Canal Bank Walks
updates are added to this section starting here;
latest one here)
(Note: The terms
Dry Creek, Dry Creek Canal, Big Dry Creek and Big Dry Creek Canal
all refer to a creek that runs through Clovis and Fresno, and has
been channeled and lined with concrete in many places and converted
to a canal.)
This report is not about a
specific trip or hike, but rather a round-up of things seen and done
while walking on the canal banks of Fresno and Clovis, starting in
the 1970s and going through the present day.
There are many miles of
canals throughout the metro area, built to carry water from
rivers and reservoirs to farmland all over the San Joaquin Valley. Virtually all
of them have hard-packed dirt
banks, which are perfect for walking,
running and bicycling. A few areas are fenced
off, but the vast
majority are accessible. Most of the system is operated by the Fresno
My first use of the local
canal banks was actually around 1967, when I started jogging along a
narrow ditch on the west side of town where we lived. This activity did not
last long, and this particular canal is either filled in or piped
underground, most likely the former.
After that, I did not set
foot on a canal bank until I moved to central Fresno, near First and
Clinton, in 1978. From my house it was a fairly short walk to the Herndon
Canal, which runs parallel to Millbrook Avenue, north from McKinley
Avenue, across Clinton and Michigan Avenues. From there it curves around to the west and
runs parallel to Shields Avenue. The major streets are typically a
half mile apart, so it was easy to measure the approximate distance
one traveled; i.e. McKinley to Clinton = 1/2 mile.
I started backpacking
in 1979, and quickly realized I needed some regular exercise, so
once again my use of the canal banks was for jogging. When my effort
and discipline in this activity were at their peak, I ran nearly every morning, from my
doorway, on the streets to where the canal crossed Clinton, down to
McKinley, and back, a daily distance of about 1.5 miles.
I don't recall how long I
kept this up, but at some point I became lazy and didn't run at all.
Eventually the running was too hard on my knees, and I limited my
activity to walking.
Throughout the time I
lived in that location, I also did a lot of canal walks just for
fun, with other people. This included various friends, my daughters,
and a couple of young men who were around a lot, one of whom is now
daughter Teri's husband. But my favorite walks were with my
grandsons. First there was Johnny, often along with his friend BJ
who lived two doors away. Mikie was born 13 years later, so by the
time Johnny was busy with other activities, Mikie was ready to
accompany me. Some of these walks included his friends Pablo and
Librado, who lived next door.
Near where the canal
crossed Michigan Avenue there was a municipal pump
station, with a huge storage tank. Sometime during the early years
of frequenting this area we developed the myth of the Tank People,
who lived in the tank. We didn't make up any details beyond saying
things like, "here's where the Tank People live."
A big pipe ran out from
the pump station, then underground across the bank, and out over the
canal. This pipe proved to be an excellent place to sit and rest,
and was also a great place for young boys to test their balance by
walking on it, on the side away from the canal where it was close to
Of course, canal banks
aren't just for walking. They also make good bike paths - most of
the time. Naturally, there are weeds along the bank, and there is a
particularly pernicious species we call puncture
vine, which produces
seeds about a quarter inch in diameter, with sharp spikes sticking
out in several directions. On one ride, both Johnny and I ended up
with flat tires, pushing our bikes back home after encountering an area covered with
these seeds. Even if they didn't make a hole, they would get stuck
in the treads, requiring a session of careful seed removal.
When I was walking on a
regular basis, I would see other "regulars." Most of us
said "hello" to each other, but that was the extent of our
interaction. However, I did come up with names for some of them. One
group of three or four included a woman who carried a short stick,
presumably for protection against dogs. She became "Mrs.
Most people who were
couples walked within touching distance, and some held hands. But
one couple walked almost as far apart as possible, at least six feet
apart. I called them "The Wide Couple."
Finally there were two
men and a woman of apparent Germanic ancestry. In recognition of a
leftist militant group that had gained notoriety in Germany, these
innocent folks became "The
Nameless, but interesting
nonetheless, were occasional groups of teenagers who would gather
under the bridge when the water flow was shut off. By observation,
they were using the area to engage in illegal smoking.
The canal I walk
Clovis has provided a hang-out place for homeless people from time
to time, although conditions have kept them on the move. There used
to be several large black walnut trees at the water's edge, and the
overhanging branches provided shady and inconspicuous places for
people to rest. These trees were cut
down, probably because of the
water they took from the canal, and the homeless moved to a
table at the back of a park adjacent to the canal bank. This table
was removed, almost surely to push the people out, and now they have
a shaded spot right next to a fence behind Abe's Mini-Mart. They
have a couple of chairs and some boxes to serve as tables, but there
are rarely more than two people there. Some of the stumps have put
sucker growth, but nothing like the shady "caves" they
used to provide.
