It's 5:30 Saturday morning in a remote area of the Mojave Desert. Behind distant mountains, the morning sun yawns and stretches its amber arms. Bright fingers of light begin to creep over the mountain peaks, across the desert sand, barrel cactuses, tamarisk trees and eventually, to a ring of 30 tents, truck campers and motor homes.
On a knoll at the edge of the camp, a helicopter silently stands watch.
Some of the campers are California Department of Fish & Game employees, but most are volunteers with a cause.
Don Jones, a tireless, large man with a straw cowboy hat, gentle eyes and the hands of a heavyweight boxer, crawls out of his tent. He picks up an old, metal wash basin and begins to pound on it. "Good morning!" he sings as he wanders from tent to camper, beating the pan.
Heads pop out of tents. Hiking boots are pulled on. Coleman stoves are pumped to life. Soon, the smell of sage gives way to fresh-brewed coffee and bacon.
Jones looks around as the camp comes alive, takes a deep breath of brisk, clean air and slowly lets it out.
"These people revitalize your faith in human beings," Jones says.
He and his wife, Carrol, are the water-hole coordinators for the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep.
The people Jones is talking about are a welcome sea of volunteers who donate their time to help the California Department of Fish & Game ensure the survival of the desert bighorn sheep and other desert animals: coyotes, squirrels, doves, quails, deer, bees . . . by building "guzzlers," man-made water holes.
Sandy McBain, associate vice president of Landmark Bank in El Toro, and her husband, Ken, have been volunteering an occasional weekend for the past three years. "It may sound corny, but Ken and I feel we should give something back to Mother Nature for all she's given us," McBain said.
It's approaching 6:30 a.m.
Stoves and sleeping bags are packed away. Lunches are packed and shoved into day packs along with work gloves, first-aid kits, sun screens, compasses, whistles, rain gear, spare clothing . . . toilet tissue.
"Be prepared" is the first rule in the desert. "You never know what you're going to run into or what the weather is going to be," mumbles Bob Campbell, as he puffs on his pipe and takes another sip of "hobo" coffee, coffee grounds thrown into a pot of boiling water.
The volunteers begin gathering around a four-wheel-drive, one-ton stake truck.
Les Coombes hops up center stage. Coombes is a field biologist and habitat specialist for the Department of Fish & Game.
"I'd like to welcome everyone to the last-chance guzzler project, and thank you for coming," he says. "It looks like it's going to be a great day."
He explains the day's work and safety precautions, and then assigns people to four-wheel-drive trucks that will take them to the base of the mountain. From there, it's about a two-mile hike with a 1,600-foot rise in elevation, estimated to take 2 1/2 hours.
Some hikes are a lot easier . . . shorter with less of a rise in elevation. A few are more difficult. And always there's a wide variety of ages on the outings, from young children to some folks past retirement age. It takes some people longer to get to the top than others, but they get there.
The trucks follow a dry river bed and arrive at the base of the mountain. It's 7 a.m. Coombes comments, as he climbs out of the cab, "In the summer we get up early to beat the heat. In the winter we have to get an early start because we've got a lot of work to do and it gets dark earlier."
He stands up on the truck's running board and speaks to the group: "We've got a good hike in today. Take your time. Set your own pace."
A Tough Climb
The group starts out. There is an immediate steady incline on loose shale, which quickly breaks the tight-knit pack into a long serpentine string, several hundred yards long.
From its nest, high at the top of a sheer rock cliff, a red-tailed hawk scolds the group's trail blazers.
Debbie and Tom Pollard are somewhere in the middle of the climbers. Debbie sports manicured fingernails and a diamond ring. She points halfway up a rock wall: "The barrel cactuses are in bloom." The Pollards have helped build several guzzlers over the past two years.
Ahead of them are Sarah and Noah Roberts, 9 and 5, and Mat and Ricky Remender, 11 and 7, and their fathers. They stop and pass the canteen. The children say they came because "we like to climb and we like sheep." Reason enough.
Merl Felker, 73, approaching the children, says: "I've been out on several trips and like the hard work and the tough hikes in. It keeps me in condition. But you don't have to be a grown-up to pass a bucket or move a rock. Kids like those can contribute to the legacy too," he says, indicating the youngsters ahead.