TO TRULY UNDERSTAND ANY TRAGEDY in the wild and its power to deliver pain over decades, you have to start at the beginning. In the case of the Sespe flood, you have to go back to January 1969, when rainstorms drowned Southern California's Ventura County under so much water that Walter Cronkite ran footage of the devastation on the CBS Evening News. The downpour began Saturday, January 18, and almost immediately the Ventura County Sheriff's Department sent search-and-rescue teams into the Los Padres National Forest, about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles, where on any given weekend there could be thousands of visitors. Many drove in to campsites via a dirt road that snaked back and forth across Sespe Creek, which carves its way through 50 miles of steep canyons and sharp switchbacks. When the road got wet, it swiftly turned into an impassable bog.
On Monday morning, January 20, the Ventura County Sheriff's Department received a phone call. The caller said that six young boys from the Canoga Park area, on the edges of Los Angeles, and their chaperone, Robert Samples, had been camping along the Sespe over the weekend and were overdue. The caller thought they were probably somewhere near Sespe Hot Springs, a popular destination about 15 miles away from Lion Camp, the trailhead where the creek road began.
Deputy Sheriff Gary Creagle was dispatched to Lion Camp and reported back that the Sespe, normally less than a foot deep, was now running more than five feet deep at the first crossing. It might be days before any vehicles could get into the area by road, and the weather prevented flying. The sheriff's department put in a radio call to Deputy Sheriff Chester Larson, up in Lockwood Valley, just north of the area. Could he get down to the U.S. Navy's Rose Valley Seabee Training Center, which maintained the Sespe access road as part of its combat-construction training program, and help Creagle out?
Larson was 34, with a lean face and a tight buzz cut. He'd met his wife, Pat, in the acrid oil town of Taft, over the mountains in the San Joaquin Valley. After he was nearly killed in a well explosion, he applied in 1964 to the Ventura County Sheriff's Department, determined to build a better life for himself and his young wife. From the moment he made deputy, he had his eye on the Lockwood Valley post, which offered independence and hundreds of miles of beautiful backcountry to patrol. By early 1967, he and Pat were moving their six-year-old son, Mark, and their newborn, Steve, into the small gray house that came with the job. "Lockwood Valley was just right," says Pat, now 68 and living quietly in a lakeside resort community two hours from Sacramento. "But his job came first. We came second. That's how it had to be, and we accepted that."
Larson got the call to help Creagle just after lunch that rainy Monday. He put on his slicker, donned a yellow helmet outfitted with a miner's lamp, and paused in the door, as he always did, to tell Pat he loved her. Then he disappeared into the rain, his German shepherd, Duke, at his heels.
When he arrived at the Rose Valley base that afternoon, Larson suggested that a rescue party could get to the missing campers on one of the big bulldozers the Seabees had at the base. The International Harvester TD-20B was a monster, a staple of construction efforts in Vietnam; it weighed 15.5 tons. If anything could work its way down the muddy road along Sespe Creek and navigate its flooded crossings, it was this enormous machine. Chief Equipment Officer Robert Sears, 41, who'd been posted to Rose Valley after being badly wounded in Vietnam, volunteered to drive. Thirty-six-year-old Forest Service ranger James Greenhill, a Paul Bunyan of a man who knew the area intimately, also hopped on board. Larson left Duke in his truck and climbed up onto the growling machine.
ALMOST 40 YEARS LATER, I'm standing knee-deep in the cool water of Sespe Creek. It's a transcendent, peaceful stream, and Steve Larson, now 41 years old and a public-school teacher from Sacramento, and I have been camping alongside it for a couple of days in June, with temperatures nudging 100 degrees. We've dumped our packs to relax near one of the many places where the trail crosses the creek, as we work our way back toward civilization.