Skinniest Raccoon Ever: Reality or Ojai Legend?

This article was published in the Ojai Valley News on March 19, 2003. It is reprinted here with their permission.

Skinniest Raccoon Ever: Reality or Ojai Legend?
by Earl Bates

A few Ojai residents say they have seen the elusive “skinny raccoon,” but many people are skeptical about its existence.

“I have talked with people who say there are none of them around here,” said Ojai resident and Ventura County park ranger Drew Mashburn.

The most certain place to find a likeness of the skinniest raccoon, also known as a ringtail cat, is in a field guide to the mammals of North America. The illustrations of the well-known animals like deer, bear and coyote have a real look about them, everyone knows those animals actually exist. But looking at an illustration of the ringtail suggests a fictitious creature, something like a cross between a Cheshire cat and a mongoose.

Sightings of this unlikely looking little mammal are scarce in the Ojai area, but they are very much worth looking out for. A ringtail sighting is proof that fantastic little wild creatures still haunt the backcountry just north of Ojai.

“The only ringtail I remember seeing,” said Mashburn, “was when I was parked on the road above Lake Matilija. I looked down and saw this thing bouncing through the brush.” Mashburn remembered thinking, “That is the skinniest raccoon I have ever seen, and then, all of a sudden, I realized it was a ringtail.”

Ventura County Parks Department Park Ranger Drew Mashburn (circa 2014). Mashburn's career with the department began on August 26, 1974 and ended in mid-September of 2015 when he retired with 41+ years of service.
Ventura County Parks Department Park Ranger Drew Mashburn (circa 2014). Mashburn’s career with the department began on August 26, 1974 and ended in mid-September of 2015 when he retired with 41+ years of service.

Then Mashburn’s reasoning powers took hold of him as he thought, “No, it can’t be, there are no ringtails in Ventura County.” Mashburn did some research and found that ringtails were listed as possible residents in nearby territory. “I looked in some of my books and they claim ringtails can still be found in the Santa Barbara backcountry, and that’s like the far end of Matilija Canyon.” He is now certain that the skinniest raccoon he ever saw was actually a wild ringtail.

Ringtails are not as rare in the Ojai area as the history of their infrequent sightings would indicate. Although ringtails live in local habitats shared with humans and other creatures, their behavior characteristics keep them almost always out of sight.

One of the main reasons ringtails are seldom seen is because they are strictly nocturnal. They sleep during the day and emerge from hiding places, like holes in oak trees and under rock piles, to do their hunting at night.

Another reason ringtails are seldom seen is because they have learned to stay out of developed areas. They prefer to live out of town, especially along the rocky water course habitats of foothill canyons.

Ringtails are experts at stalking mice and rats, and they sometimes catch small birds. They also eat berries, including those from the manzanita plant.

Adult ringtails measure about 30 inches from nose to tip of tail. Their long busy tail, accounting for about half of their overall length, is banded with black-and-white rings. Their tail serves an important function in helping the ringtail keep its balance while scurrying along branches and across piles of rock in pursuit of prey.

In overall length, ringtails are nearly as long as, but much skinnier than, raccoons. Raccoons have much bulkier bodies but shorter tails. Ringtails weigh from 2 to 3 pounds, about one-fifth the weight of a typical raccoon.

Ringtails are remarkably agile creatures. They have been recognized for their great skill in catching rodents and for their ability to outmaneuver some of the animals that prey on them, including owls and bobcats. Early prospectors and settlers in California employed ringtails as mousers, which earned them the nickname, “miner’s cat.”

In the Mediterranean climate of Ojai’s backcountry, ringtail kittens are born in April and May in litters of three and four. They are fully grown at about six months of age.

Ojai area residents who would like to try and catch a glimpse of the mystical and elusive ringtail could try their luck on a walk through Rose Valley during the wee hours of the morning. Anyone interested in seeing more than an illustration in a field guide before venturing out on a late-night ringtail sighting expedition is welcome to stop in at the Ojai Ranger District Office at 1190 E. Ojai Ave. and ask to see their mummified version of the seldom-seen ringtail cat.


Ranger Bald was a man among men

The following article was printed in the Ojai Valley News probably in the 1960’s or 1970’s because that’s when the author (Ed Wenig) wrote for the newspaper. This article is reprinted here with the permission of the Ojai Valley News.

Ranger Bald was a man among men

An erect, elderly gentleman riding a spirited horse down Ojai Ave. to the post office was a familiar figure to residents of the valley in the 1940’s. Dismounting, he would swing into the post office on crutches, collect his mail, remount, and ride away to his apartment in the olive mill on the street that today bears his name.

Industrious, hard-working Geo. Bald come to the Ojai Valley in 1886 at the age of 22. He found his first job setting out orange trees for Edward Thacher on the land which is now known as the Topa Topa Ranch.

In 1891 George Bald married Miss Catherine Clark, the sister of the famous stagecoach driver, Tom Clark. The two went to the state of Washington to make their home for a decade. Returning to the Ojai Valley in 1900, Bald became operator of the Ojai olive mill, a new and promising industry. In the few years of its operation it was estimated that 11,000 gallons of oil were sold.

About 1902 George Bald decided to become a forest ranger. His headquarters were in Nordhoff, and his territory included the Ojai Valley, Sespe Hot Springs, Mutah, and Sespe Gorge to the Lockwood Valley.

