Seen on the run: A city and a state suffer from historic floods

The Arkansas River, well above flood stage.

Over the years, I’ve written about what I see when I go run. If you’ve followed along, you’ll have read about wooded hills and rugged singletrack, urban skylines and gritty streets, and sometimes the more mundane parks and neighborhoods where I log a lot of miles. Eagles and armadillos have crossed my paths, as have hipsters and drug dealers. You get the drift.

Today’s entry is going to be a little different, mostly because the places I run have collided with the relentless forces of nature.

I haven’t run or hiked my local dirt trails in over a month. In May alone, we’ve received 18 inches of rain. I know trail runners pride themselves on not shying away from mud, but this is different. When the trails are this waterlogged, foot and bike traffic do damage. I’m trying to give those paths a break. So that’s left me pounding the pavement or riding my road bike.

The river is seen more than 23 feet above its normal levels, and right under the beams of this bridge.

Sadly, a lot of the running and biking paths I like are under water. Floods of historic proportions have plagued northeastern Oklahoma for more than a week, and eventually, those floodwaters from the Arkansas River topped their banks and swamped miles of paths that I use for many of my runs and almost all of my rides. Riverbank erosion guarantees that they will be out of commission for some time, as sinkholes and shoreline collapses have occurred. It will take many months, of not years, to repair the damage.

Over the past week, I’ve ridden my bike and run to the water’s edge to see how high the river was rising. Short answer: It looks bad. Real bad. Bad to the point where on one Saturday, I saw a guy in a lawn chair on the curb outside his home, fishing. Not in the river. But in the street.

And that was before the flooding really got going.

A RIVER’S WRATH

I don’t want you to think I’m crying about my loss of running and riding routes. Far from it. I can run and ride in a lot of places that are on higher ground, so I’m good. For that matter, where I live is also untouched by the flooding. Compared to many, I’m fortunate.

But the areas that are underwater are familiar to me, and seeing them slowly consumed by the murky, brown floodwaters of the Arkansas over the past week has given me perspective on this unfolding disaster.

From the top of Cry Baby Hill, looking down on a flooded Riverside Drive. To the right, paved park trails are covered by water.

Saturday was the day I went on my bike and saw the dude fishing in the street. By then, the water had blocked off about a block or so of Riverside Drive while also flooding the adjacent park trails. Nearby, a homeless man who had a camp under a bridge up the road was standing on a rock, filling a water bottle at a drinking fountain. I know where his camp is, and it was safe for the time being. Other camps across the river are washed out.

That was when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was releasing 256,000 cubic feet of water per second from the upstream Keystone Dam, the structure that basically keeps Tulsa and many downstream communities from flooding on a regular basis. But even Keystone can only do so much, and those big releases (it normally flows at a small fraction of what we’re seeing now) are the only way to keep upstream drainage from overtopping the dam, an event that would magnify the catastrophe.

On the west bank, the flooding’s severity seemed more plain. In some spots, I could see park benches and water fountains that were nearly covered, indicating a floodwater rise of nearly two feet from just a few days prior. Ordinarily, these fixtures were at least ten feet above the water’s edge. In the middle of the river, an island is completely covered, with only a dozen or so green treetops poking out of the water letting you know it’s still there. The “new” shoreline of the river has slowly encroached on a riverside apartment complex, creeping up the banks. I’ve run and ridden by these apartments scores of times. Never in my life would I thought it possible that they’d be close to being flooded.

Another look at Riverside Drive.

By Monday, the problem had only worsened. Heavy rains upstream from the dam forced the Corps to increase Keystone’s outflow to 275,000 cfs, not far from the record set in 1986. That day, I went for a run in my neighborhood, but also to the bridges that span the river west of downtown.

As expected, the waters had risen. What was once a hundred yards of Riverside Drive under water had grown to several city blocks. The floating remains of uprooted trees zipped down the river close to its banks. Elsewhere in the city, evacuations were underway, streets and neighborhoods were inundated, and sewer drains were backing up.

