Thursday, February 28, 2008

Balmorhea, TX (with links to pictures)

As I write this, I am in the process of uploading images to some web albums, and as I do, I’ll be able to show you some of the things I’ve been writing about. For now, I’ll tell you about this place where we are now.

We are only about 30 miles north of where we were staying in the Davis Mountains. This is a Texas State Park built around a natural oasis. San Solomon Springs is a cluster of artesian and gravity springs that discharge around 25 million gallons of fresh water per day into what otherwise is an arid valley. The south and west is bordered by the Davis Mountains. Rain caught by those peaks percolates down through faults in the limestone bedrock, emerging into spreading wetland pools that were used for thousands of years by Native Americans to water their animals and by early settlers to irrigate their crops.

The most unusual aspect of San Solomon, however, is that during the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps turned the springs into what was then the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool. In recent decades this pool has become a favorite open-water site for scuba training and recreational diving. Divers from Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas and every corner of Texas come here to do their open-water certification. Cool, huh? (Because where else would they do it???)

The pool is 200 feet in diameter and around 25 feet deep. It was constructed right over the outflows of several major springs. Radiating out from the circular pool in a “v” shape are two legs, each 70 feed wide. Both legs were originally more than 300 feet long. One was left shallow as a wading and swimming area but it was eventually shortened due to insufficient water circulation to maintain clarity. The other leg slopes upward from the central pool to about 12 feet deep at the far end. There, the water flows out through a canal to feed Balmorhea Lake, which is the reservoir for a system of canals that irrigate almost 13,000 acres of farmland.

Originally, the 3.5 million-gallon pool was lined with local limestone blocks and bordered with flagstone paving. Over the intervening years, however, the native rock has flaked, requiring capping with concrete to preserve the walls and adjacent walkways.

The bottom of the pool has undergone a different kind of transformation. Natural processes, including blowing desert sand and breakdown of the limestone lining blocks have created a silty substrate that supports a carpet of hydrilla and other aquatic grasses. An assortment of freshwater animals, including spiny softshell turtles, Mexican tetras, and channel catfish feed off the grasses. Two species of endangered fishes also inhabit the pool: Comancine Springs Pupfish and Pecos Gambusia (mosquito fish). Because of this metamorphosis from swimming pool to natural habitat, in 1992 the San Solomon Springs pool was reclassified by the Texas park system as a natural body of water.

We went snorkeling yesterday and we saw the catfish and the Mexican tetras. We also saw the cutest little ducks that swam on the surface, and then dove clear to the bottom of the pool to feed on stuff in the grass. They could stay down for minutes at a time, and then used their little feet to propel them to the surface. It was delightful to watch them go from bottom to top and then pop out on the surface. We had no idea ducks were such good swimmers.

So far, I haven’t taken any pictures of the area, but I probably will today. There is a dive shop next door to the park, and we intend to go over there and look into the price of renting weights and tanks. Aside from that, we have all of our own gear. My right shoulder has been flaring up, and so I need to have it settle down again before I can think about diving. Maybe tomorrow. For today, we will explore, and I will try to get you some pictures of the place.

In the meantime, here are pictures from the last week, beginning with our hike to “The Window” in the basin of the Chisos Mountains (Big Bend NP).

Here is the link to pictures I took around our campsite in Big Bend:

I got up before sunrise to take these pictures of the Chisos Mountains from the Rio Grande Nature Trail. The trailhead was in the campground where we stayed:

Here are some pictures taken from the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive that runs south through the park until it dead-ends at the Mexican border at the Rio Grande. We took the Santa Elena Canyon Hike here:

Here are some pictures taken in the Davis Mountains along the Davis Mountain Scenic Loop and at the McDonald Observatory. There were six domes for telescopes at the Observatory. We were in two of the smaller ones. Some of these pictures were taken at the top of the hill, but the dome I have pictured is of the largest telescope, the Hobby-Ebberly Telescope, which was 432-inches across its reflective surface, an array of hexagonal mirrored pieces about three feet each.