This is Natural. This is not.

Here are two pictures, taken a very short distance apart on a trail along the Gila River.  Which belongs?  Which does not?

Fair warning: I am going to rant a bit. Live up to that tag line I believe in: A Public Lands Advocate.

I have been hiking and camping our National Forests, National Parks and National Monuments for the last several years.  In fact, that’s what motivated me to start sharing my stories and photographs.  Mostly, my stories are about my personal experiences, my photographs share my awe and wonder.  Occasionally I lapse into “trainer” mode. I try to avoid “preacher” mode.  Today, I’m all of those: storyteller, trainer, preacher.

I am wedded to the Gila National Forest, including the Gila River because that is my door-step. I have found my solace and soul here during these last difficult months when we are socially distant from our friends and family, not traveling, zoom-stuck and zoom-weary. If you’ve read any of my stories this year, you have traveled these trails with me, my dog and a friend or two.

It seems we are not the only ones moving into the Forest and along the River. Folks are coming from neighboring states and from farther away. Sadly, many who are finding their way this way are not here for the quiet and solitude that a Wild and Scenic River or a Wilderness experience can offer. They come, rather, in clusters and groups and occasionally, hordes.  And it’s not so much that folks are coming. These wildlands and waterways are, after all, open to all of us; we all own these public lands.  It is what folks are leaving behind when they go.  Here are the most recent pictures I’ve taken of the trash that they’ve left.  Trash that includes human waste (I blurred one part of one picture that was explicit).

And here are some excerpts from recent news coverage in our local paper of what others who, like me, are passionate about our wildlands, have found—and removed.

She pointed specifically to trash littering the sides of forest roads, recreation areas, and stretches of the Gila River. [She] invited the Daily Press to visit the Mogollon Box Day-Use Area last Friday, where about 150 to 200 people were posted up in a variety of groups, both large and small — but nearly none below the state-mandated size of five or fewer.

…half of the 20 people we spoke to were from elsewhere. Ohio, California, Arizona and Texas were a few of the states folks visiting the Gila last Friday called home.

…10 pounds of trash that [she] picked up during a 30-minute walk… Toilet paper and unburied human feces were seemingly everywhere on the riverbank, just yards from two sets of bathrooms maintained by the Forest Service.

Besides the obvious problems of trash and waste ruining the aesthetics of the outdoors, and noise pollution disrupting the peace that at least some visitors are seeking, there’s the issue of wild creatures getting used to trash as a food source.

What happens when people leave garbage…is that skunks, bears and other critters habituate to it. Having those animals getting used to being around people — that’s cute to some degree, but only until there’s a bear jumping on someone’s car.  Silver City DailyPress, 6/15/20

If you are escaping to the Gila National Forest.  Or to any Forest. Or Park. Or Monument. Or Bureau of Land Management wildland, here are the guidelines for Leave No Trace.

7 Leave No Trace principles to minimize impact:

Plan ahead and prepare

Travel and camp on durable surfaces [Note—Respect USFS signs for no motorized vehicles, including ATV, UTV and dirt-bikes.]

Minimize campfire impacts [Note–open fires are currently forbidden in the Gila National Forest]

Leave what you find

Be respectful of other visitors

Dispose of waste properly

Respect wildlife

Please be a Public Lands Advocate.  The animals depend on you.  The rivers depend on you. The forests depend on you.  I depend on you.

In Silhouette–Colorado National Monument, NPS

Colorado National Monument-Big Horn Sheep Ewe

She was standing high on the cliffs, silhouetted against the morning light. Just as I was gaping up at her, we rounded a curve on the very curvy Rim Drive to find two more sheep on the road, neither of which seemed in a hurry to let us pass.  We took advantage of a pull-out so I could get out my camera and my really-long lens.  I doubted that the ewe up on the cliff or the two on the side of the road would still be around by the time I got lenses changed and out the door; it’s my experience that by the time I finish camera-fumbling, the intended subject has gone.  Not this time, fortunately.  The ewe had moved around slightly to keep an eye on the two below. and gave me plenty of time to fire off a number of shots.  I tried to get a couple of shots of the two sheep as they moved off into the brush, but just as I framed them up, two women on bikes rode around the curve, into my frame, and with the innocence of not-photographers, asked if I was getting anything good.  All I managed after the women rode on was to get two sheep rear-ends.

