Potrero Seco as seen in morning’s early light, the rugged and parched mountains of the Dick Smith Wilderness seen in the background. The rolling grass covered hills of Potrero Seco in the Sierra Madre Mountains form the upper boundary of Sespe Creek headwaters, just east of the Santa Barbara-Ventura County line.
“Sespe Creek is the last remaining undammed river in southern California, running through one of the nation’s largest roadless and wilderness areas near a metropolitan region. The California condor has been reintroduced in the area following a captive-breeding program.”
—Tim Palmer, The Wild and Scenic Rivers of America (1993)
Sespe Creek Wilderness
A backcountry soared over by condors, trod across by bighorn sheep and within its eponymous stream southern steelhead shimmer. Iconic wildlife not as abundant as it once was, the grizzly bear and beaver and wolf regionally extinct, but still the great vultures, curled horned sheep and anadromous trout cling tenaciously, though precariously, to their natal realm.
The forested mountains and valleys having remained virtually untamed and the creeks untrammeled and unconquered by dams long enough through sheer ruggedness, and community and corporate wrangling over its best and proper use which was fought to a standstill, that the desolate hinterlands became, in 1992, the officially designated Sespe Wilderness. The name “Sespe,” an Anglicized rendering of a Chumash Native American village or rancheria called Cepsey in 1791.
Sespe Creek drains a watershed of some 270 square miles and flows about 60 miles through the Transverse Range in Ventura County. Thirty-one and a half miles of Sespe Creek are federally designated and protected as Wild (27.5 mi.) and Scenic (4 mi.). The creek begins at Potrero Seco in the Sierra Madre Mountains at about 5000′ elevation and ends at its confluence with the Santa Clara River at about 400′ elevation, the Santa Clara then draining to the Pacific Ocean. The upper reaches of the creek resemble its lower most extent, both being relatively flat, gravel and small cobblestone studded washes. The Sespe’s middle section, however, being more steeply sloped as it runs through deeper canyon terrain, is substantially more rugged and bouldery. It is, in sections during winter runoff, rated Class IV+.
David Stillman proposed we walk (& swim?), in segments, the entire length of Sespe Creek. It was an idea he had brewing for awhile and decided it was time to act on. And so the 60 mile off-trail task was assigned under the rubric of Sespe Connect.
This endeavor will be carried out over a period of weeks, due to the dictates of life’s other priorities, rather than any need or wish to prolong the desired march downstream. It is a peregrinatory project that when complete will weigh in on the balance of backcountry exploits with real value and meaning. Merely plodding along some short segments of the creek’s less glamorous sections separately, without eventually completing the whole length, would not warrant much if any mention; walking several miles of dry gravelly wash or muddy and stagnant creek alone being unremarkable. Stepping heal to toe over every foot of the Sespe, on the other hand, amounts to an undertaking worthy of note.
The first stage is comprised of the distance between Cherry Creek and Tule Creek, which measures, I don’t know, about eight miles. (Yes, for the sticklers reading this, we are aware that this does not officially count as the beginning of Sespe Creek.) This portion includes, at this time of season, open and sun-blasted dry gravel washes fringed in chaparral and descends into the deep shade of lush riparian habitat beneath fir, alder and cottonwood trees and amidst bushy willows. The stream intermittently running cool, sitting mossy and stagnant, choked in thick reedy flushes of pollen spewing cattails or dry lumpy beds of hard water stained boulders. And so it begins. . .
Prickly Poppy (Argemone munita) (Hat tip Lanny Kaufer for ID.)
Bradley John Monsma, The Sespe Wild: Southern California’s Last Free River (2004)
Erwin G. Gudde, California Place Names: The Origin and Etymology of Current Geographical Names (1998)