The Role of the Newport River in Shaping the Upper Newport Bay

The Upper Newport Bay looking east, with Saddleback in the distance.

When I was a child, I was briefly instructed in the geological history of the Newport mesa in elementary school. Costa Mesa was once two places: a settlement called Harper, named after Gregory Harper, a grain farmer, and the town of Fairview, which was famed for its hot mineral baths. They failed after an earthquake stopped the flow of hot water. In 1920, when civic boosters decided to get serious about city building, they renamed the place Costa Mesa in recognition of its geological structure. The name means “tableland on the coast.”

That was about all I knew: that I lived on a tableland on the coast, about 100 feet above sea level. The history of Newport Bay, both its upper and lower parts, was not taught. Maybe this was because the natural history of the lower bay had been obliterated and the future of the upper bay was still being debated.

That changed after 1973, when I was in third grade. A twelve-year battle between conservationists Frank and Fran Robinson, the state, and the bay’s landlord, the Irvine Company, concluded. The Robinsons won. The bay’s waters, tidal marshes and uplands, were saved from becoming a monotonous urban landscape made of boat slips, rip-rap, yachts, and bay fill. The preservation of the Upper Newport Bay ensured that the bluffs and the bay that were created long ago, by forces mightier than even the most influential Newport Beach developer, stayed reasonably intact.

The mighty force that carved the river canyon and delta of the Upper Newport Bay may have been a river that doesn’t exist any longer, according to Ivan P. Colburn, Emeritus Professor of Geology, California State University, Los Angeles. He gave this “antecedent” river a name: the Newport River. In a talk he gave for the Society For Sedimentary Geology (SEPM), at their Western Regional Joint Meeting, in Long Beach in May 2003, and in a 2006 paper entitled “The Role of Antecedent Rivers in Shaping the Orange/Los Angeles Coastal Plain” Colburn says very plainly that he doesn’t think that the Santa Ana River made the Upper Newport Bay. Colburn theorized that the Newport River, fed by eleven tributary creeks and flowing west from a confluence formed by Peters Canyon, San Diego, and Sand Canyon creek, made the canyon that contains the Upper Newport Bay.

Colburn theorizes that the antecedent Newport River shoved its way through a changing landscape as tectonic forces lifted a ridge several hundred feet above the coastal plain. After passing this hurdle, the river made a capacious delta, which housed all the habitats of the current bay, including the friable marine terraces, the uplands, the tidal marshes, and the basin that the tides flow in, and out of.

(Today, the tidal process is often so unhurried that the footprints of raccoons and other foraging mammals are left undisturbed and can be seen inches under the water at low tide, clearly imprinted in the grey marsh mud.)

The Santa Ana river in its floodplain.

In Colburn’s telling of the making of the Orange and Los Angeles coastal plain, the Newport River was one of six “ephemeral” rivers that ran during the interglacial Sangamon age, 125,000 to 75,000 years ago. At that time, the climate hit the pause button between periods of glaciation. Water coursed down from the San Gabriel, San Bernardino and Santa Ana mountain ranges, and from the stumpy little hills scattered among the Los Angeles basin: Puente, Coyote, Repetto, Elysian and San Jose Hills. The six ancestral rivers dribbled and flowed down, and then snaked onto the basin that Los Angeles County sits on top of, creating a series of deltas much further inland and much higher. Sea level was about 100 feet higher than it is now.

These six rivers multi-tasked as they descended, carrying rock and sediment from the mountains and hills that got dumped whenever the flow of the rivers was checked, both taking from and giving to the earth, as all rivers do. This created the Los Angeles Basin where later extractive industries flourished, like the petroleum and the film industries.

The Sangamon age gave way to the Wisconsinan age, 75,000–11,000 years ago, the last glacial period before the Holocene, the age we live in now. The transition between a very warm age to a very cold one, trapped the water in ice. The coastline accordingly withdrew. At about 17,000 years ago, the coast of Los Angeles County was about eight miles away from the Port of Long Beach.

Some water became more available. The Wisconsinan age was glaciopluvial, meaning that there was much more rain. Southern California had a climate that was “comparable to the Pacific Northwest,” according to Colburn, and may have received over 80 inches of rain annually. This turned the ephemeral creeks and streams into rivers, giving them more erosive power than they’d ever had.

The power these rivers had is still visible. Imagine that you’re standing on the west bluff of the Upper Newport Bay. Looking east, you see Saddleback, with its twin peaks. (If you’re lucky, the moon is full and the sky is clear.) Directly in front of you is Eastbluff. Looking down, you see roughly 100 feet of eroded cliff, with cactus digging itself into the loose soil. Put your eyes in the back of your head, and travel west on 23rd Street, past Irvine, Santa Ana, and Orange avenues, to Newport Boulevard. Now you’re crossing into Westside Costa Mesa, the former working class neighborhood with the city’s only grange hall, now classed up with high-density condos.

Travel down Victoria Street, still heading west, until you stand on the Victoria Street overpass. What is it over passing, exactly? Why, the west side of the Newport mesa. You have just traveled between two points in an ancient landscape, from the water gap carved by the Newport River to the water gap made by the Santa Ana River.

1935 quadrangle (cropped) of the Newport Mesa

There is no natural might that goes unchecked. Even as the Wisconsinan rain was swelling the rivers and watering the coastal plain, the earth kept its hand in, too. The Newport-Inglewood Fault, which was responsible for breaking my grandmother’s china in the late eighties, was active during this late stage in the Pleistocene era. It ruptured, producing a ridge, the Newport-Inglewood Ridge, presenting a challenge to the rain-engorged rivers. Before this, when the climate was drier, their deltas were further inland and easier to reach. But the rising ridge, which ran from the Santa Monica Mountains to the San Joaquin Hills, posed a threat to the free movement of the water.