But what grabbed my attention was the river itself.

When it reaches Oklahoma, the Arkansas River is a prairie waterway. In other words, it’s broad, slow and features plenty of sand bars. It’s wide enough southeast of Tulsa that it can be navigated by cargo barges (there’s a port north of Tulsa from a tributary river that empties into the Arkansas), but for much of the year it’s a sleepy, ponderous thing that meanders toward its final destination at the Mississippi.

Looking south from Tulsa’s 11th Street bridge. The current in the river is incredibly strong.

This week, its demeanor is far less benign. The current is fast. If you were to sprint along its banks, it’s doubtful you could outrun it. Where the river meets bridge supports, the roar is loud. The entire channel is full, churning and racing downstream at an urgent pace.

Observing it this week, the imagery looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. And then it hit me Sunday. The river doesn’t look like a river at all. It looks like a tsunami. A muddy, quarter-mile wide tsunami that never recedes, but keeps barreling southeast, and I wouldn’t want to be in its way.

THE WIDER PROBLEM

My own observations are fine, but I’ve escaped this flood unscathed. That’s not true for a lot of people. They lost more than a place to run or ride.

Several neighborhoods in low-lying neighborhoods in the city and its suburbs have been flooded. Towns like Blackwell, close to the Kansas border, all the way to Muskogee, Fort Gibson and Webbers Falls near Arkansas are partially or completely swamped. The town of Braggs is basically an island, accessible this week only by boat or rail. Farther east, in Arkansas, cities like Fort Smith and Little Rock are in full-on crisis.

It’s part of a trend this year. In the central and southern Rockies, massive snow dumps have left the mountains with snowpack so deep that it will take at least a month longer than normal to melt out. Earlier in the spring, communities in the Dakotas, Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas have suffered massive, sustained flooding. The Mississippi River valley is facing the same fate.

These Canada geese would ordinarily be puttering around in a nearby lagoon, but that lagoon has been swallowed by the river. So the birds are hanging out on higher ground, hunting for bugs and worms.

And let’s not forget the tornadoes. It seemed like we went several days straight where there were nightly tornado warnings. One tornado killed two people in the Oklahoma City suburb of El Reno. Others ripped through numerous towns across the state, including here in Tulsa. Across the country, more than 200 tornadoes from the Great Plains to the Great Lakes touched down in the past 12 days. They even had a tornado warning in Staten Island, N.Y.

Earlier this week, someone on Twitter called out the local media for not reporting on this as an example of climate change. I’m not climate change denier. Far from it. But I know that weather is not the same as climate, so I’m slower to make the link.

However, scientists have told us that as climate change deepens, weather extremes will proliferate. Periods of severe drought will be followed by seasons of extreme flooding. Roasting hot temperatures can be followed by record cold. More intense hurricanes and thunderstorms will be more common. Longer and more severe fire seasons will come. You get the drift. Look at last year’s western fire season, or hurricanes named Harvey and Maria, and you could make an argument that the patterns are already emerging.

And if so, a lot more will be lost than a few running routes or bicycle paths.

In the meantime, I’m hoping the waters recede soon, and for the suffering to end. It’s been said that it will take years to come back from this, and I believe it. We’ll all have some adjusting to do for quite some time.

Tulsa’s River Parks have miles and miles of paved trails for runners, walkers and cyclists on both banks of the Arkansas River. But most of those paths are covered in water, and many are heavily damaged. It’ll be awhile before they’re repaired.

Bob Doucette

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Why I hike: Three reasons that are off the beaten path

Whether it’s a dramatic scene like this or something more ordinary close to home, the real reasons I hike run deep. As seen on Mount Sneffels, Colo. (Noel Finta photo)

There have likely been tens of thousands of articles, blog posts and other testimonials describing why people hike. I wrote one a few years back. All of them have similar reasons, from gaining peace and quiet, to exercise, to getting close to nature, and so on.

