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Hikers Take a Walk on the Wildlife Side

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Other tourists might hurl themselves into the surf with abandon, but the sandal-clad, straw-hatted, daypack-bearing strollers of Coastwalk take their beaches with pedestrian logic--one step at a time.

“Oh sure, it hurts me a little when I walk,” acknowledged Bill Commins, a 73-year-old retired engineer from Alameda who received an artificial knee last January. “But I like the motto of the great San Francisco runner Will Stack: ‘Start slow--and then taper off.’ ”

Coastwalk does not aim to break any land speed records. Since 1983, the Sonoma County-based nonprofit group has organized beach walks to campaign for a 1,072-mile coastal trail the length of California. Walkers tackle one county at a time, and many return to their favorite counties time and again.

The 20 or so Coastwalkers ambling down the seaward fringe of Ventura County this week average a mile an hour--a perfect pace for dawdling, picking up shreds of kelp, looking out to sea and chatting with good company about everything from Chumash canoes to California chardonnay.

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Ranging in age from 10 to 77, members of the group started Monday at Carpinteria State Beach and are due to finish Saturday at Leo Carrillo State Beach on the Los Angeles County line. In between, they’ll take a couple of detours by van but trudge about as much of Ventura County’s coast as is trudgeable--some 41 miles, counting a side trip or two.

Along the way, they’ll have picked up a little trash, ruminated on development, beach access and ocean pollution and learned a thing or two.

As he tore into a stick of jerky on a lunch break at Marina Park, Martin DeGoey of Simi Valley consulted his notes of the previous 24 hours. He had learned to identify a number of birds, including the marbled godwit and four varieties of gull. He could pick out the reeds the Chumash used for their baskets. He knew how to tell a stalk of fennel from a stalk of poisonous hemlock--essential information for wilderness chefs.

The tidbits came courtesy of group leader Tom Maxwell, a naturalist and a retired professor of anthropology at California Lutheran University.

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After a night camping with his charges at Emma Wood State Beach, Maxwell led them to the Albinger Archeological Museum in downtown Ventura.

“They’re getting their fill of anthropology this week,” he said. “But I told them it would be subtle.”

Maxwell said this year’s Coastwalkers will be the first allowed to camp on the water’s edge at the Point Mugu naval base. With its wetlands and little-used beaches, the coastline there is rich in wildlife.

“It will be a first for a non-Boy Scout or non-Navy group to camp there,” he said.

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At $35 a day for lodging (campsites) and meals (quiche on Monday, chili on Tuesday), the price suited families seeking a holiday less expensive and more organic than, say, Club Med.

“It’s a wonderful, affordable family vacation,” said Gail Nurmi of Santa Rosa. She was accompanied by her husband, her two children, her nephew, her parents and her father-in-law.

From Marina Park, the group chugged across Ventura Harbor on the Bay Queen, feasted on ice-cream cones and strolled up to the Channel Islands National Park headquarters. Over a TV hookup in the building’s auditorium, a diver submerged in a cove at Anacapa Island told them that kelp can grow two feet a day and that certain fish can change genders about as easily as ballplayers change teams.

At show’s end, the hikers set out again, bamboo walking sticks in hand, headed for the night’s encampment at McGrath State Beach.

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Many traded memories of Coastwalks elsewhere.

In Monterey, a group was allowed to bed down in the aquarium. Gail Nurmi spent the night on the floor beside the shark tank. The next day, she bought some fine china in one of Carmel’s chi chi gift shops and carried it along the coast in her backpack.

The most accomplished Coastwalker was Commins, who had done every county in the state and had memories galore.

He remembers the nude beach in San Diego and his half-hearted attempt not to gaze at a heart-stoppingly beautiful woman. There was the time he and his group camped on the polo field at the Del Mar race track and showered with the hoses used to wash the thoroughbreds.

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At the beach in Camp Pendleton, he saw Marines streaming out of a new Hovercraft landing craft--a fascinating sight to an old Marine wounded at Iwo Jima.

Last year he had back surgery. An implant on his other knee awaits him. His war wound still gives him a pain in the hip. “But it’s just a wonder to be alive,” he said, laughing, as he waded all 10 yards of the mighty Santa Clara River where it lets out into the Pacific.

And who said life’s a beach?


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