Little Cherry Creek Road, Gila National Forest, early on a hot Sunday morning. Third hike in as many weeks on this rough little two-track north of Pinos Altos. It’s a good place to bring the dog, a good place to bird, a good place to find water in the right seasons and critters in any season. I start at appx 6500′ elevation. At a mile I’m over 6800′ and if I walk up the track to the intersection of track and trail, I’ve topped 7800′ — a 1300′ gain in a little less than two miles. It’s not a tough hike, though, despite the gain: gradual up with plenty to distract from any climbing discomfort.
Hoodoos define the walls of the canyon at the low end; they lean over the creek bed and crowd the oak, ash and other deciduous trees. Slabs of rock dip toward the track, laced with green lichens and, sometimes, desert varnish; shelves and overhangs provide cover and crevices for critters to shelter and burrow.
Another couple hundred yards up the track and Ponderosa pines come to dominate the hillsides, still mixed with Gambels Oak. The understory is a mix of green shrubs like gooseberry, elderberry, sumac, many of which are fruit- or berry-bearing. Wildflowers can be plentiful, though not so much this year, thanks to the drought.
At 7,000′, the Ponderosa are mixed with fir on the hillsides that pinch the creek and track.
On this day as on my last two hikes up Little Cherry Creek Rd, Pumpkin pulls right and left — she’s kept on lead — running her nose on the ground gathering every scent of human, domestic and wild footprint. A very brave chipmunk dashes across the road, tail straight at 12:00, right under the dog’s nose. Can I blame the dog for her lunge at the critter and efforts to follow it over the side of the hill into the weeds? And I know that when we come back down, the dog will remember exactly where that chipmunk disappeared over the edge; she’ll stop once more to strain to the chase.
I pished up a pair of Red Faced Warblers. They darted among the pine branches to points right over my head, pishing being a very seductive sound, where they peered down at me. I’m told that the warblers have moved down-mountain from the fire a few miles further north and a few hundred feet higher in elevation. Normally, there are a few warblers along this track; now with the fire, there is an abundance.
I don’t know whether to count myself lucky: probably so, since I had Pumpkin with me. Reports of a sow black bear with two cubs have come from two friends who have hiked that area in the same time frame as my forays. In one encounter, the sow tried to move her cubs off in a different direction, but one curious cub headed straight for the human. Mom grunted something comparable to “come back here right this minute” and the cub did turn and run back. On the same day that I was just there with my dog, another friend and his wife, higher up the trails from me, unexpectedly confronted the bear and cubs. This time, one cub ran straight up a tree. Same little rebel? I wonder. Mom got very agitated, communicating warning to my friends by bouncing and huffing. They backed slowly, with a can of bear spray at the ready. I always wish it was me that saw the critters; I usually just find their tracks and scat. Pumpkin is a hunter with a strong instinct. I know how she reacts to chipmunks and rabbits, even lizards. I don’t think I want to find out how she would react to Momma bear or babies.
So I will satisfy myself with “encounters” like this: