Mammoth Monthly

August 2004


Hot Times in Furnace Creek Canyon

In a desert oasis, backpacking

amid an environmental fight


By Suzanne Hurt


The sun is already redlining this morning in the Mojave Desert.

We're backpacking in a sandy wash near the border between California and Nevada. This place is so dry some plants don't have leaves, or at least any leaves you'd notice. Like the California Joint Fir, known in some parts as Whorehouse tea and commonly called Mormon tea. Laced with ephedrine, this plant is the answer to a desert tweaker's prayer.

We won't need hallucinatory assistance if we stay here long; water is scarce in this lonely valley east of the White Mountains. Luckily, we're heading to an oasis: a desert canyon with a creek. But its name is far from comforting. It's called Furnace Creek.

We're hitting the creek the first weekend in May, when plant life is peaking. Each season has its own beauty, but the canyon bakes June through October.

We've travelled here after the California Wilderness Coalition listed the creek as one of the state's 10 most threatened wild places of 2004. The closest town is Dyer, Nev. -- a one-market, two-tavern watering hole for the parched ranchers and farmers out here.

Denizens of the desert have been escaping into Furnace Creek Canyon for decades. The creek is so remote, it escaped notice by all but the locals until 10 years ago. Then environmentalists discovered the perennial desert stream and criticized four-wheeling done in recent years. The damage was included in a lawsuit filed against federal agencies by the Center for Biological Diversity, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Sierra Club.

Environmentalists struggled for nearly a decade to get Furnace Creek closed to vehicles. In March 2003, the Ridgecrest Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management and Inyo National Forest temporarily banned offroading while they consider the issue. A permanent decision is expected in September.

There's no confusing this place with its neighbor, Death Valley's Furnace Creek. That has a palm-tree resort with spring-fed swimming pools and an 18-hole golf course. This one has desert horned lizards, a spring-fed marshy creek and a sign box used for target practice.

We backpack past lone Joshua Trees standing like sentinels on the northern edge of the Mojave. We enter Furnace Creek Canyon between walls formed by alluvial fans and hike into the narrowed mouth of the canyon. We climb a green metal barricade rail installed last spring. Then we step into an oasis.

The sound of trickling water soothes our dry ears. A metalmark butterfly catches rays on white-blossomed Spanish needles. A Western Whiptail lizard boulders on ankle-high rocks near desert dandelions and globemallow.

Furnace Creek is surprisingly small -- in some places, no more than a foot wide and an inch deep. The creek is fueled by a four-mile-long system of seeps and springs. Yet this unassuming little creek has drawn amazing life into the desert.

The canyon is threaded by riparian woodlands, boggy wetlands, desert pools and wildflowers. Pink and white phlox, and pink, orange and carmine desert paintbrush explode from sandy slopes. Neotropical migrants like black-chinned hummingbirds and yellow Wilson's warblers hunt for insects along the creek. Bobcats, wood rats and wild horses have left fresh signs of their passing.

The canyon slopes up on both sides as much as 150 feet. We hike up and down the slopes, crossing the creek repeatedly. Sometimes the canyon opens into wide, flat wetlands.

Hiking in these temperatures would be cake except for the ripstop beasts riding our backs. After a couple hours in the sun, I don't give a damn about the miserable little flowers clinging to life in this lost patch of desert. Another shade of desert paintbrush? Send me a postcard.

We cross the creek, head uphill once again and finally drop our packs at a spot where two mourning doves cry in a dead pinyon. Like most other life in the desert, the doves rely on riparian systems and wetlands for survival.

We'd love to camp in the shade under one of the pinyons, junipers, water birches or cottonwoods. But the only flat spot not claimed by fragile grass or wetlands is the road. We'll make camp here, surrounded by canyon walls on nearly three sides. Tres Plumas Flat rises in the distance. We pack lunch and camera gear and take a trail into the heat of the afternoon.

We hike up the stream. Shiny green leaves blast out of cottonwoods. Wild roses leaf out next to the road. A Mojave mound cactus throws red blooms out of a gray hillside. The canyon is amazing in the context of the desert around it, but sometimes you have to look for it. We lie on the road to check out "belly flowers" like miniature blazing stars and sticky yellowthroats. A serotonin rush from the sun floods our veins with liquid gold.

We follow a well-worn path. Native Americans first trailed into the canyon. Settlers travelled by wagon and horseback. Recent residents have gone hunting with ATVs, SUVs and motorcycles, sometimes crossing the creek in lower areas when it was dry. A few pushed further up and crossed the creek and wetlands to negotiate gullies and side canyons. Sometimes they're just passing through on their way into the White Mountains, the country's highest desert mountain range.

Today a gravel road follows washes, hills and ridges through the canyon. We pass spots where tires have torn up the creek bottom or created channels in and across the creek. In one bog, treads have dug a 40- to 50-foot trench nearly a foot deep.

