Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

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THE SEA – The Gualala (Mendocino County) Trip Part 3

The Sea – The Gualala (Mendocino County) Trip
April 29-May 4, 2018

The sea pretty much speaks for herself so I won’t write much here.

But I will mention the unusual formations at Bowling Ball Beach, south of Point Arena. When there is a minus low tide – which we had – the famed “bowling balls” (about the size of large beach balls) with their “bowling lanes” emerge from their watery home. They are naturally occurring geologic formations called concretions. We went twice, on a sunny morning and a foggy morning. I few of the shots were long exposure.


I am in love with Ocean
lifting her thousands of white hats
in the chop of the storm,
or lying smooth and blue, the
loveliest bed in the world.
In the personal life, there is

always grief more than enough,
a heart-load for each of us
on the dusty road. I suppose
there is a reason for this, so I will be
patient, acquiescent. But I will live
nowhere except here, by Ocean, trusting
equally in all the blast and welcome
of her sorrowless, salt self.

– Mary Oliver, from Red Bird

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission . . . from me!

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Update on the 2017-18 mushroom season in California

I missed the peak season this year. Sadly, I was too busy to get out much. Although the timing varies a little from year to year (and that’s especially true now with our unpredictable weather), November and December are generally the best months for fungus here in Santa Cruz County. Many mushrooms emerge after the first fall rains to then quickly rot away until next year. However, some mushroom species return throughout winter and others prefer to first reveal themselves later in the year.

So even with a late start, I have found a diversity of mushrooms and have enjoy documenting them. I’ve also been experimenting with macro-photography using the super-macro setting on my Olympus Tough 5. The forest floor can be quite dark which puts my cameras at a disadvantage so a few photos are of questionable quality (lots of noise) but I still include them to share my finds. Some mushrooms have been labeled but most I am not quite sure of their identification.

In some photos you will see a brown chicken’s egg. This was an inspired idea (if I say so myself) to find a way to indicate approximate size and scale of the mushrooms. It can be hard to tell from photographs whether the mushroom is 1” or 10” across. People use a variety of objects to help with this: money, lighters, keys, rulers, hands. I wanted something that looked relatively natural so I ordered fake wooden eggs. Many of the shots do not have the egg in the photo, mostly because I haven’t gotten reliably into the habit of using it.

My most exciting find was in the dark understory of the redwood forest just a few feet from the trail in Henry Cowell State Park. Tanoak and other leafy branches obscured it from easy view. My eye caught a white form amid the dappled light of the forest floor. My first thought was large oyster mushrooms but on closer examination, these were revealed to be big white chanterelles! A mushroom I had never seen before. They were beautiful robust fleshy specimens, prime for the picking and eating, considered to be very tasty. But this is a state park and picking mushrooms is verboten. Which was fine for me, I prefer to leave them alone and bring back only photographic evidence. Rain was soon forecast and they would likely begin decaying in the moisture. Chris was disappointed, however, to not get a tasty wild treat.

I told a park docent about the discovery of these chanterelles and he told me where I might find one of the earliest wild flowers, a flower I have never seen before, California Fetid Adder’s Tongue. They bloom in in February.  Stay tuned and I hope to share a photo with you!

I have often pondered how and why small steamy clouds of fog drift up from the redwood forest. Fog often rolls in from the ocean or descends from low clouds, but there are times when the forest itself seems to create fog, especially on partly sunny days. During my mushroom walk in Henry Cowell, I got to witness this in action. With the sun shining brightly on some damp redwoods trees, steam arose right out of the bark, creating undulating wisps of upward floating moisture. I’ve included a few photos to try to captures this mesmerizing phenomena.

As I walked through Henry Cowell recently, I pause wistfully at places where I had spotted exceptional mushrooms during the previous season. The tree that had bright orange chicken-of-the-woods now showed only small withered dark remnants of once living fungi. The ground below a redwood tree where a small group of large dyers polypore once stood was now bare.