The rivers, Colburn says, had great power of their own. They could move the earth, if not the heavens, and “entrench” themselves inside their beds, and flow at rapid speeds, too. So they did. Five of the rivers—the Los Angeles, San Gabriel, Bolsa Chica, Santa Ana and Newport rivers—bum-rushed the upwarping ridge that threatened to trap them inside the Los Angeles Basin. They were able to match in speed and might the rising earth because of their velocity and scouring power. They lengthened and deepened their beds to bring themselves into equilibrium with the new location and level of the ocean. And this made all the difference.

The ridge was transected, leaving behind water gaps and mesas where the water did not surmount the ridge. This explains the Dominguez and Signal hills, which always looked sadly orphaned to me, as I flashed past them on the 405 freeway as a child. They are mesas that were formed during this period. So are the Bixby Knolls in Long Beach and Landing Hill in Seal Beach. Only the Los Cerritos River did not make it. It became a wetland, and ultimately suffered the indignity that many wetlands in the 20th century suffered at the hands of private landowners and commercial interests.

Ivan P. Colburn’s rendering of the location of the water gap channels on the LA/Orange County coastal plain.

The Newport River did make it. Colburn estimates that its drainage basin was 260 square miles, and its length, 20 miles. But this power came with a trade off: the entrenchment that allowed the rivers to drop to new sea levels, and allowed for higher volumes of water in their beds, also demanded a new commitment from the rivers to stay put.

Rivers wander; watch a rivulet of water run down a window someday, and you’ll see in miniature the motion of a meandering river. Geologists other than Colburn have supposed that the Santa Ana River wiggled back and forth between its normal course, cutting not only the Santa Ana water gap between Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach, but the Newport water gap, too. This is the going theory and is, today, widely accepted. An oft-quoted study entitled “Marshlands at Newport Bay” published in 1958 by scientists R.E. Stevenson and K.O. Emery, was influential in shaping theories about how the Upper Newport Bay was formed; it’s cited in the city’s “Upper Newport Bay Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study, Environmental Impact Statement,” published in 2000, and appears in the footnotes of dozens of articles in scientific journals.

This is where Colburn departs from his peers. “The geologic reasoning needed to support these assertions was not included in the articles,” he states, going onto to assert that the antecedent rivers were straight-jacketed by their deeply incised beds, making this sort of riverbed-hopping impossible for them to do. Stevenson and Emery are not the only scientists to favor this theory; Colburn quotes two other papers that theorize that the Santa Ana River created not one, not two, but no less than four water gaps between Los Angeles and Orange counties. This is a lot of work for one river, no matter how much water is propelling it across a plain.

Colburn’s research is quoted mistakenly in the current version of the Wikipedia article for the Santa Ana River: his idea that the Santa Ana River didn’t create either the Newport water gap, or the Upper Newport Bay, is ignored in favor of retaining the Santa-Ana-River-did-it-all theory.

He doesn’t take issue with the role of the Santa Ana river in the making of the Newport sandbar/peninsula and its ephemeral mudflats, which became Linda, Lido, Bay, Balboa and Harbor islands. The lower bay is younger than its sister embayment. Colburn allows that the “anecdotal” reports of the Santa Ana River flooding in the 19th century and entering the head of the upper bay through the entrance created by the Newport River are probable. Since there was more water in the oceans after the glaciers melted, saltwater intruded at least 2 miles up the river channel, slowing the rivers, which caused them to drop sediment further inland from the coast, raising their beds.

If the rivers ran their courses at the time the ridge was rising, it follows (if I understand Colburn’s argument) that the depth of the bed and the volume of water had to be deep enough, full enough, and fast enough to beat the uprising earth at its own game. Leaving its bed and weaving laterally over the plain to make more than one gap was not possible, Colburn states. And that’s where he leaves things.

It’s hard to visualize the kind of titanic power Orange County’s creeks had when they joined forces. Today, the Upper Newport Bay has only one major source of fresh water, San Diego Creek. The rest of Orange County’s creeks are contained in culverts. This keeps them from knowing each other as they did back in the good old glaciopluvial days when their polyamorous nature—creeks and streams like to take many partners—created a river.

The 23rd street creek in late afternoon, as it drains into the Upper Newport Bay.

Colburn’s research on the antecedent rivers is hypothetical, and this paper, as far as I can tell, was unpublished and has not been peer-reviewed, although other papers have. His work as a sedimentary geologist has been rewarded–and lauded–by his peers, most notably in 2017, when he received the 2016 A.E. Fritsche Lifetime Achievement Award “for his accomplishments to California geology” from the Pacific Section of SEPM.

If you want to see a remnant of the awesome geological past of the Newport Mesa, go to the Upper Newport bay, and scramble down the eroded sides of the 23rd street creek, which comes out of a culvert at the foot of 23rd street where it hits Irvine Avenue. The creek delivers urban runoff from the surrounding streets to the bay.  Sometime before 1952, that creek and what is now called Cherry Lake, which was once a 40-foot deep spring-fed ravine, supplied fresh water to the Upper Newport bay. Both are both artifacts of an old hydrological system that was spread along the northwest bluff between Santiago Drive and Santa Isabel Avenue. All of it is gone, replaced by modern modes of place-making, like landscaping and the wholesale containment of natural systems, which—should they roar to life, unexpectedly—may yet surprise us all with their ancestral, epochal determination to create.

