What’s in a name?

Megan is 15 years old and a sophomore at the Camptonville Academy. She has grown up in Chico, loves nature and volunteers weekly at the Barry R. Kirshner Wildlife Foundation in Durham. She wants to be a veterinarian.

Dead Horse Slough. It’s an unappealing name for a small creek that runs perpendicular to my street a few blocks away from my house. Often it is overlooked in favor of Bidwell Park, which is another few blocks down in the opposite direction. In late summer, it is composed of only a few small, stagnating puddles, whose surfaces are covered with a thick film of algae. Then, even those eventually disappear, leaving the ground littered with the dead carcasses of crawfish and other pond life, surrounded by a few raccoon tracks, whose makers seem almost non-existent as they are not present in daylight.

When winter arrives with heavy rain, the water stampedes back into the empty creek bed like a herd of wild horses, forming rapids and strong currents of muddy water. There is always the possibility of it growing too large for its living space, and flowing over its banks covered in dense thorny blackberry bushes and causing nearby houses to flood. Fortunately for the neighbors, this devastating event is not a frequent one.

It seems that late spring is the only time that the slough tries to prove itself better than its name, the water’s current gradually begins to slow, and it becomes clear enough that the bottom of the creek bed is visible. Visitors other than humans may be present at this time, such as ducks, herons or other waterfowl. The carcasses of deceased crawfish have all been washed away by the strong currents of winter and replaced with living ones, who occupy the cracks and crevices along the banks and under rocks. Other forms of life that become present at the time are small pollywogs, who bunch together in tight clusters along the bank, either trying their best to resemble some kind of aquatic plant, or fighting over and devouring a piece of algae. Others pepper themselves in sparse patches, resting on the bottom of the creek bed, occasionally testing out their developing lungs by briefly swimming to the surface to gasp for air.

Large schools of minnows also reoccupy the slough, moving in unison like a flock of sheep over a grassy field comprised entirely of water. Occasionally they will disperse in the event of an unknown object falling into the water, and later when they’ve gathered up the courage, slowly flock around the object in question out of curiosity and boredom.

It is yet to be [re-]discovered why the slough is named after a dead horse. Even though it’s just another small body of water that eventually flows into Big Chico Creek, it doesn’t seem to be dead at all.

Editor’s note: Megan felt moved to write this essay after learning that the slough, which runs through contaminated Humboldt Dump property, “is soon to be filled in and replaced with a large pipe. I thought it best to give it a place on the map before it disappears.”