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A 'Walk' on the wild side

Bill Lane Center event focuses on water use on 8,200-acre Stanford University campus

At 6:10 a.m., I was late — and lost.

The second annual "Walk the Farm" event — a 20-mile trek through Stanford University land — had begun promptly at 6 a.m. on Saturday.

I had known that, and yet there I was, dashing around the Stanford Red Barn grounds, hopping in my car, darting up to the Stanford Golf Course and then finally spotting my prey — a clump of 30 hikers with boots, hats and packs — crossing Junipero Serra Boulevard and heading into the Dish.

It wasn't until I had ditched my car in a questionably legal spot, backtracked on Junipero Serra, looped the Dish the wrong way, scared some cows (I later learned they were steers) and jogged down a hill dodging foot-eating holes that I caught up with the group.

I was immediately befriended by researcher, writer and lover-of-the-West Jon Christensen, a tall man who was nearly giddy about the adventure ahead.

"I can feel (the land) in a totally different way," Christensen gushed. "You feel it in your body."

"Walk the Farm" began last year, when Christensen's Stanford campus-focused environmental history course gave Pulitzer Prize-winning history professor David M. Kennedy an idea: Why not walk the perimeter of the 8,200-acre campus, just as farmers once walked farm borders, checking fences, greeting neighbors and catching up with the ever-changing land itself?

So they did, gaining the sponsorship of The Bill Lane Center of the North American West at Stanford, of which Kennedy is a co-director.

Fourteen people made that first 23.5-mile trek, keeping as close to the perimeter as possible.

This year, we had another purpose.

Water was the theme and the route hit Lake Lagunita, Felt Reservoir, Los Trancos Creek and the Searsville Reservoir, paralleling San Francisquito Creek all the way back to El Camino Real.

Fourteen people made that first 23.5-mile trek (last year), keeping as close to the perimeter as possible. This year, we had another purpose.

Water, or the absence of it, has shaped the West and its people. Stanford University relies on a complex and evolving water-management strategy, making it a fitting focus for the Lane Center enterprise.

And what better way to realize the importance of water than walking for 10-plus hours on a lovely yet toasty, sun-drenched day?

Along with the opportunity to spend hours with interesting, good-natured people, "Walk the Farm" is also a rare chance to explore spots hidden from even longtime denizens of The Farm.

One of those spots is a dusty, cow-pie littered pass beneath Interstate 280. Definitely no water there.

After emerging into fresh air, following a dirt track up an incline on the other side and climbing a gate dangerously near barbed wire, we were rewarded by the calm, blue Felt Lake, where a pair of ducks was taking a morning paddle.

Felt Lake, an irrigation reservoir first constructed in the 1880s, is poised for drainage this summer, to scoop out accumulated sediment, Associate Utilities Director Tom Zigterman told us. Zigterman, a steady walker with a neat grey beard and Australian-style hat, is the go-to guy at Stanford for water-engineering issues.

He said archeologists are salivating to get at the original dam, now buried under the reservoir waters. Felt Lake is filled by a division channel from Los Trancos Creek, one would we see in mile or so.

We emerged at a horse stable, one of seeming dozens we would see throughout the day. West of I-280, nested between trees and large houses, where the roads teems with bikers, riding culture — if the number of horses is any indication — still thrives: the traditional West lapping at the shores of Silicon Valley.

A brief bathroom break behind us, we took a left on Alpine Road to see the division channel and the Los Trancos Creek fish ladder, tucked beneath the intersection of Alpine and Arastradero roads, at the edge of Stanford land.

Again Zigterman took the stage. We were standing on a sloping slab of concrete, where water from Los Trancos is directed to Felt Lake, down a fish ladder or through a nearby thruway.

Steelhead trout really do go up the ladder, a channel with slanting, raised ridges, although Stanford hopes to put in a new ladder that will get more use, Zigterman said. It also plans to replace the control boards that require manual manipulation, he said.

And that fast we're off again, back-tracking on Alpine Road to another horse stable operating under a lease from Stanford.

Usually, Kennedy takes the lead, his arms pumping briskly. He's often joined by the loping Christensen, the duo setting a pace I would have to jog to keep up with. I've heard that Kennedy considers those who opt to return to campus in the well-equipped sag wagon guilty of a "moral failure."

Kennedy's complete immersion in the walk became apparent here, when the esteemed scholar darted across Alpine Road in a shockingly small gap between cars.

We took a left on Alpine Road to see the division channel and the Los Trancos Creek fish ladder, tucked beneath the intersection of Alpine and Arastradero roads.

At the stable, Christensen explained that although there wasn't much of a trail, a single-track would emerge.

So single file, we plunged into the cool woods. I jerked and hopped to avoid poison oak as the thin, uneven path climbed.

We were heading almost due west, more than seven miles under our boots, aiming for the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve.

To get there, we cheated — leaving Stanford for the shady trails and roads of Portola Valley.

Then we arrived at an entrance to Jasper Ridge off Mapache Drive, where we met up with Philippe Cohen, the research preserve's director, who boasted we were about to begin the "loveliest portion" of the hike.

