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Volunteers With a Cause Spend Weekends Building 'Guzzlers'

January 09, 1988|JAMES GARRETT | Garrett is an actor and free-lance writer who has been a volunteer on five Fish & Game trips.

This is the first guzzler for Scott Yoo, a ruggedly built iron worker. "I'm an avid hunter and fisherman and love the outdoors," Yoo says. "I heard about this project from a local ranger. I think it's great. I've never had an opportunity to do anything like this before . . . give something back."

After climbing several dry waterfalls, we hear the sound of a cement mixer and know we are near the work site. We turn around to see where we came from. It was quite a climb. The view from the top is spectacular.

Down the canyon, we see the last of the group, steadily making their way up. Bettie Carter, a Girl Scout leader from Bishop, with members of Troop 61 (including her daughter Jennifer) come into sight as they round a boulder on the trail below. "This is great for the girls," Carter says. "They're doing it as a community service project."

Below them, the Scott and Remender youngsters are slowly scaling a slope of loose rock, under their fathers' careful guidance and encouragement.

At the site, Yoo sees a place he is needed, picks up a shovel and joins in. Eleventh-grader Shannon Bishop asks what took the others so long. "I was the third person to make it to the top," she says. Merl Felker reached the top five minutes ahead of most volunteers and is already mixing cement.

A guzzler is engineered to catch rainwater run-off before it disappears into the desert sands. To accomplish this, a shallow cement-and-rock dam is built across a narrow gorge. The dam is sometimes augmented by a large, rubberized ground cloth, which also acts as a rainwater collector.

Man-made Water Hole

From the dam and the collection cloth, a three-inch pipeline is run to large, plastic storage tanks. From the storage tanks, the pipeline continues to a large, 2,100-gallon, saucer-shaped drinker, which has a lid to prevent evaporation. A one-foot hole, at the edge of the lid, provides animals access to the water. The saucer has a built-in ramp which leads to the hole to allow small animals, such as deer mice, to escape should they accidentally fall in.

The areas where the storage tanks and drinker will eventually rest must be leveled. This requires the use of picks, shovels and even sledge hammers. Solid rock often has to be chipped away and sometimes even blasted.

Occasionally fill dirt is needed. Dirt, water, cement, small rocks and sand are moved from one place to the next by long bucket brigades of men, women and children. All jobs are unisex, and if a 5-year-old wants to try taking a lick at a rock with a sledge, people give him room.

"The first guzzler installed was kind of a plumber's nightmare. It took days to construct," Coombes recalls. "We are a lot better organized now. If we get enough volunteers we can install one in five hours, and nobody has to work very hard."

"You couldn't pay me to do this work," says Mary Edmunds, a regular volunteer from Hermosa Beach, as she carries rocks to an area where fill is needed. "But I'll do it for free because I believe in the cause."

"Volunteers are the key to the entire project. Fish & Game just doesn't have the money," Don Jones emphasizes. "There's the cost of the materials themselves and then getting all this stuff into these remote sites."

Getting the "stuff"--including cement mixer, generator, cement, storage tanks, sledge hammers, shovels and picks--into the site is done by helicopter. From the beginning, that job has been contracted to Landell's Aviation of Desert Hot Springs. The pilots and especially Elaine Landell, widow of Don Landell, often work alongside the volunteers. "I care about the project," she says. "So did Don. It goes beyond business."

Fatal Crash

Last season, during a routine reconnaissance flight to find suitable guzzler sites, a helicopter crashed. Don Landell, owner of Landell's Aviation, and Jim Bicket, wildlife biologist for the Bureau of Land Management, were killed. Badly injured was Dick Weaver, a Fish & Game biologist who did the original bighorn sheep survey on which the guzzler project was based.

Still on crutches from the accident, Weaver makes almost every guzzler building project. "It's my job," Weaver says. "The volunteers are the ones that make the project work, though."

After a hard but satisfying day's work, we hike back down. Back at camp, the Scott and Remender children start a game of tag.

We clean up, cook dinner and then sit around a campfire sipping hot rum toddies, singing and talking. Robin Ornelas, a kindergarten teacher, shows off a sun-bleached badger skull she found on the hike down. Tenth-grader Kristina Adams tells how she and the Don LaVoies took a shortcut on the way down and used a rope to lower her down a 15-foot waterfall.

One by one, people who can't keep their eyes open any longer drift off to the comfort and warmth of their sleeping bags. From there, they look at the stars in the pristine desert sky and know they have accomplished something important.

Sunday is a day of rest.

Persons interested in volunteering for one of the guzzler projects should call the California Department of Fish & Game at (213) 590 - 5158, and ask for Lilani Park, who will send a list of projects complete with directions, maps, a list of essential gear and information about how difficult the trip is. The next outing is Jan. 16-17.... Bring a log for the fire.

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