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Nature on view at Placerita

Open House to be held on May 11

Posted: April 28, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: April 28, 2013 2:00 a.m.

By James Harris

For The Signal

hen a bear "pooped" on the steps at Placerita Canyon Nature Center, no one cleaned it up.

"Heck no! We are a nature center! We drew a big chalk circle around it, labeled it ‘Bear Scat’ and it became an educational tool. Until it dried up and blew away," said Heidi Webber, Docent and treasurer for Placerita Canyon Nature Center Associates.

From bird walks to classroom talks, Placerita Canyon Nature Center offers a multifaceted educational program for adults and children; with an emphasis on children.

"A couple of times I’ve had a student tell me this was the first time they had been to a natural area and that after a hike he wasn’t afraid of nature anymore," said Fred Seeley, Placerita Canyon Nature Center Associates corresponding secretary and retired insurance broker.

In fact, many of the docent/naturalists agree that children today are being deprived of the experience of nature. These volunteers agree with author Richard Louv that children today are suffering from "nature-deficit disorder."

And it is costly.

"Nature-deficit disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties detected in individuals, families, and communities," said Louv in his national bestselling book, Last Child in the Woods.

Childhood nature education is one reason retired pharmacist and pharmacy owner Jack Levinson stands in front of the nature center with a wild bird on his gloved hand during the week and on weekends.

"I am surprised that city children do not know what animals are here at Placerita," said Levinson, a Placerita Canyon Nature Center Associates board member.

"Long-standing studies show a relationship between the absence or inaccessibility of parks and open space with high crime rates, depression and other urban maladies," Louv said.

Time and time again Placerita docents mentioned how much children are not familiar with nature.

"It shocks me to realize how little time kids spend outdoors except in organized sports. Otherwise they are watching TV, playing video games, using the internet, twittering," said one docent.

To combat this growing disorder, every year, hundreds of students in grades two through six are given classroom instruction and nature field experience by docents like Jim Crowley.

Crowley is an experienced hand at teaching ecology to young people. In the field he loves to come across spider "doors" which he opens with his pocket knife to the amazement of his students. One time a Trap Door Spider actually came out and closed the door, Crowley said.

"I didn’t even notice there was a round door there—right there in the ground, like you couldn’t really see it before the Ranger (Crowley) showed us," said an excited, wide-eyed Los Angeles third grader, Jesus Rodriquez.

When docents tell fourth and fifth graders that the first gold rush did not occur at Sutter’s Mill in Northern California, many students are amazed.

Rather, the first gold rush was "right down that path under that old oak tree," said docent Denny Truger.

Truger is a colorful simi-retired superintendent for Building and Computer Electric Company. With his backward turned baseball hat, he often has to teach the kids about the vintage Harley-Davison motorcycle he rides to the nature center as well as the "Oak of the Golden Dream."

Fascinated to learn that Francisco Lopez first found gold at the "Oak of the Golden Dream," students laugh when they hear that Lopez first saw the gold on the root bulb of a wild onion.

"On our website we say that we educate approximately 14,000 children a year. I think that includes all the park programs, not just our school tours, which I estimate at closer to 5,000 students per year," said Ron Kraus, Placerita Canyon Nature Center Associates board vice president and docent training coordinator. Kraus has headed the docent training program for the past 10 years.

The program impacts adults as well.

Once Fred Seeley got a standing ovation from a group of elderly and developmentally challenged adults.

"A bus from Korea town pulled up with 40 elderly and developmentally challenged adults aboard. I agreed to lead them to ‘The Oak of the Golden Dream’ since it was wheelchair friendly. They really seemed to appreciate the "hike" and they gave me a standing ovation when we finished," Seeley said.

Indeed, the nature center reaches out to the general public. "We offer school trips, outreaches (we go to the schools or organizations with our message and critters), community outreaches, nature hikes, flowers-of-the-seasons hikes, bird hikes, Crafts Fair, Open House," said Heidi Webber.

More than 15,000 people use the park on an average month, said Russ Kimura, superintendent of Placerita Natural Area.

For these thousands, Placerita Canyon Nature Center Associates will host its all day annual Open House 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 11 headed by docent Deb Clem, a board member.

Last year Clem dressed as a pirate, "Capt’N Wildflower," and conducted a treasure hunt in which kids gained prizes as they solved riddles about nature. "The Year of the Snake" is Clem’s theme this year.

After introducing Placerita Canyon Nature Center to people with the annual Open House, the program will continue to reach out to the general population of the Santa Clarita Valley and Los Angeles County.

"We offer Saturday Family Hikes and Native Animal Presentations. We have docent-led bird walks once a month as well as a docent led "Flowers of the Season" hike. Our facility is also available to girl and boy scouts and other youth-focused organized groups for group overnight camping at our Walker Ranch Campground," said Seeley, who was trained to be a docent/naturalist in 2010.

Volunteers like Seeley receive extensive training in ecology before they begin their volunteer activities. They take a nine week training course, two days per week, four hours per day.

"The class size for docents has varied over the years, but I would say the average class has been about 15 each year, so let’s say we have trained 150 docents over the past ten years," Kraus said.

Highly involved, these volunteers put in over a thousand hours combined per month, said Superintendent Kimura.

"While most volunteer groups are 90 percent women, Placerita is unusual in the number of men volunteering. A lot of retired professional men," Kimura said.

Beyond the bounds of the Nature Center, these volunteers have reached out to help other natural areas.

Recently, they drove hundreds of miles to clear desert scrub at closed Mitchell Caverns in a remote mountainous area of the Mojave Desert.

In return, they were allowed to descend into the caverns, the first group to do so in three years.

Docents continue to educate themselves by visiting various cultural and natural preserves throughout the state, including visits to rare sites in Sespe Condor Sanctuary, a reconstructed Chumash village in Malibu, the Rancho Camulos Museum, the setting for the famous 19th Century novel Ramona, and China Lake where they studied ancient petroglyphs.

And the docents continue to explore Placerita Canyon and its surrounds.

Kraus continues to lead explorations of docents into little or never traveled areas of the area.

Because they use the trails all the time, volunteers know the conditions of the constantly used trail system. A "trail team" of docents help repair worn or eroded trails.

The park has seven different trails comprising 12 miles, from beginner to advanced. The main trail that connects the park from the Nature Center to eastern most part of the park is the Canyon Trail, recently updated to provide for mountain bikers.

In addition, the park has a nature center with natural displays and a classroom, and the Walker Cabin built by the original owners of the canyon, Frank and Hortence Walker and their 12 children.

Featured in many westerns, the cabin contains old fashioned household items and is used for education purposes as well.

Placerita Canyon Nature Center will be hosting its annual Open House and Family Festival 10 a.m.-3p.m. Saturday, May 11 at Placerita Canyon Natural Area, 19152 Placerita Canyon Road, Newhall, 91321. Info:


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