Elephant seals on beach near Piedras Blancas


California 2011

Last updated January 12, 2012



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Day One | Day Two | Day Three | Day Four | Day Five | Day Six | Day Seven | Day Eight | Day Nine

Christmas is a time I typically spend with Norma's family because hers are in western Maryland while mine are in California. But in 2011, things would be different because we would spend the holiday season out west. On this trip, our visit would ensure our participation in the festivities involving the marriage of my good friend and former squad leader Mike B. to his fiancee, Suzanne. Of course Norma and I would also find time to visit my folks and friends, and do some outdoor activities. But the wedding was our primary motivation for choosing the Christmas and New Year week to fly out.

Day One, Sunday, December 25, 2011
Getting to Sacramento from Savage is no small task. Norma and I could have flown out from Baltimore Washington International (BWI) Airport which is not too far away but that would have meant a layover. Preferring a direct flight, we had a different plan.

We drove out to Washington D.C. and parked in Norma's work space. Then we walked to the Metro so we could take the subway to a bus, which then took us to Dulles International Airport. I'm never too comfortable when it comes to catching a plane on time and the extra steps made me a little uneasy but it all worked out in the end.

The two of us arrived in Sacramento, late on Christmas Day, greeted by my parents.

Day Two, Monday, December 26, 2011

Sacramento winters are often cool and rainy. That is the time of year when California gets much of its rain and snow which must last for the rest of the year. But December has been unusually dry which is bad for the state but good for us during our week-long visit.

We awoke to a cold morning which warmed up quickly from the bright California sun. Out there, sunglasses are more a matter of comfort and protection than style.

My parents, Norma, and I (first photo) went for a walk in my old neighborhood. I let Dad try out my REI carbon fiber walking sticks. We admired the landscaping in the well-groomed community I once called home. There were various citrus trees, palm trees, and cacti, which all seem so exotic now. We walked over highway 50...the same one that takes one across the Bay Bridge in Maryland.

I remembered reading a Christmas letter from my Aunt Kay about a farm owned by Marie (second photo), a long-time friend of the family. A family reunion was recently held there. I had been to this farm when I was a child but remembered little about it except that there was a pond and a bee apiary. I asked Mom about it, expressing my interest to see it again. A few minutes later, she was on the phone talking to Marie. That afternoon, we were on our way there.

Eighty-eight year old Marie is both physically and mentally fit. She tends to her 7 acre farm which has numerous fruit and nut trees, chickens, and great big sheep. I think having such responsibilities keeps her young. She no longer has bees but her neighbor has apiaries so the bees fly over to pollinate her trees. The farm is a beautiful place, out in the town of Wilton, near the Consumnes River. Though much of the surrounding area is full of dry grass, her farm has numerous trees that both provide food and shade the house. I'm sure the pond helps keep things cooler too. See third photo.

On the return trip home, we stopped in at the Korea House Restaurant for a delicious dinner.

Much to my surprise, I saw Richard S., an old friend that I knew when I was in college. He and I ran, hiked, and did martial arts training together. Now he teaches martial arts to a government agency. Except for having a shaved head and broader shoulders, he looks the same. I think the last time I saw him might have been 1994ish. His sister, Rosanna, was also there. I think I might have seen her last around 1983, in church.

We stopped at Raley's to pick up some groceries then headed home.

Christmas gifts were exchanged though they hardly seemed important. Just being together was a gift in and of itself. But the calendar Norma made for my parents was definitely most impressive. She made sure to mark key dates such as birthdays and what not.

I helped Dad with his computer.

That evening, we played my favorite game...Blokus. Dad and I won.

Day Three, Tuesday, December 27, 2011

I seem to have lost my adaptivity to the Sacramento climate. I kept finding myself feeling dry and thirsty. When it is hot, it is easy to remember to drink water but in the winter, I need to remind myself to drink.

There was a problem with the wires in the kitchen so Mom stayed home to wait for the electrician.

Norma, Dad, and I headed off to spend the day in Folsom, the place of Dad's birth. The actual place he grew up is now part of Folsom Lake and is typically under water though during a drought, one can find the tree stumps in the pear orchard where he lived.

We walked around Sutter Street in Historic Folsom. See first photo.
Sutter Street was Folsom's first commercial thoroughfare, pre-dating the town's founding in 1856. The earliest businesses served miners and railroad workers on their way to and from the Sierra Nevada. During this time, hotels, boarding houses, restaurants and saloons lined Sutter Street between Riley and Decatur Streets. After 1856, when Folsom became the terminus of the Sacramento Valley Railroad, Sutter Street became an important location where people traveling further east into the mountains could purchase supplies.
In 1915, Sutter Street was graded and paved so that it could be incorporated into the Lincoln Highway; America's first cross-country highway. Established in 1913, the Lincoln Highway linked pre-existing roads to connect New York and San Francisco.
The route was later realigned for efficiency, and was renamed highway 50.
- from signs in Historic Folsom

Checking out a few of the shops, we learned a little bit about the development of the town. At what I believe was Snyder's House of Jade, we saw Chinese carvings made from 10,000 year old wooly mammoth tusks!

We passed by Liberty Tattoo. Bill Liberty had a tattoo shop on the outskirts of Sacramento back when he did ink for me around 1993.

