Show Respect and Pass Through Quietly


Mature bald eagle at Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge

Mature bald eagle perched on snag at Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge

“Quick, roll up the windows!” said Kathy. We had just entered the ten-mile auto tour route at Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, when four cars roared by us like we were standing still. Pulling to the side of the road, we waited for the dust cloud that enveloped us to subside.

“Where did all these inconsiderate people come from?” I said, in slightly less delicate terms.

My wife and I love seeing and photographing wildlife, but our primary reason for coming to wildlife refuges, like Lower Klamath  and Tule Lake, is for the serenity and enjoyment of experiencing nature. Competing for the next “photo op” was not what we had in mind.

I thought about a recent piece I had read in Ducks Unlimited magazine, entitled “Public Land Ethics.”  The article provided ten rules for hunters to follow when hunting on public lands. Having enforced fish and wildlife regulations for thirty years, I was well aware of these rules—none of which were subject to enforcement—all of which require respect.

So, where am I headed with this train of thought? Respect is required of everyone who passes through a state or federal wildlife area—that includes photographers, bird-watchers and sightseers, as well as hunters. Visitors should respect the lands, respect the wildlife, and respect other visitors by showing them common courtesy. If you’re kicking up dust, no matter how dry the conditions, you’re driving way too fast.

Mallard pair at Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge

Mallard pair at Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge

After watching the dust clouds finally disappear, we slowly proceeded toward a stand of mature cottonwood trees at the west end of the auto tour route; according to one of the volunteers at the refuge visitor center, about thirty bald eagles had been frequenting the grove. Arriving at a flooded wetland, we began photographing an assortment of common duck species: mallards, pintails, gadwalls, widgeons, and buffleheads, along with massive concentrations of snow geese and white-fronted geese.

“Look, there’s a mature bald eagle up ahead,” I said. “Let’s see if we can get close enough for a photograph.”

“I’ll get the camera ready,” Kathy replied.

Butte Valley Wildlife Area with Mount Shasta in background

Butte Valley Wildlife Area with Mount Shasta in background

The majestic, white-headed bird sat motionless on the tip of a partially submerged snag while I inched the car within range of our 300 millimeter lens—close enough for a reasonably good photograph, yet not so close as to disturb the eagle. Kathy had depressed the camera shutter once or twice, when a sedan came roaring up behind us—its headlights on and a thirty-foot dust cloud in its wake. Hitting the brakes, the driver swerved to the right and came to a stop ten feet from our rear bumper. “There goes the eagle,” said Kathy. Thoroughly disappointed, we watched as the magnificent raptor disappeared into the marsh. As a general rule, wildlife will tolerate just so much human interference before vacating an area. By exhibiting no respect for us or the eagle, the driver of that car had pretty much ruined our experience.

Before leaving the refuge, we came to the much-talked-about grove of giant cottonwoods. All of the eagles had left, with the exception of one nesting bird. Parked beneath the nest were four cars, all unoccupied—it seemed everyone was spread out along the road, setting up tripods and operating camera equipment. A mustard-yellow SUV—its doors left wide open and blocking the road—was the cherry on the sundae. We stopped and waited while the driver walked back from his tripod and closed his door so we could pass. I had read in the refuge brochure that “staying in your vehicle will increase your observation opportunities.” Apparently, these camera buffs hadn’t read the pamphlet.

Golden eagle at Butte Valley Wildlife Area

Golden eagle perched on power pole at Butte Valley Wildlife Area

Leaving the refuge, I suggested that we get a good night’s sleep in Klamath Falls, wake up early, and check out Butte Valley Wildlife Area the next morning. Located five miles west of Macdoel, California, Butte Valley Wildlife Area contains 13,392 acres of wetlands, grasslands, and farmlands managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

It was a brisk nineteen degrees early the next morning as we left Highway 97 and headed up Meiss Lake Road toward the wildlife area. We had driven a mile or so, when we noticed an immature bald eagle perched on a power line at the side of the road. “This is already better than yesterday,” I said.

Arriving at the wildlife area, we spotted a sign reading Auto Tour Road. Driving out through this vast array of grasslands, wetlands, and open space, Kathy and I couldn’t help noticing that we were quite alone. “This is more like it!” I said. “We have the entire wildlife area all to ourselves.” To the south was snow-covered Mount Shasta, in all its glory. To the east were unspoiled grasslands as far as the eye could see. To the north and west were birds of every shape, size, and color. We identified twelve bald eagles, two golden eagles, and three rough-legged hawks within the first half mile. Immense flocks of snow geese lifted from the wetlands and landed again. Smaller flocks of swans punctuated the landscape, intermixed with a dozen species of ducks. As if that were not enough, sandhill cranes entertained us with their courtship ritual—jumping in the air, bobbing their heads, and flapping their wings—much to our delight.

