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.

Battle Creek Wildlife Area from upper trail, southeast of County Line Bridge

Battle Creek Wildlife Area from upper trail, southeast of County Line Bridge. Photo by author.

At the eastern end of the trail leading to the hatchery, we enjoy the wetlands, frequented by mallards, wood ducks, buffleheads, marsh wrens, bitterns, herons, and egrets. For a breathtaking bird’s-eye view of Battle Creek and the entire wildlife area, we hike the rolling hillsides on the southeast side of County Line Bridge.

Upper trail, southeast of County Line Bridge, Battle Creek Wildlife Area

Upper trail, southeast of County Line Bridge. Photo by author.

Just across Jellys Ferry Road, near the old metal barn, is another fascinating trail, leading through acres of restored native vegetation. This is an ideal location for viewing a plethora of songbird species, as well as deer, fox, and bobcat. At the end of this trail we pass the remnants of an old walnut orchard and drop into a dense forest of willows, blackberry vines, and giant sycamores. Once again, we’re captivated by the familiar sounds of splashing fish. If we approach quietly, we might spot a bald eagle, a flock of turkey vultures, or even a family of river otters, feeding on the spawned-out salmon carcasses.

Native sycamore on southwest trail, Battle Creek Wildlife Area

Native sycamore on southwest trail. Photo by author.

Those of us living in Shasta and Tehama Counties are fortunate to have special places like the Battle Creek Wildlife Area right at our doorstep. We can show our appreciation by passing through quietly, leaving the lands, waters, plants, fish, and wildlife just as we found them.

Pair of spawning Chinook salmon, Battle Creek Wildlife Area

Pair of spawning Chinook salmon. Photo by author.

I’m excited to include a chapter about my adventures with salmon poachers on lower Battle Creek in my new book, The Game Warden’s Son—Over a Half-Century of Protecting California’s Wildlife. This sequel to Badges, Bears, and Eagles will be released by Coffeetown Press in 2015.

 This piece originally appeared in my November 16, 2014 “On Patrol” column at MyOutdoorBuddy.com. It has been modified for posting on this blog.

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 KCBX.org.

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…]

“Best Outdoor Magazine Column” Award

Steven T. Callan receiving OWAC award

What a thrill to receive the “Best Outdoor Magazine Column” award from the Outdoor Writers Association of California (OWAC). Presented at the OWAC Spring Conference, the award was for one of my regular “On Patrol” columns, “A Whale of a Tale,” featured in MyOutdoorBuddy.com.

Here’s what the judges had to say:

“The author pulls you in and takes you with him on great adventures. He’s not just reporting, but offers great entertainment while raising awareness of timely issues. Of all of the entries, his columns end with you wanting more.”

OWAC Award MedallionThank you to the Outdoor Writers Association of California for this honor; to Frank Galusha, editor of MyOutdoorBuddy.com; and to Cyndi Marlowe, who contributed one of her fabulous photos for the piece.

Photo shows OWAC President Bob Semerau presenting OWAC “Best Outdoor Magazine Column” award to Steven T. Callan. Photo by Kathy Callan.

Saving Yelloweyes

Yelloweye Rockfish

Yelloweye rockfish (Sebastes ruberrimus). Photo by Retired Fish and Game Warden Larry Bruckenstein.

Imagine you’re fishing somewhere off the California coast and you hook into a big one. You finally hoist the monster to the deck and discover it’s nearly three feet long, brilliant red-orange in color, with bright yellow eyes the size of fifty cent pieces. Hard to imagine this fish could have been swimming around in the ocean when Roosevelt was president−not Franklin (1933-1945), but Teddy (1901-1909)! Yelloweye rockfish (Sebastes ruberrimus) are known to live up to 118 years. Very slow growing, they don’t reach sexual maturity until they’re between ten and twenty years old.

Yelloweye rockfish are one of over fifty species of the genus Sebastes living off the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington. Rockfish species generally share these characteristics: They dwell on or near the ocean bottom; they’re long lived; they’re slow growing and take a long time to reach sexual maturity; they’re beautifully colored; and they’re quite delicious.

Baby boomers like me remember when everyone ate meat−nothing like a big, juicy steak or hamburger on the barbeque grill to stimulate the appetite. Sometime in the late seventies or early eighties, our diets evolved to include fish, touted as a healthier alternative to red meat.

With modern harvest and transportation methods, big-time commercial operators weren’t just supplying Americans markets; they were also shipping fresh fish to faraway countries like Japan, where it was sold at premium prices. The race was on to exploit the vast marine resources lying off our Pacific Coast and reap the benefits. Just about everything caught could be marketed and sold to someone. If it wasn’t eaten by humans, it could be made into cat food or ground up and turned into fertilizer. [Read more…]

Tasty Morsels of Mollusk Goodness

Protected green abalone (Haliotis fulgens) from California's Channel IslandsSaving California’s remaining abalone fishery from money-hungry poachers is a daunting task. By telling the stories of dedicated wildlife officers in my upcoming sequel to “Badges, Bears, and Eagles,” I hope to educate the public and, in some way, help conserve this precious resource for law-abiding sportsmen and future generations.  

Below are a brief history of this situation and some suggested ways you can help. 

Not so long ago, five species of abalone were commonly taken in California by sport and commercial divers: pink (Haliotis corrugata), green (Haliotis fulgens), red (Haliotis rufescens), black (Haliotis cracherodii), and white (Haliotis sorenseni). Annual commercial harvests from the Channel Islands and coastal waters south of San Francisco were in the millions until numbers began to significantly decline in the 1970s. With commercial take allowed to continue, the entire fishery collapsed and was finally shut down in 1997. Sadly, the white abalone was added to the federal Endangered Species List in 2005, and the black abalone followed in 2011.

Reasons given for the collapse of California’s once-abundant abalone fishery include withering disease, diminished food supply, competition from sea urchins, loss of habitat, predation, pollution, changing ocean temperatures, and reproductive issues. Successful reproduction depends on males and females of the same species being close enough so that the males can effectively fertilize the spawn released into the water by females. That can’t happen when populations have been decimated and densities are reduced to the point where males and females are few and far between.

I have to believe that the two primary reasons for California’s abalone catastrophe are these:

  • Legal commercial harvesting was allowed to continue far too long.
  • Illegal harvesting (poaching) has been occurring for decades and it’s still going on today.

[Read more…]