The Folsom History Museum was our main stop. Here, a very energetic older lady greeted people as they entered and when she had nobody to greet, she came and told us about the exhibits. Lots of old photos of places like Rumsey and the drug store brought back memories for Dad. He even saw a photo of the man he thinks was his boyhood doctor, Dr. Proctor W. Day, who practiced medicine for 36 years in Folsom from 1926 to 1957.

We learned a few new things about the history of Folsom.
While Chinese-Americans comprised 80% of this area's population in 1880, their marks on the landscape and contributions to the area's culture have all but vanished. Traces endure underground in the form of mining trenches called the "Chinese Diggings," three local cemeteries, and an extensive Chinatown, partially excavated in 1996. Chinatown burned to the ground and was rebuilt five times in 32 years. The Folsom Telegraph reported that the fire department would not "turn out" to squelch the blaze.
- from display at Folsom History Museum

I like to think of Folsom and Sacramento as old cowboy towns. The history and relationship between the two certainly lives up to this reputation. See second photo.
Gold rush and railroad town, Folsom became the western terminus of the Central Overland Pony Express on July 1, 1860. During its first few months, after April 4, 1860, the express mail had been run by pony to and from Sacramento, beginning on July 1, 1860. The Sacramento Valley Railroad carried it between Sacramento and Folsom until Placerville was made the terminus during July 1 - October 26, 1861.
- from sign near museum

Many cities in California have names of Spanish/Mexican origina. So how did the town receive the non-Hispanic name of Folsom?
Theodore Dehone Judah, an outstanding engineer, was obsessed with the idea of a transcontinental railroad. He traveled with his wife to California in 1854 to begin building the Sacramento Valley Raidroad - the first step in achieving his dream. Completing this in 1856, he then became a consulting engineer, surveyor, and lobbyist in Washington for a transcontinental line. In 1854, Judah was hired by Joseph Folsom to survey the bluff above Negro Bar. Folsom named the new town "Granite City" because of the abundant bedrock.
- from sign in museum

After getting our share of history, we ate at Thai Siam. This was Dad's first experience with Thai food.

Following our hearty meal, served by another high energy woman, we walked along the American River.

I generally don't take my kayaks out on the water from the beginning of November to the end of March but here in Sacramento, I saw a few people on outrigger canoes (third photo). They weren't even wearing wetsuits! I guess that's one of the big advantages of living in California.

I saw what I believe is the pupa of a swallowtail butterfly. See fourth photo.

That night, the four of us played Turntiles. Dad and I won. It seems the men are dominating in games.

Day Four, Wednesday, December 28, 2011

In the beekeeping class that Norma and I took, we learned that California almond growers pay folks in places as far away as Maryland to borrow their bees for a season. This is because there aren't enough bees living naturally in the area to pollinate all the flowers needed to yield a rich harvest. Bees are truly valuable to the Sacramento Valley agriculture...so much so that the local newspaper is even called the Sacramento Bee.

To see some of what our Maryland bees helped accomplish, Norma, Mom, and I visited the Blue Diamond store in downtown Sacramento. Blue Diamond is based in Sacramento. Here we saw a very interesting and entertaining video about almonds. We also saw an old huller machine (first photo) that reminded me of the one Grandpa had on the farm to remove the husks off the walnuts. After that, we were let loose in the store (second photo) to buy and sample a multitude of almond flavors.

The store also had a sign informing us about the history of Blue Diamond almonds.
  • On May 6, 1920, 230 individual almond growers organize what will become one of the world's most successful agricultural cooperatives - The California Almond Growers' Exchange. By adopting the rare gem 'blue diamond' for its brand, the co-op commits to providing the highest quality almonds in the world to consumers.
  • 1920-1930: Some newly discovered health benefits include an energy increase, more protein than most other vegetable foods and easy digestibility.
  • 1940-1950: War Manpower Commission declares almonds an "essential food," and Blue Diamond almonds make their way to American soldiers fighting in World War II. The United States Department of Agriculture also embraces their nutritious qualities and requests Blue Diamond almonds for school lunch.
  • 1960-1970: The main plant in Sacramento becomes the world's largest almond facility, followed closely behind by the Exchange's plant in Salida, California.
  • 1970-1980: Aggressive marketing efforts earn growers the highest prices ever and make almonds California's leading export.
  • 2000-2010: California almond growers produce more than 80 percent of the world's almond supply and export 70 percent to 95 countries!

  • Our next stop in the downtown area was the State Capitol building. I've driven by this place countless times and I'm sure I've been there before...probably on an elementary school field trip. But today I had a special appreciation for it.

    The landscaping at the Capitol building is excellent. Lots of big healthy trees (first photo) including redwood, giant sequoia (not quite giants yet), cacti (second photo), a century plant (third photo), and orange trees displaying hundreds of huge grapefruit-sized oranges.

    The State Capitol's Christmas tree was well decorated and was every bit as nice as the one near the White House. See fourth photo.

    On the Capitol grounds, we saw
  • The California Firefighters Memorial
  • The Purple Heart Monument
  • A bamboo grove
  • A juggler (fifth photo), and
  • A squirrel eating one of the big juicy oranges (sixth photo)

  • By mid-afternoon it turned a little overcast. That wasn't so bad as Norma and I would be spending the rest of the day on the road, driving south. The clouds gave our eyes a break from the glare.

