Coasts & Mountains
February 9, 2012
Santos Kreimann says he has nothing against Frisbees at the beach—honest. And it’s OK with him if you want to toss a football along the shore, too, as long as you do it responsibly.
That’s why the county’s Beaches & Harbors director was baffled Thursday to find that what his department views as a liberalization of the rules for beach recreation is being widely misinterpreted to mean that Frisbee- and football-throwing is now subject to a $1,000 fine.
Not so, Kreimann says. After years of outright prohibition, a new ordinance which received final approval this week spells out for the first time the conditions under which Frisbees and footballs are allowed on county beaches—basically, in the off-season, or with a permit or permission from the lifeguard.
For years, he said, that kind of recreation had been outlawed altogether “to prohibit some knucklehead from acting like an idiot on the beach.”
The Frisbee flap has received big play on the airwaves and the Internet. The Drudge Report headlined an incorrect report by a local TV station: “LA County Approves $1,000 Fine For Throwing Football, Frisbees On Beaches.” Inquiries have poured into county offices from reporters as far away as London. The Los Angeles Times provided a factually accurate counterpoint to the coverage with an article headlined: “Ball playing, Frisbee tossing now allowed on L.A. County beaches.”
The new ordinance does give the county the right to ticket Frisbee scofflaws, like people who persist in throwing into large summer crowds, or when asked not to by a lifeguard. The first offense is $100—an amount set by the California Government Code. (Read the department’s statement on the ordinance here.)
Still, Kreimann doesn’t expect many citations will be issued.
“We don’t ticket anybody for throwing a ball on the beach, as long as they’re doing it responsibly,” he said.
As for those new $1,000 fines you may have heard about: yes, they’re in the ordinance but they apply to only a few kinds of misbehavior.
Those include nudity, shooting weapons and swimming or surfing during hazardous conditions or in prohibited areas.
The revisions to the ball-playing section of the ordinance were prompted in part by the growing popularity of sports like beach tennis and beach soccer, which are now permissible under certain conditions.
January 11, 2012
Protectors of Southern California surf just got a lot of new turf to keep an eye on. And they need your help.
On January 1, the California Fish and Game Commission gave marine ecosystems a regulatory facelift, creating 36 new Marine Protected Areas spanning 187 square miles of water. Several of the new areas, known as MPAs, are around Point Dume in Malibu. The designation places limits and sometimes prohibitions on fishing, and aims to create safe havens where sea life can thrive and multiply.
The environmental nonprofit group Heal the Bay was instrumental in helping to get the new designation. Now the organization is training “MPA Stewards” through a program called MPA Watch. Staff scientist Dana Murray, who manages the program, says you don’t need to be an expert to lend a hand.
“We had many supporters and people who worked hard to get the MPA approved in L.A. County,” she said. “We thought this was a good way for people to stay involved.”
Pairs of volunteers with binoculars, clipboards and cameras already have started canvassing the beaches, recording data on what they see people doing, from scuba diving to commercial squid fishing.
Murray said the data will be used to help promote legal recreational activities and to lend context to the marine biological data scientists are gathering. (Without monitoring the humans, Murray said, “you are skipping a species that affects all the rest.”) Perhaps most important, the data will be reported to the Fish and Game Commission in hopes of helping the agency stretch its limited enforcement resources.
However, Murray made it clear that MPA Watch is about collecting scientific data and not policing or reporting illegal acts.
“This is one way for us to aid the state without actually being the enforcement,” she said.
Those who care about marine life and enjoy long walks on the beach can become official stewards by attending two upcoming classes. The first class is scheduled for Wednesday, January 18, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Heal the Bay’s Santa Monica Pier Aquarium. The second class takes place “in the field” at Point Dume on Saturday, January 21, from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.
To register, you must be at least 15 years old and RSVP by Tuesday, January 17 (not January 13, as is posted on the website). No experience is required, but volunteers should be able to spend 1 to 2 hours outdoors doing some moderate hiking. A minimum 6 month commitment of 4 surveys per month is required, but survey times are flexible. Students can get involved as a way of fulfilling community service requirements at school.
Training sessions first began last March, and if you miss this month’s training classes, more are expected to be scheduled in the future.
