There I was, drenched and freezing and all by myself, flailing through the underbrush in the Presidio in the middle of a storm. "Who wears sneakers to a downpour?" I asked out loud, curling my toes into icy waterlogged balls.
And then I nearly stepped directly into the very thing I'd come looking for: Dragonfly Creek, one of the few remaining visible bodies of water in the city.
I’d become interested in the city’s creeks one day while riding the T-Third line over a strange little sliver of water in the Bayview. Curious, I checked a map, and learned that it was the tail end of Islais Creek, which winds its way to the bay first through Glen Canyon, then through an aging underground passage beneath the 280 and 101 freeways.
But Islais isn’t our only creek. Though many have disappeared, a few little streams of water around town have survived the last hundred years of urbanization. Will even more vanish over the next few decades? It’s possible. I resolved to visit as many as I could, lest I wake up one day to discover that they’d all run dry.
And that’s what brought me to a Presidio ravine in the middle of a downpour. Those old creeks and streams are around us – but only if you know where to look.
I had my work cut out for me: Like everything in this city, San Francisco's water is weird. "It's the most highly altered waterscape in California," said Christopher Richard, an aquatic biologist at the Oakland Museum of California, who sold me a map of the city’s watershed. Over the next few days, this map was to become my primary mode of navigation as I jumped from creek to creek. Christopher also offered a pro tip for locating elusive waterways: “Look for willow trees,” he said. "Willows like it wet."
Next stop was the History Center at the San Francisco Public Library. "I'm looking for creeks," I said, and within minutes I was thumbing through folders of newspaper clippings spanning the last hundred years.
"The water, generally, is not good," stated one 1851 passage, "and, in the opinion of medical men, it generates much sickness." Thanks for the warning!
Other clippings were more helpful, revealing a stream beneath an apartment building on Caselli Avenue near where the 33 Muni line performs its hairpin turn; and an Examiner piece from the 1960s mentioned 2,000 gallons per hour being pumped out of the Fox Plaza construction site.
Inspired by my research, it was time to go creek snooping.
This whole quest was inspired by Islais Creek, so I decided to scope out its headwaters. Islais was easy to locate in Glen Canyon Park, nestled between branches (of willows!) and wildflowers.
As I walked upstream, a snake darted across the path and a hummingbird zoomed over my head. The whole place was a delight, except for a mangled hawk carcass that I spotted near a warning about coyote activity. But even that! Circle of life, nature, all creatures great and small…
Next, I headed over to McLaren Park to see Yosemite Marsh. An orange cat watched me from a bridge over the water as I walked the perimeter of the wetland, recently restored by neighborhood activists. “Quack,” said a duck.
Just as charming as Islais Creek, I decided, and was about to leave when I caught the sound of nearby running water.
Over a ridge, I discovered a thin stream in a trench and started to follow it uphill. The growth got a bit thicker, and soon I was swatting branches and clambering through brambles.
When I finally reached the source, it was a bit of a letdown: an utterly not-so-thrilling corrugated pipe. Turning to leave, I lost my balance and fell directly into the stream.
Two dog walkers saw me emerge from the trees, drenched and caked
in mud. I wondered if they understood what had happened, or if they
thought I'd just had a particularly messy cruising experience. It was
unclear which was worse.
I'd been turned on to the aforementioned and little-known Dragonfly Creek by Presidio biologist Mark Frey. As luck would have it, the rain started within minutes of my arrival in the park.
Dragonfly's easy to find, once you find it. Just look for the tennis courts near Wool Court, then walk northeast to a stone bridge. Beneath you is the mighty Dragonfly, once home to a windmill that pumped water to nearby buildings.
It’s very pretty, but I don’t recommend stumbling into it during a major storm.
After going home to towel off and wait out the rain, I continued my Presidio exploration with El Polin, a sexy stream named after 19th-century Spanish sailor slang for “penis.” According to my historical library research, the name refers to the water’s power to enhance female fertility and bestow twins. Why they chose a phallic euphemism to signify female fertility is a mystery lost to the ages, I suppose.