There is one live oak on the park near the entrance kiosk that hosts a continual variety of mushrooms under its low branches. This year I found a whole new cast of mycological characters, including a new one for me called amusingly, “cowboy’s handkerchief” for its slimy mucus covered exterior.

The largest individual fungus I have ever seen was in Williamsburg, MA in about 1998. This was before I was a photographer so I have no recorded evidence of it. I would need a dozen eggs to scale its size. Wandering off the trail in the forest behind my house, I was quietly exploring the woods for what I might find. There I stumbled on a brown fleshy shelf mushroom emerging from the base of a tree. It was if the the tree itself had formed into a semicircular low table just right for a dinner gathering of gnomes. The mushroom was almost 3 feet across; I can’t imagine how much it weighed. It was a single individual enormous shelf, not multiple layers like chicken-of-the-woods or oyster mushrooms.

I have also seen huge outcroppings of lion’s mane mushrooms, looking like a mass of delicate tiny icicles in summer (MA). In northern MI I found colorful beach ball sized protuberances of chicken-of-the-woods in an old growth forest. Part of the attraction of mushrooms hunting is their unpredictability and their ephemeral nature.

New recommended book, Mushrooms of the Redwoods Coast, by Noah Siegel and Christian Schwarz. Great photos.

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission. Prints are available for purchase for some photographs. If you are interested, contact Carla at: You can also find Carla’s photographs, paintings and jewelry on her Etsy site (Stones and Bones):


Great Sand Dunes National Park – August 25, 2016

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It was August 25th, 2016, the National Park Service’s 100th Birthday! Only by luck did we find ourselves celebrating with NPS rangers and tourists at the Great Sand Dunes National Park just south of Crestone, Colorado. Our last minute plans coincidentally brought us here on this special day. Rangers sang songs in a circle, a large birthday banner was spread across the entrance. Inside were balloons and an especially tasty cake. A poster board asked people to write down their wishes for the park system. I agree with Ken Burns, these national parks are America’s best idea. I love them all.

Chris and I have been here several times before, together and separately. In 2002, we hiked into the dunes and spent the night on the sand under the silent stars. Today would only be a daytime exploration.

As we ate lunch the sky became heavy and dark. We crossed the Medano Creek, a broad path of trickling water, and headed to the steep rise of the actual dunes. Chris aspired to climb to the top of the first ridge to view the vast expanse of the entire dune field. I was content to roam the lower dunes with my camera, watching the other people play and keeping track of the changing sky, light and shadows. Some people rented saucers to sled down the slopes; a few used snowboards.

Gradually the wind picked up and rain threatened. Clouds lowered, obscuring some of the mountain tops. Sand blew hard, stinging any exposed skin. I needed to close my eyes at times and shield my camera. Far at the top of the ridge, I could see curtains of sand blowing into the sky from the unobstructed wind. Chris had been appearing and disappearing from view as he scaled the ups and downs of the layers of dunes leading to the top. Eventually, I could see the small spot of his silhouette stop just short of the summit. After a few minutes, he began the descent down; I guessed that the wind and flying sand had become unbearable.

As we headed to our car, the stormy weather receded quickly revealing more sky and light. The sinuous, sensuous forms of the dunes became vivid as shadows deepened in the late afternoon sun.

Please do not reproduce any photographs without permission. Prints are available for purchase for some photographs. If you are interested, contact Carla at: You can also find Carla’s photographs, paintings and jewelry on her Etsy site (Stones and Bones):

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The Faraway Farallons


The Faraway Farallons
July 3, 2016

A giant gaping mouth with crowded splayed teeth exploded through the water’s surface, fatally seizing a sea lion in its mighty jaws. What drama! What cruel beauty! Frightening! Fascinating!

