Tag: Hiking

Project Trail Dog: Kentucky Fried Hands

It smarts worse than it looks

I guess I didn’t think this through all the way. When a 75 lb. dog hits the end of a 50 foot yellow plastic rope at a full flat-out run, guess what happens? The force of the jerk knocks him off his feet and he tumbles in the grass. This isn’t as bad as it sounds…fortunately I had enough foresight to clip the lead to his harness and not his collar. The result reinforces a natural consequence. I yell “halt!” and if the dog doesn’t halt he’s going to go for a tumble.

No, the bad thing is what happens on the other end of the rope – the end I’m holding with my bare hands. About two feet of rough plastic rope played through my fingers so fast I could smell the flesh burn. And because I didn’t my dog attacking the Schnauzer that entered his field of vision I didn’t dare let go. So that last jerk, the accelerated force of a muscle-bound moose of a dog, was a real screamer.

But I guess we both learned our lesson. Mr. Moose learned pretty quickly to listen to me whenever the sight of a dog made him go flipping berserk. And I learned that I need a decent pair of roping gloves.

Project Trail Dog: Training the Perfect Hiking Buddy

dogs meeting on trail

Dogs meeting on the trail

A good trail dog needs to be calm, confident, alert to danger but not easily threatened, and most of all…focused on his owner. This does not describe Mr. Moose, the German Shepherd (Greyhound?) mix that I am training to be my trail buddy. He does very well with people he knows, and he’s more plenty willing to take on a challenge outdoors – I took him to the river this weekend and he galloped headlong into a patch of quicksand. This mishap surprised him, but it didn’t freak him out.

The big problem is the way Mr. Moose handles strangers. He is extremely wary, to the point of aggression, with people he doesn’t know or understand. With dogs he is hyper-ballistic.

Learning to Walk All Over Again

I started Mr. Moose on the Martingale collar, a nylon collar with a slip-chain that can’t choke the dog. The good: the collar doesn’t choke and he can’t twist out of it. The bad: When Mr. Moose spies a Schnauzer and lunges to the end of his leash his instinct is to pull harder against the resistance. This turns a peaceful dog-walk into a fight with a barking marlin. The ugly: Strong, firm corrections don’t even register. I’ve had to give a really hard yank to get the dog’s attention.

Next we switched to a prong collar. After satisfying myself that the prong collar is not an instrument of torture, I found it to be a very useful tool for teaching Mr. Moose to heel. I’ll need to cover my training method in another post, because the prong collar alone won’t keep a strong dog like Mr. Moose in line. But it does provide a level of natural consequence that the Martingale collar didn’t. The good: Mr. Moose quickly learned that the most comfortable place to walk is by my side. The bad: It still takes a firm tug at times to give a correction. The collar needs to be used thoughtfully, and takes a certain amount of skill to administer. The ugly: The prong collar did nothing to keep Mr. Moose from lunging at the sight of other dogs. If anything it escalated his aggression, possibly because the collar was hurting him as he yanked and twisted on the end of the leash.

Now I’ve switched to using a Halti head collar. I’ve had disastrous results with head collars on other dogs, tugging, wriggling and generally causing freak-outs. But seeing that Mr. Moose had learned to heel and that his instinct to pull against resistance (cf. sled dogs) was now the major problem, it seemed like a head collar might work. True, he hates having his snoot looped, but it does prevent him from making sustained lunges. Now when he tries to pull against the leash instead of being like fighting a sailfish the effect is more like trying to land a 70 lb. flopping bass. The good: the dog doesn’t continue lunging forward against resistance. The bad: instead, the dog frantically moves backward, twisting, shaking and clawing at the head collar. The ugly: given enough twisting, he can escape the head collar. Fortunately there is a back-up lead that clips to his regular collar.

The important lesson here is that a training collar is simply a tool. The collar alone won’t correct a rotten dog’s behavior. I suppose this all goes back to the old joke:

Q. What’s the first thing you need to know in order to train a dog?

A. More than the dog.

Photo by Ildar Sagdejev

Project Trail Dog: the Going Gets Ruff

trail dog project

Like a grenade at the end of a short leash

When I decided to take on the project of a new dog, I thought I knew what I was getting into. I had previously taken Mr. Moose on a “test drive” and satisfied myself that he was an intelligent dog, willing to learn, eager to please and able to settle down. He met my sketchy criteria for a decent trail dog: short hair. We previously had an Australian shepherd and it was a full-time job picking burrs and ticks out of her coat.

