We have begun the process of taking our new water tank parts from Adams’ Pack Station at Chantry Flat to the upper reaches of Big Santa Anita Canyon. When coming to Sturtevant Camp for a stay or a visit the trip is a pleasant, four-mile hike. But when carrying large, curved pieces of corrugated steel it becomes a long haul.
The First Trip
On Saturday, November 6th, 2021, eight volunteers carried one of 6 pieces of a water tank cylinder. Each piece is a 4′ x 9′ of deeply curved, corrugated & galvanized steel.
Initially we had tested a wooden rig for carrying the pieces; something akin to a stretcher used for carrying wounded people. But this rig proved to be more trouble than help so we abandoned it in favor of good old-fashioned elbow grease… and pool noodles.
Not So Fast
Before we could attempt to carry such large and awkward items through the third steepest mountain range in North America, we had to do some trail repair.
If you don’t know, the reason for installing these new tanks is that in September 2020 the Bobcat Fire, one of two widespread fires in the recorded history of Big Santa Anita Canyon, destroyed our water system, along with one of our cabins.
The intensity of this fire denuded the canyon slopes of vegetation. And without the chaparral to hold the soil in place there was much dirt, rocks, and fire debris washed down across the trails by recent rains.
So instead of hauling the first tank piece on the first scheduled volunteer day, several volunteers, including new friends, went to work on clearing washouts with McLeods and shovels over the course of the two-day weekend, making the trail safe for our hauling efforts. In some places, loose rocks from above the trail were removed and placed in gullies as crib walls to restore the trail surface.
Let the Fun Begin
The trails now in relatively safe and passable condition, we used the next scheduled volunteer day to begin hauling our tank pieces. And because we knew that we would encounter new debris on the trail we again brought in the trail-building tools.
Our new hauling system was simple and effective: two heavy-duty carrying straps rented from a moving company and cheap foam pool noodles to cap the sharp edges of the steel. This is much lighter and more maneuverable than the wooden rig, although the size and shape of the steel is nevertheless awkward to carry.
See the gallery below for photos from the first delivery day and days prior.
More Help is Needed
This trip was just the beginning of delivering all the water tank pieces to Sturtevant Camp. And once everything is delivered we need to assemble it all and get the plumbing connected to the existing, undamaged infrastructure. If you can help in any of these capacities please use the following form to send us your information.
Being a volunteer at a non-profit camp sure has its challenges. The latest is dealing with an aging infrastructure, learning how septic systems work, and finding volunteer manual labor. This weekend Sierra Madre Search and Rescue helped to dig out the Retreat Cabin septic tank and 40 feet of leach field line. However, there is more digging to do to find the blockage and, quite frankly, I am exhausted from two weekends of digging. I sure could use your help.
If you are looking for a great upper body workout or an opportunity to spend time in a beautiful location for a very worthy cause, please join me next Saturday (April 15). I will provide lunch and all the tools. If you want to spend the night, you are welcome to do that, as well.
During last fall’s Bobcat Fire, staying connected on-line was the best way to find, give, and receive crucial up the minute information. Coming up on one year after the fire, even though Big Santa Anita Canyon and Sturtevant Camp remain closed to the public, between the heat, the bears, and our damaged water tanks there is a lot going on up here. Stay tuned here for the latest, including the earliest news on when everyone can get back to camp.
Why The Bigcone Blog?
There are a lot of blogs out there but only Sturtevant Camp is shaded by the largest untouched stand of Bigcone Spruce in the San Gabriel Mountains. And those trees drop huge seed cones. If you’ve ever had one conk you on the head, you’ll agree! So, we’ll claim that distinction for this blog: dropping big fresh news all the time!
Our Quench Campaign Is a Waterfall
Thanks to more than thirty new donors plus two generous foundations, our Quench Campaign for potable water at camp has already filled two of three water tanks, and we gave less than 350 gallons to go to top off all three.
The campaign set out to fund the restoration and improvement of the camp’s water system after two of three tanks were destroyed in the Bobcat Fire last year. The big investment is two new fireproof tanks; the third “tank” represents all the replacement pipes and re-plumbing needed for a better collection and distribution system to guests and hikers in camp. We have set up an FAQ page to read details about the project.
