I’m drawn to canyons with their cool shade
and generous vegetation,
especially in this dry, mostly mountainous country
of sun-struck rock.
And so is all life.
Birds and other animals come to where there is moisture,
abundant food, and places to raise young.
The view from my apartment above Oak Park
I look northeast to the Santa Ynez Mountains. The mountains are a transverse range, one of several ranges so named because they trend east and west rather than the usual north-south of most coastal mountains. The town of Santa Barbara occupies the narrow alluvial plain between the ocean and the mountains
The mountains are composed mostly of pale sandstones often embedded with fossil shells from the distant past when the mountains were under a warm sea. Reflecting the low winter sun and protecting the region from the chilling north winds, the mountains have a profound effect on the local climate.
My bedroom window perfectly frames Montecito Peak, the most symmetrical of all the named Peaks. At midday, when the mountains are evenly lit, they resemble a jigsaw puzzle of pale rock and mats of olive green chaparral. I look hard to try and distinguish a canyon, but it’s when the sun is low in the sky before sunset that the mountains reveal their contours. Purple shadows fill the canyons while ridges and peaks glow in the late light. I learned by studying a map that the deep shadow in the saddle west of Montecito Peak is the top of Cold Spring Canyon.
Most canyons have a stream, often an ephemeral one which appears only briefly after a rain. Others, like Mission Creek, are considered perennial, but in fact water persists only in the foothills and mountains. Because of the steepness of the Santa Ynez Mountains, most streams, beginning as springs near the top of the range, may drop four thousand feet from their headwaters in a few miles to where they join the Pacific Ocean.
My plan was to hike several of the canyons so I could write about them with affection and authority. On my first try to the San Ysidro Trail on the almost level Ennisbrook Trail, I fell and cracked my ribs.
I saw two solutions – send my two grandchildren with their stout hearts and strong legs into the canyons where they regularly walk. Or I could narrow my canyon and stream observations to Mission Creek, one of the most accessible of the perennial stream which runs (when it does) through Oak Park just below my apartment. So Mission Canyon it is.
Mission Canyon and its Creek
Mission Creek and its canyon have a rich history dating back to the Mission days in the late 1700’s when the waters were captured behind a stone dam built with Indian labor in 1803 and stored in sandstone reservoirs just above the mission itself. The water irrigated the sloping garden of fruit trees, vegetables and wheat. When Spain defeated Mexico in 1830, the missions lost their authority and most of the Indian labor. The garden quickly fell into ruin along with many of the adobe buildings.
Like most of the streams which flow down the south slope of the Santa Ynez Mountains, Mission Creek begins as springs near the ridgeline and then emerges as a series of cascades and pools, accessible from the Tunnel Trail.
Following James Wapotich’s directions in his weekly “Trail Quest” column in the News-Press, I located where the Tunnel Trail begins along East Camino Cielo Road, just beyond the intersection with Gibraltar Road. The trail is marked by an aging metal sign and three large boulders across the dirt road. The trail – the dirt road – continues just beyond the level section when it becomes a narrow trail dropping steeply down to where Mission Creek begins. The Falls are a popular destination for hikers, most hiking up from Tunnel Trail off Tunnel Road. I’ve never hiked up far enough to reach the falls so I have to rely on the reports of others and the photos they took.
At The Botanic Garden
It’s in the Garden where most of us become familiar with Mission Creek. Before the present four-year drought, regular releases from the Mission Tunnel (which brings water from Gibraltar Reservoir to Santa Barbara) kept the creek refreshed, so one season seemed like another. Now the stream is mostly small ponds, growing green with algae.
Standing on the uneven stones at the top of the Indian dam is a good place to look up and down the steam and to admire the
feat of building the dam with hand labor. Once, the stored water was carried down stone aqueducts to the Mission where it not only provided irrigation and drinking water, but filled the stone basins (still there to see above the Rose Garden) where hides were soaked prior to tanning.
Rocky Nook Park
A couple of blocks above the Mission is a charming county park – known by the locals simply as Rocky Nook. And rocky, indeed. Boulders, scattered generously everywhere, were deposited a thousand years ago by a debris flow that roared down the canyon depositing boulders along the way. A Chumash Indian legend says the boulders are the bone remains of the Indians
drowned by the slurry of water and sediments. I felt as if I were photographing family groups. In late May at the
beginning of the long dry season, the creek is surprisingly active though its flow will most likely decline as the season advances.