    We must have been on the road for at least 5 hours. Our destination was San Luis Obispo, the home of Chuck Liddell, former Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight champion. But that's not why we went there, though that isn't necessarily a bad reason.

    Norma and I checked in at Hostel Obispo. It is a good place to stay if you're taking the train or on your own. But for two people, it seemed a little pricey, though still cheaper than a motel, especially in the city, which is expensive. But the accommodations were good and there was plenty of parking.

    Mom packed us plenty of food so we didn't bother going out to a restaurant.

    We walked around town a bit then called it a night.

    Day Five, Thursday, December 29, 2011

    After eating pancakes at the hostel, Norma and I started out the morning by heading to Morro Bay. She called to make a reservation with Sub Sea Tours for a whale watching trip. Unfortunately, they were all booked. So we were on a waiting list and showed up, hoping someone would cancel. But that was not the case. Sometimes they run a tour in the afternoon but not that day.

    From the dock of Sub Sea Tours, we had a splendid view of Morro Rockvolcanic plug. See first photo.
    A volcanic plug, also called a volcanic neck or lava neck, is a volcanic landform created when magma hardens within a vent on an active volcano. When forming, a plug can cause an extreme build-up of pressure if volatile-charged magma is trapped beneath it, and this can sometimes lead to an explosive eruption. If a plug is preserved, erosion may remove the surrounding rock while the erosion-resistant plug remains, producing a distinctive upstanding landform.
    - from Wikipedia - Volanic Plug

    The Rock is truly an outstanding feature that has served sailors (and probably kayakers) for quite some time.
    Morro Rock has been an important mariner's navigational landfall for over 300 years. Sometimes called the Gibraltor of the Pacific, it is the last in the famous chain of nine peaks which extends from the City of San Luis Obispo. Morro Rock was first sighted in 1542 by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo who named it "El Morro." In Spanish "Morro" means crown shaped hill.
    - from "Morro Rock and the Nine Sisters" pamphlet

    But not only seamen benefit from Morro Rock.
    The rock itself is home to over 250 species of birds.
    - from Morro Bay, Cayocos, Baywood Park & Los Osos Welcome Map

    Off in the distance, I heard what sounded like barking. I looked out on the water and saw what I thought were seals out on a floating dock in the bay. But looking at the zoomed in photos, I now think they are sea lions. See second photo.

    In the water, I saw two red starfish (third photo) and a big crab (fourth photo), which looked totally unlike our Maryland blue crab.

    Norma was pretty disappointed not being able to go on the whale watching trip. Understandably so. Me? Not as much. I don't do so well on rocking powerboats in the deep ocean. I'd much rather prefer a small, human-powered boat though that probably isn't the most effective way to find a giant marine mammal.

    We drove through Montana de Oro State Park where we could clearly see Morro Rock backdropped behind Morro Bay. See first photo.

    In the park was A Kayak Shack. This place has very reasonable rates for kayak rental in the sheltered Morro Bay. But I was very hesitant to rent. The water temperature was roughly in the high 50s but they didn't provide any protective clothing other than a personal floatation device (PFD). Even though the water was perfectly calm and I can't imagine anyone falling out, the wind and occasional splash alone might leave one a little chilled. Looking out into the bay, I wasn't convinced things were particularly interesting though the woman in the shack claimed there was a heron rookery nearby. I suppose if Norma and I brought more suitable clothes, we would have rented there but instead we chose to continue our drive through the park.

    Continuing south through the park, we stopped to do a hike on the Valencia Peak Trail. This took us to, not surprisingly, the 1347 foot Valencia Peak. It was an easy hike that had a nice view along the way and at the top. But the journey to the top wasn't terribly interesting. Don't get me wrong, it is a beautiful place. It's just that the scenery is a little homogeneous...at least it was when we were there. Lots of rolling hills and not many trees. I find the hiking in the Sierra Nevada to be much nicer. But still, it was good to get out and see what this part of California has to offer.
  • Second photo: Morro Rock to our north along with the town of Morro Bay.
  • Third photo: Coastal vegetation.
  • Fourth photo: The high point on the right...that is our destination.
  • Fifth photo: A nice view of the Pacific Ocean.
  • Sixth photo: Looking east.
  • Seventh photo: At the top of Valencia Peak! No oxygen mask needed.
  • Eighth photo: A long way down.
  • Ninth photo: Me with the mighty Pacific behind.

  • From the top, we ate lunch along with some other people. One fellow had binoculars and he could see whales spouting in the distance. I intended to bring binos but forgot. I was starting to empathize with Mozilla Firefox when it crashes..."well this is embarassing." At least we knew they were out there though knowing that and not seeing them is like being a diabetic kid in a candy store.

    We took a slightly different route back which took us by a small camping area near a grove of eucalyptus trees. Now we were much closer to the water. Norma went to use the restroom as I gazed across the horizon. What's that? Off in the distance. A whale spout! There it is again! Maybe 30 feet tall. I saw it a total of 4 times. It might have been a half mile away but it was definitely there. When Norma came out of the restroom, I told her what I saw and we spent the next several minutes looking for more spouts but saw none.