The new designations grow out of the Marine Life Protection Act of 1999, which directed the state Fish and Game Commission to redesign California’s system of MPAs after finding it inefficient, having been established piecemeal instead of by scientific plan. In December, 2010, after receiving input from experts, the public and local government, the Fish and Game Commission created a new map of MPAs in Southern California. Click here to take a look.
December 14, 2011
Woody Smeck may speak softly, but he carries a big reputation.
With his wide-brimmed hat and low-key eloquence, Smeck has become the public face of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and in many ways its staunchest guardian.
As superintendent of the country’s largest urban national park for more than a decade, Smeck has presided over the recreation area as it added thousands of acres of new public open space. Working with partners from every level of government as well as those from community and non-profit groups, Smeck has helped shape everything from firefighting practices to educational outreach to preservation guidelines for sensitive wildlife habitats.
And he has been a tireless advocate for the 153,750-acre recreation area, appearing in this video and countless other forums to explain the complexity and importance of the vast natural preserve at the edge of the one of the world’s largest cities.
Now he’s getting ready to to make his mark on another national treasure. In April, he will become Yosemite National Park’s new deputy superintendent. And those who’ve walked the path with him here are already feeling the loss.
“I’m so sad,” said Kim Lamorie, president of the Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation, which honored Smeck with its “Citizen of the Year” award in May.
“There is only one Woody Smeck.”
In honoring Smeck, Lamorie credited his “quiet but persuasive ability to finesse funding” of new open space acquisitions. Future generations, she said, will “revel in the wonder of the wild and wonderful resources you have preserved.”
Geoffrey Given, who heads the advisory board for the Santa Monica Mountains campus of the educational program NatureBridge, said Smeck’s impending departure is “a huge loss for Santa Monica [but] a huge gain for Yosemite.”
“He has been an unbelievable advocate and supporter of what we do,” Given said. “At all of our fundraising events, he’d show up in uniform with his flat-brimmed hat on.” Smeck also put his money where his hat was, backing the organization’s educational outreach with funds from his own agency’s budget, Given said.
“I think he has made historic contributions to the National Recreation Area,” added Joe Edmiston, who as executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has worked closely with Smeck for years. “His shoes will be very difficult to fill.”
In announcing the appointment, Yosemite Superintendent Don Neubacher said Smeck “has the ideal background to helpYosemite achieve unequalled operational and innovative excellence.”
Smeck said Neubacher first reached out to him about joining the Yosemite team about 1½ years ago. With his youngest daughter still in high school, the timing wasn’t right initially. But now that she’s graduating at the end of this school year, Smeck decided to accept the offer.
He’ll head to Yosemite solo in early April and will live in park service housing until his wife, Karen, can join him, probably in July. They plan to buy a home in Mariposa.
The new position could put Smeck in line for greater executive responsibilities down the line—either at another national park or in Washington, D.C.
But he said he’ll miss his Santa Monica Mountains stomping grounds, where he got his professional start in 1991 as a young landscape architect with degrees from Cal Poly Pomona. Smeck reached the recreation area’s top job in 2001. He still marvels that he was able to get there without first transferring to other points around the National Parks system.
“People told me not to expect to stay [in one location] very long,” said Smeck, now 49.
But stay he did—long enough to rub shoulders with influential people ranging from TV documentarian Ken Burns to President George W. Bush.
Bush’s visit in 2003, he said, was a high point—a recognition of the power of collaborative work toward a common goal.
“It was a great opportunity to talk to him about how partnerships work, how cooperative management works, and he genuinely listened to what I had to say,” Smeck said, recalling a 45-minute hike into the Rancho Sierra Vista area of Point Mugu State Park with Bush and a small group that included Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. “To get a presidential visit…was very uplifting for everyone.”
He said he’s also proud of completing a general management plan that “provides a unifying framework for preservation and stewardship” of parklands going forward. That plan, created with various state partners and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, established a “cooperative vision” that has informed an array of other actions, including blueprints for fire management and land protection.
His career is a natural outgrowth of an outdoorsy childhood in California’s Central Valley. “I spent my summers hiking and camping in the Sierra Nevada Mountains—especially Sequoia National Park,” he said. “By the time I was 21, I had experienced most of the Sierra Nevada wilderness.”