Colorado National Monument-Independence MonumentColorado National Monument-Wedding Canyon_

Colorado National Monument is an amazing treasure right on the edge of the Colorado Plateau.  The Monument, created in 1911 and now part of the National Park Service, is 1500 to 2000 feet above Grand Junction, CO.  It’s not large as Monuments go: 20,500 acres which include a visitor center, a campground, the Rim Drive and lots and lots of sheer-cliffed canyons and formations.  And amazingly unknown:  in 2016 there were barely 400,000 visitors, many of whom just make the drive through, stopping at overlooks and enjoying the view.  Since 1919 when NPS started keeping visitation records, Colorado NM has seen only 23 million people pass through.  Compare that with Grand Canyon National Park, which sees about 6 million people per year, and 205 million since 1919.

We had a lovely campsite right near the rim on a loop that had fewer than 1/2 dozen other campers among lots of empty campsites.  That was the last-minute loop.  The reserve-ahead loop was slightly more populated, but not by much.  Sadly for us, it was unusually warm, with daytime temps over 90.  Since the hiking trails are exposed, it made exploring beyond the campground and visitors center a bit…uncomfortable.  We came down off the plateau a day early and headed for our next stop, a little higher in elevation and, thus, a little cooler.  I’ve put Colorado NM on my list of places to come back to.

Traveling Silver on the edge

Traveling Silver at Black Canyon of the Gunnison

From Gunnison, you have two choices.  You can follow the South Rim of the Black Canyon and visit the official visitors center, the drives and the overlooks and end up in Montrose CO.  There are campgrounds and ranger-led walks.  And LOTS of people.   Or you can wend and wind your way up the North Rim. Breath-taking, literally.  Edgy, again literally. Almost no people.  Those that are making this trek, are driving slowly, as much to avoid becoming part of the view as to enjoy the view.  It would be so easy, with a little too much speed in a large vehicle, to get first-hand experience at just how sheer and deep those canyon walls are.  This passenger was, fortunately, on the mountain side rather than the canyon side.  Still, full disclosure here, I was jelly and squish from vertigo.  Made it a little hard at times to enjoy the ride.

Still and all, I wouldn’t have missed it.  Those that knew the choices, encouraged us to take the North Rim and I’m glad we did.  Coming breathless down the other side, we landed in Crawford State Park, which not coincidentally is just a mile from Black Canyon Rd, the only road that goes up to the North Rim ranger station, campground and drive.  This road to the rim is deceptive; it’s one that sets you wondering what the first Europeans thought when driving a team and wagon across the mesa to suddenly and abruptly come to the edge of the world.

Once on the rim, there are a couple of terrific hikes.  We took the one that leads to Exclamation Point, and further to the top of Green Mountain.  Just beyond the trailhead, we passed the sign for the boundary of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison Wilderness, a 15,000+ acre wilderness that protects the canyon rim-to-rim for 14 miles and is contiguous with the Gunnison Gorge Wilderness to the north.

Exclamation Point is a comfortable 3 mile round trip along edges (I’m much better on foot than in a vehicle when the land drops away) and through the trees.  At the point, beggars await a handout with alert ears and twitching noses. There is a rim drive as well that offers several overlooks with railing and information boards.  The walls of the canyon are so close in some spots that you can see and be seen from the overlooks on the South Rim.  If someone was looking north with binoculars, they would probably see you wave.

Black Canyon defies description, for all that I’ve tried to describe the experience of driving and hiking a bit of it.  It’s deep, yes.  Jagged and raw, indeed.  Definitely black — dark for lack of light and due to the geological makeup.  It roars with the voice of the Gunnison River in its depths.  These are inadequate things to say about a ditch that would have inspired Dante.  You kind of have to get on the edge yourself.

#publiclandsworthprotecting #publiclandsinpublichands

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