Just down the Creek with Empire High School

On October 15th, 2018, 8 students from Empire High School Embarked on an adventure into Cienega Creek. Using the Arizona Trail and starting from Gabe Zimmerman Trail Head, our journey took us through a wild and changing landscape. This was the first expedition of the semester for these students, and what trip it was. Our mission was to explore the exotic sub-tropical landscape of the Sonoran Desert, traversing through classic desert/thorn scrub, a dry arroyo riverbed, and a lush perennial creek submerged within a riparian gallery forest. This expedition intended to introduce students to the topic of “water in the desert”, observing the adaptive qualities of local flora, examining the geological and hydrological history of the area, and gaining a deeper understanding to how deserts react to permanent water sources.

Our hike began by hiking south on the Arizona Trail. I asked the students to observe their surroundings and see if they could find signs of water from our vantage. Though there were some signs, it would take a trained eye the students didn’t have to find it. “Your mission then is to find the water” I told them. As we hiked along, we discussed the water reserving adaptations of plants such as the ocotillo, mesquite tree, saguaro, and many more. The youth were impressed with the many different ways plants in the same environment have adapted differently to deal with the same issues. On our way, we were fortunate to find different wild foods that held water and nutrients, offering an example of how fauna might cope during dry times. Different plants around also provided medicinal qualities for humans, we as a group we spent time asking questions and examining these plants through our five senses in order to draw answers.

Soon from the trail above we were able to spot signs of water below. To our left sat a deep dry riverbed with more leafy plants then the high hills we were on. The students became excited, and together we strategized a path down. A steep and very sandy slop stood between us and the bottom, so rather than looking for an easier path we dug our heels and slowly traversed down. It was a great way to show the students the difference between perceived risk vs real risk. Though there was a risk to this path, with proper technique and assessment it was very manageable. At the bottom, we removed our shoes to feel the soft sand of the dry bed and moved forward. In our path, we saw how plants hold together rocks and soil helping to create the bank walls. In the arroyo, very different plants such as seep willow, cattail, coyote squash, and much more grew abundant. Small sections held moist dirt creating a foster home for soft green grasses and other similar plant types that became a joy to walk through. Eventually, our path took us to a tall arroyo bank wall with many sediment layers. Here students could see times of high water, drought, and even times when the entire landscape was under ocean water. This perplexed the students and realizing they were viewing hundreds of thousands of years into the past brought a dense understanding of the environment. Using our hands, we separated soils and truly touched ancient earth soils.

Finally, after winding through the dry arroyo the students shouted “water!”. In the distance, students could see the tops of very green trees. They began running with excitement and soon came upon an alien landscape. Massive cottonwood trees created a ribboned canopy that stretched as far as the eye could see. Below it ran a little creek full of green life, insects, amphibians, and more. A continuous breeze carried sweet smells of creek water, wet soil, cottonwood bark, and warm grasses. We discussed the fragility of this water source, and I described how important it is as a habitat and source of nourishment to the wildlife around. With this, we treaded cautiously through the water, shocking our dusty bare feet with cold water. In this incredible place, we tracked animals, observed the extreme effects of flash floods, sat to eat lunch, then explored on. We played in thick chocolate like mud, bushwhacked thick foliage, and found schools of native fish.

After a long while of play and learning, we sat to compare the previous two landscapes to this one and each other. The students explained they could not have imagined these types of transformations, historically and presently if they had not seen them for their selves. They had no idea that the desert is a survivalist landscape waiting to explode with green lush life at a water drops notice. We sat for a while just listening to the sound of cottonwood leaves rattling in the wind and breathing in the deep sweet air. Once we fulling reflected on our observations and curiosities, we began our way back. Collectively we hiked a total of 32 miles, four miles for each student. When we made it back to the vehicle, we were dusty, muddy, dry, wet, tanned, and cool. All signature marking of the desert, and a true sign it was a successful day of outdoor learning.