By Jeannie Patton, The Nature Conservancy
The little creek a half mile from my back porch has saved my sanity for years.
A small footpath parallels Coal Creek near my home in Lafayette, Colorado. There’s not much to the creek– born at 9,000 feet above sea level, it meanders through pine and spruce forest, across grasslands and through farm land, through two towns, and ends up in the South Platte River northwest of Denver.
When miners discovered seams of carbon along the creek’s course, it was nearly doomed. 1859 through 1956 were tough years; “manhandled” is an understatement. Yet the creek survived and is recovering nicely thanks to protected space rules and caring neighbors.
For years, I’ve walked a five-mile loop that leads to the next town over, usually stopping half way at Vic’s Coffee Shop to relax with a cup on the patio where the creek and path part ways.
I love this path & little creek, but realize that I’ve taken it for granted.
On my last coffee break, I thought of what Pulitzer Prize-winning author N. Scott Momaday wrote in The Way to Rainy Mountain:
“Once in our lives we ought to concentrate our minds upon the Remembered Earth. We ought to give ourselves up to a particular landscape in our experience, to look at it from as many angles as we can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. We ought to imagine that we touch it with our hands at every season and listen to the sounds that are made upon it.”
I returned home, downloaded The Nature Conservancy’s “Nature Treasure Hunt” (primer for four to seven year olds), printed out the Treasure Hunt checklist and returned to the creek. Like they say, begin simply, one foot in front of the other.
Coal Creek is about 25 feet at its broadest, but mainly it’s in the six-to seven-foot range. The trail winds through a riparian ecosystem; therefore, cottonwoods, cattails, bulrush and other grasses are thick. The air smells punky in all seasons, especially when autumn/winter’s pungent odors of rot, renewal and revegetation take over.
It’s overhung and shady for the first mile, and then opens to the edge-of-the-prairie flat landscape of western plains, with Denver to the southeast. The Rocky Mountain Continental Divide stands like a wall to the west. Horizon-wide views expand in all directions from the high point, a small rise that makes a fine sledding hill.
I know some things from merely seeing and listening with no particular purpose: a fox lives nearby — it scoots away when I approach. Ubiquitous coyotes party all summer and most of autumn. A pair of geese hangs around near what I call the “duck bridge,” and owls watch walkers from the high reaches of cottonwoods standing at the trailhead. Prairie dogs are plentiful, as are hawks, thus keeping things in balance.
That’s it. And so to the Treasure Hunt:
1. Find something round. Easy. I collect creek rocks. They rest on the fireplace mantle, make up the centerpiece of the dining room table, sit in the gear shift box of my car and are arranged in a mini-sandbox on my desk at work. Though I know it’s against the “leave things in place” rule, there are plenty to spare. Forgive me.
2. Jump like a frog, growl like a bear and flap your wings like a bird. Well why not? When no one is looking, and quickly.
3. What’s the smoothest thing you can find? Other than aforementioned creek stones: a peeled cottonwood branch, silvery and dead for ages.
4. Discover evidence that an animal has been here. Sorry to say, dog poop–an ongoing problem when humans don’t take care of doggie business. Prairie dog holes. Duck feathers on the creek bank.
5. Find something that smells good or bad. Very good smell: pungent, rotting, wet leaves. Very bad smell: the dog poop I mentioned.
6. Listen for a bird. What else can you hear? Squirrels carousing in tree branches. Chipping sparrows. Grackles. Magpies. Prairie dog whistles. Water burble. One goose honking. My splooshy shoes slipping through slush & mud.
7. Find a place where an animal would be happy. Only one? Favorite: warm, partly sheltered riverbank bend is a year-round duck and goose spa. There are five blue bee hives on a hill. Three prairie dog towns thrive in spite of the hawks.
8. How many different colors can you find? Knee-deep bright green grass grows thick along the streambed and under the cottonwoods. The path is cappuccino colored. “Duck spa” is dotted with dark chocolaty spongy places where they’ve mucked it up. See-through lime-tinted cottonwood leaves are in their early stages. Prairie dog town is a mix of light brown dirt piles around the holes and deep green weeds across the abandoned lot. Blue bee hives stand out on the hill. The creek runs clear; dappled rocks shine under the water.
9. Dig in the ground with your hand or flip over a rock or log. Mucky leaves under the log. Wet dirt. Corner of a leaf. Mud.
10. Find something that moves. Always moving water, even in winter. Birds flitting & shouting. Prairie dog running from holes A to B. Tail twitch of a squirrel. The owls fly away.
A co-worker suggests that I return to the creek with a “geeky science type” who will identify what’s there, using the Latin names. That highly educated person would observe disturbances, suggest areas for restoration, and comment on the state of the creek’s health.
I’m not interested in that. As Momaday suggests, I will touch, wonder, dwell, imagine and remember. I’ll download the next in the series of Treasure Hunts, and continue to take the exploration slowly, paying attention to the little things right in front of me. I have all the time in the world.
I will imprint these five miles so deeply on my consciousness that they appear in my dreams.
You don’t need a personal creek to connect with nature—you can do the treasure hunt in any park, garden, back yard or plot of urban land near you!
Jeannie Patton is the program coordinator for The Nature Conservancy’s LANDFIRE project, providing administrative, communications and web support. She is an enthusiastic skier, hiker and river rafter.
(Image 1: Exploring a creek. Source: Erika Nortemann/TNC. Image 2: Coal Creek. Source: Jeannie Patton/TNC.)