Less frequently reasons include achievement (some hikes are hard, and even risky) and promotion – you know, doin’ it for the ‘Gram.

Being transparent, I’ve gone on hikes to take photos. Any 14er or 13er hike I do comes with the goal of achieving a summit, so sure, accomplishing something difficult is sometimes implied. You could say these, and any number of reasons mentioned above apply to me as well.

But I got to thinking about it recently and I realized that some of the best outcomes for any hike – even those aimed at photography, summits or training for something bigger – come with benefits far more valuable. Often those are what keep me coming back.

One big reason I go: to think. It’s been said that time, slowed down to the pace of nature, gives people a chance to step away from our distractions and let our minds wander. I do some of my best thinking on a hike, particularly when I’m alone. It doesn’t matter if that day calls for double-digit miles or is something far shorter. Unloading my mental bucket on the trail allows me to ponder what needs to be pondered. Rumination does the body good, I believe.

Another reason: to intentionally notice the details. My life, just like many of yours, is a rushed and regimented thing pinned down by routines and schedules forged by family, employment and a sizable miscellany that requires my attention. When I’m on a hike and I’m not crashing down the trail for training purposes, I try my best to look around and see the terrain. Maybe it’s an emerald shade from the birth of spring. Or a splash of floral color bursting from a sea of green. Going over a creek crossing a couple weeks ago, I peered into the shallows and saw movement: tadpoles, darting between rocks, feeding, swimming and hopefully growing into the full-grown frogs they’re designed to become. Looking around has helped me spot lizards in the brush, armadillos rooting around in fallen leaves and a massive owl swooping through the trees toward some target unseen by me.

And it’s not just the sights, but the smells. And the sounds. The woods have a sweetness to them in the spring, and a different but no less pleasant aroma deep into the fall. On the auditory side, the chirps of marmots echoing across a huge, stony Rocky Mountain amphitheater on a crisp fall day remains one of the most indelible memories of what was already a remarkable day in the alpine for me. Had I been enveloped in some digital playlist or the din of conversation, I might have missed that haunting  cry.

One last reason I’ll mention: to heal. And I mean that in a comprehensive way. During the week, I exercise hard. A casual hike helps work out the soreness and hasten recovery. But also, healing comes from the non-physical wounds of life. We’ve all suffered loss – the death of a loved one, the ending of a friendship, a past trauma – that leaves us emotionally battered. A single hike is no cure-all, but as a habit, it can be medicinal. I speak from my own experience, and I know many, many others can do the same.

Looking over this list I notice one more thing. These three reasons, absent of the more popular motivations, are sufficient. If all I gained or experienced were an opportunity to think, to notice the details, and to heal, that would be enough to keep me going back. I’ve learned I don’t need a summit or some super-rad mileage count, or even an epic view. I don’t need a pic to blow up with likes on Instagram, and I don’t need some electronic doodad to congratulate me on the number of steps I took, calories I burned or vert I gained. There’s nothing wrong with any of that. But without the deeper experiences of a hike, it would feel more like long walk absent a soul.

Bob Doucette

Eighty years, and still showing me the way: My dad is pretty rad

One rad dad.

My dad turned 80 today. I joked with him that some countries don’t last that long. Eight decades of life for a guy who has seen more and done more than probably most people you and I know.

Some of my earlier memories of my dad were times where he was doing the things he loved outside. We played a lot of pickup basketball in the driveway or at the park in suburban Denver. My folks bought a cabin in the mountains that served as our family retreat, an investment that stuck with me and instilled a love of the mountains that stubbornly clings to me to this day.

And I remember him on his bike. He had this lime green tank of a ten-speed Schwinn that he’d take out on sunny weekends, complete with a small leather pouch attached to the saddle. He’d keep his smokes in there, and I imagined he’d take a break, light up a stogie and take a look at the view from wherever he was at the time. I was too small to ride with him back then, so I guess I have to go with my imagined memory of how all that went down.