San Francisco, June 11, 2018. Dedicated to Lizann Bassham, 1959-2018, a mighty work of creation, indeed, and a lover of humanity and nature.
Elizabeth Ann Bassham, 1959-2018

The study “Marshlands at Newport Bay, California.” by R.E.Stevenson, and K.O. Emery, is available from the Allan Hancock Foundation Occasional Papers at the University of Southern California:  
Let me know if you order it.
With thanks to Professor Ivan P. Colburn for writing something a citizen scientist could read and learn from. Here’s a list of his published articles, as archived by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists

Chronicles of Ubo: Pirate Cove, Big Corona, Newport Beach, California

Looking west/northwest at Pirate Cove
Looking west/northwest at Pirate Cove

Today, I biked across the Newport mesa to Pirate Cove. I go there like a homing pigeon now that I’m older and more cautious about waves and the ocean’s temperament. The ocean is usually pretty mellow at Big Corona. This is by design, of course. The Army Corps of Engineers did a lot of work to calm her down back in the thirties. Still, the ocean always has a temperament, and today, it was a bit feisty.

The first thing I saw as I stepped onto the sand was a used plastic tampon. I see, I thought. The ocean is having female problems today. I walked down to the shoreline.

A used plastic tampon left on Big Corona's beach
A used plastic tampon left on Big Corona’s beach

A grey whale was nosing around looking for food a few yards away from the end of the south jetty. People were standing with their hands on their hips, looking entranced but concerned. (Their body language seemed to suggest they were worried the whale didn’t know what it was doing.)

Seagulls fought over the litter left on the sand. I walked towards the water. My first inkling that maybe this wasn’t the day for a swim was the layer of rocky detritus lining the littoral zone. Rocks and shells banged around my ankles, forming a dark line along the zone: it was as if the ocean was daring me to step into it. The waves were glassy green tubes with faces of just about 4 to maybe 5 feet, breaking in steady intervals. The waves weren’t huge, but they had a decisiveness to them that unnerved me. How you doing, mama? I murmured like Barry White to the ocean. I’m just here to have fun. Nothing big. It’s your party. I just want in for a while. I went in and instantly felt the hard suck of the undertow. I got it. It wasn’t in the mood. It wasn’t screaming get out of my room, but neither was it inviting me in. The tide was coming in and the ocean was just doing its own thing. I got my stuff, and proceeded to Pirate’s Cove. I should have just gone there first, I thought.

Pirate Cove is starboard as you enter the Newport Harbor, and is notable for its sandstone cliffs, or bluffs which I assume gave the beach its name. The crown of sandstone and a line of rocks creates a curvy little cove, that has a small beach which totally disappears during very high tides or storms. Pirate Cove became a fixed point in a shifting marine environment sometime in the 30’s because of human engineering: there is a south jetty and a north jetty, both of which were put into place during the Roosevelt administration. The Public Works Administration accomplished what all the private money in Newport couldn’t, namely, building jetties that were stable and stayed put through fierce winter storms. (Yes, Newport has fierce winter storms.) The jetties formalized the harbor entrance: how the entrance was determined way back before the jetties were built is kind of unclear. I think it was a moving target. The bay, left to its own devices, periodically developed sandbars. Some of that topography still feels present, even after years of dredging. The small beach is shallow with a really changeable floor with waves and dips that demonstrate its dynamic response to the tide. I instinctively feel that some of the sandbars must have extended from where the small beach was.

Annotated map of the Newport bay river delta, circa 1915? Photo courtesy of Douglas Westfall

Pirate Cove was derided when I was growing up as a beach for losers or babies or both. Cool kids didn’t swim in the bay in the sixties or seventies. There were some good reasons for this: the bay, even near the mouth, was nasty. The water quality sucked. Too many boats, too many damn houses, too much urban runoff with too much crap in it: too much of everything really, conspired to give Pirate Cove a dubious reputation. That was then. It is now, and has been for some time, an absolutely beautiful little beach, a little gem with smooth sand and mostly beautiful water. Sometimes, though, it get a little bay-y. Often there is plastic crap that floats in the water. And it has more litter than it did when I was growing up.

And it has a cave.

A still from DW Griffith's silent film 'Macbeth", which was filmed on location at Pirate Cove.  Photo from "Corona Del Mar - My Kind of Town", written by Douglas Westfall.
A still from D.W. Griffith’s silent film ‘Macbeth”, which was filmed on location at Pirate Cove. Photo from “Corona Del Mar – My Kind of Town”, written by Douglas Westfall.

The cave looms large in my memory because of an offhanded remark by my dad. It’s located under a shelf of overhanging sandstone and is no more than a slit, like a downturned mouth. There are impressively old-looking rusted iron bars that block the entrance. I have no idea where the cave goes, if it goes anywhere. Does it burrow underground, through a secret passage and out to sea? Does it deepen and widen into a beautiful grotto, where opal green anemones and purple sea urchins cluster? All I’ve ever been able to see behind the rusted iron bars is an impressive collection of beer bottles and litter that gets pushed in with every high tide. I think the bars only keep people out, not litter (which is a pity.)


Dad, I asked when I was very small, maybe 4 or 5 years old. What is that? I pointed to the dark slit in the rock.
It’s a cave, he replied.
Why are there bars on it?
To keep people out. It’s dangerous.

And then he told me in words unremembered by me, but with an emphasis that carried the message explicitly, that teenagers used to party in the cave and then one day the tide came in and they all drowned. I gaped. I looked at the cave and imagined the long blonde hair, the smell of Coppertone, the flashing white teeth, the puka shells encircling the tanned necks of the heedless teenagers WHO WERE PARTYING. AND WHO DROWNED. Did they know what was happening? OR WERE THEY ON DRUGS? In any case, I believed my dad. Weird things were happening to teenagers in the late sixties and early seventies. The beach was sunny and so was the rest of Southern California, but there was darkness, too, if you knew where to look. The cave was dark, and The Teenagers ( I could never think of them any other way) had crawled into its darkness to do bad things. The lesson I took from this ghosty story was: Don’t party, especially in beach caves and you’ll be fine. This didn’t stop me from partying and doing drugs in beach caves when I was a heedless teenager, but I was responsible. I chose Little Corona because those caves were not flush with the waterline. None of my friends ever drowned. SAM_4539

The wonderful thing about Pirate Cove is the rock, that pliable, friable sandstone and sedimentary rock made of thousands of geologic years of compressed sand, clay and the chitinous exoskeletons of tiny sea creatures.  The bluffs are gorgeous— golden yellow in the late afternoon sun— and fragile. The tawny sandstone has been carved and whittled down by the ocean, the wind and the rain over thousands of years. It’s easy to gain a toehold in the round hollows of the stone crown of Pirates Cove because of years and years of beach goers swarming up and down it. It’s also easy to fall off of it.

