Flora and Fauna

A Journey Into Millard Canyon
Flora, Fauna, and Survival Skills

By Christopher Nyerges

My first introduction to Millard Canyon was the magnificent waterfall. You drive up Chaney Trail, and then down the road to the campsite. A relatively short hike under the oaks and bays gets you Millard Fallsto the base of the waterfall, a favorite spot for families and picnickers in summer. I like it, but I always avoid it in summer and on weekends because whenever a spot gets too popular, the trash and diapers increase, and there tend to be radios playing the current junk music.

I prefer behind the waterfall, up towards the Dawn Mine. To get there, you park your car at the T-intersection at the top of Chaney Trail, and walk up the road for a quarter-mile or so until you come to the dirt trail off to your left. This is a pleasant trail, planted with rosemary at the entrance, and lined with such native plants as wild cherry, elderberries, oak trees, yerba santa, and yucca. Yellow mustard flowers are common, and I enjoy picking the flowers and nibbling the broccoli-flavor flowers as I walk. The yerba santa was used back in the old days as medicine, and you can pinch off a bit of the leaf and chew on it as you walk. The flavor may seem strange at first but you get used to it.

At least three soap plants can be found along this trail leading down to the stream. Yucca, of course, is somewhat common. When you read the tales of the native peoples of the Southwest, you always hear about using yucca roots for soap. But, to just wash your hands, please don’t ever dig up an entire yucca plant. It’s not even practical. But you can snip off one lower leaf, shred it into fibers, wet it and agitate between the hands, and you’ve got a wonderful, thick soap. Soap root or amole is also found on the hillsides here and there, but you’d probably need to have someone point it out. It is a large underground bulb with wavy leaves that you see in the spring. During most of the year, there is little to tell you that the bulbs are down there. This is possibly one of the best wild soap sources I have ever tried. The crushed bulb is mixed with water and agitated between the hands. You get a thick rich soap good for shampoo, washing your filthy clothes, or cleaning the dog. (Hear that, Cassius? Time for a bath! Woof, woof!)

And there is also the mountain lilac bush, conspicuous in the spring by its white or purple flowers. You can collect either the flowers or the sticky fruits, add some water, rub them between your hands, and get a mildly aromatic natural soap.

Bay LeafAs you continue down this dirt trail, you’ll see lots of bay trees. Their leaves are richly aromatic and can be used to make a good tea or to flavor your spaghetti sauce. Even the nuts which fall from the trees in the fall can be collected and eaten (once roasted or boiled -- they are bitter raw).

Eventually, you’ll pass Mr. Nohr’s cabin. The story I have heard over the years is that he hauled all the building supplies in to the site on a wheelbarrow. Nohr was somewhere in the canyon during the massive floods of 1938, and reported that there were boulders as big as houses coming down the canyon and that the noise was "beyond description." Wow! I was born too late for all that excitement -- but, as they say, history repeats itself.

Hiking upstream in Millard is a pleasant experience. The river bottom is mostly lined with tall alders, interspersed with oaks, sycamores, and bay. The trail meanders back and forth across the stream, and gets steeper a half-mile or so below the Dawn Mine.

As for the mine, it’s dangerous, and I suggest you stay out! Man-made mines are notorious for cave-ins, for lacking oxygen, and for trapping people who explore unprepared. A friend from Glendale, Charles Feibush, reported to me his discovery of the Dawn Mine. He and his buddy were all excited, and they climbed up and explored inside with their tiny penlight. After a while -- Charles thinks he was somewhere near the vertical shaft inside the mine -- he looked up and shined his light and saw two eyes at about his eye level staring back. Charles said, "Christopher, you wouldn’t believe how quickly we got out of that cave!" After thinking about it, he realized he was probably staring at a mountain lion, and he was darn lucky it didn’t attack, since a mountain lion is known to attack things that run from it. Anyway, Charles got home safe but shaken.

So, what should you always carry with you in the event you get lost or hurt?

Carry at least a good knife, a magnesium fire starter, and some twine. Those are the basics and can be used for countless tasks. A water container and first aid kit are also good things to carry. And though I typically drink right out of Millard Canyon, it’s not a bad idea to have some means to purify water. Why? Well, even if the Scene in Millard Canyonwater tests free of various bacteria and other critters, I can recall the time I encountered a dead deer right in the stream. It was pretty well decomposed by the time I saw it, and I don’t think I would have felt too well that evening had I drunk downstream of the deer. (Gasp!). Boiling water is the easiest way to purify it, but if you don’t want to take the time or if a fire is unsafe, you should either carry an iodine crystal kit, or carry any of the water purification pumps that you can buy at Sport Chalet stores.

You should also consider getting a copy of John Robinson’s "Trails of the Angeles," the best book on the trails in our local mountains.

Nyerges is the author of Guide to Wild Foods, available locally at O Happy Days in Altadena, Vromans bookstore in Pasadena, and at all Sport Chalet stores. He has been leading outdoor classes since 1974, and the schedule is available from School of Self-Reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or on-line at http://home.earthlink.net/~nyerges/.

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Last modified: February 12, 1999

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Copyright 1999