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A Peak Experience : For Kenyon DeVore, His Life and Love Is the Mountains

February 07, 1993|BERKLEY HUDSON | Times Staff Writer

SAN GABRIEL MOUNTAINS — Strapped into a box on a burro's back, Kenyon DeVore first rode into the San Gabriel Mountains as a toddler 80 years ago. He was headed with his parents into the forest, where they would build from scratch a trout-fishing and hiking resort.

Last week on the same foothill he traversed as a baby, DeVore braked his 1978 white Cadillac to let two mountain bikers pass on theserpentine road leading to Chantry Flat, north of Arcadia.

"People laugh at me for driving so slow," said the 6-foot-4 DeVore, dressed in a tan Stetson and green

U.S. Forest Service khakis. "But I still like to enjoy the scenery."

A living legend of the Angeles and one of America's oldest Forest Service employees, DeVore first came to the forest in 1913, two decades after it was declared a wildlife sanctuary and long before there were mountain bikes or anything except the most primitive roads and trails.

He has been there ever since--first growing up at his parents' resort, later as a burro pack-train guide, a U.S. Forest Service patrolman on horseback, a county dam operator and a county hydrographer, and now as a Forest Service weekend host to visitors at Chantry Flat.

He witnessed this century's devastating floods and fires in the national forest. He still can recall precise details about the disasters, especially the Great Flood of 1938, which destroyed his family's resort.

Perhaps more than anyone else, DeVore seems to know every canyon, every ridge of the 693,000-acre Angeles.

"He's Mr. San Gabriel Mountains," said local historian John Robinson, author of several books on the mountains and a longtime friend.

"He's incredible," said Shawn Lawlor, a manager in the Valyermo District of the Angeles who was inspired by DeVore 20 years ago to begin a Forest Service career. "You don't come across too many people that have that kind of knowledge of the forest."

To show what his life was once like, DeVore opened a scrapbook on the kitchen table of his two-bedroom house in Arcadia.

Faded black-and-white photos tell the story of a life without electricity but lots of adventure, far from the city. DeVore grew up in a cathedral of alder, sycamore, oak and towering Big Pine spruce, with a river running through it.

In one picture, his parents, Ernest and Cherie DeVore, are on a burro on their wedding day, July 4, 1910. For their honeymoon, they packed into the wilderness.

"There were no campgrounds, no tables, no stoves," he said. "You camped where you threw your bedroll."

Another picture shows a forest ranger. "Later, he was killed by a poacher," DeVore said.

Other pictures show the first resort his parents built on 10 acres along the San Gabriel River, Camp West Fork, and then a second resort constructed upstream, Valley Forge Lodge, on five acres. With land leased from the Forest Service, both resorts were a collection of rough-hewn buildings, some 2,900 feet above sea level.

To get to the resorts, people would travel by auto or streetcar to Sierra Madre and hike or ride a horse or burro 15 miles north, a four- to six-hour trek. "People walked more back then," DeVore said.

Schooled for years at home, DeVore learned to read from the books kept beside the fireplace at the resorts, which were official Los Angeles County Library branches.

"We never had a hell of a lot of money. But we had a hell of a good time," he said, speaking of the age before television and radio. "People would sit around the fireplace and sing."

He learned about science from Mt. Wilson observatory astronomers who came to fish during the day and play poker at night. He and his family became close friends with one of them, Milton L. Humason, a self-taught astronomer who started as a Mt. Wilson janitor and eventually did pioneering photographic work on the galaxies.

As a boy, DeVore led pack trains carrying supplies to resorts, Forest Service firefighting outposts and even scientific endeavors such as a short-lived observatory northwest of Mt. Williamson.

When he was 15, DeVore moved to Los Angeles to go to high school and live alone in a tiny apartment. Weekends and summers he still helped his mother, now divorced, run the Valley Forge Lodge and lead pack trains, but in 1935 he left the camp for good. That year he graduated from Pasadena City College, married a movie actress he met at the resort and began his 35-year career with the county's flood control district.

While working for the county, DeVore lived throughout the mountains: at dams, along the rivers and for 17 years in San Gabriel Canyon. It was there that he became friends with filmmaker Jean Renoir, who visited the mountains often.

"Naturally, I know where things are in the forest," he said. "It's not that I'm so damn smart. It's just I've been here so long."

DeVore and his first wife, Gertrude Sutton, were divorced after eight years. His second wife, Genevieve, died 12 years ago. Both women shared his love for the forest.

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