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Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge leaves a lasting impression on two volunteers.
Photo: Anthony F. Breda (boardwalk); Cyndi Souza (Peterson Reservoir)
Tucked away on the east side of the Panamint Mountains is a lush valley. The Amargosa Valley sits atop a large aquifer that runs up the western side of Nevada. Farmers grow hay and alfalfa here along with other crops. This valley is also home to the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge.
We were serving as volunteers at the refuge in spring 2003 and became enamored with the stark beauty of this place. In the middle of the Mojave Desert, covering more than 23,000 acres, sits this small refuge. It was created in 1984 to protect the habitat of endangered species such the Ash Meadows pupfish. The size of a minnow, this ancient species of fish thrives in shallow pools of hot water, 86 to 93 degrees. They feed on algae and live, reproduce, and die in these pools.
As the pools are not interconnected, these small fish tend to stay put. The males are a pretty, bright silver-blue. As in many parts of the animal world, the females are rather bland in appearance. Both, however, are extremely lively and fun to watch.
At Ash Meadows NWR, there are approximately 30 springs or seeps that feed these pools. Together, they cover an area 10 miles long and about one mile wide and feed two large reservoirs called Peterson and Crystal.
Here, a visitor can climb a sand dune with little signs of life around, look out, and see a large body of water, which is Crystal Reservoir. The first time I saw this, I actually thought that I was experiencing a mirage! Furthermore, these springs and seeps generate 10,000 gallons of water a minute.
While not as spectacular as the wonders of Death Valley, the refuge is a little miracle and a good contrast in its own right. Fed by all this water, plants and flowers thrive in the desert. Surprisingly, there are more than 330 species of plants here, some of which are endangered.
One of the more interesting plants is the Desert Bearpaw Poppy. It has a white flower like the common poppy but has bushy stems instead of a smooth one. This plant is a rarity, and only one outcropping was found in the refuge during the time we were there. This was found on the side of a refuge road leading to Devils Hole. Someone had surrounded the plant with stones so that passing traffic would know that it was special and would not run over it.
About 25 miles of dirt roads wind through the refuge, and the terrain is rugged and varied, as are the roads. Flat land turns into dunes and then into small mountains. Looking down from the higher elevations, one gets a pretty good view of Crystal Reservoir.
Halfway back to the Refuge Headquarters, a side road takes you to the entrance to Peterson Reservoir. Unlike Crystal, dense foliage and trees surround Peterson. One can only grasp at its size by walking around the perimeter. Watch for ducks!
Some visitors come to the refuge just to view the birdlife. More than 240 species have been observed at the refuge. Common yellowthroats, verdins, and western flycatchers are frequent visitors. Throughout the refuge, there are many trails that mostly lead back to old farmland or homesteads. On some of these you can still see the outline of the original fields, green with the remnants of alfalfa. You may also see wild burros afar off in the field.
Fish, plants, and desert scenery aren’t the only interesting things to watch at the refuge. People, too, are fascinating. Working in the Visitors Center gave us a chance to observe people, both first-time visitors (of which there were maybe a dozen per week) and returnees. Most visitors come to see the pupfish. They usually go home happy, for the fish are quite entertaining. All are amazed by the amount of water in the desert.
Others come for more serious reasons (photography, biology, geology, archeology, and local history). Cub Scouts also come here to help clean up the paths leading to the pools of pupfish. In the past, one of the more interesting people who roamed the valley was Jack Longstreet. Longstreet was a prospector, gunman, horse breeder, and friend of the Paiute Indians. He built a cabin beside a pool and lived there from 1894-99. The pool is now called Longstreet Springs.
Although our desert wanderings lasted only two months, we gained a lot of knowledge and pleasure during our brief stay. The real reward of our wanderings was the beauty and tranquility of the desert. We found this mysterious, exciting, and—sometimes—just plain breathtaking.