Field Notes #7, pt. two

Guest post by Saul

Mom came home at just after 11 AM on Saturday and told me that she wanted me to finish what I was doing and go down into Crossfire Canyon. She explained that the creek had stopped flowing, leaving some fish stranded in a puddle, at the mercy of garter snakes.

I was working at the time and it took half an hour to finish what I was doing, devour some watermelon and put together a my gear: a butterfly net, a metal bucket, a notebook and some water. At last, I rolled my bike out of the garage and took off.

I rode up the paved road until it ended and turned onto the former ATV trail that led down into the canyon. In the absence of ATVs, the path has become overgrown with grasses and Russian thistles, but it posed no problem for a mountain bike. Hundreds of grasshoppers flew up around me as I rode through the field , a former prairie dog town, finally coming out of the grass and entering the light juniper wood.

I passed a blooming pinyon pine and started my descent. Now that I was riding rather than walking, the path seemed steeper than it had when I had last hiked down. It might well have been steeper, for it had eroded into almost step-like stones in places. It was steep enough that I had to dismount and walk my bike until I reached the bottom.

From there I mostly coasted down the path and along the river, finally arriving near the beaver dam that my mom had indicated. There were tall plants between the creek bed and me, so I couldn’t see exactly where the puddle with the fish in it was. When I sighted some water, I left my bike, backpack and gear on the edge of the path and went down into the dry creek.

It wasn’t the puddle with the fish in it. This puddle held only snails floating on the surface, making popping noises, and a few water boatmen rowing underneath. I walked further upstream toward the next beaver dam to check out another puddle and see if that dam was full. The puddle was also not the one with the fish in it, but the dam was full. With that question answered, I walked back downstream until I came to the lowest dam in the area.

There was the puddle, roiling with fish and garter snakes. The snakes dived underwater. I’m not sure whether they were hiding or simply continuing to fish. A particularly large water boatman was rowing around the water. I returned to my bike and unclipped my bucket, trotting up to the full dam to fill it. I grabbed my gear and took it down near the puddle, extracting the net from the straps and cords of my backpack. Setting my bucket of water next to the puddle, I ran my net through the water.

This is the puddle where the fish were stranded. This is what it looked like as I began work.
This is the puddle where the fish were stranded. This is what it looked like as I began work.

The puddle was only a few inches deep, and my net scraped bottom as I passed it through the water, scooping up a mixture of fish, a snake and mud. I dipped the net and everything in it into my bucket to give the fish something to breathe. I then removed the snake and turned the net over, dumping the mud and fish inside the bucket.

When I scooped stuff up from the puddle, this is what I got.
When I scooped stuff up from the puddle, this is what I got.

My mom had instructed me not to dump all the fish into one pond. These fish are territorial, and we didn’t want to upset the population balance too much in any one pond. So I walked about seventy paces back up to the full dam, dumped in some fish, then walked another thirty paces up to the next dam up and dumped the rest. I returned to the puddle, wondering if the remaining snakes had taken the opportunity to flee while I was gone.

They had not. As I scooped two more nets full from the puddle, I got two more snakes. I evicted them and went to empty the next bucket of fish, distributing them as before. Then I went back for another bucket full. Dump. Repeat, this time venturing through thick, swampy foliage to reach a third dam a hundred and fifty paces away.

I made around five trips. On the last, I discovered that my bucket held the giant water scavenger beetle that my mom had noticed earlier. I paused, wondering whether to throw this clearly carnivorous insect in with the very fishes I had just rescued. I decided that I didn’t know enough to make a wise decision, so I made my best guess: I dumped the beetle in, counting on the fact that up until the dry-out, the fish had probably had more than one of these beetles in their pond all the time.

This is the giant water scavanger beetlethat I found in my bucket. It was around two inches long.
This is the giant water scavanger beetle that I found in my bucket. It was around two inches long.

It was 12:15 as I returned to the pond, now empty of large fish and snakes. Only small fry and water insects remained. What was I going to do with them? I couldn’t leave them because the puddle will either dry up or run out of oxygen, but they were too small to net.

