The headwaters of the Laguna in 1823

March 10, 2011

On his quest to found a mission north of San Rafael, Father Jose Altimira wrote in his journal: “We followed the arroyo (creek) which, according to the Indians and our men who have seen it, carries the most water. But all we found was a small pond. Out on the plain, this arroyo dries up to nothing.”

Tired and thirsty, the party continued south for several more hours, more or less following present-day Petaluma Hill Road. It was after dark before they reached a small spring near Petaluma with enough water to supply them and their horses. The arroyo, which dried “up to nothing,” was probably Crane or Copeland Creek. It was July 2, 1823.

Had he ventured just two miles west, Altimira would have discovered a 20-acre lake a stone’s throw from the Hub in modern Cotati. As the only summer water in the area, it likely resembled a waterhole in the Serengeti, drawing in lots of animals.

The largest would have been the grizzly bear, which stood 10 feet tall on its hind legs and could weigh over a thousand pounds. Tule elk would have congregated here too, in herds numbering into the hundreds. Adult males had huge antlers and weighed 600 pounds. Pronghorn were smaller, but also roamed in impressive herds. They escaped predators using speed and endurance, able to run 10 miles in 15 minutes.

In those days, the Laguna headwaters were a remarkably dynamic landscape. Season to season and year to year, dramatic changes were in motion. Had Altimira visited six months later, he might have complained about mud rather than thirst. Arroyos swollen with winter rains would have made travel difficult. On the flats, these creeks divided into a wandering network of swales and channels. A big storm or a fallen tree could easily change their course. Copeland Creek was especially unpredictable. Being right on the watershed boundary, it might flow into the Petaluma River one winter, and into the Russian River the next.

Continue reading at The Community Voice – The headwaters of the Laguna in 1823.

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