Saturday, December 24, 2016




There are few presents from Christmases past that I can even remember.

The toys, trinkets and shiny fads-of-the-day have all faded from memory. But there are lasting gifts that my heart will never forget.

It seems our young lives were focused on the tangible; the latest and greatest, the most expensive, and the number of gifts under the tree.

As the years accumulate, however, we encounter people, events and circumstances that touch our heart and those are the gifts that matter most and shine the brightest in our memories.

One of those events was the result of a Christmas message from a friend. He knew of a family that had nothing, and he wondered if we could gather a few things to bring a little joy to the children. The holiday spark of giving ignited and within hours a group had gathered far more than had been asked for. In addition to blankets, clothing, toys and food, a small Christmas tree was decorated.

In the darkness of Christmas Eve, we approached the tiny house like Santa’s elves to quietly place the gifts and tree on the porch. We must have made too much noise because as we were leaving the light came on and the door opened.

Watching from the shadows, I will never forget the
 look of surprise on the face of the young woman. In the soft glow of her porch light I could see tears beginning to glisten in her eyes. As we slipped away in the darkness you could hear the joyful sounds of her children as they discovered this Christmas Miracle. Our hearts were filled with gifts. There are holiday miracles that bring more gifts to the heart. Just before Christmas many years ago I received word that a small plane had crashed in the mountains east of San Diego. As a young reporter I headed to the scene fearing the worst.

Standing in the snow on top of Angel Mountain we found no one in the demolished plane.

It was a violent crash and survival would be a miracle. The deep snow and bonechilling cold would only add to the narrow odds of survival. What a sad story to
 write for Christmas. Miraculously the pilot, with broken ankles, had found the will to crawl down the mountain and was picked up on the highway by a passing motorist.

As a young father, the holidays were often so busy that we had little time to pause and reflect on what really matters. While scurrying to finish all of the things on my list, I received a phone call on Christmas
 Eve afternoon. The caller asked if I could stop by the local hospital to photograph an infant that had a serious medical problem and might not survive. The mother simply wanted a photograph with her son.

My first reaction was selfish and thoughtless.

“It’s Christmas Eve. I don’t have time for this.”

But a moment later it dawned on me. Yes, it IS Christmas Eve and what a gift this would be.

At the hospital a lovely young woman holding a chubby baby boy who looked healthy and happy greeted me. Knowing he was gravely ill filled me with emotion and I was unable to speak. I took a few pictures, hugged Mom and slipped away before I lost it completely.

A few years later, the local newspaper did a story on the best Christmas memories and there was a story of a young mother whose most cherished memory was a photograph of her late son. In the picture that ran with the article she was holding the photograph I had taken.

Some seek these events, and others just encounter them along life’s path. Either way, these are the lasting gifts of the holidays that matter most.

This year we created another special gift for the heart. In memory of a special friend, a small family
 group traveled to a nearby mountain where we found a tiny pine tree. Bundled in winter clothing to protect us from the chilly wind, we decorated the tree with solar Christmas lights and colorful ornaments, many with messages of joy and inspiration written on them.

It was my wife’s idea and a good one. Guys just don’t seem to think of stuff like this.

We paused for moments of reflection and then slipped away with hopes that the colorful little lights on this tiny tree will bring a moment of joy and gifts to the heart of passing travelers. This is one of those special gifts I will always remember.

Wishing all of you a very Merry Christmas and joyous holiday season filled with a load of gifts to your heart.

Saturday, December 17, 2016




How could this year be anything but great when it began with a pilgrimage to Salvation Mountain and a side trip to East Jesus?

As regular readers will know, I usually offer a yearend report card of sorts of the outdoor activities I have shared and enjoyed throughout the year. This year was a good one.

The visit to Salvation Mountain wasn’t exactly a pilgrimage, but was actually a New Year’s Day trip to the Salton Sea and surrounding areas I often call “The Land of Odds.”

Some have suggested I
 might be the Wizard of Odds.Winter is peak time for migrating waterfowl and a great chance to see huge flocks of sandhill cranes, geese and ducks, along with views of resident hawks and burrowing owls in the wildlife preserves around the area. There are other attractions around Salton Sea that we wanted to share with friends, including the bubbling mud pots produced by deep underground geothermal wells. And in the empty desert east of the historic town of Niland on the east side of the Salton Sea, adventurers will discover Salvation Mountain and East Jesus. They are real places.

Salvation Mountain is a monument to a man of faith who was called to the wilderness to build a tribute to God. Using materials he could scrounge, hay bales, old tires, local adobe and donated paint, Leonard Knight labored in the desert sun to build his mountain.

Today a steady stream of visitors come to the remote location to marvel at this 50-foot tall creation that is brightly painted and topped with a huge white cross. The mountain is emblazoned with Biblical scriptures, a large heart and the word LOVE in huge letters.

