A year on Sugarloaf Ridge
By E. Breck Parkman, Senior State Archaeologist, Retired, California State Parks
This is a paper I read at a storytelling event entitled, “Stories About This Place,” in Santa Rosa, on March 3, 2005. This seasonal perspective of life on Sugarloaf Ridge is based on my first three years living in the State residence in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. I lived there from the summer of 2002 until my retirement from the State in the spring of 2017. A year after retiring, I became a member of the Board of Directors of the Sonoma Ecology Center, the organization that now operates the park. The park has changed in some important ways since I wrote this. For one thing, the campground now has hot showers, an improvement that has resulted in the campground being considerably busier in winter. And with the involvement of the Sonoma Ecology Center, public outreach has been greatly expanded, resulting in increased visitation, even in winter. Thus, the busy summer and sleepy winter cycle I described for the park doesn’t hold true as much today as it did when I used to live there. There are more people in the park now, regardless of the season. But the seasons continue to change, regardless of how many people come and go. There is a coming and going of other things – fall acorns, winter rain, spring wildflowers, summer heat – and they help define the rhythm of life on Sugarloaf Ridge.
SummerBy the beginning of summer, the campground is full, with most of the campsites filled even in mid-week. There are sounds of laughter and singing in the night. The joyful noise makes its way up the valley to my house. These sounds cause me to think about the ancient camp sites that line the creek outside my door. I often imagine the prehistoric song and laughter of the Wappo and Pomo who once called the area home. Rattlesnakes abound and are all around all at once. I remove a half dozen or more from the yard every year, releasing them in the meadow upstream from the house. The yellow jackets also appear in summer. They are always all aflutter in their incessant activity. The days are very warm, some of them being so hot as to be uncomfortable. We have seen it climb above 110 Fahrenheit numerous times. The sky at night is very black with old starlight punctuating the bright young night. The big maple on Sonoma Creek is in full leaf. It is a tree of life full of bird song. One night in summer, I heard a lion caterwauling and the horses in the corral were all in a panic. We have seen and heard other lions here as well. We hear owls most every night. By summer’s end, the raccoons have often raided our backyard vegetable garden and the deer have browsed to death anything we plant out front. But we are more than willing to share what we have with our furry neighbors here on Sugarloaf Ridge.
Fall After Labor Day, the campers disappear, and the traditional camping season ends. The park seems quieter this time of year, especially after a busy summer. Our daily walks continue but there are fewer people to see. The days begin to grow shorter, and sometimes the sunsets are more spectacular. What I call the One Acre Wood, near our house, will often explode in the last light of day. As fall progresses, Sonoma Creek begins to dry up. After months of drought, the winter rains are but a fading memory. However, one deep waterhole survives near the horse barn. It becomes critical habitat for the neighborhood wildlife this time of year. The heavily antlered bucks move into the park in order to mate with the local deer. Their love is primal and exuberant. At night, we listen as coyotes howl up and down the canyon, their excitement at some hunting success almost contagious. The oaks grow heavy with acorns and the birds and squirrels cannot contain their enjoyment. It will be another bumper crop of acorns and bay nuts. The big maple begins to shed its leaves. The air is not so hot now. We watch the ridge to the west for the signs of rain. With the arrival of the rain, the horses will soon depart. We always hate to see them go.
Winter There are few campers in winter, but the trails do see occasional hikers. The rattlesnakes have all disappeared, returned to their dens. The rain returns like an old friend that has been sorely missed. If the water rises, the low water crossing into the campground becomes inundated and the campground is closed. The waterfall downstream of the campground grows large. Sometimes, it is tremendous. One New Year’s Eve a few years ago, it rained nine inches overnight. Sonoma Creek roared to life and brought destruction to properties further downstream. Occasionally, there are big winds and light snow here on Sugarloaf Ridge. The wind blew our porch roof off the first winter we were here. It also destroyed the greenhouse next door. During winter, there is a great solitude to be found on the trails. The sky grows blacker at night and the stars are pure magic. A mother lion and her cub are seen time and time again, but the coyotes sometimes disappear. A black bear and her cub passed through the park near Christmas a few winters ago. Sometimes, on the coldest of nights, a fox takes refuge beneath our house. It is joined occasionally by a skunk or raccoon. During our first winter here, an unfortunate man hung himself from the so-called “Ceremonial Tree” up the hill behind our house. I think about that still. In winter, the big maple is a skeleton exposed for all to see. The tree is a quiet place this time of year. Even the birds refrain from singing when I go passing by.
Spring With spring, the days grow longer, and they are warmer, too. The wildflowers explode all about. The hillsides are like paint palettes decorated with blue lupines and golden poppies. The mother deer show off their new fawns. The baby rattlesnakes emerge from the dens alongside their mothers, fathers, uncles, and aunts. For two springs in a row, we listened to coyote pups barking in a den near our house. And once, we heard young lions playing. My own baby boy, Jon, arrived two springs ago. Gradually, the spring rains cease. Once it is dry again, the horses return to the corral beside the old barn. With the return of the horses come the flies and mice. The big maple leafs out again. The birds rejoice and are full of song. On Memorial Day, the campers return. So do the song and laughter that punctuate the night. I stand on the porch in the evening and listen to the sounds that drift up from the campground below. Some people are singing, and others are laughing around the fire. Above my head, bright stars are beckoning. The year has remade itself, just as it has done so many times before here on Sugarloaf Ridge.