elkhorn slough

“North County”

Is there another name for this rural/semi-rural area that I live in, between Monterey and Watsonville? To some it’s known as “North County,” but that term doesn’t say much. I think that to some, it evokes a misty border or hinterland between northern Monterey County and Watsonville. It’s those big flat agricultural fields north of the pesticide-laden Salinas River. Or maybe it’s that swampy area you pass before you hit the traffic jam going to Santa Cruz. No, wait — it’s where the Marina police stop lurking on the overpasses above Hwy. 1, monitoring your driving speed…

I think most people see the city of Monterey and the city of Santa Cruz as the two stars on each side of Monterey Bay. I have a slightly different view; I envision the two tourist meccas as remoras attached to each wing of a giant batlike ray (or skate) fish. Curvy Monterey Canyon (one of the largest deepwater canyons in the world) even resembles a ray’s whiplike tail (which conceals a threatening stinger), and we all know how dangerous the waters above Monterey Canyon can be. A remora (if you don’t already know) is a small fish that attaches itself to sharks, skates, and other large marine animals (even boats, sometimes) including whales, by means of a specialized sucker on its head. They are not parasitic; they feed on scraps from the larger fish. But they can slow it (and boats) down, and can be occasionally annoying.

Santa Cruz and Monterey each have their own “personalities”: Santa Cruz is viewed as a university town with a lefty element and a freelance, free-for-all (weird) culture. Monterey, long a host for the military, has a more staid, traditional and conservative reputation, although the artsy and hippie folks claim the southern coastal end¬† (Big Sur). Both cities have depended on the bounty of the bay for centuries, and on the labor supplied by local and migrant workers. It goes both ways, too; workers living between Santa Cruz and Monterey also depend on companies in those cities or on the big farms and their distributors to supply jobs.

Less snarky, one could also say that the bay is shaped more like one end of a shallow hour glass. Moss Landing and Elkhorn are right at the center, where the fresh waters of Elkhorn slough mix with the salt waters and sand from the Bay and the Canyon.

I’ve lived here for about 5 years now, and often feel like Elkhorn, nearby Castroville, Prunedale, Watsonville, and Moss Landing are a bit lost in time. Moss Landing plays into this, of course, with its pastiched collection of warehouses, old and new boats, gingerbread-victorian (kind of) antique shops, and tilted cottages. The fact that it’s surrounded by acres of farmland, dotted here and there with old barns, only adds to that feeling. The area doesn’t get much press from the two cities on each end, unless there are reports of gang violence, farmworkers go on strike, there’s a shortage of seafood, or the population starts to worry about water quality and availability or the effect of pesticides on produce.

The Bay is a living thing, though, and its health is often judged by the catch at Moss Landing, and the environmental quality of the slough and wildlife. I’ve worked in Monterey and Santa Cruz, and I know what people think of North County folks. Unbelievably, a lot of people living in this area don’t even know that Elkhorn and Elkhorn Slough exist. Unless there’s a good antique show on at Moss Landing, Bobby Flay visits Phil’s Fish Market, or Pajaro Food Market’s burrito shows up in Sunset Magazine’s “Best Burrito” list, the inhabitants of the two cities happily¬† forget we are here.

Categories: castroville ca, Elkhorn, elkhorn slough, Moss Landing, Moss Landing Ca, Uncategorized, Watsonville | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

“big three”

The big three “weeds” that dominate this area: wild radish, mustard, and hemlock.

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message from the elkhorn slough foundation

Vote for Elkhorn Slough EVERDAY this month

Help us win a $50,000 grant from Pepsi for our Education and Outreach Programs

As most of you know, Elkhorn Slough is competing for a $50,000 grant in Pepsi’s Refresh Everything grant competition. Thanks to everyone who has been voting!

We each have a special connection with the slough. Let’s share that experience with our entire community- particularly disadvantaged groups who otherwise may never visit. Funding would expand and enrich our education and community outreach programs.

You can vote once a day for Elkhorn Slough. We’re currently in the top 100. We must be one of the top 10 vote getters to win the $50,000. With your help, we can get there. Please forward this email and encourage all your friends and family to vote everyday too.

Remember, public vote- your vote- decides who receives grants from Pepsi. Simply log onto www.refresheverything.com/elkhornslough and vote for Elkhorn Slough each day in April. The Slough’s proposal will benefit everyone who visits the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve through its support of the Naturalist staff person in the Visitor Center and will also enable the Elkhorn Slough Foundation, the nonprofit land trust, to share the beauty of our lands with more of the public. Vote today (and everyday in April!)