Thank You To Our Donors
A big, wet, splashy thank you to everyone who has given so far!
Looking at donations for the new tanks, 20% of new donors gave on average 110 gallons each, or about $670 each. Gifts to the next tank averaged about 11 gallons each, or $65 each, but then two gifts from family foundations jumped the overall total to 3,947 gallons — just $2,112 short of full to the brim.
Last week we got word that the two new tanks are being readied for shipping all the way from Texas. Those will come to Chantry Flat in early September (after we’ve paid the second invoice with your support) where the materials will be staged for packing and delivery into camp.
Current plans are for the smaller parts to go up on the Adams’ Pack Station pack train but the main panels of the tanks will likely be moved to the top of Mount Wilson then hand-carried down the original Sturtevant Trail into camp for assembly.
Can You Help?
Are you interested in stretching your arms or otherwise helping out? Visit sturtevantcamp.com/volunteer to sign-up for a variety of tasks and projects to ready the camp for our re-opening. When will that be? Stay tuned here for early notifications!
Bears In the House
The latest volunteer work crew arrived in camp recently and started to unlock the manager’s cabin only to hear banging around inside, followed by a bear poking his head out of a hole she had ripped into the side wall of the cabin! She scooted out and up the hillside, followed by her cub tumbling out of the laundry room.
The hot summer on top of the burned terrain is forcing many animals to forage for food. Many cabin owners are reporting repeated break-ins, with this mamma bear plus cub becoming increasingly bold and often destructive in their pursuit of food. We know it’s the same bear because she has a bum leg and we have named her Peggy (as in peg-legged).
Sturtevant Camp has been hit by the bears a few times, the hardest being right after the Bobcat Fire when the evacuation left lots of food in the kitchen. We still have refrigerator doors to replace, lots of window screens and door trim, and now a hole in the cabin, with siding ripped off and other buildings’ doors pulled off as well. Thankfully it’s “just” more carpentry repairs.
Wednesday, September 8th 2021 will mark the 111th anniversary of the passing of our founder, Wilbur M. Sturtevant. He was an infantry Lieutenant in the Union Army, serving in the Civil War, and is buried at the Los Angeles National Veteran’s Cemetery in Sawtelle, section 18, row E, site 8. There’s loose talk about pouring a dose of Big Santa Anita Canyon stream water on his grave on that Wednesday. Are you interested in joining in? Send us an email or message him on his Facebook page.
The Sturtevant Conservancy is a non-profit registered in California; its purpose is to sustain historic Sturtevant Camp for the public benefit, operating on land leased from the U.S. Forest Service.
The governing Board members are volunteers who supervise and manage the mission of the Conservancy, and the camp itself. Board members are recruited based on their “boots on the ground” commitment to the camp, as well as the diverse skills needed to operate the camp. These include guest hospitality, site operations and maintenance, marketing, financial management, lumberjacking and trail-building. All have the passion to share the Sturtevant experience with the public for the future.
Check out their bios and profile photos on the Who We Are page.
Four Hauled, Two Qued
We had the parts, the people and a plan—then if finally rained for real in the San Gabriels! The first run to deliver a water tank panel up to camp was delayed so that the trail could get worked back into shape (mostly). Plenty of shovels and shoulders were duly exercised!
Over the next few weekends, a variety of regular and newbie volunteers came together to manually haul the roughly 4x8ft curved steel panels up the main trail. Each time was an experiment with improvements the final delivery will be simple and almost easy. The chief factor was not weight but the wiggliness of the panel, and the persistently unstable trail.
The success was mostly because people were good at working together and sure-footed on the trail. A lot of new friendships were made, and future volunteers inspired. A good thing, because there is always more to do at Camp!
Stay tuned for the end-of-the-year-holiday edition of the Big Cone Blog!
