Looking down Fossil Creek towards The Narrows. Photo by Jonathan Patt.

Written by Lauren Renteria, Assistant Field Crew Leader

Howdy, faithful reader! Wren here with all the juicy details of our adventure along the majestic Fossil Creek Wild and Scenic River.

This week, we traded tread tools for herbicide and waders to work with Friends of the Verde River to tackle stands of thousands of giant reed (Arundo donax L.) and some tamarisk (Tamarix species), also known as salt cedar, growing along the beautiful lower Fossil Creek. Both of these plants are invasive to Arizona and take habitat and resources away from native plant species that help our state’s natural ecosystem thrive. 

Not only does giant reed take over wherever it grows, it can also impact fire frequency and intensity, according to the USDA. Similarly, tamarisk impacts fire risk in Arizona’s wildlands. It’s also a particularly thirsty plant that sucks up water, lowering water tables and leaving less for native plants to drink, all while increasing soil salinity, too, according to the National Park Service

Our week started off with considerably chilly weather following a snowy winter storm the day before work was supposed to begin. Because of unpredictable water levels following snow melt, we decided to forgo our backcountry plans for the first few days to make sure it was safe enough to set up a basecamp closer to the water’s edge.

So, armed with loppers, hands saws and herbicide for killing (invasive) plants, we scrambled our way down to Fossil Creek via a very rocky drainage with one mission in mind: clip and conquer all the giant reed and tamarisk that crossed our path. We started the first few mornings off with a challenging descent and ended our afternoons with a quad-busting climb back to camp. It was a tough commute through catclaw and cacti but definitely worth waiting to set up our backcountry camp to make sure we didn’t get swept away. 

Safety first, you know? 

After just a few days, we had already treated sparse patches of giant reed and tamarisk for 2.2 miles from our first entry point earlier in the week. It seemed like we were moving pretty quickly and I thought we’d breeze through the rest of the seven miles of treatment area. Except for a couple of tricky areas, we waded through the crystal-clear creek pretty easily.

Before and after of a large stand of giant reed with over 6,000 stems. Photos by Jonathan Patt.

But, when we finally did set up our backcountry camp, we were greeted by huge walls of giant reed patches. That’s when our movement downstream came to a near standstill. We were cutting and treating thousands of stems of giant reed—growing over 10 feet tall—every day by our basecamp.   

Then on Monday morning, we woke up to a murky surprise: The creek had risen a considerable amount, likely owing to a couple especially warm and sunny days melting snow in the upper part of the watershed. What was once a clear blue and fairly calm stream was now chocolate-colored with roaring, foaming rapids. The flow was swift and the creek bottom was completely obscured because of the muddy water. We realized that it just wasn’t safe enough to wade downstream. Luckily, there were plenty of reeds to cut on the side of the creek we set up camp.

We continued our mission staying along the east bank of the creek until we could go no further, then doing a final crossing back to the west side after packing up camp and spending the last afternoon treating the stands on that side as well. By the end of the work week, we treated a total of 17,195 stems of giant reed and 263 stems of tamarisk along Fossil Creek.

But, unfortunately, more invasive reeds and tamarisk are still out there. A scouting mission to the narrows with my colleague Dexter revealed more huge swaths of reeds that only got worse the further down canyon we went. Right now, this treatment season is coming to an end. But, that doesn’t mean the war against giant reed and tamarisk is over!

As usual, it wasn’t all work and no play on hitch. We enjoyed a bounty of wildlife sightings, including canyon and rock wrens, phainopeplas, juncos, a great blue heron, a collection of insects and even a river otter!

Working along Fossil Creek was truly a memorable experience and a great way to bid our Sam Baggenstos temporarily farewell as he embarks on the 800-mile long Arizona Trail for the next couple of months. Happy trails, Big Sam. Your clownhouse spirit and quirky dance moves will surely be missed.

Sam in waders. Photo by Lauren Renteria.

It was also a lovely hitch to end my time with my beloved Wild Stews. In March I’m saying goodbye to Wild Arizona to lead a habitat monitoring crew based out of Tucson for the summer and fall season.

I am so grateful to our Field Operations Manager Jonathan Patt and former Deputy Director and Stewardship Director Brian Stultz—who has since moved on to work for the Gila National Forest—for their guidance and adding me to this rag-tag group of trail people. It’s truly been a life-changing experience. 

To the crew, thank you for giving me an incredible year and a half of unforgettable memories and some of my best laughs ever.

Over and out,

Crew enjoys a post-hitch meal together in Camp Verde. Photo by Jonathan Patt.