I fell, once. I was there with my Girl Scout troop. In my recollection, I was up very high and then suddenly I was down on the sand with the wind knocked out of me. My pain was equal to the chagrin I felt. There’s no dignity to falling, especially when you’re wearing a green Girl Scout sash with no badges sewn onto it. (I was a unambitious girl scout who didn’t understand the whole badge thing. I was supposed to want one, but getting one involved doing things with people. I liked to read.)

The cliffs of Pirate Cove.

Today I scramble up and down the cliffs (cautiously) and wonder how much longer they’ll be around. The bluffs must be the barest nub of what they once were. It’s now listed on climbing sites as a place with “juggy” and “greasy” cliffs: I have no idea what this terminology means, but I assume that climbers clambering up the sides is going to be a factor in its eventual erosion. SAM_4535

The city of Newport Beach, ever concerned with the quality of life in Newport, keeps an eagle eye out for the potential dangers of living along the coast of Newport. The report “Safety Element” which is part of the city’s general plan, takes pains to detail exactly how the shit might hit the fan in the serene and sunny city of Newport Beach. There’s an assortment of big waves that could erode beaches and ocean bluffs: tsunamis, rogue waves and storm surges are all mentioned as actors in the future of Pirate Cove and other ocean bluffs. Local tsunamis, are apparently enough of a potential reality to be discussed in this document. “Modeling off the Santa Barbara coast suggests that locally generated tsunamis can cause waves between 2 and 20 meters (6to 60 feet) high…” That could do it; that would wash some of that beautiful sandstone away. You’ll be comforted to know, by the way, that foreign tsunamis coming in from the south— say, Chile— take at least 12 hours to arrive in Newport Beach, which is plenty to get the hell out. If I’m at Pirate Cove when the call comes to flee a Chilean Tsunami, I plan on taking the Tsunami evacuation zone on Dover. I think Jamboree will be really crowded. And who wants to be in a panic on Jamboree Road? Pas moi.

Given the concern over super storms that climate change is expected to trigger and the fact that the Balboa Peninsula and Big Corona get really big surf every summer because of storms in the southern hemisphere, it’s anyone’s guess what will erode the cliffs the most, or first. Rodentia, burrowing away in bluffs? Maybe. Seismically induced slope failure caused by a strong earthquake on the Newport Inglewood fault? Back in the nineties, a mild earthquake on this fault shattered my grandmother’s china in Newport Heights. Just think of what it would do to Pirate Cove.


Today, it was untroubled, except by climbers dusting their hands with chalk and looking speculatively at the sheer wall. Someone had left an open can of pickled jalapeno peppers (really?) for someone else to throw away. I saw the can as I was taking a picture of the Haunted Cave of The Teenagers. I snapped my picture and then prissily picked up the can and carried it to the trashcan up the stairs, making sure that everyone on the beach could see me do this. (I hate litter and I go into rages when I find it.) Boastful men stood on the rock that’s just to the left of the now unused lifeguard’s chair; in silhouette, they looked like Douglas Tilden bronze statues until they jumped, with clownish bravado, into the clear green water of the bay.

This is actually looking west out the harbor mouth.

Sometimes the wealthy residents of Corona del Mar complain about the popularity of Big Corona and Pirate Cove, and I understand some (but, for sure, only some)of their discomfort. The litter— I can’t say this enough—is bad and seems to have gotten worse. I think because of this and the increased density in general, the fire rings suddenly became suspect three years ago and almost got completely banned. The fire rings are public resources. That is, I believe, their actual classification. Banning them was a step towards making the beach less accessible, less desirable to the masses. There are more people in Orange County now, and hence there are more people at the beach. I’ve never trusted the wealth in Newport Beach, nor have I ever liked the drive to privatize. What would it take for homeowners to try to shut down Pirate Cove? I doubt it will happen- it’s a city beach- but if it could happen anywhere in California, with its old tradition of public access for all beaches, it could happen in Newport Beach.


I’m okay with the bars over the cave. I don’t need access to it. But I would be destroyed if there was no access to Pirate Cove. I’m not sure why I thought about that, looking at the cave and the garish red can of pickled peppers sitting in the sand next to it. The beach is loved and used and littered and battered over and over again with people, with wind, with rain and possibly in the future by ARKstorms, great mega-storms which will bear down on the little beach and its proud crown of sedimentary rock. There are always forces at work (I guess) to limit, to bar, to change. I hope this part of my world and the California coast survives most of them.


 Many thanks to Douglas Westfall, the author of two books I plan on reading: “Corona Del Mar – My Kind of Town” and “The Costa Mesa Bluffs”.


Never leave

waveNever leave.

Ah, the beach dream, the oldest and most frequently recurring dream I have. I had it last night after a long week of disorienting sadness. The dream involves a tossing grey ocean, and a steep, sandy bank.

Am I in the ocean? Sometimes.
Am I trying to get away from/out of the ocean?  Yes. That’s where the steep sandy bank comes in.