At first I tried to take the whole puddle €”fish, bugs, water, mud and all. I quickly abandoned that method as completely impractical and decided on the opposite: I’d fill the puddle.

The reason that the only water left in the lower dam had pooled in this spot was because this hole was the deepest and had the steepest sides. A deep puddle that isn’t wide keeps its temperature better than a wide, shallow hole with the same amount of water. So if I filled the hole with water, it would regain some of its ability to hold temperature. It wasn’t a permanent solution, but it was good enough for now.

Back I went to the full dam. I filled my bucket full of water and returned to the puddle. I poured my bucket into the puddle, with no discernible effect. This was going to take a while…

I spent the next two hours hauling water and wishing I had a second bucket. I paused once to toss water over the dam, filling the two upper puddles, and once to play with two of the garter snakes that kept trying to sneak back into the puddle when I wasn’t looking.

This is one of the garter snakes that snuck back into the pond when it thought I wasn't looking.
This is one of the garter snakes that snuck back into the pond when it thought I wasn't looking.

It took about thirty trips before I was satisfied with the puddle, which had now overflowed into two adjacent depressions. No longer round, it looked like an old cartoon rocketship. I poured four more buckets onto the ground around the hole, hoping to cool the ambient temperature and slow evaporation even further, and took a break to rest, write notes and measure the distance between the puddle and various dams.

This is what the puddle looked like after filling it with more than thirty buckets of water! It looks like an old cartoon rocketship.
This is what the puddle looked like after filling it with more than thirty buckets of water! It looks like an old cartoon rocketship.

Finally, I started home, very tired and hungry. The steep path out of the canyon slowed my progress, allowing me to notice ants. They were especially thick around the last steep hill that I had to climb before coming up out of the canyon.

These were not the red and black ants that attack me when I pick spinach or that swarm our hummingbird feeders. They were very tiny black ants, and they were much less common than the larger ones.

They were everywhere on this part of the trail, with nests in the rocks of the path. But they weren’t running helter-skelter the way the larger ants did €”they were running full-tilt along well-defined ant highways, only one or two ants wide. There was a very clear network running from one nest to another, and I was especially interested by the three-way intersections where there were no nests or even any visible landmarks. They were just in the road in the middle of a rock. These highways were quite busy, and I had to pick up my bike and carry it to get past without squishing the busy commuters.

As I got closer to the top, it became clear that a storm was coming. Dark clouds were gathering to the south, but the canyon blocked my view and I couldn’t tell how close the storm was. I could hear thunder, and was considering stashing my aluminum bike somewhere once I reached the top, so I wouldn’t be toting a wheeled lightning rod.

When I reached the top of the trail, I discovered that the weather was worse than I had guessed. But it was a long way off and though I could still see lighting, I couldn’t hear the thunder and so I decided to cross the open field with my bike and not leave it behind.

As I neared the paved road, I saw Mom coming toward me, fully arrayed with backpack, hiking boots and her special twenty-year old walking stick. She’d been unable to raise me on the radio, and come to warn me of the incoming weather and help me find shelter if necessary.

€œSo, € she asked. €œWere you able to rescue all the fish? € I answered no, and explained how I hadn’t been able to catch the really small fish, and explained how I had filled the puddle.

She asked, €œDid you have fun? €

€œYes. €

I made this path going back and forth between the beaver dam and the pond. This is the nearest of the three dams.
I made this path going back and forth between the beaver dam and the pond. This is the nearest of the three dams.

7 thoughts on “Field Notes #7, pt. two”

  1. Good work! The closest I get to this sort of thing is dropping sidewalk worms into the cool grass. I figure the birds can get them either way, so I’m not interfering too badly with the food chain. I want to give the stranded a sporting chance, too.
    I can tell one story like this:
    We used to live in an old victorian house and there was no air conditioning, of course. In the summer the windows on three different floors would be open. The bats would fly into the higher windows and often make their way down two flights of stairs to make an appearance in the living room. If we couldn’t shoo them out a door my brothers would wait until they lit somewhere, put a box over top, slide cardboard up the open side of the box, and trap the bat inside. Then they would take it outside and let it go. I sometimes wondered if the same bats were coming right back inside the house after being let go.
    You did a good write up of your experience, and I enjoyed seeing the pictures.
    Keep up the good work.