    Trekking onward, after maybe 20 minutes, we both saw about 3 whale spouts. They weren't as big as the ones I initially saw but there was no doubt that is what they were. We really couldn't make out any part of the whale except maybe a shallow hump in the water. It wasn't a whale watching trip but it was better than nothing.

    We made our way down to the water, passing an egret along the way (tenth photo). Then we walked along the layers of shale as the waves crashed on darker rocks. In my opinion, this was more scenic than the hike but perhaps that's because I'm more used to hiking and I have less experience walking along rocky areas near the ocean. See eleventh photo. It would have been nice to have done a little tidepooling but the tide was not on our side. It would be several more hours until it was low again.

    By the time we got back to the car, we walked 5.3 miles. In the twelfth photo, Norma points to the small mountain we climbed.

    Our next stop was the Pismo State Beach Butterfly Grove. Here we saw about 21,000 Monarch butterflies roosting for the winter.
    The Monarchs that migrate to Pismo State Beach are from west of the Rocky Mountains, and as far north as Canada. In late August/early September, they instinctively begin their long migration by leaving the interior for the California Coast. They arrive here in October. Monarch Butterflies may travel as far as 2000 miles, covering 100 miles per day, and flying as high as 10,000 feet!
    - from sign at Butterfly Grove

    What I find most interesting about monarch butterflies is their genetic memory. It is one of those things that evolutionists have a hard time explaining. It also makes the Goa'uld on Stargate a more interesting enemy. Monarch butterflies use genetic memory to fly up to 3000 miles to a place their ancestors have been, but they have not.
    Each fall, billions of monarch butterflies funnel from the Eastern US and Canada into a handful of tiny pine groves in central Mexico. As they've never made the trip before and they have no parents to lead the way, they must rely on genetic memory to get where they're going. The mechanism they use to pull this off is called a time-compensated sun compass. They use the sun as a guidepost, but they must constantly recalibrate their internal compass to compensate for the fact that the sun appears to move across the sky throughout the day.
    - from The Butterfly Clock

    Several of the butterflies clustered together in the trees.
  • First photo: Close-up of cluster.
  • Second photo: Backed out view.
  • Third photo: Massive cluster.
  • Fourth photo: Another boatload.

  • Others were loners.
  • Fifth photo: Top view on a brown paper bag. Maybe it was looking for lunch inside.
  • Sixth photo: Side view. I only see 4 legs...don't insects have 6?

  • Some pairs flew attached by their abdomens as they engaged in intercourse. See seventh photo.

    As dinnertime approached, we made our way to Arroyo Grande. Looking at this town (and Pismo Beach), it was obvious we were in southern California. The whole atmosphere of the town was significantly different from Sacramento or Folsom.

    Getting out of the car, I heard a rooster crowing. We were clearly in an urban area so I was curious to find out where the sound came from. It didn't take long before I saw about 6 chickens in a tree near the river in Kiwanis Park. See first photo. It reminded me of the chickens that roamed my university, California State University Sacramento (CSUS).

    One of the town attractions is the swinging bridge that passes over a small river, connecting the tourist area with a residential area. So we stopped there and walked across. It didn't seem to swing but maybe it did during an earthquake.

    For dinner, we ate at Klondike Pizza. See second photo. This place reminded me of Sam's Town (my old hangout) just outside of Sacramento because in both places, customers are asked to throw peanut shells on the floor. There wass even a player piano to give the place an old-time feel, like Sam's Town had. See third photo.

    Klondike had a most impressive selection of toppings which were seasonal. I wanted the most exotic pizza I could get so I asked for musk ox, skunk, and reindeer. But reindeer was the only one of the three that they had in stock so I got that. I'm not kidding when I say musk ox and skunk were on the menu. Walrus blubber was on the menu too but it was crossed out. The reindeer I got was actually reindeer sausage. I prefer to sample exotic meats in their pure form rather than in a sausage because sausage is often blended with other meats and spices that hide the true flavor of the meat. The pizza was excellent though as far as I could tell, I might just as well have been eating a regular sausage pizza.

    Back in San Luis Obispo, we walked around at the downtown farmer's market. It was very big and festive. Some talented musicians performed. This is one of the largest farmer's markets in California.

    In addition to lacking racial diversity, I sensed that the place lacks political diversity too. There was a booth set up for Democrats and another set up for Libertarians...that's all. But I was impressed with the diversity of sodas at one of the stores. See first photo. They even had Moxie, which previously I'd never seen for sale outside of New England.

    Norma and I walked to the Old Mission, San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, which was founded in 1772. It was the fifth of 21 California missions and built by the Chumash Indians, living in the area. See second photo.

    Back at the hostel, we checked e-mail in the common area (third photo), did some reading, then went to sleep. Tonight we had a snorer sharing the room with us. Fortunately, I had earplugs. Last night there were no snorers...just me and a bunch of chicks.

    Day Six, Friday, December 30, 2011

    Norma and I checked out of the hostel then drove north along the coast. We stopped at Morro Strand State Beach (just north of Morro Rock) near low tide to walk along the beach and do a little tidepooling. We saw numerous sea anemones (first and second photo), plant life, barnacles, mussels, and other shell creatures (third photo) but no sea urchins or starfish. I briefly spotted a black oystercatcher. I also saw pelicans (fourth photo) and still more views of Morro Rock (fifth and sixth photos).

