Off The Map: When The Rivers Run Dry

The glorious Santa Ynez River was gone. Its wide riverbed, formerly a no-manís land of marshes and swiftly-flowing tributaries had been reduced to a few struggling pools within a maze of willow thickets and gravel. Two years of drought had taken its toll, and the meager trickles we had seen flowing between the river remnants this spring had dried up. A lot of frogs and crayfish were undoubtedly anxious about their future, and I had to admit, it didnít look good.

While I had been complaining about the constant rain last week in upstate New York, temperatures climbed into the 100s here in Southern California, and relief in the form of rainstorms was at least three months away. I had missed the worst of the heat wave, but now that I was back on the West Coast, it didnít take long for me to develop a hypocritical attitude towards the perpetual sun and dry air. I soon needed a reprieve. So on a July afternoon, my companion Kitty and I hiked down to the Santa Ynez riverbed to search for a swimming hole we had stumbled across during spring explorations.

Beneath the ominous shadows of turkey vultures, we navigated the labyrinth of willow stands and dry river channels, seeking our oasis. Sand and pebbles shifted beneath our feet, and I wondered how long before the stones would once again feel the soothing passage of the riverís flow.

But the weirdest phenomena on the journey were the snowstorms of cottony willow seeds that had drifted down over the last few weeks and accumulated on scattered patches of vegetation. Rather than settling evenly, the silky filaments had wrapped themselves around the stems and leaves of the blackberry and mugwort, cocooning them entirely in half an inch of white fuzz. They might not emerge from their chrysalises until the winter rains brought fresh growth to the valley.

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