Catalina Island – USC Lectures and Indigenous Food Experience

Abe Sanchez, USC Indigenous Food ExperienceWhile we on Catalina with American Conservation Experience, we were provided with an excellent opportunity to sit in on a special seminar for USC. It was a series of three lectures which were quite fascinating.

1.  Working with Indigenous Communities: Respect and Reciprocity by Tharron Bloomfield

2.  Tongva Use of Plants and Native Teas by Craig Torres (with Abe Sanchez)

3.  California Native American Basketry by Tashina Miranda (Luiseno)

The first lecture was very interesting, Tharron began with a brief overview of the history of conservation of artefacts before moving into cultural perspectives. He mentioned a curious occurrence from 1966 where Fiorenze (Florence) had flooded and thousands of volunteers travelled to the city to save the artefacts. The volunteers were affectionately called the mud angels, but they were also professionals and here they began to discuss their varied techniques and for the first time began to standardise the profession. He also discussed the notion that conservation of artefacts is not a neutral profession; each conservator brings their cultural bias to the process which influences how artefacts are represented in their curation such as what degree of restoration is required, how it will be displayed or stored, and what level of access will be provided for the artefacts both to the public and to the descendants. He ended by saying that conservation is a balance between maintaining the original intent and education of the object.

Craig Torres and Abe Sanchez' lecture was about Indigenous plants and their uses and he had dozens of samples to view and taste. Craig began by explaining how the Tongva people are relearning their culture and beginning the re-education of that culture to their descendants. He highlighted that a culture is often defined by their land and resources, therefore food is an integral part of this process, relearning what food is locally available and their uses.

As he talked of food and medicine he handed around bags containing samples and gave a brief description of its use. Among the items he passed around were Californian Chia, Creosote, Yerba Mansa and Santa, Coyote Mint, Stinging Nettle, California Bay Leaf and Wild Rose, Coyote Melon, and many more. It was fascinating to hear of all these plants and their uses while also being able to smell and sometimes taste.

The final Lecture by Tashina Miranda was on basket weaving. Tashina is Luiseno from Tameeka Village in Southern California and is passionate about this skill. She described the plants (using traditional and modern names) used for weaving and why, such as Willow (Wút) and Yucca (Hanúuvat). She briefly described the techniques to harvest and process the plants including cleaning and dyeing. Then she introduced some of the tools and techniques of the weaving process. Tashina also impressed on us the difficulty in educating about a traditional skill without actually teaching the how it is done, which must remain in the tribe.

All in all it was an excellent series of lectures. At the conclusion of which Craig Torres invited everyone present to an Indigenous Food Experience the following day where we would all assist in creating a lunch from some of the plants we had been introduced to.

Rina making Californian Chia Pudding, USC Indigenous Food ExperienceThe following day Rina and I, along with our camp leader Ashley, attended the lunch located at a camp about a thirty minute drive from Two Harbors. It was explained to us that the range of dishes we were going to be making and eating today were a mixture of traditional ideas and introduced foods, in an effort to transition the indigenous people who only knew the introduced foods back to their traditions. The food we were going to make was Amaranth greens Cactus salad, Native squash soup, Acorn gruel, Venison stew, Spiced quail and rabbit, Seafood stew, Yucca sakatash, Mesquit tortilla, Raw chia chocolate bar, Chia pudding, Cricket salsa, and Limpit Ceviche.

Chad helping cook rabbit and goat, USC Indigenous Food ExperienceUnder the guidance of Abe Sanchez and Craig Torres we divided into groups to prepare the ingredients. Rina helped with the Chia Pudding. My table peeled and chopped garlic and tomatoes while others worked on preparing and spicing the meats and seafood or chopping greens. While we were doing this everyone was refreshing themselves with Cactus (sour) or Prickly Pear Juice (sweet), although I found that a mixture of the two juices was best. They also passed around plates of prickly pear for everyone to try which was sweet and delicious, similar to honeydew melon.

USC Indigenous Food ExperienceThe group laboured together for a couple of hours preparing everything and when we got close to serving we needed to make the Mesquit Tortillas. Some of the University students had already made the dough but now we had to roll it into a circle and fry it. Everyone had a go and some tortillas were better than others but we all had fun.

Just prior to the serving we gathered together and gave thanks for the food and the experience and were lead in a traditional prayer. We then dug in with gusto. Unfortunately we had to leave and so we took a selection of foods to eat along the way back to camp.

It was such an incredible day of learning and taste that I would heartily recommend anyone to take the opportunity to experience something like this.


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American Conservation Experience (ACE) Volunteer Vacation - Catalina Island

Catalina Island, CaliforniaCatalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles, California is a 35km long desert island. The island was originally home to the Tongva peoples but since colonial times has been the property of Spain, Mexico and finally the US. The Island has two main towns, Avalon and Two Harbors, that are serviced by a ferry from the mainland., there is also an airfield near Middle Ranch.