What’s interesting about this dream is that it’s based in reality. The south-facing beaches of the city of Newport Beach are built up; highly engineered. Back in the day, by which I mean anywhere from 10 BCE on, the ancestor of the Santa Ana River ran all over the Tustin Plain, in that wavery way water has, but with force because of the tremendous amount of water in its riverine column. By and by, it incised its bank so deeply that it couldn’t wander the way it used to. The river built its own prison, in a manner of speaking and, until it was disturbed again by men from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and entombed in a box culvert, stuck, more or less, to one route. After a flood in 1825, the river carved a water gap through the chalky, wave-cut bluffs of what would become Newport Beach, and began work on its last creation: an estuary, and a peninsular structure. The former was later called the Newport Harbor, after the estuary was dredged and turned into a commercial, deep-water harbor. The latter structure became the Balboa Peninsula. The water shouldered its way through the estuary, took a right-ish turn under a rock formation, now called Pirate Cove, and flowed out to sea.

I mention all this geological history because forceful nature, and later civil engineering, made my dream vocabulary. The meandering river, shaped by its own forces and later by the busy hands of men, gave me a symbol, a picture with which to express to myself the very image of anticipation, fascination, immersion and abject fear. When I dream about the tossing grey sea and the steep bank, they are so perfectly posed next to each other that I see them in my waking hours almost as a woodcut image of curvilinear shapes and a straight lines. I could, perhaps, make a pictograph of this and hang it on my wall to remind me of what I always seem to do in that dream (and probably in my waking life): confronting a force which is much bigger and more powerful than I.

Newport storm eroison
Photo Courtesy of Newport Mesa


The peninsula was later augmented and built up by the dredged mud and sand of the estuary which was dumped on the sand-spit beaches, making them wider and longer. Buttressed by a jetty at the harbor mouth and a few fishing piers, the beaches held onto their allotment of sand, and, with a few exceptions, did not erode. But the engineers of the beach left their signature: a steeply graded, littoral zone. The grade of the beaches is wholly artificial and the ocean has never reconciled itself to this new arrangement. How steep these zones are depends on how roughly the sea is thrashing. Closer to the Newport Pier, the approach is moderate. But in front of Newport Elementary, the step you take from the dry sand onto the wet shore, can be 2 to 3 feet down.

The waves on these south-facing beaches are typically 3 to 5 feet. The waves form in deep water and then break against that engineered shore line, cutting and slapping away the sand. This makes for a shore-break that is tough to contend with. The waves smack you down when you enter the water, as if in outrage at your trespass. When you leave the water, the grasping suck of the undertow grabs you by the waist. With the full weight of the ocean pulling on you, you walk out of the water only to encounter a wall of sand. The ground underfoot is treacherous and shifts. You sink, ever so slightly, into the sand.

All sorts of dreams combine in this charged moment: the dream of the ocean that the river followed, as it murmured and sank ever deeper into its banks and the dreams of the 20th century’s big-minded civil engineers who tunneled under mountains and built cities on sand-spits. Standing in the grey water of the dream-ocean, the greedy water pleads with you to never leave. Never Leave.

This is the dream.


The ditch: an excerpt from “The Mystery of Cherry Lake.”

OC Register photo of South Coast Plaza construction the evolution of the Orange County Flood Control District’s (OCFCD) Hydrology Manual.


The Paulerino flood channel is a tributary flood drain to the Delhi Channel, and it drains urban runoff from Costa Mesa. The channel threads its stealthy way through the margins of the residential and commercial districts of Costa Mesa, including the first neighborhood that our family lived in, which was still too new and perhaps too working-class to have a name, unlike the neighborhood to the west that my family moved to in 1973, the glamorously named “Mesa Del Mar.”

Back then, in the slightly downtrodden tract, the Paulerino Channel passed right behind the houses down the street. We’d access it through the schoolyard of St John the Baptist, the private Catholic school two blocks over. We called it “the ditch”. We didn’t understand that it had been put there for our own good. We had never seen the ditch full or even half full. There was only the dark oozy water slowly tricking through the concrete channel, making sullen puddles here and there. It was a terrible place.

Paulerino Channel

We weren’t supposed to go there. “Don’t go to the ditch,” my Mother said, and so we went to the ditch on Saturdays and Sundays when we had exhausted every other diversion available to us. It was such an unlovely noisome place, with its fetid water, which had to be anoxic and incapable of supporting life. Even the lure of our own covert activities faded as soon as we shinnied down the sides of the chain-link fence. It was uninspiring. Shopping carts had been pushed down the sides, landing sideways in the weeds. Cigarette butts littered the ground. There weren’t even any crumpled condoms down there. No one used it for anything. It was a wasteland where no one met, as far as we could tell, to hold hands and rediscover their pasts.

And yet, there was life, as there always is on this earth. There would sometimes be tadpoles wriggling around frenetically, darting through the scant column of water and hiding from us nosey children in the puddles, in the thick cottony algae. I was too young to understand the relationship between the ocean and the engineered system of flood control and didn’t know that the Bay was a pit stop for all water in Orange County on its way to the ocean. The tadpoles knew there was country ahead. They had a destination. The great swamp-city of the Upper Newport Bay awaited them, if they could just stay one step ahead of my harassing hands, the lack of water and the occasional predator. If they were lucky, they would end their lives as full-grown amphibians, foodstuff for great blue herons and cranes or living in peace on their own terms, reproducing and croaking their throaty songs in the salt marshes. It was hopefully a good home for them; their natural home.


Many years later, at my Mother’s house, I thought of the ditch. California had been forecast by NOAA to have an El Nino winter, and then, with its bureaucratic face turned questioningly to sky, NOAA revised the prediction into another prediction which was so conditional, it was hard to remember exactly what they were predicting.  The little boy was nowhere to be seen, said, NOAA. So don’t expect much water. And we might have a warmer winter than was expected.  This was unsettling. Orange County was in its third year of drought and California’s snow pack had been at 40% of its normal capacity the year before.