Things haven’t gone as smoothly as I’d hoped. Mr. Moose is starting to mix it up more often with our resident cocker spaniel. It’s not always clear what sets the dogs against each other but it’s starting to get exhausting trying to keep them apart.

Our twice-daily walks aren’t getting any easier, either. In three weeks I’ve gotten him to the point where he doesn’t tug on the leash and he will automatically sit when I stop at corners. Using a combination of rewards via clicker and pockets full of dog cookies, he’s a pretty willing learner.

Unless…and this is a big unless…he catches sight of another dog. Mr. Moose explodes in a furry of growls, flashing teeth, deep-throated barking and ungodly yodeling. He lunges, twists and stands on two legs…pretty well freaking out everyone nearby.

The problem is that I haven’t yet found a way to deal with this behavior without reinforcing it. He won’t calm down as long as he can see another dog. So I drag him around a corner until he does settle. Then I try to gradually re-introduce him to the spot where he last saw the other dog (the owner and dog having long since skedaddled.) Two things seem to be happening, however. Every time I drag him away from another dog it seems to simply reinforce his doggie notion that other dogs are dangerous, and (presumably) Must Be Destroyed! On top of this he is recording all the corners, paths and alleys where we have encountered other dogs and anticipating future encounters. These days were are at Threat Level Orange before we even get out the door.

So. What next? Dog trainer Lee Charles Kelley has an interesting approach for building up a dog’s confidence using pushing and pulling resistance training. Interestingly, Kelley is a big advocate of playing tug-of-war with your dog…and letting the dog win. I’ve always heard that letting the dog win is a big “Bozo no-no”…because it encourages the dog to challenge your position as pack leader. Kelley, however, links to Neil Sattin’s page that explains that the object of playing tug-of-war is to focus your dog’s predator drive on you – not that you’re the prey, but it makes you the main object of your dog’s desire, attention and fulfillment.

At least I have some ideas to work on for a while. If these confidence-building activities really seem to reduce the explosive-aggressive behavior, I’m probably going to have to do them with both dogs.

I’ll keep you posted.

How to Keep a Firm Footing in Icy Weather


There’s nothing worse than going for a morning stroll only to find yourself with the “rubber side up” as they say. Black ice, slippery sidewalks and refrozen snow can be a game-changer for people (like myself) in a certain demographic. I don’t make it to the snow very often, and when I do I’m usually at a conference grounds…which means plenty of opportunity to slip up and fall hard.

Here are some great ways to keep your footing in slippery situations:

Yaktrax (pictured above): These things are great on refrozen snow and slippery pavement. I’ve worn the same pair for four seasons now. Two caveats: take them off indoors, they are very slippery on tile floors. They tend to slip off your feet when walking through drifted snow, but a shoelace “leash” is a low-cost remedy.

Yaktrax Pro

Yaktrax Pro: Mostly the same as regular Yaktrax but with a heavy duty instep strap to keep them on your feet.


Stabilicers: These nonslip soles attach to your boots (see thumbnail above) and come recommended to me by a meter-reader who wore these through a number of seasons and praised them for their traction and durability. Rugged construction with replaceable spikes.

Kathoola MICROspikes

Kathoola MICROspikes: One step below full crampons, Katahoola MICROspikes are the hands-down choice of hikers and trail-runners. The chunky spikes hold well on the trail, but might pose a hazard on smooth concrete. They will also take a bite out of wood steps and decks.

Mysterious Sphinx of Malibu Found?

boney bluff aka sphinx of mu

Is this the Sphinx of a lost civilization?

The ruins of a lost civilization are overlooked by hikers on a daily basis in the mountains above Malibu…at least that is what Robert Stanley claims.

My mission last week was to explore part of the Santa Monica Mountains and see what, if anything, I could find that supports Stanley’s notion that a lost civilization of Lemurians once inhabited this area…something ripped from the pages of a Thomas Pynchon novel.

One of the difficulties in conducting this expedition lay in the sketchiness of the details. Stanley hasn’t posted much on the subject. Under the title Megalithic Monuments of Mu, Stanley noted that he found ancient ruins in the hills above Malibu. He also notes that he found “megalithic monuments” in the area. There are a half dozen pictures posted in his article but he doesn’t explain the pictures or how they relate to the monuments he found. A caption states “the Sphinx face overlooks the Mu.”
The implication is that an early civilization carved a monumental face in the sandstone somewhere in the Santa Monica mountains. But Stanley never actually says this. The authors of Weird California hedge on the claim by saying “There was also a huge rock outcropping that resembled the outline of a human face staring out to the Pacific, which Stanley dubbed the Sphinx.

