This is the first part in a two-part Field Notes entry written by two authors. I’ll take the first part, my son Saul the second. It wasn’t my intention to put up Field Notes again so soon, but this story is just too good to wait for.
July 11, 2009. As I take Coyote Way into Crossfire, I find its coyote gate keep reduced to little more than a fur doormat. The carcass’s light bones seem to be floating away downhill. Many are missing. So that took, what? A little over three months? Three months for decomposition to the point of fur and bleached bone.
We’ve had a run of hot weather, so I’m curious about how the beaver ponds in Crossfire are faring, especially the last one located along my route. Around this time last year, that pond dried up completely. Dozens of small fish locked in between its dams died in the mud as its last pocket of creek water turned inside out, summer’s heat having emptied it of its currency.
As I approach the dam, I can see the creek bed below it has run dry. That means there’s no flow out of the dam. That probably means €¦ yes, the pond is empty.
But walking to the bank and visually following the curve of the muddy pond bottom to its lowest point, I discover a puddle, three feet long and two feet wide, sunk in a crease. Its murky, greenish-brown surface roils. Desperate fish, I think, trapped in the last shreds of water heating up fast in the rising morning temperatures, losing oxygen, losing volume.
I have to get a closer look. I walk into the creek bed examining the mud not just for a passable route to the puddle but also to read something about who else has been here and what they did. Raccoon tracks down to the water’s edge—can guess what that animal was doing here; deer—one, a fawn, tiny smiling hoof prints leading to the puddle; turkeys, large and small. As I approach the puddle the scene stops me short. Yes, there are fish. Their backs show right at the water’s surface or just below it. But there is something else in the puddle, too—something driving the fish into a frenzy of fear.
Snakes. Garter snakes. The water seethes with them and with fish squirming, writhing, trying to get away but having no place to run. Three snakes spot me. Two abandon their fishing spots to wriggle through the mud into the tall bank grasses. These are wandering garter snakes, very common around waterways in Utah. The third snake, the largest of the bunch, a beautiful animal over a foot long, remains half in, half out of the pool, watching me warily. It refuses to abandon the bounty.
My eye travels back and forth between the garter snake half out of the pool and the frenetic activity in the water. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch movement in the mud to my right. I look down to see a giant water scavenger beetle, approximately one-and-one-half to two inches long, rowing itself along the muck to the puddle’s rim. It pauses there a moment then plops in. It’s a fearsome-looking creature with a pair of large, jointed black forearms that have evolved to grasp, hold, probe, and tear. This species of beetle feeds on the decaying remains of aquatic animals and when the opportunity arises will also catch live frogs and small fish.
Looks like the opportunity has arrived, and the beetle knows it.
The mud is very deep here, so to avoid sliding down into the puddle I step up carefully to its edge and sink my feet down into the ooze. The drama in the pool transfixes me. Small fish wriggle frantically through the murky water, the long, sea serpent-like backs of garter snakes gliding, twisting through the water all around them. For the fish, it’s a nightmare. The sight unsettles me, too. I’ve never seen anything like this.
With my walking stick, I pick up the big garter snake on the opposite side of the puddle, just to see what it does. It hangs in the air for a moment, then slides off the stick and falls in the mud with a thunk. Then it glides away.
I want to know what kind of fish are meeting their end under such pitiable circumstances. That necessitates reaching into the turbulent puddle, and who knows what else abides in the clouds of agitated mud. Keeping an eye on the giant water scavenger beetle, whose carapace remains visible to my right just below the water’s surface, I swirl the water tentatively with my hand. Mistakenly, I suppose that there are so many fish trapped in the pool that if I just reach in randomly I’ll catch one. No. The snakes having already stirred them to terror they flit away at the slightest touch. I focus on the visible backs, pick one out, and plunge in my hand. I come up with a bluegill or perhaps a bluegill hybrid, its broad silvery sides marked with stripes. It’s about four inches long, wearing electric blue war paint on its cheeks, and sporting a black tab on each gill.