In the 1920’s, much of island was purchased by the Wrigley (chewing gum) family who began to develop the island for tourism. In the 1970’s the Wrigleys established the Catalina Conservancy and in 1975 deeded 90% of the island to them.

Bison, Catalina Island, CaliforniaThe island is home to 50 endemic animal species but the animal you are most likely to see is a Bison, brought across for a movie in 1924 and left behind. The Conservancy used to ship them out but the cost was too high and now they are just let be and their numbers controlled.

We have come to Catalina Island to do a volunteer holiday with American Conservation Experience (ACE) for 11 days. ACE works with the Catalina Conservancy on conservation projects and currently brings a group of volunteers every 2 weeks. Our group was large with 9 volunteers taking part. We met at LAX and, when our camp leader arrived from his delayed flight, took a shuttle to the port for the ferry. By mid-afternoon we were on the Island and met our other camp leader Ashley and were taken to our camp site.

ACE Volunteers, Catalina Island, CaliforniaThe ACE campsite is very simple, located next to the main Two Harbors campsite it is only accessible through a gully. It is a broad area that offers a great view over the harbour. The amenities are located in the campground itself, including toilets and cold showers (If volunteers want a hot shower they are available in Two Harbors for a small fee). ACE supply tents for each volunteer so they have their own space. The campsite is where we have breakfast, prepare lunch and rest.

The University of Southern California, Wrigley Institute, offers ACE volunteers the use of their kayaks and snorkelling equipment after a brief safety orientation. The campus has a dining hall where we have our evening meal. There is also Wi-Fi available here.

The volunteer work is given to ACE via the Catalina Conservancy in Avalon. During our stay the Conservancy were quite disorganised and seemed unable to inform us of our work schedule more than a day in advance which was disappointing. The work they did provide was Invasive Species removal (fennel and cactus), seed collection and processing (tar weed, black sage, white sage, and bladder pods), and the installation of a fence at an archaeological site.

Prior to any work the group has a safety circle. The safety circle has a few components: Stretches, a safety tip, and a Daily Question. Each participant provides a stretch and tip and an answer for the question.

Digging a hole for a fence post, Catalina Island, CaliforniaThe archaeological site was an interesting project. Four of us went with one of the Conservancy officers to a remote location on the island where skull fragments had been discovered at a midden. We were given a brief tour of the site and an explanation of the history. Nearby the site we dug two holes, sank two posts and sealed them with concrete before attaching the large chain to block road access.

Tar Weed is an indigenous species that is utilised by the Conservancy for site rehabilitation. The group were driven to a large open hilltop where the plant was seeding. We scoured the area collecting up to 90% of the seeds from each plant. After collection we went to Middle Ranch for processing. Processing the seed involves separating the seed from any extraneous material, a labour intensive process. The seed is then stored for planting later.

Collecting Tar Weed, Catalina Island, California

The invasive species removal was for fennel which dominates many areas and inhibits the growth of indigenous species. Removing fennel can be physically taxing as their tap root goes quite deep, and working in the direct sun adds to the fatigue but you know you have done good work. While taking part in this Rina and I also suggested that we remove any litter from the area as well, which while not much, we think is an essential part of any conservation activity. A curious thing I found was that the Conservancy did not want the Invasive species taken to a dump for destruction but left where it was dug up to dry out. I would have thought removal and destruction would be better than leaving material to become potential fuel for fire.

When we signed up for the ACE Vacation, our expectations were that the activities would be well organised and that we would be kept quite busy while also learning about the specific environment we were helping to protect. Unfortunately, due to the Conservancy not providing adequate projects and assignments this expectation was not met. This meant that we were able to have a tour of Avalon and visit the Botanical gardens there as well as take advantage of special seminar for the archaeology students at USC.

We were with a good group of people, which always makes things better, and we did learn a bit and do a little productive work, although it would have been better for more structure. We had a guest leader for a couple of days in the second week who normally runs the Grand Canyon ACE vacations who told us that the alliance with the National Parks Service is much more formalised and productive, offering a greater variety of experiences, so perhaps I would try that next time.

In our leisure time we swam at the nearby beach, kayaked or snorkelled at USC, or just relaxed in two Harbors. The waters around the island are clear and blue, and a short distance from the harbour is a small island with a colony of sea lions that can be reached by Kayak. The waters around the USC dock were surprisingly deep and contained a small kelp forest to snorkel through that included a variety of fish in good numbers.

Kayaking, Catalina Island, CaliforniaSea Lions, Catalina Island, California

Snorkeling, Catalina Island, CaliforniaSnorkeling, Catalina Island, CaliforniaSnorkeling, Catalina Island, California

In all, I enjoyed my time on the island but I would have liked a more structured work schedule.

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San Luis National Forest, Colorado

We drove out into the San Luis National Forest to begin our camping trip: Michelle and myself, three children and three dogs.

