Monday, September 21, 2020

Photo Essay: A Preserve of Wetlands and Willows In the South Bay's 'Garden Spot' City

The Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve in the South Bay city of Gardena, California is only open on the second Sunday and fourth Saturday of the month—and after months of pandemic closure, it's now reopened by advance reservation only.
It's easy to miss, with the Meadowlark Manor senior housing tucked into its corner, and its entrance tucked onto the corner of the city's Johnson Park. 

Upon entering the preserve, you take the North Loop trail going clockwise, starting to your left...

...past laurel sumac and an observation deck enshrouded in overgrowth...

...and you quickly forget you're anywhere near the 91/110 freeway interchange (or the LA metro area for that matter). 

Gardena may have gotten its name for being a "garden spot" (a factoid somewhat under dispute), but most of the city looks nothing like the land that the Tongva people lived off of—and that drew Spanish and Mexican rancho owners like the the Dominguez and Rosecrans families in the 19th century. 

But what's now hidden—though visible within "The Willows"—is marshland that's part of the 110-square-mile Dominguez Watershed. It was once fed by a "river" that got concretized into a flood control canal now known as the Dominguez Channel. 

Fortunately, this last remaining bit of the Laguna Dominguez Slough (or "swamp") is teeming with life—and not just monarch butterflies. 
On a hot and steamy August morning, there was plenty of greenery to behold—plus not-yet-dormant buckwheat and still-thriving wildflowers. 

It's amazing that a region that struggles with drought would spend so much time cutting off its water sources. 

The Willows nearly got filled in during the mid-1970s, when the City of Gardena floated such ideas as building a convention center there. 

Today, its 9.4 acres of wetland includes a riparian forest of water-loving trees (including multiple species of willows), shrubs, and other vegetation that form tree tunnels and a shady canopy for local critters and visitors alike. 

And besides the flower blossoms, oak acorns, willow seeds, and unfallen leaves, there are also unexpected outcroppings of fruit... the native and ripened lemonade berry, whose flavor lives up to its name. 

During normal times, you'd be able to learn about all these botanical wonders and more at Mother Nature's Backyard, a nature center located on part of The Willows' 4 acres of upland terrain. 
But with it closed for COVID-19, you've got to just keep going to complete the loop...

...crossing the Zigzag bridge (which hopefully keeps evil spirits away like it's supposed to)...

...and finishing up the South Loop Trail at the Stream Bridge. 

On my way into the Willows preserve, I was rushing too much to notice the wall of hybrid grapevines, known as "Roger’s Red" grape (Vitis californica "Roger's Red"), along the entrance path. But fortunately, my exit was much more leisurely—so I got a good look at the wild purple grapes and the green leaves that hadn't yet turned their fall red color. I hear that the red foliage is spectacular once it turns. 

Google Satellite View

As I was leaving, I couldn't quite believe where I'd just been—though while inside the preserve, I did catch glimpses of the traffic running up and down Vermont Avenue. But watching that urban scene through the fence was like peeking into some other world that I'd managed to escape—and somehow no longer seemed real. 

We've paved over so much. It's easy to forget what's underneath—like the the underlying riverbeds channelized by concrete. 

Even our green spaces are industrialized—built environments consisting of parking lots, playground equipment, artificial turf, manmade ponds, and other facilities. 

I'll take a little corner of wild land over a planned park any day. 

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Saturday, September 19, 2020

Välkommen to Highway 99's Turn-of-the-Last Century Swedish Village, Kingsburg

I've been to IKEA maybe three times in my life, and I just don't get Americans' fascination with this Swedish brand. It's got to be more than the hot meatballs they serve in the marketplace. 

And it can't be that we have so many Americans of Swedish descent. Although the Swedes did arrive to the New World in waves—from the mid-1600s (the New Sweden Company trade expedition) to the late 1880s—they mostly stuck to certain Scandinavian communities where they could farm, as they had back home. 

