Horseback through the Gila Wilderness – 90% magic, 20% terrifying — Day 3

30 miles in 3 days – Day 3

West Fork, Gila River, Gila Wilderness — early morning

Dawn came softly.  I had just closed my eyes to a deep sky full of stars, and now I opened to a sky just lightening.  Carol’s and Allyson’s sleeping bags were not moving, suggesting that they were both still in the Land of Nod.  Behind me, though, I could hear firewood being thrown onto the morning fire.  Looking past my feet into the trees, six horses moved at a hobbled pace through the grass, heads down and cropping.  They had been released from their ties and sent out to breakfast. 

I resisted the urge to immediately go looking for coffee, instead rolling up my sleeping bag, folding my tarps, gathering my stuff into a coherent pile and taking my saddle pads over to where the saddles and tack were stacked.  My saddle blanket went with me to fireside to provide my seat cushion on the log.

Other than a bright good-morning, Corbin and Joe continued getting ready for our day: building up the fire, filling the coffee pot and the cook pot with water and setting them on the coals to boil, cutting fruit for our breakfast of oatmeal.  Corbin had made a comment the evening before that there’s something therapeutic about sitting and staring into a campfire.  I practiced a little pre-prandial therapy, since there was little I could do to help the preparations.  Eventually, we were all gathered, coffee mugs and oatmeal in hand and the day properly begun.

As we sat and compared nighttime noise stories – I had heard a Great Horned Owl and wondered if anyone else did – occasionally either Joe or Corbin would count to six.  If they only counted to five, Corbin would go in search of the missing horse.  This was something I had observed previously while in camp. Even though hobbled around the front feet, a horse can make quite a bit of headway, often ranging out of sight. He would encourage them back, usually with little trouble.  His horse, Biscuit, had an investigative nose.  She was often poking around the food stores, poking at Corbin’s bedroll, or at anything else she found interesting.  Poor Smoke, on the other hand, had little patience for her hobbles. This morning, as she tried to move forward, she stumbled over her front feet, sat back on her haunches, and stood in a quiver.  Joe looked at her and just shook his head. When I curried and cajoled her later, I noticed that she had a little scrape on each front foot, just above the hoof.

Well fed, once again, and it was time to pack up for our last day.  As we were ready to leave the fire, Corbin – or was it Joe? – told us that not long after we left the camp, we would come to a part of the trail that runs along on the side of a steep hill for about 1/4 mile.  Looking right at me, he said, “But Smoke is an old pro at this.”  Well, yes, maybe she is.  But I surely am not. 

Oy vey.  And here I thought the rest of our ride would be a stroll along the river, with the terror of yesterday’s Hells Hole put behind us.  Well, as an old country song goes, “If you got your confidence with you, you can do anything.”  We saddled up, mounted up, and headed out on our last 10+/-miles, including that 1/4 mile of hillside. I started working on my confidence right away.

Sure enough, it wasn’t long before the trail trended upward along the side of a partially wooded-partially rocky slope.  It wasn’t steep enough to switchback and we weren’t climbing to the top. Rather the trail continued laterally.  However, the challenge became obvious quickly.  Most of the hillside was composed of talus slumped down from the top. Here was a difficulty for the horses that they didn’t have to navigate coming down Hells Hole trail.  The trail was etched in across loose rock that clinked and slipped under their feet as they minced their way along. And then there was about 8 feet of slickrock slanted downhill to cross.

I engaged in both an out-loud and an under-breath conversation getting across that quarter-mile.  “Watch your feet, girl.  Ok, Smoke, be careful. You can do this.”  Alternating with, under my breath: “f**kohf**kohsh*tTrust Your Horseahsh*tTrust Your Horseahf**k.”  “Good Smoke, watch your feet, girl. Take it easy, Smoke.”   Well, she did and Joe, who’d been leading on Jet, with Kissee tethered to him, was waiting on the now-wooded and pine-needled gentling slope to give me a thumbs-up. I grinned and announced the obvious, “I made it, white knuckles and all.” Allyson, riding behind me, had heard my overt exhortations to Smoke, but fortunately not my self-talk.

The West Fork Gorge is stunning. The walls are crenelated and hoodoo-ed. The river slips between the walls, sometimes pushing the trail up against the foot of the cliffs, sometimes forcing the trail up and over little ridges.  A lot of rock on the river edges and in the river bed, rock of not insignificant size.  Some of the riversides are a drop from a level trail, down a rocky slope and up on the far side.  Smoke picked her way carefully down the rock, stepping between rocks in crossing the river and jostling up the far slope.  Occasionally, her foot would step into a hole, pitching us forward. I did a lot of standing in my stirrups – stand-and-lean-back going down and stand-and-lean-forward to get up the other side. I peeked at the walls and spires of the gorge as much as I could.  We stopped at several river crossings to water the horses and took advantage of those moments to pull out cameras and make record of the beauty and drama. This was part of the magic I didn’t want to miss.

Corbin on the trail along the river in the West Fork gorge
Carol takes a picture while Raider eyes another snack.
Last lunch before leaving the Wilderness

Eventually we encountered people.  And dogs. And noise.  Backpackers setting up camp under a rock overhang.  Hikers with two loose dogs; they held the dogs as we walked by. More hikers, casual as they stepped off-trail.  Just as we were plunged into the vibrant fall colors and through the flood plain covered with Chamisa as we left the Gila Cliff area, we rode back into that environment after crossing the boundary out of the Wilderness.

Leaving the West Fork gorge and into the Gila River flood plain.

Coming into Woodys Corral, we were met by Joe’s support team with their trucks and trailers.  I got my last dismount assist, took Smoke to a rail and tied her up.  I unloaded my personal gear and put it in Carol’s car.  Then, I unbridled Smoke and with Corbin’s help, pulled off the saddle, the saddle pads and blanket, saddle bags, rope and all the accoutrements of the trail and took everything to Joe’s truck. Time to say goodbye to Smoke.  I rubbed her muzzle and scratched her forehead and down between her eyes.  I reached under her chin and gave her head a hug.  Another muzzle rub and another attempt at a head-hug.  I guess Smoke isn’t a hugger; she tossed her head up and away from my attention. So, ok, I get it.  Well, bye, Smoke.  And thanks.

My selfie on Smoke

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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