The canals in central
Fresno had several narrow
foot bridges. At least one of these was
removed during my time in the area, which covered a 30 year time
span. The one I crossed the most was about three feet
wide, made of metal grating, and in the early days, had no railings.
I remember riding my bike across it with no railing, an adventure I
didn't repeat more than once or twice. I was much more comfortable,
even just walking, after the railings were installed.
Like any artifact made to
transport water, the flow could be controlled, and there was quite a
variation, mostly somewhat predictable, and based on irrigation
needs. Typically water would begin to flow on April 1, although it
could be delayed in dry years, or started early in wet ones. The
shut-off date seemed be be August 31, but of course, this was also
subject to variation.
When the water was shut
off, probably at a gate on a major canal coming out of Millerton
Lake, it took a day or two for the water flow to stop completely.
There was a narrow channel in the middle of the canal bottom, lower
than the rest of the bed,
and there would be standing water in many areas for
some time, often into the winter. Additionally, a small
canal which drained out of the water recharge facility ran into the
Herndon Canal northwest of Michigan, and
sometimes this caused a small flow, more like a creek than a canal.
The sides of the canal
were lined with concrete in many area, and there were rebar ladders
every so often. Although they were no doubt intended as a safety
feature for people to climb out, they were also in invitation for
people to climb IN.
As soon as the water was
low enough to expose part of the canal bottom, people started going
down into it. I would like to say these were kids, but I went down a
number of times, usually with a grandson. We waited till it was dry
enough to walk on solid ground, but there were always some
adventurous folks who had to pay a visit as soon as there was a
place to walk. These incursions were detectable by the existence of
mud, often the first day it was possible to
get down into the channel.
The canals also offered
opportunities to watch fast moving and falling water, which seems to
have fascinated humans since prehistoric times. The Mill Canal that ran
parallel to McKinley went through a gate and dropped several
feet; at the same location, the Herndon Canal ran north. There were
electrical boxes in this area, which presumably operated pumps and
gates, making it an interesting area to visit.
With a constant flow of
water, off and on, year after year, it is natural that sand and silt
are carried into the canal, and dropped when the water flow stops.
Every so often the irrigation district would come in with backhoes
and other equipment, and dig out tons of soil from the canal, piling
it on top of the bank. This happened twice during my 30 years in
central Fresno, and is going on this year in the Clovis area canals
that I walk on.
In some cases the big
dirt piles nearly blocked access to the banks, but intrepid walkers
soon created paths along the side. As the piles dried out,
adventurous folks began walking on top of the piles, eventually
creating a solid walkway most of the way. I have a number of photos of my
grandson Mikie sitting and walking atop these hills.
Eventually the dirt is
trucked away. In 2015 dirt had been excavated and piled up on
Dry Creek Canal where I walk between Barstow and Willow. Heading down the west
side one morning, I saw a backhoe on the opposite side, and was
concerned that I might not be able to walk on that side as I usually
do. However, the operator was just sitting in the machine, which was
not running, and I soon realized he must be waiting for trucks to
On the way back I
stopped to talk, and he was indeed waiting for the trucks, which
were taking the material a considerable distance away. One truck had broken down,
so there was a longer wait than usual. He also told me that they had
removed over 700 truck loads from a one mile section of another
canal to the east.
Dirt is not the only
thing that ends up in the canals. Quite a few people seem to think
that these facilities were created as a place to dump trash. You
probably can't name something that people throw away that I have not
seen in the canal or along the bank - furniture, concrete, bricks,
scrap lumber, bottles, cans, yard waste, auto parts, appliances,
household items, toys (especially balls), and what seemed
to be a favorite, shopping
carts. In Clovis, but not in Fresno, I
have seen a few piles of clothing, possibly abandoned by a homeless
The shopping carts were not there
because their owners had thrown them away - they were taken by
people transporting their groceries home, vandals stealing them for
whatever reason, homeless people who used them as a mobile closet.
No doubt many were abandoned by the person who removed them from
the store, and put in the canal by someone else. There are people who
drive around in pickups, rescuing shopping carts from the
canal and elsewhere, and returning them to the store for a fee. I
rescued a small hand-held shopping basket that I still use. There
was a section of the canal in Fresno that was a veritable shopping
cart graveyard, but I have seen only one cart in Clovis.
Lots of the stuff thrown
in the canal floats, and when the water passes under a bridge where
the surface is at or above the bottom of the bridge, these items
collect against the bridge. The only photo I have shows a fairly small
amount of stuff, but I have seen a virtual "garbage
island" three feet wide across the full width of the canal, with
bottles, cans, plastic cups, balls and other items.
