By DIANNE HARDISTY
Special to The Californian
It's 7 a.m. George Larson slides behind the wheel of his white Toyota Camry. His wife, Sandra, makes herself comfortable in the passenger seat. She knows she'll soon doze off, leaving her husband to drive to their destination two hours away.
It's a ritual the Shafter couple has followed nearly every week for five years. It's their trek to the coast, where they volunteer as docents at Piedras Blancas, a rookery for elephant seals north of San Simeon on Highway 1.
"We probably travel the farthest of all the docents," said Larson, whose fascination with elephant seals dates back to the early 1990s, when the huge, oddly shaped, magnificent animals took over a once popular fishing and hiking beach.
At first, the Larsons simply joined others who pulled off the highway to gawk at the elephant seals' invasion. "We were able to get so close to so many wild animals."
But that closeness became a problem. As the number of seals increased, contact with humans created conflicts. While elephant seals appear docile and harmless, they are wild and powerful animals.
To protect both humans and elephant seals, the nonprofit Friends of the Elephant Seal was established. The organization trains docents, who help separate humans and elephant seals, while promoting better understanding of the animals and their habitat.
George Larson, a retired Shafter High School teacher, and Sandra, who retired as an administrator with the Kern County Superintendent of Schools, trained in 2004 to become docents.
George Larson is now on the Friends of the Elephant Seal board. He recruits volunteers to become docents through service club presentations and word-of-mouth. Three weekend docent training sessions will be held in October. To sign up or learn more about volunteering, go to www.elephantseal.org or e-mail Larson at email@example.com.
"I have always liked animals of all kinds," Larson said. "But these wild animals are fascinating."
Larson is no stranger to animals.
His father, who worked in the race horse business, moved his family to Shafter when Larson was 15. Harness racing was popular in those days, with ranches and training tracks scattered throughout California. Larson's father was the superintendent of a Shafter ranch, handling breeding and training operations.
But the athletic son wanted to play football and baseball, instead of going into horse racing. He enrolled as a history major at the University of Redlands, where he met Sandra. Later he went into the Marine Corps for eight years, enrolling at California State University at Humboldt when he left the military.
Initially he hoped to pursue a career in the parks service. But agencies were not hiring and he returned home to Kern County to begin a teaching career.
Being a docent has combined his two career interests - teaching and parks service. Docents answer the questions of thousands of visitors from throughout the world who pull off Highway 1 at Piedras Blancas to watch the elephant seals.
WORRIED ABOUT CUTBACKS
The Piedras Blancas parking lot falls under the jurisdiction of the California Department of Transportation. The Hearst Corp. donated the five miles of coastline to the California Parks Department to protect the elephant seals' habitat.
As are most volunteers and paid staff associated with California parks, Larson and fellow docents are worried about budget cutbacks that threaten to close 100 state parks. But the state's concerns about liability, lost revenue and obligations to private contractors have stalled the announcement of park closures.
"Docents save state parks a lot of money," Larson noted, explaining that without the docents' presence at Piedras Blancas, security and other staffing would have to be increased. Friends of the Elephant Seal also raises money for improvements to give visitors a better view of the animals.
Sheryl Watson, a state parks spokeswoman, agrees that the willingness of people to volunteer is critical in these financially stressed times. Watson's department is seeking corporate sponsorships and collaborative arrangements with local government agencies to keep the gates open to some state parks.
And while volunteers alone cannot replace specially trained laid-off employees or make up the difference in the shortfall of tax revenues to operate state parks, they can help with maintenance, visitor services and fundraising.
The Parks Department so values its Central Coast volunteers that they rewarded some with the most donated hours with a special dip in the outdoor pool at Hearst Castle last month. George and Sandra Larson were among those invited.
"Every day I spend over there [Piedras Blancas] as a docent is like the best day I had teaching," said Larson, whose rich, three-decades-long Kern High School District career included teaching history and coaching a variety of sports.