That explains the Swedish colonies of the Midwest, surrounding the Great Lakes—with "Little Sweden" towns still located in Minnesota and even Illinois. At the turn of the last century, Chicago was the second-largest Swedish city in the world

Immigrant Swedish farmers also found their way to the agricultural riches of California's San Joaquin Valley—a.k.a. the "Central Valley," specifically to the town of Kingsburg, just south of Fresno along historic Highway 99. 

In its heyday, having been officially designation in 1926, Highway 99—the "Golden State Highway" before it was replaced by the 5 Freeway between LA and Bakersfield—had earned the nickname "The Main Street of California." 

And driving through Kingsburg, it's clear why. 

It was officially established as a town in 1908, after a group of Swedish immigrants settled in what used to be called "Kings River Switch" along the Central Pacific Railroad's Valley Line in the 1870s. 

But it wasn't until 1921 that Kingsburg really earned its "Little Sweden" nickname—when 94% of the population within a 3-mile radius was classified as Swedish-American. 

Nearly 100 years later, its Scandinavian population may have dwindled...

...but signs off the 99 and throughout town still greet visitors and passers-by with a "Välkommen."

Depictions of dala horses (a.k.a. Dalecarlian horses, or wooden horses originating from the Swedish province of Dalarna/Dalecarlia) dot the town...

...on flagpoles and lampposts, sides of buildings...

...and inside and outside the Swedish Village's butiks. 

Kingsburg keeps the Swedish theme alive not only through its architecture—but also its events, with the annual Swedish Festival having occupied the third weekend in May since it launched in 1924 as an early celebration of the midsummer/midsommar harvest. What began as a simple luncheon has evolved into a tourist draw that features, of course, a smorgasborg as well as the raising of the maypole and traditional Nordic dance.

There's also the Julgransfest annual lighting of the Kingsburg Christmas tree (julgrans) and Santa Lucia Day—December 13, the feast of the 4th-century Christian martyr Sankta Lucia, considered the kickoff for "Christmastide" (the 12 days before Christmas).  

But on a day-to-day basis, roadtrippers exit the 99 at Kingsburg to do a little shopping and a little gawking—like at the town's circa 1911 water tower, which has been a coffee pot since it was remodeled in 1985. Standing 122 feet off the ground, it pays tribute to Sweden's obsession with coffee, which rivals most countries in the world in terms of per capita consumption. For Swedes, having a coffee—a ritual known as fika—is a way of life!

The coffee pot water tower is conveniently located near the decommissioned Kingsburg City Jail, built 1925 and now leased to Kingsburg Historical Society as a historical exhibit. 

The poured, reinforced concrete box replaced a circa 1874 wooden jail—and shockingly was in active service until the early 1970s! After that, it temporarily became storage for police evidence. 

It's also located adjacent to the Kingsburg Historical Society's Walk of Fame, which honors some of the town's fallen heroes—like Constable George Boyle, who succumbed to gunshot wounds while pursuing escaped prisoners, and Deputy Night Watchman Fred French, who was shot in the head by a drunk and disorderly patron of the pool hall who'd been released and sent home. 

There's a mini coffee pot, too—planted on top of the sign for the Kingsburg Historical Park, which features vintage farm equipment, artifacts from Del Monte peach cannery (which closed in 2012), and the relocated Clay School Building (built 1913, arrived 1975 as the park's first building), the Olson/Ball House (built by carpenter Peter Olson in 1908, arrived 1981), and Riverbend Church (built 1911, relocated 2016). 

There is, however, one aspect of Swedish history that's earned a prominent place in Kingsburg as well—and that's thew Vikings. 

Not only does a Viking serve as the mascot for the local schools, but the town's central playground has taken the form of a Viking longship—in the gold and blue colors of the Swedish flag. 

And like the dragonships or drakeskips of the Viking era (say, the 8th through 13th centuries), this playground version features a dragon (or drakkar/drakar) head mounted on the ship's bow to protect her and her crew at sea. 

For all the Swedish immersion of Kingsburg, the town does acknowledge its home-away-from-home with its Three Crowns Fountain. In Memorial Park, a trio of metal crowns (tre kronor) represent the national emblem of Sweden (and the country's coat of arms) as they hover above a U.S.-shaped pool. 