The Plan

Enter the park from the north and view the area from Conejo Peak. This should be the area where the ruins are located, according to a newsgroup posting that located them about one mile north of Cracked Roch (Split Rock).

The Adventure

It turns out that the trail to the top of Conejo Peak is pretty steep – over 1,000 feet climb in under two miles. A bit much for this early in the season. One very cool feature of the hike is the mountain lion capture area along the connector trail between Danielson and Staber roads. A series of three traps, appearing to be in disrepair, along with the bones from the trap bait (deer carcasses) are placed along the trail. A creepy sight, it made me feel like I had stumbled into the Lost Elephant Graveyard from the Lion King.

lion trap in santa monica mountains

The Result

From Conejo Peak you can clearly see Robert Stanley’s Sphinx (pictured above) well to the south. I thought it would be more difficult to find, seeing that Stanley quotes an archeologist who had explored the area on several occasions but was never able to find this feature.

(It should be noted that the Sphinx, and presumably the remainder of the ruins, is west of Split Rock, not north as a newsgroup poster claimed.)

It don’t know the area well enough to identify the outcropping, but I believe it is called Boney Bluff, due west of Sandstone Peak. It looks like an interesting area to explore and seems to be a favorite with climbers. For what it’s worth, I don’t believe there is an actual face carved into this mountain. More likely it is a mimetolith…a rock that has a shape resembling something else.

Further exploration is necessary!

Searching for the Lost City of Mu

View Larger Map

Is it possible that there is a lost civilization in the mountains above Malibu? Robert Stanley seems to think so. In 1985 he discovered evidence that convinced him that a pre-Chumash civilization once inhabited the region. The book Weird California fleshes out some of Stanley’s observations, noting that he discovered walls, ramparts and foundations that didn’t match the work of any known civilization. In fact, the artifacts of Mu are so unusual that modern archeologists disregard them.

Where are the ruins of Mu that Stanley found? Shrouded in mystery. According to Weird California, Stanley is reluctant to disclose the location, fearing that treasure seekers will ruin the ruins. He did, however leave a few clues:

The site of Mu is overlooked by a megalith that looks like a Sphinx. It is not far from Malibu and…

robert stanley's sphinx

….he left a map:

Unlike most subjects, the more I try and research the Lost City of Mu, the less I find. There is one tantalizing tidbit from the archives of a New Age newsgroup – the 40,000 year old city of the Lemurians can be found near the Pacific Coast Highway, one mile north of the “Cracked Roch picnic area.” (This would be Split Rock on the Mishe Mokwa trail.)

This is hardly a “remote section” as WikiAnswers puts it.

If there’s anything up there, it should be fairly easy to find…

Socks That Last Forever

Vermont Darn Tough Sock

Usually I don’t like to use the words “darn” and “socks” together in a sentence, but “Darn Tough” is how Ric Cabot describes the socks his family has been making for over 30 years. Outside Blog has just endorsed Darn Tough in their Gear Army section. I like the fact that these socks are made in Vermont, and will be adding them to my gear list.

When you shell out $14 for a pair of socks you hope that they will last the better part of a season. Over the years I’ve picked up a number of high-end socks and I haven’t been disappointed. Smartwool socks are velvety-soft and have lasted me through a good year of regular use. Hot, dry, wet, cold they’ve handled it all.

Wigwam socks are the best. They are a little scratchier than Smartwool but they feel more indestructable. I’ve had my Wigwams for about two years now, and wear them daily. They still fit great. Made in Sheboygan where the median family income is $47,000 (compared to $72,000 for the Southern California area where I live), which also gives me an incentive to pay a little extra over the tube socks which don’t last or perform nearly as well.

Super Tip! Prevent Lost Socks!

If you’re going to shell out a lot of bread for socks, use these clips. They’ve made my life infinitely easier. Unfortunately the Sock Cop web page is down…has the business expired? Too bad for humanity if that’s the case. These clips are ideal for keeping pairs of bulky wool socks together through wash and dry. My only beef is that they are a little tough to pinch open and sometimes break. An alternative is the Sock Pro – if you’ve tried these, please let me know how well they work in the comments section below.

Use Witch Hazel to Cure Posion Oak Rash

Poison Oak in the middle red phase

Poison Oak in the middle red phase

Witch hazel is something you may have seen in your mother’s medicine chest, but she probably didn’t tell you why she was using it. Consequently you may not have discovered the extract’s many magical properties.

