A Walk by Clear Lake

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In Northern California, above Napa Valley, sits Clear Lake. Perhaps overshadow by Lake Tahoe up in the Sierras, few people outside NoCal know of Clear Lake. The largest freshwater lake entirely within California, Clear Lake is one of the oldest lakes in North America. Covering 68 square miles, the irregular shape body of water is surrounded by an almost continuous ring of houses and cabins. Many of the homes look worn and faded, others are elaborate mansions.

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A real water painting, the sky reflected on the lake surface

The old walnut orchards found on the hillsides surrounding the lake are slowly being replaced by vineyards for the growing wineries in the area. Indeed, driving up Interstate 5 from Los Angeles one is struck by the ever growing numbers of vineyards and almond orchards that are popping up. Apparently the California farming industry believe all we need is wine to sip and almonds to snack on. Let’s hope someone also remembers to make those little cheese cubes…

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Low clouds sit above the lake in the chilly morning

I spent a week up in Clear Lake area over the winter holidays for a family reunion. Renting a house outside the town of Lakeport, we woke up most mornings to a gorgeous sunrise over the lake. Along the southern shore rose Mt. Konocti standing over the waters.

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Mt. Konocti rises 3000 feet above Clear Lake

Like most of California, this is a geological active area. Mt. Konocti came into being with an eruption some 350,000 years ago. Though its last eruption was 11,000 years ago, it is not considered an extinct volcano but is classified as High Threat Potential. The old age of Clear Lake is also attributed to geological activity. The lake is surrounded by faults causing the lakebed to sink at a rate that matches the accumulation of sediment. The lake was once bigger too, but volcanic eruptions and lava flows separated Clear Lake from the Blue Lakes to the northwest.

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Ducks and geese gather along the shoreline

Like all natural body of waters, the lake is important to wildlife and attracts a large number of birds. Mudhens, mallards, bufflehead ducks and Canada geese were spotted as well as a great egret. Unfortunately a boat excursion to seek out more wildlife was canceled because we scheduled it on the one day of heavy fog.

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A great egret (Ardea alba)

Surprisedly, there are few hikes listed for the area despite the undeveloped hillsides that surround the lake. There is a long hike to Wright Peak, the highest peak on Mt. Konocti but we opted for a short nature hike near the base of the mountain in Clear Lake State Park to accommodate the younger ones.

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Common manzanita (Arctostaphylos manzanita)

The hike starts across the road from the visitor center’s parking lot and quickly heads up a forested hillside. It was winter and most of the trees were leafless. But underneath the bare branches, large manzanitas with their mahogany colored bark and olive green leaves grew. Several types of manzanitas can be found surrounding Clear Lake, but I believe most of the one along the trail were common manzanitas (Arctostaphylos manzanita), though Stanford’s manzanitas (Arctostaphylos stanfordiana) can be found in the same region.

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Manzanita bark

These were old plants, their thick gnarled branches showing exposed wood where the bark died back during periods of drought. I love the bark of manzanita. It is as if someone took a bucket of thick enamel paint, burgundy-colored if you please, and poured it over the branches. Running your fingers along this glossy bark, it is surprising how smooth it feels. On some species of manzanita, thin outer layers of bark peel off like rolled up sheets of paper.

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Manzanitas are often the first shrubs to flower in winter

There are dozen of varieties of manzanita in California ranging from small trees to thick ground cover, many of which are good garden subjects. Besides their smooth bark, in winter they are adorn with delicate urn-shape flowers that ripen into medium size berries in summer.

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With its gnarl branches, unique bark, and tiny urn flowers, manzanita is one of the more stunning plants among California flora

Most of California is part of the California Floristic Province, a region defined by our Mediterranean climate and the state’s complex topography and geology, separated from the eastern portion of our continent by the interior deserts. Indeed the Great Basin and the Mojave and Sonoran Desert form the eastern boundary of this region. The northern portion extends into southwestern Oregon and the southern boundary in northern Baja California. So despite extending nearly a thousand miles north to south, many of the plants seen hiking around Los Angeles can be found or have close cousins in this northern region. The mountains surrounding Los Angeles are home to other similar species of manzanitas. Toyon, a signature plant to SoCal wildlands are also found lining the roads up to Clear Lake. Sages and buckwheat can be found in both north and south. And all these plants have adapted to life in a Mediterranean climate where most of the water falls in winter and summers can be bone dried.


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A thick layer of moss on a tree trunk

But there are differences. The northern region gets more rain and with its cooler winters stays more moist. This is most noticeable by thick layer of lichen and moss covering the trunks and rocks along the trail. In the southern coastal scrub and chaparral, you don’t see much of either of these.

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The heavy growth of moss and lichens gives this tree an appearance of being evergreen

But around Clear Lake, every mature tree was covered with a thick layer of moss and lichen. Several trees I thought were in full bloom were actually leafless, the lichen giving the illusion of green leaves.

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Twigs and lichen

The growth of lichen rewards the observant hiker who knows that every majestic landscape panorama is matched by little treasures hidden clearly before our faces.

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Oak leaves on the forest floor

The forest we were hiking through was mostly deciduous trees giving us a view of the lake through their crisscross branches. The duff on the forest floor provided clues to the trees growing here. Mostly oak trees, probably either blue oak (Quercus douglasii) or black oak (Q. kelloggii), as well as Northern California black walnut (Juglans hindsii).

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The leaves and flower buds of California bay (Umbellularia californica)

One tree still in leaf was the California bay (Umbellularia californica). Rubbing the leaves give off the aroma of culinary bay leaves (Sweet bay leaf). I’ve read California bay can be used as a substitute for bay leaf but in much smaller doses.

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Snags – the standing skeletons of past trees – play a vital role in the wildlands as a source of food and shelter

One of the joys I’ve gotten from gardening with native plants is a stronger connection to the land I hike through. I’ve hiked since a child, but rarely knew the name of the plants I passed. But as I studied and planted native plants in my yard I learn about the ecology of my home, of my state, of my planet.

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With over 90 different species of manzanita in California, it is one of the plants that help define the California wilderness

To pass a leafy branch and have that shock of recognition is like seeing a friend in a strange place. Even when wandering beyond my normal trekking grounds, familiar plants show up (or close relatives) reminding me of the interconnection of life. Bringing the wild into our cities and suburbs ties us into the land around us. And, maybe, helps us be better stewards of our world.

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Walnut and leaf duff

All photos by Alan Starbuck

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