Archive for September, 2008

On more than a few nights, I’ve heard coyotes around my cabin, for they typically hunt in pairs, howling and yipping back and forth to keep track of where the other one is. I’ve seen coyotes in the Point Reyes National Seashore, as well as beside Nicasio Reservoir and on Highway 1 near Campolindo Way in Point Reyes Station.

Last Thursday, however, was the first time I managed to not only see but photograph a coyote close to the house.

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As it happened, last Thursday I drove Seeva Cherms, daughter of Linda Sturdivant of Inverness Park, to Novato and back. As we pulled up to my cabin upon our return, Seeva spotted an animal lying in the grass just uphill from where I was parking.

Look!,” she exclaimed. “There’s a coyote!” Because it was still bright daylight, I was initially skeptical. From its color, it could have been a deer, but when the coyote stood up, there was no mistaking it.

Luckily I had my camera in the car, and as I took it out, the coyote began ambling uphill slowly, giving me a chance to shoot several photos.

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There were no coyotes in West Marin for 40 years because of poisoning by sheep ranchers in northwest Marin and southern Sonoma counties. However, coyotes never disappeared from northern Sonoma County, and after the Nixon Administration banned the poison 10-80, they started spreading south and showed up here again in 1983.

Since then, coyotes have put an end to well over half the sheep ranching around Marshall, Tomales, Dillon Beach, and Valley Ford.

Coyotes, which evolved in North America two million years ago, can now be found from Alaska to Panama. In fact, their name in English is derived from coyotl, which was given to them by the Nahuatl tribe of central Mexico.

Northern coyotes are the largest, weighing up to 75 pounds and measuring more than five feet long. Coyotes have been clocked at just under 45 mph while chasing prey and can jump almost 15 feet while on the run. Interestingly, coyotes — like domestic dogs — have sweat glands on the pads of their paws. Wolves don’t. (Nor do New England coyotes, which are bigger than the coyotes around here and whose ancestry is presumed to be part wolf.)

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Unlike many predators, coyotes have actually benefited from the European settlement of North America. Most significantly, the white man eliminated many of the wolves that prey on coyotes. A brief clip from the National Geographic Channel of a wolf-coyote encounter (with a happy ending) can be seen by clicking here.

Modern society has also encouraged the spread of coyotes by providing them with food sources ranging from abundant garbage to small pets. As a result, coyotes live longer in suburban and urban areas than they do in the wilds, according to a study conducted from 2000 to 2007 by Ohio State University researchers.

The researchers determined that roughly 2,000 coyotes live in the Chicago metropolitan area alone and concluded comparable populations could be found at other US cities. Two years ago, in fact, a coyote was captured in Manhattan’s Central Park.

Other than rifle-toting sheep ranchers, mountain lions are the only significant threats to coyotes in West Marin, and in the wild, coyotes can live up to 10 years.

While coyotes have been known to mate with wolves, their more common inter-species dalliances are with domestic dogs. Indeed, not too long ago, various people walking female dogs near Abbott’s Lagoon were horrified when they spotted a male coyote heading toward their pet — only to discover the guy wanted to get it on with Lassie, not devour her.

Two weeks ago, I along with hundreds of other homeowners in West Marin received a letter from the Marin County Fire Department reminding us what the California Public Resources Code has to say about fire prevention. It was a somber message:

“Defensible space is required by law (4290 and 4291 PRC) for all property owners in State Responsibility Areas (SRA). Your property is located in an SRA wildland/urban-interface area and is at risk of destruction by wildfire. The attached form must be returned by mail or completed online at within 30 days.”

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The form includes 10 requirements
that range from clearing a “defensible space 100 feet from all structures” and removing “all dead vegetation (leaves, needles, branches etc.) and cut or mowed all dry grass within 100 feet of my home” to removing “all tree limbs on mature trees within 10 feet of the ground” and removing “tree limbs that are within 10 feet of my chimney or that over hang my roof.”

The letter, which was signed by Fire Chief Ken Massucco, warned: “Fire-prevention staff from the Marin County Fire Department will inspect all properties in wildfire-prone areas in 2008 and subsequent years. Any property not in compliance may face enforcement action or fines from the Marin County fire marshal.”

Although the only “wildland” my property interfaces with, other than neighboring households, is a horse pasture, I took the notice seriously. I can recall a breakfast 13 years ago when from my dining-room table I could see towering flames sweeping down Inverness Ridge on the other side of Tomales Bay. That fire destroyed 45 houses and blackened 12,000 acres. It was so intense that for two hours on the morning of Oct. 4, 1995, the fire consumed roughly an acre of wildland per second.

