Natural Perspectives: Kayaking to keep Bolsa Chica clean

People need to clean up after getting dirty. Wetlands are no different.

In olden days, storms would flush out our coastal wetlands. Before "civilization" struck, the only debris out there was natural and decomposable. Not any more.

These days, the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve fills up with trash, especially after rainstorms. All winter long, plastic and other types of debris accumulate in the salt marsh. Or at least it would if the marsh weren't cleaned out periodically.

A series of rubber dams or floating booms in the Wintersburg Flood Control Channel helps hold back the bulk of the debris. After a storm, crews from Orange County Flood Control bring a truck and fill it up with stuff that has washed down the channel.

I think the idea is to keep trash out of Huntington Harbour. But it also helps keep trash out of outer Bolsa Bay, the body of water that stretches from Warner Avenue south to the tide gates. It keeps debris out of the ocean, too.

The trash that does slip past the booms often accumulates in the cordgrass and pickleweed of the outer bay. This trash can reduce the amount of habitat that is available for nesting of the Belding's savannah sparrow, a state endangered species. There are only about 2,000 breeding pairs of these birds left in the United States, and Bolsa Chica is home to about 10% of the population. Therefore, keeping the bay clean of debris is crucial to their survival.

That's where the Bolsa Chica Conservancy steps in. They organize several kayak cleanups of the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve during the winter. Some kayakers are so efficient at gathering trash on cleanup morning that they have too many bags for just one trip. Those hardworking souls end up making several trips.

Patrick Scott, a naturalist with the Bolsa Chica Conservancy, organizes the cleanups with the permission of the California Department of Fish and Game. It is important to point out that recreational boating is not allowed in the ecological reserve. The kayakers wear fluorescent vests over their life vests to indicate that they are working. Malibu Rentals donated some of the kayaks. But some people, like Ross Griswold and Larry Rolewic, brought their own kayaks.

Grace Adams, executive director of the Bolsa Chica Conservancy, tries to schedule some of the cleanup days on Thursdays to make it possible for the orientation crews from the Orange County Conservation Corps to participate. Thursday is the only day that my crews are able to go into the field. They have classes the other days.

Just as a reminder for any new readers, the Orange County Conservation Corps hires at-risk youths aged 18 to 24. Corps members take classes at the John Muir Charter School at corps headquarters in Anaheim to work toward their high school diplomas. That is after they worked at conservation-related jobs throughout Orange County from 6:45 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Many of our corps members are dealing with issues of gang membership, poverty, and/or probation. With a felony conviction and no high school diploma, it is difficult for them to find a job. But after they finish our program, employers are eager to hire them.

A full-time crew from the corps has been stationed at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve for the past several months. They are helping the Department of Fish and Game and the Conservancy clear weeds from a sandy area in preparation for nesting endangered California least terns and threatened snowy plovers.

The strip of land where they are working is just behind the fence at the end of the south boardwalk, adjacent to the full tidal basin.

My orientation crew from last Thursday was one of the very lucky crews that got to participate in a kayak cleanup. My corps members often are fearful of going out into the bay in those shallow-draft kayaks. I can't say that I blame them. I tell them that we've never lost a corps member during a kayak cleanup. I joke that we always manage to recover the bodies!

Kayaks are tippy little vessels. Once in a very rare while a pair of our kayaking corps members tips over, usually when they were stretching to reach debris. Fortunately, that didn't happen last Thursday. I must confess that I'm more afraid than they are.

And I don't even go out on the water. My knees are too arthritic for me to get into or out of a kayak. The reason that I worry about them going overboard is that I don't want kayaking to be a bad experience for them.

However, I'm not afraid of my corps members getting wet and muddy. That is par for the course on cleanup day. Most of them are soaked and filthy by the time they've lugged all of those heavy bags of wet, soggy debris back to the launch point and put them into the dumpsters.

After the morning of hard work, we had lunch. Then the corps members had a classroom lesson with me. I talked about various habitats here in southern California, and we discussed conservation issues associated with each habitat.

This group of corps members was particularly fascinated by the snakes that are kept at the Bolsa Chica Conservancy Interpretive Center at Warner and PCH. I showed them the rosy boa, a local species that has been extirpated from Bolsa Chica. Rosy boas make nice pets, which has been their undoing.

Over the years, they were all caught. Now there aren't any more boas in the wild at Bolsa Chica. The Conservancy's boa, like all of their snakes, was captive-bred.

The Conservancy's rosy boa is a very friendly snake, and is quite used to being handled. It loves coming out of its terrarium to meet visitors and go exploring. It happily crawled up the sleeve and down into the shirt of one of the corps members, much to the delight of his buddies. There is nothing like getting up close and personal with wildlife to help them gain a better appreciation for the natural world.

I always ask the corps members what they liked best about their day. No surprise, the kayaking and snake handling were big hits.

"The kayaking was my first time experiencing something like this," Martin Hernandez said.

But I liked Alvaro Gomez's answer best. What he enjoyed most about his day was helping the community.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at

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