Hundreds enjoy the wonders of nature in the Orestimba Wilderness
Published in the May 16 – 29, 2018 issue of Gilroy Life
Hundreds of hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians from across the Bay Area last month felt the awe of colorful wildflowers, songbirds and other wonders of nature in the Orestimba Wilderness deep in the heart of Henry W. Coe State Park. Their enjoyment — and safety — in the annual Backcountry Weekend, held April 27 to 29, was made possible by a team of about 90 volunteers trained by the Pine Ridge Association.
The uniformed volunteers play a crucial role in keeping Coe, California’s second largest state park at 87,000 acres, open 365 days a year. Thanks to them, visitors can trek trails to enjoy vistas of the rugged terrain of the Diablo Mountain Range to the east of the South Valley. And for one spectacular spring weekend, the park opens its gates at Bell’s Station on Highway 152 east of Gilroy to allow the adventurous vehicle access to a remote and isolated area that usually requires a long, arduous back-packing trip to reach. To keep the event from becoming overcrowded, a limit of 370 vehicles are allowed to make the 13-mile trek along the dusty Kaiser-Aetna Road into the park.
“This park would not run without volunteers at all,” said Manny Pita, a Pine Ridge Association board member who heads the volunteer training committee. “The park staff is spread pretty thin and the rangers are law enforcement officers, so they frequently are called away.”
The volunteers come from throughout the Bay Area and even as far away as the Sierras. Among them is San Francisco resident Bonnie Dailey who worked on bike patrol and bird-watching hikes during the 2018 Backcountry Weekend. One reason she joined is the extensive training sessions the PRA provides for people joining the uniformed volunteer program.
“You get all those free classes in the natural histories that normally you have to pay for at a college,” she said. “You see things and become more in tune to what you’re looking at.”
The park is home to many avian species ranging from Acorn Woodpeckers to Yellow Warblers. Dailey enjoys sharing her knowledge with visitors. She points out the different bird songs coming from the oak trees along the trails.
“Birding becomes a hobby and it’s very good for your brain because you’re compiling lists in your brain,” she said. “You’re always learning the differences between the birds and their behavior and habitats and coloring and migrations.”
Coe’s Orestimba Wilderness location makes it much less accessible than the paved roads to the Visitor Center entrance at the end of East Dunne Avenue or the Hunting Hollow entrance off Roop Road. That’s why the Backcountry event is a retreat from the Silicon Valley urban environment. Many fish at favorite sites such as Mississippi Lake, Kingbird Pond and Mustang Pond. Photographers climb high into the hills and snap breathtaking panoramic views of the Diablo Range. Many visitors spend a night or two camping under the stars.
A common story is that many of those who experience Backcountry Weekend adventure fall in love with the park so much they decide to join the PRA’s uniformed volunteer program. Among them is Campbell resident John Thatcher, who went through the training in 2009.
“I’ve been to Backcountry Weekends three time as a visitor, and so I decided I’m going to volunteer based on those experiences,” Thatcher said. “I thought when I retired I was going to volunteer with the Open Space Authority, but the beauty of this park grabbed me.”
Volunteer Greg Scott from Cupertino has been helping visitors enjoy Coe since he graduated in the 2000 class. Once an engineer at Apple, his experience taking families on nature walks from the Visitors Center helped him decide to make a job change. He is now a science teacher at Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose.
Safety for all is the No. 1 goal for the volunteers, Thatcher said, and so many work in the wilderness doing foot, bike and horse patrols along the trails and ranch roads. A common challenge is encountering visitors who hike without enough water. The patrols carry extra bottles for dehydrated people unaware of the danger of unprepared saunters into the wilderness.
Cell phone communication is not always a certainty in the Orestimba’s steep canyons and valleys, so a team of ham radio enthusiasts set up receivers in the high peaks to communicate with rangers and other volunteers in case of an emergency. And visitors do sometimes get hurt. This year, two guests were riding mules when the animals were spooked by a passing mountain biker. The women were thrown into brush and taken to a hospital to treat broken limbs.
Volunteer Kat Levine, a Morgan Hill resident, encourages South Valley residents to discover the beauty of the park. At the Backcountry Weekend, she drove a shuttle van carrying visitors from the parking area to the campground at the Orestimba Corral. She also helped organize the volunteer breakfasts and the Saturday night volunteer dinner around the campfire.
“We have a beautiful park, it’s underserved, and people don’t know about it,” she said. “I hike by myself, usually, and so I get to see stuff that most people don’t see. If you’re sitting at a lake, there’s the dragonflies, they just dance with themselves. You just sit there and watch it. It’s pretty cool.”
The volunteers help organize other events throughout the year to encourage visitors to experience the wonder of Coe’s wilderness. Ranch Day will be held May 19 at Hunting Hollow and is designed for children to get a glimpse of the cowboy era of Coe. June 9, runners and walkers can enjoy an organized jaunt through the wildflowers along the Hunting Hollow Trail at the 5K/10K Fun Run and Walk. In October, volunteers put on the immensely popular Tarantula Fest to introduce people to the creepy crawlers that make their home in the park.
Recently, volunteers organized a Meet-up website that helps people learn about smaller organized events such as moonlight equestrian rides and group mountain bike excursions. It can be found at www.meetup.com/Henry-Coe-State-Park-Outdoors-Meetup.
PRA President Dan Benefiel encourages people who love the outdoors and want to help others experience Coe to consider signing up for the fall volunteer training program. An online application can be found www.coepark.net/pineridgeassociation/support-coe/ununifomed-volunteer-program/uniformed-volunteer-program-app.