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Desert in the Valley? Exactly what it was not too long ago

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POSTED February 25, 2018 11:03 p.m.

My wife thinks I’m crazy, but in addition to mountains and oceans, I love deserts. I love the wide empty spaces where there are no humans for as far as you can see. I love the singing of coyotes and the smell of sage and the desert sunsets. I love the weird critters that have adapted to desert life, and I love the freedom to be able to shoot a rifle without bothering a single human being.  I love the Mojave Desert of Southern California, the Forty Mile Desert of Nevada, and the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. Heck, I even love the San Joaquin Desert of the Great Central Valley. Desert? In the Central Valley? 

The Central Valley was a desert most of the year except when inundated by the annual springtime floods. With the advent of major dams on the rivers, the yearly floods became less and less frequent and millions of acres of land were converted from desert to bountiful farms. Tulare Lake, north of Bakersfield, was roughly the size of Lake Tahoe and now it’s gone. Owens Lake, east of the Sierras, was so big it supported paddle-wheel steamboats that crossed the lake daily delivering supplies to the mines on the other side. Because the Owens River is diverted via pipeline to Los Angeles, Owens Lake is gone too.   If you ask enough old timers here in the Central Valley, some of them can recall when local kids caught horned toads for pets and you had to watch for a rattler in the hay stacks. Even in the 1960s before completion of the California Aqueduct, there were vast reaches of alkali flats along the route of what is now I-5.

Believe it or not, there are still a few remnants of the San Joaquin Desert and they teem with critters that don’t exist except in the desert.  Last weekend,  I as up in one of the  Coast Range canyons that connect to the valley when we spotted a what looked like a scrawny pheasant standing near the road.  I stopped the truck about 30 feet from the bird and walked toward him, and sure enough, he ran out of sight.  The hills to our west have become a de facto refuge for the desert critters that formerly resided in the San Joaquin Desert. In addition to roadrunners, there are horned toads, rattlesnakes, king snakes, jack rabbits, cottontails, brush rabbits, scorpions, mountain lions, bobcats, deer, elk, Golden Eagles, and shrikes.  I’ve probably overlooked a few, but I think you get the idea. Heck there are even coyotes that try to make a meal out of the roadrunners.

If you’d like to get a little sample of the desert environment of those hills there are still some opportunities to do so. Several public roads cross the hills and provide opportunities for wildlife viewing. Carnegie State Vehicular Recreation Area is on Corral Hollow Road southwest of Tracy. It has 1,500 acres and is open to camping with 23 spaces available on a first come, first serve basis. Frank Raines Park is on Del Puerto Canyon Road west of Patterson and also has public access and campsites. Sometimes Frank Raines Park is closed due to the high fire danger, so check it out on Google before you go.

When the hills are hot and dry and the critters mostly come out at night. In fact, as teenagers we used to ride the paved roads at night to find the rattlers that crawl out on the asphalt to get warm. Interestingly, Fall is just about the beginning of the annual tarantula migration. Male tarantulas are on the move seeking females for breeding seasons. If you’re driving the coast range hills at dusk in the Fall, be on the lookout for the tarantulas.  If I spot tarantulas, I usually stop and shoo them across the road with a piece of cardboard so they won’t get squished. They also make great pets and can live for years in a home terrarium, although now it’s easier to just buy them on the internet. No kidding, will guarantee live delivery of tarantulas to your door. Leave the wild ones out there in the wild.

There you have it, desert critters right in your backyard.  Who’da thunk it? All you have to do is get out there and introduce yourself to them!


Until Next Week,

Tight Lines

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