While others were taking advantage of the Memorial Day holiday by sleeping late or preparing a leisurely picnic, about 80 hikers were helping break in a new portion of a national recreation area in the Santa Monica Mountains, viewing old oaks and meeting young snakes.
The hikers joined a tour organized by the California Native Plant Society to inaugurate Lower Cheeseboro Canyon, the latest addition to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. The National Park Service acquired the 337-acre property for the recreation area, a patchwork of 150,000 acres of local, state and federal parks and privately owned land that encompasses 50 miles from Griffith Park in Los Angeles to Point Mugu State Park on the Pacific Ocean.
The five-mile-long canyon is just north of the Ventura Freeway about seven miles west of Woodland Hills, between Agoura Hills and Hidden Hills, running northward into Ventura County.
The main scenery of the canyon, which was mostly cattle pasture until the park service took it over last month, is hillsides of valley oaks, some of them 300 to 400 years old and up to 12 feet around.
Hikers Warned of Snakes
Another sight greeted the arriving hikers Monday morning--Nick Dounias, an auto parts salesman who lives in a house beside the canyon entrance, holding aloft a snake at least three feet long, which writhed around his forearm as he pinched it behind the head.
The hike's organizers had already warned walkers to watch out for rattlesnakes. ("Placid, easygoing creatures who just resent getting stepped on," Dave Brown, one of the hike leaders, called them. "Just don't get in their space.")
Dounias was displaying not a rattler, but a large gopher snake he had caught beside the trail. "An absolute pussycat of a snake," he called it, more interested in a rodent breakfast than frightening sightseers.
About a dozen small children in the group dashed toward Dounias to get a closer look at the snake, giving high shrieks of delighted alarm. Ten-year-old Milena Morris of Moorpark reached out tentatively and stroked the wriggling scales.
"It felt . . . like . . . real weird," she said.
Small, but Dangerous
Later, as the long file of hikers straggled down a shady avenue of ancient oak trees, they did come across a rattler. One of the hikers almost stepped on the baby snake, about six inches long, crossing the trail.
"It's so small. It couldn't hurt you, could it?" another hiker asked.
She was assured it was wiser not to test its powers. A flyer on rattlesnakes prepared by the California Department of Fish and Game, which was made available to walkers before the hike began, warned that "rattler babies have venom and short fangs and are dangerous at birth."
The little serpent coiled and uncoiled nervously while a surrounding group of hikers tried to take photographs of it. Then the snake slithered rapidly away.
The put-upon snake had a sympathetic observer in Jo Kitz, vice president of the Santa Monica Mountains Chapter of the California Native Plant Society and one of the chief organizers of the hike.
The society plans to work with the park service to restore the canyon to its natural state and allow visitors to enjoy the site without harming the land or its wildlife, she said. Of particular concern, she said, is the period from January to May, when the many hawks that make their homes in the canyon lay eggs and hatch chicks.
The society's role is to help bring back the plants native to the area. Years of cattle grazing have changed the area's vegetation, replacing native grasses with other species and preventing the growth of a new generation of valley oaks to replace the patriarchs that dot the hills, said Brown, a Calabasas resident who teaches history at Valley College.
Cattle ate the acorns that would have seeded new trees, along with the young trees themselves, which can take a century to establish deep roots before they mature.
The park does not yet have parking, bathrooms, water, a ranger post or any other facilities for individual visits, and the entrance gate is chained closed except for group tours.
The Lower Cheeseboro Canyon tract leads into the 1,810-acre upper canyon area in Ventura County, which the park service bought in 1981.
The lower canyon was purchased by the park service in January in a controversial deal.
The land was bought from a real estate development firm for $7.5 million by the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit conservation group based in San Francisco that has acquired and transferred parkland to public agencies in 20 states. The group in turn sold the land for $8 million to the park service, adding the $500,000 profit to its fund for future land purchases.
Critics of the deal alleged that the land was not properly appraised and the price may have been too high.
Defenders of the purchase attributed the price to the high cost of suburban land in Southern California. The trust, by taking out an option on the land in 1983 when the park service had no funds for such acquisitions, prevented it from being turned into home sites, they said.
The controversy led Western regional officials of the park service to tighten controls over land purchases. Officials said the park service no longer would buy land from intermediaries, such as the Trust for Public Land, without commissioning its own appraisal of the land.
The four-hour hike on Monday morning was the third of four group outings organized by the society and open to the public. The fourth hike is scheduled to be a shorter evening stroll beginning about 5:30 June 9.