His first day on the job in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area started inauspiciously when he got lost trying to find the Rancho Sierra Vista trailhead.
“Back then, you had to drive through residential areas and gravel roads to find the obscure parking lot,” he said. “One of my first assignments was to develop a new entry road and trailhead from Potrero Highway. Today, I’m happy to report that visitors have a very scenic entry drive and wonderful staging area with good signs, drinking water, and clean restrooms to start their park experience at Rancho Sierra Vista.”
As he prepares to venture north to the world-renowned glories of Yosemite’s Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall, he acknowledged that he’ll miss the lesser-known but equally beloved natural treasures he’ll be leaving behind in the Santa Monica Mountains.
“Oh wow, there are so many incredible places. If I had to pick one, the place that’s the closest manifestation of heaven for me is the Old Boney Trail in Point Mugu State Park,” he said. “It is just such a pristine, wild, raw, natural environment. It’s as if you’ve been transported into another world. It is spectacular.”
For Smeck’s photo of the Old Boney Trail and some of his other favorite sights in the Santa Monica Mountains, check out a gallery of his photos below.
August 25, 2011
The public is being invited to weigh in on what should be included in an environmental review of plans to build four homes on a Santa Monica Mountains ridgeline above Topanga Canyon.
The residences would be built on previously undeveloped land along the Calabasas Peak Motorway—a 40-plus acre expanse bordered by open space and trails on the west and south, and “low density” residential on the north and east.
The scenic ridgeline has long been a visual boundary marker between Calabasas and Topanga Canyon, and overlooks both areas.
Each of the proposed homes would be located on a 10-acre site on the property, which has been designated a “significant ridgeline,” meaning that any development within 50 feet would require a variance to the county’s ridgeline ordinance. In preparation, the county is preparing a single environmental impact report for all four homes—and now is seeking public input to determine all the issues that the EIR should explore.
The scope of work proposed for the four homes “will create potentially significant impacts to the significant ridgelines, native flora and fauna, and raises issues of concern for safety which will be resolved under one Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the project area,” according to a notice of preparation by the county’s Department of Regional Planning.
The notice says that the project would require installation of a 277,000-gallon water tank at the ridgeline’s highest peak, as well as four septic systems. There are coast live oaks throughout the property; the report said a permit would be needed to “encroach upon the protected zone for three oak trees to widen the existing Calabasas Peak Motorway to Fire Department standards.”
An overview of what’s being proposed will be presented at a public meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 31, at the Topanga Community House, 1440 N. Topanga Canyon Boulevard, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Regional planning officials are asking for suggestions and comments from the public at the meeting, or in writing by Sept. 15.
June 30, 2011
Los Angeles County officials are demanding new safety measures following back-to-back armed robberies this month of privately-contracted beach parking lot employees—crimes their company suspects may have been orchestrated by insiders.
In all, more than $8,000 reportedly was stolen from employees of Parking Concepts, Inc., which has a contract with the county to manage its beachfront parking lots. No one was hurt in the separate incidents.
The first robbery occurred shortly after 9 p.m. on Wednesday, June 9, while a supervisor was dropping off money at the company’s Marina del Rey office. As he climbed the steps to open a security gate, a gunman emerged and ordered him to the ground, the company said in an e-mail to the county’s Department of Beaches and Harbors. The suspect fled with about $1,500.
The second crime took place 11 days later, on a Sunday at around 8 .pm. in the deserted lot of Nicholas Canyon County Beach, just south of the Ventura County line. Two Parking Concepts employees, one of them a supervisor, were there to lock the entrance for the night when a man in a ski mask confronted them with a handgun. He demanded money they’d collected earlier at lots along 27 miles of coastline–$6,300 stashed in the trunk of their company car. The suspect fled in a white Nissan sedan.
No arrests have been made in the unusual thefts, both of which are being investigated by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Vivian Sanner, who oversees parking operations for the Department of Beaches and Harbors, says an executive with Parking Concepts told her that they believe the same man was responsible for both crimes and that he was familiar with the company’s collection patterns, including the fact that Nicholas Canyon was the final stop.
“They think it’s an inside job,” Sanner said. The company did not return calls for comment.
Under their contract, Parking Concepts is responsible for refunding the stolen money to the county, which has directed the company to come up with measures to help avoid a reoccurrence, including the possible use of armored vehicles.