Although I'd heard of and even visited California's Danish-themed town of Solvang, I might never have stumbled across Kingsburg had I not mentioned to some friends that I was heading up north to Fresno for Labor Day weekend. 

It's amazing when people can introduce me to something as entirely new—and captivating—as Kingsburg, after wandering through the lower half of California for over a decade now. 

And honestly, getting even a little bit of Sweden in the desert is just a magical thing. 

P.S. But it's nothing like IKEA. 

Friday, September 18, 2020

Another Month of the Pandemic, A New Swimming Pool to Try

We just passed the six-month-mark of the coronavirus pandemic this week. It's starting to feel like it's never going to end. 

Sometimes it feels like I'm drowning in anxiety. 

And the only thing that helps me come up for air is getting in the water. Even when it stresses me out

It's still better than life on dry land. 

The City of LA's aquatics facilities haven't reopened yet. The West Hollywood Pool has been demolished. And reservations for the Culver City and Santa Monica public pools have become increasingly hard to come by—especially when residents have first dibs.

So, I've returned to my routine from when I first moved to LA—which is to try any pool I can get into that's new to me, no matter where it is. 

Today, my swimming took me to the South Bay municipality of Torrance, California. 

Instead of driving 20 minutes to swim for 40, today I had to drive an hour to get to my time slot. 

It was slightly quicker getting back home—but I still questioned my sanity. 

After a week of swim session cancelations because of poor air quality—with smoke from the wildfires that are raging up and down the Pacific West and Northwest blanketing us in a milky-white haze and an orange glow—I was willing to drive pretty much anywhere, as long as I could find a pool that would take me. 

The Torrance Plunge is named after former Torrance City Councilman Victor E. Benstead, who served from 1952 to 1964. It was his idea to build the Plunge. It was even part of his campaign platform—the one that helped him get elected to city council. 

After he fulfilled his campaign promise, his fellow council members surprised him with the renaming. And the name has stuck since it was originally dedicated in 1956. 

Despite the pandemic, the Torrance Plunge offers the chance to swim laps in half the length of its Olympic size—and, as with the other pools during the pandemic, in a lane all to yourself. 

The west wall of the plunge—at the deep end—features a mural by artist Emily Bradley, which was unveiled late last year. 

But I didn't notice much of anything beyond the first blue sky I'd seen in two weeks. 

That, and the blue and white backstroke pennant flags above me, flapping in the ocean breeze. I stared at them as I counted to 25 and reached out my hand to brace myself against the wall behind me. 

So, where to next?

I'm open to suggestions. 

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Sunday, September 13, 2020

In the Line of Fire at Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad, Sierra National Forest

I had a three-day weekend for Labor Day, and I was puzzled as to how to spend it. I've been kind of maxing out my opportunities to explore the LA area from a safe distance; and I've been dying for a farther-flung adventure.

Especially because I've seen and heard about some friends traveling. And I'm just fine if we're all in the same lockdown boat. But I'm not fine if I'm missing out on stuff that others are experiencing.

Fortunately, I tend to thrive under restriction. Give me very few choices, and I'll make the absolute most out of them.

So, after deciding to cross Forestiere Underground Gardens in Fresno, California off my list, I honed in on the other bucket list item that was 1) in the same general direction and 2) open despite the coronavirus pandemic.

Less than an hour northeast of Fresno, I could ride the Sugar Pine Railroad! And, in fact, my timing was impeccable—because on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, I could ride its narrow-gauge heritage rails twice, with the addition of the "Moonlight Special" evening train.

Located in Sierra National Forest near the town of Fish Camp, about 10 miles south of the Highway 41 entrance to Yosemite National Park, the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad has been running scenic passenger trains through federal land since 1965. It's still run by the same family that founded it.

It has restored and preserved the track and grade used from 1908 to 1924 in the logging operations of the former Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Company, which operated in the area from 1899 to 1931.

But now, instead of hauling logs...

...the railway hauls tourists sitting on benches carved out of logs.

