Springs and Seeps
Photo - Courtesy of Dustin Nelson
The desert is an intriguing world of intertwining species and life communities. Terrain and elevation differences account for much of the variation, from tree-lined ridge tops, to dry, rocky arroyos. In each, an appropriate habitat emerges, and a diverse assortment of life-forms flourishes. Variation in the landscape though, is most radically displayed in the vicinity of the desert's rare, but precious riparian zones. Streams, springs, and seeps bring a sense of relief to a bone-dry land of scorching heat. They provide the life-blood for a select group of species, many of which would quickly wane or perish without these microhabitats of perpetual moisture and soothing shade. The lush greenery that ribbons the edges of a rippling stream, encircles the nucleus of a gurgling spring, or desperately clings to the dampened soils of an ephemeral seep, stands in dramatic contrast to the nearby desert flora.
A dependable desert water source also serves as a beacon which attracts animals of all kinds. Though there are several exceptional desert critters that don't find it necessary to frequent a watering hole, most must consistently replenish their bodies with a regular drink. Within the natural rhythm of harmonic balance, both predator and prey come and go. They take turns from daybreak into the long hours of the night, every wary of each others presence at their preferred pools.
The reliable springs found here in the mountains, and the infringing desert, have also shaped much of its human history. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Mescalero Apaches (Nde) utilized their intimate knowledge of terrain, including the locale of every spring and seep, to establish a strong foothold in an otherwise arid environment. For hundreds of years they shared their precious water with only the native plants and animals. But by the 1800's, explorers, military expeditions, and settlers began to arrive. These newcomers also recognized the importance of the springs for their personal expansion and continued existence. All too quickly, skirmishes and fights with the Native Americans ensued. Settlers felt threatened for a variety of reasons, but much of hostility was over possession and control of the water. By the mid to late 1800's, the Apaches had been driven from the area. Without the coveted water, they could not survive.
Even today, amidst all of our technological advances, the riparian zones are often considered the "crown jewels" of the park. Each has been mapped and monitored; plant databases have been established, and wildlife observations recorded. Popular park trails lead visitors along the intermittent stream in McKittrick Canyon, past Manzanita and Smith springs near Frijole Ranch, and up to the small secretive seep hidden in the rocks on the McKittrick Canyon Nature Trail. Interpretive signs enlighten visitors about the human history and ask for support in protection and preservation of the treasured water that has always been of critical significance in the desert.
Did You Know?
Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), was a significant medicinal source for physicians in the late 19th century who used it extensively as an expectorant and to treat smallpox. It bright-orange blossoms produce an irresistible nectar for butterflies, and thus its common name.