Volunteer coordinator Howard Homan walks through a stretch of dry creek bed near St. Brigid's Path at the Headwaters sanctuary. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

Like a good friend, I’ve watched the Headwaters at Incarnate Word change over the years.

In 2015 and 2016, frequent rains kept stunningly clear water flowing up from the springs at the sanctuary next to the University of the Incarnate Word campus.

Water from the springs formed braided channels that cut through the preserve’s dense forest. The largest spring, the Blue Hole, is considered the mother spring of the San Antonio River.

Lately, dry times have returned, and no water flows from the springs. During droughts, pipes farther downstream that deliver recycled wastewater from the San Antonio Water System effectively replace the Blue Hole as the river’s headwaters springs.

I’ve only known of the place for about three years, but human history at the site goes back tens of thousands of years, according to past archaeological studies.

Headwaters is a 53-acre nature sanctuary owned by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word as what they call an “Earth care ministry.” The sisters also founded the school that became the university in 1881, but the university and the sanctuary are separate entities.

The property has had many uses over the years. Dairy cows once roamed its fields. Before that, it was part of the estate of George Brackenridge, who harnessed the springs’ flow to create San Antonio’s first waterworks.

A sense of timelessness still hangs over the place, enhanced by the ancient oak trees you pass as you walk along the two to three miles of mulched trail through the forest.

Long before then, Spanish conquerors and priests visited the springs and found a thriving Native American community along its banks. Stone tools and rock middens indicate people have been stopping there as long as 12,000 years ago.

Trails are for walking only, and the property’s caretakers ask that visitors pick up their trash, keep dogs on leashes, and clean up pet waste.

Parking is open at the adjacent University of Incarnate Word property evenings, on weekends, and during the summer. During the spring and fall semesters, you can call the Headwaters office at (210) 828-2224, extension 232, to get a parking pass, though it won’t guarantee you a spot.

The trail map below covers the three trails into the woods on the main part of the preserve. The nature sanctuary also includes St. Brigid’s Path, which is slightly separated from the main preserve area. It also includes the more well-trodden path to the Blue Hole, the largest of the Headwaters springs

These trails are well-designed and serene. With their expansive tree canopy, they provide a shady escape even during the heat of the day. The Heritage Loop gets the most sun, skirting a meadow that used to be a sports field.

But the best thing about Headwaters is the community of volunteers who come out to take care of the sanctuary and how welcoming they are of newcomers eager to join them.

On regular Wednesdays and Fridays, a group of volunteers meets at a toolshed near the trailhead around 8:30 a.m and spends three to four hours working at the preserve.

These weekday sessions tend to draw mostly retired people, among them members of the local Alamo chapter of Texas Master Naturalists. For many of them, it’s not enough to simply hike a trail or kayak a stream – they give their time and labor to take care of the places they love.

Saturdays are the big volunteer days, where anywhere from five to 200 people might show up. People of all ages pitch in, including volunteer groups from local high schools, scouting groups, the University of the Incarnate Word, and the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Upcoming Saturday workdays are Sept. 8, 22, and 29, Headwaters Assistant Director Pamela Ball said.

If you come out to volunteer, you might get to join them in their long-running war against Ligustrum japonicum.

Also called Japanese privet, this invasive tree has become rampant in this part of Texas. It grows rapidly and out-competes native trees for sunlight, quickly choking out a forest understory. Volunteers have also been going after chinaberry, a similar invasive plant native to Asia.

Removing these trees changes the forest’s character completely. Shafts of sunlight reach the forest floor, and the seeds of native trees like oaks that have long laid dormant in the soil begin to sprout.

Over the past several years, volunteers have cut down untold numbers of Ligustrum and had them fed into a mulcher, using the wood chips to line the trails.

“It’s never going to be cleared, in my opinion,” said Howard Homan, volunteer coordinator and Headwaters board member. “A full clearing would probably take a paid crew, but volunteers are winning in the sense that they’re taking out the trees faster than they can regrow.”

Joining Homan is a group of field leaders, who help tell people where to go and what to do on volunteer days. Maybe the longest-running volunteer is Tom Willems, who likely has slain more invasive trees at the sanctuary than anyone else.

Indeed, Headwaters has become a place where, as ecologist and author Aldo Leopold wrote of his sand farm in Wisconsin, “we try to rebuild, with shovel and axe, what we are losing elsewhere.”

An aerial view of volunteers working on the Circle of the Springs garden at Headwaters. Credit: Courtesy / Howard Homan

Besides attacking invasive shrubs, there are other jobs, too. Recently, the volunteers built what they’re calling the Circle of the Springs, a wheel with spokes made of crushed limestone separated by soil beds with native plants.

Each of the 16 spokes represents a major spring of the Edwards Aquifer, Homan explained. These springs follow the Balcones Escarpment in a curving line from Del Rio to near Dallas.

The Blue Hole was once among the most magnificent of these springs. Accounts from the 1800s describe water shooting up out of the ground like a fountain.

San Antonio’s pumping of the Edwards Aquifer keeps the Blue Hole from flowing except for during the most rainy of times. When the rains return, be sure to visit the preserve to watch all of the springs come back to life.

The rains unfortunately also tend to bring trash, much of it washing in from Olmos Creek upstream, which becomes the San Antonio River when it reaches Headwaters. The sanctuary is a popular spot during the annual Basura Bash community trash cleanup each February.

Ball recalled a surreal experience while collecting trash with a group of volunteers down in a creek bed after a storm.

“I almost lost my equilibrium,” she said. “The ground looked like it was moving, and it was all little toads moving underfoot. It almost looked like I was hallucinating for a minute.”

The preserve also hosts a variety of bird life, including red-tailed hawks, owls, and egrets.

A cattle egret perches near the entrance of Headwaters sanctuary. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

Birding walks are among the many nature-focused events hosted at the sanctuary. Others have a more spiritual and artistic focus, helping people from a variety of backgrounds connect with nature.

Forthcoming events include screenings of documentaries about environmentalists Rachel Carson and David Brower, a blessing for the animals on the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, and a meditation walk.

“We have meditation walks from perspectives of the indigenous traditions, Buddhist traditions, literary traditions,” Ball said. “We try to reach out to people and draw them into the sanctuary from an aspect that will be meaningful to them, because everybody relates to nature and the outdoors in different ways.”

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.