Friday, February 4, 2011

A River Doesn’t Run Through It

 After two days in Albuquerque, where I enjoyed the urban wilderness along the Rio Grande (see previous post), I eagerly went north to Santa Fe. Although the Santa Fe brand has become a sort of theme park – I don’t know of another city outside of Orlando that has codified and enforced such strict building codes to achieve total aesthetic harmony – it’s still enchanting and full of great art. I enjoyed all that but also wanted to explore the Santa Fe River and discover the state of urban wilderness there. The only part of the river I’d seen on prior trips was where it trickles at the bottom of a narrow, walled trench near the historic downtown Plaza.

I began my exploration upstream, east of the city center, where the map in my guidebook showed a welcoming, large patch of green nestled against the rising mountain slopes. The sign over the entrance to the parking lot identified it as the Santa Fe Canyon Preserve. The map on a pedestal at the trail head, however, revealed a crazy quilt patchwork of connected parklands administered by five different private and public entities: city, county, federal, Nature Conservancy, and Audubon Society. Can one hope that there is unified approach to habitat protection and not turf wars between agencies? I don’t know, but, sadly, I could clearly see construction going on in a donut hole in the midst of all the protected land.

The trail led me along a small pond and wetland backed up behind the low straight line of a manmade dam. This was notable because it wasn’t long before I came to a much more natural looking stick-built dam, curving in irregular arcs, obviously made by beavers. The edges of the wetland were a devastation of gnawed stumps. Slipping on the ice could’ve been very painful! While quietly maneuvering to set up my tripod for a photo I heard the scraping sound of teeth gouging into wood but I never caught a glimpse of a beaver.

As I continued along the trail I discovered a whole series of beaver dams, one after another in quick succession. There was obviously an active family of beavers at work, following instincts that closely parallel our own desire to control our physical environment. I hiked a loop trail around the wetland, wishing I had time to explore farther up towards the headwaters of the river but glad to have seen evidence of wildlife.

Next I went downstream from the Plaza. I was sorry to see that, unlike in Albuquerque, there was no long riparian parkland indicated on the map. I was even more disappointed when I reached it to find that there was no water in the river; not even a trickle. I hopped down into the sandy riverbed and walked in the direction that should have been upstream, had there been a stream. The river was intermittently walled with a variety of materials to protect the private property that backed up to it. Some wall sections had caved in and serious erosion in other places showed that there was good reason to fear the force of water, when it rains hard enough to fill the arroyo. Footprints showed that others had used the riverbed as a place to walk. Debris showed that some had used it as a dump.

I walked quite a ways but little changed and I never found where the water disappeared.

In Wilderness Reader Edward Abbey said “…There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock. …There is no lack of water here, unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.” I like Santa Fe for many reasons, but who can find peace sitting by the river when it is drained of its water? The bigger problem, I think, is how so many people can live out their busy lives not noticing that it’s gone. This problem is far from unique to Santa Fe or the desert southwest.

As I walked back “downstream” my feet sank in the loose, dry sand.

To see additional photos of New Mexico, go to my flickr page.
This is the second installment in a series about New Mexico. To read the first, about Albuquerque, click here.

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