So, I was thinking about water and where I saw it growing up. Not the water in the ocean, but fresh water, the magic water, the water that was and never was, elusive, sparkling fresh water contained in creeks, streams, ponds lakes. Water that other people in different places saw and felt on their skin when they immersed themselves in these magic places that held water and had not been turned into concrete representations of themselves.

howl@the moon

My brother was in the backyard, chopping down trees and pruning shrubs. The cat was on the roof. I was standing in my old bedroom looking out. I said “Hey, Jim. You know that ditch that runs behind St. Johns?”

“Yeah? What about it?” He threw his pruning saw down and crossed to the window. The sun was setting and the lavender glow of twilight illuminated his face. The close-cropped lawn of St. Augustine grass glowed a feverish green.

I said, almost irritably, “What is that? Is that really a tributary stream of the Santa Ana River? Is it a creek?”

“No,” Jim said. “That’s just a flood channel. But I’ll tell you where a spring-fed lake is, right around the corner.’ And he did.

(with thanks to Paul Weller.)

Meeting Epona at the Pile of Rocks Ranch

Note: WordPress’s conventions don’t allow for much flexibility, I find. Although this blog is authored and maintained by me, I do accept guest authors sometimes. The below story was written by my sister Emily Creely. This is Emily’s story, voice and experience.

I grew up in the suburban, modern West, a hard place to locate divinity. The only wide open spaces left seem to be located on the sites of former military bases, or in rugged, inaccessible areas. My paternal predecessors traveled, lived and died in a California that was characterized by open space interrupted by small towns and settlements that were even then sites of land speculation, and subsequent development. But when my paternal grandparents Mr. and Mrs. Bunster Creely arrived in Newport Beach, Southern California was still relatively untouched.

Mr. and Mrs. Bunster Creely standing in the Upper Newport Bay, Newport Beach, Ca, circa 1948.

Our grandparents left Northern California for the southern part in the state in 1928 motivated by cheap land and a desire to escape my grandmother’s over-bearing mother. They started a new life in arid Southern California. What they brought with them aside from the desire to start their married life in a different place, was a love of Equus ferus caballus, otherwise known as the horse. Horses weren’t merely animals, and they were not status symbols. They weren’t used for their muscles as a tool of work. They were something a bit more meaningful.

My parents weren’t churchgoers and my siblings and I were not baptized. We did not have King James Bible in our home. What we had was a book entitled “The Horse in the West.” That 1960s-era, brown leather book was my sacred text. I suppose if I had to describe my belief system as a child, it was this: the horse was a god and god was a horse. The relationship with a horse was as close as I could come to achieving grace.

Our aunt, Cerini Creely, her friend Jane Elliot and their horses after a ride in the Upper Newport Bay, Newport Beach, CA

Less than 80 years ago, coastal Orange County was a small collection of towns fringed by orange groves, and further out, sagebrush, oak woodlands and vernal pools. What is now home to million-dollar houses was once a sandy delta near the Pacific Ocean. It’s here that my father and grandfather hunted rabbit and my Aunt Cerini rode horses. As a teenager growing up in Newport Beach, Cerini would walk across the street in the morning, slip a halter around her horse’s neck, and ride bareback through a field that led to Newport Harbor High School, a mile away.

Cerini at play, near Irvine Avenue and 22nd Street, Newport Beach (ca 1948)

To me, this seemed incredible, something reserved for immortals or for the very wealthy. Cerini was an Eponist, an adept in the equine arts, a latter-day priestess of Epona the Celtic-Romano goddess. I wanted what my aunt had: the availability of land and a relationship with a horse, any horse. I wanted to aspect Epona. I hadn’t heard of Epona- this came later-yet I understood that what I wanted was this: to be among horses.

The Gaulish-Romano goddess, Epona. Figure found in Champoulet, France

In 1984, I got my chance. I was told by my step-aunt that she had a friend who needed help with her seventeen horses. The details trickled in over the next two months, changing each time. At first, the friend, whose name was Christine, claimed she needed an “intern”. It became clear after many vague messages that the position more closely resembled indentured servitude. My mother’s bullshit meter hit red and she started to get angry when the subject was raised. Mom wanted to tell the woman to look for another servant, and that “not no, but hell no!” was she sending her 14- year old daughter to a ranch that was 2 hours away and had no phone and no running water, “God knows what else is going on,” my Mother said. But it was decided that I could stay with the mysterious woman and her horses.

Years later, I learned that my father gently, but firmly told my mother that I was going.

The day they drove me out to Christine’s ranch, my mother was quiet and on edge. She had no idea where we were going. None of us had any sense of the area we were driving into. The geography of California south-east of Los Angeles is high desert, and home to about ten minor mountain ranges that descend into rocky and barren lowlands. The ranch was located in the Gavilan Hills, in Riverside County, an under-populated county east of the coast of Southern California. Riverside County was unlovely and thus largely unknown. My parents who had lived and explored Southern California for years could not picture where the ranch was located. “Gavilan Hills? Where the hell is that?” my mother asked. No one knew.

The Gavilan Hills, Riverside County, California

We exited Interstate 15, just north of Lake Elsinore, a lake town characterized by bikers, retirees and hippies, and turned east toward the beige hills opposite the lake. Within a mile or two, the paved road turned to hard-packed dirt as it climbed up and around small hollers of mobile homes. We sat quietly in the car except for my mother. “Jesus Christ,” she muttered under her breath. “Jesus Christ.” She glared at my father, who stayed silent. I tensed up, expecting this trip to be vetoed at the last minute. I was not turned off by the area. I was itching to get out and explore.

From USGS quad map ‘Gavilan Hills” Lat 33.76425° (N) Long 117.33659° (W)

We made a sharp turn and drove into a flat opening that was surrounded on all sides by the detritus of the mountain: rocks, more rocks and rocky outcroppings. My father took a tight turn and there it was: the ranch. On the left was two trailers. One was a luxury horse trailer configured so that the living space was half of the unit and the other half storage space. The other trailer was a pop-up camper that had seen better days.