  2. Thanks, guys! I was worried that my part would feel flat mechanical because I just did things. No hard decisions, no difficult problems, the solutions were fairly obvious. I’m glad to hear that somebody likes it!

    @ Lora – I’m jealous! I’ve never gotten to see a bat up close, and it drives me nuts because I’m writing about them and there are things you just can’t learn from books!


  3. July 27, 2009. Two days ago I went down into Crossfire to see how the water level behind the dams was doing. I found at least a week’s worth of water in two of the three dams Saul relocated bluegills to, but the third dam–the one located further upstream–had gone dry. I skidded down the creek bank and walked onto the bed, which was spongy. I found three puddles holding trapped fish. Most looked like some kind of minnow, but the bed around the pools was so muddy and steep I couldn’t get near without slipping into the puddle.

    En masse, the small fish gaped at the surface of the puddle, trying to draw down oxygen dissolving at its surface. A smattering of dead minnows lay around the pools, enough that the air smelled of decomposing fish. Likewise, dead minnows bobbed on the puddles’ surfaces, being pushed aside by desperate living fish trying to breathe. The gulping, sluggishly wriggling trapped fish looked like a crowd of the doomed praying for deliverance. There wasn’t much I could do. Their best hope was for rain.

    Yesterday, then, we were treated to a cloudburst. Heavy, fat, fat drops of water, then a downpour shooting hail big enough to punch through the elephant ear leaves of our yellow squash plants. The ground drank, then, sated, yielded to run-off. We watched from our windows as driving sheets of rain and rocketing hail pounded the ground, shredding leaves on our peppers, cantalopes, and tomatoes.

    I knew that the amount of water that the storm out of the north had dropped on us would result in flash flooding in Crossfire. I wanted to go out to the canyon rim and watch for the flood or take in the sight if it was already rumbling through, but the ground was too unstable, a sea of mud and rearranged rocks.

    So I went into Crossfire this a.m. The trail down, along with all the usual walking surfaces in the canyon, has been completely resculpted. Moving through this tousled landscape took a little more thought than usual. Gullies had been deepened, stones and rocks had been shifted. The ground remained muddied in places, requiring that I walk carefully.

    I found that there had indeed been a big flash flood through the canyon. Not only were all the dry dams now filled but coffee-with-too-much-cream colored water was flowing over dams’ crests. The water was too thick to see into, still bearing its load of red earth, silt, and debris. But its surface was quiet, as were the containing creek banks. I can guess that a major redistribution of the fish population has occurred, and that fish who survived the violent jostling are back in the beaver pond from which Saul removed the trapped and dying bluegills. But the whole canyon has the feel of having been shaken and stirred. I found very few footprints along the trails, as if most of the canyon’s residents are still tucked away in their sheltered spaces. The heavy rain with its buckshot load of hail probably shook everybody’s nerves.

    The fish who made it through the flood–who were not smashed against rocks or buried beneath mud or whose air bladders did not rupture from the rough handling–ought to be in good shape, water-wise, probably for the next month. The “monsoon” season begins toward the end of August, so other than establishing themselves in their new territories or reacquainting themselves with their old ones, whose borders, depths, and natures have changed dramatically, all fishy survivors ought to do well.

    For nearly two months I’ve searched the creek for sign of active beaver presence and found none. Hot weather and the beginning of the agricultural irrigation season have depleted Crossfire’s waterflow. But over the last week, I discovered new maintenance work on the ponds closest to where the spring empties into Crossfire Creek. So the beavers are still there, just up close by the flowing water source. I’ll be interested to see how they respond to the new damage the flood caused their structures. Overall, the dams withstood the flood force pretty well, but I’m hoping that repairs will draw the beavers out more for a little while and I’ll get a chance to see them.

    As for the fish–looks like a clear case of “Be careful what you pray for.”


  4. Great pictures! Whenever I try to take a picture of something with only one hand, I run the risk of dropping the camera.


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