A Walk on the Wild Side: An Essay About Finding Distraction in O.C.’s Wilderness

Illustration by Rachel Idzerda

When my kids were in elementary school, I took them on a short hike to Barbara’s Lake, part of Laguna Coast Wilderness Park off Laguna Canyon Road. “Will we see bears and other wild animals?” they asked with excitement rather than fear.

I had to disappoint them. “No, there are no bears, no leopards, no giraffes in our wilderness parks.”

But a decade earlier, they might have seen a hippo, I told them. Bubbles. In 1978, she escaped from a wild animal park in Irvine and submerged her hefty self into the lake’s welcoming waters. There she stayed for more than two weeks, occasionally surfacing, eluding capture until she was
finally darted and sedated.

My sons loved that story.

While hiking recently, thinking about that long-ago day with my kids—and how I’d told them the story about Bubbles when they asked me about wild animals—it struck me that “wild animals” almost invariably conjures up images of large (usually African) mammals.

Ask a friend, or a kid, to name the first three wild animals that come to mind. Elephant, anyone? Rhino? Jaguar?

Why is that? A friend muses that “wild” implies “exotic.” Another theorizes that it suggests “ferocity along with size.”

Was that why, 20 years ago, when my visits to Orange County’s wilderness areas were rare indeed, I didn’t just say to my sons, “No bears, but we might see a bobcat, or coyotes, or a red-tailed hawk”?

Maybe. My response mostly reflected sheer ignorance about the wild creatures that do populate our county’s coastal scrub brush and oak woodlands. As a single working mom in those days, my O.C. was office buildings, beaches, and an occasional (dreaded) visit to Disneyland to please the kids. I wasn’t focused on much else.

It took two more decades, semi- retirement, and volunteering for Laguna Canyon Foundation to open my eyes to the wonders of the wild animals that thrive within wide swaths of our undeveloped land.

And to realize that our wild creatures aren’t big, but they’re just as fascinating as any warthog.

I have always been a collector of odd facts and trivia. If it’s true that life is just a series of distractions until you die, then focusing on the wonders of the world is a great diversion. (Did you know that a French cat named Félicitte orbited the Earth in 1963 for 15 minutes—and survived? But I digress.)

Particularly during these times, we need all the escapism we can get. I don’t know how I’d have coped without the trails to occupy my mind and body.

Over the course of this year, helped in part by graduating from a California Naturalist course, I’ve learned that you must never “rescue” a baby bobcat from a tree, because its mother has purposely sent it up there to teach the kitten survival skills. (She will be angry at you if you do, so there’s that to consider, too.)

I also learned that I love the industriousness of woodrats! They build complex nests with a maze of corridors and allocate different rooms for sleeping, storing food, and nursing their young. They place sage over the entrances to hide their scent from predators, and line the rooms with laurel bay leaves to repel fleas. Their nests, a jumble of sticks and vegetation, can be 7 feet tall and last for 60 years, housing several generations.

I learned that acorn woodpeckers are the hippies of the bird world and practice free love. Breeding females mate with several partners and males have a heyday, too. Eggs are all laid in the same nest and the entire clan works together to bring up the babies.

It’s not only the wild
mals that are intriguing. Native plants are, too. Some wild plants are big and ferocious, like poison oak, which causes a serious rash even in winter when the plant is mere dry stalks. Remember: Leaves of three, let it be.

Then there’s toyon, with leaves and red berries that resemble holly, rumored to be the reason for Hollywood’s name.

But it’s the fungi I find most fascinating. They love our oak woodlands and come in a multitude of shapes and sizes.

Many mushrooms don’t smell great. Some odors have been described as similar to rotting fish or (this one’s a classic) sweaty feet sauteed in butter. But others give off the scent of cinnamon, cucumber, or maple syrup. As small as an eighth of an inch or as large as 30 inches across, they last as long as several years or as briefly as 45 minutes. Let’s just agree: Mushrooms are magical.

You get the picture. You want distractions? Walk on the wild side of Orange County and you’ll find plenty. Flora and fauna aside, there’s geology and history to be learned.

I’ve hiked down Willow Canyon by the light of the full moon and imagined the Chumash people seeing the same lunar loveliness hundreds of years before. I’ve learned that the sandstone ridges in Laurel Canyon were once sandbars below an ancient sea. I’ve wondered at a sudden explosion of tiny frogs crisscrossing a trail and, inexplicably, minuscule snails climbing dead stalks of yellow mustard. I’ve listened to the bray of bullfrogs, smelled the fragrance of sage.

It won’t change the world that I know the Tlingit myth about how mosquitoes came to be and the difference between feline and canine paw prints.

I mean, who cares, really?

Well, I do. Because when my toddler granddaughters ask me whether they’ll see bears or elephants when we walk to Barbara’s Lake a few years hence, I’ll be ready with my answer.

“No, we won’t see bears or elephants; but let me tell you about all the wild things that do live on these lands and that we might see. You’ll be amazed.”

I probably will tell them about Bubbles, too.

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