Visiting the Horses and Burros at Return to Freedom

horses and burros at return to freedom

Anna, my seven-year-old daughter loves horses. When a family weekend trip included a visit to the “Return to Freedom” sanctuary for wild horses and burros she was ecstatic.

Anna Jasper the DonkeyReturn to Freedom is a non-profit, 300-acre sanctuary near Santa Barbara, California, where families and young people can directly experience America’s remaining wild horses in a natural setting. Wild horses are a living symbol of our country’s heritage.

We jumped out of the car and readied our GlyphGuy backpack with water for the warm day. Suddenly a burro appeared, startling us with his stealth. Anna giggled. “Hello, donkey.” The greeting was returned with a soft nuzzle. The burro’s name was Jasper.

Several other families soon arrived and were also greeted by Jasper. A guide for the sanctuary welcomed everyone and after a few ground rules, we began to meet the horses and burros. We began to learn for ourselves why this place is important.

Many of the horse family groups found refuge at Return to Freedom after being displaced from public lands in the west. The Sanctuary provides a safe haven for wild horses, herds, and burros who might otherwise be separated, slaughtered, abused, or left to roam without food or water. Anna met several horses, Flicka and Ginger, who were only minutes from being destroyed before finding refuge at Return to Freedom.

In the afternoon a visit near a herd of about forty wild horses allowed us to rest and let the horses approach us.

A Kiger Mustang stallion is the most famous resident at Return to Freedom. ‘Spirit” was the inspiration for the animated DreamWorks film, “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron”.

Anna Meeting Spirit the Stallion of the Cimmaron

Jasper always made sure no one got too far away from the group. When it was time to leave it was Jasper who led Anna up to the visitors center.

Anna said goodbye to the horses she had met; she gave Jasper a big hug around his neck, “Thank you, Jasper, for being such a great host.” This inquisitive and gentle donkey had become one of Anna’s new best friends.

All of us left with a deeper appreciation for why places are needed for free-ranging horses and burros. This place was more than a sanctuary; it is a reminder of our own heritage and freedom.

Learn more about Return to Freedom: www.returntofreedom.org.

Coyote is Still Teaching – Lessons from the Trail

coyote is still teaching

It was springtime in California’s Henry Coe State Park. The hillsides were sprouting green and rugged looking oaks dotted the hillsides.

My family enjoyed a day of just being outside. My six-year old daughter enjoyed hiking but would sometimes be so engrossed with her surroundings that she would not see sticks or rocks on the trail. After a near tumble she was heard to comment, “I don’t need to be aware of where I’m going.” That same day my wife had asked me to ‘check the camera’ and I was heard to say, “I don’t need to check my camera.” After all it was ‘my’ camera and when I last used ‘my’ camera there were plenty of pictures, though I had noticed the picture count did seem higher than it should be.

I don’t need to be aware of where I’m going.

I don’t need to check my camera.

We were hiking back to the car when my wife noticed a coyote several hundred feet in front of us on the trail. We were downwind, so the coyote (apparently) had not noticed us. The coyote had rich colorful fur. She was looking at something in the grass. I could count on two hands the number of times during my life I seen a coyote in the mid-day sun. Possibly this was a mother coyote with a litter of pups and she was gathering food.

Seeing the coyote reminded me that some people fear and even demonize these animals because they might venture into suburbs to scavenge for food. Coyotes are sometimes lumped together with dark creatures that few appreciate like bats, snakes and rats. On the contrary coyotes are interesting animals. In some Native American oral traditions, the coyote is a creature of power and influence; the coyote could choose to teach valuable lessons to people, and sometimes those lessons were taught through trickery.

After a short time the coyote lost interest with the something in the grass and looked unconcerned over her shoulder at us. She moved down the trail and rounded the bend. We also continued on the trail making sure to keep a distance between us. Just before every curve in the trail she would turn and pose in the sun. I would carefully take a picture but she always moved out of sight. I felt as though I was being teased.

This ‘teasing’ continued for twenty minutes until the coyote became very distant on the trail and then disappeared. My young daughter was so intent on looking for the coyote that she did not see a trail hazard, a very fresh pile of poo. After stepping in it the awkward grimace on her face spoke volumes – that from that day on she would be more aware of where was going.

My young daughter was so intent on looking for the coyote that she did not see a trail hazard, a very fresh pile of poo.

