Follow Peter Fish into a nature-filled trail filled with the scents and wonder of spring

Peter Fish

Find more of Peter Fish's Postcard and Western Wanderings essays

Maybe you are, like me, a casual visitor to San Diego,California. And maybe you, like me, think of it as a city ofbeaches, sunshine, the Padres, and pandas. These are its obviousattractions ― except for the pandas, which are invariablyhiding when you try to see them at the zoo. What Eric Bowlby wantspeople to know is that San Diego is also a city of canyons.

This is why, on a morning so fine you feel your feet arefloating 2 inches off the ground, I am following Bowlby down atrail into one of his favorite canyons, Switzer, just east ofBalboa Park.

Bowlby got his current role as the Paul Revere of San Diegocanyons in a circuitous way. Raised in Massachusetts, he followed agirlfriend out to San Diego and got involved in environmentalissues because he was playing in a band with a bunch of envirodudes. One day he and his friends noticed that the city was aboutto push an access road through Switzer Canyon. Unhappy, theyorganized a canyon-side community meeting ― and wereastonished by the turnout. "We got tons of people," he says, "evenon a rainy day."

We follow the trail down a medium-steep slope lined withlemonade berry. "Most people don't realize that San Diego Countyhas more endangered species than any other county in thecontinental United States," Bowlby says. "It's because we havetremendous biodiversity ― coast, lagoons, mesas, mountains,deserts. And endangered because we've paved over a lot ofhabitat."

The canyons provide vital remnants of this natural world.They were left alone mainly because it was too expensive to fillthem with houses. And there are, literally, hundreds of them, allpinpointed on a big map Bowlby keeps in his house. There arecanyons named for trees (Juniper, Oak) and canyons named for birds(Quail, Dove). There are canyons with euphonious, Spanish names― Soledad ― and canyons with technological, Americanones: Radio.

That said, the canyons (which are not Grand Canyon chasms asmuch as scrub-filled ravines) don't initially stir you with awe.Like spotting the pandas, appreciating their beauty requires somepatience. Still, when Bowlby bends down, grabs a leaf and crumplesit for me ― "Black sage," he says ― the scent is likesomething you'd smell at the gates of heaven.

"In Switzer, you feel you're out in the country," CarrieSchneider says. Schneider is coleader of Friends of Switzer Canyon,the community group that sprang out of that initial meeting. Afterhelping to win the road battle, Friends has gone on to removeinvasive plants and replace them with native species.

And its example spread: Today, as the Sierra Club's canyons andcreeks preservation organizer, Bowlby coordinates the work ofnearly 40 active canyon-preservation groups.

Some San Diegans think the effort to preserve the canyons iseven changing the nature of the city. "The funny thing about SanDiego is that many people don't feel attached to it as a place,"says Richard Louv, former columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune, and a passionate advocate for whathe calls nearby nature. The canyons, he thinks, can help give thecity a sense of community. "San Diego is really defined bythem."

Last year a consortium of environmental groups and urbandesigners, San Diego Civic Solutions, made an ambitious proposal― to establish a 17,000-acre park that would preserve all thecity's canyons as a single open-space park. It's only a proposal,dependent on its promoters drumming up popular and politicalsupport. Still, Louv and Bowlby think it's a start.

Bowlby and I have reached the canyon bottom. Here is where thecreek that created Switzer runs, and even though it's hardly atrickle, the air is cool and sweet with hidden water. Far above uswe see a hawk circling. "A red-shouldered," Bowlby says. As I watchthe hawk spiral, I find myself reciting his list of canyons like anursery rhyme: Juniper, Chollas, Stevenson, Dove. Nothing big,nothing splashy, not the Grand Canyon. Just small, good places thatmake you feel good about April, about life.

INFO: Sierra Club, SanDiego Canyons Campaign (619/284-9399)

MORE: Discoverother canyons

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