Sandhill cranes in mating ritual at Butte Valley Wildlife Area

Sandhill cranes in mating ritual at Butte Valley Wildlife Area

Butte Valley Wildlife Area provided one of the most enjoyable wildlife adventures Kathy and I had ever experienced. I encourage others to share and enjoy this special place, with one very important condition: please show respect for the land, the wildlife, and other visitors. Above all, pass through quietly.

All photos by Steven and Kathy Callan

This piece originally appeared in my March 5, 2015 “On Patrol” column in It has been modified for posting on this blog.

Presentation at Wintu Audubon Society

Author Steven T. Callan signing books for Wintu Audubon Society members

Signing books for Wintu Audubon Society members. Photo by Kathy Callan.

Last night I had the pleasure and privilege of giving a presentation to a packed house of Wintu Audubon Society members. In addition to discussing my current book and the upcoming sequel, The Game Warden’s Son—A Half Century of Protecting California’s Wildlife, we shared ideas about how our natural resources might be better protected. One of the suggestions for helping to finance more wardens in the field was a voluntary wildlife stamp for people who bird watch, hike, and enjoy nature’s wonders but don’t necessarily hunt or fish. This is an excellent idea, in my opinion, and one that would find favor, I believe, with sportsmen, nature enthusiasts, and game wardens alike.

Thank you, Wintu Audubon, for the warm welcome and stimulating discussion!


For the Love of Ducks

Waterfowl at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

Waterfowl taking flight at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). Photo by author.

With the north wind blowing off snow-covered Mount Shasta, it was brutally cold that December afternoon in 1960. Sitting in the back seat of our family car, I spotted an enormous flock of snow-white birds feeding in the grain field on the west side of the highway.

“Are those geese?” I asked.

“Snows,” said my father. “I see some specks and a few ducks out there with em’. You guys are gonna see a lot of those birds where we’re going.”

Snow geese at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

Snow geese at Sacramento NWR. Photo by author.

Just then the entire flock exploded into the air, flew directly over our heads, and began circling another field on the opposite side of the highway. My father rolled down his window so my two younger brothers and I could hear the deafening roar of these migratory wonders, all crying out at the same time. It was the sweetest music I had ever heard.

I was twelve years old on that eventful day, traveling up Highway 99W to our new home in Orland, California. Awe-inspired and completely captivated by the incredible beauty of those splendid birds, my passion for waterfowl would last for the rest of my life.

Like many of the boys growing up at the north end of California’s Great Central Valley, I loved to duck hunt and seized every opportunity to bring home a couple of plump, rice-fed mallards for the dinner table. Fifty years later, I still get just as excited when I see wild ducks and geese, but I’ve put away my shotgun and replaced it with a camera and paintbrush.

Don’t get me wrong—I remain a strong advocate for sport hunting, as long as it’s done legally, in accordance with state and federal regulations. As I stated in my first book, Badges, Bears, and Eagles, law-abiding sportsmen contribute hundreds of millions of dollars, every year, toward the purchase of wildlands and the improvement of wildlife habitat. These funds support nongame birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, and beneficial insects, as well as game species like ducks and geese.

Greater white-fronted geese at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

Greater white-fronted geese at Sacramento NWR. Photo by author.

Possibly the best place in California to see spectacular concentrations of ducks and geese is the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex, made up of five national wildlife refuges (NWRs) and three wildlife management areas (WMAs). Our favorite is the Sacramento NWR, located about nine miles south of Willows, off old Highway 99W.

Kathy and I made one of our annual treks down to the refuge a few weeks ago. It was a perfect day for taking photographs: One of our recent storms was breaking up, leaving behind a dazzling blue sky filled with billowing thunderheads. [Read more…]

Splashing Salmon and Giant Sycamores

Spawning male Chinook salmon

Spawning male Chinook salmon. Photo by author.

I’m sometimes asked if I had any favorite places to work during my twenty-one years supervising the warden force in western Shasta County. Lower Battle Creek immediately comes to mind—especially the tree-lined section from the mouth, where Battle Creek flows into the Sacramento River, to the barrier weir at Coleman National Fish Hatchery.