At that moment the coyote appeared, up the hillside from us some thirty feet away. She looked at us then gracefully turned and stood sideways along a rock outcrop. Her head was slightly raised as she sniffed the air. It was a picture perfect moment: the green grass surrounding the rock, gray rock underfoot and the deep blue-sky overhead accentuated the tan and golden brown of her fur, the late afternoon sunlight was soft and offered no harsh shadows.

I could not believe this opportunity for a photograph. I slowly raised the camera and pressed the shutter button…it was to be to be my best photo of the year! The camera made an annoying electronic peep-peep noise. I raced to look at the camera screen, it read, “Memory Card Full”

“What?!” I was shocked, angry and confused. I glanced at the coyote; she was still posing but she was looking at me and ‘my’ camera. She appeared to grin at my situation.

I quickly looked at the pictures in the camera’s memory. My family had used the camera to take photos of a school event, the pet guinea pig, and some relatives. “AAArrggh!” Within my mind I heard my carefree comment, “I don’t need to check my camera”. …I should have checked the camera!

“AAArrggh!” Within my mind I heard my carefree comment, “I don’t need to check my camera”.

I glanced again the coyote – now she seemed to raise her eyes as though mocking me.

I fumbled with the camera and erased a guinea pig photo. The coyote was shifting her weight as though readying to walk – she was turning. Quickly I raised the camera and snapped the photo…the coyote was gone. I checked the photo in the camera’s memory – it was a well-focused, perfectly visible picture of the coyote’s posterior. The messaging was not lost.

My daughter and I looked at each other, we both felt tricked, we both felt like posteriors. Neither of us talked much while returning home.

During dinner we talked about what had happened on the trail. At first we blamed the coyote for our own shortcomings, then we correctly blamed ourselves. Although we had made mistakes those mistakes would not happen again; my daughter would watch the trail better, and I would check my equipment before another trip.

Perhaps the stories about coyotes playing tricks are true – the encounter on the trail provided us with several valuable lessons.

One Ladybug, A Thousand Ladybugs…One Million Ladybugs!

It was a cool March morning in a redwood forest of California’s Santa Cruz Mountains.

My family ventured up a small fern-lined creek following an overgrown trail – a trail less traveled.

Near the top of the stream the trail became overgrown, we climbed to the canyon’s edge to walk a more recognizable path. A major trail was about twenty feet away. Walking to the trail we noticed a single ladybug basking in a sunbeam just in front of us. We thought this to be a rare sight for the time of year.

In another step, we saw ten ladybugs, then one hundred. Several more steps and we saw clumps and carpets of red and black ladybugs covering the ground! Then we noticed that all around us the tree branches and tree trunks were also covered. Surrounding us were millions of ladybugs!

The ladybug patchwork carpet covered an area roughly 20 by 30 feet. The ladybugs were clumped between the ridges and valleys of redwood bark forty feet above our heads before becoming difficult to see. We recognized that we had ventured into a rarely seen spectacle.

The ladybugs were apparently emerging from ‘diapause’, the insect equivalent of hibernation. During diapause, the ladybugs gather together in large groups to conserve their resources and for reproductive purposes. “Ladybugs can survive for up to nine months by living off their stored reserves. They break out of diapause when the temperature reaches 55 degrees Fahrenheit (13 degrees Celsius), which is generally when food becomes available again.”

The ladybugs that were fortunate enough to enjoy a sunbeam were more energetic than their cooler neighbors, sometimes only inches away.

These insects are commonly referred to as ladybugs but are actually beetles. Their correct name is the Ladybird Beetle. Apparently, such grouping locations are carefully guarded secrets by people (who must obtain a special permit) who harvest the beetles primarily for the purpose of selling in garden stores as pest control insects.

We were awed by this large concentration of ladybugs and watched them for some time before continuing down the trail.

We left the ladybugs as we found them. Their location enjoyed others who may take a trail less taken.

Reference Source: San Diego Zoo website > Animal Bytes > Insects > Ladybugs.

Nose to Nose with the Elephant Seals of Año Nuevo

In the mid-1800s Elephant Seals were hunted for their oily blubber to light the lamps of San Francisco. But, within a few short decades, they were gone and thought to be extinct. Thanks to modern protections a small population has returned from the edge of extinction to reclaim their former territory on the California coast. In the wintertime at Año Nuevo hundreds of seals, from newborns, pregnant females and gigantic males congregate and we get to see them up close.

