Less than thirty miles from one of the most populous areas in North America, lies the remote eastern reaches of the Los Padres National Forest. With its seemingly endless layers of pinyon, ponderosa and fir-studded peaks that stand sentinel over a tangled labyrinth of deep, rugged valleys, it’s hard to believe that such a wild oasis exists merely a stone’s throw from the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area and its nineteen million residence. And, in unbelievably stark contrast to the concrete-laden hustle and bustle of neighboring LA, this portion of the Los Padres remains almost entirely devoid of human presence for much of the year. For the months that motorized access is prohibited, one must hike or pedal their way into these wild and untamed canyons. Getting back there can be a rigorous effort indeed, but more than worth it for the unhampered solitude one can find.
April is typically a shoulder season here; heavy snow years and lallygagging winters can render the month bitterly cold, the trails can remain unrideable, and the streams too cold and icy for any desirable form of fishing. This winter was different however…the snow never really fell, and unseasonably warm and dry weather persisted through the once-rainy winter season and on into spring. So here we were, the first weekend in April, baking under an angry sun as we loaded bikes and prepared to set off deep into the Los Padres in search of wild campsites and native fish.
Closed for most of spring to motorized access and recreation, we pedaled away from the car excited at the prospect of having thirty-odd miles of fireroad and singletrack entirely to ourselves. While we did expect the empty trails that come with the early season closure, we did not expect the summer-like trail conditions that came with the current heatwave and exceptional drought. Loose sand, cobble and dust sapped and caked our sweating legs, and amber clouds of particulate floated in the hot air around every corner. Our first few miles felt far more like a touring trip through the Mojave in August than a trip to the mountains in April.
The trail we were riding paralleled a beautiful perennial stream, offering peek-a-boo views of its glimmering pools hundreds of feet below as we meandered along the rocky and crumbling canyon walls high above. After several miles of what is probably best described as “distractingly scenic legacy jank and moto flow”, the trail finally made its way down to the stream we’d been gawking at for so long. Crystal clear, it babbled and spilled over polished granite, lined by towering western cottonwood trees; their massive trunks wrapped in deeply wrinkled bark that looked as old as time. Sandbar willows and southern cattail hugged the banks and waved in the warm breeze, casting catkin and seed aloft in the wind. The water was invitingly clear, but riding fairly low on the bank compared to years past. I dipped a hand in to gauge the temperature; it was disturbingly warm, and likely nearing the threshold of being too warm for trout.
Not much more than a century ago, this creek flowed from where we stood, cold and uninterrupted for over 50 miles to the Pacific Ocean. In winter and spring giant southern steelhead would run its course to spawn in its headwaters, returning en masse each year. In the years since, the endless quest to quench the thirst of the ever-bourgeoning Counties of Los Angeles and Ventura have resulted in the construction of numerous dams and diversions, an effort that has rendered the upstream spawning habitat unreachable for any steelhead attempting to make their way up from the sea.
Now, here in these warming and drought-stricken headwaters reside the genetically pure and land-locked descendants of those massive ocean-going steelhead. Small in stature but rich in color and in character, the resident coastal rainbow trout that occupy this stream represent an increasingly rare genetic link to the steelhead of the past. But without the opportunity to take refuge in the ocean, each hotter and longer summer, each passing drought, each wildfire poses a significant threat to this very small and very important population. Hence our two-wheeled journey up this watershed, a fairly regular effort on my part to see how they’re faring and to photograph at least one fish every time I’m there.
With the water here being so unseasonably warm, we set our sights on a section of the watershed farther upstream, deep in the Los Padres where two spring-fed tributaries might offer some thermal refuge for the heat-wary fish. At this point it was nearing dark, the canyon walls having obscured the sun long ago, so we hastily made camp. Water was boiled, dehydrated food was forced down, whiskey was sipped, and as we crawled into our tents the calls of nighthawks and California toads echoed off the canyon walls while the silhouettes of little brown bats danced across a burgundy sky. Night came and went with a silence that lacked even the snap of a twig – sometimes the wildest places are the quietest at night.
The sun rose fast and hot like it had some shit to do, and in its haste revealed a carpet of spring wildflowers we had missed during our twilight arrival. Lasthenia, linanthus, and paintbrush bloomed in splashes of gold, pearl, and scarlet on the sandy soil, and narrow-leaf goldenbush pockmarked the scrubby hillsides with a vibrant mosaic of yellow. We tread carefully as we ate breakfast and pulled the bags off our bikes; an annual wildflower’s only chance at producing seed for the next season is to remain standing tall, pretty, and proud until it’s properly pollinated, so we took care not to trample their valiant efforts to persist. Before bailing from camp we stashed a few beers in the creek – it’s a little known fact that a healthy trout stream chills beers quite well – then ditched our bags and began the long pedal upstream.