It was shark week on the Discovery Channel. The narrator explained that the great white shark on the TV screen was hunting the seas near the Farallon Islands of California. The sharks come every fall following the seasonal increase of the seal population. The largest great white sharks in the world can be found patrolling the cold water’s surrounding these rocky volcanic outcroppings, 30 miles west of San Francisco in the open ocean. Only the biggest of all the whites come there since they are the ones who can take down the enormous elephant seals who frequent these remote islands.

“Let’s go!” I say to Chris.

We’d been looking for a special place to visit over 4th of July weekend. It was only a few days away but, surprisingly, tickets were still available for the whale watching trip to the Farallons on Sunday. Even though the sharks wouldn’t be there in July, I was sure it would be an exciting trip.

Today the Farallons are a national wilderness area, home to hundreds of thousands of sea birds  (about 250,000) and many pinnipeds (seals and sea lions), with migrating whales and sharks close by. The only people allowed to land there are the scientists who study the wildlife. Prior to it’s protection, the islands had been a base for hunting fur seals and otters, eventually extirpating them from the area. In the mid-19th century, sea bird eggs were harvested to feed the growing population of San Francisco with as many as 500,000 eggs taken monthly. In 1909, Theodore Roosevelt began the process of protecting the islands from predation by humans.

The native people called these the “Islands of the Dead” and stayed away from them. The islands are also home to many ship wrecks. Treacherous rocks emerging from the ocean floor in rough seas, with foggy weather, create a recipe for disaster. Like crossing the English Channel, swimming from the Farallons to San Francisco has become an extreme sport. Only three people have successfully completed the long-distance swim.

We met the whale watching crew and other passengers at 7:30 AM at Pier 39 for our 8 AM departure. Only a few of the many shops and restaurants were open; the pier had the tacky look of all seaside tourist traps. The morning was overcast and chilly, the thick clouds dipping low enough to become fog in places. A typical San Francisco summer day.

The white board at the whale watch check-in booth said that 100+ humpbacks had been spotted the previous day. Plus two blue whales, the largest creatures to ever inhabit the earth. A circuitous walk along docks and boardwalks brought us to the 65-foot catamaran Kitty Kat, our home for the next 6 hours. Leaving San Francisco, we passed close to Alcatraz and Angel Islands and then sailed under the fog enshrouded, nearly invisible, Golden Gate Bridge.

The sky over the open ocean was even darker, the water and air turning the color of pewter and steel. Birds, mostly gulls and common murres, flew in confusing patterns above and into the swells. The wind picked up and we entered a messy, tall chop, causing the boat to bounce chaotically.

Soon, with the Golden Gate bridge still close by, spouting humpback whale were spotted. I saw a black harbor dolphin leap out of the waves. The captain cut the motor and people rushed to the bow railings to see whale spray and an arching back or a tail dive. The boat lurched randomly, violently. The wet floor added to the insecure footing. I had my good camera and large telephoto lens and I moved cautiously.

The nature guide gave advice for seasickness: keep your eyes on the horizon, don’t go in the cabin, take medication. But people retreated indoors anyway, to escape the wind, cold and frigid ocean spray leaping over the railings. They paid a price. Chris and I were pretty well prepared for cold wet weather but others wore fewer warm layers. Fleece blankets were distributed and Chris and I huddle together underneath. It created some warmth and a barrier between the regular showers of ocean water and my camera.

We continued toward the Farallons, stopping regularly at whale sightings. The seas got rougher and the captain made oblique comments, hinting that we might have to turn back. We had been traveling for a long time but seemingly not making any headway. The shoreline looked as close as ever.

Whales were spotted frequently in the distance but were not close to the boat. Eager tourists, many from other countries, rush to the railings at each new sighting. I usually didn’t bother. I hate fighting the crowds for a spot and I have been spoiled from previous whale watching trips where whales appear nearby. I have even seen whales closer from the beaches of Santa Cruz.

I began feeling a bit woozy.  Vague nausea, but not too bad. But others were beginning to succumb to the relentless rocking and rolling. People were throwing up over the side. A woman had her head in a waste basket. A crew member washed vomit from the deck.

