Thursday, August 15, 2019

Photo Essay: Caving the Channel Islands at Valdez Harbor, Santa Cruz Island

As compulsive as a planner I am, I don't always look before I leap. I make snap judgments on adventures that sound cool—and occasionally, I'll regret one (though I'd prefer to know than not know).

But there's one adventure I got right recently—the special Island Packers excursion to Cueva Valdez, though it didn't even occur to me that "cueva" was the Spanish word for "cave." I only knew I'd be going somewhere on Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands National Park that's not often open for public access.

So, I hopped on the 9 a.m. departure of the "Islander" catamaran from Ventura Harbor and braced for the rocky ride they warned us about, emerging from my seat in the lower cabin to catch sight of a few dolphin pods and some humpback whales blowing out their holes.

After dropping off the majority of our passengers at Prisoners Harbor, making a quick stop in the Painted Cave, and crossing over the threshold from the "SoCal" climate into the "NorCal" climate...

...we had a small, protected cove in our sights, with a tiny strip of sandy beach.

This was the Cueva Valdez landing, where we anchored off the north shore of Santa Cruz Island...

...and climbed down into inflatable, motorized skiffs...

...six passengers at a time, holding on for dear life... we bid adieu to our captain...

...and zipped our way into the cave for a wet dismount.

Holy crap. What a picture-perfect view.

Postcard image by Santa Cruz Island Foundation, via Islapedia

And, in fact, that same view did make its way onto at least two postcard designs of the early 20th century, known alternately as "Valdez Cave," "Cueva Valdaze," and "Quava Val Des" on maps and in correspondence of the time.

c. 1910 (Photo: H. C. Tibbitts, via Islapedia)

Records show that "pleasure-seekers" have been visiting Cueva Valdez since at least the 1870s (back then, mostly from Santa Barbara). It's no wonder it became popular with early photographers, writers, filmmakers, and plein air artists and landscape painters (like Lockwood DeForest and Alexander Harmer).

It's also been called "Tres Bocas" Cave because of the sea chamber's three entrances (or "mouths")—one from the water, one from the rocks, and another from the sand.

Upon my arrival, I almost immediately noticed what I assumed were Channel Island fox tracks, intermingling with the treaded sneaker prints of my fellow travelers. I spent the rest of my time on the island hoping one of those island foxes would try to abscond with my packed lunch.

Instead, all I saw were wavy turban snail shells, bones, and other biological detritus—though to my relief, no human-generated trash.

That's the beauty of how The Nature Conservancy restricts access to this side—the western 76% of of Santa Cruz Island.

It keeps it pristine, besides the crawfish corpses being picked away by paper wasps...

...and the kelp that's washed ashore.

On the jagged and rugged cliffs, a surprising amount of plant life thrives...

...including (from what I could tell) buckwheat, coreopsis, lilies, and prickly pear cactus.

I spotted an Island Scrub Jay—and heard several more—before stripping off my hoodie, tank top, and wet leggings, all the way down to my bikini, and venturing into the rocky-bottomed ocean, using the outside wall of the cave to steady myself against the sinking sea floor and the incoming tide.

Everyone kept telling me how brave I was—I think for being in the cold ocean without a proper wetsuit, but maybe for wearing a bikini at all when I'm this size.

I didn't care. The incoming tide brought warm waves that kept me bobbing around in the water for at least an hour, maybe two. Maybe it was the heat from our catamaran. Maybe there's still volcanic activity happening underwater. (Volcanic basalt extruded from undersea volcanic vents to form most of the Cannel Island caves, according to expert David Bunnell.)

If I'd had more time—and better shoes—I would've climbed more rocks to get to the tide pools and see the purple urchins and Garibaldi fish (Hypsypops rubicundus) up close.

If I'd had a machete, I would've bushwhacked my way up the canyon trail, which was impassibly overgrown.

If I'd known about it, I would've looked for the lost treasure buried in the caves by the legendary explorer/smuggler/pirate named Valdez (or Val Dez).