When I arrived, families were picnicking near the stream’s centuries-old weir, and two dudes were walking a tiny dog through the trickling stream that cuts through the lawn toward an old stone well. Another guy played fetch with a big black lab, treating it to an occasional sip from a bottle of Guinness.
"This is nice," I thought, then had a minor heart attack as I saw a small child tumble down into the well.
And then the kid's head poked back up and he climbed out. Turns out, it's not a well at all: just a decorative stone ring. Good grief.
There's nothing particularly sexy about Lobos Creek, at the southwestern end of the Presidio a block north of Lake Street between 18 th and 24 th avenues. But it is a very pleasant stroll nonetheless, trickling down to the beach in some parts above ground and in others below. Along the way, the Presidio captures about half of the water, purifies it, and pipes it throughout the park.
When strolling Lobos Creek, don't forget to stop by Mountain Lake near 2nd Avenue to admire the view. Just keep an eye out for weird predators, like the mysterious albino alligator that lived in the lake for several months in 1996 before being captured.
In other words, the Presidio's watersheds are about as hard core as they come.
Once you start looking into streams, they have a funny way of taking over your brain. I was now fully obsessed with waterways – if someone invited me out to a bar, I'd respond by telling them the names of nearby creeks.
In part, that's because there's just so many little streams in unlikely places.
Mission Creek might be my favorite. Until recently, it supplied fresh water to New Century Beverage Co., now home to the Mission Police Station. Nowadays, one of the only remaining visible stretches lies in the basement of the Armory, home to Kink.com; and if you're lucky, you can nab tickets to one of the free Kink.com tours, where you’re guaranteed to be the only person on the tour whose primary interest is the puddle of water in the basement.
There are other streams around the city, but it’s hard to say how many and where they all are, and impossible to know if they still follow their historical routes. Our altered landscape renders natural waterways all but invisible – until there’s a heavy rain, and a basement floods and mold sprouts. It’s possible that a long-forgotten creek might run past, or even under, your home, and you’d never know it but for the proliferation of mushrooms in the spring.
After a few days of researching every puddle in town, I started to notice just how many of them had simply vanished.
The beautifully named Washerwoman's Lagoon once drenched North Beach, but the only sign that it was ever there are the uncanny angles of Grenard Terrace and Blackstone Court, which once aligned with the lagoon's borders.
And then there's Dolores Lagoon, once home to a resort called "The Willows" before it was filled in by the late 1800s. The shores once approached what we now know as Dolores Park – imagine having a view of a lake from up on that hill! A plaque commemorating the former lagoon, at Camp and Albion streets, is now the only concrete evidence it existed.
I also went looking for the ghost of Ojo de Figueroa, a well dug in 1838 at Lyon and Vallejo. Today, it’s a landscaped median at the foot of the exhausting Lyon Street staircase. Though the well is long gone, it’s still worth a visit for the view of the city from the top of the stairs – provided you can endure the workout required to climb them.
But in my opinion, the best spectral creek is the Sans Souci, which lives on today as The Wiggle, a bike route tracing a low-lying path from Castro Safeway to the Panhandle. A friend at the SF Bike Coalition clued me in to a secret tribute to the vanished waterway, hidden in the mural behind the supermarket. I studied it for about ten minutes before I discovered the words hidden, appropriately, in the brushstrokes of a stream.
These lost creeks are a warning to us – protect the waterways or they might disappear. Pay them a visit. Show them some love. And once in a while, it can’t hurt to flail through some underbrush in the middle of a storm for an unexpected look at SF’s natural wonders.
Guided treks of selected areas – including waterways – are conducted by Nature in the City and the India Basin Neighborhood Organization. But nothing's more fun than exploring natural areas on your own! Pick up a San Francisco watershed map from the Oakland Museum of California to conduct your own personal tour of local waterways.
Photo by DraconianRain .