Posted by: James Wapotich | October 16, 2015

Trail Quest: Carpinteria Tar Pits

One of the common sights along our beaches is naturally occurring tar. Most of the tar is from offshore seeps that has washed ashore. However, along the coast there are several active tar seeps. Perhaps the most famous is Carpinteria Tar Pits.

Tar from the seep was used by the Chumash for a variety of purposes ranging from making water-tight baskets to the construction of wood-plank canoes.

One way to visit the tar seep is with a hike along Coastal Vista Trail. The trail starts from Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve, and passes through Tar Pits Park and Carpinteria State Beach before arriving at Linden Avenue. The hike along the length of the trail is about three miles roundtrip.

Carpinteria Tar Pits Park hike trail Chumash tomol

Tar can be seeping from the bluffs near Tar Pits Park

To get to the trailhead from Santa Barbara, take Highway 101 south, past Carpinteria, to the Bailard exit. Turn toward the ocean and continue straight to the preserve entrance.

From the parking area, continue southwest through the preserve along Coastal Vista Trail toward the ocean. The trail crosses the railroad tracks and arrives at the bluffs overlooking the ocean. From the overlook, there is a trail to the left that heads down to the beach. The overlook also provides some sweeping views to the east toward Rincon Point.

From the overlook, continue west along the trail past Casitas Pier to Tar Pits Park. Here, the trail branches. Coastal Vista Trail continues near the railroads tracks, while a social trail continues closer to the bluffs. The two trails meet at the west end of the park.

An interpretive sign along the trail describes the history of the park. From the sign, follow one of the social trails that leads down to the beach. The route leads through a break in the bluff and arrives at the ocean.

Here, looking to the west, one can see tar seeping from the bluffs. On a warm day the oozing tar forms small, black rivulets that glisten in the sun.

The tar at the seep started out as oil formed from sea life long ago. Over time, earthquakes created fractures and fissures in the overlying Monterey Shale. As the oil moved toward the surface it slowly changed to bitumen, and as it moved through the rock and shale it picked up clay and water becoming asphalt.

Where it reached the surface and flowed out, it would often be covered in places with a layer of dust and leaves and even rainwater, creating a camouflaged snare. Animals drawn to the water or just browsing would get mired in the tar pit and die. Their cries would bring in predators and the smell would draw in carrion feeders both of whom would also get stuck.

Some of the animal fossils found at Carpinteria Tar Pits include prehistoric mastodon, bison, horse, camel, giant sloth, dire wolf, and saber-tooth cat. Along with these now extinct animals were also found fossils from coyote, fox, and skunk, as well as golden eagle and California condor. The site, in terms of fossils, is considered to be second only to the more famous La Brea Tar Pits, where more than a million such fossils have been found.

However, Carpinteria Tar Pits is somewhat unique in the amount of plant fossils, as well as smaller fossils such as non-raptor birds and insects found with the fossils of the larger animals. These additional fossils have helped provide us with a sense of what the climate of the region during the last Ice Age was like. Among the plant fossils are Monterey and Bishop Pines, as well as the remains of redwood trees, suggesting that 40,000 years ago our area was once cooler and wetter, and more akin to the climate found today near Big Sur and Monterey.

The Chumash used tar from the site to seal baskets used for carrying water and to make seaworthy their wood-plank canoes or tomols. Tar was also used to affix arrowheads to shafts.

During the late 1800s asphalt mining began at the site. Asphalt from the mine was used to pave some of the first roads in Santa Barbara County, including Linden Avenue and Casitas Pass Road.

It was during the mining that some of the first fossils were found, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that the site was first excavated. After the mining operation was closed the site was later used as a dump.

Carpinteria Creek Mishopshno Coastal Vista Trail State Park hike trail

Carpinteria Creek meets the ocean near where the village of Mishopshno was located

Continuing past Tar Pits Park, Coastal Vista Trail enters Carpinteria State Park and eventually crosses over Carpinteria Creek. The Chumash village of Mishopshno was located near the creek. The name is said to mean “correspondence” a reference to the role it played as a trade center.

In 1769, when Gasper de Portola’s expedition arrived at the village they saw a group of Chumash on the beach splitting driftwood and shaping planks to build wooden canoes. The soldiers from the expedition named the site La Carpinteria, the carpentry shop.

Tomols were typically made from redwood that had drifted down the coast from Northern California. When redwood was in short supply native pine would sometimes be substituted. The wood was split into long planks using bone wedges and hammerstones, and shaped by steaming the boards to bend them. The boards were then trimmed and leveled with tools made from bone, stone or shell, and made into different sized planks.

The planks were sanded with sharkskin, fitted together, and held in place using yop, which was a made from a mixture of tar and pine pitch that had been melted and boiled together. Holes were drilled into the planks so they could be bound together with cordage made from animal sinew and natural fibers such as milkweed. The seams and the holes were then also caulked with yop. The completed craft was painted with a coat of red ochre and pine pitch that further sealed it, and inland shells were added for decoration.

The finished tomol could be anywhere from 8 to 30 feet in length depending on the design and could take up to 6 months to complete. A large tomol could carrying up to 20 people and was propelled using double-bladed paddles similar to those used for kayaks.

The Tongva, the Chumash’s neighbor to the south, also built wood-plank canoes in a similar fashion called ti’ats. Both groups used the crafts to travel along the coast and out to the Channel Islands.

With the arrival of the Spanish and the introduction of western diseases and the Mission system, the Chumash population steadily declined and the practice of building tomols died out in the early 1800s.

Tomol Fernando Librado Chumash

The tomol built under the direction of Fernando Librado can be seen at Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

In 1912, a tomol was built for display purposes under the direction of Fernando Librado, who was one of the Chumash extensively interviewed by anthropologist John P. Harrington. The tomol is on display at Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History in Gould Hall, along with the other Chumash exhibits.

In 1976, using the information Harrington had gathered, the Museum staff built a tomol called Helek, or peregrine falcon. The tomol made several test voyages, including one from San Miguel Island to Santa Rosa Island, and from there to Santa Cruz Island. The Helek can be seen in the Museum’s Fleischmann Auditorium.

In 1996, the Chumash Maritime Association built a 26-foot long tomol called ‘Elye’wun, or swordfish. In 2001, the group made the first tomol crossing of Santa Barbara Channel in more than 100 years from the mainland to Santa Cruz Island, reviving a lost tradition. In 2009, construction began on a second tomol, Muptami of Kalawashaq, or memories of Kalawashaq, which is a Chumash village site along the Santa Ynez River. In 2011, the two tomols made the crossing together to the islands.

Continuing past Carpinteria State Park, Coastal Vista Trail arrives at Tomol Interpretative Park and Linden Avenue, which is an alternate starting point to visit the tar seep.

Regardless of how far you hike you’ll get to see some of Carpinteria’s historic coast.

This article originally appeared in section A of the September 28th, 2015 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

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