Just beyond Salvation Mountain is East Jesus, founded by drifters, artists and a collection of unique individuals who generally
 wanted to escape conventional existence.

Over the years, the community has evolved into an art colony calling itself “an experimental, habitable, extensible artwork in progress since 2006.” The residents of East Jesus have created a tax-exempt charity to raise funds to purchase the land they occupy. The community is a living work of contemporary art and one of the most interesting venues in the Land of Odds.

As the year progressed, I hiked miles of trails, enjoyed turkey, dove and deer hunting seasons, opening day of trout season in the Eastern Sierra and a summer visit to the high country.

Spring brought visits to Borrego Valley where I joined other nature lovers to
 count migrating Swainson’s hawks. I marveled as the migrating birds rose from their nightly roosts and formed rotating kettles containing hundreds of the huge hawks.

In late spring I returned to a ghost town in the Huachuca Mountains of southeast Arizona that I first discovered nearly 50 years ago. Along the way, I photographed birds, wildlife and spectacular wildflowers in the big cactus desert of Saguaro National Park.

Some of my most memorable adventures happened in the summer desert when the hot sands are empty of tourists and the Milky Way glows brightly in the night sky. I enjoyed hours of solitary beauty in the desert wilderness while capturing meteors streaking through the starry sky, or photographing
 the curdled, naked badlands softly illuminated by the glow of a partial moon.

As late summer monsoons blew billowing thunderheads into our mountains, I found vantage points where I could capture the drama of lightning
 storms. When cooler temperatures returned to the desert, I enjoyed hikes to distant palm groves and encountered bighorn sheep, roadrunners, coveys of quail and resident black-tailed jackrabbits that are surprisingly large.

I hiked miles of trails at Torrey Pines State Reserve and watched several sunsets while capturing seascapes in the soft pastel light that lingers after the sun goes down.

To get a photograph for a column on mating tarantulas,
 I wandered the trails of Escondido’s Daley Ranch at sunset on several September evenings.

On the trails of Palomar Mountain State Park I shared a moment with a beautiful buck deer and enjoyed a trail lunch next to a scenic spot on Fry Creek while listening to the music of a gentle wind and tapping woodpeckers.

As fall temperatures began to chill higher elevations, I photographed migrating birds at an isolated spring, high in the Santa Rosa Mountains.

It’s been a good year in the outdoors, and I wish each of you more time and opportunity to enjoy these same things in the coming year.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

My Latest Sierra Report from Western Outdoor News

My Latest Sierra Report from Western Outdoor News


By Ernie Cowan

They are big, elusive and exciting to see, and what is more appropriate as the subject of the November column than the wild turkey?
Longtime San Diego birders will tell you that there were no turkeys here until the 1990s when a group of sportsmen teamed up with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to introduce 293 birds into the county.
Birds were imported from other areas and released near Julian, Ramona and south of Interstate 8.
It was love at first sight for the birds, and today the population is estimated at upwards of 30,000 extending from the Mexican border to Riverside County and from the avocado groves of Fallbrook to the desert fringe of East County. I even had a reader recently tell me he had one on his feeder in eastern Oceanside, and I get the credit for the only verified sighting of a wild turkey in Imperial County, after taking a photograph of one in Carrizo Creek north of Plaster City.
Like quail and dove, the turkey is a game bird and a popular species for hunters in the spring and fall.
Wild turkey numbers dropped severely in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, but conservation efforts like the one in San Diego, where birds were introduced — or reintroduced to former ranges — have resulted in species numbers continuing to increase nicely in many regions.
When you see a wild turkey, you won’t confuse it for any other bird. Standing over 3 feet high and weighing more than 20 pounds, they tend to stand out in the grasslands, oak woodlands and pine woods they seem to prefer.
From a distance, the turkey appears as a large, plump, dark bird, but in direct sunlight or up close, they are layered with beautifully colored feathers that flash iridescent bronze and green in the right light. There are white wing bars, and the tail feathers are tipped with light brown or white. Males have a long beard of course bristles extending several inches from the chest.
They have long necks with bare skin on the head and neck that can sport bright colors from red and blue to gray and white.
Turkeys are not big fliers. They do roost for safety in tall trees at night and fly down at first light to feed, but they spend most of the day walking as they forage for food. If startled, they will explode into flight, but they prefer to quickly vanish by fading into thickets of brush.
Some of the more popular areas to spot a wild turkey are on rural roads around Ramona and Julian and Lake Henshaw, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, Warner Springs, Palomar Mountain State Park, Laguna Mountains, Lake Morena and on the trails of the Santa Ysabel Nature Preserve.
The turkey is a non-migratory resident bird that forages in flocks, feasting on acorns, pine nuts, native seeds and berries along with the occasional lizard, snail, beetle or insect.
Turkey nesting begins in the spring when tom (male) turkeys perform an elaborate mating ritual that includes gobbling, strutting and fanning their tail feathers in a beautiful peacocklike display. Once mating occurs, female birds scratch out a shallow bowl on the ground that can be lined with leaves or grass, but are very informal. Nests may contain anywhere from four to 17 eggs, and they are often hidden under brush piles or in dense thickets of vegetation.
Once chicks hatch, they look like fuzzy little softballs, often gathering into large groups rolling along behind several hens. The females feed the hatchlings for a few days until they learn how to fend for themselves.
The male turkeys don’t take part in raising the chicks, and predation from coyotes and bobcats takes a high toll on the young birds.
For bird-watchers, the 1990s introduction of wild turkeys in San Diego County is a true success story. Today, our backcountry grasslands, oak woodlands and pine forests can be filled with the gobbling of birds, or you can enjoy a surprise encounter with a strutting flock of toms as you hike a mountain trail.
Spring will bring new flocks of turkey chicks that will delight any bird-watcher.
Put on your hiking boots, hang your binoculars around your neck, grab the camera and head out to add one more bird to your life list.
Cowan is a freelance writer based in Escondido. Email him at