Lower Battle Creek from riparian trail, Battle Creek Wildlife Area

Lower Battle Creek from riparian trail. Photo by author.

Every fall, from mid-September to early November, this three-mile stretch of Battle Creek would come alive with fall-run Chinook salmon. Right behind the salmon were the poachers—some by day and some by night—with fist-sized snag hooks, dip nets, spears, and pitchforks. Many’s the autumn we had to practically stand guard on this extraordinary stream and its anadromous visitors.

Immature bald eagle on riparian trail, Battle Creek Wildlife Area

Immature bald eagle on riparian trail. Photo by author.

For me, the days of chasing salmon poachers are over, but Kathy and I still enjoy watching these marvelous fish make their incredible journey upstream to spawn. Possibly the best place in Northern California to experience this wonder of nature, and a whole lot more, is Battle Creek Wildlife Area.

Wetland at east end of riparian trail, Battle Creek Wildlife Area

Wetland at east end of riparian trail. Photo by author.

On any given day, we can hike the riparian trail, with its giant native sycamores, majestic valley oaks, bald eagles, red-shouldered hawks, great horned owls, and legions of soaring turkey vultures. Every break in the vegetation offers a window to Battle Creek itself—its reflective surface decorated with brilliant fall colors, its gravel bottom excavated with salmon redds and laden with fish eggs, its waters alive with the sights and sounds of salmon splashing their way upstream. [Read more…]

Tall Trees and Emerald Waters

One of the largest trees on Earth: Old-growth redwood in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, California

One of the largest trees on Earth: Old-growth redwood in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, California. Photo by author.

Kathy and I recently attended the Outdoor Writers Association of California (OWAC) fall conference on the aptly-named Wild Rivers Coast. Stretching from Port Orford, Oregon to Klamath, California, the Wild Rivers Coast is 101 miles of incredibly beautiful coastline. Eight of America’s most renowned salmon and steelhead streams course through this magical land  of tall trees and spectacular seascapes: the Sixes, Elk, Rogue, Pistol, Chetco, Winchuck, Smith, and Klamath Rivers. For an outdoor enthusiast who loves to write, paint, fish, kayak, bird watch, and walk on the beach, this may have been as close to nirvana as I will ever come.

Kayaking on the Smith River, California

Kathy kayaking on the Smith River. Photo by author.

We began our two-day conference at the Howonquet Lodge  in Smith River. The first day we enjoyed presentations from two of California’s foremost outdoor writers: Chris Collard, editor of the Overland Journal, and Tom Wilmer, award-winning host of NPR’s Journeys of Discovery. Later that afternoon, Redwood National and State Parks Superintendent Stephen Prokop provided a fascinating overview of the four California parks that occupy the Wild Rivers Coast: Redwood National Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. That evening, OWAC’s prestigious Californian of the Year award was presented to Michael Muir, great-grandson of esteemed conservationist John Muir, for his life’s work of providing open space access to people with physical handicaps and limited mobility.

At Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, beside one of the largest (redwood) trees on Earth

Kathy at Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, beside one of the largest (redwood) trees on Earth. Photo by author.

On the second day of the conference, Kathy and I, along with four other OWAC members, were treated to an up-close-and-personal trek through Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. We were led by Adam Spencer, of Redwood Rides, and his partner, Alex Kwan.

The first leg of our adventure was a bike ride amongst the world’s largest trees. No exaggeration—some of the old-growth giants we had the awe-inspiring experience of standing beneath are the largest individual trees on Earth. Equally impressive is the endless list of plant and animal species that call this wonderland home, among them the majestic Roosevelt elk. [Read more…]

Above the Canopy

Great egret feeding on small fish and snails in kelp beds off Lovers Point, Pacific Grove, California

Great egret feeding on small fish and snails in kelp beds off Lovers Point, Pacific Grove, California. Photo by author.

Having had the pleasure and privilege of diving in California’s kelp forests from San Diego to Monterey, I would describe it as a surreal, almost religious experience—witnessing underwater cathedrals rising a hundred feet from the ocean floor to the surface canopy—bathed in dappled sunlight and teeming with life of every shape and color. Giant kelp provides food and shelter for literally thousands of mammal, bird, fish, and invertebrate species. Until recently, I hadn’t realized that it also provides an abundance of wildlife habitat above the canopy.

Kathy and I spent a day in late August kayaking off the coast of Pacific Grove, a sleepy little coastal town in Monterey County, California. With a high pressure weather system in place, the ocean was unusually calm and the water was crystal clear. There had been recent reports of humpback whales venturing close to shore and surfacing near kayakers, so I prepared our camera for any opportunity that might come our way.

