, building one of the biggest ranches in North American history, tule elk had been hunted and displaced nearly to the point of extinction. Miller found room for a few of them on his ranch in 1874. The tules for which the elk are named are tall freshwater reeds. Thousands of acres of the Tulare basin, now in cotton fields and tract housing, were wetlands back then. Tulare Lake near Corcoran was once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, at least in terms of surface area. They say in those days you could catch eight tons of fish in Tulare Lake with one pass of a horse-drawn seine. In 1954 the Pine Flat Dam was built on the Kings River. Within a decade Tulare Lake was being plowed for cotton. It is the unspoken environmental atrocity of the last century. Today you can drive the lakebed and smell only dust, cursing as you flick your climate control lever to "recirc."

The story goes that Miller claimed his 300,000 acres by fraud under the Swamp Lands Act, which granted land to those who surveyed it from a boat. Miller supposedly loaded a rowboat into a wagon and had a horse pull him around Kern County. If true, the story may yet be unfair to Miller: much of the land here was underwater with some regularity.

He saved the elk from extinction regardless. His men were draining a swamp on his land near Los Banos when they found the last herd. None had been seen anywhere else for years: they were presumed extinct. From those elk were bred hundreds, who now live on protected land across California. I've hiked among them on cold mornings at Point Reyes, peered at them with my brother through tules outside Fresno, caught glimpses of antlers from behind the wheel in the Owens Valley. Last week I turned at least from the killdeer to the elk, watched them snort and steam. One bull stared at me for a hard minute, then bowed to clip grass.

One day a few years back Becky and I watched from this platform as a coyote worked the brush across this fence. The elk were back in the tall January grass, and Coyote just out of view behind the cattails, except for her ears. She loped past us, turned southward down the levee. The levee road was bare brown dirt, and a ground squirrel picked the wrong time to jump from its hole. We watched through binoculars. The coyote lunged. Squirrel dodged. Coyote lunged and missed again, stood there wagging her tail and smiling. Each lunge was aimed not for the squirrel, but between it and the hole. Each dodge took squirrel farther in increments from safety. Transfixed, he stared at the coyote. The tail-wagging grew faster, more joyous, and the squirrel stood transfixed.

And came the final lunge, and the squirrel knew it could not dodge again, and he screamed and leapt for coyote's tender feet. A brave, bold, futile move. Another squeak and Coyote had him. With a flick of her head and jaw she cast him ten feet into the amber sky. I saw his little body arc through the mist, time dilated, an aching slow parabola, squirrel seeming almost to hang at the vertex...

And then he slammed down onto the road, hard stunned, and Coyote tossed him again for good measure. But it was already over and we watched her eat, smacking her jaws like a dog over a plate of leftovers.

Last week I saw no coyotes, but that would have been asking too much. The elk preened and dozed. Another band two miles away shimmered in the binoculars. At Point Reyes last year I walked nearly among them, almost felt their breath on the nape of my neck. I found a spot that day where once I sat with someone long gone, and the grass in the broad circle there the elk had trampled for their bed was just now bending up again toward the sky, as if she had turned to an elk to leave me again. That day I was among them.

But two miles away last week they seemed no less remote. The Valley air shimmered with them. They shivered against the flies and bit their flanks.

Ten years ago I drove south, bereft and chasing the raven where it led me. I had no destination. A raven would fly east at a crossroads or swoop down toward an onramp to the Interstate, and I'd follow. It had been a winter of flood. Homes were destroyed, lives ruined. At Corcoran, where salt-bleached soil jumps up most years and clogs your lungs, leaping from the cultivator tines, I stopped. Tulare Lake was there. Presumed extinct, it had not been seen for years. The wind drove slow ripples toward me to break on the freeway verge.

Posted by Chris Clarke at February 10, 2006 04:51 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:
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Comments

"The story goes that Miller claimed his 300,000 acres by fraud under the Swamp Lands Act, which granted land to those who surveyed it from a boat."

There is this huge place, teeming with millions of creatures, and this pipsqueak anthropod comes sauntering in with pockets full of symbolic paper, glaces at the place, and proclaims. "All this is mine." I think the local citizens (birds, insects, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, mollusks, worms, and every other Platonic idea) still haven't gotten over their shock at the sheer impertinance...

Posted by: butuki at February 10, 2006 07:07 PM
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Running Creek... I was spellbound by your careful observation of the "barking dog" and her strategy of driving the ground squirrel off from refuge. What puzzles me is that I have observed red squirrels leap 18 feet from a walnut tree onto hard ground and be off & running-- foiling my dog's attempt to capture her by climbing to where the creature flung itself headlong. Is it possible the "flipping" you observed was just a way of breaking its neck? The squirrel's cunning & resourcefulness is only matched by its extraordinary, dare I say gladiatorial-like toughness.

Just as an aside-- I have often thought their cognitive abilities (which are more than notable) were a consequence of their arboreal habits. The anatomony of a tree is not unlike that of a brain, and any creature capable of the spilt decisions the red squirrel makes deserves the notion of "quick-witted". Primates certainly claim it. Anyway, I know you watched what perhaps was its "dim-witted" cousin who lives in a hole...

Posted by: Root Cap at February 10, 2006 07:07 PM
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Well, ground squirrel burrows are exactly like trees, just inside-out and upside-down.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at February 10, 2006 08:17 PM
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thank you for this, chris. if it weren't for creek running north, i might be forced to address ... oh, any one of a dozen tasks that hold no interest.

you writes good, friend.

Posted by: Jean at February 10, 2006 09:48 PM
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My most magical memory of Point Reyes is of the unexpected encounter with tule elk emerging from the
fog.
I'm in the middle of reading Ravens in Winter by Bernd Heinrich, and finding it utterly fascinating.

Posted by: Joanna at February 11, 2006 07:09 AM
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How ironic is it that, in the entirety of a post focusing on the tule elk, it was this section that caught my eye the most?

I am the kind of person that annoys the usual tourist. I once stood at Mather Point at the Grand Canyon, seemingly oblivious to the panorama, and exclaimed in wonder at an iridescent yellow beetle on the pavement. I dropped to my knees to watch it, the camera-wielders stepping gingerly around me as if past a beggar. Last week at the Tule Elk State Reserve I grabbed my binoculars, walked to the observation platform, and stood with my back to the tule elk for a while. Male killdeers were battling for territory in the parking lot.

(Perhaps it is because I am also a person who tends to bemuse tourists in this way. I'm the person at the zoo exclaiming, "Oh! Look! There's a sparrow!")

Posted by: Rana at February 11, 2006 11:30 AM
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the wrong sort of croaking in the gentle wilderness: saying aums of goodbye to the mountain yellow-legged frog....

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20060211/ap_on_sc/endangered_yosemite_frogs

Posted by: spyder at February 11, 2006 11:57 AM
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if it weren't for creek running north, i might be forced to address ... oh, any one of a dozen tasks that hold no interest.

Same here. I make a deal with myself - If I can get through a certain job, I get to click over here.

Posted by: eRobin at February 11, 2006 09:15 PM
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What caught my eye in the post was the mention of Point Reyes. That place holds my imagination as much as any place to which I've been. From here in Minnesota it's not easy to get there, and there are so many other lures in California that even on my infrequent trips West I don't see it enough. But in my mind's eye I can relive a sunny March afternoon watching the pelicans dive for fish, and I can remember the first time I saw the break in the landscape caused by the fault. Thanks, Chris, for the memory jog.

Posted by: Charles at February 13, 2006 10:32 AM
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