    The rocks were rock-solid but sections with vegetation could be a bit slippery. See Norma not losing her balance in the seventh photo.

    Walking back to the car, we saw a variety of landscapes next to beachfront homes. Some included ice plants, which we don't have in Maryland.

    Continuing north, we drove through Cambria (which seemed a little fancy for our taste) then stopped at the W.R. Hearst Memorial State Beach in San Simeon. Here, we spoke to Cubby, the owner of Kayak Outfitters. Norma was a little hesitant to paddle in the ocean with its 2-3 foot swells and breaking waves but we were told that Morro Bay (our other choice for kayaking) was facing high winds that were serious enough for the folks at Sub Sea Tours to cancel their whale watching trip. So things were clearly safer here.

    We walked out on the pier where we got a nice view of the beach to our southeast and the rocky shoreline to our northwest. I zoomed in with my camera and saw what looked like small caverns in the rocks. See first photo. I was definitely wanting to explore this place via kayak.

    I gave Norma some time to think about kayaking as we drove north to Piedras Blancas to see the Elephant Seal Rookery. After seeing friends and family, this was what I expected to be the highlight of our trip. I had seen seals and sea lions before but never a marine mammal quite like an elephant seal.
    Elephant seals come ashore and form colonies for only a few months of each year to give birth, breed and molt. The rest of the year the colonies disperse and individuals spend most of their time in pursuit of food, a quest which involves swimming thousands of miles and diving to great depths.
    - from sign at viewing station

    I kinda wonder if Mike planned his wedding so us out-of-towners could see the elephant seals at the best time.
    The breeding season begins around the first of December when the mature males start to arrive and fight to establish dominance. Pregnant females begin arriving around the middle of December and continue to arrive until early February. Birthing occurs within 5 days of the female coming ashore. Each female gives birth to a single pup, 3-4 feet long, weighing between 60-80 pounds.
    - from sign at viewing station

    There were numerous pups out. Many were suckling. As far as I could tell, all looked healthy except for one that was being munched on by turkey vultures.
  • First photo: Open up and say "aaahhh."
  • Second photo: Suckling the mother.
  • Third photo: How many pups do you see?
  • First video: Turn up the volume on this and listen closely. You can hear the pup squealing.

  • After some time, the infant pups become juveniles. They lose their dark color and start looking more like a harbor seal.
  • Fourth photo: Working on a tan.
  • Fifth photo: Play time while mother takes a nap. Or maybe it's karaoke.

  • The female elephant seals just look like big seals to me. See sixth photo. But the males look much different because of their size and large proboscis. These dramatic differences between the genders is called sexual dimorphism. The size difference is most noticeable during mating. See seventh photo and second video.

    What makes these creatures so splendid is their size.
    Females weigh up to 1600 pounds, males up to 5000 pounds.
    - from sign at viewing station

    How much is 5000 pounds? Well, it is more than a large walrus or manatee but less than an Asian or African elephant. 5000 pounds is about the same as a modern Ford F-150 2-wheel drive pickup truck.
  • Eighth photo: Male elephant seal claiming his territory.
  • Ninth photo: Upward dog (a yoga pose).
  • Tenth photo: Scratching an itch in a hard to reach place.
  • Eleventh photo: Someone needs a shave.
  • Twelfth photo: Fighting to prove who is stronger.
  • Third video: Be sure to have your sound turned on so you can hear what a male elephant seal sounds like.

  • To our northwest, we could see the Piedras Blancas Light Station. Can you see it way off in the background of the thirteenth photo?
    The light at Piedras Blancas was first illuminated in 1875. The lighthouse originally stood 100 feet in height. The name "Piedras Blancas" means white rocks in Spanish.
    - from Piedras Blancas Light Station Outstanding Natural Area

    The seals weren't the only interesting wildlife there. We also saw a spotted squirrel. I don't believe I've ever seen one with spots before. See fourteenth photo.

    Norma and I drove back to the place in San Simeon with the kayak outfitter. But before visiting Cubby, we stopped in at the Coastal Discovery Center. Here I was reminded of a movie that we recently saw called The Incredible Mr. Limpet from 1964, starring Don Knotts. Up until now, I didn't know what a limpet was. But the center had one.
    A limpet is a flattened marine snail which can grind a groove in a rock until their shell fits perfectly into their "homesite." When the rocks are wet, limpets move about, grazing on diatoms (microscopic plants) layered on the rocky surfaces. If the rocks are dry, limpets must take action to conserve moisture. They return to their homesites, where they snuggle in by clinging tightly with their muscular feet.
    - from display at Coastal Discovery Center

    At the outfitter, Cubby set us up with a Tribe 13.5 tandem sit-on-top Perception kayak, paddles feathered to our liking, wetsuits, and splash jackets. See first photo. He asked us if we needed help launching and I said we were good...or so I thought.

    Pacific waves in California are different than the Atlantic ones I've seen in Maryland and Delaware. The former are bigger and start further out from shore. Norma and I waited just above the water line and waited for small waves. Once I thought the series of big waves were through, we made a sprint to the water, carrying the boat and our paddles. Once we were waist deep in water, we hopped on and paddled furiously, keeping the boat perpendicular to the waves. We rode over a small wave but less than 5 seconds later, a second wave hit us, flipping the boat and throwing us into the cold water.

