It's 5:30 Saturday morning in a remote area of the Mojave Desert. Behind distant mountains, the morning sun yawns and stretches its amber arms. Bright fingers of light begin to creep over the mountain peaks, across the desert sand, barrel cactuses, tamarisk trees and eventually, to a ring of 30 tents, truck campers and motor homes.
On a knoll at the edge of the camp, a helicopter silently stands watch.
Some of the campers are California Department of Fish & Game employees, but most are volunteers with a cause.
Don Jones, a tireless, large man with a straw cowboy hat, gentle eyes and the hands of a heavyweight boxer, crawls out of his tent. He picks up an old, metal wash basin and begins to pound on it. "Good morning!" he sings as he wanders from tent to camper, beating the pan.
Heads pop out of tents. Hiking boots are pulled on. Coleman stoves are pumped to life. Soon, the smell of sage gives way to fresh-brewed coffee and bacon.
Jones looks around as the camp comes alive, takes a deep breath of brisk, clean air and slowly lets it out.
"These people revitalize your faith in human beings," Jones says.
He and his wife, Carrol, are the water-hole coordinators for the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep.
The people Jones is talking about are a welcome sea of volunteers who donate their time to help the California Department of Fish & Game ensure the survival of the desert bighorn sheep and other desert animals: coyotes, squirrels, doves, quails, deer, bees . . . by building "guzzlers," man-made water holes.
Sandy McBain, associate vice president of Landmark Bank in El Toro, and her husband, Ken, have been volunteering an occasional weekend for the past three years. "It may sound corny, but Ken and I feel we should give something back to Mother Nature for all she's given us," McBain said.
It's approaching 6:30 a.m.
Stoves and sleeping bags are packed away. Lunches are packed and shoved into day packs along with work gloves, first-aid kits, sun screens, compasses, whistles, rain gear, spare clothing . . . toilet tissue.
"Be prepared" is the first rule in the desert. "You never know what you're going to run into or what the weather is going to be," mumbles Bob Campbell, as he puffs on his pipe and takes another sip of "hobo" coffee, coffee grounds thrown into a pot of boiling water.
The volunteers begin gathering around a four-wheel-drive, one-ton stake truck.
Les Coombes hops up center stage. Coombes is a field biologist and habitat specialist for the Department of Fish & Game.
"I'd like to welcome everyone to the last-chance guzzler project, and thank you for coming," he says. "It looks like it's going to be a great day."
He explains the day's work and safety precautions, and then assigns people to four-wheel-drive trucks that will take them to the base of the mountain. From there, it's about a two-mile hike with a 1,600-foot rise in elevation, estimated to take 2 1/2 hours.
Some hikes are a lot easier . . . shorter with less of a rise in elevation. A few are more difficult. And always there's a wide variety of ages on the outings, from young children to some folks past retirement age. It takes some people longer to get to the top than others, but they get there.
The trucks follow a dry river bed and arrive at the base of the mountain. It's 7 a.m. Coombes comments, as he climbs out of the cab, "In the summer we get up early to beat the heat. In the winter we have to get an early start because we've got a lot of work to do and it gets dark earlier."
He stands up on the truck's running board and speaks to the group: "We've got a good hike in today. Take your time. Set your own pace."
A Tough Climb
The group starts out. There is an immediate steady incline on loose shale, which quickly breaks the tight-knit pack into a long serpentine string, several hundred yards long.
From its nest, high at the top of a sheer rock cliff, a red-tailed hawk scolds the group's trail blazers.
Debbie and Tom Pollard are somewhere in the middle of the climbers. Debbie sports manicured fingernails and a diamond ring. She points halfway up a rock wall: "The barrel cactuses are in bloom." The Pollards have helped build several guzzlers over the past two years.
Ahead of them are Sarah and Noah Roberts, 9 and 5, and Mat and Ricky Remender, 11 and 7, and their fathers. They stop and pass the canteen. The children say they came because "we like to climb and we like sheep." Reason enough.
Merl Felker, 73, approaching the children, says: "I've been out on several trips and like the hard work and the tough hikes in. It keeps me in condition. But you don't have to be a grown-up to pass a bucket or move a rock. Kids like those can contribute to the legacy too," he says, indicating the youngsters ahead.
This is the first guzzler for Scott Yoo, a ruggedly built iron worker. "I'm an avid hunter and fisherman and love the outdoors," Yoo says. "I heard about this project from a local ranger. I think it's great. I've never had an opportunity to do anything like this before . . . give something back."
