Tell me to go on a hike most any day, and I’ll be happy to hit the trail. On the evening of the season’s first Twilight Walk at , however, it was a little different. It’d been cold in the evening so many days in a row, and I was fighting a cold that was banging around in my ears.
Plus, when I met the group at 7 p.m. at the Kumeyaay Lake signpost, Wendy Esterly, the trail guide, said that it would be getting dark pretty quick. The hike would be about a mile and a half long, she said, and there would be fifty-five steps going down before we would cross a creek.
“We’ll have to cross over the creek using some rocks. Normally, it’s dry, but we’ve had a lot of rain. It’ll be an adventure,” she said.
Oh, and by the way, Wendy added, there are rattlesnakes that we might find along the trail.
“If you see one, stop, stomp your feet and we will all figure out a way to get around it,” she said.
Wendy was joined by her husband, Terry Esterly, also a trail guide, as well as another guide, Petra Koelhoffer.
Petra said that the twilight walk was a nice way to get a look at the park at dusk. “You see different things, and you hear more things in the evening,” she said.
So I swallowed my fears of falling and and things that go bump in the dark, and trudged on with the rest of the group down the concrete road.
Terry stopped at a row of flowering bushes alongside the rail. “This is called Everlasting Flower,” he said. “It’s a native plant that was here in 1769 when the Spaniards came through. It smells like citrus.”
The plant is one of the many in the region’s plant community known as coastal sage scrub. “I like to call coastal sage scrub a scratch and sniff garden,” Wendy said.
Soon we came upon a large, pretty tree-like bush with . Wendy said that it was as black elderberry, even though it had a blue tint.
Terry added that the Native Americans used to cut a branch from this plant, carving out the branch so that it was hollow and made a flute.
“So it’s also called the “musical plant,” he said. “Not only that, the flowers can be ground down and made into a pancake batter.”
It was getting hard to hear Terry and Wendy speak, what with the melodious chatter a bird was making nearby.
“That’s a Spotted Towhee just singing away,” Terry said.
“Can’t see him, but can sure hear him,” Petra said.
Overhead, dozens of swallows were swooping around the trees, making their evening rounds.
The trail guides had us turn at a signpost indicating the Grasslands were coming up. We walked across a bridge over a relatively calm section of the .
The river flows 52 miles from its start in the Cuyamacas, explained Wendy.
Then she stopped in front of a pile of sticks off to the side of the railing. “This is a wood rat house,” she said. The animal, also called a pack rat for its hoarding of shiny objects, lives from two to three years.
When the rat dies or moves out, another one moves in.
“These guys decorate the outside and inside of their house,” Wendy said. “They can pack as many as 307 sticks in one night.”
What really got the attention of the little ones and the teens about the hard-to-find animal was Wendy’s account of a story she’d read about some people traveling across Death Valley during the Gold Rush days.
The 49ers were stuck in Death Valley, looking for food, Wendy said. They came across what looked like candy in the snow. They did not know exactly what it was, but they tried it because they were so desperate for food.
“Well, it turns out that it was the dried urine of a wood rat,” Wendy said.
“Aaaaaggggghhh!” said the group of teen-agers in the back of a group. We all convulsed in giggles, holding our stomachs.
Mourning doves cooed softly in the canopy of trees as we walked across the bridge and found ourselves suddenly in the wide, open grassland.
It was immediately cooler by ten degrees. I was beginning to regret that I hadn’t brought my scarf. If the cold wasn’t enough to make me start shivering, the warning about finding ticks on your clothes did.
Terry said that it was a good idea to inspect our clothing and skin when we got home. “They can burrow into your skin and cause Lyme Disease,” he said.
One of the hikers yelled out that the ticks breathe through holes in their bodies, so they easily suffocate when any kind of oily substance is applied to the skin.
I almost wanted to turn back, but then someone pointed out a hovering in the distance. “That’s a White-Tailed Kite,” Wendy said. “It’s called a Kite because of the way they hover.”
Terry pointed out the wide trail near where we were standing. It was one of three wildlife corridors put in place so that mule deer and other wildlife could move throughout the country from Poway to Ramona.
“The most I ever saw in one day was 17 deer,” he said.
We made our way towards the dam through acres of waist-high grassland, actually of wild oat.
Someone pointed out a good specimen of California Sagebrush. Terry explained that even though it was called a sage, it was not of the mint family, like Black or White Sage, but is part of the Sunflower family.
“Still, it has a great fragrance,” he said. “Its nickname is Cowboy Cologne.”
“Getting colder out here,” Petra said, pulling her jacket in closer.
“Yeah, and it’s gonna get really dark out here now,” Wendy said. It was 8:05 p.m.
We made a five-minute stop at the overview of the dam, and then we all turned our flashlights to make our way down the steps to the creek. “Poison oak on your left!” Terry yelled out.
By the time we got to the creek, the bullfrogs were in full symphony. The kids shrieked in delight. We all took turns stepping onto the rocks in the creek and landing on the other side.
The kind man in back of me held my hand as I stepped onto the rocks and I did slip, as I knew I would. But I steadied myself and jumped to the other side, my heart pounding.
After the rock-hopping in the creek, we wound our way along a very narrow strip of trail. It was so dark now that we were starting to see pin-points of stars in the sky.
Terry pointed out some more poison oak. I screamed when a branch swiped across my face.
“It’s just a willow tree,” Wendy said. I laughed.
After what seemed an interminable time, we were safely out of poison oak’s reach and on a flat dirt road.
We all turned out our flashlights for a few minutes, didn’t say a word. The night sky above us thickened, the air hummed with unseen insects.
When we did start walking again, making our way across the bridge, at first, the rush of the river was the only sound, later the back-and-forth call of bullfrogs.
On the twenty-minute walk back up the concrete road, I was silent, walking next to Wendy and one of the youngsters. He was having fun walking in the pool of light from Wendy’s flashlight and going on about how his mother would have chocolate chip cookies waiting for him at home.
And I was happy to find that I was free of any ticks and poison oak.
Next time I go on the Twilight Walk, my husband will be able to accompany me. By then it will be warm enough that I will look forward to the cool evening air rising up from the grassland. We might even hear a hoot owl or two or watch a bat wing its way from tree to tree. I’ll be holding my husband’s hand, just in case.