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Finding a River

The Wikipedia article on the San Dieguito River describes it as a”major river in Southern California” which “flows generally southwest for 23.8 miles (38.3 km)” – to which I object. The terms “major river” and “flows” evoke associations of a larger body of water like the Salzach river that marks the border between Germany and Austria. And the San Dieguito River is nothing like that.

I would describe the San Dieguito River ‘complex’ primarily as a major watershed in San Diego County. With our seasonal variation in precipitation alone, parts of that watershed may sometimes have flowing water, but more often than not, it is a dry riverbed – if it can be made out as such, that is.

In our present day, two reservoirs further limit the free flow of water: Lake Sutherland near Ramona, and Lake Hodges here in Rancho Bernardo. Lake Sutherland isn’t even filled a lot often and thus pretty much absorbs the water from the upper parts of Santa Ysabel Creek, and the water levels of Lake Hodges are fluctuating so much that the city’s pumping operations to keep the water at a safe level for dam integrity puts the resident grebes of the lake at risk of losing their nests (excess water from Lake Hodges is pumped to Olivenhain Reservoir first, and the sudden drop in water level leaves a lot of the floating grebe nests high and dry, out of reach for the parents). This means that nothing but a few large (and largely unattractive) pools of standing water below the dam are all that’s left. Not much of a “major river” that “flows!”

At the same time, this river, once known as Rio San Bernardo, pretty much defines San Diego’s north county inland areas, and thus where I live and roam. For the first couple of years that I lived here, it wasn’t even clear to me that the areas that I love the most, from the Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve through the two Santa Ysabel Preserves, Pamo Valley (spared from becoming yet another reservoir, thankfully) and Boden Canyon, past Lake Hodges and all the way down to Del Mar, are all in this very watershed. The connector that runs the entire length of the watershed, or its vision, is called the Coast to Crest Trail.

The actual river only begins where Santa Ysabel and Santa Maria creeks converge, at the upper end of the San Pasqual Valley. What’s left of Santa Ysabel Creek west of Lake Sutherland runs, strengthened slightly by Temescal Creek’s inflow, from present day Pamo Valley through Clevenger Canyon below Highway 78; Santa Maria creek leaves the historic Valle de Pamo or Santa Maria Valley around Ramona through Bandy Canyon.

I had found the river flowing previously, after heavy winter storms in the 2016/2017 water year (see Spring along the San Dieguito River), and after the heavy rains early in April 2020, I thought that I’d surely find it running again. But how to photograph it better?

As part of my work as a real estate photographer, it became inevitable that I familiarize myself with drone photography, and was given an old DJI Phantom 3 Pro as a “hand-me-down” to begin working with. Naturally, I was also drawn to the straight-down perspective of drone photography that offers an unusual and beautiful view of the landscape, one that would have been impossible to attain just a few years ago. I thought this would be great for a photo of the San Dieguito River.

I can honestly say that operating the drone still freaks me out. I’m always glad when I can land the damn thing and stow it away, but with the idea of an aerial photo of “our river” in mind, I decided to set out on a recent morning before dawn, and find the river and make that photo of it.

A thin morning mist hung in the meadows still and you can just so make out the river’s water as specks of dark blue here and there, amidst the band of Willows, Cottonwoods and other riparian vegetation in the photo (together with quite some invasive Tamarisk too, unfortunately). On smaller screens, you won’t be able to see much of the river at all.

I could not find reliable information about operating unmanned aircraft from within the boundaries of the San Dieguito River Park, but I assumed it would not be allowed, so for this photo, I parked at the side of the road, outside of the park’s boundaries, and launched the drone from there. I flew in while maintaining a visual line of sight with the aircraft (as far as I could determine it, this is legal – needless to say, the area is outside of restricted airspace).

UPDATE – a few days later, I flew the drone over a different area, and found the river less obscured by vegetation, as well as different views. Conditions were lovely again with a thin veil of morning mist hanging in the meadows. Here are three more photos – showing an awful lot of invasive plants unfortunately, both Tamarisk, and Perennial Pepperweed (Lepidium latifolium) starting to bloom:

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6 thoughts on “Finding a River”

  1. Very interesting…I’ve also questioned why various bodies of water are called a “river” or a “creek” and ultimately, it seems that there are subjective forces at work when we name things – of course. But Wikipedia is something we think of as objective…oh well! It can’t always be right. I appreciate your taking pains to tell us that you followed whatever regulations you could find for flying the drone – drones in the wild can be very annoying. I’ve had the experience of being in a seemingly pristine place, framing a shot of water and rocks and having a drone fly right into the shot. But I too am attracted to that view – why else would I always insist on window seats when flying? Too bad about the invasives, but they do make lovely compositions in spring.

    • Thanks, Lynn! I’d react the same way if a drone flew into my composition (but I guess just like airplanes and contrails, I’d just take it out in post if possible;-). What bugs me more about the drone is noise – I’m actually not sure why. Military jets, helicopters, motorcycles and many cars are much louder. Maybe it’s because it is an unusual sound – a neighbor said it sounded like a bee swarm. Thankfully, the views that I seek out are from higher above usually (a viewpoint I’ve always been drawn to) and once the drone is at an elevation of say, 30 meters / 100 feet or more, its noise thankfully isn’t that bad.

      • You’re right, the noise is really, really annoying. I think it’s an intrusive feeling, like something foreign entering your personal space. The drone that I was talking about was too far away to be in my personal space but in that case, the intrusion was into a space that I thought was “pristine.” It “shouldn’t” have been there. I’m glad yours are flying higher. Lots to think about!


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