|Stillman in the sticks. photo:Jack Elliott.|
Alright, let's break a champagne bottle on the bow of my latest brainchild, the Sespe Connect. Sespe Creek is a 60 mile watershed that starts at Potrero Seco a couple miles above Cherry Creek on Highway 33 and ends at the Santa Clara River below the town of Fillmore. Most of this stretch is a protected National Waterway and the Sespe is one of the only un-dammed, un-diverted rivers in Southern California. This Sespe Connect project is about linking the thing end-to-end, literally. This idea stared with a self-inflicted guilt trip. I have driven up Hwy 33 hundreds of times and on many of these rides I wondered what all lay in the creek bed just off the road. I'd ruminated on this long enough that it just kind of became a given that I'd have to undertake a downstream exploration, if only to satisfy my curiosity. I had to decide how far up the creek I wanted to put in, and I figured I'd end it at the Black Wall at Sespe Gorge or even as far down at Tule Creek. This is where the Sespe Connect idea sprang from; if I was gonna start at Cherry Creek and walk all that stretch, why not make it legit and just walk the whole river?
I'd need a partner for this and I thought of Jack Elliott (link) first. He seemed to think about it for a little bit longer than normal before agreeing. I explained that the Sespe Connect was a side project, something to put together over some time. He was down for it and so we embarked on Stage I, the 8.6 mile stretch from Cherry Creek to Tule Creek.
|Jack Elliott, David Stillman. Sespe Connect (Stage I).|
|Here's the Stage I map, route in yellow.|
Jack and I took off from Cherry Creek at 0800 and it was already a hot one. We walked a bone-dry creek bed for at least a mile before saw any sign of water. We could have been walking down any of a dozen seasonal drainages. The wash was wide and sandy, littered with cobbles. We encountered some of the usual stuff one might expect: shotgun shells, inanimate objects shot to shit, the occasional beer can with a bullet hole in it. A mile or two from our start we began encountering small stretches of mossy and muddy ground water and we proceeded into the green heart of a watershed in the throes of a severe dry-year crisis.
|Blazing Star, Mentzelia laevicaulis|
|Prickly Poppy, Argemone munita. Originally misidentified as Matilija Poppy.|
|This 80 foot shale slide is clearly visible from Hwy 33.|
This uppermost part of the stream (now that there was water) was a wall of overhead cat-tails so thick that the path of least resistance was to act like water. We weaved through these thickets using the deepest part of the creek as our guide. The reeds were so thick that we often couldn't even see our feet. We were soon covered in a neon yellow-green pollon that exploded from the smaller cat-tails. All it took was for us to brush one of the plants and poof!, we'd be hit with a blast of fine yellow dust that stuck in your nose and mouth and made your clothes look like you been in a yellow flour-fight (below). We further accessorized our pollon makeover with a general sprinkling of sticks, leaves, seeds, and unidentified organic matter.
|Getting dusted on Hi-Grade pollon.|
As you can see from the pictures above, the creek becomes a real waterway about a mile above the old Chorro Pack Station (which also used to be a stage stop where riders could change out teams and get a bite). We now walked entirely in the creek under a canopy of sycamore, maple and cottonwood. We scattered schools of little trout and frequently saw larger ones; we later saw two trout that measured in the 1foot range, give or take. We sloshed down an arbored path, glad for the shade and glad for the water.
|The old Chorro Station.|
|Tweekerville. One of two homestead leases on this section of Sespe Connect.|
|Bunch grass in the creek bed.|
Eventually the creek went back underground. This went on for at least a mile. We were back out in the heat. We walked sandbars and rocky shoals, saw a million more reeds. After a while we started getting to a section of the creek that I recognized from a previous exploration. At that time I'd been wandering in search of undiscovered bouldering (without a lot of luck). A short time later we entered an area called the Snake Pits (mile 33 from Ojai). This little gorge used to have a pair of long, deep pools. It was a popular area and one could jump from the rocks, swim laps, do a little over-water bouldering or catch some harmful UV-rays. A recent Mountain Gear catalogue had a picture of a guy slack-lining over the Snake Pits at sunset. The place was a bone dry channel of sand and gravel. No more swimming until the next big gully washer.
|This fish had suffocated in a land-locked pool of stagnant water.|
|Dry creek bed.|
|More dry creek bed.|
|The Upper Snake Pits. Just a couple years ago this pool was deep and clear. You could jump from the rocks.|
|The lower Snake Pits, bone dry and filled in with sand.|
A mile or so below the Snake Pits we finally got to the junction of Potrero John Creek and shortly after that we saw the bridge at Derrydale Creek. Here we began encountering many of the larger rocks and boulders that had been missing upstream. I supposed that many of these boulders had washed down from the aforementioned creeks. We were back in the shade, sloshing merrily downstream when we passed under The Fortress and the Potrero John Wall: too hot for anybody to be out climbing today. We creek-slogged for another mile before reaching the Black Wall at Sespe Gorge, a place I know well. The water level gauge at the base of the wall read like a bad joke. We passed out of the early afternoon shade as we rounded the last big bend in before Tule Creek.
|The bridge at Potrero John Creek.|
|Jack, Jack, Jack of the Jungle.|
|Jack and his silt wake.|
|The water gauge at Sespe Gorge (mile 31 form Ojai). I would guess that this is not good.|
|Sespe Gorge aka The Black Wall.|
|We found several warm sulfer seeps along the length of Stage I|
|For the whole story on this rarely seen snake-on-snake predation see: King Snake Kills!!!|
We had two encounters with king snakes on this day, and one of the simply extraordinary. Jack and I got to witness a king snake straight up kill a garter snake and attempt to eat the larger garter (see link to story in caption above). Our second king snake was a long ebony and ivory beauty (think: piano keys). I tried to pin him down but he was a quick and feisty adult, not having any of me. He slipped away easily, almost slithering over Jack's boots in his haste to get lost. I have mentioned before that king's are my favorite snakes and I felt doubly blessed by these experiences.
|Jack and the King.|
We continued toward the junction of the Sespe and Tule Creek, passing under a graffitied bridge and over to the east side of the 33. We climbed out of the creek and, in an effort to be thorough about this project, traversed under the rocky scarp that is high and left from the road when driving in the direction we were traveling. We didn't find much other than poison oak and cottonwood trees. We soon climbed out of the creek directly under where Jack had parked his rig.
So that's Stage 1 of Sespe Connect in a nut shell. I think we both had a fine day even if it wasn't the blood bath murder day we've both come to expect when out in the sticks together. And that's okay (once in a while). Stage 2 will be from Tule Creek to the Piedra Blanca Trail head, another brushy creekfest through Middle Sespe. And now I've also shared this idea with all of you, and if you feel like giving it a shot, knock yourself out. I only own the idea, the rest of this is teamwork and I've got a great off-road partner in Jack. We've both got other projects in the works (some joint) so stay checked in. We'll keep it coming.
|Sespe Creek at Tule Creek, and the end of our day.|