At Oak Park
Since I moved to Santa Barbara three years ago, a four-year drought has reduced Mission Creek at Oak Park to mostly a dry creek bed. Only after a rain of an inch or more would the creek come to life as a muddy noisy, torrent which finally reaches the sea by curving a path across the beach just south of Stearns Wharf.
Within a day, the creek at Oak Park becomes a series of clear pools joined by rivulets of gurgling water. It is then that I walk slowing along its banks, imagining the water circulating through my veins, refreshing my worn and tired body. And I would then know deep peace. The following day, the creek disappeared leaving behind only drying mud where the pools had been.
The creek bed once again is laid bare and often weed-filled. By late spring, the stream even in the foothills at the Botanic Garden, is often reduced to a few algae-filled pools.
Mission Creek leaves its canyon just below the Garden where it is joined by Rattlesnake Creek. Together they meander several miles across the gently-sloping plain (called by geologists an alluvial fan) to the ocean. Over the years, the creek has flooded the town several times during the rainy winter months.
My father, who as a boy lived between Oak Park and Cottage Hospital, remembers those
times when the only high spot in their neighborhood was their garden, where the neighbors came and stood until the flood waters receded. During the floods, the creek waters filtered slowing down through the rock and soil replenishing the groundwater. Today, the creek, often contained by concrete sides, seldom floods, so it flows directly into ocean carrying with it pollutants, often closing for a time the surrounding beaches as unsafe for swimming.
Oak Park is not a nature park, it’s a people park where neighbors walk their dogs and on weekends, it’s crowded. Piñatas are hung from the oak branches, musicians tune their guitars and horns, kids play in noisy swarms, and men sweat over the barbecues. In the winter when the days are short and sometimes rainy, Oak Park returns to a more natural environment.
Mission Creek Outfall
Most of the year, the creek trapped behind its sand berm from continuing to the ocean, forms a quiet lagoon favored by water and shorebirds, especially during the winter. When the creek is in flood stage, it carves a curving course through the sand to the ocean.
My love of canyons goes back to a childhood living in the Oakland Hills. There were no houses across the street because at the bottom of the slope was an electric train, part of the Key System, which ran across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco. The dense slope on the other side of the track was a no man’s land until I was old enough to venture further afield. What drew me there was an ethereal bird song, I didn’t recognize.
The slope was too steep to navigate on foot so I slid on my behind through what I would later discover was mostly poison oak. After an almost vertical slope of slippery clay, I found myself at the edge of a creek. And there was my bird, silent now, who fixed me with it’s round eye, made even rounder by a circle of white feathers. Late in the spring, the creek was reduced to a series of dark pools, laced together by threads of running water. Water striders skated across the surface while dragonflies darted about occasionally touching the water.
I couldn’t stay away from this newly discovered world until a painful rash spread across my body after each foray.
I later learned that the creek was called Trestle Glen Creek or Indian Gulch Creek named for the Ohlone villages along its margins. Instead of flowing into the ocean, the creek brought its water to Lake Merritt, a tidal sanctuary with an amazing array of winter water birds, attracting enough attention so it became the first waterfowl sanctuary in the country.
In my twenties, we moved to the Berkeley Hills and my stream became Strawberry Creek. The stream like so many coastal streams rose in springs near the top of the Berkeley Hills, flowed through the Botanical Gardens, which I came to love and where I meet a dear friend and with him led monthly bird walks. The garden was paradise and a number of birds thought so too. In the spring, the bird song was almost overwhelming. Thrushes again, including the dearest of all – the American Robin, the Black-headed Grosbeaks, Warbling Vireos – on and on – singing an intoxicating symphony of melodies unlike any other stream canyon I know.
I have also learned a new concept for understanding ones place on the planet by determining ones watershed. Our house was on a slope near the top of the Berkeley Hills where the most of the water drained toward Strawberry Creek which I liked to claim as defining my home place.
Since moving to Santa Barbara three years ago, my watershed is unequivocally Mission Creek, as was it for my parents who lived nearby more than a 100 years ago.
George Dumas, Webmaster
Nancy Law, Editor
Roger Bradfield, Artist