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Stories of Survival

Thursday, 27 April 2023


"One of the most important areas on the North American continent." That's how the Nature Conservancy describes the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. This small parcel protects an oasis in the Nevada desert just north of the California state line.

This parcel also contains a detached, 40-acre property of Death Valley National Park - likely the smallest self-contained unit administered by any National Park.


The park exclave, named Devil's Hole, is the sole natural home of the endangered Devil's Hole Pupfish. (This was among the first species listed once the Endangered Species Act was passed. It also sounds like a great animal for a college mascot.) The pool they live in contains 'fossil water', rain that fell thousands of years ago over a hundred miles northeast of here. Due to tectonic geology, earthquakes as far removed as Japan, Chile, and Indonesia have 'sloshed' the water in the cave like a tsunami in a bathtub.


The NPS parcel consists of a short hiking trail to two 'windows' into the pupfish's cave. Since you can't get close to the water level, the general public can't see the pupfish here (they're only a couple of inches long).

The scientists stay busy studying these critters that have survived and adapted since the last ice age, when this area was wetter and cooler. Not many fish can survive in water at 92°!


I didn't go out of my way just to see a tiny stage where the main actors were invisible. The rest of the refuge called out for exploration, and I complied.

Point of Rocks featured a boardwalk running 0.7 miles through this oasis. The greenery was a welcome escape from the surrounding sere landscape, with various interpretive signs talking about the flora and fauna. For instance: the naucorid is a true bug that can't fly or crawl, it only swims. When it attacks its victim, its pincers inject a poison that liquefies the innards of its prey. In order to dive under water, it goes to the surface, grabs an air bubble, attaches it to abdomen, and uses it like scuba tank. [It earns a spot next to the Hawai'ian fish that climbs 440' waterfalls in Mother Nature's Hall of Fame.]


The highlight of the boardwalk is hidden around a bend in the trail. The King's Pool provided a water feature for my hike, and I stopped to look at it more closely.

When I looked closely in the clear water, I noticed... pupfish!

Not the Devil's Hole variety, but one of the two other endangered pupfish species. Once again, they only grew to a couple of inches. Again, with water temps in the 90s, these were also survivors.


A few miles away, behind the refuge Visitor Center, a 0.9-mile boardwalk took me out to the Crystal Pool. Along the way, I chatted with a worker who'd removed netting from the brook beside the trail. "We're trying to eradicate invasive sunfish," she told me. We caught a bunch, but the rest have gone into hiding. By moving the netting, hopefully they'll get confused and come out."


"In other words, you're playing mind games with fish," I offered. She smiled and nodded.


Overall, the area this trail ran through was not as lush as at Point of Rocks.

Crystal Pool, however, was much larger. Fifteen feet deep, the pool glowed an aquamarine color. I could see through the crystal-clear water to the bottom, but did not notice any pupfish here.


This trail featured signs talking about the disaster that activism prevented. With Las Vegas getting so crowded, developers looked elsewhere for places to make money. They saw this area ripe for plundering, with its 'unused' water.

The plans for Calvada Lakes included an airport, golf courses, strip malls, and (of course) houses. They had already started bulldozing when the feds named it a National Wildlife Refuge, derailing their plans. The endangered animals and plants now had their own chance to survive.


After restoration work had begun, reversing the damages done, tribal elders returned to Ash Meadows. As they visited, a bighorn ram came to the hill above King's Pool and stood a long time, looking down at them. The elders explained that it was "because he heard a familiar language."


That success story cheered me as I headed south. GPS said I faced a two-hour drive to Kelso Depot in Mojave National Preserve (plus time for a quick lunch in Baker). Mojave proved as barren as I had figured, with desert scrub brush, some lava flows, and a few Joshua trees thrown in for good measure.


The Depot sat, surrounded by mostly nothingness.

(Well, there were the two jail cells used to hold rowdy drunkards overnight.)

It had served the railroads, which peaked with shipping army materiel during WWII. Eventually the railroads stopped using it, and Union Pacific threatened to raze it. The NPS stepped in, and made it the Visitor Center for the Preserve. However, on this day, they'd closed it due to a power outage - I'd guess the same work being done in Death Valley.


I still had time before needing to head down to 29 Palms, my base for the next three nights. Why not spend it playing in a giant sandbox? Southwest of the depot, the Kelso Dunes, piled over 600' high, called to me: Glen, you need to get out of the car!


At the trailhead, the dunes loomed even larger. I struck out on the flat path through the scrubland, walking five minutes to reach the foothills -

okay, the footdunes. Plants helped anchor those initial dunes as I started trudging up and down over the sandy expanse.

Though the signage states that a trip to the top and back runs three miles roundtrip, the sandy surface takes much more effort - pushing off with each foot slides you back a bit. Then factor in a temperature in the 90s.


No set trail takes you through the dunes - you choose a line as you go. At the beginning I followed an army of footprints, which diminished to a battalion of tracks, then a platoon, then a squadron. I found minor relief by walking where wind had scraped away tracks, not sinking in as far. See how quickly the wind could erase those remnants!


After half an hour, I considered how far I wished to go. Once I plodded to the top of each dune I stopped, looked ahead while catching my breath, and chose one

more target to aim for. At the 45-minute mark I reached the base of the steep, final slope - a quarter mile from the peak, achieved at half of my normal hiking speed. I looked hard at the summit enticing me. Thought about it. So close...


I could already feel the toll the shifting sand had taken on my ankles. As I still faced a 90-minute drive south, I reluctantly turned around. The trek back through the footdunes, with a hop-and-slide gait on the dune downslopes, took half as long as the way up - though my feet and ankles were none too pleased with the regimen they endured. At least I survived.


The drive to 29 Palms included a few miles on old Route 66. As that stretch ended, I noticed a roadside shrine I had to check out more closely.

Soda cans, baseballs, tennis shoes - what icons of commercialism would YOU donate to this Byway Buddha as a thanks for surviving the drive?



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