“We’ve asked for a plan that would not only protect our revenue but that, more importantly, would protect the safety of the employees,” said Kerry Silverstrom, chief deputy of beaches and harbors.
In an e-mail last week, Parking Concepts outlined some of its initial steps, which include: hiring armed guards to be present at the beach parking office during peak times; bringing aboard a security consultant to analyze the lot operation, and outfitting company vehicles with “drop safes” for money.
June 7, 2011
But the long, strange trip that this year led Santos Kreimann to the discovery of a mistake that was costing Los Angeles County hundreds of thousands of dollars is now offering the intrepid director of the Department of Beaches and Harbors a possible long-term fix for this summer’s first pressing problem: how to keep the beach bathrooms open and clean.
County beach maintenance workers came under fire last week in one of the more publicized sidebars to the county’s ongoing budget challenges. Amid complaints about scaled-back cleaning schedules, late openings and locked doors at the county’s 52 beach restrooms, Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky, Gloria Molina and Don Knabe called for alternatives.
The discussion generated headlines and local talk radio furor. On Tuesday, Kreimann presented the Board with a short-term plan to delay some hiring and maintenance and to use marina lease-option and lease-extension fees to open more bathrooms earlier and beef up summer cleaning crews.
Less widely-known, however, was the story behind the long-term proposal Kreimann hopes will help pay for not only the bathroom maintenance, but for other beach services going forward: a change in the county’s longstanding permitting system for recreational beach camps.
At issue, Kreimann says, is the way the county allocates beach space to the hundreds of interest groups that do business on the sand each year, including legions of surf camps and summer recreational programs that traditionally have received permits according to seniority.
For-profit programs are required to pay a small percentage of their gross receipts in exchange for the permits. That assessment, however, has been waived in past years for city-sponsored programs and non-profit organizations; they’ve paid only a modest administrative fee for the privilege of setting up shop on county beaches. “But there are non-profits, and there are non-profits,” says Kreimann. “Some of these camps charge like $600 a week.”
With public revenues dwindling, he says, those non-profit programs looked like an untapped source of revenue. But when Kreimann, who was appointed director in 2009, inquired about the issue, he was told by staffers who’ve since retired that the nonprofits couldn’t be charged because state law prohibited the county from assessing fees on youth groups.
Then last summer, he says, a surf camp in Malibu resurrected the beach permit question when its owner called to demand that an unpermitted rival be thrown off the sand. “The camp operators got into a physical altercation over allegations that one was operating illegally,” Kreimann says.
Allen King, co-owner of Aqua Surf camp, says the set-to was more like “harassment.” But he confirms that the dispute arose from the beach use permitting policy—in this case, the seniority system, not the fees.
As surf camps had proliferated in recent years, beach permits had become highly valuable, and anyone who had one was reluctant to relinquish it to make space for newcomers. When the City of Santa Monica, where King had operated for more than a decade, decided to decrease surf camp permits to reduce beach crowding, King says, he found it impossible to break into the county beach space.
“We tried to get a county permit, we wrote letters, but it was a closed system,” King says. “Whoever got one first would just hold onto it forever, and nothing moved.”
King’s solution: to cut a deal with a permitted surf camp. He says he offered to expand the business of Kanoa Aquatics, based in the South Bay, by setting up shop to the north, on Surfrider Beach in Malibu under Kanoa’s brand.
After a year, however, the relationship soured, according to both parties, and got downright ugly after King returned to Surfrider—without a permit—the next summer, setting up shop right next to the spot where Kanoa’s owner, Kip Jerger, was now operating on his own.
“I got a little personal,” Jerger acknowledges. “In a way I’m sorry but in a way I’m not. I was like, ‘You guys are like sharks coming in from the ocean.’”
King, meanwhile, says he was just “taking a stand” against an unfair permitting system, only to be confronted by his former colleague. “They were out there yelling, ‘You’re illegal! You’re not allowed to be here!’” King says. “You could have built a reality TV show around it, it was so dramatic. No one got into a fistfight, exactly, but someone did throw a rock at our tent, and we have witnesses.”