In short, fires spread all too easily. As noted here three weeks ago, fires swept through Tomales in 1877, 1891, 1898, and 1920, destroying much of the town each time. The Marin Independent Journal last November reported: “Pete Martin, a retired Marin County Fire Department captain, said [in a meeting at the Mill Valley Community Center] there have been 10 major fires in Marin, starting in 1881 when a Corte Madera farmer burning brush sparked a 65,000-acre fire.

“In September 1923, a 40,000-acre fire raged through Ignacio Valley, destroying 17 homes. That same day, 584 homes were destroyed by fire in the Berkeley Hills. Another 110 homes were lost in the 1929 Mill Valley blaze, Martin said. Most of the fires started in September and were fed by what Martin called ‘devil winds,’ blowing from the inland hills toward the ocean, very similar to the Santa Ana winds in Southern California.”

Last July, I had hauled two pickup-truck loads of brush and limbs to a fire department disposal site in Olema, but after receiving the fire chief’s letter, I set out to clear away some more. I cut low limbs off 10 pine trees plus an ornamental tree of unknown variety with a trunk as hard as iron — and just about as heavy. I cut back coyote brush along my driveway, and for the third time this year, I trimmed grass around my cabin. It was strenuous work, especially because much of the cut foliage had to be dragged nearly 100 yards to a brush pile at the foot of my driveway.

Some of the work to be done, however, required more than time and sweat. I had already felled one dead pine tree this summer, but now I was confronted with a significantly larger one. In addition, some large limbs hanging over my roof had to be removed, and I figured it would be risky for both me and the roof to climb a tree with a chainsaw and cut them off myself.

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Nick Whitney uses a pruning hook to trim small branches off one pine tree before cutting larger branches off another.

So I called Nick Whitney of Pacific Slope, and last Thursday he and his crew of tree trimmers showed up. The three of them spent half a day felling the dead pine, cutting branches away from my roof, using a blower to clean pine needles from my rain gutter, chipping all the foliage they’d cut, chipping my own brush pile, and then hauling all the chippings away. By the time they left, my cabin looked noticeably less vulnerable to wildfires.

Fire Chief Massucco had written that “2008 is already the most devastating fire season on record in Northern California, and fire danger will be at its worst in September and October. Marin County is one of the most fire-prone landscapes in California and has a long history of destructive wildfires.”

It is obvious that numerous homes in Inverness and Inverness Park, as well as throughout the San Geronimo Valley, are nowhere near compliance with the fire department’s orders, so on Friday I was feeling a bit smug when I paid a visit on friends in Inverness Park. As it happened, I was outdoors talking to Terry Gray when a drizzle that soon turned into light rain began falling.

There goes the fire season,” I remarked. “Well, that’s good,” responded Terry, somewhat surprised by the sigh in my voice. Sheepishly I realized I probably sounded like an architect of America’s anti-missile system who’s disappointed when Russia doesn’t attack. So I quickly agreed, “Yes, it is good the fire season’s over.”

Now that warm weather is back, however, that may not be the case.

I suspect my parents’ initial inclination was to attribute the disgusting phenomenon to what they saw as the general degeneracy of the era, for it was in the early 1960s that our family began to notice more than a little filth just outside a third-floor window.

The second-floor living room of our home in the Berkeley Hills had a bay window looking out (appropriately) at San Francisco Bay, and atop the protruding window was a small, shingled roof. The view from the third floor likewise looked out at the bay but also down on the bay window’s roof, and around 1960, my parents were dismayed to notice dog-sized feces mysteriously showing up on the shingles.

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I’m sorry, but there’s a line.

One night while I was away, my parents heard something banging around on a lattice that was on the same side of the house as the bay window. They investigated and with irritation discovered that a family of raccoons had taken to climbing two stories up the outside of our house to poop on the window’s small roof. Not only was this unsightly, it forced my parents to periodically string a garden hose through our house and from the third-floor window spray raccoon excrement off the roof below.

With the insouciance of youth, I was amused by the raccoons’ seemingly bizarre behavior; however, as an adult, I don’t find it quite so entertaining now that raccoons have established lofty latrines near my cabin.

As it happens, a sizable pine tree grows beside the steps leading up to my deck, and the tree has become a favorite jungle gym for this hill’s raccoons. Unfortunately, the raccoons have selected the crotches of two large limbs for latrines, and they keep coming back to leave fresh droppings on top of older droppings. Anyone going up or down my front stairs has all too good a view of these latrines, so I too must now hose the filth out of sight.

I’ve spared you the photos, but naturalists note that raccoon scat is shaped like a blunt cigar and sometimes contains bits of berries, acorns or other vegetation. However, examining it too closely may be a bad idea for several reasons.

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Well, excuse me! This stall is taken.

