Elevation 1840 feet, Gravelly Valley, headwaters of the Eel River, Mendocino National Forest, Northern Lake County, Winter Solstice.
Surrounded by 1,427 square miles of National Forest lands, the place feels like a lost world. Of California's eighteen National Forests, this is the only one not crossed by a paved road. On this day the valley echos with the sounds of a dirt bike or two, a chain saw, and gun shots. Somehow the herds of elk appear unconcerned by these intrusions. There is a clutch of weekend cabins at the north end of the valley and a small marina, shut for the winter, on an arm of Lake Pillsbury. There is a shooting range near the dirt airstrip. There are trails designated for off-road vehicles throughout large tracts of the National Forest. Still, one senses remoteness and relatively undisturbed wildness. There is a reassuring feeling, in looking at a map of the region, of connectivity with wild lands south almost to San Francisco Bay and north into the Siskiyou Range and beyond in Oregon. Animals and birds can move along this mountain corridor for hundreds of miles with little risk of becoming road kill.
The braided channels of the Eel River fan out over the flats at Lake Pillsbury, cutting shallow sloughs through elk pastures.
Bleached by the elements, big spiny cones of Gray Pines.
A herd of seventeen tule elk bulls wandered, while one hundred twenty cow elk bedded down on the lake flats.
A manzanita (one variety among over eighty in the Arctostaphylos genus), a plant that epitomizes California.
Out on the lake sit thousands of ruddy ducks, some Canada geese and a few goldeneyes, red breasted mergansers, and pied grebes. A bald eagle swoops in, causing a wave of panic.