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Protected Forever : The Sespe Wilderness is a vast sweep of hills, mountains, meadows, gorges and the hottest natural spring in the Southland.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Angry storm clouds nip at distant peaks as an expedition embarks on a three-day journey into the dark regions of Los Padres National Forest. The mission: Explore the newly protected Sespe Wilderness, that mountainous, 220,500-acre province occupying a large chunk of the national forest and most of northern Ventura County.

Led by a savvy professional guide, a procession of five horseback riders and three pack mules leaves Lion Campground on a seldom-used trail. Cork-screwing upward around steep, slate-colored mountains, they ride for several hours before piercing through the clouds on Topatopa Ridge, one of the highest spots in the county and a panoramic vantage point from which to view the enormity of the Sespe Wilderness.

On the lip of a thousand-foot cliff above Bear Canyon, they see nothing but untouched, unrelenting wilderness all the way to the horizon. Rippled, barren mountain tops preside over pine-studded hills and flinty gorges. Earth-tone canyons choked with chaparral yield to meadows carpeted in wild oats. And far below, as the sun emerges and paints shadows on canyon walls, Sespe Creek sparkles, a silver strand weaving through the landscape.

This is Sespe Wilderness, much of it unchanged since the first Chumash hunted and worshiped here several thousand years ago. Unlike much of California, it will never be paved and gouged and exploited; the 1992 Los Padres Wilderness Act forever protects the land from development and mechanized invasion. It also precludes dams along the 31 1/2 miles of Sespe Creek that curl through the wilderness.

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Ventura County now boasts not only Southern California’s last free-flowing river, Sespe Creek, but also the largest federal wilderness area from here to the Mexican border. (Compared to the Sespe, Los Angeles County’s biggest wilderness is puny: 31,500 acres.) Covering an eighth of the 1.7-million-acre national forest, which runs from Ojai to Big Sur, the Sespe Wilderness is a whopping 18% of the county’s land mass--as immense as the area stretching from the Ventura Pier to Westlake in length and from Moorpark to the ocean in width.

Somehow, these 220,500 acres of scenic real estate managed to escape the ruthless march of suburbia.

“I’m really surprised it lasted so long,” said Greg Kouns, one of two seasonal wilderness rangers assigned to the Sespe by the U.S. Forest Service’s Ojai District. Kouns, who spends several days a week backpacking through the area, marveled at its size: “I look out and as far as the eye can see is wilderness. . . . It boggles my mind.”

THE FIGHT FOR THE SESPE

The preservation of the Sespe did not come without a fight. Environmental activists battled two forces: recreational users, motorcyclists, mountain bikers, RV enthusiasts, who wanted to maintain open access; and water interests, which wanted to keep Sespe Creek available for dams. When President Bush signed the law, which also set aside other large areas in the Los Padres, he said the government was furthering “the protection of unique and sensitive lands.”

Two years later, the Sespe is slowly but surely shedding all reminders of human contact. Rutted fire roads that once carried off-road vehicles and even motor homes deep into the outback are being reclaimed by vegetation. Graffiti, old tires, rusted beer cans and other junk are being removed. The land is healing, but problems remain.

“It’s rugged, wonderful country,” said Kouns, “but as wilderness, it has a long way to go.”

The Forest Service’s goal of educating the public about the wilderness has been slowed by the agency’s snail-pace bureaucracy. Maps delineating the area still have not been issued; trail-head signs at wilderness borders only began going up last spring, and many more signs are required. Even more urgently needed, said Kouns, are educational kiosks in Rose Valley listing not only the rules of the wilderness but also “the ethics.”

Adjacent to the wilderness area and right off California 33, Rose Valley is the county’s inland camping hub--and also a springboard for vandals.

According to authorities, the main source of trouble comes from Lion Campground on Sespe Creek, a summer weekend hangout for gang members. Last year, a new wooden sign dedicating a national trail was used for a bonfire at the campground. From now on, said Kouns, the Forest Service will be making as many of the Sespe Wilderness signs as possible from boilerplate.

Desecration of the wilderness by vandals doesn’t extend very far into the Sespe. “Once you get five or six miles into the wilderness, you don’t see any vandalism,” said Kouns.

The wilderness discourages hooligans and slackers. Deep in the wilderness there are more encounters with slippery creek crossings, grinding uphill switchbacks and perilous trails. Easy routes that begin as wide fire roads usually disappear later up the trail, swallowed by dense brush.

The Sespe can also get ugly. A 70-degree morning in Rose Valley can turn into a frozen night below Topatopa Ridge. A blazing summer sun can disorient even an experienced hiker. And a strong winter rain can enrage Sespe Creek; its floods can cut off trails, swamp campsites along Sespe Gorge and strand visitors. Landslides are common--one of them buried a half-mile section of Sespe Trail two years ago.

