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THE REAL DIRT ON: Canyoneers Co-Founder Helen Witham Chamlee

By Susan Krzywicki.

Local naturalist Helen Witham Chamlee was one of the creators of the Canyoneers, the San Diego Natural History Museum’s program that provides free guided hikes through local canyons. Born Helen Vallejo in 1908, Chamlee was a native San Diegan, a graduate of San Diego State University, and spent her entire career at the Museum.

Vallejo Family

Wayne Tyson, local ecologist, knew Helen well and remembers an intriguing slice of history. Helen once visited the San Jacinto Museum and, while examining a photo and reading its label, exclaimed to curator Lou Ziegler, ‘Why, that was my (great?) grandmother!’ Tyson explains that 'the label spoke of a girl who danced at the camp in Coyote Canyon of the early Spanish explorer, de Anza. Helen's maiden name was Vallejo, [that of] a famous California family.'

Silent Spring Era Activities and Recognitions

Helen was vitally interested in nature. She was a contributing editor to the California Native Plant Society’s scholarly journal, Fremontia; was the botanical editor for California Garden magazine; wrote a weekly column, Canyon Trails, for the Evening Tribune; and even published a book on San Diego’s ferns. Later, she was recognized for her decades-long contributions by being named a CNPS Fellow, and received the 1977 honor award from the California Council of the American Society of Landscape Architects. In addition, a native plant garden at the Safari Park was named after her.

Florida Canyon trails in Balboa Park.

Florida Canyon at Risk

The area of Balboa Park we now call Florida Canyon has been the object of fitful focus, then stretches of neglect. For several decades, anyone with a new development idea that required space would eye the area as a potential target—civic auditorium, sports stadium, and solid waste site were all on the table at one point. In the late 1970s, when the Navy wanted the land for a new hospital, local citizens were roused to protest the threat to the canyon, but the Navy was eventually awarded the rights to develop the natural land via a federal court-ordered condemnation process.

Despite the thirty-six acres of Florida Canyon that would be developed for the Navy's hospital, residual community spirit continued. Helen Chamlee, along with Nancy Inman, Claire Brey, and Betty Robinson, were energized. Helen put an ad in the paper, welcoming all who might want to train for the work of what would be the Florida Canyoneers. One who answered the call was Priscilla Dick, who joined the first class. She said their purpose was to '…train lay people to take the public on these short walks.' Priscilla describes the organizers as 'sharp, bright women, no nonsense…[who] went into canyons that were in bad shape' and the Canyoneers as 'an organization whose time had come.' (The group's name was shortened to Canyoneers when the scope of the volunteers' work extended beyond the Florida Canyon.)

Helen in the Driver's Seat

Helen was a character. Priscilla tells how they were traveling along Highway 195, around 70th Street. Helen, not the best of drivers, suddenly swerved off the road and her riders clung to their seats. Thinking something had happened to the car, they piled out, only to find that Helen had seen a rare plant species along the route and precipitously decided to botanize.

Helen Witham Chamlee died in 1982, and at her outdoor funeral service, a huge dust devil of wind blew right through the ceremonies, causing many to reflect that this was Helen’s personality to a T.

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