15 August 2020

 On a trail in the White Mountains of northern New Hampshire, Sally and I were talking to some Forest Service folks who had just returned from fighting brush fires in southern California. The White Mountains are rugged and dangerous - why else would there be bright yellow signs at about the 3500 foot elevation on all the trails, warning you that you were about to enter the area of “the worst weather in the world?” Yet, these firefighters all agreed that their assignment in the mountains north of Los Angeles was the most rigorous they had ever had. They talked about the heat, the isolation, the ruggedness, the precipitousness, and the Santa Ana Winds. Southern California had been a real surprise to them.

   My “office” from late 1969 to 1981, during my research on the endangered California condor, was the mountain area that the firefighters had been talking about. It’s a deceptive region. The Sespe Condor Sanctuary in the Los Padres National Forest is - as the condor flew - less than 50 miles from downtown Los Angeles. The outskirts of L. A. - Simi Valley, Moorpark, Valencia - have crept to within less than 20 miles of the Sanctuary. Avocado groves climb the hills from Fillmore and Santa Paula up to the National Forest boundary. There are oil wells pumping within sight of Hopper Canyon, one of the principal condor nesting areas. Superficially, if you widened and paved some of the access roads, and built a few $5 million homes alongside them, the terrain wouldn’t look much different than the upper reaches of Malibu and Topanga canyons. But, that’s where the “deception” comes in.

    Once you’ve climbed the first steep hill out of Fillmore, and turned the corner around Oat Mountain, the houses and the orange trees and avocado groves quickly disappear from view. Past Oak Flat, the oil field traffic ceases, and the already narrow, twisting road becomes narrower, more twisting, and less improved. You’re still less than ten miles from all the civilization that you could ever want, but you’re all alone. The road is either dry and dusty, or muddy and slippery. Steep banks of dense chaparral rise around you, and sheer sandstone cliffs appear in the distance. If it’s summer, you’re hot, and your vehicle is running hot from the climbing. There’s no water visible, anywhere. If your car breaks down out here, it may feel like you’re stranded  in the “wilderness.” In reality, you’re still not far from town, and even closer to the ranger station.

   Condor Country really is wild, and it’s big. From Interstate 5 (north out of L. A.) to Highway 166 (east from Santa Maria) - some 75 condor miles and maybe twice that by motor vehicle - only one public highway crosses the area. Only a few low standard recreational and administrative roads reach into it. Crossing the area by the few existing trails can take you 20 miles or more from the nearest road access. Elevations range from near sea level to 7000 feet, sometimes with altitude changes of several thousand feet in just a mile or so. Sandstone escarpments box in many of the canyons, and add to the precipitousness of the area. Water is scarce yearlong, and in late summer and early fall is hard to find outside of the few permanent streams in the canyon bottoms. The high country is cold, windy and occasionally snowy in winter. All the country, high and low, is hot and arid in summer - and it’s little consolation that it is, as they say, a “dry heat.” And, always, there is the chaparral.

   Chaparral is the generic name for the thick brush that coats much of the western California hill country up to around 5500 feet elevation. Technically (or, at least, originally), I think the term applies to brushlands strongly dominated by evergreen oaks. If so, much of the southern Sespe area is true chaparral. Other parts of this mountain region have dense stands that are mostly chamise or manzanita. Whatever the key plant, the key word is dense. This is the vegetation and the terrain that you see on TV each fall, as firefighters battle to save homes from Santa Ana Wind-swept conflagrations. By some fluke of Nature - considering the amount of California chaparral that burns every year - much of the greater Sespe-Piru-San Rafael area went unburned from the Matilija Fire in 1932 (which charred just about everything between the Tehachapis and the coast) until the disastrous fires of October 2003. This unburned chaparral formed a barrier that only the most determined souls chose to penetrate, thereby keeping the area “condor-friendly.”

   We had a few condor watching locations that were on old trails (most abandoned by the early 1950s) that we kept open with occasional swipes of the machete. To go almost anywhere else meant tackling the brush. Because of that, the chaparral days stand out vividly in my memory.

   Chaparral species don’t have thorns, but the branches are stiff and they poke you and tear at your clothes and skin. In areas where chamise is the dominant plant, the pollen and seeds released by your thrashing are almost suffocating. To add to the fun, the chaparral zone is  the poison oak zone, and also the habitat of blue curls mint, whose amazingly pungent and unappealing aroma quickly  permeates your clothes and mixes with your sweat. If you’re in real old-growth brush - the kind that hasn’t burned since the 1930s - you may find it easier to lie on the ground and slither under it. It isn’t a pleasant mode of travel, but the ground is often bare under the really old plants, and sometimes it is the quickest - and occasionally the only - way through otherwise impenetrable stands.

   While you’re slithering, you can’t forget that you are sharing these brushlands with rattlesnakes. Sometimes you go a year or more without actually seeing one, but you’ve seen enough and heard enough in the past to know that there are plenty of them around. Maybe worse than the threat of snakes is the reality of ticks. The ticks in the Sespe are a very large species, and they swarm at certain times of the year. You can have hundreds on you at the same time, all looking for a way through your clothes to a nice piece of burrowing skin. You brush off those you see as quickly as you see them, but you know you’ll need to do an all-over tick search at the end of the day.


My “Office” in the Sespe Condor Sanctuary

   Most brush-crashing on the condor job was done in late  summer, to check for signs that there was nesting activity earlier in the year. That means the afternoon temperatures in the chaparral are likely to be near 100 degrees. If the Santa Ana Winds are blowing, the heat goes  up and the humidity goes down, leaving you feeling even more parched than usual. By the time you reach your destination, you hardly have the energy or the interest left to do what you came to do. This was made very clear to me on my first trip in the fall of 1969.

   About two weeks after arrival on the job, Dean (the Forest Service biologist) suggested that we begin my orientation to “condor country” by checking out the nesting habitat up in San Luis Obispo County. I was game - at least I was for the first half of the trip. I thought I was in pretty good physical shape, but I soon learned otherwise. Several years of being mainly an armchair biologist/desk jockey had taken more out of me that I realized. Cruel joke: we had to hike downhill to get to the condor observation area, meaning that we had to climb uphill to get back to the car. Even downhill wasn’t easy: it was hot and dry, the terrain was very steep, and the “hike” was really a mile or so of crashing through and crawling under dense, clothes-ripping, tick-infested chaparral. We checked the nest cliff from a distance, and saw fresh “whitewash” (condor excrement), but there was no sign of the condors, themselves. That was disappointing to me, but nowhere near as disappointing as having to face the climb back up the hill that we had just slid down. It was still just as hot and dry as it had been,  the brush was just as dense, and up was so much harder than down. Before we reached the top, I could barely put one foot ahead of the other, and was likely pretty close to heat prostration. We made it without having to call out the rescue team for me, but it felt like a near thing. What an embarrassing introduction to condor research.

   There were other days like that in the next ten years, but I only think about them when someone specifically asks me about the work environment. Usually, I remember wind-swept ridges and rocky cliffs; the surprise creek in the depths of a narrow canyon, swiftly and clearly flowing, with water ouzels (dippers) darting from rock to rock; the view across range and after range of shadowy hills to the limitless Pacific beyond; the bears, coyotes, bobcats, and occasional mountain lions; the condors, of course; and the feeling (often true) that there wasn’t another human within 10 miles of me.

   Not my first choice of mountains, but wonderful, nevertheless.

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© Sanford Wilbur 2021