As a child, I used to spend endless hours trawling the creeks near my house, tossing stones, dangling my feet in the water and even drinking from it when I became thirsty. The creek was a beautiful, crystalline thing that, I was convinced, housed not just trout and crawdads, but fairies as well. Since moving to Sonoma County, my love of creeks has waned hand in hand with my belief in fairies. From the look of the creeks I see around here, if there are any creek fairies, they are probably sprouting two heads and a variety of other oddities that come from living in fetid waters. These creeks are hardly creeks at all; rather, they're mostly dried-up gullies. Where water does run, there is a distinct opacity to it that speaks not of magical kingdoms but of motor oil and pollution.
Michelle Keip and I meet at Oliver's Market in Santa Rosa, which is a short walk away from Santa Rosa's Spirit Creek. Keip is organizing the second annual Spirit Creek Day, which, with the help and support of the Creek Stewardship Program of Santa Rosa, promises to be both an inspiring and educational event. Last year, Keip says that more than 75 people showed up. Volunteers removed extensive amounts of trash, learned about the creek and participated in restoration through the removal of invasive species. A watershed is a place where people gather, Keip tells me, and is important as a source of water, a support for wildlife and as a restoration of community.
Keip is a creek steward and also leads the Samurai Sprouts. Keip, along with her Sprouts, patrol a portion of Spirit Creek, which runs near Highway 12 off Stony Point Road in Santa Rosa and winds its way from there to the Laguna de Santa Rosa. The Sprouts study Aikido with Keip at Wellspring, a martial arts studio named after what feeds Spirit Creek—a wellspring, otherwise known as an artesian well, a year-round water source. Through her desire to teach her young students about the beauty and importance of the creek, Keip has become involved in motivating not just the Samurai Sprouts, but also the surrounding community. Her goal is to encourage the community to look toward, instead of away from, their creek.
We make our way across two trash-littered parking lots, to the rear of a Chinese restaurant backed up against Spirit Creek. From here, we stand directly across the street from the wellspring. Keip is thrilled to discover that the restaurant has planted a small garden behind its place. Rather than discovering a dumpster and trash, we come upon squash plants. Someone has also built a set of small wooden steps that lead down behind the garden to the edge of the creek. I walk down and gaze into the water. The water is clear. Plants line the banks. A crawdad scuttles under a rock. This is what a Sonoma County creek can look like when only a few hundred yards from its source.
Keip and I continue across another parking lot and then down along the creek behind a Taco Bell. The managers here have told Keip that they have to clean up trash every night to keep the creek bed clean. Sad to hear, perhaps, but the important thing, Keip assures me, is that they pick it up.
Keip and I continue up the creek until we reach the Center for Spiritual Living. Alistair Bleifuss, the coordinator of the Creek Stewardship Program for the city of Santa Rosa, is here to meet up with us. He and Keip will be patrolling the creek together, planning for Spirit Creek Day and looking for problem areas in need of extra care.
We stop at a local creek hangout spot behind a row of apartment buildings, all of them with their backs to the creek. Creek stewards have already been here, and a trash and recycle container are set up next to a sign that asks people to please respect the trees and not spray-paint or carve them. The trash can does contain some refuse, though a number of creekside visitors have chosen to toss their trash next to the trash can instead. Keip assures me, however, that by turning positive attention toward the creek, people are becoming more conscientious. This area used to be a like a mini-landfill, and now only five or six pieces of trash dot the surrounding area.
For those who wish to make the entire expanse of Spirit Creek a clean and welcoming place for all, consider attending the cleanup day on Oct. 4. Biodegradable trash bags will be available, along with many children's activities, free pizza and the sense of a job well done.
For more information, contact Michelle Keip at 707.508.5052.