No doubt a significant
amount of this trash came from the people who lived adjacent to the
canal. In many places the canals run behind residential areas. Why
bother with cutting your tree limbs down to a size acceptable to the
trash company when you can simply throw them over the back fence.
With the canal running next to
residential back yards in some areas, there are places where the canal is actually an access road for the property
owners. Not all yards, but some, have gates, and most often you can
see that the access is used to get a boat or RV into the back yard.
It also proved handy for
a couple of enterprising gardeners. In two locations along the canal
between McKinley and Clinton, there were extensive vegetable gardens
in the area between the actual canal bank and the fence. I don't
know what the legal ownership of this area is, but apparently it
never caused any concern for the irrigation district.
The canal bank is not
only a good walking surface, it's a good medium for communication,
and over the years various messages were scratched in the
dirt, most of them short-lived. An exception, just north of the little bridge
that crossed the canal near McKinley, was a heart drawn deep into the dirt. It
was there at least from the early 80's through 2002. At first it said "God loves you;" later it became "God loves us." I am certain that more than one person maintained it over the years, and of course it gets messed up, deliberately or otherwise.
One day it said "Fuck god." I never touched it, but I continued to
check it whenever I walked. In late September 2002 the original "God Loves Us;"
had been changed to "God Save Us" or "God Help Us," perhaps more appropriate for
those post 911 times. The last time I took note of it, it read "God vs. Us," which seems to be perhaps a fundamentalist viewpoint.
Since we're talking about
a place where water flows, it should not be a surprise that various
plants grow along and in the canal. Most of these would be
categorized as weeds, but none of them are worse than the puncture
vines. This is a low-growing plant that puts out horizontal stems in
all directions from the central root, and produces dozens if not
hundreds of small, spiny seeds. These can go through a bike tire,
and certainly through the skin of a bare foot, as well as getting
stuck in the treads of tennis shoes.
When the water is shut
off, nearly every inch of the dirt canal bottom produces plants of
some kinds. A lot of these don't get started till late August, but
still manage to grow to a good height before winter knocks them
down. Then there are the plants that grow in the water. There was
some type of plant that usually grew in the canal near my old house,
producing long stems that waved back and forth in the flow of the
water. One section of the canal in Clovis that I walk by has a long
section filled with what appears to be a type of
grass, with very small white flowers.
Downstream a ways,
conditions this year have been especially good for puncture vines,
with some growing up to six feet across.
One recent year there was
a massive crop of very tall
weeds, so thick that narrow parts of the
bank had only three or four feet of pathway. These did not appear in
2015, no doubt due to the extended drought.
section of the Dry Creek Canal north of Alluvial and West of Clovis
Avenues goes by an area where there are a number of large homes, on
the opposite side of the canal, and mostly hidden by large
eucalyptus trees. These are not tract homes of any kind, but appear
to be part of large rural properties, maybe former ranches. Some of
them have horses, and in one place there are a dozen or so old cars
and trucks, partly hidden in the trees.
Perhaps the most
interesting sights along the canals are the animals, both wild and
tame. Of course, the "wild" life is not large, dangerous
nor particularly wild.
Most common are birds of
various species. The first birds I noticed, back in my early canal
walking days, were ducks and egrets. At that time I could stand on
the edge of the bank and look down at the ducks, and they would go
about their business, ignoring me. Over the years they became more
skittish, and would swim away whenever a person got close. Some of
this I attribute to a kid I saw throwing rocks at them, while his
proud (asshole) parents watched. However, those ducks and most of
their descendents are long gone, so I suspect the caution of the
current birds has more to do with a general increase in human presence around
The egrets are
particularly enjoyable. They are over two feet tall, and stand on
the bank or in the canal near the water when it's low, watching for whatever it
is they eat. They will not allow a human to approach closer than
about 50 feet. Typically they will fly up and along the canal, and
come to rest 100 feet away or so. Then as I continue to approach,
they repeat this action. At the third approach they finally decide
that the invader is not going away, and fly up and away from the
canal to await a more opportune time to hunt.
There was a place near
the canal in Fresno where pigeons were thick. I would see dozens
sitting on the utility wires, and until I approached, they were all
over the bank. There was a house near this spot where I think the
people fed them. My opinion is that they should have been fed
I began to see Canada geese in the
canal for the first time in 2015. They have taken
up permanent residence in the valley, and in the winter there is
virtually no park or large public lawn area that does not have a
flock of 25 or more. Apparently the canal offers a good nesting
place, since what I saw in the canal or on the bank was pairs of
geese with a bunch of babies. Sometimes they were swimming;
sometimes standing up on the bank.