    I believe the air temperature was in the high 60s or low 70s. The water temperature was about in the high 50s...about 10 degrees warmer than in Maryland. It seems strange because in the summer, the Pacific in California is much colder than the Atlantic in Maryland. Given the conditions, I felt a wetsuit and splash jacket was suitable...certainly no less.

    Cubby came out to help us. He said we hit a double-wave, something I was unfamiliar with. Apparently, the timing of waves is different for double-waves. We mounted the boat while Cubby held the stern, standing waist deep in water wearing only shorts. He must have been way cold. As waves came in, he pushed down on the stern so we could hop over them. After what seemed like 5 minutes, he told us "GO!" Norma and I paddled as fast as we could, making it past the breaking waves and into the 3 foot swells. Success!

    With waves breaking so far out, I kept us about 40 meters from the shore.

    We paddled southeast to the kelp beds. Cubby said we would likely see wildlife out there and indeed we did. We saw numerous harbor seals that curiously popped their heads up to study us. See second photo. There were also at least a couple of sea otters (third photo).

    The kelp forests were interesting. I've scuba dived in them in Monterey and found them to be full of aquatic animal life. I wondered what lay at the bottom of these plants. I'm sure it was rich in food that attracted the seals and sea otters. Nearby was other seaweed, more typical of the kind I remember finding as a child at Martin's Beach in Half Moon Bay, California. This seaweed, which I'd never seen on the east coast, has a big buoyant head about the size of a softball. The head is attached to a stem, about the size of my wrist. The stem then connects to several very long leaves. The buoyancy of the seaweed was sufficient enough for an egret to stand on. With the wave action, it was often difficult to distinguish between a seal and seaweed from a distance.

    Next, we kayaked northwest to the cliffs (fourth photo) on the south side of the peninsula where I spotted the caves from the pier. These were featured on Cubby's website so I figured they must be interesting. Indeed they were. But what I didn't expect to find was the plethora of starfish. See fifth photo. Starfish are often elusive when we're out tidepooling but now they were abundant. They looked to be about 8 inches across, in various colors: purple, red, and orange. I wondered why the variety of bright colors. It isn't like they rely on bright colors to attract a mate. I later learned the following:
    Sea stars are often brightly colored, usually from reddish hues to violet, and unusual colors such as green and blue exist in some species, but come in muted colors as well. Patterns including mosaic-like tiles formed by ossicles, stripes, interconnecting net between spines, pustules with bright colors, mottles or spots. These mainly serve as camouflage or warning coloration displayed by many other marine animals as means of protection against predation. Several types of toxins and secondary metabolites have been extracted from several species of sea stars and now being subjected into research worldwide for pharmacy or other uses such as pesticides.
    - from Starfish - info and games

    The rocky cave openings were tempting me to get closer and stick my head in but the swells from the ocean, which were now about 14 inches, were telling me otherwise. Unlike much of Maryland, which has forgiving muddy or sandy shores, these caves and cliffs were made of rock. So we kept our distance. See sixth photo.

    At the top of the cliffs were trees harboring "Lace Lichen." See seventh photo. This reminded me of the Spanish Moss we saw in Florida during April 2010. In fact some people refer to Lace Lichen as Spanish Moss but it was clearly different than the Spanish Moss in Florida. But both survive living on trees in very humid environments. Coastal Calfornia fog provides enough humidity for Lace Lichen to thrive. But by mid to late morning, the fog is gone, leaving bright sunny skies and dry weather.

    There were cormorants and pelicans (eighth photo) out on the rocks.

    The little caves in the cliffs was very interesting but what was just as equally impressive were the arches. One big one tempted me to paddle through but I didn't feel I could safely keep us from crashing on the rocks with the wave action so we just made it near one of the openings then turned around. See ninth and tenth photos.

    One spot remined me of a smaller version Gulliver's Hole, which we saw on July 6, 2009 in Maine. There was a loud rush of air created by waves crashing into a hollow space and forcing the air through a narrow opening.

    We didn't venture out to the tip of the peninsula. Cubby said that out there, some elephant seals were spotted but I think we got our fill of these creatures for the day. Plus, the swells were much larger in that area.

    After about 2 hours of kayaking, we had seen what we wanted and were ready to land. But just how we would do that had us both a little concerned. In Maine, I stayed just outside of the breaking waves, watching for small waves. When I was confident the waves would be small, we paddled hard towards the shore, keeping the boat perpendicular to the waves. It is pretty much the reverse of how I launch. But clearly my plan to launch failed because I couldn't read the waves. After paddling for a short time, I was not much better at reading San Simeon Bay than I was earlier.

    I chose to land on the beach, just a little southeast of the cliffs and about 175 meters northwest of where we started. Here, the waves might be a bit smaller since the area was more sheltered by the peninsula. After timing the waves and letting the big ones pass, we made a mad dash to the shore. We paddled as hard as we could but it seemed like we weren't getting anywhere. The problem was that as we pushed our way to the shore, a recent wave was receding, pulling us out with it. It was just a matter of time before the next wave came in, hitting us hard and flipping the boat. But at least we were now on dry land.