Driving through this incredible forest, we saw deer, chipmunks and a moose and numerous other small animals. Michelle had never seen a moose in the wild and we were all very excited, especially as it ran through a field and jumped a fence. Driving through the mountains looking for a place to camp we saw a storm rolling in but it hit us with a deluge just as we nearing a good site. The rain was so heavy we couldn’t see the road so we stopped and waited. Ten minutes later we drove onwards to a potential spot. That spot was no good as the downpour had turned the area to mud and there was nowhere we could pitch. We drove to a nearby town for dinner as there would be no chance of us building a fire. The restaurant offered two Bigfoot food challenges, one for breakfast and another for dinner. The breakfast challenge involved eating a stack of pancakes, each one the size of a dinner plate and over a centimetre thick. I don’t think I could even have eaten one let alone a stack of them. The other challenge was a burger with a kilogram of meat topped with a heap of bacon and cheese. I barely finished a single burger.

Camping in ColoradoAfter dinner we drove down a road heading east through the valley looking for a place to camp. The rain had stopped and there were no longer pools of water everywhere. As the sun was dipping low we found a small clearing next to the river. We played UNO and talked for a while before sleeping.

In the morning I walked up the adjacent hill with the kids in tow before we returned to break down the camp and move on. We drove west into the mountains and deeper into the park, on mountain ridges and through valleys deep and broad, the view absolutely stunning. This area is incredible to admire and enjoy, tree covered mountains, grassed valley floors, the rich red of iron in stone on a cliff face, a small river weaving its way, tripping over rocks and fallen trees searching for a lake or ocean to fill. For anyone who enjoys the outdoors this place is lovely. There are very few people out here, the towns are small and the tourism is low, so it is not hard to enjoy.

La Garita Natural Arch,  Penitente Canyon, Colorado


We were looking for an old gold town in the area where we would spend the day but missed the turnoff in the mountains and instead drove through a ghost town before heading into another wood to pitch camp. The clouds were building again but this time we made it to our camp and setup well before the rains hit. We also managed to find enough dry wood to build a campfire to cook our dinner.

The kids and I took a walk around the forest before dinner and the following day we all walked together on the road further into the forest. Colorado is a truly beautiful place to visit, and being here you can understand why they are so proud of it.

Not far from Del Norte on the western side of the San Luis Valley is Penitente Canyon which features the beautiful lone La Garita natural arch, but as my friend kept telling me “If you’ve been to Utah, you won’t be impressed”. I liked it, simple and majestic on an isolated ridge, the arch was like a telescope lens aimed at the broad plains beyond.

View from la garita Natural Arch, Penitente Canyon, Colorado

To top off the physically beautiful reasons to visit the region, you should visit the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Originally established as a monument in 1932 the area was renamed in 2004. The dunes are very impressive and with the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains as the backdrop is even more so. Walking on these dunes is great and very deceptive. Nowhere is as close as you think it is, and it probably not possible to reach it by a singular path. As you walk on the dunes you will notice the wind is always apparent, increasing in strength as you climb higher, sand dancing across the crests. The highest dune is approximately 230m and the dunefield covers over 7000 hectares of the 18000 hectare park. The park is more than just the sand dunes and has a range of camping and hiking options.

Wild About Bears Talk, Great Sand Dunes National Park Rangers Station, ColoradoThe day I visited there were some talks by the Rangers. The first was “Wild about Bears”, an informative talk about Black Bears. During the talk the ranger passed around a few items including a bear skull for us to hold.

Another was “Who Dunnit?” an interactive educational game about the history of the dunes from formation to the modern day. This was a great talk as they included props such as sand and a magnifying lens, historical dialogues, and photographs, engaging the entire group.

The formation of these dunes has numerous theories and depending on which text you read the age is anywhere from 5000 to 440000 years. What is known is that a combination of wind and water erodes the surrounding valley and mountains. Winds pick up the sand and deposit in this area. When you look at the sands under a microscope or magnifying lens, they are quite brilliant and colourful, and when investigated further shows that the sands are made up of materials from across the valley and surrounding ranges. The sand also contains black magnetite which can play havoc with compasses at some areas of the dunes. When the ranger spoke of this area at “Who Dunnt?” she also mentioned that formation was reliant upon an uplift to form the Sange de Cristi range and volcanic activity to form the San Juan, as well as the La Garita Super Volcano.

Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

The dunes are important to the local indigenous populations; the Utes called them “sowapophe-uvehe” (the land that moves back and forth) and the Apaches “issei-nanyedi” ("it goes up and down.) Indigenous American groups are the only people currently allowed to remove material from the dunes.

In the evening the park offered a Raptor show thanks to the Nature and Raptor Centre of Pueblo, where they talked about and showed us a a Golden Eagle, a Great Horned Owl, a Swainson’s Hawk. The organisation provides education about and rehabilitation for birds of prey.

Golden Eagle from Nature and Raptor Centre, Pueblo, ColoradoGreat Horned Owl  from Nature and Raptor Centre, Pueblo, Colorado

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