story and photography by Denis Rouse[California Motorcycle Rides: The Ash Creek Wildlife Area was originally published as a Favorite Ride in the September 2007 issue of Rider magazine]
It’s the third week of January here at home on the high plains of northeast California, and I’m actually going for a motorcycle ride, an activity usually out of the question this time of the year given icy road conditions and temperatures reminiscent of a certain fatal winter in Stalingrad.
But not this year, at least not right now, with the mercury pushing 60 at noon. Global warming may be a debatable issue, but the hay farmers who’ve been here for three generations and who’ve never seen a protracted January thaw like this are beginning to wonder.
My sense is it won’t last, this opportunity to ride around here when we’re usually enjoying our other hobby of sitting in front of a roaring fire with a book and a beverage. So I warmed up the GS yesterday and rode a mile down the road under this enormous pale-blue winter sky to the yawning expanse of 14,000-acre Ash Creek Wildlife Area, formerly known as Ash Creek Wildlife Refuge. Why is this remnant of an ancient wetland no longer called a refuge? Because when the California Department of Fish and Game elected to license waterfowl hunting here an obvious change in the official nomenclature became necessary.
But hunting season is over now. We’ve got the whole lonely sprawling place of dormant golden grass cleaved by quiet icy waterways to ourselves. Some of the gravel vehicular access roads are closed but no matter, we can still ride in from the east on a county road and visit these two grand old barns, huge as cathedrals, these wonderful, artful, purposeful buildings, without a superfluous line, that remain from another time in America when Ash Creek Wildlife Area, formerly known as Ash Creek Wildlife Refuge, was a working ranch. What a privilege it is to be able to ride right up to these magnificent hand-wrought structures, get off the bike being plenty careful not to plant the sidestand too deeply in the thawing ground, and think of honest days a century ago when winter was a serious matter and work was hard, and the nails to build these barns were square and you’d have to be addled or a damn fool to be out here with snow clear up to the withers of your horse during a third week in January with anything other than good reasons and survival on your mind.
The birds that live here during winter months, particularly the Tundra Swans and the Snow Geese and the Canada Geese, invite pause. You, Mr. Motorcycle Rider, even if you can keep from freezing to death with your electric riding suit, electric gloves and electric socks turned to High when the wind chill at 60 miles an hour is 20 below, consider that these amazing creatures fly in subzero, fracturing clear starry January skies and then they settle down for the night on a round of ice water they keep from freezing over completely by flapping around as much as necessary all night long.
You’d think bird watching, or birding as it’s called by aficionados, and motorcycling would be mutually exclusive activities, but not always. As I approach the headquarters of Ash Creek Wildlife Area, formerly known as Ash Creek Wildlife Refuge, on Highway 299, to secure a map of the area, I see in a dry field a large flock of Greater White-fronted Geese, sometimes called Specks, hundreds of them that immediately take notice of me with their long necks warily periscoped. I pull over, park the bike, and grab my camera out of the saddlebag way too late to record the stunning sibilant rise of the whole flock, one of the most sublime moments in nature. I love my new digital camera but sometimes it just gets in the way if you know what I mean…and I know you do.
A good ride on paved roads that circumnavigates Ash Creek Wildlife Area begins at the mill just north of beautiful downtown Bieber. Proceed north on the road to Lookout that traces the western boundary of the area, and affords great views from a bridge of the intricate and obviously fecund beauty of a healthy wetland. Just before you reach Lookout, turn right on the Adin-Lookout road that traces the northern boundary, and from which you can access a gravel road that leads to the two historic barns aforementioned. When you reach the old town of Adin, check out Adin Supply, a market that’s been situated on a bank of Ash Creek for more than a hundred years. Great sandwiches and you can do the picnic thing right there, weather permitting, of course.