I’ve held many bluegills in my hands. They’re lively when just out of the water, hard to hold. Any healthy live fish will flop and writhe vigorously in a piscine version of the reptilian death roll as it tries to escape and flop back to the water. Not this fish. Exhausted from its nearly useless efforts to escape the inevitable, it lies weakly in my hand, gaping for breath but otherwise barely moving. I put it back in the puddle, sample again. Another bluegill.
These fishes’ prospects are about the grimmest I’ve ever witnessed. Hot weather is predicted for the entire week; probably, the puddle won’t last through tomorrow. Even if it does, its oxygen supply is being rapidly depleted. The garter snakes are on top of the matter, taking every advantage. When the sun goes down, fortunate raccoons and other predators will arrive for their share.
Pulling my feet out of the sucking mud, I pick my way back to the bank. It turns out that the turkeys that left the tracks here in the mud haven’t gone far. They break from the weeds on the opposite bank and take to the air— dirty-yellow fledgling chicks, scattering everywhere, their mother hen clucking nervously as she keeps low to the ground. Images of the snake, fish, scavenger beetle flash in wild sequences as I regain access to the trail and head south.
In something of a daze at this unexpected encounter with nature’s rough side, I’m really not very interested in the rest of the trail. As soon as possible, I loop back by the pool. Three snakes lie out on the bank now. Two of them are fat with a single fish each. One fat snake and one yet lean and hungry snake flee, but the third makes only a short dash, its full load making it less inclined to spend much energy. Its body is already deeply involved in the process of moving the fish down its digestive tract. It stops and turns an eye toward me. I return its look then allow my eye to slide down the snake’s body to stop at the bulge. Muscles visibly contract around the fish, squeezing it slowly down, down, down. After a couple minutes of us gawking at each other, I leave the snake to the business of converting the fish’s energy into its own, a process that will take several hours. After this heavy, protein-rich dinner, the snake won’t need to eat again for a couple or three weeks.
Now I want to see what the upper dams are like, including and especially the one just above this one. Are similar assaults on stranded fish populations unfolding all along Crossfire Creek? Walking around the full-bellied snake, who still does not move though it’s fully aware of my presence, I follow the drying creek bed north toward the next dam, soon hitting spongy ground. Eventually I come to what’s left of the stream’s flow, a sluggish, brackish trickle containing a milky sediment, and clogged with small black snails making a clicking noise. As I reach the next dam I’m faced with the question of how to get up the creek bank. The only apparent trail requires I walk through water grasses two feet tall. I haven’t seen any rattlesnakes in Crossfire any of the four years I’ve hiked here; still, one shouldn’t assume, especially when it comes to venomous snakes. I feel uneasy over the prospect of walking through grass that hides the ground.
But wait! This is one of the reasons I carry my willow walking stick. I beat the grasses then part them with the stick, making it with no trouble to a cattle trail leading up out of the creek bed.
All the dams above this point—or at least between this point and where the springs empty into the creek—are in fair to good condition, though algae has blossomed in bright green clouds in the summer-warmed waters and the water level at the dams shows the pools’ surfaces have dropped about eight to ten inches. Still, fish are romping comfortably in the ponds, dipping at bugs trapped in its surface tension, chasing each other in the shadows. Lucky, lucky fish.
A couple hundred feet downstream, life looks bleak for their comrades. Great for the snakes, raccoons, and giant water scavenger beetles, but ineluctably unfortunate for the bluegills.
€œNature’s way, € I say, quoting a dozen or more people who speak of the privations, misfirings, and seemingly insensate conditions that nature gives rise to. Saying it, I remember a runt puppy from my husky’s only litter who stopped nursing and crawled off into a corner, howling piteously. “It’s nature’s way,” the vet said. “But if you feel like you have to do something, get yourself an eyedropper and feed the puppy Gatorade.”
When I reach home and walk through the front door, I find my son. €œHurry and do your morning chores and eat your breakfast, € I tell him. €œThere’s something I want you to do down in the canyon. €