By Hank Taylor
Going back several generations, camping and wilderness time was a tradition for our family and for many of our friends. In Utah, where most of us were raised, getting to a wilderness area was easy. Almost any open area you could see was available for hiking picnicking and camping. When we wished to perpetuate this kind of experience and tradition with our children in California, we found that almost all open space was fenced off, privately owned, and posted “No Trespassing.” Even the park lands had quite restrictive use, and most had entry fees.
Gene England, who was serving as my counselor in the bishopric of the Stanford Ward, and his wife Charlotte shared similar feelings to Colette and me that our families needed the kind of unrestricted outdoor experiences we enjoyed as we grew up. It was easy to find some like-minded friends, and in 1967–1968 the friends joined together and began searching for a wilderness property that our families could share. Those parents who joined us in this quest were Kent and Betsy Christensen, David and Sally Ellison, Jim and Sandy Ellsworth, Brooke and Sally Grant, Joe and Ruth Jeppson, Larry and Jewel Knight, Ken and Sandra Madsen, John K and Suzy Olsen, LeRoy and Vonda Porter, and Jack and Dixie Zenger.
The Santa Cruz Mountains were very close to us, as the crow flies, and had some beautiful possibilities. This group of friends reviewed availability and hiked over many properties in these mountains. Some were ranches with scattered structures, some had been used recreationally and were somewhat developed, some were simply raw land on ridges, some were in valleys, some heavily wooded, some high and dry, and some with streams or ponds.
Looking for just the right land was at least half of the fun. The other half was the meetings of the group when we had discussions on what we had seen, financing issues, what kind of organization structure we needed, or even what the name of the group, or the land should be. These were stimulating, uproarious debates that seldom came to any tangible conclusion.
Gene patiently tried to push us forward. We finally had narrowed our choices down to about five properties. In a group meeting we set about to choose one. I had carefully listed all of our objectives and the features the property should have. Systematically the group assigned number values to each characteristic for each property. When we added up the numbers the clear winner was a property which was quite small, right off the LaHonda highway, and that had been partly developed for recreation purposes.
As soon as the result of our careful analysis was visible all began to murmur. “That isn’t the property we want.” One by one the group came to the decision that what we really wanted was the 160 acres that lay along the north border of Portola State Park. It was not as accessible as other properties but it had a small stream (Bear Creek) running through it, massive virgin redwoods, huge Douglas fir, spruce, maple, oak, bay, madrone, ferns, mesquite, not an excessive amount of poison oak, pacific ocean views from the top, deep wooded valleys and lots of ups and downs with plenty of space. Wildlife was plentiful in the area. Deer, raccoons, wood rats, wildcats, wild boar, coyotes, many varieties of wild birds had all been spotted on the property.
On 1 April 1969, a formal partnership was formed, and three managing partners were designated: Henry D. Taylor, G. Eugene England, and John H. Zenger. At about the same time, the land was purchased from Waldo H. Leynse, who had shown us many of the properties we had looked at.
We named the property Bearmont after the Bear Creek which flowed from east to west through the property. The partnership was named Bearmont Associates. Somehow this name embarrassed Kathy England who was a young teenager at the time, and she always just called it “The Land.”
Early Use of the Property
Gene and Charlotte were both tireless workers and cheerleaders in the development process. Trails were constructed. Monkey bridges were built across Bear Creek. Camp circles were built, mothers warmed baby bottles over campfires, rustic tables were constructed from logs, ground was smoothed for sleeping bags, and the kids cut down dead trees with great excitement. We remember with fondness the many Saturday mornings—EARLY Saturday mornings—that Gene would knock on our door, some of his kids in hand, and shout , always with a big smile, “Who wants to go to Bearmont?! Hop in the car. We’re going now.”
We decided one day to put up a swing for the kids to use. Gene and I and a couple of other fathers crashed through the steep, dense mountain thickets of the property to find the right spot. We settled on a huge old madrone tree that was on edge of a sharp drop. In the drop below the tree was a broad, deep valley that was filled with giant ferns.
There were two challenges. First was a major clump of poison oak all around the base of the madrone. We chopped, hacked and cut this away, for which some of us paid the price of a bad reaction later. The next challenge was getting up to a very high, sturdy branch which got even further from the ground as you crawled out over the drop-off. Eventually a large steel screw eye was installed in the high branch, a thick rope was attached and the swing was operational. It gave a very long, exciting swing out over the valley of ferns.