And then there was the music. Dad has broad tastes, much of it guided by his years as a professional musician. He loves classical, loves jazz, loves rock ‘n’ roll. His record stacks include Aaron Copland, Chuck Mangione, Al Jarreau, Pink Floyd, and the Eagles, among others.

Another favorite was Chicago, and one particular song sticks out: “Saturday in the Park.” The imagery of the lyrics in that song make me think of people enjoying sunny summer days in some fantastic green space, the world at peace, at least for an afternoon.

It all resonates with me, some days more than others. It did did so deeply today, as I was on my own bike, enjoying the sun and a cool breeze on a spectacular spring afternoon. Saturday in the park was real for me.

I saw tons of people on the parks, playing disc golf, riding scooters and listening to live music on an outdoor stage. Birds flocked on a sandbar in the river and frogs sang from pools of standing water left behind from the previous week’s deluge. The smell of the woods on another leg of my ride was sweet in a way that only a forest can exude.

I don’t have a leather pouch on my bike, no smokes to burn on a mid-ride break. But all these years later, I get it. I understand how the words of that song, the faces in the park, the green of the trees and the breeze in my face as I crank away on my ride are woven together for me today just as they were for my dad back then. It made an impression on me, and I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Happy 80th, Dad.

Bob Doucette

Seen on the run: I’ve run my city’s streets for eight years, and the change has been dramatic

I run here.

When I first moved to Tulsa, I used running not only as a way to get in shape, but to get to know the part of the city I lived in. Since I live downtown, that had me running in urban environments, and the mix of residential and industrial areas that exist on the fringes of the city’s core.

At this point, we’re talking nearly eight years ago. Back then, the downtown was what you’d expect: high-rise offices towers, stony buildings built for government business, and a mix of people that included buttoned-down professionals, trendy hipsters and transients.

Change was underway elsewhere. On the north side of downtown was an old warehouse district. It was in the midst of what would be a major transformation. You could see its beginnings – a baseball park, some restaurants, a few clubs and some coffee shops. Mixed in were plenty of those old warehouses, industrial sites and, on the west side, the county jail, the sheriff’s office, a bunch of bail bondsmen’s offices and social service organizations aimed at helping the down-and-out crowd that seem to flock in most cities’ urban centers.

I liked the mix. The new and the old coexisting, sometimes awkwardly, but moving ahead just the same. I’d see signs of new money flowing in, and in the shadows of their enterprises, the lonely desperation of those being left behind. Why did I like this? Because it was unsanitized, a daily reminder that the optimism so many of privilege enjoy is not shared, and that’s something to which we need to pay attention. In the cleaned-up boundaries of the suburb, all you see is the edifice of prosperity. No one really know what’s going on in all those cookie-cutter homes. But on the streets where I run, everything was laid out plainly: People dressed to the nines for a night on the town, stepping around some homeless dude who drank too much, sleeping it off on a corner next to a puddle of puke.

I’ve never felt uncomfortable running in these areas, never felt unsafe. But always engaged. This was raw, unvarnished reality.

Home of what used to be the Downtown Lounge, next door to a tattoo parlor. They’re both gone now, replaced by a craft brewery.

Of course, not all of the contrasts were so drastic or dire. There was this one block I particularly enjoyed, wedged between those tony restaurants on one side and the jail on another. An old two-story brick building housed a dive bar, a tattoo shop, some garage slips and what I assumed to be an apartment. It was a stubborn place, resisting gentrification on one side while trying to make a buck in its own gritty way. I’d zip by this block before turning south and going up and over a bridge back to my gym and a locker room shower.

Well, things have changed. An empty lot is now a small park that is home to food trucks and free concerts. New museums and art centers have sprung up. Apartment buildings were built. More restaurants, more bars, more places to spend your money and have a good time. It’s flourishing.

And that gritty old block? All the old businesses there are gone, the building gutted and transformed into brewery and taproom with an outdoor deck on the roof. As you can imagine, the clientele at the taproom is different than that of the dive bar and the tattoo parlor. It looks nice, and at some point I’ll probably pop in for a beer. But I wish I’d have bought a drink at that dive bar, and maybe even gotten some ink at the neighboring shop.

