At Kachina Village, let’s go from Pumphouse County Natural Area downstream following Pumphouse Wash. The wash goes southwest then south, joined by Harrenburg Wash from the west, and Kelly and James canyons from the east, and becomes more entrenched until joining Oak Creek Canyon at the bridge at the base of the Highway 89A switchbacks.
Water in the wash is intermittent with continuous flows during storms or from winter snowmelt. Nonetheless, this riparian way serves as an important ecological connection between Oak Creek Canyon and the rim forest. And while riparian habitats only make up 0.4% of Arizona’s total land area, 80% of Arizona’s wildlife and plants are dependent on these “ribbons of life” at some point in their life cycle.
Migrating animals, particularly birds utilize this riparian corridor. Besides being important for wildlife, riparian and wetland areas help stabilize banks and filter water, which improves water quality and quantity. Wetlands also act as natural detention areas with significant capacity to store temporary floodwater.
As one descends Pumphouse Wash, the forest changes in what may be a surprising way. Biologist C. Hart Merriam came to northern Arizona in 1889, in part, to study the relationships between plant and animal communities with their environment. His pioneering research led to the idea that biotic communities were not scattered at random but rather, arranged in horizontal layers (Merriam’s term being Life Zones) determined by the range of temperature and precipitation at different elevations.
Thus, going from the ponderosa pine forest surrounding Pumphouse Meadow down to Oak Creek Canyon, one might expect to enter a more arid and hotter environment, such as pinyon-juniper woodland. However, at the confluence of Pumphouse with Oak Creek is a lush mixture of riparian species and Douglas fir, white fir, big-tooth maple and velvet ash, more reminiscent of a Canadian forest than the typical Arizona pine forest. What Merriam did not allude to was cold-air drainage flowing down narrow canyons and how that plus the permanent water of Oak Creek in a sense reversed his Life Zone order.
Pumphouse Wash harbors some unique and rare plants like Arizona bugbane, which is pollinated by bumblebees; hop-hornbeam believed to be an Ice Age relict; the endemic Flagstaff pennyroyal that is restricted to growing on dolomitic limestone; Pringle’s fleabane, which may be an endemic to Oak Creek Canyon and its tributaries; and the extremely rare Arizona ragwort.
In years past, a single javelina occasionally wandered from the Verde Valley into the ponderosa forest during the summer. One route for them from the valley is to follow Oak Creek and then its tributaries like Pumphouse Wash.
But on Christmas Day 2012 in Kachina Village, we were surprised to see a squadron of half a dozen javelina standing in the snow. It was a family group consisting of adults and several reds, as the young are called. Javelina love to eat cacti, especially prickly pear, but in the last two decades they have become permanent residents above the Mogollon Rim. They now occur at least as far north as the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, with a rumor of one spotted within the canyon.
Black bears also live along Pumphouse and its tributaries. Usually very secretive, the bears around Kachina were seen boldly seeking water and food during the recent hot, dry spring. But please remember a fed bear is a dead bear.
Long before pioneer settlement, the Apaches used Pumphouse Wash and Meadow for short stays and hunting when traveling between the Verde Valley and the Dzil Cho (the San Francisco Peaks). Their name for the area is “Place of Many Springs” or Tu’ha das nLi’I’. Much has changed in the last 140 years. The lumber mill and steam locomotives are history now. Since 1959, the pumphouse has been silent.
Kachina Village’s household water comes from deep wells drilled 650 to 1,100 feet to reach the Coconino Sandstone Aquifer. O’Neill and the many other springs along Pumphouse are once again free to water the area. We will have to wait and see what impacts a changing climate might have on our precious water sources.
Stewart Aitchison has been exploring and writing about the Colorado Plateau for more than 50 years. His publications include "The Official Guide to Grand Canyon’s North Rim" and the forthcoming "Bears Ears Country: A National Treasure."
The NPS/USFS Roving Rangers volunteer through a unique agreement between the Flagstaff Area National Monuments and the Coconino National Forest to provide interpretive ranger walks and talks in the Flagstaff area.
Submit questions for the Ask a Ranger weekly column to firstname.lastname@example.org.