Fact is, witch hazel is good for a lot of things, some that you can talk about in mixed company and some that are mainly of interest to “us guys.”

Witch hazel is very good for treating a urushiol rash. Urushiol is an oily compound found on poison oak and poison ivy that quickly binds to the proteins in the skin. A rash develops when your body interprets these urushiol-modified skin cells as foreign agents and tries to kill them off. This bonding happens quickly, 10 to 30 minutes after exposure. The rash can take two or three days to appear and might last up to two weeks, untreated.

My trail buddies tell me that a good scrub with Tecnu Extreme Medicated Poison Ivy Scrub will prevent poison oak as long as you do it immediately after exposure. My problem is that I don’t always know when I’ve been exposed – a person can get a rash from oil on clothing, on a hiking stick, backpack or a friendly four legged creature. I’ve never found topical treatments such as calamine or cortisone cream to be effective or helpful. Witch hazel, applied twice daily, is nothing short of miraculous. Instead of a 7 to 14 day spell of tragic itching my most recent poison oak rash cleared up in three days.

I’m guessing that the astringent properties of the witch hazel quickly dry up the blisters, which in turn reduces skin damage and relieves itching. Or it may be the placebo effect. Who cares? As long as it works.

If you’d like to volunteer for further field-testing and research, have a testimonial about the amazing properties of witch hazel, or if you have a poison oak experience that bears retelling, by all means feel free to leave a comment.

Middle Sespe Toad-Hugging

Wading a deep section of the Sespe

Wading a deep section of the Sespe

Sespe Creek snakes through the heart of the Los Padres forest like a coronary artery. It starts below Oak Springs, south of Ventucopa and flows east until it smacks into the foot of the Hopper Mountain bioregion, finally emptying into the Santa Clara River after a 55 mile journey.

Last weekend, while the rest of the country celebrated the fallen war dead by burning meat over a propane fire, I met my fellow toad-huggers at the middle Sespe to conduct a survey of invasive species and take a long walk in a quiet place.

Following the creekbed from Beaver Camp to the edge of Lion Canyon isn’t exactly canyoneering but it’s not a trail hike either. About one third of the time you’re lumping your pack from boulder to boulder and another third of the time you’re slogging through decomposing plant matter in a foot or more of slow moving water. The rest of the time you’re up to your waist in cold water or you’re recovering from a stumble which, while painful, still counts as progress.

On this trip we geo-tagged one mature tamarisk bush on Rock Creek, and five seedlings along the Sespe. Such a low count was a surprise, considering the infestations we’ve seen on Piru Creek. It was also a mystery – some of the seedlings on the Sespe were upstream from the “mother” plant on Rock Creek. So what was their source?

To get an idea of how tamarisk can impact a habitat check out this Before and After featuring Ansel Adams’ documentation of Canyon de Chelly.

(Yes, we also found a mating pair of Arroyo toads – the immediate recipients of this largesse.)

Extreme Gardening

William hops boulders to find tamarisk

While other gardeners were uprooting early spring bulbs and planting their perennials, I joined the good folks at Habitat Works for a little tamarisk butt-kicking. The Cleanest Line has a nice little piece lining out what tamarisk did to Canyon de Chelly, explaining why someone might want to pack into a remote section of Piru Creek with a set of Fiskars bypass loppers, and spend a perfectly good Memorial Day weekend pulling weeds. But the short answer is that it is all about the Arroyo Toad.

Mike, William and Tom tackle a mature tamarisk in flower

In the snapshot above you can see Mike, William and Tom taking down a mature tamarisk in flower. Altogether we uprooted or chopped down over 7,000 seedlings, and a few hundred shrubs, catching the shrubs before they had time to produce seeds. Any roots left behind can still sprout but at least we we gave these evil trees a good licking.

Stooping all day with a 25 lb pack

The thing about Extreme Gardening is that you do the same kind of back-breaking weed pulling that you’d do in your backyard garden, only you do it without access to cold beer and with a 30 lb. pack on your back. In wet shoes. After slogging through waist-deep, snail-infested water. It’s like the African Queen, only without a boat or Nazis.

Dirt bike that didn’t make it

During the rainy season Piru Creek at Gold Hill Gorge becomes a Class V whitewater course, which was bad news for some dirt biker who tried to cross the stream at the Gold Hill crossing. We found the remains of his ‘sickle some two miles downriver, not in running condition.

