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Living and Writing in the Natural World

A Tale of Two Creeks

Tammy sketching on the bank of Sabino Creek


For a fellow who grew up in land-locked Oklahoma—maybe because of it—my happiest times out of doors have always centered on water.  I don't discriminate; the water can be salty or fresh.  Hawaii has provided the former; by the time my son was 11 years of age he'd traveled there 12 times with us.  Tide-pooling and snorkeling the reefs have always been at the top of the agenda, there (see my blogs of Nov. 6, 2014; Aug. 3, 2018; Aug. 24, 2019).  Most of the year, of course, it's fresh water activities for our family, back on the "mainland." One favorite such spot is in Yosemite Park, where the Lyell and Dana creeks come together to form the Tuolumne River in the famous Meadow.  We've had many marvelous times alongside Lyell Creek, particularly, in the campground there. 


But for most of the year, for the past 46, it's been our home-town Big Chico Creek that emerges from the Sierra Nevada foothills that my family and I have frequented.  My wife Tammy and I were married by a rented minister on the banks of the creek, whose cooling breezes comforted the volleyball and horseshoe players after the ceremony.  Our two kids ("second family," following my "first family" of two daughters) celebrated most of their birthdays in picnics with their CoHousing friends in shady groves alongside the creek.  Every 4th of July the Barnetts would host a gathering at Raspberry Hole in the creek, watermelons kept cool by the waters.  Even the hard days involved Chico Creek.  When my daughter Holly died at age 23, her mother and sister and I bicycled into the upper region of Chico Creek above the turbulent Iron Canyon, hiked a creekside trail far into the narrow canyon there, and tenderly placed some of her ashes on a sharp slope above Salmon Hole, amidst many tears.  Holly and her sister had spent many summer days swimming and sunbathing in that creek.


So when Tammy and I moved from Northern California to Southern Arizona recently (see my blog of Sept. 9, 2022), many things changed, but one did not:  I found a favorite creek at which I'm spending much time, and took our two kids there when they visited.  The interesting thing is that while of course Sabino Creek is located in the Sonoran Desert rather than the oak woodlands of the Sierra Nevada foothills, in many respects my new creek is extremely similar to my old creek.


How so, "similar"?  Well, the vegetation bordering the creek—the riparian zone—is composed here largely of Fremont Cottonwoods, Arizona Sycamores, and two species of Willow.  In Chico, the riparian zone along the creek is largely Fremont Cottonwoods, California Sycamores, several species of Willow, with White Alder thrown into the mix.  As you tromp up the creek in Chico, hopping or swimming from rock to rock, you notice territorial patrolling by the Flame Skimmer and Green Darner dragonflies—the same dragonflies that also patrol along Sabino Creek here!  And the petite Bluet Damselflies are much in evidence here, as they also are in Chico Creek.  Ditto for the insects in the creek:  water striders and water beetles, for example, as well as the larval forms of the dragonflies.


It's no surprise, upon reflection, that the creeks and their riparian zones are so similar:  whether a creek in Arizona or California, there's a relatively constantly supply of fresh water, and the wind-blown propagules of trees and shrubs spread from creek to creek to creek over long distances.  These same environmental conditions give you the startling similarity of creeks and riparian zones across the entire continent. 


But as I float on my back down a calm stretch of Sabino Creek here, gazing up at the slopes of Sabino Canyon, I see a very different sight than I would see floating down Chico Creek.  There in Chico, the canyon floor and walls featured patches of valley oak and blue oak woodlands, interspersed among thick grasslands composed of species brought by the Spaniards five centuries earlier.  Here, the dominating trees are the stately Saguaro cacti, reaching 40 feet tall with anywhere from two to a couple of dozen "arms" stretching upward around the central column.  The late spring demonstrated that these bizarre-looking plants belong to the same "Angiosperm" clade of flowering plants as our California cottonwoods and willows, when their white flowers bloom atop the arms, and develop into the sugar-rich, seed-containing fruits which the Sonoran indigenous peoples gathered at festive late summer gatherings. 