Kreimann of the beach department says that when the dispute landed on his desk, he felt compelled to revisit the permitting system. Clearly, beach use had to be limited, but the seniority system was creating problems of its own. Some 50 camps had been waiting years for a spot on one of the beaches, and existing permits had been issued and reissued “with no real safety standards.”
“Multiple people were subcontracting their permits,” he says. “A black market is a pretty good analogy.”
And, he learned, only about 30 of the 162 permit holders were paying a share of their gross receipts to the county because of the state legislation that supposedly prevented the county from charging nonprofits.
“So three or four months ago, I said to my staff person, Penelope Rodriguez, ‘Find that law.’ ”
Rodriguez, a program manager, says she quizzed colleagues and searched files and databases, but “we didn’t have the actual bill in any files and nobody remembered the year or the author or what group had introduced it.”
Finally, she says, she traced the confusion to a bill from the mid-1990s that had gotten through the legislature before the governor took issue with a provision that said youth groups not only shouldn’t be assessed like for-profit beach camps, but shouldn’t need the same liability coverage.
“It turned out that the law had been vetoed,” says Kreimann. “We should have been charging them all along.”
Kreimann says the faulty legal assumption was “an oversight” by otherwise hardworking employees, the last of whom retired earlier this year. “The actual law was right there in our file when we went back to check it, but they had misunderstood it. It was one of those things you discover when people leave and you get a new set of eyes.”
Since then, a plan to revamp the system and to set up a competitive selection process for summer permits, based on minimum standards set by the county lifeguards, has been working its way through a series of Beach Commission meetings. A workshop was held in early spring.
Jerger, who has had his beach permit for 14 years, says he understands the need to raise revenue—in fact, he works part-time for the county as a recurrent lifeguard. But he predicts a change in the system will let in more camps and worsen beach crowding, which, thanks to the stalled economy, is already at record levels. (According to the County Fire Department’s lifeguard division, attendance last year topped 68 million, nearly double the 38 million beachgoers counted in 2005-06.)
And levying a percentage of gross receipts on nonprofit recreational programs, he says, could force him to start charging the families of hundreds of disabled and needy children, to whom he’s been giving a break on tuition.
King, on the other hand, says he’s glad to ante up if it means getting a permit.
For his part, Kreimann says the assessment will not only add a measure of fairness and oversight to the beach camp landscape, but could net “in the neighborhood of $500,000 a year, conservatively.”
A recommendation is expected to come before the Board by the end of August. Kreimann says it’s too late for the plan to cover the estimated $372,000 it will cost to revamp the cleaning schedule for this year. But if consensus is reached, it could make the summer of 2012 more convenient and fragrant.
And any surplus could go toward Kreimann’s next plan for getting the most out of the county beaches: “A lot of our parking machines are down a lot of the time, and if we replace them, it could really increase revenue.”
March 31, 2011
March was a banner month for Don Wallace. And not just because he and his wife, Jeanne, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
“We finished the party,” Wallace remembers, “and the very next afternoon, the phone rang.” With friends and family still filtering in and out of the Wallaces’ 4.5-acre ranchette in the Santa Monica Mountains, the longtime trail advocate let out a whoop as he received news for which he had waited most of his 70-year lifetime:
His beloved Las Virgenes Creek Trail had finally found its way under the Ventura Freeway.
“I was ecstatic,” Wallace says, still thrilled at the approval earlier this month of $300,000 in excess county bond funds that will allow the trail to run uninterrupted from the Santa Monica Mountains down through underpasses at the 101 and Agoura Road in Calabasas and on into Malibu Creek State Park.
The trail easement and improvements—officially dubbed “The Don Wallace Trail Project”—will not only connect the Santa Monica Mountains to the beach for people, horses and wildlife, but also honor one of the most zealous and hardworking trail advocates in Southern California.
For decades, Wallace and other activists have sought to create a path that would allow people and animals to follow Las Virgenes Creek from the pristine mountains down to the ocean, but their dream was stymied by development and traffic. Even as crucial tracts were acquired for the public, the 101 Freeway remained a dangerous concrete barrier between the mountain part of the trail and the beach part.
Then, last year, with funding allocated by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority bought a key swath of wilderness known as Firehouse Hill from the developer Fred Sands. The nearly 200-acre Calabasas property is a gateway to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area—and sits right next to the freeway.
