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.

Smoke, Pestilence and Overcrowding in the Gila

Tadpole fire -- USFS-Gila Forest photo

credit USFS Gila National Forest

Summertime in southwestern NM in times of social distancing, closures and forest fires.  Challenges about where to hike.  Criteria include an amenable temperature, amenable air quality and amenable solitude.

Summer temps typically lead me higher into the Gila National Forest where trails can be 10 to 20° cooler at 7,000’+ than in town, at 6,000’.  However, since lightning strikes on June 6, there is a 6,000 (and growing) acre wildfire 12 miles from town that has caused the closure of the main road into the forest from here.  Tailheads are all inaccessible, and some favorite trails are engulfed as the Tadpole Fire smolders and flames along the ridge and runs up Rt 15 to Signal Peak and Meadow Creek forest roads. We worry for our firefighters – notice how easy it is to take possession of what we value – out there fighting a so-far uncontained wildfire in the time of a coronavirus pandemic.

Tadpole fire smoke -- USFS-Gila Forest photo

credit USFS Gila National Forest

Smoke becomes a fact of daily life and a factor in where to hike.  If I can’t head “up the hill” into the forest, I’ll head west to the Gila River for a walk IN the river, the river now being much reduced and more compatible to wading.

On Wednesday, my friend, Dog and I head to a campground on the Gila which provides easy access into the river for a cooling walk.  We comment as we drive west that the smoke that had been so oppressive in town has lessened this morning.  Then we begin to notice that the air is thickening the further away we get from the Tadpole Fire and the closer we get to our destination.  At some point, the Mogollons disappear in the smoke and we begin to wonder where all this smoke is blowing in from.  We arrive at the crest of the road down into the river-side campground only to see smoke blanketing the cottonwoods, the river itself now invisible. This is not what we anticipated nor where we want to exercise our lungs.

We decide to go back to the Gila Bird Area, the stretch of river we hiked along yesterday.  We can dip our feet in the river there and wander along the shallows and wade the riffles.  Back down the road, with Dog in the backseat getting a bit antsy.  We turn down the track that leads to the giant sycamore that shelters the trailhead and river at Pancho Canyon.  Round the last little bend to encounter a virtual tent city.  Where the hell did all these people come from; they weren’t here yesterday!  Six, maybe seven tents all crowded under the sycamore arms, facing each other as though creating a thoroughfare. Ice chests, camp chairs, other miscellany scattered around tents and a couple of children wandering along the “street.”  While it’s not my thought to deny others the enjoyment of “my” (there’s that possessive again) Gila River, this is unexpected.  Because so many official campgrounds are closed and because NM is surrounded by states that have taken no health precautions against Covid-19 and thus have soaring rates of infections, we are seeing campers in tents and rv’s and vans with out-of-state license plates pitched up in dispersed camping areas in the forest. No problem.  Except when folks congregate where there is no bathroom, no water and no trash containment.  Where are they going to poop?  Behind a tree, in the weeds, among the rocks – and then leave it and the paper they used.  Ugh and disgusting.  One would think…but then most people don’t.

Needless to say, we leave only the dust of our quick departure, head back out to Rt 180 and now try to figure out just where the heck to go.

The Iron Bridge!  We joke that we can see my truck tracks coming and going as we once again backtrack west.  Fortunately the Iron Bridge is just down the road a couple of miles and we find the parking area deserted!

20200610_111915The Iron Bridge is on the old Rt 180, now in disuse except for swallows and hikers.  It’s a beautiful old structure.  The Gila runs under the bridge, along private ranch land and through property now owned by The Nature Conservancy.  No official trails, but paths that are trod enough to keep the weeds down.  It is getting warm, though and we are pretty exposed. We encounter a young man coming toward us as we stand uncertain, trying to discern where through the weeds we are meant to go.  We head down the parting in the weeds that he just left.

We reach a cluster of trees and find a small citizens science project underway.  A teacher and kids from Aldo Leopold High School have set up a bird-banding station.  They have caught birds in mist nets and “bagged” the birds, one each in little bags hung from the branches of the tree.  When we arrive, they are just in the process of banding four sibling Yellow Warblers, recently fledged.  We stop and watch, and get a brief lesson in tagging each of these little guys with US Fish & Wildlife numbered tags. These small birds don’t ruffle very much as they are held, weighed, banded and finally, taken back into the cluster of trees where they were netted to be released.

Encountering this group of young scientists-to-be and environmentalists-in-fact is a treat and a pleasure.  A reassurance that our world hasn’t entirely gone up in smoke, pestilence and overcrowding.

