“I’ve never done this hike before,” said sixth-grader Dexter Tiffany.
He wasn’t alone. A few of the other Rim Country Middle School’s (RCMS) Outdoor Adventure Club (OAC) members had never hiked the Fossil Springs Trail before either.
Yet the five girls and three boys boldly stood in the parking lot at the top of the trail on a glorious April morning, waiting for instructions from Scott Davidson, the teacher who runs the club.
“Make sure all of you have enough water,” said Davidson. “Put on some sunscreen. We’ll go down to the springs, and then take a further hike to the dam. It’s a long day, so be prepared.”
But how could the sixth- and seventh-graders prepare for what they had never experienced?
Each April, weather permitting, RCMS science teacher Davidson takes his OAC group four miles down the canyon to the springs that feed Fossil Creek, trekking past the Forest Service signs at the trailhead warn of the 1,200-foot elevation change, lack of potable water and potential for heat exhaustion.
But April is the perfect month for this hike. Not too hot, not too cold, warm enough to take a dip in the water, yet cool enough to make the hike back up the hill bearable.
Although the hike location and destination don’t change, each year some new surprise awaits the group.
This year, it started with the parking lot.
“Oh look, they made improvements,” said Davidson as the group drove into the parking lot and he saw the cement barriers and new restrooms. New signs warned of the dangers of the trail, dehydration and heat exhaustion. The signs also strongly suggested hikers take four liters of water per person and wear sturdy shoes.
Each summer, the volunteers with Tonto Rim Search and Rescue and Mounted Posse pull out hikers suffering from heat exhaustion, sprains, breaks and fall.
In the past, visitors got down to the canyon on Fossil Creek Road in Strawberry. But the Forest Service closed the road two years ago, which means a 60-mile drive north on 87, then west on 260 toward Camp Verde before accessing the other end of Fossil Creek Road right before the Verde River. Then day trippers must bounce over 15 miles of dirt road to reach the creek.
The beautiful creek flows at 43 to 56 cubic feet per second, which convinced early settlers to harvest the flow to produce energy. Fossil Creek housed the first hydroelectric power plant in Arizona. Started in 1908, the Childs Power Plant built by the Arizona Power Company brought power to the mines in Jerome and the Bradshaw Mountains. In 1916, the company expanded and built the Irving Power Plant along Fossil Creek, which provided most of the power for Phoenix in the early 1900s.
By 2005, Arizona Public Service decided to dismantle the hydroelectric power plants and restore the creek to its natural state.
In 2009, the Nature Conservancy convinced President Barack Obama to add Fossil Creek to the Wild and Scenic River system, hoping to use the designation to help protect the creek. After publicity from magazines such as Arizona Highways, visitation jumped from 3,000 to 30,000 and more recently to 90,000 annually.
The Forest Service was overwhelmed. Citing a price tag of over $120,000 to keep the road from Strawberry to the creek open, the Forest Service closed that road in 2011. The closure did little to slow down the rise in visitation from the Camp Verde side.
But the closure from the Strawberry side had turned a trek to the creek into just the sort of adventure Davidson seeks for his young charges. The trail reaches the canyon bottom in a barren stretch above the spring. But once hikers hit the first spring, a verdant world emerges.
The stretch of Fossil Creek between the first spring and the 15-foot-tall dam that once diverted water into a flume for the power plant remains in its natural state, with water plants that look like houseplants standing up straight in crystal clear pools. It makes it hard to tell they grow underwater. Long strands of maidenhair 20-feet-long create an eerie otherworldly trail along the bottom of the creek.
Along the shores of pools, clumps of algae create shelves that protect schools of tiny native fish. Moss covers almost every rock.
As the group arrives at the water, Davidson keeps up a constant chatter. “Wow. This must have been a great year with storms,” he said, “I’ve never seen so much water above the springs.”
Davidson stops the group at the first spring, answering a pitter-patter of questions.
“I’ve heard that algae creates more oxygen than any other plant on earth,” said Davidson. “Sure does look like there are more plants than in years past.”
As wonderful a resource he is to the kids, he’s also a big kid himself. He loves to play in the water. He splashes students and lies down in waterfalls. Inevitably, students launch a moss attack on their teacher.
“Hey guys, we’re really clouding up the water,” he said, “I know these plants will probably flow downstream and re-grow, but we need to be more gentle.”
After resting up from the descent, they head off a mile downstream to the old dam, splashing in and out of the water along the way.
“I like to let them play and experience the outdoors safely,” said Davidson. “If they don’t learn how to respect and enjoy the outdoors, how can we expect them to be good stewards of the earth?”
Students who have moved into the Payson school district say their old schools never had anything like Davidson’s OAC. Davidson spends as much of the day in the Fossil Creek watershed as possible. The OAC group meets at 7:30 a.m. and returns close to 8 p.m.
By then, students will have covered 10 miles and accumulated a lifetime of memories.
“I’m really proud of myself,” said Shyenne Fowler. “I didn’t think I would make it back up as fast as I did.”