This is how part of my mid-week route used to look. A lot has changed over the years, as many apartment blocks and homes have been fixed up.

The neighborhoods surrounding downtown have changed, too. It’s part gentrification, part urban renewal, and part inevitable evolution of the city. One of my go-to runs goes east of downtown toward the University of Tulsa. Years ago, this meant going through some neighborhoods that were, generously put, dodgy. Many of the houses and apartments of the Pearl District and the Kendall-Whittier neighborhood were abodes of last resort, often bordered by abandoned properties and more neatly kept homes of people who were stubbornly hanging on. Throw in some manufacturing sites and you have some real grit.

But both the Pearl and Kendall-Whittier are undergoing an upswing similar to what’s happening downtown. Condemned houses are being torn down and replaced with newer homes. Shitty apartment blocks are being renovated, and to be frank, they look pretty good. Derelict factories and warehouses are being reclaimed, many of them turning into, you guessed it, craft breweries and taprooms. At the rate it’s going in Tulsa, the love of the suds might be what saves much of urban America from the wrecking ball.

But every now and then, I get reminders that despite the change, there will always be something shady going on.

A few weeks back, I was running that route east of downtown, maybe half a mile from my turnaround point. A beat-up old import car was stopped in the middle of the street for no real reason, and some random dude walked up to the passenger side. An exchange through the driver’s side window occurred. Random dude then jogged out of the street and into an alley by some apartments and disappeared inside. The car drove off.

And here I am, chugging away at my mid-pack pace, thinking, “I just saw a drug deal go down.”

I’m not gonna applaud this transaction or the maladies that come with it. Having a drug house in any neighborhood makes it a more dangerous place (we had a black tar heroin dealer get busted in my neighborhood awhile back, and once that racket was broken up, the character of my streets changed for the better). But there is a trend among cities that hopes to wipe out the bad (the drug dealers and the crime that comes with them) and replace it with something cleaner and more palatable for the masses. And if you can make a buck or two in the process, so much the better. The result is often a drop in those crimes and the loss of the historic identity of distressed neighborhoods where those crimes used to occur. In a lot of ways, it’s a zero-sum game where few win and a bunch lose.

Downtown as seen from the Tulsa Arts District. The area used to be a rundown warehouse district, but is now home to a number of galleries, restaurants, pubs, music venues and a sweet little park that is home to live music and food trucks. I run here a lot, and there is usually something pretty cool to see.

So in eight years of running Tulsa’s streets, I’ve seen this transformation go down in real-time. A semi-sketchy tract of warehouses is now a vibrant arts district. A decaying section of the inner city is cleaning up, turning around and showing signs of prosperity. Less obvious but just as real is a loss of a former community identity that had seen its high and lows.

Who knows how different it will all be eight years from now. Hopefully I’ll still be running those same streets. And maybe, in some corners, not all of the grit will have been washed away. The shiny and the new get your attention. But the grit is what makes is interesting. The grit is where the history lies.

Bob Doucette

All hail the emergence of spring

Green emerging everywhere.

Spring feels a little different for me. Living in the Southern Plains, it’s a reminder that it won’t be long before the death heat of summer arrives. We get big storms down here. High winds. For allergy sufferers, spring looks pretty but feels awful. And it means I have to start cutting the grass again.

Notice that all of these things have nothing to do with what I see when I get out of my neighborhood and hit the trail. When I do that, my whole mindset changes. The forest tells me that spring might be all those things I mentioned above. But it also means new life.

I hike often in the fall and winter. Even this far south, winter has a quieting effect on the woods. Aside from the breezes in the trees, you don’t hear much of anything.

In the spring, that all changes. Scurrying underfoot. Bird songs in the air. Even the wind in the forest canopy sounds different as it blows by leaves and not barren limbs.

