Tom Akerlund and four of his West Point classmates packed up their rental car last Saturday and left New York for a spring-break trip to the beach.
Driving around the clock, they arrived at Marina Cove in Ventura on Tuesday, itching for a glimpse of Southern California's fabled beaches.
But instead of palm trees and fine-grained sand, they were greeted with ugly swatches of driftwood and piles of debris mixed with heaps of trash and washed-up tires.
"It's a mess," said Akerlund, 20. "How are you supposed to sit out here? This doesn't make sense."
Akerlund and his military academy classmates heard about the storms that pounded California over much of the winter. But they never expected to meet its leftovers firsthand.
"This is going to be a souvenir," said cadet David Grossman, clutching a squat piece of dried wood destined for his mantel.
One day after spring officially began, Ventura County beaches are still piled high with wood, tree trunks and other remnants of the storms.
City and state parks officials said Tuesday that they hope to begin cleaning the beaches within days and to have the coastline cleared by the end of April, when the California Beach Party marks the traditional start of Ventura's lucrative tourist season.
"We're going as fast as we can," said Steve Treanor, district superintendent for the state Department of Parks and Recreation.
"The biggest issue is that storms keep coming in and we have ongoing problems," he said. "We have limited resources, and staff has to be directed to the highest priorities."
Meanwhile, Ventura park officials said Tuesday that they are almost ready to sign a contract worth $177,000 with California Land Clearing, which will clean out the mouth of the Ventura River.
The river mouth has been clogged with plywood, fiberglass and other materials used to build the shanties that washed downstream during January's floods.
"That will take care of everything west of the Main Street Bridge," park supervisor Terry Murphy said. "But the sensitive habitat we have to take a little more careful look at."
Both Treanor and Murphy said they already have applied for help from the Job Training Policy Council of Ventura County, which announced last month that it had received a $1-million grant to help with flood cleanup.
"I asked for two crews of 15 people each," Murphy said. "They're doing interviews now for people to come work for us on a couple of different projects."
Murphy said county work-release and California Youth Authority crews have combed the wreckage in search of bottles, cans and other man-made items. But the wood and tree trunks await a larger effort.
"We're trying to leave the organic material and just pick up trash for now," she said.
Volunteer groups such as high school clubs, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Brownies all have pitched in to help clear the beaches in recent weeks, Murphy said.
"Everybody's making a difference," she said.
But too often, their efforts have been rendered useless because of new storms. "We had six of these smaller areas kind of cleaned up and this last storm took us by surprise," Murphy said.
More rain is forecast for late tonight or early Thursday, according to the National Weather Service in Oxnard. Meteorologist Rob Krohn predicted one-half to one inch of rain for the coast.
"It doesn't look so major at this point," Krohn said.
Nine-year-old Kristen Moe's first visit to Ventura's beaches was much different than she imagined.
"It's not what I expected," said the Simi Valley fourth-grader, hunting through piles of driftwood at Marina Cove on Tuesday with her father, Jeff. "I thought it would be a lot cleaner than it is."
At the Inn at the Beach hotel, which fronts San Buenaventura State Beach on South Seaward Avenue, desk clerk Roland Roberts said the piles of storm waste were disruptive for some guests.
"It makes it difficult for them to walk on the beach, but they enjoy the view almost as much," Roberts said. "I have to explain how it got there."