By: Laurel Bard, CivicSpark Fellow
The sun was already setting behind Mt Konocti and the Black Forest was deep in shadow by the time I started the climb. There was no official trail, but someone had left hints: cairns stacked atop decomposing douglas fir logs, or balanced precariously on huge boulders; and, best of all, a sturdy branch carved on one end into the perfect walking stick. I have a habit of following social trails, but this one was particularly steep, and the rocky dirt under my feet meant that for every two steps I took, I slid back one. Whenever I was about to give up, turn back – surely only deer had gone farther than this, any person would have stopped by now – I would see another cairn, another sign that my determination wasn’t unique. I kept on.
I was trying to reach something that I’d seen from the ground: a tall bluff of exposed rock on the side of Mt. Konocti, which juts out into the Black Forest like the figurehead of a ship. I have a condition called being a climber, and it means that when I see rock, I must touch it. And that was some big rock. The only trouble: as soon as I entered the Black Forest, that bluff disappeared. The trees stood so thick that when I looked behind me as I climbed, I couldn’t see Clear Lake, despite the severity of the slope and how close the Black Forest is to the lakeshore. Forget seeing above me to the bluff – I had no hope of that at all. I just had to imagine that whoever set the cairns was also interested in getting to where I was going.
The Black Forest stands out against the rest of Mt. Konocti for its thick stands of Douglas Fir, interspersed by tanoak and other hardwoods that stay relatively stunted due to the area’s shading. I have another condition, shared by many Californians these days, called being incredibly aware of wildfire. The forest’s thickness, steepness, and proximity both to human ignition sources and potentially flammable chaparral set off warning bells in my head as I climbed in the last throes of October’s dry summer heat. This forest could burn, and if burned at high severity, this whole patch of beautiful, thick, old Douglas Fir could die, leaving no seed source to replenish it. Despite one unfortunate incident a couple years ago that was quickly contained, this part of Mt. Konocti hasn’t burned since the 1960s.
These vulnerabilities were, ironically, also what I loved about it. As I climbed, I saw the thick undergrowth both as a potential fuel source and as a diverse ecosystem. I liked that it was surrounded on three sides by chaparral – it lent the area an unexpectedness, like a secret hidden from the world by the shadow of the mountain. Its closeness to neighborhoods means that more people are able to enjoy it and become familiar with its intricacies, develop a relationship with it, something that I think all who have the chance should strive to do.
I was sure forming a relationship with the forest as I gasped my way up the mountain, at times hauling myself up on springy tanoak saplings. Eventually, the trail began to level out, cutting across the slope instead of up it. Numerous animal trails wound through it, making the actual way difficult to find. The cairns had stopped, and I wondered if I had finally reached the limit of human interest and was instead following the whims of deer or coyotes. But, up ahead, the curse of all hikers: an opening in the trees that looked like it might promise a view. By now it was really going on sunset, and I had given up on reaching the elusive bluffs. If I could just see Clear Lake from this height, I thought (I had gained several hundred laborious feet), then it would be worth it.
I stumbled through the underbrush like the world’s most awkward bear until I came out on something wholly unexpected but unmistakable: a fuel break. The trees stopped abruptly, revealing a large area of exposed soil dotted with re-sprouting manzanita. The slope was severe enough that I could see below me, a house, and below that, Riviera West, and below that, Clear Lake itself, stretching out to the North and South like an ocean. The sunset colored the hills on the other side of the lake rose gold, and I stood for a long time, staring.
It struck me after a while that if I didn’t start down soon, I would be navigating a perilous slope in the dark. I turned around, expecting to head back the way I’d come, when I was stopped again by the sight of the original reason I’d come up here: the bluffs. I was almost on level with them, I felt, though in reality I’m sure I had a couple hundred more feet to go. There was even a trail leading up from the fuel break, and I was so sure that it would take me to the bluffs that I almost followed it. Common sense took over, though, and instead I reluctantly continued downhill, not eager to stumble around in the Black Forest in the dark.
Parts of the Black Forest have been thinned to reduce fire risk. I struggle with the feeling that they have lost something: the winding, puzzly, dense character than tricked me in to thinking I was far away from everything human seconds before I broke through the trees and realized that I was just feet away from a neighborhood. I feel this at the same time as I know that its essential relationship to human-ness is part of what makes the Black Forest special. Mt. Konocti has a human history stretching back more than 10,000 years. I was only able to climb as high as I did because many people before me had done so as well. Maybe next time I climb, I’ll reach the bluffs, touch them, and feel content in the knowledge that someone else before me has done so already.
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