    We carried the boat back to the outfitter. We told Cubby about all we saw. He said that when the water is calm, one can easily paddle into the caves. According to him, one of them is pretty big too. If we were to return here, I'd want to paddle at low tide so we could more easily access the caves and get a better view of the starfish, which seem to cluster near the median waterline.

    Cubby was friendly and extremely knowledgeable about the area. If you want to see the area via kayak, I highly recommend his business. And if you're not so comfortable in a kayak, request a guided tour. He'll take care of you.

    Norma and I worked up an appetite. Cubby recommended Sebastian's just down the street so we went there. He warned us that their servings are huge. It is a store and restaurant that also houses the Hearst Ranch Winery. I had a pastrami sandwich...and Cubby was right about their servings.
    This is the oldest store building along the north coast of San Luis Obispo County. Built in 1852 at Whaling Point, one half mile westward, it was moved in 1878 to its present location. Operated by the Sebastian family for half century, it is now owned and operated by J.C. and Louise Sebastian.
    - from historic marker

    Our next stop was Paso Robles, where Mike and Suzanne live. On the drive there, we passed much of the typical in-land California landscape which is often lacking in trees. But that meant we could see a lot. There were hawks, cows, and zebras. Zebra? Yes. I believe they were part of the Hearst Ranch. See first photo.

    We arrived at Mike and Suzanne's house. I met their family and dog. The house was beautifully painted with bold colors in semi-gloss. I never used to like the idea of having walls in the same room not painted the same color but the way they did it looked really nice. For dinner, we made our own pizzas. Actually, Suzanne and Mike's family did 99% of the work, making the crust, and laying out a wide assortment of toppings. All we had to do was choose what we wanted. Their whole whole family was very pleasant. I think the last time I saw Mike was November 10, 2009. But there were two jarheads there that I hadn't seen since probably April 1991...Wayne Gray and John Bowman. The two of them, Mike, and I all served together in the Marines during the Gulf War. It was great seeing them. We reminisced over old times.

    Several of us from out of town drove a couple of miles over to Suzanne's brother's (Randy's) house, where we spent the night.

    It was a superfantastic day, to say the least.

    Day Seven, Saturday, December 31, 2011
    After I ate the rest of my pastrami sandwich for breakfast and Norma ate cereal, we were out exploring Paso Robles.

    We drove to the farmer's market in the downtown area.

    Norma spoke to some farmers that own an olive grove and make their own olive oil. She bought a couple of bottles.

    I met a woman who told me that her late husband was in the Navy and got together with some guys he hadn't seen in 40 years. I told her I was in town meeting a couple of guys I served with in the Marines over 20 years ago. She then gave me a big hug.

    We stopped in at the old library which was converted to the Paso Robles Historical Society. A lady working there told us everything we wanted to know about the area plus more.

    Continuing our walk, we stopped for a donut and Diet Pepsi for me to wash down my pastrami sandwich breakfast.

    Next, we were off for wine tasting. This is what Paso Robles is known for. Some folk even say it is better for wine tasting than the Napa Valley area of California.

    We dropped in at Lone Madrone. They had a windmill, a medicinal herbs garden, raised garden beds (first photo), and chickens. Not surprisingly, I was much more interested in the chickens than the wine. They had some unusual breeds. Norma bought a bottle or two.

    Next, we stopped at Castoro Cellars. No chickens here. But they did have a pig by the name of Harley that died recently. I found two cats, one in the winery building and one outside (second photo). Ordering wine from them to be shipped was easy so Norma held off on buying any while we were there so we could fill our suitcase with other stuff.

    Norma and I returned to the house we were staying to get ready for the big event...the wedding. Then we drove back to Mike and Suzanne's house, where it would all take place.

    It was a small and personable wedding, with probably less than 30 people. Mike instructed John and me to be the Sergeant-at-arms. We stood at the ends of the wedding group while their vows were exchanged. Wayne was the officiator. He read the 1000-page document that Mike and Suzanne wrote and took on the role that a minister would traditionally perform. Since Mike and Suzanne aren't all that religious, they felt that being wed via an officiator would make more sense. John presented Suzanne's ring and I presented Mike's, a tungsten band with carbon fiber. Quite appropiate being the strong yet efficient guy that Mike is. It was a very nice ceremony...simple, sweet, and sincere. In the first photo from left to right are me, Norma, Mike, Suzanne, Theresa (Wayne's girlfriend), and Wayne. In the second photo on the far right is John.

    Afterwards, we ate a delicious chicken and beef dinner provided by a caterer. It was rather chilly but the propane heaters helped keep us comfortable.

    Wayne, Theresa, Norma, and I were getting a little tired by the early evening so we watched the New Year's Eve ball drop in New York City on the television (NYC is 3 hours ahead of California), said our farewells, then headed back to the house where we were staying.

    Day Eight, Sunday, January 1, 2012

    After a light breakfast at Randy's house, Norma and I loaded up and left foggy Paso Robles. The fog burned off by 1000.

    We began our drive back to Sacramento. Along the way, we stopped at Pinnacles National Monument. I had never heard of this place before. I think Norma just happened to see it on a map and thought we could do a short hike to break up the drive. Great idea. What made it extra nice is that we didn't have to pay any entrance fee as we were able to make use of the one year national parks pass that Mike and Suzanne gave us for Christmas.

