It's not the promise of adventure that brings the mounted assistance unit out to Chino Hills State Park, but a job where something of real service can also mean enjoying a long, lazy horseback ride in beautiful surroundings.
Ray Brezina points out a redheaded woodpecker, lighting in the upper branches of a sycamore, to a visitor. Sue Wiley slides off her horse, Starlite, to grab a discarded can, crush it and store it in the back pocket of her jeans.
They are members of the park's volunteer equestrian group, which spends its weekends riding the hills and canyons of the state's largest urban park. Spread over a portion of northeast Orange County and sprawling into San Bernardino and Riverside counties, the park has nearly 10,000 acres of open space amid some of the fastest growing, most developed areas in California.
"We like the area and want to promote horseback riding and help improve the trails," said Wiley, a Glendora resident who teaches at Imperial Junior High School in Ontario. "And it's a nice place to ride.
"I could come out here anyway, but I like to help," she adds. ". . . There's fewer and fewer places to ride. It's nice to have 10,000 acres where you can come out and ride all day."
With only two rangers to patrol the park, Chino Hills relies on volunteers like Wiley to ride along fences, spot problems both human and natural in origin, and provide information and assistance to visitors.
"They're the ears and the eyes of the park rangers," said Jan Anderson, district superintendent for Chino Hills State Park. ". . . I don't like to say that anyone is indispensable, but as far as I'm concerned, they're very important."
Because they know the park well--and cover a great deal of ground each weekend--the volunteers can help to "identify areas where we can protect the natural resources," Anderson said.
On a recent visit, for example, Bonnie Peralez of Diamond Bar and her husband, Hank, made an archeological discovery. They found bedrock mortars, hollowed deep into creek-side stones by Indians who ground acorns into meal.
In the distance, sycamore, ailanthus, oak and California walnut trees dot the landscape and line the muddy creek bed of the canyon bottom.
Although a pair of volunteers easily could spend an entire day riding through the vast park without meeting another soul, "primarily, they are here for the visitors," Anderson said.
At the ranger station, known as the Rolling M Ranch, a carload of visitors drives up to inquire about the park's equestrian trails. A mounted patrol has just returned from a hot day's ride.
"I know personally of 30 miles of trails in here," Brezina, a founding member and former president of the mounted assistance unit, tells the visitors.
The volunteers guide groups riding or hiking through the park. They point out natural features and identify the park's varied wildlife: deer, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, rattlesnakes, brown tarantulas, hawks and owls.
Several rare or endangered species--including southern bald eagles, peregrine falcons, southwestern pond turtles, red-legged frogs and some plants--have been observed in the park. Chino Hills also boasts one of largest stands of native California walnuts.
The trail narrows, forcing the horses to form a single file as they climb a steep rise. Dried mustard stalks scratch at their flanks and a hot midday sun raises a glistening sweat on their forequarters.
Alongside the trail, coils of rusting barbed wire lie beside heaps of metal stakes and wooden fence posts. Fences that once divided the new park into private tracts before the state bought the land are being removed by inmate laborers, members of one of the work crews that leave nearby state prisons each day. Brezina, a Chino resident and teacher at Center Intermediate School in Azusa, makes a mental note to speak with Anderson. The prison crews should pick up these remnants of wire, he says, before the winter ryegrass--already sprouting a deep green rug on the hillsides--hides them from view.
"I'm not a religious person," Brezina explains, "but this is my religion--coming out and enjoying nature. I don't give my money to a church. I come out here and give my time."
Members of the mounted patrol "ride fences for us," Anderson said, "and they repair them, too." That helps keep destructive off-road vehicles and grazing livestock outside the park's boundaries.
Many members of the mounted unit take part in park improvement projects, in addition to their regular patrol duties.
"First we tried to repair this," Brezina said, gesturing upward to a broken wooden windmill. "I was up at the top, trying to fix it . . . and I'm scared to death of heights."
With a state grant of about $3,000, Brezina will install a new rotor head, tank and water trough to provide a much-needed watering hole for horses near the middle of the 9,735-acre park.
"It's going to be a valuable asset to the park," he said. "When we get it going, it will be potable for people. We're going to have it tested."