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bricks, rain

A more or less drenching day. Big rivulets of water draining across the front drive and into the field. My neighbor built a shed for his new goats just in time. Despite the new “French drains” there is a small lake in the backyard. My dog is bored with this rain. However, the sun is just now peeking out, and we seem to have a break in the weather. Better run out and down the road to pick up mail, before the next shower…uh oh — getting dark again…

Walked to the mailbox and back. Everything is so fresh, green and alive! What a great place to live. The calla lilies are getting ready to bloom. I can’t wait to see what happens with the wildflower seeds I’ve sown.

It’s a good thing to walk around, and note changes. I noticed that, while the French drains seem to be successfully flushing water off the hill, the water is also moving with enough force now to create a small waterfall over the concrete bricks of the nearby embankment, and to carve meandering trenches in the soil. Hmm.

And now….here comes the rain again…

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Flamingo, Elkhorn Slough (photo by Dida Kutz)

Alright, we now have absolute proof that there IS a “pink” flamingo in Elkhorn slough, albeit has gone a bit pale from its central coast diet. My friend, diver and explorer Dida Kutz took the photo. This of course doesn’t answer the questions: Why? and Why just one?

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Salinas River – Gloomy Day

Salinas river at Moss Landing 1/20/10
The Salinas River, yesterday, near Moss Landing. Water levels were high, and the water all around Moss Landing was choppy and murky brown. I was nearly blown over by the wind when I stepped out of the car to snap this photo.

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Clouds over Coastal Communities

Harbinger clouds

Driving home on highway 1 today, after a brief bout of heavy rain, lightning and thunder, I saw these harbingers in the sky of more to come. And it’s coming down hard, right now. In fact that “15 inches” of rain mentioned in the “hydrologic outlook” suddenly doesn’t seem so improbable (thank you Michael!).

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“poison parsley”


When my dog and I go for a walk in the big field near my home, I have to pay attention to the earth. This is because the ground of the field is quite uneven, damp in spots, and in the winter thickly covered with a carpet of grasses and weeds. It’s a good cognitive exercise; I constantly have to watch for holes, guessing how soft or hard the ground is under the green, and noting where certain types of vegetation prefer dry spots, while others (the pickleweed, for instance) gravitate to damp, mushy areas.

Pickleweed 1

The soil at the south end is riddled with broken sea shells, a middens of some sort. Nearby, the remainders of tall weed stalks after mowing are dry, hard, and sharp-ended, sticking up vertically out of the ground. I wince, thinking of what would happen if I should trip out there, and land on my hands. Near the middle of the field, there is a large, mysterious swatch where the grasses come up tall and straw-colored, as though some chemical underground is leaching out the color. The south end of the field is covered in emerald green clover, a surprisingly calming color to gaze upon.

Now that we’ve passed winter solstice, I look forward to foraging for New Zealand spinach, which is found in my “secret” cache near the ocean. Likewise, the burgeoning vegetation in the field prompts me to wonder what might be edible there. Early in winter, what looks like millions of tiny, dark green lettuces emerge from the soil. There are also greens with feathery leaves that look like parsley or cilantro. Wouldn’t it be great to have a free parsley source? And there are broadleafed greens sprouting tiny yellow buds. I also see a few clumps of that stubborn cheeseweed (also known as Malva neglecta, and Bastardia viscosa sanctae crucis–or the viscous bastards from Santa Cruz) that infests my backyard every winter, and is so hard to get rid of.

Wild Radish leaves
The “lettuces”

Now in mid-January, the “lettuces” still look like something that could be tossed in a salad, but some are sprouting tiny pink buds. So much for the “lettuce” theory. Wild radish? I pull a small one out of the ground. Yes, the white and pink root does look a bit radishy. I wonder if they are edible. The broadleafed weeds with the yellow buds are now knee-high, and they look a little like young broccoli (rabe).

Young hemlock
Young Hemlock. You can just see the purple spots on the stems.

While examining the feathery “parsleys,” I detect the warm, sweet scent of fennel — another plant that might be fun to harvest. I don’t see it, but I smell it. And that reminds me of something: fennel grows near poison hemlock. I look closely at the “parsley” stems, and notice that there are tiny purple spots on them. It’s hemlock!

Mature Hemlock
Mature hemlock — as it would appear later in the season.

Back at home, I find a useful website, Calflora: What Grows Here. You can type in the county and zip code, and a page will come up listing all the flora growing in the area, along with photographs.

I was right about the wild radish and the hemlock, which is also known as “poison parsley.” The “broccoli rabe” was in fact wild mustard. Since the field is usually overrun with hemlock during most of the year, I’m now loathe to try out the fennel, wild radish and mustard (all edible), fearing that they might absorb the poison in such close proximity.

