On The Way To The Lighthouse
By Mary Olsen
Most visitors to the Point Reyes National Seashore head to the Lighthouse. The roundtrip can be made in as little as two and a half hours, but there is so much to do on the way that it can easily be stretched to a pleasant all day trip. Although it is only about 17 miles to the very end of the road, the speed limit is 40 miles per hour (unless otherwise posted) and the road is narrow and twisty in parts.
The area is intensely patrolled and tickets are issued, so be advised. The road is rough and rife with potholes. However, the intrepid will be rewarded with stupendous views of the countryside and the coastline. The very lucky may also see a bobcat, a fox, Tule Elk or even, possibly, a mountain lion. Elephant seals and sea lions are always on the agenda and bird lovers are sure to spot raptors and ospreys or any one of the thousands of species that soar the skies of this wild landscape.
And there is plenty to please history buffs and day hikers as well. In short, it’s sure to be a day that will delight the entire family – that is, IF the weather cooperates. Rain or coastal fog could be a spoiler although hardy romantics may enjoy the moody gloom. Be sure to bring warm jackets, sturdy shoes, water, snacks and binoculars.
The lighthouse is the terminus of the 40 mile Sir Francis Drake Boulevard which begins in San Rafael. The road is named for the infamous pirate -or English explorer, depending on the historical perspective, who is said to have landed at Drakes Bay in 1579.
It is believed that Drake made contact with the Coastal Miwoks who may already have been here for more than 5,000 years at that time.
The next to arrive were the Spanish Missionaries, followed by settlers who came after the US annexed California in 1848.
After entering the National Seashore you’ll notice Park signs designating The Alphabet Ranches, as they are known. After a messy lawsuit in 1857 lawyers divided the ranch lands of the Pt. Reyes peninsula into leased parcels and gave each a letter name, the exceptions being the ranches given more poetic names by one of the lawyers, such as Drakes Head, Muddy Hollow, Oporto and Sunnyside.
Read the fascinating history of ranching on the peninsula on the park’s website: www.nps.gov.
To get a great perspective of the Park, climb the road to the top of Mount Vision. Look for the small brown sign on your left just inside the park boundary. (See “The Grandest View in West Marin” just a few pages away.)
Next along the route notice the small brown sign “Drake’s Estero”. Until recently the sign read “Drakes Bay Oyster Company”. A long battle between the aquaculture operation and the Park Service was won by the latter. The road out to the kayak put-in spot is made of crushed oyster shells, now taking on a new and ironic meaning.
For a not-too-strenuous short hike, turn at the small sign, “The Estero Trail”. It’s just four miles out and back and offers some excellent birdwatching. A Christmas tree farm of long ago has grown into a little forest where beautiful egrets make their nests. Just beyond is a wooden bridge with some built in benches that makes a lovely spot to rest and look for leopard sharks in the water below.
The trail ends a short distance later with a pleasant view of the Estero – the Spanish word for estuary – a place where fresh and salt water meet.
The next interesting stopping point along the Boulevard is the historic RCA building.This is the site of a Marconi era (Morse code) ship to shore communication station. To get to the 1929 Art Deco building drive through the Monterey cypress tree tunnel. This tunnel has suddenly become a popular site due to its similarity to The Dark Hedges tree tunnel (near Armoy in County Antrim, No. Ireland) made famous in the popular HBO series Game of Thrones.
Tule elk, a modern totem of wilderness, have long played a role in the ecological-societal interface of California. The historical relevance of the tule elk (Cervus elaphus nannodes), a subspecies of elk found only in California, dawned on the fateful summer day of 1576 when Sir Francis Drake and his weathered crew landed at what is now Point Reyes – that arc of land that juts well into the rich, cold waters of the North Pacific – and first caught a glimpse of this stoic, and remarkably abundant grazer, as described in a journal entry: “The inland we found to be far different from the shoare, a goodly country and fruitful soil, stored with many blessings fit for the use of man: infinite was the company of very large and fat Deer (tule elk), which we saw by thousands as we supposed in herd” (1). The notion that these wild and fertile lands were fit for the righteous and pre-ordained use of man set a tone that proved to propagate cascading deleterious effects on the ecosystems of North America.
The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848 and the preceding flood of people fixated on the prospect of prosperity marked the start of the end for tule elk. The years of ensuing optimistic hysteria, and unprecedented growth were a time of uncertainly for the tule elk and the vast sea of grasslands they long inhabited. With the dramatic growth and insatiable appetite for land and game, the heavy hand of man quickly deteriorated the tule elk’s resiliency, setting the stage for a century of precipitous population declines, followed by years of conservation, habitat restoration and episodic reintroductions in an attempt to salvage a species nearly lost. After the years of neglect and shortsightedness that almost resulted in another human propagated extinction, tule elk are making a comeback. Yes, there is a happy ending here, but it’s prudent to contextualize this change of fortune, and consider the evolutionary, environmental and natural history that has shaped and molded the way we coexist with tule elk, North America’s smallest elk and rarest elk species.