Three trails

For the next 19 years he carved out trails on the steep mountain sides in winter and patrolled his area for fires in summer. Three well-known trails he built were the Topa Topa Trail, the Ocean View Trail, and the Pratt Trail. The last-mentioned trail was financed by Charles M. Pratt, Standard Oil executive who lived on North Foothill Road, at which point the trail began. Sometimes a trail 10 miles long had to be made to reach a place only two miles distant “as the crow flies”.

Fire-fighting, too was a strenuous job for Forest Ranger Bald in the days before the development of modern fire control apparatus and improved systems of communication. When fire or smoke was observed from his lookout or camp, he would tie onto his saddle a bag of barley for his horse, lunch for himself, his fire-fighting tools, which consisted of a rake, shovel, mattock and axe, and ride off to locate the trouble spot.

For these duties he received about $60 a month from which he was expected to purchase his provisions and clothing, and grain for his horse.

In 1921 George Bald was offered the superintendency of the biggest, and often called the best, orange grove in the valley — the very orchard he had helped plant in the eighties. For the next 15 years he devoted all his efforts to the well-known Topa Topa fruit ranch. When his wife died in 1936, and the Topa Topa ranch was sold in the same year, George Bald retired and went to live in an apartment in the old olive mill.

Ranger George Bald riding in the center in the back country.


Take a walk through the wooded land of Libbey Park

This article was printed in the Ojai Valley News on March 23, 2001. It is reprinted here with their permission.

Take a Walk Through the Wooded Land of Libbey Park by Earl Bates

Walking through Libbey Park on a recent sunny day, infused with the feeling of springtime, we began taking a closer look at the trees. “Could be maybe seven kinds,” said one of the walkers. “Think there are maybe 10 species just here in Libbey Park.” said another. “Well, there are two kinds of oaks, pines, sycamores, eucalyptus. That’s five. And there’s a palm tree, that’s six.”

We were wondering who could tell us about the trees of Libbey Park, and a few days later, we met arborist and Ojai resident Paul Rogers. We asked him if he could give us a little tour and identify the different trees in the park.

We started our tree tour with Rogers in front of the post office, walked east on the sidewalk, under the canopy of a young live oak and into the pergola. At the center of the pergola we turned right into the main front entrance of Libbey Park. This entrance is guarded by two young valley oak trees, one on each side. Surrounding these two small native oaks is a group of evergreen pear trees, their bright green leathery leaves sparkling in the sun. This lovely species of pear tree is a long way from its original home, it is a native of Taiwan.

Non-native plants may look as natural as natives, but when whole plant communities are considered, natives are generally a more positive factor in ecosystem stability. Some people think more consideration should be given to the native plants that have lived and evolved the Ojai region for many thousands of years. “We are trying to define what trees are going to be here,” said Rogers.

Looking toward the post office we can see a little grove of mock orange shrub and two large live oaks. The medium-sized tree with the long skinny beans hanging from its branches is a catalpa, or Indian bean tree, native to the southeastern United States.

Looking back toward the fountain, at the Kittie Pierpont memorial, is a pistache tree. And past the fountain, in the northeast corner of the park, are a half-dozen of California sycamores.

Walking across the pavement to the south side of the fountain, we entered the heart of Libbey Park, pausing for a moment at the Austin Pierpont Rose Garden. Then we read the plaque at the base of the flagpole. “In grateful acknowledgement of the gift in the year 1917 by Edward Drummond Libbey of this wooded land…”

As we faced south, looking over the dedication plaque and past the flagpole, we saw a beautiful big pine tree. “Monterey pine, native of California,” said Rogers. “It likes the coastal environment. It’s not necessarily a good choice for inland areas, but this one is doing well here.” We walked about 25 yards along the paved path to the first intersection, then turned right down the park’s central walkway.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” said Rogers. “It’s like a continuous canopy through the park.” Large old live oak branches reach way up over the path, their ends mingling in an ethereal feeling with the blue sky.

“We have a lot of big trees in here,” said Rogers. “See that one over there, that’s another valley oak, it’s about 250 years old. We have some in town that are over 500 years.”

We continued walking along the central path through the park. “Deodar cedars, sometimes called California Christmas tree,” said Rogers. We walked past three large specimens of deodar, then under the wooden trellis structure, and followed the path to the right of the tennis court bleachers.

“This is another Monterey pine,” said Rogers. “They were donated to the city, probably from people’s Christmas trees.” The smaller one is about 10 years old and the larger one perhaps 15. “They are fast growers,” he said.

“These are red iron bark eucalyptus, beautiful pink flowers as you can see.” We looked at a couple of them just past the Monterey pines. Then as we looked up high, “Those skyline trees are red gum eucalyptus, they are the ones having an insect problem,” he said.

Several more young California sycamores are establishing themselves in the lawn area of Libbey Bowl. We walked to the seating area of the bowl and paused, looking at the unusually shaped sycamore tree at the west side of the seating area. “There is a lot of lore about it, saying it was bent over by Indians to mark a spot. Whether that is true or not I don’t know.” Rogers explained that this old sycamore is not in a happy environment, because of so much paving around it. “We need to aerate this asphalt, we need to create a better environment,” he said.

“That’s (an example of) the conflict between development and the environment,” he said. “It would be terrible if these tree were not here.”bentsycamore