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Hiking With an Edge to It

Trail along the ocean has surprise remnants of local World War II history.

August 31, 2000|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Near the Pacific Ocean, in a spot between the mouth of the Ventura River and Emma Wood State Beach, is a group of battered cypress, pines, eucalyptus and a few date palms.

The area's nickname--Hobo Jungle--evokes visions of tough times. To drivers passing by on the Ventura Freeway, this appears to be a lot of nothing. In reality, there is plenty of action here, including the Ocean's Edge Trail and a few sizable concrete hunks of local history.

About a century ago, prominent local citizen E.P. Foster bought this land with hopes of creating a southern version of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. In 1909, he donated the property to the county, which planted the trees, later a haven for those riding the nearby rails. The Depression put a damper on Foster's dream, and what became known as Hobo Jungle scarcely challenged the aura of Golden Gate Park.

The area remained virtually untouched, in contrast to much of the county's coastline, which caved in to relentless development pressures. In 1968, the county gave the land to the city of Ventura, which renamed the area Seaside Wilderness Park.

Although the park is accessible from Surfers Point, state officials recommend that hikers not disturb the sandbar at the mouth of the Ventura River. Thus, heading north out of Ventura on Main Street, visitors can park for free in the dirt lot on the left just across the bridge spanning the Ventura River and past the Ventura R.V. Park, before the freeway onramp.

For those who want to drive closer, there is $5 parking in the Emma Wood State Beach group camp area in the lot near the restrooms. From there, follow the trail to the beach.

Posted information introduces visitors to "Ventura River Wetlands: An Endangered Treasure." Called the Ocean's Edge Trail, a little more than a mile long, the route provides a basic, stark coastal landscape.

This would seem to be a tough neighborhood for flora and fauna, with salty soil, unstable dunes often buffeted by strong winds and plenty of fog. In fact, the area is home to 150 species of native plants, 233 species of birds, 11 kinds of fish, 18 species of mammals, plus some reptiles and amphibians.

With 95% of the Golden State's wetlands paved over, the Ventura River estuary--the area where river meets sea--is clearly an endangered example of bygone days.

And the wetlands do all sorts of good. They help purify water by removing pollutants, recharge ground-water supplies, protect the coastline, reduce flood damage, provide habitat for fish and shellfish, offer food and refuge for thousands of migrating birds, shelter plants and animals that need wetlands to survive and furnish recreation opportunities.

In the mornings, the place is virtually devoid of visitors. The most visible daytime locals are birds, such as the brown pelican, known to fly in formation like B-17s on the History Channel; surf scoters, sanderlings, killdeer, marbled godwits and the western gull. At night, the area comes alive with rabbits and other small critters.

Shoes are optional, but visitors should stay on the trails. The dunes are fragile and covered with tough perennials, such as sand verbenas, primrose and pickleweed. Don't bring Fido, because dogs scare ground-nesting birds, such as the western snowy plover and least terns. The shoreline itself is covered with natural cobblestones and birds pecking things in the sand.

As one heads south on the beach, the first salt marsh encountered is actually a second mouth of the Ventura River. When it's flowing, there will be few up-close and personal witnesses, nor will there be any trailer park residents. A few years ago, the flooding Ventura River was high enough to hit the bottom of the train trestle.

About a hundred or so yards further south along the beach near the frazzled trees, hikers come upon a pair of strange, circular concrete rings embedded in the sand. It's not quite like Charlton Heston's surprising discovery at the end of "Planet of the Apes," but it's a double-take moment nonetheless.

These are Panama mounts, the most visible remains of Battery E, 2nd Platoon, 56th Coast Artillery Regiment, also known as Battery 2, Ventura's home-front contribution to World War II.

When a Japanese submarine lobbed a few rounds ashore north of Santa Barbara on a February night in 1942, the West Coast was gripped with panic. It was front-page news in The Times: "Submarine Shells Southland Oil Field." Even though the Japanese invasion of the mainland never materialized, shore batteries were set up to protect the coast. One such unit, Battery 2, was near the Ventura River mouth.

To protect the oil fields not far away in the Ventura Avenue area, each mount was constructed to hold a 155-millimeter cannon, known as the "Long Tom," capable of blasting a 95-pound projectile 14 miles. In addition to searchlights posted near the command post known as Camp Seaside, spotters were placed on the cliffs above Seacliff and in Grant Park in Ventura.

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