Nevertheless, my time at Cueva Valdez was just perfect—just the way it was.

For the National Park Service history of Santa Cruz Island, click here

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Island That Prisoners Pioneered
Photo Essay: Birding the Channel Islands

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Unpopular Opinion: Closing Wildlife Waystation Is the Right Thing to Do

My mother used to tell me, "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all."

I took that to heart. (I wish she had.)

So, I try not to embark on smear campaigns when a person, place, or experience doesn't meet my expectations. If I write about it at all, it's about my feelings.

But I try to give the benefit of the doubt most of the time—that intentions are pure, that people are doing the best they can.

However, I've been tight-lipped long enough when it comes to Wildlife Waystation, the animal rescue/sanctuary in Angeles National Forest that just announced its abrupt closure and surrender of permits.

When I visited back in 2017, my heart ached for those big cats.

Their fenced-in enclosures weren't big enough and didn't provide enough hiding spaces.

Exposed to the heat and sun, all they could do was sleep.

And the ones who were awake seemed agitated.

Wildlife Waystation had been around since 1976—and its heart was bigger than its wallet.

It couldn't turn down an animal that needed rescue—but it just didn't have the facilities to properly protect and shelter them, especially not from the flames of the Sand Fire and the Creek Fire, both of which besieged the sanctuary and literally put these critters in the line of fire without proper permanent backup generators.

It had a team of passionate, hardworking volunteers—but the task was really insurmountable.

I know that there are people who will defend Wildlife Waystation to the hilt, but the best thing for these animals is for this organization to dissolve and for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to relocate them.

Maybe The Gentle Barn can take some of the farm animals, like the llamas, sheep, and goats. There's plenty of space to roam there—and tons of love and gentleness.

Maybe Lions, Tigers, and Bears can take the big cats and bears. Their enclosures are huge and the animals there seem plenty stimulated and enriched.

There are better homes out there for these animals (of which there are hundreds).

I think Wildlife Waystation founder Martine Colette knew that when she retired earlier this year. She'd already said that they were at the end of their rope—back in 2011, when it was reported to be in "dire financial state."

She'd had to close Wildlife Waystation to the public a decade before that because the enclosures weren't secure enough to allow public access. After that, you could only visit if you volunteered or bought a high-priced ticket to a special event.

I managed to get in two years ago, on one of the few tours that had been offered in my 8 years in LA—a tour that required me to become a supporting member of Wildlife Waystation.

When I took the tour, I noticed what a ghost town the sanctuary seemed to be. Where were all the volunteers and support staff?

It turns out a large swath of them had been let go in 2016.

Wildlife Waystation hasn't been in compliance with regulations in a long time. It's not allowed to breed its animals—but when cubs are born onsite, it just says "Oops!"

There's a lot of stuff that's happened with Wildlife Waystation that should've raised suspicions long ago. In my research for this essay, I came across another blog post that's been chronicling some of the dodgy activity since at least 2012, based on newspaper clippings and public records. It's worth a read.

We may never know what happens to the majority of those animals currently housed in Little Tujunga Canyon. If any are sick, they'll likely be euthanized.

Then again, they might've been euthanized years ago, if Wildlife Waystation hadn't taken them in.

No one can say that Wildlife Waystation didn't help any animals. But it didn't give them the help that they deserve.

Related Posts:

In Captivity
Photo Essay: On a Short Leash

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Photo Essay: Neutra's Lovell Health House and Hollywood Supervillain Lair, Upon Its 90th Anniversary

"Design me a house that will enhance by its design the HEALTH of the inhabitants of this house!"

circa 1929 (Public Domain, Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA)

According to Dion Neutra, that's what naturopathic doctor Philip Lovell—the "Drugless Practitioner"—told Richard Neutra (Dion's father) when he commissioned the architect to design what was to become the Lovell "Health" House, where he was to live with his wife Leah.