After climbing several dry waterfalls, we hear the sound of a cement mixer and know we are near the work site. We turn around to see where we came from. It was quite a climb. The view from the top is spectacular.
Down the canyon, we see the last of the group, steadily making their way up. Bettie Carter, a Girl Scout leader from Bishop, with members of Troop 61 (including her daughter Jennifer) come into sight as they round a boulder on the trail below. "This is great for the girls," Carter says. "They're doing it as a community service project."
Below them, the Scott and Remender youngsters are slowly scaling a slope of loose rock, under their fathers' careful guidance and encouragement.
At the site, Yoo sees a place he is needed, picks up a shovel and joins in. Eleventh-grader Shannon Bishop asks what took the others so long. "I was the third person to make it to the top," she says. Merl Felker reached the top five minutes ahead of most volunteers and is already mixing cement.
A guzzler is engineered to catch rainwater run-off before it disappears into the desert sands. To accomplish this, a shallow cement-and-rock dam is built across a narrow gorge. The dam is sometimes augmented by a large, rubberized ground cloth, which also acts as a rainwater collector.
Man-made Water Hole
From the dam and the collection cloth, a three-inch pipeline is run to large, plastic storage tanks. From the storage tanks, the pipeline continues to a large, 2,100-gallon, saucer-shaped drinker, which has a lid to prevent evaporation. A one-foot hole, at the edge of the lid, provides animals access to the water. The saucer has a built-in ramp which leads to the hole to allow small animals, such as deer mice, to escape should they accidentally fall in.
The areas where the storage tanks and drinker will eventually rest must be leveled. This requires the use of picks, shovels and even sledge hammers. Solid rock often has to be chipped away and sometimes even blasted.
Occasionally fill dirt is needed. Dirt, water, cement, small rocks and sand are moved from one place to the next by long bucket brigades of men, women and children. All jobs are unisex, and if a 5-year-old wants to try taking a lick at a rock with a sledge, people give him room.
"The first guzzler installed was kind of a plumber's nightmare. It took days to construct," Coombes recalls. "We are a lot better organized now. If we get enough volunteers we can install one in five hours, and nobody has to work very hard."
"You couldn't pay me to do this work," says Mary Edmunds, a regular volunteer from Hermosa Beach, as she carries rocks to an area where fill is needed. "But I'll do it for free because I believe in the cause."
"Volunteers are the key to the entire project. Fish & Game just doesn't have the money," Don Jones emphasizes. "There's the cost of the materials themselves and then getting all this stuff into these remote sites."
Getting the "stuff"--including cement mixer, generator, cement, storage tanks, sledge hammers, shovels and picks--into the site is done by helicopter. From the beginning, that job has been contracted to Landell's Aviation of Desert Hot Springs. The pilots and especially Elaine Landell, widow of Don Landell, often work alongside the volunteers. "I care about the project," she says. "So did Don. It goes beyond business."
Last season, during a routine reconnaissance flight to find suitable guzzler sites, a helicopter crashed. Don Landell, owner of Landell's Aviation, and Jim Bicket, wildlife biologist for the Bureau of Land Management, were killed. Badly injured was Dick Weaver, a Fish & Game biologist who did the original bighorn sheep survey on which the guzzler project was based.
Still on crutches from the accident, Weaver makes almost every guzzler building project. "It's my job," Weaver says. "The volunteers are the ones that make the project work, though."
After a hard but satisfying day's work, we hike back down. Back at camp, the Scott and Remender children start a game of tag.
We clean up, cook dinner and then sit around a campfire sipping hot rum toddies, singing and talking. Robin Ornelas, a kindergarten teacher, shows off a sun-bleached badger skull she found on the hike down. Tenth-grader Kristina Adams tells how she and the Don LaVoies took a shortcut on the way down and used a rope to lower her down a 15-foot waterfall.
One by one, people who can't keep their eyes open any longer drift off to the comfort and warmth of their sleeping bags. From there, they look at the stars in the pristine desert sky and know they have accomplished something important.
Sunday is a day of rest.
Persons interested in volunteering for one of the guzzler projects should call the California Department of Fish & Game at (213) 590 - 5158, and ask for Lilani Park, who will send a list of projects complete with directions, maps, a list of essential gear and information about how difficult the trip is. The next outing is Jan. 16-17.... Bring a log for the fire.