Blisters + Waterfalls = Paradise

Fossil Creek trek in floppity sandals reveals native fish refuge restored to its luminous glory

The most scenic waterfall on Fossil Creek lies about two miles upstream from where the road from Strawberry to Camp Verde hits the creek near the abandoned power plant.

The most scenic waterfall on Fossil Creek lies about two miles upstream from where the road from Strawberry to Camp Verde hits the creek near the abandoned power plant.

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Pete Aleshire/Roundup

Two Arizona Game and Fish Department researchers compare notes on the banks of Fossil Creek, which has become a refuge for native fish.

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Pete Aleshire/Roundup

Fall colors should peak along the creek in the next week or two, offering brilliant still-lifes, like this sycamore leaf caught in a pool of water tinted with natural oils.

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Pete Aleshire/Roundup

Arizona Game and Fish fisheries branch manager Kirk Young pauses on the banks of Fossil Creek. The spring that feeds Fossil Creek, just west of Strawberry, is laden with travertine, a form of dissolved limestone.

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Pete Aleshire/Roundup

The stream picks up the mineral as it seeps through buried layers of limestone, which are comprised of the compressed skeletons of sea creatures that settled on the bottom of ancient seabeds. The travertine gives the water its distinctive clarity and blue green-color.

Pausing on a precarious point of balance in the midst of the swirl of Fossil Creek, I listened for the deeper rush of the waterfall I’d been promised.

Kirk Young, the head of the Arizona Game and Fish fisheries branch, had already disappeared around the corner ahead — impatient finally with the pace of an awestruck photographer.

The day shimmered all around me — the smear of white clouds in the aching sky, the first flush of yellow and gold in the sycamores and willows, the tremble of the still-green cottonwoods, the rustle of ash and alder.

But the most remarkable tint of all gleamed in the surreal aqua-blue-green-turquoise waters of Fossil Creek.

The water had emerged from a great spring some miles upstream, saturated with travertine leached from the deep layers of limestone through. Now the dissolved limestone was giving up its carbon dioxide and precipitating out of the water to make mineral deposits on the rock at my sandaled feet.

I flexed my right foot experimentally, to determine whether the bump on the strap had yet started a blister. Hmm. No. Wait. Maybe. Darn. No matter — we’re nearly there.

Kirk had promised to blow my mind, even before he revealed that researchers from Northern Arizona University had concluded the creek was every day depositing 13 tons of travertine on the rocks and roots along the streambed — making drip-castle deposits on the rock and building meandering check dams that made stretches of the stream look like hills covered with intricately terraced Chinese rice paddies.

When it came to mind blowing, he pretty much had me at “13 tons of travertine a day.” However, he wanted to finish me off with the waterfall — the scenic centerpiece of what may become the showcase native fish stream in the Southwest.

We’d connected alongside the road two miles downstream for our hike. I’d come well booted, with water sandals stashed in the back of the Jeep in hopes of doing some catch-and-release fishing for headwater and bonytail chub. These trout-like native fish have laid claim to the resurrected stream, revived after a century of flowing down the flume to a generator to run street lights in distant Phoenix. Young hoped that by investing a day in wowing a reporter he could build support for the just-opened catch-and-release fishery.

He sized me up in the turnout parking lot and suggested we stray a little ways up to the stream’s best waterfall. I’d come figuring we’d loiter about, fishing for the thriving native bonytail and headwater chub in some of the crystal clear, 15-foot-deep pools down by the bridge to the abandoned power plant.

But Kirk wanted me to see the waterfall.

“How far?” I asked.

“Couple miles,” he said. “We’ll have to cross the stream a couple times,” he said, eyeing my sturdy, leather hiking boots.

“Good,” I said. “I’ll change.”

So I put on shorts and my strapped-on water sandals, although I realized as I cinched down the Velcro I’d brought the pair of blister makers with the partially separated sole I’d been too cheap to throw away.

Now two miles upstream on a perfect fall day, I felt good — like the hero of a Bruce Springsteen song. Glory days, brother. Glory days.