Though environmentalists, activists and government officials cheered the acquisition for many reasons, trail advocates immediately saw its potential as an avenue through which they could bring the Las Virgenes Creek Trail—which is part of a larger loop called the Calabasas Cold Creek Trail—down to and under the 101 along a flood control easement, where it could then connect to the Malibu Creek State Park trail system. They’d just need to make the underpass safe and accessible.
The March vote provided that crucial support, opening the way for a 2,500-foot link that is expected to break ground next year.
“This is a wonderful victory,” said Wallace, crediting the many public agencies that pushed for the project. But Wallace’s friends and fellow advocates say there’s a reason the key link is being named after him.
“He’s one of the hardest working gentlemen I know,” says Stephanie Abronson, who edits the newsletter for Equestrian Trails Inc., Corral 36, a mountain equestrian group.
Born in Tennessee , Wallace moved to Van Nuys as a teenager after his father, a restaurant owner, visited relatives here and made it a goal to move to California . At 20, he married Jeanne, whom he’d met in a chemistry lab at Pierce College .
The couple settled in Canoga Park , had two sons and got into horseback riding, eventually deciding that they wanted enough land to have their own corral. Wallace, by now a Los Angeles city firefighter, found a spread near the unincorporated community of Monte Nido, and the couple built a house on it. They still live there with assorted horses, cats and dogs and a potbellied pig.
A trail ran near the Wallace’s acreage, and one day in the early 1970s, he says, a neighbor who wanted to build a winery came out with a bulldozer and blocked it in an attempt to keep passersby away.
“That trail had been put in in 1935 by the Boy Scouts,” says Wallace, who eventually forced the neighbor to open an alternative easement.
“It took three years of work and masses of paper, but I learned never to give up and never to say that it can’t be done.”
Since then, Wallace has served on the Santa Monica National Recreation Area Advisory Commission, the Resources Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains, the Malibu Creek Watershed Council and many other groups seeking to improve the mountains community.
He also served as a deputy for then-Supervisor Edmund D. Edelman in the early 1990s, and ran for supervisor himself in 1988 and 1994.
Throughout, when he wasn’t lobbying for trails or riding his horses on them, he was out clearing them with his bare hands, says Ruth Gerson, president of the Santa Monica Mountains Trail Council—“repairing tread, cutting back brush, reducing erosion, and encouraging others to work with him.”
That commitment has been challenged in recent years by health problems. Wallace says he has faced a stroke, vascular surgery and two bouts of prostate cancer since the 1990s; last year he underwent a triple bypass.
But his projects are far from finished—he’s already wondering how to restore the old Boy Scout trail behind his house.
“I walk every day,” says the trail blazer. “And I’m a very strong guy for 70.”
March 10, 2011
Edward Craig remembers waves so oil-polluted that he couldn’t swim without washing himself afterward with turpentine. He remembers beach crowds so environmentally careless that they blithely dumped their trash right onto the sand.
He remembers when surfers waxed their longboards with the paraffin their mothers used for canning. He remembers when women’s tank suits turned to bikinis and bikinis turned to thongs.
But ask the 70-year-old how many lives he has saved as Los Angeles County’s longest continuously serving lifeguard, and memory fails him. “Oh, my gosh,” he says. “Thousands.” Which makes sense, since Craig has been watching over local beach-goers every summer, without exception, for more than 50 years.
A retired teacher who for 38 years taught music in the Anaheim Union High School District, and who still supervises student teachers at Biola University, Craig has had a second career lifeguarding on weekends and summers since his late teens. County employment records show he was hired in May 1959 and has worked every summer since, including last summer. (One other recurrent lifeguard is older and has an earlier hire date, but records indicate that a medical issue sidelined him last year.)
“I’ve always liked the water,” says Craig, who grew up in Lennox and bicycled as a child down Imperial Boulevard to the ocean. “Riding on the waves as a body surfer, the ocean throwing you toward shore.”
Craig played water polo at Inglewood High School, El Camino College and Cal State Long Beach, and spent his childhood swimming and surfing in the South Bay. His favorite beach as a young man, he says, was the popular Manhattan Beach surf hangout known as El Porto; located near the Chevron oil refinery in El Segundo, its signature attraction is underwater—a deep fissure in the bay floor known as Redondo Canyon, which generates bigger-than-average waves on a consistent basis.