While the Saguaros dominate, the Palo Verde trees are also common, looking much more "normal" to our eyes; they are not cacti.  But the tiny leaves of the Palo Verde are sparse and soon drop; the tree can't afford the water lost by evaporation.  How do they accomplish the photosynthesis fueling growth and seed production without leaves?  Easy!  The chlorophyll that powers photosynthesis has been moved to the outer surfaces of the trunk, branches, and stems.  The trees are green all over!  And happily making sugars and proteins and DNA from the abundant Arizona sunshine, leaves be damned

And of course Sabino Canyon's slopes also feature abundant species of the smaller (than Saguaro) cacti.  Like the Saguaros, all cacti have long abandoned leaves and relocated their chlorophyl to their stems, similar to what the non-cactus Palo Verdes have done.  Some cacti have relatively flat, disc-shaped stems: the Prickly Pear species, which are effectively protected by arrays of formidable thorns.  They also are flowering plants, remember, so they have spectacular, colorful flowers on the perimeter of the flat stems, of which Tammy has taken many dozens of photos, and depicted many in her paintings.  These flowers develop into masses of high-calory carbohydrate fruits, which the indigenous peoples would also harvest and eat, in addition to the young disc stems.  (Note:  these original peoples of the Sonoran Desert were adept at methods for removing the thorns before ingestion!) 


Cylindrical stems are present in the big Barrel Cacti and the smaller Hedgehog cacti, each with many species and armored also with thorns.  But the most formidable (many would say "vicious") thorn-protected cacti are doubtless the chollas (or "choyas").  These exhibit thinner cylindrical stems, and the species of chollas vary from relatively small (the "Teddy-bear Cholla", which is anything but cuddly) to the 20-foot Staghorn cholla and "Jumping" cholla.  This latter plant produces easily-detachable segments whose plentiful thorns seem to leap onto your arms or legs or any clothing you might think would protect you, and thus make you a disperser of the clonal segments—all upon the slightest hint of contact.


So, yes:  the plants on the slopes of the canyons in which Sabino Creek and Chico Creek merrily flow are as startlingly different as the riparian zone plants and insects are startlingly similar.  What about the mammals you may encounter in the riparian and canyon slopes?  Some are found in both habitats:  pocket gophers, packrats (tho in Arizona the white-throated woodrat, instead of the dusky-footed), ground squirrels (tho here the Rock and Harris Antelope ground squirrels, rather than California's Beechey); but the very same bobcat and mt. lion prowl both canyons, as well as Raccoons and Ringtail "cats".  Surprisingly, a variety of the Eastern White-tailed deer is found in these portions of the Sonoran desert, just as the Black-tailed deer is in Chico Canyon.


Sabino Canyon also contains two rather spectacular mammals not found in California at all, tho.  A mainly arboreal member of the raccoon family common in Central and South America, the Coati Mundi, ambles throughout the upper reaches of Sabino Canyon, tho it is not commonly seen.  (My son Louis spotted one his first saunter alongside Sabino Creek; but then Lou also spotted the only Cloth of Gold cone shell I've ever seen in a Hawaiian tidepool.)  I finally evened-up with Lou on my first rock-hopping jaunt up Sabino Creek high in the canyon, where after swimming through a deep 40-foot pool in a narrow spot between sheer rock walls, I emerged, sat on a rock to rest (Hey! I'm 77 years old!), and heard a Coati foraging in a cottonwood some 20 feet away, all oblivious to any human presence in such a high spot.  He soon caught my scent some seconds after I saw him, and promptly did the only sensible thing, fleeing clumsily away from the weird, dangerous naked ape.


The other mammal in Sabino Canyon you won't find in Chico Canyon is the Javelina, or Collared Peccary.  This scruffy but amiable fellow is a New World member of the Suidae, a cousin to our domestic pig and the wild boars of the Old World.  He's only 30 to 50 pounds and not a yard tall, but he's unmistakable.  Unlike the Coati, he's comfortable around humans, and groups of a dozen or more regularly barge into our neighborhood in search of food to complement the Prickly Pear stems and Palo Verde pods found in the Sonoran proper.  (This commonly happens on mornings when the garbage containers are waiting to be picked up and emptied, a task to which the Javelinas are only too happy to contribute.) 


Birds?  Southern Arizona is famous to bird-watchers for its incredible diversity of birdlife.  Sabino Canyon is full of Gila woodpeckers, Cactus wrens, and Roadrunners, all unknown to Chico Canyon.  But you will find the occasional Phainopepla (a striking black bird with a crest and red eyes) in both canyons.  Mourning doves are common in both canyons, tho the White-winged Dove only in Sabino.