February 14 was the first official day of the planned eight-month closure of Chantry Road for the construction of an all-new bridge. By June, it will be physically impossible for any vehicle to cross the gap where the bridge is being built. But the project will maintain a pedestrian walkway, so that people can cross from both directions: this will allow Adam’s Pack Station owner Maggie Moran and her family, plus the USFS residents of Chantry Flat, to get in and out—and for our volunteers to stay on the job of prepping the camp for eventual re-opening. The walk-around will add about a half-mile to the work-day distance total, guaranteeing that everyone gets their “steps” in, with or without carrying pipes and parts!
Most fundraisers offer thank-you incentives and souvenirs to donors — T-shirts, tote bags, etc. There are a few of those for last season’s Quench campaign to fund the new water tanks, but we also promised something special to many donors: thank-you luncheons and experiences at Chantry Flat and at Sturtevant Camp.
However, the closure of the Chantry Flat road has put a very real roadblock on those plans, compounded by continuing concerns over Covid exposure. Therefore, the board has chosen to put a hold on everything until we can do those events right — on site, safely and fully inclusive. Before then, we’ll ask for your feedback on the best, most accessible versions of the events, so please watch your email in-box for customized messages, and reply with your preferences.
The Recovery Business
The two storms at the end of 2021 were a real set-back on the water system project, but thanks to the skill and tenacity of our board members, and the many new and returning volunteers, we are back on track. Volunteers have done so much shoveling — so much — and Site & Operations Manager Paul Witman has been hands-on/in the dirt and mud to guide the recovery and rebuilding of the essential plumbing. Soon the focus will shift to installing the new water tanks after we solve the cement delivery dilemma.
Our volunteers have proven themselves to be reliably sturdy, but we won’t ask them to haul 60lb bags of concrete up the trail— that’s what burros are for! Cement is needed for the base of the water tanks, but the main trail is not yet passable to the pack train; there is serious technical work to be done in several key spots, as well as miles worth of basic shoveling. As a temporary alternative, pack train owner Maggie Moran has explored the original Sturtevant Trail down from Mount Wilson to camp as an alternative. That would also require some work, plus complicated logistics, including staging the pack train at the observatory for a week or so. We’ll have an update in the next Bigcone blog on how the dilemma is resolved.
The Nut$ & Bolt$ of Business Closure
Not being open for business is obviously bad for business, but the Board is working hard to not go out of business and get ready to do business—when the time comes! We are fortunate that we do not have the daily-demand costs of Adams’ Pack Station, whose burros don’t care about road and Forest closures—just bring on the feed! That’s why we encourage everyone to support Maggie’s on-line fundraisers at adamspackstation.com.
But we do have on-going expenses: more than just insurance and fees, the demand for basic repair and preventive maintenance is constant. As much as we enjoy the forest wilderness, it is a hostile environment to the camp’s buildings and infrastructure, requiring steady attention and investment.
With the road’s construction closure through October, combined with the USFS closure of the canyon until further notice, we do not anticipate guest revenue until maybe the 4th quarter of 2022, and that is very hopeful. It does give us time to tackle both major repair projects from the fire, as well as long-sought improvement projects. For example, the 1897 dining hall has serious termite damage to repair, and the roof is due for replacement; the shut-down is an ideal time to get these kinds of projects done.
Thanks to the Quench campaign and the cash balance of business income before the fire, the camp has its fiscal head above the financial waters—make that its nose! Project-focused fundraisers are on the horizon, and in next month’s blog, we’ll outline the historic and projected fiscal ecosystem of the camp as we plan to go forward.
Until then, your financial support strengthens our ability to use this closure to improve the future of the camp’s service to the public: sturtevantcamp.com/support Thanks in advance for doing so!
Green & Black, Flowers & Scat
Coming into February, our volunteers are seeing plenty of green sprouting in the canyon; while the Bobcat fire likely burned out some of the familiar invasive species, it has also given opportunity to many of the indigenous plants of the San Gabriel Mountains to take their rightful place in the sun. Right now, white blossoms of the climbing wild cucumber are all over, lightly scenting the air.
There’s also good news for some of the fauna: horticulturist and board member (and bear-whisperer!) Teah Vaughn-Piscopo identified several recent doses of scat on the trail as bear-poop which were very black and dense. This indicates a diet unusually heavy in meat; whatever the unfortunate source, at least the bears have not been back into our kitchen and buildings (knock on wood).