I have been on the ocean many times and although I have had nausea before, I had never actually gotten sick. I was wearing acupressure wrist bands but had declined to take medication because it makes me so drowsy.

At one stop, the boat’s movement was such that it immediately aggravated my growing queasiness. Most people had gathered at the bow for a blue whale sighting while I sat in the back monitoring my ability to hold down my breakfast. I lost the fight and for the first time in my life, I threw up overboard. I was not alone.

Vomiting was bad enough but the force of involuntarily expelling my stomach contents also caused me to release some of my full bladder into my pants. (I had refused to go in the tiny, smelly head.) Fortunately, most people were too preoccupied with either whales or their own seasickness to notice the large wet spot between my legs. Many people already had soaked clothing due to the wild ocean spray; maybe it looked like I had sat down in a puddle.

Meanwhile, Chris walked about the boat looking for whale spouts and periodically retrieving items from our packs stored in the cabin (which I declined to go in). He regretted missing my momentous barf and said that everyone on board looked ill. I estimated that 30% of the people had gotten sick, he thought it might be as high as 50%.

Over the loudspeaker, the captain exclaimed optimistically, “This is great! I hope everyone is enjoying themselves!” I looked around to see expressions of distress, boredom, malaise and weariness.

A Dutch family across from us sat dejectedly, the teenaged son completely collapsed in misery, periodically hanging his head in his hands or puking over the railing for relief. The older teenaged daughter stared out to sea, without expression, without moving, appearing to hate every minute of this adventure. The mother bent over them offering comfort. Only the father, who had disappeared to the front of the boat, seemed to find any pleasure in the trip.

There were many moments when I decided this trip was just too unpleasant, too uncomfortable to bear anymore and I’d be happy to turn around and return home NOW. But the faraway Farallons still called to me and the captain seemed determined to get there. After retching and taking motion sickness tablets, I felt a bit better and became more eager to reach our intended destination.

My big camera and lens were inhibiting me. I hesitated moving around much for fear my camera might get drenched by flying sea water or I might slip and smash it against the boat. Chris put the Canon camera away in the cabin and I was free to depend on my smaller, lighter, more expendable Panasonic Lumix.

At long last, the remote stark Farallons came into view. Rugged volcanic outcroppings, rising sharply from a fault in the sea. A few buildings dotted the landscape but they were now mostly left to the wildlife.

These islands are the largest rookeries for sea birds in the contiguous U.S. The air and sea surface was aflutter with birds, mostly common murre, but also cormorants, gulls and one very colorful tufted puffin, who quickly disappeared below water before I could raise my camera.

Covering the hillsides we could see salt and pepper spots everywhere. With astonishment, we realized that these spots were actually birds, thousands of birds, hundreds of thousands of birds, common murres. Murres are similar to penguins, but they are a penguin who can fly. Standing on the rocky slopes they reminded me of scenes from Antarctica. Little upright birds crowded together in their black and while tuxedos. A few sea lions also relaxed on the rocks.

I would have liked to have completely circumnavigated the islands but it was soon time to high tail it back to San Francisco. With the seas no longer so choppy and the wind at our backs, the return trip was smoother. Whale spouts, tails and arching backs were occasionally seen but there was no more stopping. The somnolent effect of sea-sickness medicine was evident everywhere. Many people were slumped over, unconscious for the last leg of the journey.

The Golden Gate Bridge came into view. The fog had partially lifted revealing the deep red stanchions. Blue sky could be seen above the inner bay. Sail boats floated by gracefully. Here was a different world from the wild islands and impenetrable foreboding skies we had just come from. Many passengers, I am sure, were relieved to finally reach terra firma again. The pier was now sunny and packed with holiday tourists.

During the 2-hour drive home, I passed out from the medication. I am not usually a car sleeper, but I could not stay awake. Chris listened to an audio recording of Hemingway’s, The Sun Also Rises to accompany him home. Scenes of handsome matadors, drunken socializing in Spanish cafes and misplaced romantic affections littered my drugged consciousness.

