All of us have defining moments when we were young in the world. Experiences that make indelible marks on who we are, our passions and the life path we pursue. This story is one of those, one that describes an experience in the early 60s of two Pemberton boys and their discovery of the wilds of Shoal Creek.
First aid kit, check. Knife, check. Whistle, check. Bill and I were sticklers for being prepared, and we weren’t going to be caught short this time. Bill had gotten a set of walkie-talkies for Christmas, a critical item on our equipment list. One of us could probe for safe routes and warn the other, just in case. We’d been planning our wilderness exploration for days and knew there’d be no one to help. We decided not to disclose our risky plan, only that we’d be gone most of the day “on our bikes.” We snagged snacks from our pantries and had bought candy bars from Rexall and Winn’s. Our canteens were filled.
Our epic journey was to be the first reconnaissance of the rugged tributary of Humphrey’s Creek, into Shoal Creek, then ascending the wilder far west side along the limestone cliffs and house-sized boulders. Before reaching 29th Street, we wanted to identify the exit routes we could take up through the limestone cliffs and backyards without being seen or alerting neighbors’ dogs. Whew, hopefully we’d make it back safely into the neighborhood with no one the wiser.
Dropping into Humphrey’s Creek Canyon was tricky. The walls are steep and rocks slick due to the thick growth of brush and canopy. Hanging onto branches and swinging down into the chasm was a good technique. The Creek always seemed to have some water in it, though far less than Shoal Creek. Getting feet wet was part of the deal since the rock walls were close, the stream bed twisted with lots of brush. And, the moist environment was perfect for slick, mossy growth. We slipped a lot, a precarious dance but without any tumbles.
As the creek bed gained more drop, we stumbled on a carcass. Looked like a possum with pointy skull and sharp teeth. Hmmm, maybe there’s something down here killing possums . . . better move on. We had much easier hiking along Shoal Creek, catching tadpoles and seeing pools of small, darting fish. Further up creek the limestone cliffs rose higher. The huge boulders below must have fractured from the cliff face long ago. Our climbing skills were tested as we worked our way through the cliff crevices to reach the neighborhood. We reveled, our first reconnaissance of Humphrey’s and Shoal Creek!
Today, Shoal Creek hasn’t changed much from 1961. It was less trodden back then on the Hike and Bike Trail. In the 1950s, the mother of the Hike and Bike Trail system, Janet Fish, used the money she received for a new car to develop the trail from Pease Park to Gaston, and then under the limestone cliffs at 29th Street to 31st Street. The path followed along an old roadbed of the Comanche trail from the Colorado River to 34th Street. The improved trail she blazed was and still is a peaceful path to simply enjoy nature. Residents and their families often walk, hike, jog, dog walk, and bike a distance of the Creek for fun, exercise or to rejuvenate. Many other Austinites and students enjoy the trail, too!
What has changed with Shoal Creek and our beloved Pease Park are those forward-looking people who founded Shoal Creek Conservancy and Pease Park Conservancy. Cuts in funding, drought, soil compaction, flooding, erosion, wind, and overuse have taken its toll on the Shoal Creek Greenbelt and Pease Park. The Conservancies build community support through dedicated volunteers, donations and grants to address the growing needs of the Park and watershed. The work of these passionate people and those who support them is beyond measure. Future generations will be able to enjoy these crown jewels of Central Austin and continue the legacy of good stewardship.
Keep a lookout for PHNA’s Shoal Creek Trail Stewards Program, in conjunction with Shoal Creek Conservancy. Anyone can participate in keeping watch on our “backyard “ and in helping to maintain the quality environment we all enjoy.
To learn more about Shoal Creek Conservancy and Pease Park Conservancy, and how to help support them visit shoalcreekconservancy.org and peasepark.org
Photos courtesy of Shoal Creek Conservancy and Pease Park Conservancy.