Singletrack ahead, new life all around. Welcome to the green tunnel.

Ample rain has fallen this year, so normally dry seasonal creekbeds are flowing. On a recent hike, I looked down into one of these deeper channels, and in its depths I could see it: dozens of tadpoles, creatures soon to join their elder kin in adding to the song of the woods.

Biology textbooks could probably explain where all these creatures go in the colder months, but my wonder at the process of seasonal life wouldn’t abate. Not one bit.

So green.

So yeah, summer will be here before we know it. Triple-digit temps are probably on the way. I’m sure there will be tornado warnings, pollen warnings and days when the winds are blowing out of the south faster than I can ride my bike. But some time in the woods can alter perspectives.

Spring is a wondrous time. If nothing else, it reminds us of the miracle that our planet is. We move to and fro with our busy lives, our incessant blathering, our overall nonsense that amounts to little. But the Earth’s beat goes on — renewing, enduring, waning, and then coming back to life once again, just like it has for eons, long before we were here to take note of it. Call it respect, or awe, or whatever, but the time I spent in the woods was a pleasant reset, pollen count be damned.

Spring is a miracle.

Bob Doucette

The good, the bad and the ugly of social media and the outdoors

Mount Eolus, as seen from the summit of North Eolus. That’d look good on the ‘Gram.

I’m going to sound part geezer, part hipster when I say that I was in to the outdoors before I got on social media. The love was there long before “like and share” became a thing.

But to be frank, I’ve embraced social media. I’m a storyteller, and social media offers great ways to share those stories, or in the case of Instagram, a medium in itself for its own form of spelling out outdoorsy narratives. I’m not on everything, but you can see my stuff on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and much of the time it’s going to have an outdoors theme.

Well, that’s me and tens of millions of others. There are legions upon legions of hikers, climbers, runners, cyclists and everyone else that does stuff outdoors showing their lives on these platforms and blogs like this one. Taken together, it is an ocean of landscapes, action shots, yoga poses, selfies, stories, panoramas and more. Standing out is tough, so people learn what they can to stand out, or claim a niche as their own.

Given the flood of outdoorsy information being pumped out every day, you gotta wonder: is this really good for the outdoors? The short answer: yes and no.

THE GOOD

Doin’ work at Turkey Mountain in Tulsa. Hard to say if without social media we would have gotten so many people to volunteer at trail work days like this one.

I’ve long believed that learning more about the outdoors will naturally make people care about wild spaces. I’m a conservationist at heart, so this is important to me. To that end, I believe social media has been a relative success.

Think about this: How many of you would have known about the Land and Water Conservation Fund had you not heard about it on social media? The public pressure to permanently reauthorize the bill that funds LWCF made it go from an unseen issue to a front-and-center bipartisan no-brainer that easily passed Congress and even got the stamp of approval from President Trump. Face time in the halls of Congress, letters and calls were huge for sure, but the speed in which the issue became well-known was due much in part to social media campaigns. Getting a conservation win in this political climate in Washington is no small deal.

Here’s something else: Think about all the information we have at our fingertips that might otherwise be difficult to find. Want to know what avalanche conditions are like? It’s probably been shared on Facebook and Twitter, maybe thousands of times. Looking for conditions of a potential hike and climb? There’s probably a Facebook group where beta queries will be answered. I could go on, but you get the point.

Social media has allowed for instant, widespread sharing of information that goes anywhere from useful to life-saving. It can ramp up pressure for causes we feel are important. Even if it’s something as simple as learning something new about a place you didn’t know about, it can be a positive.

THE BAD

I’m sure this looked great on someone’s IG account.

The flip side of the coin is that social media — particularly in the case of Instagram — can make it too easy to love things to death.

People want to see and experience cool things other people do. Shared enough online, their numbers are legion. That’s why you see lines of people waiting to photograph Horseshoe Bend, people manipulating scenery at Hanging Lake and some fool flying a helicopter right on top of the California super bloom. Too many people doin’ it for the ‘Gram are running roughshod over places too delicate to handle the traffic and other pressures people can bring.

