Black Canyon is carved east to west between the Aldo Leopold Wilderness and the Gila Wilderness. It connects the Black Range and the Mogollons in the Gila National Forest, a 3 million acre respite in southwestern NM. It’s remote, as any spot in the wilderness should be. There is one road, North Star Mesa Rd, that winds and twists and hiccups up the sides of ridges, runs along the tops of mesas and ridgelines, and slithers switchback down into a series of canyons. A high clearance vehicle is de rigueur; AAA isn’t about to come to the rescue of a low-slung sedan that scraped its oilpan loose on the rocks in the road. Washboarding is unavoidable because the road is too curvy to skateboard over the washboard ridges at speed. Since there’s no there, there, sliding across the black ice of washboard gravel can spin you out over the edge of the hill and down several hundred feet.
But it’s worth the trip. The campground is set along a perennial stream, shown on the Gila National Forest map without a name. At the entrance to the campground from North Star Mesa Rd, there’s a dam that plays a part in the project to reintroduce the native Gila Trout. Trail #94 starts at the lower end of the campground and follows the creek for a while, then peters out. Because it’s a challenge to reach, and the road isn’t one typically used to get from here to there, the campground is lightly used.
Our wilderness inventory tribe hasn’t camped together for a year or so, because our inventory work has finished and the results fed into the Gila’s forest planning process. It was time to get out and reconnect with each other and with wild places, to enjoy good food, good wine and lots of conversation. Our group went in for a two-night weekend. This time, I brought my dog. She’s a 4 year old 55 lb half chocolate Labrador Retriever and half Black Mouth Cur, more hunter than retriever and all muscle and curiosity. She’s an affectionate dog, a well-mannered dog. I can brag because I adopted her this way, and take no credit for her good behaviors. She’s never camped before and I wondered how she would fare in the woods with all those wild smells and sounds, and how she would sleep in a tent. I took her collapsible kennel and bed so she’d have something familiar come bedtime. When it was time, she didn’t hesitate to go into the tent, although the zipper door was a bit puzzling to her. Nor did she hesitate to curl into her kennel, take her bedtime treat and settle down. And I cozied into my sleeping bag and settled myself down. Until about midnight. I woke up reaching for my extra blanket, pulling it up over my sleeping bag. It occurred to me that if I was that cold, I wondered how the pup was doing, so I reached into the kennel to check. Sure enough, she was in a tight little ball, shivering. After trying unsuccessfully to cover her inside the kennel with a jacket, I gave up and invited her onto my cot and into my sleeping bag. A happy girl she was, snuggled up and hugged. It was about 34° when we woke up at dawn; no wonder we were both grateful for the other’s heat.
The next night, I borrowed a comforter from a friend who had the luxury of a camper. We thought, if we covered the dog’s kennel with the comforter, it would help keep her body heat in and ensure a warmer night in her own bed. That worked and we slept well until about 3 am. Once again awakened reaching for my blanket, I checked her in her kennel under the comforter, and once again, she was balled up and shivering. So, once again, invited into my sleeping bag and curled in my arms she was. At dawn, my fellow campers, bundled in puff jackets, hats, scarves and mittens against another 35° morning, greeted me over coffee, teasing about a 1-Dog night.
My dog and I took a bit of a walk on the dirt road that ran through the campground. On the top of a hill above the creek, we were attracted to movement in the creek below. She went on alert and I peered over the edge to see what had her so focused. A group of four or five mature javalina were working their way upstream. It became obvious that they were very aware of the dog. Still, they moved no more warily for her distant presence, but did keep one eye uphill. She was pointing with focus, but showing no intent to rush down the hill to confront the animals. Good thing. One dog and one or more javalina, and the javalina will always come out on top. They are non-threatening when left alone, but vicious if challenged. I had her on leash, but that would have mattered little if she really wanted to course downhill after the javalina; she could have pulled the leash right out of my hand and me onto my nose. We turned back to the road, only to confront a black bear coming down hill directly toward us. I saw the bear a split second before the dog did, and so was prepared if she decided to charge. Instead, she saw the bear and froze. That gave me time to call to her loudly and back us both up, away from the bear. Bear saw us, and, halting with a paw raised for a next step, studied us for seconds that seemed like minutes. I continued backing us slowly and talking, which gave the bear time to decide it didn’t really need to get down to the creek just at that moment, and to turn and lumber back up the hill.
I wonder if the dog will expect black bear encounters and sleeping bag snuggles on every camping trip from now on. Probably.