It also generates bigger-than-average crowds and bigger-than-average risks for swimmers—downsides that Craig would learn more about when, at 19, he became an ocean lifeguard. El Porto, which is still where he works most, ended up being his first professional post.
“On my first day on the job, I had 37 rescues,” Craig remembers. “People losing their boards, people stepping into rips. It was a pretty rough day.”
Does he remember the first swimmer he saved? “No,” he says, “but I do remember some amazing rescues over the years.”
There were the two exhausted swimmers he pushed for the length of three football fields on a surfboard to free them from a particularly vicious riptide.
There were the seven kids from Lawndale who ran full-tilt into the ocean, even though they could not swim and Craig had warned them to stay out of the water.
“I had two on the can, one by the hair, one in a cross-chest carry, one holding onto my foot, ” he remembers. “I was out there by myself—all the other guards were involved in other calls that day. Fortunately an older surfer came by and took the other two off my hands.”
Then there was the yellow Labrador who chased a stick into a riptide, leaving his anguished master ankle-deep in water, shouting the dog’s name helplessly at the waves. “The dog was way out there and really struggling—I could just see his nose barely sticking out of the ocean,” Craig remembers.
“I started swimming, wondering how in the world I was going to do this rescue. But when I swam up and I shoved my rescue can under his belly, he put his paws through the front handholds and they got stuck! I was able to drag him to shore, and the guy was so grateful, he came back to the tower with a case of beer the next day.”
Craig was glad, too: “I kept thinking, ‘What if I have to give this dog mouth-to-mouth?’”
Craig says the county’s beaches have changed substantially over the summers. For one thing, they are much cleaner and safer than they used to be.
“There was a lot more pollution. We’d often take a gallon of turpentine along to wash ourselves off after swimming. We’d paint each other down with a big paintbrush—you didn’t want to track that oil through your mom’s house. Also there was a lot of litter—you could look all up and down the beach and not see a trash can. And there was a lot more tar on the beach.”
Now, government regulation and environmental consciousness deter litterbugs and industrial polluters. “The beaches are meticulously cleaned,” Craig says. “We have four trash cans every hundred yards.”
“Back in the ’60s, rescues were much longer distance because people would be pulled out farther,” Craig remembers. “Not because ocean conditions were different, but because there were so many fewer of us that by the time we got to them, they could be 50 yards offshore in a big boil. And there were no wave runners to help us out.”
Nor, for many years, was there much law enforcement, at least at El Porto. When Craig started, the beach was an unincorporated “county island” between Manhattan Beach and El Segundo. Packed end-to-end with little surf shacks arrayed along narrow alleys, El Porto was notorious in those early days for the bevies of airline stewardesses who bunked there and the surfers who populated its raucous bar scene. Until Manhattan Beach annexed the 34-acre area in 1980, the nearest authorities were 20 minutes inland at the sheriff’s Lennox substation, he says.
“We had one period in the mid-1970s where a group of armed Nazi surfers declared it their turf,” Craig remembers. “They’d throw things at people from the parking lot and shoot holes into the back of the lifeguard towers.” If someone at the beach was injured, he says, the paramedics of first resort were the lifeguards. Now, of course, El Porto is just another well-patrolled coastal neighborhood in sedate, pricey Manhattan Beach.
One thing that hasn’t changed much is the exceptional fitness required of county ocean lifeguards. Craig still vividly remembers his first lifeguard certification test.
“You swam around a buoy at the Hermosa Pier, and then south to the breakwater, then around another buoy and then back to the beach,” he recalls. “You did this in mid-April, so the water was still quite cold. It was a thousand-yard swim, not counting the 200 yards out and the 200 yards back in, and there were over 200 people, probably, the year I took the test.
“They took the top 25 across the line. I saw the mob going for the buoy and I thought, ‘Oh, my God.’ I was a decent swimmer, but it was daunting. The water was so cold, and the current so strong, and the wind so fierce that almost half the people had to be picked up or brought back in before they covered the first 200 yards.”
