This year marks the 30th Anniversary of Silver Creek Preserve—a globally-unique high desert, spring-fed creek managed by The Nature Conservancy at the base of the Picabo Hills. In honor of this achievement, SVM asked author, historian, and angler Buddy Levy to revisit his boyhood, reflecting upon what he calls “those hallowed stream banks, those languid, slow-moving waters which so long ago swaddled me in their embrace and which will never let me go.”
I have experienced Silver Creek in every season, called back to its banks and waters again and again for more than thirty years. It’s where I learned to fish, to hunt, to identify different birds in flight. Mostly, it’s where I learned to love the quiet observation of wild things.
My first memory of Silver Creek is not of a particular event but rather of a time, when I was about ten years old, maybe eleven, in the early ’70s. I remember the long straight road between Bellevue and Gannett (we called it the Straight Eight), the dank smell of alfalfa, the rainbow prisms of light caught in the irrigation water spit from the wheel-lines, the flickering blur of telephone poles as I lay my head on the door sill with the window down in the backseat of our late ’60s Ford Country Squire station wagon and held my hand outside, zooming it up and down like an airplane, letting the warm wind roar over and under my knuckles and palms. We would stop at the Gannett Country Store to buy Cokes and Nibs licorice from Vern Givens, who ran the place. He would push his thick metal-framed rims back onto the bridge of his nose as he leaned over the fountain counter and whisper jokes to me: “How can you tell a fisherman? His money’s wet. Yep. Wet butt and hungry gut.”
My dad brought me along on afternoon fishing junkets with his new friends, for we had recently moved to the Wood River Valley from Southern California. The landscape appeared wild and vast to me then, compared to the paved cul de sac suburbs. The high desert Picabo hills were like something out of a John Wayne Western, and I inhaled the intense scent of sagebrush. I liked to break wrist-sized branches off and carry them with me as I walked along the stream to watch the men fish, whittling the stalks with my Buck
pocket knife. The men would wade in slowly, holding fingers to lips to hush me if I called out, and telling me to kneel or crawl along the banks so as not to scare the fish, which they assured me could see me through the bright, clear water. I listened, moving slowly along the high banks, flushing red-winged blackbirds as I moved, watching the shadowy shapes of trout hold steady in the slow, thick lurch of the stream. Everything about that time was quiet, languorous, and unhurried. Around sunset the stream swarmed with bugs, explosions of insects the men called “hatches,” and then the water would slowly begin to percolate, its surface eventually bubbling, boiling with rising trout. I’d kneel on the banks in the reeds, slathering myself in Muskol and swatting mosquitoes, watching the long arcs of fly line cut through the air in great loops and listening to the reedy zing of reels releasing line as big fish ran.
As the sun set, the sky filled with birds, a symphony of sound. Herons croaked past, their kinked necks craning out in front, feet trailing awkwardly behind. Deer hoofed silently down to the water’s edge to drink as we left the stream and headed back to the cars in the almost dark. >>>
Since that time, an awful lot of water has flowed under Kilpatrick Bridge. At Stalker Creek Ranch, one of Silver Creek’s tributaries, I experienced my first freezing duck hunts. I remember golden retrievers shivering next to me as steam rose up from the stream, ice chunks floating like mini-bergs and the dogs’ coats edged with frost, their whiskers drooping icicles. Winter mornings so cold the bone-dry snow popped and cracked underfoot as we crunched along in waders down to the stream, big mesh bags of decoys slung over our shoulders, the husking of our labored breathing as we tromped towards the blinds. Black V’s of ducks and geese cutting across the glimmering horizon at sunrise, the cries of their voices trilling against the morning stillness.
In the late ’70s my father acquired Dry Fly Ranch (now Loving Creek Ranch), a working barley ranch and idyllic piece of ground on Loving Creek, another of Silver Creek’s tributaries. I spent some years there, building a log cabin with a crew of friends and living down in the Picabo valley, moving hand line irrigation pipes in the summer and improving the place—to the extent that nature can ever be improved upon. And ultimately, on the first gorgeous day of August in 1987, I was married along the banks of Loving Creek.
Dry Fly Ranch is long-since sold, and most of my wedding pictures are piled in boxes out in the garage now, but my memories of my time on Silver Creek remain fixed and constant, though certainly with time the details fade. Every moment I have ever spent there, I now realize, has been a wondrous gift.
One spring, walking out to the big pond at the head of Loving Creek, I encountered a pair of enormous rust-brown storkish birds in the stubble field only fifty yards from me. Their foreheads gleamed red in the sun and they strutted around, their long necks moving forward and back as they surveyed one another. Courting sandhill cranes, it turned out. The male would parade and circle, head bobbing, then leap high in the air, his great wings flapping once, and I hunkered in a ditch and watched, mesmerized by the amazing span of his wings, by the ease with which he lofted and hovered, showing off.
Above us in the slate-gray skies another theatrical performance took place during the mating and nesting season. High over the creeks and marshes a lone, dun-colored bird would shoot skyward, its small body just a fleck as it rose, and I’d have to squint into the sun as it presented its sky dance, wings beating frantically as it ascended and plummeted, jetting and darting, careening off in frenetic angles. The showy courtship flight of the snipe was punctuated by the distinct sound, the hollow and tremulous who-who-who-who-who called “winnowing” or “drumming.”
FACTS ABOUT THE PRESERVE
• 882 acres, with an additional 9,500 acres protected through conservation easements
• Haven for more than 150 species of birds
• One of the highest densities of aquatic insects in North America
• Exceptionally high density of healthy (and large) brown and rainbow trout—about 5,000 per mile
• Provides habitat for eagles, hawks, elk, deer, coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, pheasant, waterfowl, and many other migratory birds
• A one-mile self-guided nature trail starts at the visitor center
• Approximately 7,000 people visit the Preserve annually to fly fish, birdwatch, canoe, hike, hunt, paint, or simply walk and enjoy nature.
WHY IT’S IMPORTANT
“The importance of Silver Creek lies in the incredibly rich biodiversity it supports,” says Preserve Manager Dayna Smith. “The insect life and diversity of aquatic vegetation is just staggering. You can actually see three or four different insect hatches throughout the course of a single day,” she adds, "and, in the winter, it is a mecca for all sizes of different mammals because it is one of the few places that doesn’t freeze.” Smith’s favorite aspect about living and working on the Preserve remains constant: “Every day I look out the window I see something new. And even though it is always changing, there is a quiet sacred quality to the landscape that never changes.”
Silver Creek is one of the best remaining examples of a high desert, cold spring ecosystem in the western United States. Dozens of springs percolate up from an aquifer and merge to form Silver Creek, which provides a nutrient-rich habitat for a wide range of insects, fish, and wildlife. With 882 acres protected in the core of the Preserve and an additional 9,500 acres of the Silver Creek Valley protected through conservation easements and landowner partnerships, it stands as one of the country’s most successful examples of community-based conservation.