Deserts may look rugged. Scientists now know they're sensitive ecosystems that scar easily and heal slowly. BLM officials say driving in the creek has accelerated erosion, damaged or destroyed plants, and degraded water quality.

Creeks are the desert's lifeblood. Only one percent of the West is riparian habitat -- and 95 percent already has been changed or destroyed. California also has lost more than 90 percent of its wetlands.

We hike to a spot where water rushes through tracks left last fall when people on ATVs sawed through the green rail during hunting season. A second steel bar was added later. The tracks lead into a stand of water birch cut for vehicles. The torn up area is nursing itself back to health. Sun shines through the leaves, turning them into a peaceful corridor of green stained glass.

We head back to our packs in the late afternoon. The moon is rising over mountains to the east. We look at our gear.

"We could put up the tent. Or we could cook," I say.

"We could run around naked," Eric counters, like he doesn't think I'll do it.

We rip off our clothes. Eric leaves his Tevas on. He goes to his pack and unstraps a tripod - hey, wait! We didn't say anything about pictures!

Next he pulls out a water filter. He goes down to the creek, follows it around a rock wall and disappears.

The sun feels good on my skin. I stretch into the sky. I realize this is what I miss in the city - standing naked in the sunlight.

Some people look at the desert and think there's nothing to do. I love to be close to the land. Nothing between me and the rocks and the sagebrush and the sky, a clear stream and singing birds.

Eric comes back with two full Nalgene bottles. He sets up his tripod and camera to capture the moon rising over a ridge - and it's not mine.

I set up the tent in the road. Bees drone in the stillness. The day is beginning to cool. I wash the hike off and pull on warm fleece.

The golden light that comes just before sunset signals Eric. He takes his equipment up on the ridge to shoot more photos. I set up the kitchen on a rock and pry my eyes from the stunning view to wash spinach and slice eggplant. Eric returns in time to help.

The sun sets. Dusk creeps into the canyon. Strange little creatures appear out of the fading light. A trio of Sphinx moths performs desert dinner theatre a few feet away.

These gorgeous insects impersonate exotic hummingbirds French-kissing flowers. They're white-lined Sphinx moths, and they're huge - about three inches from wing tip to wing tip. Each insect has two sets of slender wings that chop the air, allowing the moths to hover over flowers and stick proboscices deep inside.

The moths fly sorties over the emerald and aqua water bottles lying on the ground. Sometimes the moths blow past our faces like we're not even there. Venus and Mars hit the sky early, locked in competition. Crickets serenade us. A bat hunts insects above the creek.

The moon is bright. Only part of the orb shows tonight, and it's tilted on its side. The goddess in the moon looks like she's swimming through the night sky - doing the sidestroke and gulping for air. Her brows are furrowed like she's working hard - or maybe those are swim goggles. Eric points out our moonshadows dancing on the sand and sings, "Moonshadow, Moonshadow."

We start adapting to the desert rhythm by getting up early the next morning. We set out searching for flowers and canyon views. We find a desert pool. The shallow waters are serene, reflecting desert life back onto itself. In another environment, this small pool might not get a second look. Here, it's a thing of beauty.

The fight over four-wheeling in Furnace Creek has heated up the canyon. Environmentalists say trenches and channels change the creek's temperature and chemistry, as well as wetland's water-filtering ability. Water is speeded and warmed up, supporting less aquatic life. Diverted water also leads to less vegetation, and less vegetation means fewer creatures.

Vehicle damage to creeks is one of the biggest threats to deer in the White Mountains, according to the Mule Deer Foundation and the California Department of Fish and Game book, "Sportsman's Guide to Improving Deer Habitat in California."

The issue also is hot because the federal government is considering designating the White Mountains as a national wilderness area, and the proposal would allow vehicles on roads people use. The conflict has grown ugly; threats reportedly have been tossed around.

We hike onto a side trail leading above the canyon floor. The sun is stoking the Furnace already. We get to the crest and suck up the sweeping view. The peace is golden. We drink purified creek water that tastes like snow and fresh meadow grass and wide open spaces.

We return to camp for lunch. Then we look for shade to rest in as the day continues heating up. The only dry spot we find nearby is under a dead pinyon. Its branches have turned gray and its needles brown soaking up the sun. We lie under its sheltering arms.

Later I explore small wetlands and tiny waterfalls. I sit next to a crumpled beer can and ponder both sides of this fight. The heat is scorching. I empathize with locals looking to escape and have some fun four-wheeling in the mud. Just not tearing up a fragile creek.

Looking back at the valley, I think how crowded the world has become when ranchers have to scratch a living out of the desert, and plants and animals must depend on this fragile oasis in an ever-shrinking wild world.