The seals gain their name from the elephantine noses possessed by the males.

The walking trips to see the seals are no more than 2 miles in length and about 1.5 to 2 hours in duration. Much of the terrain is loose sand. The hike begins with a thirty-minute walk from the Visitor’s Center to the tour staging area. Last chance latrine facilities are available. Here we will be joined by a docent who will guide us into the Wildlife Protection Area. Remember, bulls can move 20 feet, even in loose sand, in 2.5 seconds! You are requested to stay at least 40 feet away from the seals at all times.

Meet at the Sanborn Park Hostel on Sunday, January 10, BY 9 a.m. to determine carpool arrangements. Reservations are required. The fee is $10.00 per person, children under 3 are free. Parking is available at the reserve on a per vehicle ($5) basis and must be paid at the entrance station. Picnic tables are located near the Visitor’s Center for lunch.

Año Nuevo is roughly an hour and fifteen-minute drive (55 miles) from the hostel. After visiting the reserve, weather permitting, we will continue north along Hwy 1 to explore the wildlife areas and tidepools between Pigeon Point Lighthouse and Montara. Plan to eat before entering the reserve as we will be hiking during lunch time. Picnic tables are available near the Visitors Center.

The trip goes rain or shine. Recommended equipment/gear for this trip: rain jacket/clothes, headband/ear band, camera, comfortable sports or hiking shoes, a second pair of shoes to keep in the car for return, lunch, day pack with water. Wear layered clothes and come prepared for any kind of weather. Please note the reserve does not allow pets, smoking, food, gum chewing or umbrellas in the wildlife protection area.

Organization: Sanborn Park Hostel
Trip Rating: Easy
Date: January 10, 1999
Trip Leader: Mark Hougardy
Participants: 14

Whale Watching Excursion in Monterey Bay

January is a prime month to watch Gray Whales as they swim offshore during their annual migration from Alaska to the warm waters off Baja California.

Enjoy a day whale watching and exploring the historic Cannery Row in Monterey. The day begins carpooling from Sanborn Park Hostel to Monterey’s Wharf. In Monterey, we’ll board the 55′ Pt. Sur Clipper and depart for the deep water of Monterey Bay in search of these gentle giants that can reach up to 45 feet in length. The accompanying Marine Biologist will provide onboard interpretation about Gray Whales and other observed sea creatures as seals, otters, and sea birds. In the afternoon return to Monterey for personal exploration of the historic Cannery Row restaurants and shops. In the early evening, we return to the hostel.

Organization: Sanborn Park Hostel
Date: January 10, 1999
Trip leader: Mark Hougardy
Participants: 10

A Weekend of Redwoods, Elephant Seals and Sanborn

The summer at Sanborn provides opportunities to meet others from distant lands and explore the abundant areas around the hostel. On Saturday morning we depart for Ano Nuevo State Reserve to hike among the dunes and view the massive bull Elephant Seals. Some bulls can be up to 16 feet in length! The afternoon will be spent beachcombing and exploring the coastline. In the evening we return to Sanborn Park Hostel for grilling your favorite food on the bbq, meeting new folks, sitting around the fire, watching deer in a nearby field, and telling stories. Creative thoughts and those young at heart are welcome. We overnight at the hostel. On Sunday, we head to Big Basin Redwoods State Park to hike the 10 mile Berry Creek Falls Loop. This loop includes the remarkable Golden Falls, Silver Falls and the 65 foot Berry Creek Falls. All trips depart from the hostel at 9:00 am. Overnight reservations recommend fee per person is $8.50.

Organization: Sanborn Park Hostel
Date: Saturday-Sunday, 11-12 June 1999
Trip leader: Mark Hougardy
Participants: 12

Kayaking and Nature Viewing in Elkhorn Slough

Join us on Saturday, June 6 as we discover the abundance of Elkhorn Slough. We’ll view migratory waterfowl, shorebirds, harbor seals and possibly rafts of sea otters. Elkhorn Slough is unique because it is one of the few relatively undisturbed coastal wetlands remaining in California. The slough extends about six miles inland and consists of some 2,500 acres. The trip lasts 5 hours. Reservations required.

Organization: GlyphGuy Adventure Travel
Date: Saturday, 6 June 1999
Trip leader: Mark Hougardy
Participants: 8