Drawn to nature, Angeles Style

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Enthralled and perhaps nature-starved New Yorkers are climbing into sightseeing boats for a chance to glimpse a wild harbor seal. In a fascinating article from the The New Yorker magazine (March 21), Ian Frazier writes of the popular return of the sea mammal to New York Harbor. One New Yorker named Milissa can observe the animal frolicking in the wild from her kitchen window – possibly a first in modern NYC history.

While the return of the seals to the heavily trafficked waters off Manhattan and Staten Island is a testament to environmental laws protecting seals and successful efforts to clean up New York waterways, the reaction from the watchers – we human beings – is much more fascinating to me.

As the article demonstrates, we humans can never get enough of nature. And when nature is right in our backyard, we go ape.

The article brings to mind the re-opening of the main roadway into the Angeles National Forest – Highway 39 last month, in fact, around the same time Frazier’s article was published. Now, anyone with a vehicle can drive Highway 39 about 26 miles up to Crystal Lake, the only natural lake in the entire San Gabriel Mountains. It is the first time such access has been granted in nine years, ever since the Curve Fire smoked the landscape and resulted in debris flows that badly damaged the road.

San Gabriel Valley folk wasted little time taking advantage. They’ve been making the relatively easy drive since the end of March.

It’s sure to become a popular camping spot come June when (or if?) the Forest Service grants a concessionaire the contract to re-open the nicely refurbished campground.
After a quick drive up the fogged-in mountain last Thursday, I found a steady stream of visitors at the Crystal Lake Snack Bar swapping stories about how they used to come up here when they were kids.

Two young anglers cast their lines into the lake in hopes of catching a trout. The irrigation system has been re-tooled, allowing more natural spring water to recharge the small lake.

Because of the fog, views of nature that day were limited. Though it’s certainly possible to see a black bear or mountain lion, you’re more likely to spot a mule deer or a red-tailed hawk. In summer, rattlers are out and I recall a past visit in the 1980s when a ranger nudged me to move my hand which was leaning on a rock. The rattlesnake was curled in the cleft.

Crystal Lake has nothing on the big reservoir lakes in the northwest range, such as Castaic, Pyramid and Bouquet. But the 5,000-feet elevation and the close proximity to this pristine world will literally take your breath away.

Just to the west, Angeles Crest Highway is still closed but that could be opening up soon, sources say. Until then, visitors are flocking to Chantry Flat; the road to it (starting above Arcadia as Santa Anita Avenue) is in near-perfect shape. The trails into Big Santa Anita Canyon lead hikers on a must-see journey through some of the greenest, wettest sights of the last few decades. The steady rains of the past seven months have wrought new seedlings and spawned trout in the creek.

“Santa Anita Canyon is the prettiest I’ve seen it in 30 years,” said Glen Owens, a 50-year cabin owner and president of the Big Santa Anita Canyon Historical Society. “It is just gorgeous up there.”

Owens says a plentiful acorn crop in the fall nurtured by steady rainfall of 45 inches (normal is 35 inches) produced a plethora of oak seedlings. “It’s as if the trees knew they were going to have this kind of winter,” Owens said.

I haven’t been up there in a few months, mostly because of the crowds. On a weekend, you have to get up there before 7:30 a.m. to snag a parking spot. So I will take his word for it.

But whether it’s to see the new trees and latest wildflower upcroppings, or what Frazier calls the “charismatic megafauna” or animals that are cute and therefore appeal to human nature (seals have big, doe eyes), the draw of nature is a multi-pronged animal. It can’t be overstated.