The timeless land
The flora and fauna of Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve suggest a place beyond time
About 11 minutes east from Chico Park & Ride, up Highway 32, you’ll find it. Up among the wildflower-speckled sides of the road, nestled down toward Big Chico Creek, down a zigzagging dirt road into the canyon. And as one descends into those shaded depths, passing the moss-wrapped black oaks and big-leaf maples, one feels as if one is slipping somehow into the past, a past at once both near and distant.
Welcome to the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve.
This time of year, the slumbering area is now awakening with flora and fauna everywhere across its shade-veiled sloping hillsides. Fortunately, the Bidwell Environmental Institute and Chico State University—the property’s manager and owner, respectively—are now offering docent-led treks down into the property, presenting the public with opportunities to become better acquainted with those living things just beyond our community’s back porch.
It’s a dim Saturday morning in late March. I stand among a group of about 15 people in the eastern parking lot of Chico Park & Ride. Dense gray clouds are beginning to coalesce overhead, but our intrepid little group climbs into automobiles and proceeds to the reserve anyway. We are guided by volunteer Nancy Hawley, a petite, bespectacled, energetic, middle-aged brunette who, while knowledgeable, still doesn’t hesitate to consult anyone with a field guidebook when confronted with a curiosity, whether animal, vegetable or mineral.
Right off, as we are descending by vehicle into the reserve, Hawley spots something most uncommon to this particular area. It’s a small cluster of red, elongated blooms atop a narrow green shaft—the scarlet fritillary.
Parked and now standing near the reserve’s storage barn, we are each presented with small slips of paper asking that we please adhere to the area’s guidelines—mostly that we do not disturb anything or try to collect whatever natural objects we encounter. We each sign these, and off we trek.
The wildflowers are just now beginning to emerge here. They appear in small scatterings like spilled paint along our path down into the canyon. As we hike on, we can’t help but be impressed by the amount of thick, green moss adhering to the dark limbs of the oaks and maples quickly gathering around the path. Behind us, the vehicles are now out of sight.
Suddenly, Hawley points out something in the dark-brown mud.
Great three-toed tracks cross our path. But the prints don’t belong to some newly resurrected dinosaur, although they look as if they could. Instead, they have been left by one of the wild turkeys regularly crossing the property. In fact, Hawley says that the turkey population has exploded so much, the reserve is allowing some limited hunting to thin out the flock a bit. Fortunately for us unarmed hikers, hunting on the reserve is limited to certain days of the week. We don’t run into any gun-toting enthusiasts. For that matter, we don’t see any wild turkeys either.
A brook tumbles down across the sloping land, and we are forced to balance ourselves over stones and the odd branch to cross the rushing water. Once ashore, we note that those ahead of us are standing silently and gazing off down the hill. Far away, about a hundred yards or so, in a star-thistle-dotted glade, several deer have their antlered heads up, looking back in our direction. Someone makes a bit of noise behind us while haphazardly crossing the brook. And, of course, the deer are off and bounding into the safer confines of a copse of trees.
As we stand there, watching the last deer disappear among those distant trees, the crackling sounds of the brook behind us, it’s easy to feel that we could have been standing in this place 100 years ago.
About five days later, I return to Big Chico Creek Nature Reserve, only this time with CN&R photographer Tom Angel and reserve manager Roger Lederer. Tall, bearded and articulate, Lederer is quick to point out that anyone can visit the nature reserve anytime, provided they fill out one of the waivers beforehand. Those visitors, however, won’t be able to park down by the barn, as we docent-led hikers were able to do a few days previously. They’ll have to park a bit back down Highway 32 and then hike to the appropriate gate that opens onto the road down here.
We’re on the property only a few minutes, and Lederer suddenly points something out.
There. Just crossing a brook about 40 yards away. The speckled brown feathers. The bobbing head. It’s a wild turkey hen. And she’s beating a hasty retreat across the brook. Angel breaks out his camera. However, in the mere seconds that it takes for him to change to a telephoto lens, the elusive fowl has crested the hill opposite the brook and disappeared. One can almost imagine the voice of late Wild Kingdom TV show host Marlin Perkins comparing the turkey’s narrow escape to the benefits of Mutual of Omaha’s life insurance.
Lederer seems unconcerned with our nearly deadly encounter with this nigh prehistoric beast. He’s down brookside, examining the submerged sides of rocks, searching for the brilliant orange newts that begin to appear in the reserve this time of year. Unfortunately, none of the amphibians avail themselves.
We move upstream a bit.
Lederer soon points out a clump of mushrooms hidden in the tall, yellow-green grass covering the hillside. While Angel takes several different angle shots of the fungi, Lederer and I gaze off down the canyon. He’s saying something about just how far the property extends, but his voice trails off. We gaze through the trees to the far side of the canyon, at the exposed strata of dark and ruddy rock there. The brook is burbling nearby. I think about all those clichéd words for brooks—bubbling, burbling, murmuring. And it does seem for a moment that the brook is murmuring. That it is telling us something about who we are and where we are.
It could easily be a hundred years ago.
Nancy Hawley leads more walks through the Big Chico Creek Nature Reserve on Saturday, April 12, and Sunday, April 20. Meet at Chico Park & Ride at 9 a.m. to carpool to the reserve. Dress appropriately and bring drinking water. Rain within 24 hours cancels the walk. For more information, contact Roger Lederer at (530) 898-6317.