The geese have far less
fear of humans than the ducks. If they were on the bank on the side
I was walking, they would come to full alert, with the babies
standing up and ready to move, but would hold their ground as long
as I kept to the far side of the bank. If they were on the opposite
side, the kids were resting and the adults just kept an eye on me.
Once I was taking photos, fairly close to some geese on the side I
was walking. Apparently this was too much for the birds, as the
gander made a move toward me and said something very rude in
Canadian. However, I only saw them abandon the bank and head into the
water one time.
During the spring of
2015, in various locations, I saw baby ducks, baby geese, and baby
egrets. The latter were on a sand bar in a huge flood basin, far
away from any place humans could approach. On the other hand, some
of the young geese were in a nearby park, while their parents kept
watch from the other side of the chain link fence surrounding the
summer of 2015, I saw hummingbirds by the canal on a fairly regular
basis. In the late fall I encountered what I believe was a
Dogs, mostly on a leash
and accompanied by their humans, were also common, with the
occasional stray or loose dog causing a certain amount of concern. A
free ranging dog is indicative of an irresponsible owner, so neither
are to be trusted, especially when the owner is nowhere to be seen.
Cats are less common,
though I have seen them making their way down the bank to get a
drink, and they no doubt stalk small birds and rodents. Adjacent to the canal I walk by most is the Clovis Animal Shelter.
This seems to be a favorite hangout place for what I assume are
feral cats. I usually see anywhere from two to five of them outside
the shelter area, on the upper bank of big flood basin.
The canal bank offers a
perfect location for the construction of what I call "ground
squirrel condos" - holes at various elevations in the bank, and
these creatures can be seen on maybe 90% of my hikes in Clovis. The
conditions did not seem to favor them at the Fresno canals.
In the spring of 2016, a section of the Enterprise Canal north of
Clovis collapsed, flooding a street and two yards. Water was up to
the door at one home. The event was blamed on ground squirrels
digging in the canal bank.
There are also huge
populations of red squirrels in the Fresno-Clovis metro area, and I
have often seen them walking on utility wires along the canal
banks, running up trees, and frolicking in adjacent parks.
One of the most
interesting mammals I saw appeared unexpectedly one day. I was
walking on the bank with some friends when we saw something
swimming on the surface of the canal, its tail waving back and forth behind it.
Our first thought was a beaver, but we immediately saw that the tail
was long and skinny, and we realized it must be a muskrat.
Over the years, I saw
them many times, but eventually, sightings became rare. I told my
grandson about them, but despite many walks with Johnny, it seemed
he would never see one. Then one day we saw one well upstream. Most
muskrat sightings were very quick, as the animals tended to dive
deep when they saw humans, but this one swam toward us, diving and
resurfacing several times, so Johnny got a good look.
Years later with Mikie,
we had the same problem, but then he too saw one that stayed
visible for a half a minute. However, by the time I moved from
Fresno in 2008, I had not seen one in years, nor have they made an
appearance in Clovis.
Somewhat related to the
muskrats, there were a few tiny shells along the bank, but there were
places just above water line under a bridge where there were
hundreds of them. Since I saw muskrats in this area several times, I
believe they dined on the shellfish.
Probably the most
unlikely animal spotted on the canal bank was a horse, There was a
gentleman who would ride throughout the city, and occasionally came
our way on the bank. This created another interesting result. This
area was one where the back yards of houses were 20 feet or so from
the canal bank. Dogs in the yards would occasionally bark at me, but
it wasn't a big deal. However, this day the dogs obviously smelled
something unusual, and dogs up and down the bank were barking
By far the most common
animals over the years have been reptiles and amphibians. My
favorite event in this department took place one fall after the
water had been shut off, but there were ponds in the middle channel
for some time. Johnny and I were walking in the canal bed when we
realized the ground was moving under our feet. In fact, it was
hundreds of tiny toads, most not more than an inch long. It was hard
to walk without stepping on them.
We returned soon after
with a plastic bucket and collected about 20 of them to put in my
yard, which already had some large toads helping keep the slugs and
other pests under control. We saw quite a few of them around the
yard the next few
days, and some for a few weeks, but I don't think many survived the
move. On our way back from the canal we saw my neighbor Donna out in
front of her house with her little grandson Mason, so we showed him
the toads, to his great delight.
There was never again a
"good toad year" like that in the Fresno canals, but a few
years ago, there were dozens of them crossing the canal bank in
Clovis, between a flood basin and the canal.