Next Month’s Bigcone Blog
News from the U.S.F.S. for the canyon, a snapshot of the camp’s fiscal ecosystem, updates from the cabin owner’s association annual meeting, and whatever else happens between now and then.
Frankly, the news from Camp is boring, for now. A lot of detail work on valves and pipes, and a lot of grunt-work doing fire clearance in & around Camp, plus brushwork on the trail. That’s cutting back all that tall green grass from this winter that’s gone brown. Also, many of the toasted and burned chaparral and smaller trees are finally sagging into and over the trail, and have to be clipped/cut back so the pack train can get through. That will be exciting news (the pack train delivering) but, later! Check back here in August for the latest.
Arbutus Comes Home
After many years in hibernation elsewhere, ‘Arbutus, the electric green mule’ has finally come back home to Sturtevant. Designed to hand-truck propane tanks to and from the Camp using an electric bicycle wheel, its conception and journey parallels the recent history of the Canyon and the Camp.
Back in 2005, the Chantry Road was closed, similar to now, but because of a complete wash-out of one section, and an avalanche of rocky dirt on another. Although guests could (and did) hike down from Mt. Wilson, getting propane into Camp was “a problem”. With the road impassable, there was no way to get tanks filled and to the Pack Station for the burros to carry in. And without propane, there’d be no cooking, no heat in the cabins – and no happy campers!
How to bring tanks in and out from another trailhead? Doodling on a napkin, manager Chris Kasten and previous manager Gary Keene spit-balled a design for a tank carrier running on a car-battery powered electric bicycle wheel. Working with gravity, the carrier would roll a full tank down the Mt. Wilson trail, then turn around and boost an empty tank back to the top. They took the design to a bike shop that did the custom welding, and Chris named the contraption Arbutus (look it up!) Story continues below.
People, Who Need People
The crunch in summer air travel is mostly pegged to a shortage of staff—cabin stewards, gate personnel, etc. Those ‘front facing staff’ are the key to making the travel experience a positive one, while the mechanics and pilots work behind the scenes to actually deliver.
That’s similar to Camp: while the Conservancy works to get the water system working and the Camp ready for re-opening, it will be the Hosts who actually greet guests and help make their time at Camp a positive one. Those people (guests) need those people (hosts)!
The best hosts are ‘people people’ who know that “a pleasure shared is a pleasure doubled”. It’s true that Hosts also manage a lot of the house-keeping, and Camp being the nearly 130 years old, they often have to step in to make repairs and keep things safe over the weekend. So hosting isn’t coasting through a weekend at Camp.
But in return, Hosts become part of a special team with customized access to the Camp and Canyon. The job criteria are simple: are you a people person who appreciates the Camp and wants to share that? Are you available to commit to a few weekends in Camp (on your own schedule) over the course of a year? Oh, and do you love to hike?! An updated job description and orientation program will be available this fall to get ready for the Camp’s re-opening. If you have been a host before or want to be considered, visit sturtevantcamp.com/volunteer and/or send an email stating your interest — we’re interested in you!
Bun Definitely in the Oven
If ever there was a “bun in the oven”, Ripley Vaughn-Piscopo was it! With her birthday coming VERY soon, a baby shower for her mom (and Conservancy Board member) Teah was in order. Maggie Moran offered her home and its expanded porch at Adams Pack Station as the location, so in the scorching heat of an early summer Sunday, immediate family and friends gathered on the deck with the burros braying in the background. Teah was (as always) the life of the party, accompanied by husband and future dad Graham (sweating not the delivery but the heat, along with everyone else!)
Maggie was Hostess with the mostest and emceed the party, which included cold beverages, tasty snacks, and some fun games (including real horseshoes). NO tails were pinned on any actual donkeys, but most guests did visit the pack train in the corral to meet Teah’s “extended family.”
Thanks to Maggie for providing a great place to celebrate (plus her custom cupcakes!), and to board members Sarah Barron and Gary Keene for organizing and refreshments. Thanks also to Patrick Kelly and Dave Nickoloff of the Canyon Patrol for staffing the gate to get all the guests in on time. News of Ripley’s arrival will be posted on Wilbur’s Facebook page. Stay tuned!