Wild Mustard 1
Wild Mustard

So, although I’ve lived in Elkhorn for about two years now, perhaps I know the Central California area better than I think; I know the earth here — I know enough to be wary. How many fields have I walked through in my life? How many times have I followed a path near water, and noticed fennel growing near hemlock? As a child I squeezed the milky juice from wild radish pods. I didn’t know the names then. Now I do.

Wild Radish
Wild Radish (purple and pink flowers)

Foraging Database.

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Horses and Vaqueros of Elkhorn

horse, looking

2 horses

dark and light

These horses live next to the Mexican rodeo grounds (the Charriada), just down the road from me. The horse in the top photograph was scratching his nose on a piece of barbed wire wrapped around a fencepost.

My mother let me take horseback riding lessons for a year when I was a kid. And that’s the limit of what I know about horses. So, coming from a suburb to live in Elkhorn–where there are many horses and riders, and where residents look forward to rodeo season in the summer–has been a big change for me.

One summer day, as I was driving down the road toward my new home, I passed a man on horseback, dressed like a vaquero. Let me clarify: he was not dressed like the “Marlboro Man,” and clearly had no aspirations to do so.

He was dark, had a full mustache, and sat tall and proud astride his beautiful horse. His clothing seemed to be a mix of Hispanic cowboy styles. I can’t remember exactly the details, but I do recall a wide-brimmed hat, short jacket, spurs, and a lot of silver. I started to feel a little out of place. “Well, Toto,” I might’ve said to my dog, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas.”

Since then, I’ve seen a lot of other vaquero types, and some of them do dress like the conventional Anglo cowboy, but most wear jeans and baseball caps. They occasionally dress as vaqueros for the rodeo.

When this region was Alta California, governed first from Spain, and then Mexico (this was before the Gold Rush, when the Anglos from the east began claiming the land as their own), the first cowboys actually were the vaqueros. Most of them migrated to south and central California (and generally the southwest) from northern Mexico. The huge ranchos of the Californios, awarded to them as the original Spanish land grants, dominated the area. They raised cattle, and traded hides with the ships that sailed into the port of Monterey (Monte Rey, or King’s Mountain).

Perhaps that’s why, when I had that first glimpse of the tall, dark vaquero riding his horse toward me down Castroville Blvd., I felt as though I was seeing a ghost.

A slide show of the last Californios, by William S. Dean.

See also the award-winning dvd, “Los Californios de Monterey: Pioneers of Alta California 1769-1848,” produced and directed by David A. Anaya.

Categories: Castroville, Elkhorn, elkhorn slough, Local History | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

After the Storm

The storm is over, and early this evening I took my dog, Gracie, to the big field across from the cemetery in Moss Landing. A couple weeks ago, I walked through the cemetery. It was older than I thought. I found a very worn headstone, whose italicized inscription I could barely make out:

Aqui Yace Josefita
hija de
Jose y Romana Boronda
(born 1886, aged 19 years)
Fallecid el 2 de Julia

I wonder if they were related to the Borondas–the big family that built several “Boronda Adobe” houses in the area during the early 19th century. Perhaps, as Robert B. Johnston wrote, it was the very same family “that collected at weddings, baptisms, birthdays, where much hilarity, verses and songs prevailed. They made a lot of noise…healthy, exuberant spirits…” The older names (dating to the 1860s) in the cemetery seem to be mostly Irish, Spanish, or Mexican.

The humidity has been high; just before twilight, the mist began rolling in from the bay. The field, brown and dry all summer, felt damp and spongy.

What I thought were big patches of green grass suddenly sprouting turned out to be mats of salty pickleweed. The land here is built up from marsh, after all. Gracie, who is a grass gourmet, didn’t find much to her taste. I was thinking of foraging for New Zealand Spinach, but it’s probably too late in the year.

We took the not-so-secret path to Moro Cojo Slough, and found that the rainstorm had broken up the bright green algae that ordinarily blankets the slough during summer–revealing big swaths of still, black, mirror-like water.

At the south end of the field, near the highway, the little boat that holds the Captain’s Inn sign was tipped over, blown a couple yards north. The wind also knocked down the wire fencing around the construction site for the buildings-that-will-never-be-finished (they’ve been working on these for — what? Over a decade now?).

True to her nature, Gracie found a small pool of muddy water, and wallowed. By mid-December, the field will be too smooshy to walk over. We’ll have to find another place for our strolls.

Categories: castroville ca, elkhorn slough, Local History, Moss Landing, Moss Landing Ca | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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