Gene and Charlotte, particularly wanted to be able to leave some things, like pots, pans and tools at Bearmont for use when they were there. We decided that we needed to put gates at the three entry points to the property. Large farmyard-type gates were purchased. With much hard labor, large log posts were sunk into the roadsides, and the gates were hinged and combination locks installed with heavy chains. The gates were at points where one side of the road had been cut from the hill, creating a ten- to twenty-foot dirt wall on the left, with the right side a sheer drop to the valley below. This created no opportunities for anyone to drive around our new gates. Gene was pleased with the fine installation job that we did and felt that we were now secure.
On a later trip back to Bearmont, Gene spotted a pickup truck traveling to the southeast on one of the many mountain roads with a couple of gates on the back. Gene said, “Hmm, those look very familiar.” He followed the truck for a distance and then resumed the journey to Bearmont. Sure enough, two of our gates were gone, and the third had been rammed by some kind of sturdy vehicle.
We concluded two things. One was that our gate placement left no room for someone to turn around, angering the trapped traveler. Our second conclusion was that there is something about the wilderness that doesn’t like gates. No replacement gates ever went back up.
The water at Bearmont was in the stream at the lowest point on the property, while the most useable areas were 200 to 600 feet higher. Gene had seen that most of our neighbors had wells that were operational at the high points on their land. Pumping was required, but they had good flows all year round. So he got a well-driller to come up and walk our property, and we decided to drill beside our road below Zenger corner. The area was moist, which the well-driller liked, but after a fairly deep hole had been drilled all he got was dust.
Gene thought we should get a water witcher to find the spot for us and try again. I had little faith in that plan. In fact, I’d never been involved with a successful drilled hole—for water, oil, gas or anything else. I tended to believe in water when I could see it, and I had found a small secluded spring that flowed about a gallon per minute year round. It was about half way up our property in the fern valley under the swing we had installed. After consideration, Gene thought that the spring would be OK to develop because it would service the lower half of our property without pumping. This meant we could have water at our Redwood Grove and the nice redwood area where Bear Creek forked.
We bought a 500-gallon redwood tank kit, some concrete piers, some two-foot square chimney flues and some PVC pipe. Gene and I took some of our boys to Bearmont with the procured items. We assembled the redwood tank, built a collection/settling box with flues, cemented them in, and linked them together with the pipe.
To improve the flow and keep it clean, we dug a trench upstream about twenty feet and lined the bottom of the trench with concrete. I had ordered some 1-inch gravel and some pea gravel, and the supplier said they would deliver it to us for $15. A bargain! Charlotte and Colette went over very tough roads down to the gate at Portola State Park road to meet the truck driver and show him the way in.
While the women were gone, Gene and I built a log crib to hold the gravel. The crib was about thirty feet below the roadway. We figured if the gravel were carefully dropped off the edge of the road, it would fall and slide into our crib.
Meanwhile the women had met the truck driver at the State Park Road and told him to follow them. The road was little more than Cat Track, and the driver became increasingly nervous. After a bit, they came to an old bridge across Peter’s Creek. It was made of some large logs for support, with cross pieces to make the surface. The driver stopped and shook his head, “I don’t think it will hold.” The women assured him it would be OK, speaking confidently as if he would believe them. He got out of his truck and hiked down under the bridge and came out with a very worried look. With more encouragement, he started across. It didn’t sound good so he gunned it across as quickly as he could.
Just on the other side of the bridge, a very sharp left turn was required. In making that turn, he clipped off his air horn on a tree branch. This was a serious problem because it was connected to his air brake system and he wasn’t sure he had brakes now, or if he did that they would be reliable very much longer. The road then went up very steeply and was very narrow and rocky. He stopped several times, wiped the sweat from his brow, and asked if it was very much further. Each time he stopped, the women told him that they were getting pretty close now. Finally they arrived on the road above the fern valley and Charlotte said “Here we are.” He said, “What! We’re nowhere! Where do I put this gravel.” Colette said “just dump it over the edge.” He said, “Don’t tell me I’ve come all this way just to dump it over the edge of the road.” Then he sat down on the running board and wiped his dripping sweat as he shook his head. Charlotte asked him if he would like a sandwich. If she hadn’t been so nice, he probably would have decked her.
The dumped gravel did go mostly into the prepared crib as it slid down the steep drop. The driver said “how do I get out of here. I can’t turn around.” Gene suggested that he go out the direction that he was headed, which would take him to Skyline Highway. It was a little tricky because there were so many mountain road junctions, but we assured him that he could make it. We have to assume he did, even though many others had failed.
We put the 1-inch gravel into our concrete trough to allow water to flow through then covered that with pea gravel to help seal the flow. Then we covered all the gravel with dirt. The water flowed well and settled out very cleanly.
Later, Gene with a Bearmont crew consisting of members of the various families ran a PVC line from the redwood water tank to the Redwood Grove. We hooked up the line to the tank, and it all worked. We now had water in a nice camping area.
