Naturalist Tom Maxwell is preparing for a walk on the beach, an extremely long walk. Forty-one miles to be precise.
At the end of August, the 70-year-old Thousand Oaks man plans to set out with a group of about 30 to spend five days tracing the entire Ventura County coastline, from Rincon Point in the north to Leo Carrillo State Park at the Los Angeles County line.
It’s not just an idle stroll Maxwell has planned. As the local coordinator of the statewide organization Coastwalk, Maxwell and his companions will hike to promote Coastwalk’s goal: the establishment of a trail running the considerable length of California’s 1,072 miles of coastline.
Sound like an impossible utopian fantasy?
“There are huge obstacles to getting it finished,” acknowledged statewide coordinator Richard Nichols, who has been with the group since its inception in the 1970s. “It may be years and years until it is completed.”
But Nichols pointed to the 2,638-mile Pacific Crest Trail, which winds through mountains and deserts from Canada to Mexico, as an example of just such a fantasy come true.
A lthough the idea for the Pacific Crest Trail first came about in the 1920s, work on the path did not begin until 1968. The final link of the trail was purchased by the federal government in 1993, a full 25 years later.
However, even Nichols agrees that pioneers of the Pacific Crest Trail had a distinct advantage over his group: Their trail runs through miles of desolate and difficult terrain, not along the kind of sunny beachfront property that everyone from home builders to the Navy wants to claim as their own.
Coastwalk became a nonprofit organization in 1983, and has been staging coastal walks since then. But this summer will be the first time the hike will pass through every coastal county.
Nichols, who will accompany Maxwell and his band of hikers on the Ventura trip, said Los Angeles and Ventura are the only two of the 15 California counties bordering the Pacific that haven’t been hiked in previous years.
Ventura County was only left out of previous hikes because the group could not find a local organizer. But then Nichols heard about Maxwell, a retired Cal Lutheran University anthropology professor who knows the county’s trails well from leading nature hikes for Conejo Valley schoolchildren. And so he asked him to take on the task.
“I guess they couldn’t find anyone else,” Maxwell joked. So for the past few months, Maxwell has been busy timing himself on different routes along the Ventura coast, arranging for permits to enter the Point Mugu and Port Hueneme Navy bases and finding guest lecturers to explain the area’s history, native plants and animals while the group passes by.
On a recent morning jaunt down Emma Wood State Beach in Ventura, where the group will camp on the first night of the hike, Maxwell pointed out a baby sea lion stranded on the beach.
“I’m trying to find someone to talk about sea lions,” he said. “But if I can’t find anyone, I’ll do it myself.”
Toting a weathered leather backpack and clad in hiking boots that look like they have been up and down the entire coastline a few times, Maxwell said he has already arranged talks by local geologists, history teachers, marine biologists and bird experts.
At the beginning of July, Maxwell went on the Sonoma Coast walk, where the first coast walk took place in the 1970s. Many of the walkers on that trip were retired people, he said, who have the time to commit to a weeklong walk.
Hikes along Ventura County’s coastline will range from six to nine miles a day, over easy to moderate trails, he said. A chuck wagon loaded with tents, sleeping bags and food will meet the hikers each night, and participants will only have to carry a lunch, water, sunscreen or whatever else they need during the day.
If someone needs a break from walking, Maxwell said a shuttle will take them to the next night’s campsite. Between the shuttle and the chuck wagon, the trip may border on the luxurious, he said.
“It’s a bit of an incentive,” Maxwell said. “Many people are reluctant to do the beach walk as a vacation, even though they’ll go to the beach and stay for a week at a hotel.”
Though much of the California coastline is beautiful, both Maxwell and Nichols stressed that the hikes are about more than enjoying nature.
“The whole purpose of this in the beginning was to have a vehicle to educate people about their right to walk on the beach, their rights to access,” Nichols said.
Even though the state Constitution technically guarantees that the public can use all of California’s ocean frontage, gaining access is not always easy.
According to the California Coastal Commission, 42% of California’s coastline is publicly owned, but about 58% is either privately owned or federally controlled. In theory, as long as citizens stay to the seaward side of the high tide mark, they can gain access to any shoreline.
“Basically we say you can walk on the wet sand,” said Jack Liebster, spokesman for the California Coastal Commission.
Finding the wet sand and sticking to it enables the public to pass by many private beach communities, but inside federally controlled areas, the state Constitution goes out the window.
At military bases like the Point Mugu Naval Air Weapons Station and the Naval Construction Battalion Center at Port Hueneme, whether the sand is wet or not is immaterial. Beach-goers are simply not welcome without permission.
For example, when the Coastwalk group arrives at Point Mugu, they will be greeted and transported by bus to Mugu Lagoon to look at wildlife.
Maxwell plans side trips to McGrath Lake, where 10,000 gallons of crude oil spilled after a Bush Oil Co. transfer pipe ruptured last December, and into the La Jolla Valley to see how the area burned by November’s wildfires has recovered.
The group will also pass by nesting areas for the endangered least terns and threatened snowy plovers.
But even the most developed areas yield interesting lessons, Nichols said.
“There is something special about being in the place where ocean meets the land,” Nichols said. “There are qualities about that wherever you are. Relative to what man can do to the land, there is little they can do to the beach.”
In 1976, the state Legislature enacted the Coastal Act, which called for a continuous trail connecting cities and towns with parks and natural resources all along the coast and established the concept of the trail.
But the money to turn the idea into reality has never materialized. Coastwalk subsists on small donations and the fees for its walks (about $30 per day, including meals).
Nichols said funds are needed for trail development, construction and putting up signs, as well as land purchases and fighting for easements. The closest the group has come to realizing its two-decade-old dream is the hope that by next year they may be able to put up some signs.