Although there were times I was sure I would never go back to the Farallons, by the following day and after a good nights sleep, I fantasized about my next trip.

Please do not reproduce photographs without permission. Prints of some photographs may be available for purchase. If interested, contact Carla at:


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Wildflower Photo Bouquet #2

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Carla Brennan's Blog

Over the last few weeks I’ve been able to visit a few diverse local micro-climates and explore them for flowers.
Pescadero State Beach (Pescadero, CA)
• Pescadero offers extensive dunes with a variety of flora and a large marshland with trails.
Mercey Hot Springs (Firebaugh, CA)
• Mercey is inland, arid and home to a different collection of flowers.
Gualala, CA
• Gualala is a small town north of San Francisco on the coast about 140 miles from Santa Cruz.
Kruse Rhododendron State Preserve (Cazadero, CA)
• Just south of Gualala, Kruse is in the redwood forest and home to many unique flowers.

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This gallery contains 47 photos

Wildflower Photo Bouquet #2

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Over the last few weeks I’ve been able to visit a few diverse local micro-climates and explore them for flowers.
Pescadero State Beach (Pescadero, CA)
• Pescadero offers extensive dunes with a variety of flora and a large marshland with trails.
Mercey Hot Springs (Firebaugh, CA)
• Mercey is inland, arid and home to a different collection of flowers.
Gualala, CA
• Gualala is a small town north of San Francisco on the coast about 140 miles from Santa Cruz.
Kruse Rhododendron State Preserve (Cazadero, CA)
• Just south of Gualala, Kruse is in the redwood forest and home to many unique flowers.

Please do not reproduce photographs without permission.
Some photographs may be available for purchase. If you are interested, contact Carla at:

This gallery contains 47 photos

Dances with Owls


After being rejected on Friday from camping at Seacliff State Beach just south of Santa Cruz, we opted to go to our favorite default spot, Mercey Hot Springs. It’s a bit of a drive for one night but we were part way there already. Seacliff only allows fully self-contained RVs on the beach. Our gray water system –  a big bucket with a lid – and our mini port-a-potty didn’t qualify according to state regulations. Mercey Hot Springs was a good Plan B; it offers the certainty of a good hot soak and the possibility of wildflowers, rabbits, owls and maybe even a tarantula.

Our favorite camping spot at Mercey was fortunately available. It sits across the small creek and is nestled among trees. Soon after arriving, I walked across the campus to the pine tree where the colony of long-eared owls often roost during the day. They weren’t there.

A few hours later at dusk as I was walking back to our campsite from the tubs, I saw an owl swoop out from the trees above our camper. Once in the site I was surprised by the sudden flight of an owl who had been perched, unseen in the darkness, on a branch near our picnic table.

This clump of tangled oasis trees is surrounded by arid desert land, chock full of rodents and rabbits. As I stood at the edge of the grove, owls began to glide silently from the trees making big loops back to sit in the upper branches or on the roof of the ruined old house nearby. It was as if after a day of sleep and meditation they were warming up their wings for a wild night of hunting. All around me owls circled, silhouetted against the fading light of the sky and the gentle glow of the rising full moon. Soon it became dark and their soundless nighttime antics were now invisible.

In the morning, I hoped to discover their roosting spots among the dense, chaotic branches. I was doubting I might find them when I saw movement not 15 feet away. Two owls, on a lower branch, were roughhousing together, playfully biting and clawing at each other. With camera in hand I caught them through the hazy needles. They became interested in me and the giant cyclops eye of my telephoto lens. With curiosity, they bent their heads side to side. Actually, it was less like bending and more like rotating the disc of their face to an impossible degree. Soon joined by two others they were hopping from branch to branch, frequently peering down at us with their intense yellow eyes and head rolling.