“This should be called Pile of Rocks Ranch,” said my Dad. I didn’t say anything. All I could see was the glorious flesh of seventeen beautiful horses. Within minutes, I was able to answer a question that had been my only concern: the horses looked well cared for. I exhaled. My mother looked appalled. My father turned off the engine and looked at me. He had a look on his face that took me a moment to identify. It was envy. He put his arm around my mom’s shoulder and gave it a small squeeze.

We were greeted by the owner of the newly-dubbed Pile of Rocks Ranch, Christine. She was striking woman with long thick brown hair. Behind her stood a large, quiet man with slicked back black hair, her husband. He had the energy of a wary animal.

Christine was fit, tan and had a gypsy air about her. She took the three of us on a tour of the ranch and introduced each horse to my father and I, which we thoroughly enjoyed. My mother, who was untouched by the wild Eponist spirit of the Creelys’, trailed behind us. She didn’t like Christine. “I didn’t feel welcome by her,” she said later. “She didn’t like people.” My parents finally left: one envious and one grudging. I was left alone with Christine and her 17 horses.

My living quarters were Spartan: The trailer smelled of pine sol, semi-dry horse manure, and dust. My toilet was a bucket with a lid covering the opening. I emptied it before I went to sleep. I had a small cooler with a chunk of ice wedged in it. This was enough to keep my food from spoiling. My shower was a hose with a shower-head attached. It hung on a hook on the side of a shed next to my trailer. In the hottest part of the day, I would shower with water heated in the coils of the hose.

I had only camped once before in my life, as an 8-year old with my friend’s family in San Felipe Mexico, but never anything like this. And never for that long. It was possible that I could have been miserable, but I took that chance and found out that I loved being dirty, and working all day. I didn’t need the comforts of suburban existence.

The days began early, pre-dawn. We started by breaking flakes of alfalfa from huge bales and fed the horses, chatting with them. I learned to speak to horses with Christine. Then we cleaned the corrals. They were spotless. Then I’d push a wheelbarrow up a steeply sloping ramp that was nearly 20 feet tall. I’d dump fresh horse shit over a small hill of old manure. This manure composted and became bedding for the horses.

And then my lesson with the horses would begin. Picture a dirty woman wearing jeans with a tan so deep, her skin was like leather. Christine had the best tack for her horses: dressage saddles that cost thousands of dollars. The gear we put on the horse cost as much as a week’s worth of food. She taught me what double reins were for, and how to work them. I used my pinkies to communicate minute directions to the horse, via the bottom rein. Then we would let go of my training for a time and go for a trail ride. We enjoyed mutual silence and the lulling sound of eight hooves plowing through sand and over rock. This was what I was here for-for my moment on top of a horse, sharing its beauty, strength and grace.

We ate at sundown, when the flies had calmed, and the heat had settled. And then we slept. This was the rhythm of the time on the Pile of Rocks Ranch.

There were other people living on the rocky ranch among the seventeen horses: A elderly man whose name I never knew. He was a real cowboy with a sweet temper who had spent his life working cows, rodeos and the range. He had been injured in an unnamed accident which left an open sore on his hip. That had happened 30 years before. The wound never healed. The stench would hit you at 5 feet. He did odd jobs for Christine and she fed him three meals a day.

Christine’s daughter Dezi and Dezi’s son, C.J. also lived at the ranch. Dezi was full-figured, and filled up the room with her personality. She was tough and no-nonsense. I liked Dezi and her tow-haired 2-year old. Dezi enjoyed horses nearly as much as her mother, and was proud to share with me that she had ridden her horse up to the day before giving birth. (Her horse at that time was also pregnant.) She saw nothing wrong with her son being dirty.

But the horses…the horses. They were my focus and my passion, my idols and mentors. I loved a horse named Shiloh, a 15-hand grey gelding. The canvas above the shelf where I slept was torn wide open and opened over the corral fence. At night, as I lay looking at stars I normally couldn’t see, Shiloh would stick his head through the slash. The stars would wink out as the head of Shiloh silently nosed about until I reached out to touch his muzzle. Shiloh had been trained so well that I rode him with just the slightest pressure in my calves and thighs and slight cues with my hands on the reins. He smelled good, especially when I gave him a sponge bath. I loved the way his dirty white hide turned grey blue with water and smelled of musky horse muscles. Each evening, at sunset, I rode Shiloh a quarter mile to start the water pump and then back again at a full gallop along the twisty road that led to the ranch. I was till a novice rider. Even though I loved Shiloh’s power, I was still in awe of it. I fought to relax, to keep my eyes down the road where we were headed, and to enjoy the ride. Time slows down on the back of a horse.

Shiloh at dusk, Pile of Rocks ranch, Gavilan Hills, California.

Zalex was an Arabian Stallion that almost ripped my hand off. Christine taught me that I must never have my hand on the lead rope in any configuration other than a loop. “You can never let your guard down with a stallion,” she told me as she demonstrated the way to hold the stallion on a lead rope. To hold a lead rope in a circle, where a tight pull could cut your hand in half, was a no-no.

One day I took Zalex past a mare he’d seen a thousand times. But this time, he noticed her. Zalex lunged towards the mare which nearly lifted me off my feet. If I had been holding the rope differently, I would have lost my hand.

I let go of Zalex and watched in horrified fascination as he ran full tilt at the mare behind the pipes of the corral. He hit the metal bars full tilt, and banged again and again against the bars which clanged loudly. The mare whinnied wildly. Was she egging him on? Or was she as frightened as me? Christine ran out, grabbed the hose, cranked it at full blast and hit him in the face with the water. It worked. He came out from under the potent of the spell of the mare and his hormones and ran off. Christine looked at me.