Kirk had dazzled me with every bend in the stream, with the golden-yellow of the sycamores somehow refracting against the Shangri-La hue of the water.

The effort to restore Fossil Creek had so far proved wildly successful. Biologists had removed most of the native fish, then poisoned out the non-natives like the swarms of sunfish. To the surprise and delight of biologists, not only did the new fish barriers keep the non-natives from moving upstream from the Verde, but even the crayfish had disappeared.

No one knows why. Young speculates that perhaps the voracious, non-native egg and minnow eaters can’t handle the travertine in the water, which rapidly coats anything that rests on the bottom — including the crayfish and the things they eat.

As a final, added benefit — the stream so far harbors no non-native bullfrogs — one of the great scourges of riparian areas.

As a result, Fossil Creek remains blissfully free of most of the introduced species that have driven native fish and amphibians to the brink of extinction along most Arizona streams.

That may account for the booming chub population — now an estimated 15,000 — along with the return of the endangered Chiricahua Leopard Frog and a host of other native species.

So Young had impressed the heck out of me just with his tales of restoration biology, never mind the psychedelic scenery.

Now within earshot of the waterfall, I hurried forward — ready for the climax.

Sure enough, the waterfall spilled over a 30-foot cliff. The turquoise water swirled around the rim of a deep pool and a shimmering yellow tree set itself against the deep blue sky.

Young stood on the banks of the swirl, proud as a new father while I grabbed my camera to shutter and exclaim.

Then we climbed up to the top of the waterfall, where Kirk stood alongside, discreetly ready to snatch me back from the edge should I misjudge things through the viewfinder.

Eventually, I put the camera down and looked around in a daze.

I noticed then that Young was looking wistfully upstream.

“What’s up there?” I asked.

“The spring,” he said. “I haven’t been up there for a while.”

I flexed my foot, noting the developing sore.

“Want to push on?” I asked, tentatively.

He glanced at me dubiously.

“Let’s go,” I said, nettled by the whiff of pity.

“Well,” he said, “we’ve been moving pretty slow.”

“I’ll put my camera away,” I said.

He studied me.

“No. Really,” I said, taking off my day pack and stuffing my camera inside.

He shrugged, but I could see that the decision had made him happy.

So we pushed on, my pride positioned right before a fall. The sole of my sandal had begun to flop loose with every wet step, a floppent mockery.

Alas, I have never known when to quit.

Above the falls, the canyon narrowed and the trees grew thicker. The trail flickered in and out of existence in the underbrush. The closer we moved to the beckoning spring, the more marshy areas we encountered, thanks to the effects of those 13 tons of travertine laid down every day.

The water rushing past my feet now probably fell as rain atop the Mogollon Rim thousands of years ago. To reach me, the water had to make its inexorable way down through thousands of feet of fractured limestone.

That limestone had its own ancient lineage, since it’s composed of the skeletons of marine creatures who’d sunk to the bottom of some long-vanished inland sea.

The patient water followed fractures and fault lines, dissolving the calcium carbonate in the limestone as it moved. Eventually, it followed a fracture to the surface, emerging as the spring that feeds Fossil Creek.

Here in the narrower canyon closer to the spring, the stream seemed much more creative and diligent about building drip castles and check dams. So we repeatedly lost the trail in this swamp of sycamores, water cress and cat tails.

We pushed on until past two, stumbling out of the undergrowth finally to find a nested series of ponds, stored up behind a cascade of travertine check dams. Consulting his GPS, Young decided we’d made it to within a mile of the spring — but had to turn around now if we were to make it back to the cars before dark.

I was relieved, but tried to look disappointed. I had already made a good start on my blister, with all those miles to retrace.

So I walked carefully out along the narrow rim of the meandering travertine dam that held back the pool. The stream brimmed happily over the lip of the dike and down through a series of pools each full of brilliant green water cress.

So I sat happily on the spillover of paradise. A deep-green Chiricahua Leopard Frog took fright at my meditations and made a great leap into the middle of the pond, as the shadows of the chub criss-crossed beneath.

Fossil Creek set to work coating my blister with travertine as I sat in perfect bliss, grateful that I have still never learned when to stop.

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