One day Gene said he’d been thinking about the huge redwood tree near the road that had died several years earlier. It was all dried and cured at this point and would make great lumber. I told him it was too tough to get it down and deliver to a saw mill. But he knew of a guy not too far away who had a portable saw mill, and for a portion of the lumber as payment, he would come and mill lumber for us. Then we could build the lodge we had been talking about.
The portable milling worked out, and we ended up with a pile of redwood lumber. Sometime later Gene rallied the usual family members together and started a lodge. In no time, he had a large deck framed and supported on concrete blocks and posts. Then the building began to go upward to a first and second story with tall logs and boards. It was the beginning of a very imposing structure.
One of our mountain neighbors came by and just about fainted. He screamed, “Everyone get off now!” He grabbed rope and wire that was lying around and frantically began to brace, stake, and tie-off all of the tall members. “These things are all going to fall and kill someone.” Everyone then pitched in and helped finish the bracing. Then the work on the lodge ended for the day—and, as it turned out, forever.
The families enjoyed lots of projects at Bearmont. The roads got really soggy when it rained in the mountains. The clay road surface became treacherously slippery when wet. A few people slipped off the roads or spun wheels until they dug into the clay up to their axels. When most of the road dried out and became usable, there were still numerous spots that stayed wet and impassible. The group decided to take action and bought some corrugated steel culverts and created drainage flows through the buried culverts to keep the road firm. This, and the directing of the run-off, were very helpful to the road access.
We bought, or were given by the Forest Service, thousands of small seedling fir trees for planting. We went all over the eastern half of the property where the forest was a little more open and planted all the trees. There was some thought that we could eventually use these as Christmas trees, but they would probably need some trimming as they grew to shape them. To my knowledge no one ever came back in the winter to get one. Then they grew too big.
We developed a beautiful tri-level redwood deck down close to the Bear Creek fork. It was nestled in a redwood grove, and the deck wrapped around a couple of the large living redwoods and around a fire circle. The work was done almost entirely by the children of the partners. Many of the Bearmont group and their guests enjoyed this relatively civilized area for a few decades.
In the process of clearing the camp areas, recreation spots, and trails, some of the group had near-hospital experiences from poison oak exposure, but all survived and lived to tell the tail.
Many scouting groups had a chance to use Bearmont for camping and projects. Even though it was only eighteen straight-line miles from Palo Alto, it felt far away and wild and took over an hour to drive the winding roads. Thick, huge forest trees during the day dimmed the sun’s light, and absolute darkness came as night settled in. Wind in the trees, total darkness, and bright stars were something that many young people had never experienced. Coyotes sang out in the night with their barking yelps, and all sorts of other strange little noises came from the woods. In this setting, some young men and young women became very nervous and feared for their safety. Campfire stories also added zest and anxiety to the nights for the uninitiated. All the Bearmont families were grateful that their children had had this wilderness experience and had worked out their fear of darkness in the wooded mountains.
There were at least a couple of Eagle Scout projects that were done at Bearmont. Troops also raised funds by clearing winter tree falls that blocked the roads. These were cut up and split for firewood. It was mostly oak, madrone, and bay, which were all very marketable and sold for a good price.
By the time all of the Bearmont partners’ children were grown and had children of their own, the majority of the original families had moved away, and Gene and a few other partners had died. This left us with a chance to ponder what the disposition of Bearmont should be. Because of the memories, none of the partners were eager to sell. After some thoughtful consideration, however, it became clear that what had been manageable with twelve like-minded, local families would become virtually unworkable with the next generation’s fifty-six families who were scattered all over the world. Reluctantly we arrived at a decision to sell. The group Save the Redwoods was approached for a second time. The western 80 acres had been sold to them in 1977, with Bearmont gifting part of the purchase value to them.
They were very interested in the second half of our land and completed the purchase in early 2006. Save the Redwoods then gave the first and second half of our land to Portola State Park. Because we had a common border with the Park on the south, these two additions expanded their property another half mile to the north. When the last sale/gift was finally completed, all the partners felt good about having met their objectives with their families while at the same time preserving some beautiful land that, in the end, could be devoted to public use. Having Bearmont property become part of the Park also kept open the possibility of future family member visits to the spots where they had learned a little about the California wilderness.
With the sale pending, there was one last Eagle project, which was to fully restore the land to nature status. This is what Save the Redwoods and the Park wanted. Little by little, bits of concrete were removed from the land. All of the PVC pipe was removed, along with the water tank and redwood deck. The work was a sad task for those of us who had experienced the full cycle. But nothing can take away the memories.
It is likely that none of these great life-building experiences and our families’ parkland legacy would have happened without the drive and optimism of George Eugene England.