Located in the Los Feliz hills near Griffith Park, some know it better as the home of Pierce Patchett in the 1997 film L.A. Confidential—where the pimp of Hollywood starlet lookalikes could be seen on a putting green, and Bud White and Ed Exley entered the upper level of the house at the end of a concrete walkway.

It's one of those gravity-defying houses in the hills that seems to practically float on air—this one tethered to a cliff by a tension cable and supported by a 12-foot-thick reinforced concrete foundation that also acts as a retaining wall.

Dr. Lovell had treated newspaper publisher Harry Chandler for tuberculosis without drugs—and, perhaps as a kind of "thank you," wound up the author of the "Care of the Body" column in the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine. There, he could extol the virtues of natural healing practices like nude sunbathing—something for which he demanded his own flat, open roof from Neutra.

The approach was avant-garde, to say the least—and manifested in the creation of a basketball and handball court, swimming pool, and exercise yard and equipment outside as well as sleeping porches (to reap the benefits of fresh air) and hydrotherapy equipment like sitz baths inside. The kitchen also featured a water purifier and juicers—common nowadays, but considered a lot of woo-woo back in the 1920s.

Neutra paid close attention to the health needs of the Lovells—but he also had to break convention to successfully build the 4807 square-foot home on such a hillside. Reportedly, the Lovell House was the first American home to be built with a steel frame typical of skyscraper construction.

That was the best—if not only—way to prefabricate a frame off-site and assemble it onsite, a feat that took just 40 hours. Once the steel frame was secured in place and covered in wire mesh, 1.25" of a type of concrete called gunite was sprayed onto it and then covered with a spray-on layer of stucco.

When it was completed in 1929 (after two years of construction), the result was a pioneering example of International Style architecture—a kind of Cubist sci-fi anomaly when the fashion in LA residences was primarily Spanish Colonial.

The final cost was under to $60,000—with no applied decoration and a design that primarily served the owners' utilitarian needs of "transparency" and "hygiene."

Entire walls of glass were installed to expose the home's inhabitants to as many UV rays as possible...

...even when they were inside (and fully clothed). 

Ribbons of casement windows provide proximity to nature...

...while other touches reference Neutra's fascination with mass production and products from factory lines in the "machine age."

Hence the two Ford Model-A headlights in the main stairwell.

The second floor's open plan makes the transition between the living and dining areas pretty seamless...

...though closer inspection reveals the "peek-a-boo" wall into the kitchen, ideal for entertaining.

The second owner of the Lovell Health House, Mrs. Edith Bland, moved in in the 1930s; the third owner, Leo Goldberg, occupied it from about 1951 to about 1960. It's still the home of its fourth owner, nonagenarian Betty Topper and her son Ken (from her marriage to Dr. Morton Topper, who died in 1971).

Amazingly, little has been changed in the house, except for the balconies—suspended from the roof frame—are all now enclosed.

The library with its glossy, black enamel built-in shelves is original... is the lighting fixture above it.

On the third floor—which is, in practice, the ground floor—the den isn't exactly original to Neutra's designs.

According to the home's resident historian, the Lovells commissioned some early—perhaps immediate—changes from Neutra's assistant, Gregory Ain.

He reportedly made some of the "living" spaces a bit more livable.

Because even a "health house" needs some music and comfy seats to make its residents want to stay.

Drawn by Jeffrey B. Lentz, circa 1969 (Southern California Project II, Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation,
National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior) via Library of Congress

The future of the Lovell Health House is currently up for debate. It's not for sale—but it's not exactly not for sale, either.

Weekly public tours have just launched to help build awareness for the preservation of the site, which needs some TLC.

The public has had little-to-no access to the interior of the house for the greater part of 90 years since it was first completed—when visitors showed up in droves to marvel at it on a tour led by Richard Neutra himself.

To arrange a tour by appointment, email LovellHealthHouseTours [at] gmail [dot] com.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Healing Powers of Zzyzx (Updated for 2019)
Photo Essay: Neutra's VDL II Studio and Residences