Creepy creeks

October 17, 2010 § Leave a comment


Sweet brook or death-trap?


Ever watch Bones? It’s a crime-detection series filmed in LA, standing in for DC. Bones, a forensic anthropologist, and Booth, her FBI partner, get called out to look at skeletal remains of murder victims. From what I’ve seen, it looks like a lot of them end up dumped on the Rio Hondo. Yes, I watch Bones to play “name that stream.” But Bones also reminds me that running across death and decay, the detritus of predator-prey relationships, is a reality if you hike creeks. It’s the shadow side of our life cycle, essential to recycling nutrients for the ecosystem. But still, gruesome. Thankfully I’ve not run across human remains – smashed cars, santeria offerings…but no remains. Knock wood.

Sometimes creeks are just downright creepy.

[Grim photos follow the jump – don’t follow if you don’t want to see it.]

One hot surveying day on Caballero Canyon Creek, we ran across a bleached coyote skeleton in its middle, dry, reach. It was beautiful, in a Georgia O’Keefe way. A little sobering, a reminder of the casualness of mortality. As we continued hiking, we came to a perennial reach. Relieved to be under the canopy of trees, I bounced down to the water’s edge, watching the bubbling brook. I didn’t notice the sickly sweet smell coming from right behind me. My surveying partner said “watch out!”, and turning, there was a ribcage, exposed flesh and bone a few feet away. I nearly jumped into the creek from surprise. Of course I took a photo. And although I knew, knew, it wasn’t human, the perverse part of my brain that watches too much Bones needed someone else to tell me. It was most likely a deer.


Animal torso (deer?) on Caballero Canyon Creek


After Caballero (this was all in one day), we headed over to Bell Canyon and hiked down to the creek. The night before, I’d been regaled with stories of the old Manson Family ranch in that canyon (I later learned it was actually up nearby Santa Susana Canyon), which came back to mind after seeing that gnarly torso and coyote skeleton. I had a growing sense of doom as we worked our way through dense cobwebby willow growth, sinking above our ankles in leaf litter. Logs and tree branches lay everywhere. Woody debris was causing backwater areas, with standing, stinking, water in places. The road, only a few dozen yards away, seemed very far. Those little wildland noises – leaves rustling in the wind, a dried seedpod falling – were turning into imagined uneasy pawings of unseen creatures or perhaps wild-eyed psychotics. And then I saw it, more flesh and bone, another animal carcass decomposing at the water’s edge. A predator had been here. I was happy to get out of there, and found odd comfort in the monotony of asphalt and suburb downstream.


Cat on the Rio Hondo. Photo: Erik Stromberg, Restoration Design Group


So far, the strangest find for me was coming across a pile of woolly fur in Devil’s Canyon, looking almost as if someone had unzipped a sheep and left its skin – no carcass. How does that happen?  Also high on the creep scale was this desiccated cat on the Rio Hondo. It was big, most likely an unfortunate feral.

And then there was the time I really understood why creeks make such great places for a kill. There I was alone, in the bed of the Arroyo Seco just north of the Rose Bowl, where it has a natural channel. I’d wanted to see about some concrete removal. It was a beautiful day, I felt complete peace and solitude among the willows and alders. Then I looked down. Fresh paw prints in the wet mudflat next to the water at my feet. Big paws – I set my sunglasses next to them – the paws were about 3/4 their length (+3 1/2″-4″). Not a coyote’s. Bigger. Rounder – can I saw paddier? The big pads made me think of claws. I don’t like claws. I don’t like being alone thinking about claws. Again, rustling leaves became magnified as imaginary mountain lions. Why was I there alone? I looked up at the steep banks facing me. That’s when I noticed what any afficionado of cowboy movies or wildlife documentaries knows: dense shrub cover and higher ground of a stream’s terraces (banks) give a nice advantage to any would-be predator. You are reading this and probably thinking, “duh!” I was just thinking “!!!”

Knowing that mountain lion attacks are extremely rare provided no comfort, and knowing my friends would laugh at me later -a lot- didn’t change the fact that for a brief moment, I felt like mine could be the next carcass left on a creek.

So creeks and corpses will forever be linked, death and decay yielding nutrients for the next cycle of life. And I will take pictures.

P.S. Like animal tracks? Check this site out.

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