But Craig made it: “I was No. 11,” he remembers. “These things stick in your mind. “
Craig still takes the test every year, and still passes. “Obviously I’m not the fastest guy on the beach, but my average time is about 10 minutes, 30 seconds, depending on conditions,” he says.
His fitness regimen is not the average 70-year-old man’s daily workout. A 30-mile bike ride every Monday. An 80-lap swim on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Two-miles of wind sprints on the beach, twice weekly. A 3-to-5-mile row in a single-man Dory twice monthly. On-duty workouts daily. Oh, and he still surfs two or three times a month.
“He’s the perfect waterman—an elder statesman of lifeguarding,” says Section Chief Terry Yamamoto of the County Fire Department’s lifeguard division, who has known Craig for three decades, since Yamamoto was a teenager hanging out at El Porto and Craig was the summer lifeguard there. Craig, he says, was one of a handful of lifeguards who mentored him into the profession. Among other things, Yamamoto says, Craig taught him “how to stay calm in all situations.”
“The older you get, the wiser you get in this job,” says Yamamoto. “You can almost predict how people are going to behave on the beach. It becomes instinctual, so that you can be where you need to be almost before something happens.
“We’ve been on literally hundreds of rescues together, and because he’s been on the job for so long, Ed tends to be there as quickly as the younger guys because he knows where he’s going to be needed.”
Nonetheless, Craig says, “this year will probably be my last.”
“I’ve never lost a swimmer,” he says, “and I still feel I could make any rescue I could see. But I’m getting to the point now where you try to be realistic about your career.”
Retiring from the lifeguard tower would give him more time for his music, his wife of 46 years and his two granddaughters; it might also make for some slightly less stressful summers. “Ninety percent of the job is sheer boredom and ten percent is sheer terror,” jokes Craig.
Still, he says, “I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of watching the water—the pelicans flying by, the surf, the sailboats, the ships offloading their supplies. It never changes, and yet it’s always different, always moving. It’s one of the fascinating things about the sea.”
March 8, 2011
It isn’t the sexiest construction project in Los Angeles County. And it won’t be finished until 2014.
But to anyone acquainted with the hazards of fire season—or just the hazards of trying to find an unobstructed view in pretty-but-populous Southern California—the plans taking shape this month in Topanga eventually should offer a whole new perspective.
Next week, the county Department of Public Works and Southern California Edison representatives will launch a series of meetings to discuss the undergrounding of overhead utility lines in the rural community’s central business district around Topanga Canyon Boulevard and Old Topanga Canyon Road.
The $2.4 million project, which will be paid for by a statewide utility fee administered by Southern California Edison in L.A. County, will bury about a third of a mile’s worth of electricity, cable and phone lines that now clutter the view and present ongoing traffic and fire hazards along the right-of-way.
“The main goal is aesthetic, but there’s also a safety issue,” says Steve Dunn, a senior civil engineer at Public Works. Power poles along winding roads, such as Topanga’s, raise the risk of motor vehicle crashes. And in recent years, at least three massive Southern California brushfires have erupted as tree limbs and lashing utility lines have been blown into overhead power conductors by Santa Ana winds elsewhere in the region.
The project is one of many funded by the California Public Utility Commission’s so-called “Rule 20” program, which combats “wire blight” by helping communities and municipalities bury utility lines. Rule 20 regulates a utility’s recovery of the costs of undergrounding overhead electric equipment and gives local governments dibs on a share of a power company’s capital budget according to the number of rate-payers in each jurisdiction.
The annual amounts are not large—the average cost of an undergrounding project only adds about a nickel a month to the average residential customer’s electric bill, according to SCE—but over time, a municipality’s share can accumulate.
Unincorporated Los Angeles County’s allotment, for instance, amounts to about $3 million annually, which the County then splits among its five supervisorial districts.
The Topanga project will be funded by nearly two decades’ worth of the Third Supervisorial District’s allotment.
Other recent projects include a $4 million undergrounding project in an unincorporated area near Arcadia and a $10 million undergrounding and reconstruction project along 2.6 miles of Rosemead Boulevard.
This month’s meeting, Dunn says, will acquaint the community with the project and launch the environmental documentation. (And notify Topangans, incidentally, that construction is expected to take about 1½ years once it breaks ground in 2013.) The gathering is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Topanga Elementary Charter School Auditorium.