With the ban on mechanized vehicles effectively sealing the Sespe from massive waves of party animals, its remote interior is virtually inaccessible now to all but skilled backpackers and intrepid horsemen. Which is the way it should be.

“People need knowledge to go in there,” Kouns said, “and it takes judgment to get out. The best way to learn is to go with someone who knows what they’re doing.”

Someone like Tony Alvis.

THE THRILL OF THE TRAIL

A tall, bearded mountain man who loves the land, Alvis is the only licensed guide in the Los Padres. Specializing in the Sespe, Alvis, 43, makes a living taking city slickers on safaris--from one day to one week. He provides horses, food, expertise, information, leather chaps, toilet paper--even cowboy hats because “they look good in photos.”

What he doesn’t provide is the mental and physical toughness required to penetrate the savage heart of the Sespe Wilderness.

Commissioned by Life magazine to guide a reporter and photographer inside the Sespe, Alvis took to calling them “Lewis and Clark,” although “Beavis and Butt-head” might have been more appropriate. Even though both were veteran hikers familiar with parts of the Sespe, they were caught by surprise by the spectacular roller-coaster terrain.

They often felt like a high-wire act, suffering heart palpitations whenever their horses tip-toed along the narrow, unstable ledges floating high above canyon floors; especially after dark, when only the horses could see the trail. Alvis’ warning--"If your horse falls, jump off to the high side"--had become their mantra, keeping them in a constant state of anxious readiness.

Before the trip that included the writer and photographer of this story; Chang Liampetchakul, owner of Tipps Thai Cuisine in Ventura who was conscripted by Alvis to cook, and Ventura welder Mike Hauber, an experienced horseman Alvis drafted as a wrangler, Alvis addressed the expedition. He told them the journey would be hard, and he conveyed the feeling that he didn’t like whiners. He told them the trails would be dangerous in places, so stay alert. But he reassured them that in more than 20 years as a guide, he had never lost a customer or a horse.

THE DEATH OF THE GRIZZLY

The Sespe has stayed intact because it is just too hostile to be tamed. Although the Chumash took advantage of the area’s abundant game and spiritual essence, they couldn’t abide the mean mountains and harsh winters and chose not to live there permanently. The Spanish, too, apparently, had no interest in settling the back country. So after the United States took over California in 1849, the Sespe, still unclaimed, was declared public land.

In the last decades of the 19th Century, only a few brave homesteaders were able to survive the Sespe. These who did, raising cattle, farming and relying on their wits, were colorful characters like Ramon Ortega, a famed bear-hunter who caught his prey with a lariat; fugitive and killer Jeff Howard, who farmed the Sespe when he wasn’t hiding out there, and William (Old Man) Mutau, a horse thief who settled what is now Mutau Flats.

By the turn of the century, most of the Sespe had been incorporated into a federal reserve that in 1938 would become the Los Padres National Forest. But until the 1992 law, the Sespe was always vulnerable to development, oil exploration, mining, logging and assault from motorized vehicles.

The turning point probably occurred in the ‘30s, when a planned road that would have bisected the wilderness was shelved in favor of building California Highway 33 several miles beyond the wilderness’ western border.

Shortly before the turn of the century, the crystal-clear water of Sespe Creek teemed with speckled trout. Bear, deer, mountain lion, fox, quail, wild turkey and big horn sheep thrived in the wilderness, but the California condor, never numerous, was beginning its short flight to near extinction--shot down as a nuisance by local farmers and cattlemen.

That endangered bird, of course, was briefly a resident of the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, a 53,000-acre preserve in the southeast corner of Sespe Wilderness. But three of the 13 giant vultures released into the sanctuary were killed in accidents involving power poles on the fringes of civilization, so the remaining condors were moved this year to a more remote sanctuary in Santa Barbara County.

Though the Sespe was revered for its wildlife, it was feared as the ‘hood of Ursus arctos horribilis , the mighty grizzly. The creatures, which averaged eight feet in height and weighed nearly 800 pounds, were plentiful until the 1870s, killing and maiming settlers and livestock and producing the legend of “Old Clubfoot,” probably a mythical monster. Hunted relentlessly and accidentally poisoned by strychnine used in gold mining, grizzlies were last seen in the Sespe in 1913; since 1922, grizzlies have been extinct in California.

THE NAMES IN THE TUNNEL

Smaller black bears, however, now rule the area, but Alvis isn’t worried about them, his 3-year-old Australian shepherd being a reliable bear alarm. No, Alvis fears yellow jackets and rattlesnakes making sudden appearances and spooking the horses. And he fears ticks, ubiquitous specks of flesh-boring parasite that drop from overhanging limbs and blow through the air likes motes of dust.