Jasper Ridge is a 1,200 acre preserve packed with research projects. It is open to the public only through docent-led tours, although anyone can take classes to become a docent.

Cohen, a geographer by training, has led the preserve for more than 14 years. He works out of the preserve's recently constructed uber-green research building, where he has been watching a great blue heron attempt to capture a gopher — for weeks. The same heron, still too slow, and the same gopher, perhaps now toying with his potential predator.

I didn't get to watch the natural drama, but I did spy two snakes, one a baby rattler, as we walked along a trail beside the sediment-packed Corte Madera Creek.

We crossed the Searsville Dam, a stack of large concrete blocks constructed in 1892, according to David Freyberg, an associate civil-engineering professor. The lake's cool breeze felt great after the preserve's dusty red trails, and I become mesmerized by the water drops hurtling through a spillway and falling the 67 feet to the recontinued creek below.

Searsville was once a swimming lake that hosted frat parties and other gatherings, so its closure to research in the 1970s didn't go over easily, Cohen said.

It's now filling with the sediment that's shaken from the Santa Cruz mountains during earthquakes and flushed down by heavy rains, Freyberg told us.

Stanford depends on Searsville as an important source of water for irrigation so, within 10 to 50 years, the university will need to make a tough decision to do something, such as dredging if it wants to retain that water, Freyberg said.

"The 'do nothing' option does a lot," he said.

But we had more important things to worry about than major water sources filling with sediment — our growling bellies.

Searsville was once a swimming lake that hosted frat parties and other gatherings, so its closure to research in the 1970s didn't go over easily.

Climbing a hill to see picnic tables shaded by grand oaks and laden with catered lunches, 11 miles down, was quite a relief.

And none other than 88-year-old Bill Lane, co-founder of Sunset Magazine, was there to greet us, wearing a red Stanford letter jacket, a red outback hat and a turquoise-embedded string tie and a belt buckle.

"Good to have you," he said, welcoming us all.

He smiled and chatted with the tired walkers, and when Cohen perched on a table to take of photo of Lane, Lane pulled a disposable camera out of his jacket pocket, snapping a shot of Cohen in return.

Before our muscles could cramp, we resumed the walk.

Christensen promised the remainder of the afternoon would be downhill. We followed the creek to the juncture of Bear and Corte Madera creeks, where the two combine — their distinct waters sometimes visibly swirling — to create San Francisquito Creek.

And we walked.

We passed goats on a hill, and then stumbled into a scene from another time and place. Country music twanged out of an aged, army-green tank truck, near a man casually shepherding about a dozen cattle into a pen.

And a bit further along the wide, gritty road, the sight of us — dusty, noisy and scattered — scared a skittish horse, which reared and whinnied. We pulled to the side as a man calmed the animal, which he was leading along with another. As we remained still, the man, two dogs and three horses passed by.

A brown horse, surely a female, penned nearby snorted her approval — peace had returned to her neighborhood.

We walked some more, the exterior of the Stanford Linear Accelerator to our left and San Francisquito Creek to our right.

At Webb Ranch, we were met by Ranch Manager Tom Hubbard, who explained that his 200-plus-acre Stanford-owned property produces vegetables and fruit and has a horse stable.

And Hubbard gave Kennedy an idea for next year — one that made Christensen cringe. It's possible, Hubbard said, to make the 40-mile walk from the ranch to the ocean.

"'Stanford to the Sea' — there you go," Kennedy said.

I don't remember crossing Interstate 280 again, but before I knew it we were traipsing across Sand Hill Road onto a trail jammed between apartment parking lots and San Francisquito's banks.

Most interesting along this stretch was a recent slide, a cave-in that left the creek's north bank eroded nearly below the fence behind a Menlo Park house. It had been caused, in part, by a giant eucalyptus that had directed the current's flow horizontally, according to Ryan Navratil, a program director with the San Francisquito Creek Watershed Council.

With a cave-in that bad, "there's not much you can do," he said.

We popped into the roar of El Camino Real, its noisy disarray jarring after hours of immersion in nature.

And as we circled back onto campus, the walking, too, became harder. Should I walk on the sidewalk, or would that take too much energy to step up? My notes became scrawls, and I caught myself checking others' watches: How close to the end-time of 5:30 p.m. is it?

But I had one more adventure waiting, one related, albeit indirectly, to water.

With a mere mile remaining, walk organizer Sue Purdy Pelosi and I ducked into a campus building to use the bathroom, promising the 17 other hardy finishers we would catch up with them.

We didn't quite make it, taking a few detours and discovering some interesting campus sights, but losing track of the trail to return to the Red Barn. Pelosi whipped out her cell phone, getting us back on track, but as we stumbled into the lush lawn near the barn, the other hikers already had their boots off, cold drinks in their hands.

Beginning and ending the day lost seemed fitting and circular — perhaps an appropriate tribute to the West, the land of exploration and defeat, which tests our physical and mental endurance and acuity.

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Chris Botsford
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 30, 2008 at 7:30 pm

For those of us who failed to sign up to receive notice of this year's
Walk the Farm" (and thus missed the hike), what should we do so we're included in next year's trek? Can I get my name included on a list of people who will be informed about next year's walk? What do I have to do?


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