A short but innovative trail, which features Bluetooth “beacons” geared to blind and other visually impaired people, recently opened on the western edge of Santa Rosa at the historic Baum family farm.
A collaboration between the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation and the Earle Baum Center, the .83-mile Vernal Pool Trail winds through an intact 17-acre vernal pool wetland complex at the Baum center and brings major recreational and other benefits to those with sight loss.
It’s designed to educate people about the importance of vernal pools, one of Sonoma County’s most precious ecological resources, often home to the endangered Sebastopol meadowfoam flower (Limnanthes vinculins) and other rare native plants.
“This trail provides a great opportunity for folks with vision loss,” said Jeff Harrington, the Baum Center’s Director of Facilities, Technology and Low Vision Clinic. “They can walk the trail and get exercise, and the beacons help them gain insight into the surroundings — vegetation, vernal pools, birds and other animals, and also a little history.”
A beacon is a small Bluetooth radio transmitter that sends signals to Bluetooth-equipped devices such as smartphones. Five beacons have been placed on benches at various locations along the trail. Each beacon emits a limited-distance signal that acts as an audible alert on approaching smartphones loaded with the FAR Vision Mobile App. Upon hearing it, people know that they’re approaching an information bench. They can then choose to listen to an informational talk on their smartphone about an aspect of the trail, and they might also want to sit down and rest for a moment.
“Beacons let people know there’s something of significance at a location that they might want to learn about,” said Harrington. “It’s a way to picture the environment for people who can’t see, or who see very little.”
For anybody walking the EBC Vernal Pool Trail, sighted or not, the delicate environment is something to marvel over.
Vernal pools are seasonal wetlands that only exist during the rainy season in winter and spring (in some drought years they never appear at all). They form in depressions or low spots possessing an underlying, impermeable layer of clay or cemented minerals that prevents rainwater from percolating downward. In years with normal rainfall, the pools dry up by early summer. This coming winter, you can start looking for vernal pools after the county has received 6-7 inches of rain.
Many species found in vernal pools occur nowhere else. On the Santa Rosa Plain, four plant and one animal species unique to vernal pools are listed as endangered.
The federal- and state-endangered Sebastopol meadowfoam — a small annual with white flowers — blooms in vernal pools at the Baum Center in spring.
“It looks like its name,” said biologist Sarah Gordon, Conservation Science Program Manager at the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation. “It resembles white foam on the landscape. It is lovely and delicate, with white flowers that drift and flow through the vernal pools and grasses.”
The Santa Rosa Plain once held a vast wetland complex of creeks, lakes, marshes and vernal pools, but much of that habitat has been lost due to home development, tractoring and agricultural growth. However, pockets of the original habitat still exist on small parcels such as the historic Baum farm.
“Wetlands, including vernal pools, are ecologically important and sensitive habitats,” said Gordon. “Degradation of vernal pools has been statewide, with some estimates that California has lost up to 90 percent of historical vernal pool habitat. The vernal pools in Sonoma County are considered biologically distinct from the rest of the state. We have our own unique assemblage of rare species such as the Sebastopol meadowfoam, Burke’s goldfields and Sonoma sunshine. The population centers for these species are in Sonoma County, with just a handful found in other counties. For example, there’s only a single known occurrence of Sebastopol meadowfoam outside Sonoma County.”
Walk the Vernal Pool Trail
The Earle Baum Center’s Vernal Pool Trail is designed to accommodate people with sight loss, but fully-sighted walkers are welcome to enjoy the trail and learn about vernal pools.
• The EBC Vernal Pool Trail is located at the Earle Baum Center, 4539 Occidental Rd., Santa Rosa 95401; 707-523-3222; www.earlebaum.org
• The trail is open Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Please sign in at the office for directions and trail information.
• Visitors are asked to refrain from approaching working guide dogs on harness; instead, talk directly to the owner.