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ALMOST-FREE FALLIN' : Our Candidates for Frugal Autumn Fun Include Canoe Trips, Foliage Tours and More

October 08, 1992|RICK VANDERKNYFF | Rick VanderKnyff is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to The Times Orange County Edition.

The gloomy figures keep rolling in: Not only are lots of people out of work, but the people who still have jobs are continuing to play it safe, displaying their limited confidence in the economy by spending less money.

Having fun on a reduced budget is not the biggest problem in this election year, but it can be a challenge. Orange County has more than its share of amusements, but many are geared to tourists spending their vacation savings and can be more than a little on the expensive side for the working stiffs who live here.

The cliche says the best things in life are free, and that can be true: playing in the waves off Huntington Beach, a walk along a sycamore-lined canyon, a romantic picnic in the park.

We call this semi-regular feature of O.C. Live! Cheap Thrills, and although it makes a nice headline, we should say that we could be exaggerating a tiny bit. "Thrills" may be a bit of an overstatement--nothing death-defying here--but the point is to suggest some creative and cheap ($10 or under) ways to spend a day in Orange County.

CANOEING THE BAY Most folks who visit Upper Newport Bay see only the edges, along Back Bay Drive or the bikes-only path that cuts across one corner of the estuary. A more complete view of the 752-acre wetlands reserve is possible, however, for people willing to put a bit of physical effort into the visit.

From a canoe or kayak, the back bay takes on a new perspective. The craft glide quietly upon the deeper waters of the estuary, where the ducks and grebes and scoters drift contentedly. Visitors also skirt the stands of cordgrass and mud flats that are the source of food for thousands of shorebirds that make the wetlands their home for the winter.

More than 100 bird species use the reserve, the largest remaining coastal wetlands in Southern California. The estuary also serves as nursery to dozens of fish species. Much of Upper Newport Bay is open to small craft moving less than 5 m.p.h., and kayaks and canoes are a common sight (the back portion of the bay is closed to all craft because it contains most of the easily disturbed nesting sites).

For people who don't own their own boats, canoe tours of the bay are offered weekly by the state Fish and Game Department, which operates a number of nature-related activities at the reserve as part of the California Wildlands Program. Visitors guide their own canoes (two people per craft) on the leisurely tours, which are led by volunteer naturalists. No paddling experience is required.

The tours, which leave each Saturday at 9 a.m. from Shellmaker Island off Back Bay Drive, are open only to members of the California Wildlife Campaign. Membership is $11, but then all activities, including future canoe tours, are free. The tours are very popular, so reservations are required: call (714) 640-6746.

Kayak tours of the bay are offered by the Newport Dunes Resort, also on Back Bay Drive in Newport Beach. The tours are offered each Sunday at 10 a.m. and cost $10 per person. For information, call (714) 729-3863.

DISCOVERING A DANDY ZOO Orange County is not famous for its zoos, what with the world famous San Diego Zoo just a couple of hours south and the Los Angeles Zoo a little ways north.

But as small-town zoos go, the Santa Ana Zoo is pretty dandy, most notably for Monkey Row, a primate collection that includes some rare and endangered species. There's easily a lunch-hour's amusement in Monkey Row alone, and there are plenty of other creatures too.

One zoo that county residents may not be so familiar with is the Orange County Zoo in Irvine Regional Park. It's more modest in scope--not much in the way of exotica--but its emphasis on wildlife of Southern California makes it an ideal place for kids (and grown-ups) to get a close-up look at local critters.

The zoo who's who would include: wolf, coyote, raccoon, sable ferret, red fox, gray fox, coatimundi, mule deer, peccary, opossum, various owls and other birds of prey, raven, road runner, gull, brown pelican, duck, chicken and Canada goose.

The coatimundi, in case you are wondering, is a South American tree-dwelling mammal that resembles a raccoon. Most of the other critters are relatively local. A children's petting zoo includes goats and sheep.

Irvine Regional Park, which just celebrated its 95th birthday last weekend, is the oldest regional park in the county. It has managed to remain a pleasantly old-fashioned kind of park: tree-filled, with a couple of small lakes, plenty of picnic areas, softball fields, pony rides and rentals of boats, bikes and horses.

The zoo got its start in 1920, when a Tustin rancher donated a pair of deer to the park. It evolved slowly over the years until 1983, when the old zoo was bulldozed and the new facility built. It continues to be upgraded and features relatively large enclosures designed to resemble the creatures' natural habitats.

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