Upper Gallinas/Railroad Canyon by Halves

First, let me locate us on the map.  We are in the Black Range of the Gila National Forest, just shy of Emory Pass.  Here is the full hike loop from NMWild’s new Hiking Guide. While the trail loop is a total of 10+ miles, we didn’t go the distance.  We hiked up past the juncture shown on the map of Gallinas and Railroad Canyons, taking the Railroad Canyon trail to the right, to a not-shown juncture with East Railroad Canyon trail.  That’s about 2 ½ miles from the campground/trailhead or about 5 miles round trip.

Every summer, when my favorite trails get too warm – or rather, when the summer temperatures are too warm for my favorite trails at lower elevations and exposure, I “head for the hills.”  On this day, a friend, Dog and I were grateful to leave an already 70°-something morning at 7:30 am to arrive at the trailhead at something closer to 60° about an hour later.

20200526_115450-1One half of the canyon follows Gallinas creek (Guy-ē-nas).  The creek was running full, though not as full as it would have been earlier in the Spring with snow melt and will be again with monsoons.  The trail crossed the creek any number of times but given the lower level of the water, the stepping stones were raised and dry.

We were canopied by Ponderosa pine and mixed hardwoods, mostly oak.  Along the creek, willow and coyote willow hosted Robins, Hermit Thrushes and smaller, shyer birds. Monkeyflower and lupine bloomed in the moisture among the rocks and in the duff under the pines.  Bird song followed us though the canopy hid the singers. We were fortunate enough to see Red-faced Warblers and Painted Redstarts darting among the Ponderosa boughs.

One half of the canyon is Empire-sized stone shoulders and wind-and-rain-carved hoodoos.  In the lower part of the canyon, we only glimpsed the heights through openings in the dominant green.  As the trail and creek climbed the canyon, though, where the oak thinned and Ponderosa mixed with fir trees, we had views of the massive rock sides.  We passed large boulders balanced on each other.  Our trail zigged, switchbacking up rocky slopes and zagged back down to the creek and a respite of tree cover. 20200526_124751-2 Here, we found wild rose, delicately scenting the air. On the sunnier side of the trail, there was cactus blooming and other wildflowers providing color.  Banana yucca held up cream-colored stalks on far rock slopes.

One half of the canyon burned in a major wildfire that tore through the Black Range a few years go. The higher we climbed up the canyon, the more the burn scars became apparent.  We walked through patches of standing forest into patches of stark burned trunks.  There were places where we could see the fire behavior had rolled through the underbrush leaving trunks of healthy Ponderosa blackened up 10 or 12 feet.  This is as it should be in a “good” wildfire.  Another hundred feet and we’d step into a clearing created by a hot spot that crowned and destroyed the pine and fir. A natural post-fire rehabber, the New Mexico locust covered the hillsides, just now fully in bloom.

And one half of the canyon is deeply shaded glades surrounding pools and riffles of the creek.  On the way back down the canyon, as the rising heat of the day hurried us below the rocks and scars back to tree cover, we stopped for lunch to sit on rocks, dangling our feet over the water as it burbled below us. Dog stood chest deep, slurping and dribbling cool water, then climbing on my rock to lean on me and request a share of my apple and then another and another.20200526_102406-1

Social Distancing in Pancho Canyon

Gila River Bird Area.2.6-2019I got to Pancho Canyon thrice in a week, twice w Dog and once without her; all three times with one or two friends.  Twice I spent my time looking mostly down and once, mostly up.

Pancho Canyon is on the Gila River at one end of the Gila Important Bird Area (IBA).  How it got the name Pancho I haven’t a clue.  Nevertheless, Pancho Canyon it is, for birding, tracking, and fishing if you’re looking to catch something wilder than you’ll hook in nearby Bill Evans stocked lake.

Sycamore.stark b&w

 

 

The river is lined with ancient cottonwoods and Arizona Sycamore.  The sycamore are living sculptures of white-barked branches that arc and arch, intertwine and soar.  They must be seen without leaves in order to truly appreciate their magnificent structure.

The cottonwoods earn their name this time of year, filling the air with threads and clumps of white fluff.  Cottonwood snow covers everything: rock walls, trails and parking area, and any tree or bush within their snow-shed.

This couple of months are a birder’s heaven along the river.  Standing on the river bank, I watched Cedar Waxwings hawking insects over the river. They dashed out from the overhanging branches, darting in C shapes from branch end, out and back to branch end.  Four or five of these beautiful birds congregated in one tree-top, hawking in concert.  That same flock was in the same territory – the same treetops – every day that I visited.

