Project More at Cienega Creek

On October days in the Sonoran Desert, everything begins to get a little quieter. The summer’s heat is still radiating, though slowly fading away. This is something the entire desert can feel, with cool mornings and comfortable middays, it makes for perfect outdoor learning environments. On October 17th, 9 students from Project More High School embarked on an adventure into desert hills, arroyos, and creeks. Using Gabe Zimmerman Trail Head and hiking the Arizona Trail, we planned to explore this wild and changing landscape to learn about desert adaptations, medicinal and edible plants of the South West, and to investigate the deserts relationship and reaction to water.

This was the second trip of the semester, and the students were very excited. Our first portion of the hike followed the AZT south, overlooking the hilly desert landscape. We investigated many plants, such as the ocotillo to discuss their specialized abilities. Most students had never looked at an ocotillo closely. We talked about what it means to be an opportunist out here, and how the ocotillo is a master at seizing the moment. The specimen we observed had hundreds of soft leaves stemming from the grey spiny shafts. Together we saw how the ocotillo photosynthesizes, observed where the plant flowers and how people have used the shafts and flowers for centuries with tea and structure. I showed the kids that these plants are grabbable if handled delicately, and reminded them that the spines, needs, and thorns that dominate the desert have many purposes beyond protection. We moved over to the Saguaro, and I showed them that needles provide cactus’s the shade they need without the water loss that comes with leaves. The youth seemed surprised to learn these pointed spears were more than blood drawing devices.

We observed many plants with many different uses. The students were increasingly shocked that every new plant within 10 feet had a unique and distinct quality that humans have and do rely on. Using every sense, we smelled, tasted, felt, listened and deeply peered until we felt we really understood some of the desert plants. After some time of doing this, we found our way above an arroyo. Together we cautiously and safely scrambled down the arroyo walls until we found our feet at the sandy bottom. Once there, I shocked the students by asking them to remove their shoes. The kids were excited to hike barefoot through the soft sand, and together we explored the dry desert river with our feet. We tracked many animals through this area, and saw what impressions their bare feet left behind. Down here the flora looked shockingly different, with tall reeds, green grass, lots of mesquite and even juniper trees, squash, and little flowers. This place still felt like a desert, but it didn’t quite look like a desert. “Where is the water?” I asked. The kids did not know, but the felt it was close. So together we continued to hike.

Eventually, in the distance we saw towering trees that seemed to stretch endlessly from one direction to the other. The trees all held vibrant, nearly neon, green tops that shimmered in the windy sky. Under these trees were an abundance of shade, the rare smell of moisture, mud, and rot, then the crowning jewel of running water. The kids were blown away. After hiking for hours through a dry dusty desert, we had our shoes off and were walking through water that had nearly alien life to us desert dwellers. We saw fish and aquatic insects, crossed paths with a local resident ornate box turtle, and watched the avian community fly and chirp about. It truly was a foreign land. After some time, we ate lunch in this shade, spent time quite and listening to the landscape, and made rope from yucca leaves next to the creek bed.

Here we observed the differences between the previous two lands capes, comparing each one to the other and understanding what happens when water touches desert dirt. I described what it means to be a wildlife corridor, told them of the black bears, coati, and jaguars that use these low desert creeks to migrate between tall mountains. Explained that this is one of the last truly year-round running water sources, and how important these places are. The students understood, and shared their appreciation for this landscape. Once we reflected, we packed up and began our hike back. Sometimes learning goes fast when you’re having fun. For us, the information seemed endless and despite the interest there just wasn’t the time in our day. That’s the beauty of outdoor education, with protection and interest there is always more to learn. This was an amazing day, and Project More couldn’t wait to get back out.