Journey to the origin

Science hike to the headwaters of Big Chico Creek reveals dry spring, bear surprise

A spring normally produces water here, which becomes Big Chico Creek. This year, it’s dry.

A spring normally produces water here, which becomes Big Chico Creek. This year, it’s dry.

Photo by Howard Hardee

Deep in the coniferous forest surrounding Butte Meadows, in a grove accessible only by rough service roads, is a plaque built into the mossy forest floor. In block letters, it reads: “Headwaters Big Chico Creek.”

So marked is the uppermost spring that feeds Chico’s most familiar waterway. But as a group of two dozen or so hikers and I discovered during “Pilgrimage to the Headwaters” on June 7, the last of three Citizen Science Outings offered by Butte Environmental Council, the spring is eternal no longer—it has run dry.

The intent of the Citizen Science Outings was to engage community members with the Big Chico Creek Watershed, or the system of innumerable springs and tributaries that feed into the creek. Compared with, say, the Sacramento River Watershed, the Big Chico Creek Watershed is small; it takes less than 24 hours for rain in the foothills to reach the Sacramento River about 45 miles away, said Nani Teves, BEC’s watershed program coordinator. But it flows through a diverse cross-section of ecosystems and urban areas—the foothill forests, the basalt canyon in Upper Bidwell Park, the lush and shady banks in Lower Park, and then our city’s downtown core.

The 8-mile, round-trip hike started at Camp Lassen in Butte Meadows, a recreational area operated by the Boy Scouts of America, and then proceeded by service roads onto land owned by lumber-producing corporation Sierra Pacific Industries. At times it felt wild, but we were constantly reminded of human interference by the roads themselves and several patches of forest that SPI has clear-cut for timber harvest.

My knee-jerk reaction to such scenes of deforestation was disgust, but the outing’s “scientist for the day,” Randy Senock, advised me not to fret. The long-bearded geological and environmental sciences instructor at Chico State said he saw evidence of responsible timber harvest, such as arranging the limbs left behind in such a way to prevent erosion of the hillside and planting new trees to allow the forest to rebound. Indeed, saplings were growing about hip-height.

“Come back here in 10 years and it’s all good,” Senock said. “In fact, it looks like they did a great job.”

From one of those clear-cut areas emerged the outing’s greatest thrill—an adult bear, maybe 100 yards from the road.

I utterly lost my cool and shouted, “Holy shit, there’s a bear!” to the hikers within earshot. I might as well have banged pots and pans together. The bear bounded in the opposite direction, its golden-brown coat shimmering in the sunlight and back muscles rippling as it disappeared into the trees. More than one hiker described its flight as “majestic,” and I could only agree.

The outing’s “scientist for the day,” Randy Senock, is a geological and environmental sciences instructor at Chico State.

Photo by Howard Hardee

So everyone was buzzing about bears when we stopped for lunch near an iron bridge crossing Big Chico Creek, which at that elevation is a mere trickle. As it turned out, Senock knows all about bears in California and those in our region specifically.

Based on descriptions of the bear—Senock didn’t see it—he said it likely was a lone male. Given that the last grizzly bears were eradicated by hunters and ranchers less than 75 years after the discovery of gold in California, and that there’s since been only one species of bear in California, Senock could conclude with certainty that we saw an American black bear, noting that there are subspecies in the state with slightly differing genetic makeup—and fur colors.

To illustrate, Senock recounted his work at Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve (BCCER) in 2006, when he baited wires to collect hair follicle samples from local bears. Subsequent DNA testing conducted at UC Davis determined that the black bears in our region are, genetically speaking, a unique mélange of bear populations in the Cascade Range and the Sierra Nevada.

Overall, there are about 30,000 black bears in the state, Senock said, and the population is growing. “They have actually been expanding their habitat since we took out the grizzlies,” he said, “so you have a species occupying habitat we’ve made available to them.”

After lunch, the group proceeded farther uphill to our destination: the headwaters of Big Chico Creek, found in an inconspicuous patch of forest just off the road but not marked for passersby. BEC’s Teves led the first small group down to the spring and was greatly surprised to see that it had run dry. To her knowledge, that’s never happened before now.

The ongoing drought and the nearly nonexistent snowpack in the Sierra Nevada may have combined to drop the water table to the point that water no longer seeps from the spring, Teves said.

It may also be an indication of the greater shift in the climate and environment in California. As Senock emphasized over lunch, there’s no denying that they’re both changing. By analyzing the rings in an ancient tree found at BCCER, he’s gotten a general picture of the weather in Chico since 1762.

“Rainfall has been on a steady downward trend for decades. … Combined with that, and also partially due to it, there’s been an increase in temperature. Without a doubt, the climate is changing, and we’re seeing a drop-off in water, an increase in temperature, and most importantly, a change in seasonality.”

Teves pointed out a marshy swath of grass a couple hundred feet downhill from the plaque.

“That’s your headwaters this year.”