When talking about an animal’s taxonomic classification, we can’t forget Carl Linnaeus. Surely, everyone remembers Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy, the man who crafted the foundation of biological naming and binomial nomenclature, right? Well, just as a refresher, based on the Linnaean model of classification, plants and animals are generally grouped into kingdom, phylum, classes, order, family, genus and species. This taxonomic classification system is intended to contextualize an organism’s relatedness relative to a near or distant relative. Tule elk are certainly in the Animalia kingdom, but more specifically are members of the family Cervidae and genus Cervus. The family Cervidae is comprised of a group of grazing animals that first appeared in Eurasia between the Miocene and beginning of the Pliocene period between 23 and 5.3 million years ago. While, the genus Cervu, describes deer that originated from the Asian continent roughly 10,000 years ago, who eventually outgrew their natal habitat, and subsequently traveled across Beringia, a land bridge that connected the North American and Asian continents, facilitating widespread Southern migrations to California and beyond (1). Over the course of time, evolution and adaptation eventually shaped and drove speciation, resulting in three distinct species of elk left to occupy present day California: nelsoni, roosevelti and nannodes (1).
The nelsoni, or Rocky Mountain elk, had a sub-population whose range extended West from the Mount Shasta region to the coastal ranges of Northern California and Southern Oregon. Two specimens, excavated in Shasta County and Siskiyou County and dated to the Pleistocene period, an epoch that occurred between 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago, support the apparent deviation of the nelsoni from their home range in the Rocky Mountains (1). These populations of elk that dominated the moist, redwood and fog laden coastal mountains of northern California came to form the roosevelti, or Roosevelt elk, while more southern elk populations well adapted to the dry Central Valley became known as the nannodes, or tule elk, whose statewide population is believed to have neared 500,000 individuals at one time (1).
But at the very moment when John Sutter first gazed upon those luminous, golden nuggets in the American River, the future of tule elk would change forever. By 1849 news of the Gold Rush was plastered across every newspaper from Taos to Louisville and St. Paul to Boston. Seemingly overnight San Francisco became a boomtown with a population that grew from roughly 1,000 residents to upwards of 25,000 residents by 1850. 49ers, as they were to be known, were heading west in search of fortune beyond their wildest dreams.
Yet, with many mouths to feed came a precipitous demand for sustenance, and fortunately for those marching westward, by 1849 California was still a wild, largely untapped resource as illustrated by an excerpt from a hunter’s journal, “the herds of grazing animals in the Central Valley rivaled those of bison of the great-plains or the antelope of South Africa” (3). It wasn’t long before these resources were discovered and exploited at an alarming rate. Hunting and trapping parties, such as those lead by the Hudson Bay Company, recorded detailed accounts of these hunts. The journal of John Work noted that a single hunting party took 568 elk, 165 deer, 25 bear and 98 antelope from California over a nine-month period (1). As if to compound the increasingly bleak fate for California’s wildlife during the years that followed the gold rush, new urban hubs were sprouting up like summer poppies; Stockton and Sacramento soon joined the ranks as thriving hubs in the midst of California’s gold fever, both of which required manpower and an abundance of natural resources to grow.
By 1855, just over three hundred years following Sir Francis Drake’s historic account of an endless sea of tule elk grazing the Point Reyes headlands, common knowledge suggested that tule elk had been hunted to the point of extinction (1). Who’s to say if regret described the sentiments of anyone involved in their slaughter and blind harvest, but we can be sure that in 1874 a California rancher named Henry Miller had foresight, which proved enough to save tule elk from extinction. On that fateful day, he discovered a small herd of fewer than 30 tule elk in an isolated thicket on his Bakersfield, California ranch. With help from state and local agencies a conservation and reestablishment effort ensued. Between 1904 and 1934 transplant efforts were made in an effort to reestablish elk populations in California. By the 1970’s, extended efforts began to produce progressive success as elk numbers in California rebounded to nearly eight hundred individuals. Due to sustained efforts tule elk had made a significant comeback by the 1990s, with the statewide population nearing three thousand individuals. Today, twenty-two elk populations exist in California. The Elk Creek herd is the furthest North, inhabiting coastal rangelands of Mendocino County, and southern most population is the La Panza herd, which grazes the coastal rangelands of Southern San Louis Obispo County. The largest of these herds, and the only population found within a National Park unit, is located in Pt. Reyes National Seashore. Today, after reintroduction in 1978, it is estimated that close to 600 tule elk roam freely in at least three distinct herds within the fruitful lands of Point Reyes National Seashore, the largest of which can be found in the Tomales Point Elk Preseve.
Evidently, tule elk are making a comeback thanks in large part to extensive management and reintroduction efforts. Time will tell whether these stoic grazers continue to flourish as environmental conditions change, and human development continues to encroach on remaining habitats. But for now, it is safe to say, tule elk, a symbol of wilderness and resilience, are alive and well in the Point Reyes National Seashore.
• McCullough, D. M. California University Publications in Zoology (University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1969), pp. 1-191.
• Maloney, A. M. Fur brigade to the Bonaventura; John Work’s California expedition, 1832-1833 (California Historical Society, San Francisco, California, 1945), pp. 112.
• Newberry, J.S. Report upon the mammals. Reports of explorations and surveys, to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. 1857, U.S. War Dept. Vol. 6, pt.4, No.2:35-72.