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When Bill Howell and Judy Alvarez team up to take visitors on hikes in Mission Trails Regional Park, they have the group look on the path for stink beetle butts. That allows Howell to talk about the grasshopper mouse, the only mammal that can stand getting near the bug. The mouse attacks from the front, according to Howell, biting the stink beetle's head off and shoving its butt into the ground. Its rear end buried, the beetle cannot release the foul-smelling ooze for which it is infamous.

On the trail, Alvarez explains to hikers that the Kumeyaay people, who are native to what is now San Diego County, believe that if a woman does not get a ritual chin tattoo before she dies, during the afterlife she will wander the earth with her butt raised like the stink beetle's. Alvarez learned of the belief from Florence Shipek's edition of the autobiography of Kumeyaay woman Delfina Cuero (1900--1972).

Howell and Alvarez are volunteer instructors in a training course for unpaid trail guide recruits given each winter by the city of San Diego's Mission Trails Regional Park. No experience is required of participants. This year the classes will take place on Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings for ten weeks starting January 8. They will cover the Mission Trails region's history, geology, botany, zoology, and ecology.

With over 6000 acres, according to park ranger Luanne Barrett, Mission Trails Regional Park is the largest open-space urban park in the continental United States. Formerly Camp Elliot, the World War II Marine Corps training center, the park is located on both sides of the San Diego River between the Fortuna Peaks to the north and Kwaay Paay Mountain (next to Cowles Mountain) to the south. "The river," says Barrett, "carved its path out of the area between the mountains." She names five distinct habitats present in the park: grasslands, coastal sage scrub, chaparral, riparian waterway, and oak woodlands. The park has 24 hiking trails and 40 to 50 active trail guides. "Our guides are everything from biologists to grandmothers," says Barrett.

Cut into the rocks at two sites by the river are "depressions three inches deep and six inches long, where the Kumeyaay ground their acorns as far back as 10,000 years," says Barrett. Spanish missionaries left their own traces in the area with the Old Mission Dam and a six-mile flume that carried the water to the San Diego Mission. The dam is now a California historical landmark.

The 2003 Cedar Fire destroyed nearly 60 percent of Mission Trails Park on the Tierrasanta side. "But as dramatic as the fire damage was," says Barrett, "the recovery is equally dramatic. And the river stopped it from spreading south." The vegetation in the burn areas is lush again, she says, and the wildlife is back, including a healthy deer population, plenty of foxes and raccoons, and an occasional golden eagle.

I ask trainer Howell what distinguishes a riparian streamside environment. "Lots of willow, sycamore, and cottonwood trees," he says. A paved loop from the visitors center and observatory in Mission Trails Park takes hikers along the San Diego River and back. "But you can't cover the whole length of river in the park on account of thick brush and lots of poison oak on its banks," explains Howell.

The chaparral in the park is likely to be noteworthy this year, according to Howell, especially if the weather continues to be wet. "With all the attention we give to sequoias and redwoods in this state, it's rare to celebrate chaparral, which looks drab most of the year. But the hills are already starting to lavender up with ceanothus, or California lilac, though it's not a true lilac and half of them are white."

Howell notes that Mission Trails is home to an endangered species of lizard called the orange-throated whiptail. But another endangered species, San Diego ragweed, which is found in grasslands east of the park's Kumeyaay Campground, amuses him. "It's a cousin of western ragweed," says Howell, "which loves human mucous membranes, causing lots of allergies."

Dodder, or witch's hair, is plentiful in the park. An orange parasite on other plants, it doesn't photosynthesize, says Howell, and sinks its roots into other plants instead of the ground. Its origins, according to Kumeyaay legend, go back to a woman who failed in her assignment to guard an encampment. As she ran away in fear, some of her hair was snagged in the bushes.

When Mission Trails opened in the early 1990s, observes Howell, modern-day Kumeyaays named the mountain to its south Kwaay Paay, meaning "the chief." "In another ceremony," he says, "they blessed the building of the visitors center. And it came in under budget. But they did not bless the building of Kumeyaay Campground, which went over budget. Make of that what you will," says Howell.-- Joe Deegan

Volunteer Trail Guides Training Mission Trails Regional Park Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings January 8 to March 19 One Father Junípero Serra Trail (off Mission Gorge Road, near Jackson) Cost: Free Info: 619-668-3279 or www.mtrp.org

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