Ah, the reptiles.  The Sonoran Desert Tortoise is common here, and a very appealing fellow, but not remotely a denizen of the Sierra foothills.  Diamondback rattlesnakes are found both places, but southern Arizona is also famous for its dozen-some additional species of rattlers.  I've encountered the Ridge-nosed Rattler (Arizona's "state reptile") on one of my jaunts up Sabino Creek, tho my encounters with Diamondbacks have only been in the desert surrounding our community.  I am acutely conscious of the fact that perhaps the most elusive and fascinating Arizona reptile, the (so-called) Gila Monster clothed in dramatic orange/red and black bead-like scales, has been seen (so far) by only one Barnett:  my good wife Tammy (whose family nick-name is "Hawk-eye," and rightly so). 


Access to Sabino Canyon is dramatically different than that to Chico Canyon.  You can of course bicycle and/or hike into Chico canyon, even its upper reaches, which I often did.  But only a rough dirt/gravel road is available for vehicles, which is often closed in the rainy winters.  Sabino Canyon?  Private vehicles into the canyon are prohibited, but there is a daily open-air, electric-powered tram/shuttle which will take you on-the-hour (for a small fee; better make a reservation online) from the Visitor Center up into the Upper Canyon, the well-maintained asphalt road crossing 10 bridges over Sabino Creek as it hugs the creek all the way up.  There are nine stops on the route, and you can hop on and off at any place.  For first-time visitors to our new home, we take the ride all the way to the top, and walk the 4 miles back, a leisurely stroll which is very near the top of my favorite things.  Ray being Ray, I often stop and take a dip at water-fall-featuring spots or, really, any particularly scenic swimming hole, which tries the patience of my dear wife.  Fortunately for me, since she has taken up painting, she whiles away the time by making sketches of the flowers and scenery.


The open-air shuttle is used mainly by tourists, tho.  All the day long, the citizens of Tucson and surrounding areas walk up the road into the canyon, by the hundreds and hundreds every day.  All types of folks: Anglos, Hispanics, Asians, all types of Americans and foreign visitors, lone males and females, groups of friends young and old, and families galore.  You won't believe how many babies are pushed into the canyon in strollers by their moms and dads every day. The strollers are left on the road a mile or two in, as the families take short side trails to the always-nearby creek and set up umbrellas and picnics.  In sum, Sabino Canyon is heavily used by a complete cross-section of the citizens of the Tucson area, with nary a spot of litter ever visible. Tellingly, restrooms and trash bins are available periodically all the way into the canyon.  And because the canyon's entrance is a dozen miles from downtown Tucson, perhaps, the chaotic tents and social turmoil that, alas, is so often associated with the lamentably poorly-met challenges of homelessness are, so far, absent from Sabino Canyon. 


The availability of water in which to enjoy the creek and canyon differs between the two spots also.  There is almost always water in Big Chico Creek in Chico Canyon.  Sometimes there is too much water, and turbulent spring flows amongst the large rocks of Iron Canyon (Bear Hole (aka Bare Hole!) and Salmon Hole) claim the life of a young, over-eager but under-cautious swimmer every couple of years.  But typically it is only as Chico Creek enters the Sacramento Valley and flows through the city of Chico that the creek frequently de-waters in the summer.  But the rest of the year, it flows clear into the Sacramento River, and thence out San Francisco Bay into the Pacific.


Sabino Creek marches to the beat of a different drummer.  It sits within the Sonoran Desert, remember, an area that typically gets only 12 inches or so of rain a year—less than half what the foothills of northern California typically get.  This rainfall is split between gentle winter rains of December thru February, and the intense late summer afternoon "monsoon" rains of mid-June to mid-September.  So the creek tends to be flush during the winter and early spring (I have swum it in mid-March), but drops rapidly in the dry late spring and early summer, to stagnant pools here and there.  The "monsoon" rains come, tho, and the creek fills rapidly, permitting swimming throughout the late summer and early fall.  Then it dries up again in the fall, until the winter rains come.  So:  you have to know your creek, and be aware of the rainfall, particularly of flash floods after heavy monsoon rain days, which can be deadly.  I'm still learning, but even only being here from February to now (mid-September), I've had plenty of wonderful times.


And I confidently look forward to many more wonderful times swimming the deep pools, rock-hopping up the rough, turbulent stretches, and floating down the placid stretches of Sabino Creek in the future.  Depending on how many years I've been given, I hope to accumulate a store of heart-filling experiences in Sabino Creek winding its way down Sabino Canyon.  Who knows?  Maybe some day my wife and kids will tenderly place my ashes in this creek, and watch them swirl and spread amongst the dragonflies and past the foraging Coati Mundis as the Saguaros bear witness from the slopes.  I look forward to that happening—at the proper time.  Barnett out. 


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