    As we entered Pinnacles, I saw quail race across the road. This is the California state bird.

    Our hike began at the Chaparral Ranger Station at the west entrance. We walked on the Balconies Trail which took us to an impressive set of rocks called the Balconies. A loop took us clockwise through the Balconies on the Balconies Cliffs Trail. See first, second, and third photos.

    I got a close-up view of Lace Lichen. See fourth and fifth photos.

    The most interesting part of our hike was through the Balconies Cave Trail. Here we went through Balconies Cave. See sixth photo. A flashlight is required. I had two, both very weak. Maybe I should use the Christmas gift certificate Cousin Steve gave me to buy a better one. At first, I couldn't find how to pass through and almost gave up until I saw a white arrow on the wall. Following it took me out the other side.
    ...Balconies Cave, a talus cave formed when boulders created a "roof" over a narrow stream canyon.
    - from sign at ranger station

    Along the way, we saw a few bats.
    Several species of bats find refuge in Pinnacles' caves, cliffs, and trees. Balconies Cave attracts solitary males that roost in tiny cracks away from human disturbance. Bear Gulch Cave hosts a maternal colony of Townsend's big-eared bats, unusual because they stay year-round, breeding and raising pups in spring and summer and hibernating in winter.
    - from Pinnacles National Monument, National Park Service pamphlet

    The next section of cave had even more bats. Looking up in one section of a high roof, I'm thinking there were at least 8. See seventh, eighth, and ninth photos.

    After completing our 3.25 mile hike, we at lunch at a picnic table near the ranger station. A curious titmouse bird came by to investigate what we were eating. See tenth photo. Pinnacles is also the home to other birds such as California Condors but we didn't see any. But maybe they saw us.
    In 2003, Pinnacles National Monument became part of a cooperative program to restore these [condors] endangered birds back to their wild, ancestral home. The program's goal is to reestablish a wild, self-sustaining population of condors. The high rocks of Pinnacles National Monument were historically used as nest and roost sites for condors. As the recovery program increases the number of wild-living condors, these rocky areas will once again be home to this huge soaring bird.
    - from sign near ranger station

    We didn't have time to continue hiking so I took some photos of the High Peaks to our southeast. Maybe we'll return to hike there next time. See eleventh photo. Like the Balconies, these are very impressive and unusual rock formations. How did they come about?
    By 23 million years ago the Pinnacles volcano was born - believed to be 15 miles long and 8000 feet high. The volcano wasn't where the Pinnacles are now but 195 miles to the southeast. How did these fantastic rocks get here? As the Pacific plate crept north, it split the volcano and carried two-thirds of the Pinnacles' volcanic mass with it, leaving behind the Neenach Formation. On the Pinnacles' slow journey, the mass sank beneath the surface. In time, the power of wind, rain, and ice exposed the old volcano, eroded the rubble, and fashioned the spires and caves of today's Pinnacles National Monument.
    - from Pinnacles National Monument, National Park Service pamphlet

    We were both glad that we didn't start our hike any later than we did. The place was getting pretty crowded. I guess a lot of people wanted to start off the new year right.

    On the drive out, we saw numerous bee apiaries (twelfth photo). Some were being fed sugar water to supplement their diet (thirteenth photo). I expect there might not be enough flowers in winter for them to gather a sufficient amount of nectar. Sugar water helps keep the hive strong when there is a shortage of natural food. Pinnacles is a special place for bees.
    Protected here are 400 species of bees, the largest diversity of bees in one place in North America.
    - from Pinnacles National Monument, National Park Service pamphlet

    I saw a coyote standing alongside a small road that ran parallel to the highway on which we drove. That is the first time I'd ever seen a coyote in the wild.

    Back in Sacramento, we met my parents, Ken, Sharri (Ken's sister), Uncle George, Aunt Shirley, Aunt Trudy, Cousin Steve, Cousin Cindy, George (Cindy's husband), and Alex (Cindy and George's son) at "Umeko Buffet" for dinner.
  • First photo: From left to right: Aunt Trudy, Steve, Norma, me, Ken, and Sharri. I think I'm looking a little too casual.
  • Second photo: From left to right: Uncle George, Aunt Shirley, Cindy, George, Alex, Dad, and Mom.
  • Third photo: My folks.

  • The last time I saw Ken, Aunt Trudy, Steve, and Cindy was May 22, 2010. I'm guessing I hadn't seen Shari since 1987 or prior. See fourth photo.

    After dinner, we went to my parents' house. I told Mom about the coyote I saw. She said there was one in their neighborhood eating a cat.

    We played Blokus again. I totally kicked everyone's ass in that game.

    After guests left, I installed some software for Dad, downloaded photos, backed up data, and created DVDs containing all the photos they, Norma, and I took over the week.

    Day Nine, Monday, January 2, 2012

    Way early, long before dawn, Norma and I packed up then said our farewells. An airport shuttle van picked us up and took us to the airport. We took another direct flight which flew us all the way to Dulles. I slept quite bit on the plane.

    Back at home, I was asleep in bed shortly after we arrived. I slept soundly all night and suffered no jet lag.

    It was great seeing friends, family, getting outdoors, and seeing wildlife. It seems every trip out to California is a good one. But it was also good to be home.