Rich Craib: 50 years in the Canyon

Rich Craib at the Little Red Hen community garden on Diamond Heights

By Murray Schneider

Later this year Diamond Heights resident, Richard Craib, steps down as president of the 130-member Friends of Glen Canyon Park, a position he has held for 15 years.

Craib, 71, a native San Franciscan, was raised in the Sunset District and a 1958 graduate of Abraham Lincoln High School. He has lived with his wife, Sandi, on Turquoise Way since 1962. His backyard abuts canyon slopes dotted with wildflowers and carpeted with native grasses, and early on he became familiar with its critters and riparian ecology, passing on his appreciation to his two children, his two grandchildren and countless recreational users who have all come to share its tranquility.

“My backyard opened up onto nature,” he said. “It gave my children a wonderful sense of the outdoors.”

On a typical San Francisco overcast day, Craib stood among the thriving gardens at The Little Red Hen Community Garden at Duncan Street and Amber Drive and reminisced.

His now 52-year old son translated boyhood reveries bending beneath willow limbs and running beside Islais Creek into becoming a plant salesman and a lifetime naturalist. “Michael developed his interest in botany from playing in the canyon,” said Craib, who spent his own career in the construction business.

As he contemplates passing his presidential baton to a successor this spring, Craib takes pride in educating the public about San Francisco’s 70-acre natural area. “I’ve scheduled spider, geology, bird and wildflower walks,” he said. For four years running he organized Nature Fest, an ongoing tutorial program for nursery and grade school children. Rarely without a camera, he has also published two colorful wildlife brochures. One pictures the canyon’s many native and migratory birds and the other depicts the natural area’s profusion of colorful wildflowers.

“Rich knows his plants and flowers,” said Mary Huizinga, who lives on Laidley Street and is one of ten Friends of Glen Canyon Park volunteers who routinely work each Wednesday with Recreation and Parks Natural Areas managers to maintain the canyon’s diverse habitat.

“He’s the backbone of the Friends,” said Steve Uchida, another Wednesday volunteer, who lives on Diamond Street and is a retired postal worker.

Craib’s history with the canyon goes further back than his 50 years living in Diamond Heights. The Works Progress Administration hired his grandfather, William Craib, a building contractor, to assist building the Great Depression–era Glen Park Recreation Center situated at the entrance to the canyon.

Since those days the canyon has seen its share of change. “When we moved up here there were many more squirrels, skunks, opossums, even ground nesting quail,” he said. “Feral cats and the great number of dogs have taken their toll.”

56 foot cedar rail fence built by Richard Craib and Friends of Glen Canyon Park.

Arguably, Craib’s most tangible Glen Canyon legacy is a 56-foot split rail cedar fence that protects reintroduced California native plants adjacent to Islais Creek. The fence can be fully appreciated on the west side of the creek, along Willow Loop Trail, just north of Silver Tree Day Camp.

Back in 2008, Craib superintended a corps of volunteers, supervising them as they hauled milled lumber, dug post holes, fashioned horizontal rails and then attached protective wire that prevents unleashed dogs from pawing germinating columbine, pink-flowering current, fringe cup and monkey flower, each in its own way providing sustenance to canyon mammal, insect and avian life. “The fence safeguards Islais Creek from trampling as well as protecting water quality,” said Lisa Wayne, Rec and Parks Natural Areas Manager, four years ago.

It does so much more, though, as anyone who has ever strolled around the creek knows. On a warm day, sunlight peeks through elderberry branches, its rays burnishing Craib’s railings a honeyed brown. When the creek is low in the spring, after the rains, water murmurs past his fence in slow gulps, past spider filaments and lichen that skirt willow bark, and past vocal songbirds sequestered among oak leaves.

If you didn’t know better you’d think you were in the middle of the Sierras, not in the heart of San Francisco. “The fence blends into the natural environment,” observed Lisa Wayne back in 2008, “adding to the visual experience of the canyon.”

Owl House constructed by Richard Craib along Berkeley Way, adjacent to Glen Canyon.

Craib began his stewardship of Glen Canyon clearing French broom from becoming an invasive monoculture. One of his final projects was the construction of four owl houses beneath Crags Court and Berkeley Way for rodent-hunting barn owls.

Modest to a fault, Craib believes his legacy lies not in constructing rustic railings, carpentering owl sanctuaries and combating intrusive weeds that threaten diverse habitat. “I’m proudest of working with neighborhood volunteers,” he said, “and increasing the Friends membership.”

So why leave now? The answer is that he’s not going all that far.  Craib’s simply redirecting his energies up Amber Drive a ways. “I’ve developed another interest,” he said, standing by the Little Red Hen Community Garden monument sitting on Police Academy property. Last May, Craib and police sergeant William Murray spearheaded the Diamond Height’s community garden, which has now grown to 39 plots with and additional 11 waiting to be added in a few months. “That’s 50 gardens,” said Craib, “and there’s still a waiting list of 30 people!”

He strolled among rectangles of lettuce, cabbage and broccoli, bookended by two pristine park benches and a weathered picnic table he also built. He stepped over garden hoses, idle rakes, shovels, and plant pods filled with Mediterranean and drought tolerant native plants, waiting to be planted by a 17-member community work party parallel to another of his patented cedar fences.

In his own four-foot by 12-foot garden he pointed out his plantings. “That’s chard, some snap peas, even artichokes,” he said. “I’m here eight hours a week.”

When he’s not off seeing the rest of the world. He and his wife off to the Himalayas in April and then south to the Santa Barbara’s Channel Islands in June. He’s traveled to every continent in the world, including Antarctica.

But his heart is here in the Canyon. “Richard’s a steward,” noted Dylan Hayes, a Rec and Parks Natural Areas manager and someone who has often worked with Craib. “He’s made Glen Canyon beautiful and a safe oasis, and he’ll never let go of the wheel.”

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1 Comment

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One response to “Rich Craib: 50 years in the Canyon

  1. Love the Canyon! Recently walked its beautiful trails. Lucky are those who live nearby and can just walk to it…

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