Red, yellow, rust, black, gray flashed through the understory and canopy. Birds moved so quickly that it was tough to find them still long enough to identify them.  Colors helped.  That robin-sized red bird was a Summer Tanager.  The littler red bird with a quip of black was Vermillion Flycatcher.  Waitwait, yellow and red shining in the sunlight across the river – that had to be a Western Tanager. Willow Flycatchers were not eye candy, but their “fitz-pew” was clear from the mid-story.  Willow Flycatchers are one of two species that may help us protect the Gila River from diversion – they and Yellow-Billed Cuckoos are locally familiar but officially endangered.  Way up at the top of a cottonwood was a shy Yellow Warbler, recognized by the rust streaks down its breast.  Violet-green swallows swarmed around a sycamore where we parked, landing at the ends of trunks where branches had broken off, leaving hollow spaces now filled with nestlings anxious to be fed. These were about one-quarter of the birds active along the river and trail alongside.  The rest were songs and chips in the trees above us, hidden in the new green leaves.

Overhead, soaring, one of three Common Blackhawks we saw.  These large black hawks with a white stripe across their tails are common now, though at one time, I think they may have been less frequent residents.  There are numerous pairs nesting along the river, here and further down-stream.

And all this on just one morning.

The other two mornings, we focused on the ground, doing some “dirt work” for our tracking class.  The river was recently above its banks and upon receding, left layers of silt and mud, just perfect substrate for tracking.  Especially little critters.  And critters there were.  Most were going incognito, as far as our identification skills stand at this point in time.  However, we did get to see tracks being laid down even as we watched.  Now, the pictures in our online course make a lot more sense.

A brief story of Dog:  She loves to wade into river and streams.  Belly deep is just right for lapping up water, snuffling under the surface or watching that leaf or this water-skeeter.  Somehow, she must have missed her swimming lessons as a pup.  At the edge of the river, she was tentatively edging her way along the visible bottom toward the point where the bottom dropped away into the river’s flow. Uncertain, she stretched out her right front leg, paw extended and spread, above water but obviously an attempt to anticipate bottom.  Imagine that you are reaching your arm to its full length and spreading your fingers reaching for something unseen.  It did not help Dog for me to remind her that she is one-half Labrador Retriever and that webbing between her toes is meant for swimming.  Nope. She wasn’t going under.  Not getting her head wet. Not today. Backing up, she glanced up at me and scrambled up out of the water to give a solid not-me-not-today shake off water.

Pumpkin

Social Distancing — The Birds Do It

20200430_093633My friend, Dog and I go up to Cherry Creek trail early this morning while it is still cool.  This Gila National Forest trail is one of my favorites, especially in warm weather because it drops down from the road, following a creek through a canyon.  It may be 75° at 6,000 feet (where my house is) at 8 am; there in the canyon it is 55° and green.

Today, we take binoculars because there are several species of spring arrivals that we hope to see; that is, if Dog will be patient enough to let me put binocs to eyes and focus on the branches overhead.

The meadow, woods and riparian stretches are great attractors for warblers, wrens, vireos, and more.  The challenge, of course, is that the trees are leafing out, giving those little guys lots of opportunities to flit from behind one leaf to behind the next, with a duck behind a tree trunk along the way.  This is social distancing at its most frustrating.

One constant on this trail, at least at this time of year, is the sound of running water.  There are numerous crossings of Cherry Creek to be made, hopping from rock to rock and hoping that Dog, always leashed, doesn’t get too exuberant and pull me into the water.

Friend and I make poor time as hikes go, but great time for birding.  Neither of us are particularly good at identifying by song and not a whole lot better identifying what we see.  Still, there are a few spring celebrants who are impossible to mistake, assuming we can find them high above.

Those lovelies that we see and recognize today include Red Faced Warbler, Painted Redstart, House Wrens, Robins, Juncos, Stellar Jay, Vireo, Acorn Woodpecker, Swifts and an unidentified hawk. If those warblers weren’t so good at staying socially distant, despite my noisy efforts to pish them down, we might see more.

Butterflies are also warming to spring.  A variety of whites, blues, sulphurs and brightly-marked butterflies flutter from flower to leaf to blooming grasses.  Those I recognize are Sara Orangetip, Queen Alexandra’s Sulphur and Swallowtails.  I think I notice a Mourning Cloak – or is that an Arizona Sister?  Such engaging names we give these creatures.