The main rolling stock for the current railroad—known as "The Logger"—also features covered but open-air carriages, offering both comfort and safety. That's where I boarded my first train ride of the day.

When I'd arrived in the area, I could see that there was smoke in the sky and an alien orange glow cast upon pretty much everything—but because I'd been driving since 9 a.m., I hadn't heard about the local wildfire that was causing it. I had no idea how close it was getting, either.

But as we rolled past some of the salvaged equipment and train cars relocated to California from the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad in Colorado... the No. 5, a two-axle diesel switch engine built in 1935... wasn't far into our 4-mile journey that I realized something was very wrong, very close by.

I tried to focus on the magic of the oil-burning, steam-puffing locomotive as it chugged along the rails—but I did notice that I couldn't smell any sugar pines through my mask and bandana.

The only smell that got through my face covering was that of a campfire.

Plus, the sky was getting more foreboding as we got deeper into the national forest—though, at the halfway point of the loop, still only about 2 miles in.

There was plenty of orange/amber sky to see out there, given the lack of "old growth" trees that would otherwise form a canopy above. That's because by the time the Madera Sugar Pine Lumber Company shut down operations, it had cleared about 30,000 acres of trees. And because the company never replanted any, what's growing along the rail route now is completely natural, "new" growth.

It's kind of amazing that wildfires haven't impeded this self-reforestation process—although the 2017 Railroad Fire, which started across the highway from the YMSPRR station, did char some of its historic equipment.

Fast-forward a couple of hours to my second scenic ride of the day—the "Moonlight Special"—and that's when I chose to sit in a log right behind the No. 10 "Shay," completed in 1928. Lima Locomotive Works of Lima, Ohio constructed it for the Pickering Lumber Company, which used it for the West Side Lumber Company's operations in Tuolumne, California.

It didn't much matter to me if the locomotive drowned out the sound of our guide's voice coming through the speaker. I'd already heard the narration once that day. I just took all the sights in once again, for as long and as much as the remaining light would allow.

By the time we made our final 2-mile passage through Sierra National Forest at the end of the night, it was so pitch black out that I could see nothing ahead but trails of white steam and the flames from the firebox.

There was no moon to admire, no stars or constellations or planets or Milky Way. Smoke from the nearby Creek Fire—which was getting closer and closer as we progressed through the forest by rail—had formed a thick canopy above, blocking our view of any night sky and insulating us with the 100+ degree heat from earlier in the day.

On my drive back down the 41 to the gateway town of Oakhurst, where I'd planned to spend the night, I couldn't keep the red glow of the Creek Fire from invading my peripheral vision. Though I could see no actual flames, there was an unmistakable inferno blazing just down the way—how far or how fast, I wasn't sure.

Back at my hotel, and back with a cell phone signal, I discovered that what had begun as a small wildfire the night before had exploded into over 30,000 acres that afternoon. And nearby evacuations were underway.

I fortunately wasn't staying in backcountry, so I'd presumably have plenty of notice if I had to high-tail it out of there. I was prepared for a knock on the door or a phone call in the middle of the night to tell me to get out—though fortunately, those orders didn't come during my stay.

I woke up at 8:30 a.m. without an alarm, disoriented as to the time and place I was in—because it was a dark orange-gray outside, with every car using its headlights and every street light still on. I couldn't find the sun in the sky. And after getting myself ready to leave in 30 minutes flat, I found my car covered in fallen ash—ash that was continuing to fall, but now on top of my head.

The next day—that Sunday, the day before Labor Day—the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad closed for the safety of its staff and visitors, with the Creek Fire still expanding and advancing.

And as of today, the following Sunday, it hasn't yet reopened. The Creek Fire has grown to more than 200,000 acres and is still burning, although evacuation orders have been lifted for Oakhurst and relaxed to a warning for Fish Camp.

So, it looks like the YMSPRR will dodge another bullet this time around when it comes to fire season. But I sure am glad I got there just under the wire for this trip. And I hope they continue to ride the rails in Sierra National Forest for decades to come.

View this quick video from YMSPRR for a good sense of what the train is like: 

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