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87 Meandering along with a Prairie Stream Salt Creek begins in southern Kansas amid hills studded with pale gray limestone. Its origins are in a particularly beautiful part of the Flint Hills—a landscape rocky and wild, with oaks, willows, buttonbush, and slender sycamores defining the places where seeps and springs turn into rivulets and then into the little headwaters tributaries that coalesce into a proper stream. Salt Creek, emboldened by all this input, carves a twisting course over limestone bedrock, occasionally bouncing over fractured geology resulting in handsome, if not spectacularly tall, waterfalls. At its headwaters, Salt Creek drains mostly grassland. Still, there are scattered woodland groves that condense into a gallery forest as the stream drops south across the Oklahoma state line and eventually widens.By the time it reaches the community of Shidler,Salt Creek has added a bit more girth due to the influx of larger tributaries. It has also added a bordering strip of forest that includes some massive bur oak and sycamore trees. Following a few snaking miles, Salt Creek flows through the ghost town of Burbank, drops south to pass through the small town of Fairfax, then curls southwest to merge with the broad Arkansas River. 88 Meandering along with a Prairie Stream During this journey, the stream flows some 60 miles and drains 840 square miles of tallgrass prairie. The average gradient is about six and a half feet per mile, with large quiet pools separated by swift riffles. Because it drains mostly grassland and cuts a valley through dense layers of limestone, the stream is generally clear, growing murky following thunderstorms. Salt Creek is a mostly mild-mannered stream but one with a quick temper. Storms in the region can dump inches of water in a short amount of time, resulting in floods that rise quickly and recede just as fast. Evidence of the violent nature of this flooding can be seen in debris lodged twenty feet or more high in the branches of streamside hardwoods. There isn’t much cropland along Salt Creek except in the wider valleys near the stream’s juncture with the Arkansas. Mostly, this prairie miniriver meanders through native grassland hosting cattle and the occasional cowboy. Federally funded reservoirs have been planned for the stream, but for now Salt Creek still flows freely from start to finish. The small towns bordering Salt Creek were generally thriving until about midway through the last century. Then oil production began to wane, and populations shrank as commerce and people drifted elsewhere . Today these once-bustling communities are borderline ghost towns. Burbank was a place where gunfights were routine when thousands flocked here early in the 1900s during one of the richest oil strikes in the Osage Nation.Today it’s mostly limestone shells of empty buildings, a few aging citizens, and a reputation that once included swindlers, drug dealers, murderers, cardsharps, and prostitutes. Birds nest in these old limestone buildings, and modern traffic bypasses the rapidly decaying boomtown. Seen from above in the summertime, Salt Creek is a slim ribbon of dark green timber bordering bright water, a silver snake undulating across rocky, jade-colored prairie. The stream is floatable in the spring and autumn rainy seasons, and from a canoe there’s a distinct wilderness feel to it, a sense that arises from the remoteness, the absence of humanity, the bountiful wildlife, and the fact that the land is much the same as it was when the Osages had their camps along its banks, except for a few leftover oilfield blemishes. From a canoe on a bright spring morning, you might see a northern harrier sweep past, toting prey in its talons, while great horned owls ponder Salt Creek comings and goings from the limbs of stream- 89 Meandering along with a Prairie Stream side bur oaks. Carolina wrens busily check out nesting space inside weathered tree stumps, while white-breasted nuthatches circle oaks of sturdy girth, hoping to glean nourishment from their corky, deeply furrowed bark. April is always a good time to be on the water, especially when the waxy green of new boxelder leaves contrast with the shiny gray spring feathers of blue-gray gnatcatchers. These tiny mockingbird look-alikes seem constantly on the move through the foliage, their hissing, buzzing voices joined by the brassy calls of northern flickers and the chatter of red-headed woodpeckers,the latter prone to fuss among themselves as they search for sustenance. At the end of one sleek...


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MARC Record
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