I could hardly believe my eyes. There it was: the San Diego River, looking big enough to swim in. And close enough to Presidio Park so that the back of the Serra Museum was visible in the distance. How had I never so much as glimpsed it here in any of my previous 36 years of San Diego residency?
How I happened to see it last Sunday is that a hike in the Mission Valley Preserve was advertised as one of the San Diego River Days events. Spending a little time along this mother of all San Diego County rivers struck me as being a fitting way to start off Mother’s Day, so at 9 a.m. Steve, the dogs, and I found Ben Stevenson at the west end of the parking lot adjoining the Mission Valley YMCA on Friar’s Road.
Ben heads the group that has befriended this particular 72 acres of city-owned property, dedicated as a preserve about a dozen years ago. The group is one of about 70 that make up the San Diego River Park Coalition. Their ultimate goal is “creating a river-long system of parks, open spaces, and community places” along every section of the river’s 52-mile extent, from the mountains near Santa Ysabel down to where the river empties into the sea at Dog Beach. For the last 8 years, the Friends of Mission Valley Preserve have been developing the garden that directly abuts the Y’s parking lot, as well as a network of hiking trails through one 7-acre section.
Last Sunday was the first time they welcomed the general public to see the fruits of their labors. Though the morning was gray, there was plenty to brighten up the garden: cheery orange poppies and butter-yellow sun cups, deeply lavendar wild hyacinth and jimson weed blushing purple. Ben explained that although the bush sunflowers were reaching the end of their bloom cycle, primrose will begin blooming soon, followed by goldenbush that will continue to dazzle visitors through October. All these are natives. That’s the only type of vegetation the Mission Valley Preserve friends plant, though throngs of non-native plants are very much in evidence. Some of them — masses of nasturtiums and wild radish — looked pretty in the mix. Or so I thought. But “We don’t like pretty unless it’s native,” Ben declared, and he sounded confident that with enough sustained attention, the natives can once again reign over this patch of San Diego.
Riparian, estuarian, and chaparral communities all come together here, and I felt amazed by how wild the confluence felt — despite the urban sound track. The traffic on nearby Interstate 8 was roaring particularly loudly this morning, Ben noted, and from time to time, a San Diego Trolley whooshed over the elevated track nearby. But the vegetation is surprisingly dense here, not just plants but also concentrations of arroyo and black willows, mixed with Western cottonwoods, (non-native) palms, and a few struggling oaks. A transient population has often found shelter amidst the underbrush, but while their presence might discourage solitary hiking (at least solitary female hiking), Stevenson and another Friends volunteer seemed to feel such folk posed little danger to hikers in pairs or larger groups.
I’ve got nothing against the transients, but it does seem intolerable to cede to them exclusive access to this treasure at the very heart of San Diego: fresh flowing water, a changing wonder throughout the year. Ben says by the end of the summer it will shrink to a puny stream — only to swell again when the winter rains begin. Seventeen more events celebrating the San Diego River will continue this Saturday, and on Sunday this year’s Riverfest is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Qualcomm Stadium. A clean-up effort focusing on the Mission Valley Preserve is also scheduled for Saturday, June 26.