It’s bad enough that public land managers are looking at increasing the use of permit-only access to some places. Human traffic — and the trash and abuse that comes with it — threatens to ruin some of the most beautiful places in the world. Leave No Trace ethicists are pushing an add-on to their code, asking people not to geotag places they go so as to slow the onslaught of folks looking for the perfect shot and the bucketloads of likes they hope to earn.

In that respect, all the photos, text posts, videos and whatnot have come at a cost. It’s definitely a bad trend.

THE UGLY

The nature of social media is the ability to instantly share, sometimes to huge audiences. Alongside this is the ability to instantly comment on what’s shared. That can be great, but sometimes it’s terrible.

You’ve seen this at work in politics. It gets nasty. And yeah, that transfers to the outdoors.

If a hiker or climber gets hurt and needs rescue, it doesn’t take long for speculation comments to roll in, sometimes with a derogatory edge. If that person dies, some people back off. Others double down. People will say anything online, and often without the tact and basic morality they would use face-to-face.

This works its way into activism, too. Someone says something, or shares information about a certain cause. They get kudos. But others have a stricter ideological purity test that must be passed, and if their standards aren’t met, out come the claws. The next thing you know an honest effort to do good turns into a puritanical food fight in which the original message gets lost. I’d caution these people not to get so woke that they eat their own, but I’d get angrily shouted down. Such is the nature of social media, which magnifies divisions, emotions and hyperbole like a magnifying glass to sunlight, and often we’re the bug frying on the ground as a result.

SO NOW WHAT?

I’ll cut to the chase and say that I’ll stick with my social media use. So will tens of millions of others. With this in mind, what’s the best we can do? Maybe we don’t share images or locations of every place we go. We turn the heat down on areas of debate. We vet articles for veracity, and share more of the good stuff. Social media has always been curated, which means we have a lot of control over the tenor and intent of what we share.

This sounds a lot like all areas of life shared online. The key difference: The way we operate online will have real-life consequences (and hopefully benefits) to the places we care about, the wildlife that lives there, and the future of the outdoors. For my part, I’ll try to do better.

Bob Doucette

Some thoughts about a master plan for Turkey Mountain

Turkey Mountain, as seen from the east bank of the Arkansas River.

Turning back to my home front, there is some news. Tulsa’s River Parks Authority held the first of several public input meetings to discuss what people would like to see in a master plan for the Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area, a go-to place for hiking, biking and trail running right in the middle of the city.

The effort also includes an online survey for people to give their views. Between that and the discussions at these meeting, RPA will have an idea of what the public wants to see.

This is a long way from where we were just a few years ago. We had one rich fella tell us that God told him to build an amusement park on the banks of the Arkansas River, and to cut into acreage on Turkey Mountain’s southeastern flanks. That went nowhere, but in 2014, Simon Properties wanted to build an outlet mall on the far west side of Turkey Mountain’s woodlands. That was a closer call, but intense public pressure against the move eventually sent Simon looking for space elsewhere. What followed by a rapid, concerted effort from public and private entities to secure the land and fold it into a unified parcel that now represents a much larger wild green space than what RPA originally managed.

That leads us to the present. It seems from the first meeting, the consensus is to keep Turkey Mountain as wild as possible. At least, that’s what I gathered from reading this story from the Tulsa World.

I figure I have this electronic space for a reason, if nothing else than to spout off on whatever outdoorsy subject suits me at the time. So you can take my opinions how you see fit. But also keep in mind that I’ve been a regular visitor of its trails for the past eight years, have hiked or ran almost all of its trails and invested no small amount of time cleaning up trails, repairing damaged trail sections and generally advocating for Turkey Mountain’s wellbeing. So while these are just my thoughts, they are informed by some depth of experience as a user and stakeholder. So here ya go, my thoughts on what should guide the creation of a Turkey Mountain master plan…

Hi Chi Trail, Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness, Tulsa.