“This would have been a great day for diving,” I said, paddling outside the cove and into the open ocean. Looking back, I noticed a harbor seal following closely behind Kathy’s kayak.

“Who’s your friend?” I asked.

“He’s been popping up beside me ever since we left shore,” said Kathy. “These little guys seem to be very curious.”

Elegant terns feeding young in kelp beds off Lovers Cove, Pacific Grove, California

Elegant terns feeding young in kelp beds off Lovers Cove, Pacific Grove, California. Photo by author.

Heading southwest, we entered a kelp bed the size of a small town and extending a half mile out to sea. Birds were everywhere—not just cormorants, gulls, and pelicans, as you might expect—but egrets, herons, terns, and shorebirds. I photographed a great egret that was using the floating kelp canopy as a platform for spearing snails and small fish.

“We called this seaweed when I was a kid,” I said, maneuvering up and over a series of gentle groundswells.

“I think most people still do,” said Kathy.

“When I think of weeds, I think of dandelions and Bermuda grass,” I said. “Something as important to the ocean ecosystem as giant kelp shouldn’t be called a ‘weed.’” [Read more…]

A Hot Summer’s Day on Chico Creek

Chico Creek I’ve been exploring Northern California’s streams−above and below the surface−for most of my life. One of my most memorable adventures took place on a hot summer’s day in 1964, not long after my sixteenth birthday. My fishing buddy, Paul Martens, had heard that some trophy browns could be caught in upper Chico Creek. The only way into this treacherously steep canyon was an overgrown Caterpillar track that hadn’t been traveled or maintained in years. Throwing caution to the wind, I shoved my 1947 Chevy pickup into first gear, gingerly stepped on the gas, and inched down the steep embankment.

“I just bought a new Mitchell 300,” said Paul. “I can’t wait to try it out.”

“If this road gets any narrower you might not get your chance,” I replied.

Moving at a snail’s pace, it took us almost an hour to reach the end of the path.

“OK, where’s the trail?” I asked, climbing from the truck.

“It’s supposed to be here somewhere,” said Paul.

“It’s only nine o’clock and already hot,” I complained. “The temperature’s supposed to hit a hundred today.”

Teased by the sound of the rushing water below, Paul and I peered over the canyon’s edge. All we saw was a seemingly impenetrable wall of scrub oak, manzanita, gray pine, and poison oak. Determined to reach the stream, we searched the canyon wall for a way down. Paul discovered what might have been some kind of human foot path a short distance from the truck. I thought it was nothing more than a deer trail, but it would have to do, so we gathered our gear and began the day’s adventure.

Both of us carried cloth fishing creels and two-piece spinning rods with reels attached. “Watch for snakes,” I cautioned, as we carefully squeezed between patches of poison oak. About fifty yards down, the trail disappeared and the canyon became even steeper. Sweat poured from our foreheads and into our eyes. The fear of stepping on a rattlesnake paled in comparison to the anticipated joy of reaching the stream and flopping into the refreshingly cool water. Chico Creek Expletives rolled off our tongues as we crashed our way downward, pushing brush and sharp branches aside. “It’s too late to turn back, Paul. Keep going, we’re almost there!” I finally reached a clearing, a hundred feet above the stream. It was then that I heard Paul cry out, “Sheiiiit!” I looked up just in time to see my two-hundred-twenty-pound, bespectacled fishing buddy burst into view. He was still on his feet but sliding on the soles of his Converse All Stars, fishing rod and brand-new Mitchell reel firmly clutched in his right hand. Suddenly, his feet flew out from under him, and he fell backward onto the hard, red clay. The impact loosened Paul’s grip on the fishing rod and away it went, bouncing down the canyon, over the rimrock ledge, and into the stream below. [Read more…]

My Interview on NPR’s “Journeys of Discovery”

Author Steven T. Callan with Warden Ryan Hanson in front of the Fish and Wildlife Patrol Boat Bluefin

The author with Warden Ryan Hanson in front of the Fish and Wildlife Patrol Boat Bluefin. Photo by Thomas C. Wilmer

What an honor it was to be interviewed in Morro Bay by Tom Wilmer, the illustrious host of National Public Radio’s hit program, “Journeys of Discovery.” The show will be broadcast this Wednesday, July 9, at 1:00 or 1:15 PM, throughout Central California, on NPR affiliates KCBX, KSBX, and KNBX. It will also air worldwide at the same time on

If you click on this link, you can access the interview, and find out about my serendipitous meeting with one of California’s up-and-coming stars, Warden Ryan Hanson.