There is, in fact, a serious side to all this because raccoon droppings often contain the parasite Baylisascaris procyonis, which can make humans and dogs extremely sick. Indeed, inhaling or ingesting eggs of the parasite can be fatal for humans although this is not common. Nonetheless, the Journal of Wildlife Diseases reports that spot checks of raccoon droppings in Indiana during 1980 found 27 percent of the scat in an urban area carried Baylisascaris procyonis eggs, as did 31 percent in a rural area.

Counter-intuitively, the danger is greatest with dried — not fresh — droppings. The veterinarian website PetEducation.com notes the parasite’s eggs must sit in the scat for three or four weeks before they become infective. It’s not a pleasant prospect and perhaps explains why some people instinctively yell “Scat!” whenever they spot a raccoon hunkering down around their homes.

Anyone who takes a job on a small-town newspaper, especially in West Marin, has to love the profession. Weekly newspaper people work long hours for low pay, but reader demand for their publications is reassuringly high — so high, in fact, that while daily newspapers in the United States are losing circulation, weeklies are gaining. Here’s a look at people from West Marin’s press, as well as an internationally acclaimed editor’s observations about this country’s weekly newspapers.

Tuesday evening, six of us past and present Point Reyes Light staff, along with a couple of other newsmen, got together at Mike and Sally Gale’s beef ranch in Chileno Valley to welcome back their son Ivan Gale. Ivan, a former Light reporter, now writes for The National, an English-language daily in Abu Dhabi.

For an account of his adventures in the Arab world, please see posting Number 121. Ivan is in town for a few days because sister Kate is getting married Saturday.

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Point Reyes Light staff and alumni (clockwise from bottom): Ivan Gale, a former Light reporter and now a business writer for The National in the United Arab Emirates; Jacoba Charles, a current Light reporter; Molly Birnbaum, a current Light reporter; Dave Mitchell, the previous editor and publisher of The Light; Andrea Blum, a former Light reporter and now a reporter for The West Marin Citizen; and Janine Warner, a former Light reporter and now a new-media consultant and author. (Photo by Josh Haner, a New York Times photographer)

Ivan, Andrea, Jacoba, and Molly all hold masters’ degrees from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
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A combined half century of newspaper experience: Missy Patterson, who has run the front office of The Point Reyes Light for 27 years, flanked by former Light reporter Janine Warner of Los Angeles and her husband Dave LaFontaine at Café Reyes Wednesday. Dave and Janine have been visiting in Point Reyes Station for the past week.

Janine, who worked at The Light from 1990 to 92, left to publish (with Light columnist Víctor Reyes) Visión Latina, a 20,000-circulation bilingual monthly for Marin and Sonoma counties. When it ceased publication after three years, Janine started her own web-design business and went on to become the online editor of The Miami Herald and teach at the University of Miami and at USC. She has written more than a dozen Internet books, such as Websites — Do It Yourself — for Dummies, which together have sold half a million copies. She is a regular contributor to Layers Magazine, a conference speaker, and an online-media consultant with Dave.

Dave likewise has wide experience as a reporter and editor — from The Eau Claire (Wisconsin) Leader-Telegram and The Arizona Republic to The Caracas (Venezuela) Daily Journal and Star magazine. In addition, he edited Single Parent magazine, as well as FilmsOn.com, and is a contributor to the Newspaper Association of America’s Growing Audiences publication. His blog is called Hard News, Inc., although he says a new and improved blog called “Sips from the Firehose” is being designed and prepared to launch.

Dave and Janine, who call their business Artesian Media, have spent months overseas (usually together) during the past year, consulting and giving talks in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Russia, Spain, and Ukraine, in addition to working in various US cities.

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Linda Petersen of Inverness, ad manager of The West Marin Citizen, and her dog Sebastian shared Café Reyes’ garden two weeks ago with an unidentified couple. (Photo by Jasper Sanidad, photographic contributor to The Light)

100_0458.jpgHaving changed its fare in the past year, Café Reyes in Point Reyes Station on some days now resembles a newspaper hangout.

Offering beer and wine — plus pizza from a wood-fired oven — the café with its sunny garden and jovial staff provides a respite from the harried world of newspapering.

Seen here in the garden of Café Reyes two weeks ago, Light photo contributor Jasper Sanidad protests that he’d rather be on the other side of the camera.

During the 27 years I published The Light, I belonged to a number of journalism associations, each valuable in its own way. Although I’m now retired, I still belong to one of the organizations: the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors (ISWNE).

As you might expect, the majority of the editors are in the United States, but there’s also a number in Canada and England. Five years ago, our president was an editor in Ireland.