The shop finished Arbutus right when Chris was scheduled to be away for a rare vacation, so Gary picked it up for the test run. Rolling the loaded rig down from the summit of Mt. Wilson while feathering the brake was a breeze. The next morning, he turned around with an empty tank loaded and headed up: a small lever actuated the battery supply, and the ‘mule’ pulled the tank up the trail about 20 yards— and died.
Whaaaat?! After a few moments, the green light came back on: power on, roll forward and up – and dead. In between pushing and dragging, this on/off pattern repeated for another 3/4s of a mile or so, then stayed dead. Gary reported, “What was usually an hour hike to the summit took over 3 hours and was the toughest I’ve ever done—Mt. Rainier included!”
Turns out back then there were two kinds of electric wheel: one to help you get going, and a different model that you pedaled first, then it would assist. Arbutus had the first one, although it is doubtful any version could conquer Mt. Wilson. As usual, Chris figured it out, swapped out the wheel, and switched the delivery route over to Newcomb’s Pass (driving the tanks on the F.S. road to the drop-off/pick-up point for a most downhill run in.)
Arbutus fulfilled its purpose, carrying propane and groceries and repair supplies into Camp until the Chantry Road was repaired and re-opened. Then it got moved over to another Methodist camp in Wrightwood, where it languished for many years. With the closure of the Chantry road for a new bridge this season, Gary (as current General Manager) got to wondering where the it had gone to hibernate.
The green mule was recovered and turned over to John “JT” Thompson, the Camp’s ex-officio electrical wizard (who also happens to be a cyclist.) He renovated Arbutus, giving it two ‘tiny but mighty’ nicad batteries in place of the old car battery. Fourth of July weekend, a work team delivered Arbutus up the trail—or rather, chased it up the Canyon: with no load (this time!), the tire was skipping and pulling fast over rocks and roots, tossing dust and mud in the face of the drivers.
Next it will be tested for carrying various supplies in and out of Camp; eventually it will stay in Camp and help volunteers move propane tanks around the cabins, bathhouse and dining hall. No carrots, but regular re-charging should keep it in service for many years to come – check it out when you finally get back to Camp!
While the Canyon is closed this summer, the Conservancy’s “backpack” is full of work: installing the filter and valve system for the water tanks, getting the pack train up to Camp, recruiting a new cadre of hosts, developing marketing before the Forest opens, plenty of repairs and maintenance on site – in other words, we’re keeping our boots laced up and ask you to do the same with a visit to sturtevantcamp.com/support
The Sturtevant Conservancy is an all-volunteer operation, and we now have the numbers to show just how grateful we can be—and are indeed! Although we’re not hard-core bean-counters, there is some real data to analyze, estimate and extrapolate*. Here’s the picture based on what we have so far this year:
55 volunteers have signed waivers to work in the Canyon/at Camp; 32 have showed up for one or more workdays. Using static data (distance to Camp, elevation gain, etc.) and average data (time hiking in/out and hours in Camp), as of Nov.17th, we get 495 total volunteer hours of hiking and working combined. That’s 62 days at 8 hours a day – even though most days were 6:30am at the gate, back out at 4:30pm = ten hours.
In terms of hiking, we also calculate 495 total miles, not including all the schlepping back and forth in Camp while working which can add up to way more than a mile. The total elevation gain is nearly 582,000 feet, equal to climbing the height of Mt. Wilson 102 times, or Mt. Everest 20 times.
But that’s the numbers; here are the names of all those who put boots to dirt to move Sturtevant into the future:
Volunteered at least one full workday in 2022: Susan Stahl, Taylor Crisp, Aaron Blanco, Peter Vance, Charie Contreras, Sandra Sanchez, Todd Williamson, Fred Tanis, Sharon Miller, Ted Baumgartner, Avery Arauz, James Krist, Alex Barron, Elizabeth Sturdevant, John Butta, John Binninger, Reg Willson, Ty Oehrtman, and Jim Oberman = Thank You!