Hope you enjoy it!


Those Amazing Elephant Seals

Steven T. Callan at the helm of the Fish and Game Patrol Boat Marlin

Author at the helm of the Fish and Game Patrol Boat Marlin, 1959. Photo by Wallace Callan

My first opportunity to see a northern elephant seal was in October of 1959, as an excited eleven-year-old passenger aboard the Fish and Game Patrol Boat Marlin. My father, California Fish and Game Warden Wally Callan, was the Marlin’s rookie boarding officer, responsible for patrolling California’s offshore waters from the Mexican border to Point Conception. The previous summer, he had returned from a patrol to San Nicolas and Santa Barbara Islands with tales of the massive elephant seals he had seen hauled up on some of the isolated beaches. I hoped to see those amazing creatures for myself on what was to be the ocean adventure of a lifetime.

I write about that 1959 trip to the Channel Islands in my upcoming sequel to Badges, Bears, and Eagles. Below is a brief excerpt:

Late that afternoon, we pulled up anchor and began a slow patrol around the north side of Santa Barbara Island, keeping a close eye out for any sign of a lobster boat.  Just beyond Shag Rock, Paul Barrens spotted a red-colored float.

“That’s attached to one of Dykstra’s traps,” said Barrens. “It’s probably the one our informant saw from the bluff.”

“I see another float,” shouted Captain Plett from the helm, scanning the coastline ahead. “It’s near the cove where the elephant seals hang out.”

“Elephant seals?” I blurted.

“Don’t get excited,” said my father. “They’re all out at sea this time of year. You’ll get your chance to see them next summer.”

As it turned out, my father transferred to Northern California in 1960, and I never did get the chance to see the elephant seals−until last week, that is. Kathy and I were on a road trip down California’s Central Coast, headed for a scheduled radio interview in Morro Bay. Approaching San Simeon, we noticed a hundred or more cars parked along the highway at a rocky stretch of coastline called Piedras Blancas. We pulled in to see what the commotion was all about. [Read more…]

America Needs Parks Now More Than Ever

Yosemite Falls in Yosemite National Park

Recently, my wife Kathy and I arrived in Sonora for our first Outdoor Writers Association of California (OWAC) conference. We were a little apprehensive, being new kids on the block, but by the end of the first day, we felt a kinship with everyone in the room. And what a room it was−filled with authors, columnists, radio hosts, photographers, newspaper reporters, adventure guides, and media experts from all over the Golden State. The common thread that wove this gracious group of professionals together was a reverence for California’s vast natural resources and a desire to tell the world about them.

The second day of the conference was Adventure Day. Conference organizers and the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau had arranged a variety of guided outdoor activities from which attendees could choose. Kathy and I jumped at the opportunity to visit world-renowned Yosemite Valley for the first time, along with six of our cohorts. Our guides for the day were John DeGrazio and Al Golub of YExplore Yosemite Adventures. John regaled us with fascinating stories of Native American tribes that had lived in Yosemite Valley for generations, only to be displaced and run out by settlers who mined the streams, overgrazed the meadows, and logged much of the surrounding forests. Al described the great fires that had ravaged sections of the park during recent years. I was thankful that men like John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt had recognized the fragile nature of this sacred place and had wisely taken action to save it.

Half Dome in Yosemite National Park

As the day progressed, we continued to learn about Yosemite’s colorful history while oohing and aahing at one spectacular scene after another: Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, Half Dome, and the golden waters of the Merced, flowing through Yosemite’s grass-covered meadows.

Merced River in Yosemite National Park

While admiring the breathtaking beauty of Yosemite Valley, I couldn’t help thinking about recent efforts in Congress to gut the 1906 Antiquities Act. This landmark legislation, signed into law by Teddy Roosevelt, allows presidents to create national monuments, thereby saving special places from harmful exploitation until such time as they can become state or national parks. What Americans may not realize is forty-nine of the national monuments created by past presidents have later become national parks. Two that immediately come to mind are Grand Canyon National Park and Lassen Volcanic National Park. The Grand Canyon is considered by many as the number one natural wonder of the world, ahead of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Lassen National Park just happens to be forty-five minutes from my doorstep. Both parks owe their very existence to the foresight of President Theodore Roosevelt. [Read more…]