“Are you okay?” she asked. She watched the sex-crazed horse, still running. “That was smart, girl. He could have killed you.”
“Are you scared he’s loose?” I asked shakily
“No. He’ll come back. When he does, he and I will talk. I’ll get him back where he belongs.”
Twenty minutes later, Zalex came ambling back. She walked up to him, stroked him soothingly, and reattached the lead. She led the horse away, speaking words of love, of acceptance for his wild equine nature.

The name of the mare that drove Zalex mad was Mary Gail. She was a purebred, high-strung Arabian who was gorgeous. She tossed her head like a diva. Not even Christine could break her of this annoying habit. I rode the mare with a special bridle called a running martingale. This kept her head in one place and her speed checked. I couldn’t relax on Mary Gail, but the power I felt under my butt and between my legs was astounding. I felt as if I were riding a locomotive. I loved riding her.

My dad, who had been trained in horsemanship by a World War I cavalry officer, visited me about two weeks later. We went for a ride. I put Dad on Shiloh and I rode Mary Gail. Father and daughter loped for a bit in the dusty hills. My father studied my hands, and the way I held the reins.
“I think you’re holding her head in way too much,” he said. “Let up a bit.”
I explained that if I did that, she’d start racing. “She’s like a car with the gas pedal stuck,” I said. He was not convinced.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll let the reins be looser. Try to keep up so you can see what’s going on with her.”

We started off. I took the brakes off Mary Gail and let her have her head. The column of her neck pulsed, and her head dropped. She hit three speeds in quick succession: a fast lope, a gallop and then a fast gallop. The hot wind hit my face and the ground became a blur under her churning hooves. I remember hoping she hadn’t totally outrun my Dad and placid Shiloh: he needed to see what Mary Gail was capable of. After a hundred yards, I collected her into a trot and then down to a walk. I turned around. He and Shiloh were galloping up. They drew abreast of me and the sweating horse. My Dad had a look of surprise on his face.

“Well kid, you were right,” my dad said. He was impressed. “I think you know more than your old man now.” We rode on. I glowed with happiness. His praise felt good. It wasn’t that I was right; it was that he respected my newly-acquired expertise. At the age of fifteen, I was his peer on horseback.

Christine and I took a final six-hour ride. We rode south from the property to a trail that traversed an area of the hills I hadn’t been to. We both led other horses. We were going to be picked up at the end of the trail, near the bottom of the hill by Dezi. Christine lent me chaps to wear and instructed me on how to properly lead another horse. No human settlement could be seen from the vantage point of the trail, which began at about 3,500 feet. We packed food and a lot of water. We passed through shade once or twice, under the enormous boughs of ancient oak trees somehow still miraculously left standing, survivors of the rampant tree-cutting of real estate developers and California’s annual fire season. It was dusty and hot, reaching 90 degrees outside.

There is a particular shade of beige unique to the dried grass found in California’s hill country: bleached-out and yellow. The color of the grass is matched by the yellow-tinged dirt of the trail. The profusion of tawny yellow is why I couldn’t see the mountain lion. We were alerted to its presence by the sudden change in the attitude of the horse I was leading, a young, green mare that suddenly started to panic.

Christine turned her head and looked at me. “Turn her loose,” she said. If I hadn’t just spent three weeks with this woman, I would never have done what I did so calmly. I reached over, grabbed the lead rope and pulled the mare’s head to me. I undid the latch on the halter. The mare turned tail and ran back to the ranch at a gallop.

“The mare will be fine,” said Christine. “Dezi’ll get her.” She was surveying our surroundings. We hadn’t actually seen the lion yet. We looked and finally saw it only when it moved. It was as dusty yellow as the grass and the dirt and was perched upon a large boulder. It looked our way. Everything seemed to stand still. The lion stretched like a massive house cat after its nap, and turned around, climbed down the boulder and walked away from us toward the nearest rise. Christine looked at me. She was smiling. “I was hoping that would happen,” she said. On her advice we waited five minutes and resumed our ride. We rode that day mostly in silence. I thought of my dad, my aunt and my grandpa. I was proud of being so comfortable in such a rough situation. I wished they could see me, so they could formally welcome me into their club, those people who knew California so intimately.

After three weeks, too soon for me, it was time to pack up my things and go. Christine was going to drop me at an ice cream shop in the town down the hill where I would wait for my folks. I have no memory of saying good-bye to anyone: Dezi, her son, the old man or the horses. I don’t recall much about leaving, except that we got to the ice cream store early. Christine didn’t wait with me for my parents to show up. I didn’t mind. My mother had a different reaction. When my parents drove up, and my mother realized they left me alone, I thought she would explode. “They left her on the side of the road! All by herself!” she told my sister indignantly. “I have never HEARD of such a thing!”

I got into the backseat and chattered the whole way home about my last three weeks. I was dirty and happy. With only a 5-minute shower every two days for three weeks, I had yellow dirt caked in every crease of my skin and I longed for a bath. And there was another thing I was looking forward to: I had something to brag about to my friends and sisters. I was in a state of grace with the dirt of California and horsehair pasted to my clothes to show for it. I had been initiated as a high priestess of horses. The Pile of Rocks Ranch was my bible camp and my faith was strong. As the youngest of five children, this mattered: I was something else now, resourceful, learned, and practiced. I was skilled. I knew things my siblings didn’t. The three weeks on the ranch had created a new level of intimacy between me and the horses and the California landscape. No Creely had ever done what I did. I had a piece of our family history that was all mine. I couldn’t be bossed around anymore.

I wish that I could go back in time and inscribe a laudatory dedication on one of the rocks to Christine, the Equine queen of the Gavilan Hills.

It would read: all hail to Epona, she who rides the divine mare, the goddess of the horse.  Hail Christine of the Pile of Rocks Ranch!

Emily Creely, October 8, 2012

Emily Creely on “Tarife” in Sutton, AK, 1999