Empire High School in Cienega Creek

On November 14th, 2019, 5 students from Empire High School left for a fantastic expedition into Cienega Creek. It was a perfect November day for a hike through such a diverse place. Our goal was to explore three different eco-systems, to gain a better understanding of the adaptation of the flora and fauna and the watershed in each area. To accomplish this, we would move through a variety of terrain which ranged in difficulty, using many methods of movement to learn, explore, and play. We hoped to find water, and a place near it to relax and enjoy our long day. 

We began our hike south on the Arizona Trail, marching past Saguaros, ocotillo, mesquite trees, creosote, and so much more. Here we observed key qualities of this area, like the soil density, plant height, leaf types, and spatial distances between plants. We also looked for tracks and signs of animals listened for calls, and smelled the air. Students noticed the terrain included a series of rolling hills and a deep and very massive arroyo. “Where might the water go?” Students used gravity to understand where the water might flow, and together we better understood the watershed of this thorn scrub biome. Looking at the relationship between a Saguaro and a mesquite tree, we discussed and understood how mesquites compound leaves provide incredible heat tolerance by using leaflets to mitigate heat and dehydration, and how their dense wood limits perspiration. Saguaros use mesquite canopy for shelter from both cold, and hot temperatures. The students were surprised to learn all of this, and excited to move into the next ecosystem.

Sliding down a very steep slope, students watched me in fear. It looked like an edge no one could maneuver down, yet the soil was soft and my feet and body easily dug in. I explained to the students how to maneuver in such an area, and that it was not as dangerous as it looked. One by one the students moved down the slope, all of them laughing with painful looks on their faces. When we made it down, the youth were relieved. We entered the arroyo, the second ecosystem, and promptly removed our shoes. Hiking barefoot through this area, students were better able to see the animal tracks, because we followed very similar paths. Deer, javelina, and bobcat, and coyote were some animal tracks we spotted. Moving north, we began to see many different plants and many different habitats. Students recognized that there were a lot fewer succulents and cacti, with much less spatial distance between plants, larger and more numerous trees, with of course a large flat dried river bed. This made them so very excited. Through wet stretches of mud, we marched forward hoping to find the running water we so desperately craved. 

Finally, like lights in the sky, the canopies of green cottonwoods shined and glimmered in the afternoon sun. We made it to our riparian gallery forest, the last ecosystem on our tour. The students were relieved to be under the shade of a million-plus cottonwood leaves. Under its canopy stood a small stream of water, flowing past our feet, carrying tiny minnow fish and many little aquatic insects. We quickly removed our shoes and began to walk the creek north. I explained to the students that this creek provided the water that made the forest possible, and the forests provided shelter and habitat necessary for life. The riparian gallery forest, in turn, provided an incredible corridor for many animals to migrate, from birds to large mammals. The deciduous trees created a specialized atmosphere on a multitude of layers, from leaf litter to canopy understory. This allows specialization in this area, unique foraging and hunting behaviors, and unique dependancy behaviors. The difference in this area compared to the previous biomes we moved through was stark. The kids loved it, and felt completely fascinated by the lessons and the environment. 

It was a special experience. Our time exploring three different ecosystems let us better understand the many different aspects our desert has. The students were able to interact, bond, and learn about this environment in brand new ways. This is key if we hope to protect and promote the health and wellness of our beloved natural places. Cienega Creek is a sensitive space that needs the love and care these students from Empire High School now have.