February in the Sacramento region can be cold and rainy, but as of late January, it's been unseasonably dry and warm. The upside to the drought is an array of unusual outdoor things couples can do for Valentine's Day, from scouting for long-hidden artifacts to panning for gold. Here are suggestions for a romantic Valentine's Day with nature putting on the show:
- Watch a romantic sunset at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area. You can also also celebrate Valentine's Day a little in advance with a free docent-led daytime Saturday tour of the wildlife area. Yolo Basin Foundation Co-Executive Director Ann Brice says this is a mostly driving tour with short stops to observe the birds. For more information, visit www.yolobasinfoundation.org. The next free tour starts at 9 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 8. A $5 donation per person is appreciated.
- The drought has dried up much of Folsom Lake. Walk across the lake bed to find artifacts of California history. This is a state park. Anything you discover, leave it where you found it for others to discover, too.
- Along Placer County's Bear River in the foothills, muck and rocks in spots along its banks have been exposed for the first time in up to100 years. Pan for gold flakes or take twin metal detectors to search for nuggets.
- Go for a bike ride on on a levee road in West Sacramento that borders an undeveloped natural area. The levee road (head north) circles east and will lead you to the Sacramento River. Coming from Sacramento, enter West Sac from the I Street Bridge which will put you on C Street. In a couple blocks, turn right on 5th Street. When it turns into Lighthouse Drive, watch for the entry to the levee on your right. Anglers may have parked cars or pickups by the double metal gates that block the entrance). No motorized vehicles allowed on the levee road, not even quads or dirt bikes. Quietly enjoy a Valentine's Day filled with the romantic sounds of nature. (While driving if you get to Fountain Drive, you've gone too far.
- Leave the bikes at home and take a bird walk. Compare your bird identification skills. This site is visited annually by bird enthusiasts who help the Audubon Society with its December bird count. The West Sac bank of the Sacramento River at this location is Bryte Beach. Directly across from Discovery Park and the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers, it is habitat for a Great Blue Heron that makes its home on the West Sac side. You could see cormorants and will see egrets. Be sure to check out the pond (straight ahead across the sand when you first enter the site from Lighthouse). Here it's likely you'll see all sorts of ducks, a belted Kingfisher, a blackchinned hummingbird has a favorite tree at the top of the west bank of the pond just before the clump of big trees you first pass on your way back to the river. And soaring overhead, a variety of hawks. (A Swainson's hawk has been observed nesting in woods at the south end of the pond.)
- Walk the site to look for wildflowers such as lupine. The warm January weather and late light rain may have confused the wildflowers. Take the shortcut through the woods. To find it as you walk the levee road, scan the area to your right for evidence of foot traffic: tramped down sandy soil just past that first big clump of trees leads to a narrow dirt path semi-concealed by bushes at the north west corner of the 10-acre pond. The path, with the pond to your right (in the distance you can see the CalSTRS building), is interrupted by a shallow ravine (you can climb it), then continues through woods along the north east corner of the pond. You'll emerge into an area of native grasses that open onto a dirt access road. Follow that briefly to your left and look to your right. You'll see the river. (If you go to the right on the access road, you'll find the pristine old growth woods where the Swainson's hawk was nesting.
- No wildflowers? Tread softly as you approach the pond. Look closely at partially submerged logs for sunning turtles. Listen for the plop!plop!plop! as startled red-earred sliders drop off the logs when they hear you coming. Fun is sitting and just watching the pond. Pretty soon, their turtle snouts pop up. And look for beavers. Gnaw marks on trees on both sides of the path are evidence of the beaver family. Watch the pond's water surface closely, especially at that northeast corner. If you see a dark head pop up, you may see one or more beavers swimming.
The Sacramento region abounds with free romantic stuff to do. For Valentine's Day this year, gift each other with the wonderful outdoors.