On the ride across Topatopa Ridge, Alvis points out the recent trail-gashing tire tracks of a mountain bike. “Cyclists are nice people but they don’t understand the consequences of what their tires are doing to the trail,” Alvis said. While horses and hikers tamp down trails, mountain bikes can leave grooves that cause trails to wash out during rain.

Alvis decides to camp at Lady Bug, three miles down the Red Reef Trail, through a zone marked by mauve sandstone hills resembling giant dunes, past a dove resting atop a lonesome pine like “a Christmas ornament.”

Night comes quickly in the Sespe, bringing a wet chill on the westerly wind. After a rough two-hour ride, the expedition arrives at Lady Bug in darkness. A fire warms them, and a heavy dinner of barbecued shrimp, steak burritos and pumpkin pie sedates them into slumber.

The next day, the sun doesn’t make a direct hit on Red Reef Canyon until four or five hours after dawn. The campsite, which is in a thickly wooded glen by a stream, is bone-numbing damp. The storm that passed through the day before brought no rain but did drop temperatures enough to freeze canteen water. Still, a breakfast of eggs, bacon and biscuits, all pan-fried in bacon fat, adds a few ounces of insulation to the shivering bodies.

Creature report: no bears, although their scat was found not far from camp; no yellow jackets or snakes; no lady bugs.

After breaking camp at Lady Bug, the expedition continues on the Red Reef Trail. Finally emerging from the shadows, they round a mountain and behold a stunning vista, different from anything they’ve seen: crumpled brown hills and vertical slabs of stratified red sandstone kneeling below the rose-tinted Topatopas. “It’s like riding into a dream,” Alvis said.

The trail leads once again to the canyon stream, where they must walk their horses around boulders and through a short, nine-foot-high tunnel. Chiseled on the tunnel wall are the names T.J. Harris and R.J. Harris and the date 1904. Alvis said they were brothers who made the trail possible by blasting through the sandstone--and leaving behind the only graffiti the expedition would discover in the Sespe.

By noon the band is down from the mountains and at the confluence of the Red Reef and Sespe trails. They take Sespe Trail east, crossing Sespe Creek on a natural rock bridge. Tall cottonwoods line the banks, their yellow leaves tumbling to the ground in a light breeze. Despite little rainfall since last spring, Sespe Creek still hurries along, reaching depths of three feet at some crossings. For now, it behaves, staying within its main channel, but debris 12 feet up in the trees testifies to the river’s violent potential.

On the sandy banks of the Sespe, the trail suddenly vanishes. Alvis stops the procession and pushes through tangled underbrush until he finds his way. Trail maintenance, always problematic for the Forest Service, has become even more so with the Wilderness Act. The ban on motorized equipment includes chain saws; only hand tools can be used in the Sespe, making maintenance work long and difficult.

THE CARESS TO THE FLESH

After setting up a base camp in a small canyon, Alvis takes the reporter and photographer on a punishing 2 1/2-hour ride to Sespe Hot Springs. One of the wonders of the wilderness, it is the hottest natural spring in Southern California, with 180-degree sulfur-heavy water at the source. It feeds a terraced stream that cascades downhill across granite for about two miles and flows into Sespe Creek.

Alvis dips a finger into a shallow pool, a quarter of a mile downstream from the source, where the water caresses rather than melts flesh. The bone-weary riders spend the next 30 or 40 minutes soaking in the pure, therapeutic liquid.

“This place, " Alvis said, sitting cross-legged in the stream, with Johnson Ridge towering above him, “keeps getting better and better.”

THE SONG OF THE POET

Three days, even on horseback, is in no way long enough to make contact with the entire wilderness--it takes almost two days in a car to drive around the perimeter--but members of the expedition are able to get a sense of the Sespe. As they make the long ride back to Lion Campground, they take with them the same wonderment that must have inspired Frank D. Felt, a homesteader known as “The Sage of the Sespe,” to write:

Now, ‘tis sunset in the Sespe ,

and the day is nearly done.

Sands are sifting through the

hourglass,

each grain drops one by one.

And streams of flaming tinsel

add their mystery to the skies,

As fantastic colored billions

march before my wistful eyes.

Sespe Wilderness Area

* Sespe Wilderness covers 220,500 acres, or about 18% of Ventura County’s total land area.

* President Bush signed into law the protection of the Sespe and other large areas in the Los Padres National Forest on June 19, 1992.

* The Sespe has 200 miles of trails.

* Relatively speaking, the Sespe is dwarfed by the nation’s largest wilderness area, the Frank Church River of No Return in Idaho, with 2.4 million acres.

* Each year, about 570,000 cubic yards of sand are washed down Sespe Creek to the beaches in Ventura.


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