Like other newspaper organizations, ISWNE conducts annual contests to recognize excellence in journalism, and this year’s winner of the society’s Golden Quill award for editorial writing was Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor of The Altamont Enterprise in New York. In her acceptance speech, Hale-Spencer made some points worth repeating concerning weekly newspapers:

“We are all painfully aware that circulation for daily newspapers is falling. We wince each time we learn of another round of layoffs, another foreign bureau shut down, another paper closed…. While dailies are struggling, not everyone is aware that circulation for weekly newspapers in the United States is growing. A survey last year by the National Newspaper Association found that 83 percent of adults read a community newspaper each week, up from 81 percent in 2005.

100_0474.jpg“According to a 2007 survey, local community papers are the primary source of information by a two-to-one margin over the next most popular medium — television….

“I believe weekly newspapers are growing in readership because they offer news that can’t be found elsewhere.”

Another member of the West Marin press takes in sun (and pizza) a week ago in the café garden.

Linda Sturdivant of Inverness Park is a driver for The Citizen, delivering bundles of newspapers to merchants and newsracks.

Tomales again this weekend showed it’s a town that knows how to party. The 2000 census listed Tomales’ population as 371 (the third smallest of the 14 towns in West Marin, ahead of only Dillon Beach, 319, and Olema, 245). However, the few folks who live in Tomales are known for hosting notable bashes — from a 200-biker Hells Angels’ barbecue in 2004 to its yearly Founders’ Day.

100_0493_1.jpgAlthough a wine-tasting booth in the town park was doing a brisk business Sunday and the beer booth sold out its entire inventory, the William Tell bar was crowded inside and out. In front of the bar, a band played, and some folks danced.

Tomales on Sunday resumed its annual Founders’ Day celebration, which includes a parade up Highway 1 through downtown followed by a picnic in the park, complete with food, beer, and wine booths. Last year the celebration couldn’t be held because the town park was in the midst of an improvement project.

The project isn’t finished yet, but already new restrooms and new playground equipment are in place. The park is bordered with a new — but rustic — fence. Using split railroad ties, volunteer Bill Jensen built a fence like those traditionally found on local sheep ranches. Stabilized with handsome retaining walls made of stone, terraces — where families now picnic and children play — have been dug into the hillside. And therein lies a story.

Because many of Tomales’ ranching families have lived there for generations and care about its history, the town maintains an ambitious Tomales Regional History Center. Syndicated cartoonist Kathryn LeMieux, who lives in Tomales, is a volunteer at the museum, as well as a former member of its board, and one day during July 2007, she received a call from contractor David Judd, who’s in charge of the park renovation.

Kathryn ought to come down to the park, he said, and “look at all the old things we’re digging up.” David said he’d have the bulldozer work elsewhere for a while to give her a chance to sift through dirt that had been moved, and Kathryn immediately became fascinated with what she found. In the top four feet of soil were old bottles, Miwok arrowheads, and broken China. A year later, Kathryn is still inspecting dirt in the park and, in fact, found obsidian from an arrowhead on Sunday.

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Townspeople were captivated by the trove of archeology Kathryn (seen above with Bill Bonini) revealed in the town park on Sunday, and it was one of the highlights of Founders’ Day.

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Along with dozens of arrowheads and pieces of China, Kathryn has collected numerous bottles from the beginning of the last century. She even found an automobile-dealership license plate from 1919, a year before the dealer’s home apparently was destroyed in a town fire. (Back then Tomales was considered sufficiently populous to warrant its own dealership.)

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Just south of Tomales, Highway 1 runs alongside Walker Creek, and it happened that last Thursday when I drove this stretch of road, I came up behind a car that was barely moving. Looking around to see why it had slowed, I spotted two deer wading across Walker Creek. So I pulled onto the shoulder and watched. Eventually, the water got too deep for the deer, and they had to swim the last 50 feet or so, coming ashore no more than 25 yards upstream from me.

Once the site of a Miwok village called Utumia, present-day Tomales was founded by Warren Dutton, who began building settlements in the area during the 1850s. The town gained prominence in 1875 when it became a stop on the new narrow-gauge railroad, which ran from Sausalito across Marin County to Point Reyes Station and then north to Cazadero.

Before long the town was home to 11 saloons, which may have been where ebullient residents hatched an unsuccessful campaign to have Tomales named the countyseat despite its remote location

Tomales, however, is a town that has had to keep rebuilding itself, for it has been struck by one disaster after another. Town fires in 1877, 1891, and 1898 each destroyed numerous buildings, as did the 1906 earthquake and yet another town fire in 1920. In 1930, the last train pulled out of town, just as Prohibition and the Great Depression were also dealing Tomales economic blows.

Tomales’ population today is about 40 percent below its peak a century ago, and its largest employer is merely good old Tomales High. Nonetheless, townspeople have persevered, and the Founders’ Day crowd sounded almost giddy as they admired the work being done (much of it by volunteers) at their park — and the antiquities being unearthed.