There was one year when I
saw either toads or frogs hanging out on the floating plants after
the canal started running at full capacity. And in 2015 in Clovis I
heard two splashes right by the edge of the water as I approached,
and the area had floating plants where small frogs could have found
The most unusual and
unexpected reptile was a turtle I saw sitting on the
concrete side of the bank one day just north of Clinton Avenue. I assumed
that it was probably carried down from the foothills, and was
certainly not in an ideal spot for such a creature.
I don't recall seeing
lizards by the canals in Fresno, but I saw enough in one day in
Clovis to make up for it. In March of 2015 I walked on the canal bank that goes south and west from
to Willow. Along the side I started on is a light-colored concrete block
fence, which proved to be a favorite hangout for
lizards. I counted
30 of them, and no doubt missed some. There were many holes and cracks in the
fence, and the lizards who did not go over the wall quickly slipped
through these. The second half of the walk
had a perfectly good wood fence, but it apparently did not meet the
hills are a fairly common occurrence along the banks, and of
course, various insects can be seen scurrying about. Also, I have
seen fish in the channel that lingers after the water shuts down,
and they are surely there all the time. I have seen a few people
fishing, and one boy with a jar of water containing live fish.
My Walking Route:
In Clovis I have walked on segments of several canals, but most of
my walking is along the
Dry Creek channel. The map calls it "Big Dry
Creek," but I think of it as a canal. Its winding path shows
that it is an actual creek, but there is not an inch of the original
creek in the metro area. It has been dug out, sometimes has concrete
lining the bank, the flow is mostly controlled by man - all the
attributes of a canal.
These days canal walking
is a matter of serious exercise. As this is written I am
participating with my daughter Teri in the Thousand
Mile Challenge. She is responsible for 800 miles, leaving me to
complete 200 by December 21, 2015. In fact, she is on pace to do the
full 1,000 herself, but I must uphold my end of the bargain.
My preferred walk starts
where Dry Creek crosses Villa Avenue, and runs in a southwesterly
direction toward Barstow, which meets Villa at a right angle.
About 100 yards from Barstow, another canal runs to the west. I
originally thought of this a "spur canal," but the water does not actually come
from Dry Creek. It is the Helm
Canal and crosses under the Dry Creek canal through a pipe.
It goes a short distance then makes a 45 degree turn to the west.
It crosses Sylmar Avenue,
then goes underground about 100 yards past that, and a solid wall
blocks any further pedestrian access. Beyond the wall is the CA
Highway 168 freeway.
I walk from Villa to the
Helm Canal, all the way to where access ends, back on the opposite side,
down to Barstow, and back on the east bank of Dry Creek. This route
is 1.7 miles long, a good morning walk. Sometimes I cross the Helm at Sylmar, reducing the distance to about 1.6.
Another similar walk is
to start where Dry Creek crosses Barstow and walk
south. The channel winds around to the west, eventually crossing
Willow where I turn back. Doing a "down and back" on this
is only a little over a mile, but I usually cross the road, walk
north up to the Helm, out and back then back to the car. This gives
me a distance of 1.8 miles.
A short but very pleasant
walk is the section of Dry Creek between John Wright Station and Dry
Creek Park at Clovis and Alluvial Avenues. This
route is actually part of the Clovis
Trail System, and is almost like walking beside a
real creek. Going all the way around the small Cottonwood Park
at the southwest corner of the intersection and back to the start is
1.4 miles. There's a small parking lot at John Wright, and you can
also go north to connect with trails into Fresno, or south on the
Old Town Trail to downtown Clovis and beyond. These are not canal
Notes: When I
started this report, I thought that probably the only canal photos I
had were the "scenic views" I had taken in recent years
along the Clovis canal banks. I was delighted to find the pictures
of Mikie on the mountain from March 2004, and the ones of
Pablo and Librado (Lee), taken in May 2003.
I have now embarked on a
series of photo expeditions to document scenes on the canals in
Clovis and Fresno. For the latter, I'm going back to a location I
have not visited since 2008, so who knows what changes I will find?
There is an on-line
map of the entire Fresno Irrigation District. With its huge
scale and street names shown only at the edges, it is of limited use
to the lay user, but I have included the link for those who want t
know more about canals than they ever realized.
Because canal walks are
ongoing, this section will be updated from time to time, and more
photos added. Check back and don't miss out!
What's Along Side the Canal: Abe's Food & Liquor (on
Barstow), apartment complexes, a basketball
court, mobile home parks, back yards of single
family homes, flood basins, Clovis city yard and animal shelter,
city parks, large commercial enterprises, vacant
fields, old ranch buildings, a stash of old cars, Clovis city trails, etc.
--Dick Estel, July 2015, with updates as indicated below