Generally speaking, Turkey Mountain should be left alone. What makes the park special are not all the bells, whistles and amenities that other  parks have. It is the lack of these man-made add-ons that attract people to its earthen paths. Where else in the middle of the city can you experience woodlands in their natural state? Nowhere, really. Aside from the trails, some trail blazes and four signs tacked up for safety reasons, Turkey Mountain is devoid of artificial enhancement. You are forced to slow down and take it in at its own pace, or at least at a pace powered by you alone. It’s not climate-controlled, there are no handrails, and if you want to see a specific place, you have to walk/run/bike/ride there yourself. That has an appeal to a lot of people, to the tune of 20,000 to 25,000 visitors a month. If you’re looking for a park with swing sets and ball fields, they exist elsewhere, all over the city. Want a cup of coffee in a lodge setting? Go to Gathering Place. Zip lines? I hear Post Oak Lodge is great. None of that stuff, as great as it is, is needed at Turkey Mountain. It’s a unique place that offers something the rest of the parks cannot – mostly unsullied nature.

Most trails at Turkey Mountain, like this one, are in decent shape. Others plagued by erosion need to be rerouted or closed altogether.

Some trails need to be rerouted, and maybe even closed for good. The trail system was created by mountain bikers decades ago, mostly with the idea of what would be fun to ride. Little thought was given to how well these rough-hewn paths would hold up under human usage and weather-induced erosion. All these trails will need to be looked at with an eye toward sustainability, and that will mean altering their path so they don’t wash out. If that’s not possible, some might have to be closed off for good. I know that might chap some folks, but we want these trails to hold up without washing out a chunk of a hillside. That almost happened on the steep portion going up the Yellow Trail. It’s been mitigated for now, but that and other problem areas remain. Expert trail management will need to be consulted here.

Wintry sunset scene on the west-side trails at Turkey Mountain.

Speaking of expertise, it would be a good idea if Turkey Mountain had its own superintendent. RPA has a decent sized inventory of park land outside of Turkey Mountain, and much of its attention is focused on paved trails and festivals at River Parks Festival West. The needs at Turkey Mountain are much more about land management (forestry, wildlife conservation, trail user safety, etc.) than any other park in town. Having someone in charge of the place – a face that stakeholders could interact with – could help with a number of things, such as coordinating races, conservation efforts, public safety and volunteer work. Yeah, it’s an extra expense for RPA. But I think it would be worth it.

A glorious view on lands recently reclaimed from commercial development for natural preservation purposes. Setting aside this acreage for wild green space was a case of Tulsa doing things right.

Thoughts should be given toward potential expansion of the park, or finding similar places in the city and county where wild spaces can be preserved. Turkey Mountain is being hemmed in by development. Thinking of wildlife, those critters need room to move. Their habitats have a range that is a little bigger than most folks realize. When it gets surrounded by development, those creatures can be living in something akin to a slow-burning siege. Likewise, lots of people love Turkey Mountain, and in some ways, it’s being loved to death. Multiple wild green spaces would alleviate some of that crowding, and given the proven community value Turkey Mountain has shown, more would indeed be better. Green spaces are an increasingly important quality of life factor for people and employers looking for a place to put down roots. Economic diversity is sorely needed here; giving people reasons to give us a look needs to include quality of life amenities that are crucial for community development.

Pedal power? Sure. Motorized? Never.

Lastly, no credibility should be given to making any part of Turkey Mountain open to motorcycle or ATV usage. It’s not safe, it’s bad for the trails, harmful to wildlife and would detract from the user experience. Motor sports aren’t allowed there now, and that’s a prohibition that needs to be maintained permanently.

I’m sure I could think of other ideas, and in time, I might jot those down. But I think these make for a good start. I care about this place. In many ways, I wouldn’t be the same person today if not for Turkey Mountain, and there is a large number of people who can say the same thing. Let’s go about this master plan wisely, remembering what makes Turkey Mountain the great place that it is.

Bob Doucette