Wednesday, December 14, 2016




“Are you crying?”

“No, honey, it’s just all the smoke in my eyes from my new meat smoker,” I told my understanding bride. “There’s no crying in barbecue.”

I had come to the pinnacle moment when I had assembled all of the paraphernalia necessary to produce mouth-watering creations through the economy and magic of a home
 meat smoker. It all began so innocently. I was sucked into the vortex of an irresistible Black Friday deal.

My middle son has established a family reputation for his skill as a meat smoker, often providing chicken, turkey, ribs and fish or some of our harvested game for all to enjoy. Nothing is left behind when he
 brings smoked meat. His old smoker had sadly seen better days, so the idea of getting him a new one for Christmas was rolling around in my head.

On Black Friday I visited one of our local home improvement outlets. There in stacked boxes were just a few remaining “deals” that could
 not be passed up. Less than half price for the smoker I had been considering. Heck, at that price, how could I pass up such a deal? I bought three, one for my two local sons and one for me.

It took me several hours to assemble my new smoker. My mouth was watering just thinking how economically I could now prepare ribs, brisket, burnt ends, smoked chicken, salmon and wild game that would melt in my mouth in a medley of exotic smoky flavors.

I was ready to go, but there were additional hurdles.

First, you must “cure” the smoker. Kind of a dry run, if you will, that burns off all the stuff left behind during the manufacturing process. I also needed a new propane tank.

I was now ready to go with the curing process. I loaded my smoker with wet hickory chips, ignited the flames and watched as smoke — lots of smoke— began to billow from the smoker.

I was disappointed when the firemen arrived and I didn’t have smoked meat to offer. They were very understanding.
Now, I was really ready to go, but discovered I needed a few additional things, such as insulated gloves, a hightech digital meat thermometer, an assortment of rubs to flavor the meats, and a collection of hickory, alder, pecan, mesquite, apple and oak wood chips. Of course I also needed a water spray bottle for keeping the fire under control and a pour bottle for refilling the water pan, longhandled tongs for turning hot meat, and several recommended recipe books.

The secret to delicious smoked meats is low heat and a long time in the smoker. It took me awhile to get the hang of controlling burner level, vent adjustments and the addition of more wood chips at the appropriate time, but I felt confident and ready to cook our first meat.

We decided to begin with a whole chicken. Not a huge investment in case our first attempt at smoking was less than perfect. The bird was prepared and aged with a recommended rub, wood chips were soaked and ready,
 gloves, water and tongs were laid out like a surgeon preparing instruments for a delicate procedure. This is serious business.

Hickory smoke filled the air with a wonderful aroma. It also filled the house and my clothing. People at work the next day asked me if I’d been in a fire.

“No, just smoking meat,” I said smugly.

Our test chicken was smoking nicely. It was taking a bit longer than we had planned. Our high-tech digital thermometer told us we still had 30 degrees to go after four hours of smoking.

Dinner was a bit late.

About 9 p.m. it was time to enjoy the fruits of our first smoking effort.

Beneath the beautifully crusted skin was moist meat. As I savored the delicate flavor I began to calculate the cost of our meal. I figured our home smoked chicken was costing us about $99 a pound.

The smoke was gone, but there were still tears in my eyes.

Welcome to Ernie's Great Outdoors

For nearly 30 years I have been writing about all subjects in the Great Outdoors in a weekly column that has appeared in several newspapers and outdoor publications. This blog will feature current columns when posted along with updates and any comments your wish to add. Let's begin with my Union Tribune column from last week.