The River Runs Through Us
Neil Wiley

Every Wednesday for six weeks throughout the summer, Bruce Van Allen and Fred McPherson led our small group in an exploration of the San Lorenzo River watershed. I went to see new places, but found myself exploring new ideas.

Our leaders were intent on making this more than a tramp through the woods. Even a reluctant learner couldnít help but discover more about our ecology. They used the total immersion technique, literally, as we waded up and down the river. We swam. We scrunched the leaves, held the beetles, and chased the salamanders. We rubbed, smelled, and chewed. We became part of the river.

And as the group became more involved, they added a new dynamic. Ideas flowed like the river. How could we continue our experience? How could each one of us protect this fragile ecosystem? How could we help others appreciate that the health of the watershed is our responsibility

And we looked beyond the watershed. We re-thought our relationships with the natural world and other people. We raised questions about how we live. What is the cost to the environment of our buying decisions? The big car. The shirt made in the third world. The fast food from the feeding pens and chemical stews of industrial agriculture. We recognized our participation in unwholesome systems of manufacturing and distributing that are destroying the quality of life.

Several people in our group were political activists, others were looking for ways to improve the way they lived. All learned more about the river and a better sense of place. Nature was our teacher.

Here are a few highlights of our class that you can enjoy on your own.

Your own swimming hole

For a walk to a natural swimming hole, park at the Rincon parking lot, a few miles south of Henry Cowell Park on Highway 9. Walk down the signed path to the river, then wade across to a peninsula that takes you to the "Big Rock" swimming hole. Even in late summer, the water is deep enough for swimming and diving. You can also reach "Big Rock" through Henry Cowell Park. The walk is longer but well worth the hike.

Seeing the riparian forest

A great way to see the riparian forest is to walk the River Trail in Henry Cowell Park. As you walk along the river, youíll see willows, bay laurels, black cottonwoods, and sycamores. You can sniff bay leaves, feel the cold of the sycamore trunk, and hear the distinctive rustle of cottonwood leaves. We walked the trail up to a beach, waded down the river, then waded back to the railroad bridge. You can also climb out of the riparian forest to see redwoods. Be sure to check out the redwood cathedral on Rincon Fire Road.

Watershed academy

If you are interested in teaching children through environmental studies, consider visiting the Watershed Academy behind San Lorenzo High School. This special program uses local watersheds as an educational context for learning math, science, technology, and communication with lots of hands-on, real-life experience. For more information, visit After our tour, we hiked behind the school to Fall Creek Park.

The San Lorenzo watershed

A good way to experience the size and scope of the San Lorenzo watershed is to stop at an overlook parking lot approximately two miles down Highway 9 from Saratoga Gap (intersection of Highway 9 and Highway 35). From this overlook, you can see almost all of the 138 square miles of the watershed. You can see the broad shouldered Loch Lomond Mountain guarding the northwest flank, Butano Ridge, and our own Skyline Ridge. Although we didnít take the trail from the lookout point, it looks promising, especially for those who like their scenery big. Instead, we went through the main entrance of Castle Rock Park. In about 15 minutes, we were on a viewing deck, looking down a fifty-foot waterfall, complete with views of deep tree-covered canyons and Monterey Bay.  The Castle Rock waterfall and Kings Creek were fitting symbols for the headwaters of the San Lorenzo.

Find your river

This series of hikes helped me better know our Santa Cruz Mountains, and through knowing, to better love them. I hope that these stories help you enjoy and appreciate our natural world.


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