A Marsh Creek crawdad sits for a portrait.California was home for three years in the early 1970s and one of my favorite places was Los Padres National Forest. What made it particularly great was a stream about a quarter-mile from the camping area we used. The stream cut through the rocks, revealing about a 20-foot drop from the clifftop to the water, and what seemed like about the same below the surface. At least, I never hit bottom.

It was an easy walk for a young person who didn’t know the definition of a hard walk, much less view with reluctance a trail that included climbing over boulders the size of the Datsun pickup I drove. Not like now, when 100 yards over pretty smooth ground is hiking.

Creeks are for swimming, and canoeing and kayaking. Or just sitting beside, watching wildlife. I went paddling with some friends on a section of Marsh Creek the other day. The water level finally has gone down after a rain-extended spring, which isn’t why we went but it is worth mentioning. As little water as my canoe needs to float, still it scraped is skin in some unexpected places.

We drifted with the current, paddling just enough to steer, and found a Great Blue heron poised on a thumb of land traced by water flowing out of a swamp. Somewhere a bullfrog strummed a single gchord, like a musician preparing to take the stage. (How does so small a creature echo so loud a note?)

We spotted several turtles – mostly Painted – along the way, sunning themselves in the afternoon blaze. Like the heron, they slipped from their perches as we approached. One, a little more curious than the others, poked her head up like a submarine periscope, keeping watch until we got too close. then she dove. Pretending we could not see her, she swam away about foot below the subsurface roof.

One could almost hear their thoughts, “There goes the neighborhood.” Or maybe it was just the guilty conscience echoing in my head.

The youngster sitting in front near her mom seemed to have an idea that water that did not come out of a plastic bottle was somehow suspect, maybe worse. I lifted a small flat stone from the water and showed the lass a mayfly larva trying to pretend I could not see it.

“That means good water,” I said. “They’re called macroinvertebrates because they’re large enough to see, but have no backbone. And they cannot live in polluted water.”

Trout cannot live in bad water, either. The absence of both indicates one may not want to drink there.

We spent more time by the creek, and found crayfish (also called mud bugs or crawdads) and a few water pennies. The latter are the larval stage of one of nearly 300 varieties of water beetles. The larva cling to the bottoms of rocks and feast on algae growing there. Then one day they become adult beetles, fly to dry land, plant a new generation, and die. 

It’s sort of counterintuitive, but the more bugs in the water — certain bugs, at least — the better the water is for fish and other living creatures, such as humans.

A few years ago, on a tour of a well-known food processor, the representative boasted of the sanitation process his product experienced.

“We guarantee the  sauce will not support life,” he said.

I understood his point, but I was struck by his phrase. Isn’t food’s purpose to support life?

There always is risk involved in the outdoors experience, but water that supports life probably will support swimming.

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