Not more than a half mile from camp we saw the first evidence that someone was sharing the trail with us. Measuring over nine inches in length and six inches across the prints looked more like Sasquatch than black bear, and for good reason: feet of that size likely indicate a black bear of over 500lbs. Shortly after, we saw the prints of yet another trail user; a very large mountain lion that walked up to an outcrop overlooking the stream, its tracks stopping abruptly atop of it – we imagined it sitting there, taking in the view not long before we did the very same.
As the trail crossed the moist banks of the creek over and over during the next several miles, the collection of prints in the soil painted a picture of a canyon teeming with wildlife. Coyotes, lions, black bears, black-tailed jackrabbits, raccoons, badgers, kangaroo rats, great blue herons, bobcats, roadrunners and grey foxes all skirted the shores of this wandering flow in the hours and days ahead of our visit. Surely, some even watched and wondered at our passage as we made our way through.
As the scrub oak and mountain mahogany chaparral began to give way to spotty stands of single leaf pinyon and ponderosa pine we set eyes on our first fish. It was a loner, likely only ten or so inches in length, cruising a sand-bottomed pool and rising occasionally to feed on the gnats that danced along the glassy surface (the same ones that also seemed to love dancing in our eyes). A few frivolous casts were made but the fish couldn’t have been less interested. It was hot, and the water was very low and still. Not the best conditions for enticing a fish, so we continued on in search of colder pools and happier fish.
Less than fifteen years ago, prior to one large wildfire and many years of drought, this watershed was estimated by researchers to contain over one to two thousand fish per stream mile – a population that then appeared to be thriving from the first dam you encounter downstream to the headwaters where we were currently headed. In the years since that last study however, I’ve observed the rapid reduction of these fish and their quick retreat upstream, not only here but elsewhere in the region at the southern extent of the species’ native range. As a species that is entirely dependent on cold, clean water and well functioning and accessible stream habitats, their population serves as a depressingly obvious indicator of how quickly the world around them is warming and/or being altered for the worse.
After a few punchy hike-a-bikes and some rather technical, soft climbs, we stopped and stood beneath the speckled shade of a ponderosa, panting and sweating under the blistering sun. We had reached the end of our route and were both staring down confusingly at the sad remnants of the uppermost spring-fed creek that fed this system. It was maybe one or two feet across and consisted of what could be best described as a slow trickle; sporting no more water than what you might see coming from the end of a garden hose. Huddled there though, where that tiny brook met the main stem of the watershed were maybe half a dozen fish, their writhing shadows slowly darting to and fro in swirling current between the grassy banks.
We leaned our bikes up against the butterscotchy trunk of the ponderosa (yes, ponderosa smell like butterscotch when it’s hot), and rigged up our rods. As we entered the stream below the spring-fed tributary, I lowered my hand in to the water – it was refreshingly cold, perhaps 20 degrees colder than it was just a couple of miles downstream – and in only a matter of a few casts we had a fish. As I lifted it from the water its spectacular coloration and patterning was revealed; with a golden hue that sparkled down its flank, interrupted by bluish parr marks and a lateral band of vibrant, metallic red. Held there precariously in my hand like a small pile of glistening gems was the invaluable, tangible, living evidence of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution and adaptation, catered specifically to this very stream.
We admired the fish as we hastily snapped a few representative photos and then carefully lowered it back into the clear, cold water from whence it came. “One and done” I declared as we watched it lazily swim off – a practice I strongly encourage when fishing for native fish that aren’t doing as well as they ought to be. Besides, one fish was plenty enough for us today being that all we were here for were some clear photographs of a healthy specimen and a good look at current watershed conditions. And we had a great bike ride to satiate the stoke, nonetheless!
The ride back downstream to camp with unloaded bikes was a blast. Loose, rocky chutes were punctuated by fast and flowy sections that would unpredictably dump us back into the streambed to bob and weave through big polished boulders and up and over downfall. Then, inevitably, the occasional soft and pedally section would dull the fun just enough to let the somber thoughts of these struggling fish creep back in; are they merely one big fire, one hot summer or one prolonged drought away from being entirely wiped out? And if so, what else would they be taking with them when they go? What woven connection between this wild landscape and the wildlife that inhabit it would be forever lost? How much closer would these feral mountains lurch toward the anthropogenic jungle we’ve created mere miles away?
The sun sank low behind a gnarled California juniper as we rolled back into camp. As we leaned our bikes up against it a covey of quail called out from the goldenbush nearby and a soft, warm breeze rustled the fragrant sagebrush; the tranquility was undeniable here, even in light of the oppressive heat. Plastered with sweat and dust, we sauntered over to the creek to harvest our hoppy bounty. Sadly though, despite a full day being wedged between two rocks in a riffle, our beers were nearly as tepid as when we’d deposited them; serving as still another somber reminder that much of this watershed no longer remains suitable for the fish that were here so, so long before us. A warm beers cheers felt fitting, in hopes of the best for these fish, and in hopes that this place that is so close to home for so many, can hold onto enough wild to always feel like it’s a world away.