The Old Field Creek watershed is like some people I’ve known: small, complex and twisted.
I spent a good portion of the past rainy Christmasukkahsolstice week getting my boots muddy along many but not all branches of the creek in its less-than-three-square-miles before it confluences with New Hope Creek.
Old Field Creek, despite the muddy appearance these days, is still fairly clean, designated by the state as a class V water supply, meaning it drains into sources of drinking water. Ongoing water-quality monitoring data is sparse, focused on New Hope Creek, not Old Field; the last state sampling was 2003.
One of Old Field Creek’s many unnamed tiny tributaries arguably begins at the apron of our home’s steep concrete driveway running down toward Heartwood Drive where rainwater drains visibly from the hillside above. The ditch at the foot of the driveway collects this runoff and it flows quickly under the road into a slowly deepening, gradually eroding 200-foot-long ravine that ends at the base of Blackwood Mountain, flowing into what I call “Teddy’s Pool’ after our late lamented tiny blind poodle who ended up more than once mired in its mud after his multiple escapes from the confines of the fenced porch deck.
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From Teddy’s pool, water flows into our neighborhood pond, then downhill, joining more small rivulets, gaining volume, strength, mud, horse manure and various detritus as it moves beneath Millhouse Road. At that point, the Army Corps of Engineers regulators of wetlands, have designated this as a ‘wetland stream crossing’ – that’s what the little pinkish sign that the gas company put up on a small wooden stake jammed into the mud says.
Though at the point where water runs under the road, this “wetland stream” looks like nothing more than a couple of drainage ditches meeting up, a short slog downstream into the woods reveals a fully fledged stream formed as it comes down from the mountain and points north. Many little depressions, barely damp during much of the year, are lively now, doing their job carrying the earth’s lifeblood.
Following the stream bed east, it is channeled along the railroad embankment rushing through multiple culverts where it meets up with a few more of its brethren and disappears under I-40.
I was not intrepid, agile or willing enough to crawl through this narrow pipe to daylight on the other side and see where this branch went. Neither are many animals. As former state naturalist Steve Hall points out, the large embankment of I-40 significantly severed, ecologically speaking, the area to the east of I-40 from the forests and farmlands to the west. Replacing the culverts with bridges when the highway is widened may possibly repair some of that fragmentation of what Hall terms one the eastern Piedmont’s most significant natural areas.
Earlier in the week, I’d undertaken a joint exploration of another unnamed branch with my woods buddy and Johnson Mill Preserve land steward Tom Linden. Tom brought me down along the Old Field Bluff trail in the Johnson Mill tract. Being deer season, we wore the orange hats.
From the bluff trail we traipsed upstream, mostly south, about a mile, crossing Whitfield Road following a water-filled branch through the bottomlands to where it seems to originate at a farm pond. My later solo exploration and consultation of the topographical map revealed the branch’s headwaters to actually be at more or less at the sediment pond behind Harris Teeter on the other side of I-40. Tom’s requesting that the US Geological Survey (USGS) allow him to name this branch “Sarah’s Stream” for his daughter, who’s joined him on many walks there. USGS protocols allow formal naming of unnamed tributaries. Perhaps some future quadrangle map will reflect that.
This watershed exploration escapade included another solo foray, starting with a scramble through the briar-laced rocky ravine behind the white industrial Mellott building at Millhouse and Eubanks down to the main stem of Old Field Creek which originates sort of around various parts of the closed County landfill. As this small industrial zone along Millhouse and Eubanks was developed, with the Animal Shelter, Town Operations Center and Bus Garage along with the Mellot building and UPS, the need for sewer became clear. The happy result for urban stream explorers is a very well-maintained sewer line right-of-way making an easy walk the first half mile, as far as the OWASA pump station. Hard by the pump station was what remained upright of the trunk of a massive old one measuring at least four feet diameter, reckoned by my “tree hugging” method – you know – if your arm span is six feet and hugging the tree puts you almost halfway ‘round, a bit of geometry tells you it’s about four feet in diameter. Biggest one around by far!
Meandering another quarter mile or so, there’s an eight foot high culvert sending Old Field Creek under the interstate. A thin layer of mud along the culvert floor is patterned with raccoon tracks. It’s a dry day this time so the flow is only a few inches deep and I can see daylight to the east. I tromp through. A chill goes through me, wondering if I’ll be done in by the bogeyman waiting somewhere in an unseen shadow or trip and drown in the few inches of water. Instead at the east end I am stymied a pond of deeper water preventing me from going all the way through. With no waders on, I turn wimply back.
Staying along the west side of the embankment I bushwhack past the Town Public Works Operations Center and around a fenced impoundment lot with over sixty old cars and spot yet one more tiny watercourse slightly north of the impound lot.
My exploration ended by completing the loop south, strolling this time first on the railroad tracks, then along the broad, even surface of the Millhouse Road sidewalk, taking note of two more unnamed tributaries to Old Field Creek and wondering what to name them.
You can reach Blair Pollock at firstname.lastname@example.org.