Rattlesnake along the trail

On the last part of the trip Julia found this cool rattlesnake for us by nearly stepping on its head. Who knew that rattlers cool down at the water’s edge?

Large bear tracks like this are common

For the duration we found ourselves tagging along behind some good sized bears. From the tracks I’d say there were four or five big ones, two juveniles and three babies. The bears stayed out of sight.

Riff Raff meets us at the trails end

The trail ended at the Castaic Mines where the Riff Raff 4WD club trucked us out. That alone was worth the price of admission.

Trail Notes: Matilija Canyon Hike

Pool at Middle Matilija

Summary: A hike up one of the most scenic canyons with year-round running streams. The first two miles are an easy walk on even surface with two easy water crossings. After two miles the trail becomes increasingly difficult to follow, with lots of boulder hopping and scrambling beneath overhanging branches. Numerous pools and a double waterfall make the scamper worth the effort.

To get there: From Ojai, California, drive up Highway 33 about 4.9 miles. Turn left on Matilija Road (called N Matilija Road on Google Maps.) Don’t get confused with South Matilija Road which comes first. Note that the first mile or so is along private road. Stay on the marked trail or you might wind up in someone’s barn!

Notes: Every hike has a theme, and today’s theme was conditioning for a three day packing trip at the end of the month. I packed 30 lbs. of gear and headed three miles up Matilija Canyon starting around 2 pm. The Yucca is in full bloom and Mariposa Lilies where scattered along the trail.

Mariposa Lily in Matilija Canyon

The main difficulty hiking this trail with a full pack were the places where the trail cuts through narrow corridors of Manzanita. At times I felt like Snow White running through the Spooky Forest, with trees grabbing and clawing at my gear. For the most part I managed to outwith them and make my way.

After two miles or so the trail becomes less defined. Trail ducks (or cairns)  mark water crossings. Still there were places I lost the trail altogether and found myself doing a lot of rock-hopping. I got a little careless and rolled my left ankle at one point. Later I rolled the right ankle. Just to keep things even.

Quite a few dayhikers were up enjoying the many swimming holes. I marked a couple of Geocaches in my GPS and brought a rubber chicken by way of wampum.  There is a string of seven caches running up the canyon but I’m not sure any have been found since 2006. I know I didn’t have any luck. The first cache had a village of college students camping on top of it. The next one was a microcache that I couldn’t find for the life of me.

On the way back down I noticed quite a few California Whiptail lizards scrumbling in the underbrush.

California whiptail lizard

Cheseboro Canyon Hike

Cheeseboro Canyon Trail

Cheseboro Canyon is part of the Santa Monica Mountains Recreational area, and part of a larger network of clearly marked trails in an open space surrounded by suburban sprawl. You can find a good map of Cheeseboro Canyon here. The area is popular with mountain bikers and equestrians. It is likely to be a speedway on a sunny weekend.

I hiked to Shepherd’s Flat late Sunday evening, sharing the trail with a handful of cyclists and trail runners. The first part of the hike, Cheseboro Canyon Trail, follows the valley floor northwards. The trail is smooth and quite wide with stands of shady oaks.

At about 3.5 miles you come to Sulphur Springs. Here the trail narrows and the topography gets much more interesting. The soil takes on a reddish iron-rich hue and the hills are covered with boulders. You leave the live oak habitat for scrub oak, much of it scarred from the Topanga fire of 2005.

From Shepherd’s FlatCheeseboro Ridge I headed back by way of Cheseboro Ridge. There are nice views of the Santa Monica mountains to the South West and the Las Virgenes Open Space immediately to the East. But at this point the trail itself is a hot, dusty trudge along a service road for the high tension power lines. There are at least three stiff climbs, not something I wanted to see after pounding out six miles.

Next time I might hike in on Cheseboro Ridge and hike out on the canyon trail.

There are a good number of geochaches stashed in this region. I popped coordinates for three geocaches into my GPS, but without a decent map of the area–in my pre-trip planning I did a Google search for variety of misspellings: “hike Cheesebro canyon” and “hiking trails Cheseboro canyon.” I found hits. But no maps.

Suffice it to say that the geocaches I was looking for were not in Cheseboro canyon, but in the next canyon over in the Las Virgenes area. So I came up empty handed.

Because I misunderestimated how long the 10 plus mile “round trip would”  take me, I wound up getting back to the trailhead well after dusk.  Aside from my general unease about Dementors stalking me in the darkness there was a heart-bursting moment when I stopped under a live oak to glance at my GPS.  A murder of crows exploded from the branches above me.