Our site was littered with the gruesome remains of their nighttime slaughter. We had to avoid stepping on small animal body parts, including the severed head of a desert rat. Later I would discover the lower half of the rat dangling from a branch. Left there for a daytime snack?

Eventually they all settled down, becoming still and sleepy, mostly hidden in the dense foliage from prying eyes.

Please do not reproduce photographs without permission.

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Big Waves in Santa Cruz


I caught this shot on West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz. The surfer was waiting for a safe lull in the waves in order to climb down into the swells. Last week was the Titans of Mavericks Surf Contest, a once a year event where 25 big wave surfers are invited to Half Moon Bay (north of Santa Cruz on Highway 1) to compete. A Santa Cruz native, Nic Lamb, won the $120,000 purse this year.

The Mavericks were named after a German shepherd who swam the quarter mile to these waves from shore to be with his surfer master. They  were also made a household by Apple and their operating system. These extra large waves only became popular with surfers in the 1990’s. Prior to that, few believed that big waves actually existed in California. Some California surfers said the discovery of the Mavericks was like being a mountain climber and suddenly finding that Everest, much to your surprise, was in your backyard.

(Please do not use or reproduce these photographs without permission.)


Sea lions like big waves too.



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July 2015 – River Otter Eats Sushi – Cascades, Oregon

Our campsite was along a beautiful cold mountain river. Suddenly we notice a river otter on the opposite bank and then a big commotion and splashing. It caught a huge chinook salmon! We ran for binocular and cameras. It was difficult to get good photos or video because of the lighting and distance. But Chris spliced together some of the video shots, added a little music and put it on YouTube.

Take a look!

July 2015 – California Pitcher Plants, Darlingtonia State Natural Site, Oregon

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Animal-eating plants evoke a certain fascination, don’t they? They cross a boundary that it doesn’t seem quite right to cross. We generally think that animals, like us, eat plants not the other way around. We think that plants are fundamentally different from us, a separate kingdom. But are they?

I am currently reading a book, What a Plant Knows by biologist Daniel Chamovitz. It examines the science of plant senses, awareness and perception. In other words, he explains what we might call plant sentience or basic plant consciousness. We know that we share much of our DNA with other animals, even the most primitive, but did you know we share genes with plants as well?

In modern times and throughout history we find examples in media, literature and lore of creatures that look and behave like both plant and animal. There is Audrey II – the man-eating singing plant from the Faustian musical comedy, “The Little Shop of Horrors”; the ents, those great tree-beings who walk and talk and help save Middle Earth – albeit slowly – in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy; and throughout history and cultures there have been depictions of the “green man”, a man made of leaves.

As a child we had a Venus Flytrap. Placing an insect or piece of raw meat into it’s fringed jaws, the plant would snap shut on the offered meal. In time the meat would be digested. Flytraps are found in wetlands of North and South Carolina. Most of the other carnivorous plants living in the United States are varieties of pitcher plants.

On the West Coast we have the rare Darlingtonia californica, also called the California pitcher plant, cobra lily, or cobra plant. Just north of Florence, Oregon, on the Pacific coast, is a tiny preserve, Darlingtonia State Natural Site. There, in a small fen, are hundreds of these strange insect-digesting plants. They materialize from the ground like a hollow snake, ending in a bulbous head, sprouting a forked leaf like a serpent’s tongue.

These pitcher plants attract insects into their tube-of-doom by secreting a sweet nectar. Once inside, the insects become disoriented and cannot find their way out. Eventually, they fall to the bottom of the stalk where downward-pointing hairs keep them trapped. They drown in a pool of bacteria-filled water, decomposing and creating nitrogen for the plant to absorb.

The California pitcher plant is also a photographer’s delight. Like curious green and red-spotted apparitions, they raise their heads to peer around. Individuals seem to have personalities and groups appear to be relating to each other.

Do carnivorous plants alter your perspective on plants . . .  and maybe on animals, too?

This gallery contains 22 photos