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In Memory of Coal Creek, Colorado

Jeannie Patton 9/20/2013

Coal CreekThis is a reissue of a blog that appeared in May of 2012. The Coal Creek path was destroyed in severe Colorado floods in September 2013. Our neighborhood rebuilt it in 2014. 

The story:

Coal Creek runs adjacent to a small walking path near my home in Lafayette, Colorado.  Starting at about 9,000 feet above sea level, it flows through lower Front Range pine and spruce forest, across grasslands and through farm land. The creek dissects two towns, and eventually meanders to merge with the South Fork of the North Platte River near Broomfield, a town northwest of Denver.  Once miners discovered seams of carbon along most of the creek’s course, it was nearly doomed. 1859 through 1956 were tough years; “manhandled” is an understatement. Yet it survived and is recovering nicely thanks to protected space rules.

For years, I’ve walked a five-mile loop that leads west to Louisville, always stopping at Vic’s Coffee Shop where I have a punch card, where the creek and path part ways. 

Lately I’ve been meditating on what Pulitzer Prize-winning author N. Scott Momaday calls the “remembered earth” and I am realizing how little attention I’ve paid to the creek’s own life.

"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. We ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind. We ought to recollect the glare of noon and all the colors of the dawn and dusk." (The Way to Rainy Mountain)

Beginning the exercise of self-tutoring, I went to Google and found “Nature Rocks” and then downloaded the “Nature Treasure Hunt” guide.  The primer is written for four-to-seven year old kids. For as much as I know about Coal Creek, I might as well be one.  So I printed out the Treasure Hunt checklist, put on a jacket and went for a walk.  

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 plans, 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.

What little I know from merely seeing and barely listening:  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: 

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • What’s the smoothest thing you can find? Other than aforementioned creek stones: a peeled cottonwood branch, silvery and dead for ages.  
  • 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.
  • Find something that smells good or bad. Very good smell: pungent, rotting, wet leaves. Very bad smell: the dog poop I mentioned.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • How many different colors can you find?  Mid-winter: straw-yellow grasses, green grass on creek bank. Black-coffee-brown and red decaying cottonwood leaves. Chocolaty, muddy path. The hive boxes. Rusty barbed wire fence strung on peeling, weathered silver-ish wood posts.
  • 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.
  • 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 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.

But I’m not interested in any of that right now. In naming, mystery is diminished and adventure leashed. As Momaday suggests, I want to wonder, to dwell, to imagine. I intend to listen and to recollect. I’ll download the next in the series of Treasure Hunts.  I hope to imprint these five miles so deeply on my consciousness that they appear in my dreams. There’s no Latin derivation that can mend my heart like moving water does.

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