Volunteered more than once: Dave Baumgartener, Andrew Bousfield, Anna Binney, Maureen Nally, Kelly Davidson, John Peel, Emily Sawicki, Peter Witman, Patrick Gorman, and Patrick Kelly. (Special call out that several of these folks were even more active in 2021, back when we weren’t trying to track the particulars.) Double-Thank-You!!
Scott Wilson, Brent Pepper, and Nate Bousfield volunteered five times or more for a collective total of at least 135 miles hiked and 158,625 ft of upward trail. No counting of all the parts carried, shovels-flung and dirt inhaled; a mountain-sized THANKS to each of you!!!
There simply would be no real progress on recovery from the Bobcat Fire, much less conserving the Camp’s long-term condition for future use without all these boots, miles, hands and hearts: thank you all so very much! We’ll have year-end totals after the holidays, a snapshot of the Board member data, and next year we should ‘count calories consumed’—that should be an outstanding number. If you want to get in on the action, sign up to volunteer sturtevantcamp.com/volunteer.
*Board members are not included so as to not skew the data.
Raindrops Keep Fallin’ — and Moving Stuff
The early November storm that smacked southern California did a real number on the San Gabriels. Despite the dramatic changes of the 2020 Bobcat Fire and the subsequent storms at the start of 2021, this one seemed to do even worse. Winter Creek* was especially hard hit, with the familiar green bridge at Roberts Camp ripped from its foundations, along with all the forest cover at the junction with the Big Santa Anita stream. The view is simply devastating.
Up-canyon, the water did some more re-landscaping, and more trees were down, thankfully none in Camp. The heliport rain gauge measured 6.9 inches from the storm, and that plus the volume of surface gravel yet again wiped out the Camp’s rebuilt collection pond, along with much of the hardware. Volunteers have already shoveled a LOT of soupy gravel to locate what was left, and rebuilding is underway. As posted on Wilbur’s Facebook page, certainly Mother Nature bats last, but thanks to our volunteers, we’re still in the game!
*Winter Creek is so named because that’s when and where Wilbur paused building a new trail (the one we know as the Zion Trail) from Sierra Madre up to the Camp. It was his second trail into the Big Santa Anita, after guests complained about the difficulty of his first one. Speaking of which…
Happy 130th Birthday Sturtevant Trail!
Wilbur Sturtevant opened his trail resort in 1893, the first in the Big Santa Anita Canyon, and now the last in the San Gabriels. The country was in the midst of a severe economic depression, and his chief financial asset was the string of 23 pack animals he had built up and brought west from Colorado. While there was money in packing for local projects such as the Mt. Wilson toll road and construction of the Observatory, he was a bit of a loner and likely preferred to work for himself.
Wilbur observed the success of Martin’s and then Strain’s camps on Mt. Wilson and figured he could do even better; a camp would create guest revenue and a steady demand for packing (just like the money in selling printers is really in replacement toner cartridges!) Scouting the front range, “he first laid eyes on the gently sloping wide spot by the upper Big Santa Anita creek…”* With its steady water supply, majestic trees and a good dose of sunlight, it proved to be an ideal setting for a trail camp. But how to get there?
Anyone who has hiked the San Gabriels, and especially those who have done trail work, know how difficult the conditions are. Yet Sturtevant set to carving a steep trail down from the summit of Mt. Wilson to his new camp. It would prove to be 2.8 miles over 2800 feet of elevation – drop and the gain on the return, the same rate as the infamous Chilkoot Pass on Alaska’s Klondike Trail. Everyone who has hiked Wilbur’s trail knows it is a ‘butt-kicker’, ideal for training AND great views across to Mt. Baldy.
The Sturtevant story is the trail resort opened in 1893, likely summertime; that would put starting the construction of the trail into at least 1892. So, as we wrap up 2022, here’s Happy Birthday to the Sturtevant Trail, now 130 years old!
*G. Owens, “The Heritage of the Big Santa Anita”, pg. 4
Coming in December
The road re-opens (probably?), the Becky Page story, looking into the new year, Board changes and more. Until then, have a gravylicious Thanksgiving!