On a recent Saturday evening, high on a mesa in the Conejo Valley's Wildwood Park, 10 children and 15 adults gathered around volunteer naturalist Peter Rice. Rice pulled a small jar of spicy mustard seed from one of his three backpacks and passed it around for everyone to dip a finger into and taste.
"Mmmm," said one 6-year-old girl.
"Yuk!" pronounced a grimacing 5-year-old.
"Mustards were brought here by the padres who came here with Portola," explained Rice. "Do you know why they spread the mustard seeds?"
After some of the hikers guessed wildly, Rice told them the seeds were originally spread to set up a path.
Rice, 39, has been leading monthly night hikes in 1,500-acre Wildwood Park for eight months. Dressed in a green army jacket, black denims, tan boots and a hat adorned with a Dodgers' pin, he adapts the walks according to the composition of the group. Attendance has varied from five to 50 participants.
Adapts to Participants
"With kids, I use our senses a lot," he said. "When I have adult hikes, I talk a little bit deeper, not as many visual effects. Then I talk about concepts and man's impact and what we can do about it."
Participants, who each paid a dollar for the 1 1/2-hour hike, came from Agoura, Oxnard, the Simi and Conejo valleys. Rice first led the group down a nearby slope, which he described as an oak woodland.
A right turn on Moonridge Trail brought the cluster within a few feet of a stuffed owl. The young children jumped back in surprise. Rice had also placed a stuffed possum nearby, so he could discuss the two animals' adaptation to the area.
As the group headed up the mesa, the sun slowly set, and all the hikers turned on their flashlights. Parents stopped to zip up their toddlers' jackets as the night grew chilly.
Rice's frequent stops for brief interpretive talks included a description of "scat" as "wild animal poop," a warning to keep away from the sharp-needled yucca when off the trail, and facts about the creativity of the Chumash, the Indians native to the area. At one point he spoke about a dead coiled rattlesnake he had placed on the side of the trail. Most of the children wanted to handle it once they understood it wasn't alive.
Rice, who said he enjoys working with children outdoors but would find teaching indoors too confining, was always aware of the limited attention span of his youngest charges.
'Let Things Seep In'
"Just relax and let things seep in," he said. "Maybe not tonight, but tomorrow you'll start thinking of some of the things I've talked about. So don't worry about learning anything, just listen to it and enjoy the evening tonight."
His backpack carried a number of things to taste, including chia seed, licorice root, trail mix, peanuts and carob chips. Hikers also were instructed which plants near the trail were edible, such as the pleasingly tart lemonade berries.
Rice described food chains as what happens when a caterpillar eats a leaf, and then a frog eats the caterpillar and then is itself eaten by a snake.
"Each time that happens," explained Rice, "there's less and less energy, so you can only do that a few times. Any more than six links in the food chain and the energy is pretty much gone."
When the group was directly above Wildwood Canyon, even the youngest children were quiet so they could hear the waterfall 200 feet below. Some hikers were also able to hear a screech owl and a Pacific tree frog.
While Rice was pointing out some lichen and defining symbiotic relationships, a large ant was caught in a little boy's flashlight.
"See that ant?" said Rice. "Something will eat him. He's got energy in him, and he's important. Everything is part of the energy flow, and that's why it should be protected."
During the day, Rice works for the telephone company in an electronic switching room. He has been a hike leader for three years, and his interest in plants and horticulture dates back 20 years.
Conejo Parks and Recreation, which sponsors the Wildwood Night Hikes, has asked him to be its volunteer head naturalist and to start a program to train naturalist docents.
Rice, who also regularly leads hikes for the William O. Douglas Outdoor Classroom, plans to lead monthly night hikes in Westlake in the fall.
Alisa Dichter of Thousand Oaks, who is almost 9, thought the hike was great fun. "The best part was when we stopped and had some nuts," she said.