Hard to take pictures of those fast-moving, darting beings.  I am reduced to beings that don’t move much except as the breeze stirs them.  A wild clematis in bloom – I’ve never seen one before.  Various yellow wildflowers, aka dyc or damn yellow composite–they are the equivalent of an LBJ to a birder—fill the sunny spots.  And there’s my hugging tree—a gnarled old grandmother cottonwood. Since we can’t hug our two-legged friends these days, a hug of that old cottonwood gives back a grounded energy.

Depending upon your frame of reference, the damper to the day or the interesting and unexpected find is a mule deer that had been taken by a predator, partially eaten and left right on the side of the campground entrance where we are parked and only 20 feet or so off the main road. Since I’m used to finding evidence of our four-legged neighbors that is far less graphic, I can’t resist taking some pictures and posting them to my tracking group to see if anyone has a clue whether this deer was taken by a mountain lion or coyotes. My guess is mountain lion.  As I said, it all depends on your frame of reference.

I’ll be leading a hike along Cherry Creek for our lifelong learning organization in July.  By then, the birds will be quieter, having found mates and being busy raising peeps. By then, the water will probably be found only in residual pools. By then, a whole new succession of dyc’s will be in bloom.  But it will still be cool. And green. And old grandmother cottonwood will still be giving and receiving hugs in a time of human social distancing.

Social Distancing on the Continental Divide Trail

New Mexico Blue on the CD Trail

New Mexico Blue on the CD Trail

This morning dawned New Mexico blue, offering an invitation to take Dog and go up to a favorite section of the CD Trail, a short 15 minute drive from home.  My hike on this portion of trail is usually about 3 miles round trip and takes Dog and I roughly two hours.  We frequently have this section of trail to ourselves.

As I pulled into the parking at the trailhead, a good friend pulled in behind me.  Meeting was totally random but welcome.  Up until this morning, we have seen each other through computer cameras and zoom.  Dog was thrilled; this is one of her most favorite persons who usually has a bit of doggy bacon in his pocket.  We visited for a few minutes at the distance of Dog’s 18 foot leash, then he went down-trail and I went up.

We didn’t get too far before meeting up with another hiker and her dog, Jack.  Jack and Dog know each other from the town’s dog park, so they shared a brief greeting and a sit-down while she and I caught up a bit.  Good to see folks I know, doing the same things I love in the places that make us smile and feel grounded.

Signs that this section of trail is loved and valued: someone left a painted rock on a tree trunk next to the trail.  Another someone carefully positioned a pine cone and a pebble on a lichen-covered rock. A little cactus, unusual to be found at this elevation and in this habitat, has been rocked off to protect it from mountain bikes.  These touches mean a lot in a time when human connection is more difficult to sustain.

Flowers are beginning to pop up.  And the oaks are turning golden, ready to drop their leaves in favor of new buds.  As an aside, when I first moved here and saw all the oaks turning yellow in April, I thought they were dying of some dread disease.  Coming from the East Coast where all the trees turn and drop leaves in the fall, I had no idea that here, this is the natural order of things.  Oaks drop their leaves in the spring so that the monsoons, when they come, can water the trees into full new leaf.

Another welcome sign on the trail: the rancher who had a lease to graze this section of forest must have moved the cows somewhere else.  For a full year, I found no tracks, no scat, no sign of the wild animals that inhabit the forest.  Only cow tracks breaking up the trail, crossing and tearing down the hillside, denuding the earth of its grasses. And piles of cow dung.  Now that the cows have been removed, sign is coming back.  The gray fox has been marking the rocks in the trail. Hawks or owls are sitting on overhanging branches, munching their lunch and leaving white stains of uric acid on the ground underneath them. And this morning, I heard a warbler calling in the trees nearby.  I could see it flitting through the branches, but not well enough without my binoculars to identify the little guy.  I pished at him for a couple of minutes but only succeeded in getting curious stares from Dog, while the warbler darted on off among the treetops.

By the time I got back to my truck, the day was growing hotter.  The Ponderosa pines were scenting vanilla and cinnamon on the breeze and the earth, in the sunny spots, was smelling flannel-warm.

During this time of social distancing, our Gila National Forest, like other parks, forests and wildlands, is getting heavily used.  Sadly, not everyone escaping to the forests or parks is treating their wildland of choice with respect, care and protection. Trash and worse are left along the trails and piled around the locked bathrooms and trashcans, creating health and safety risks for humans who have to clean it up as well as danger to animals. Graffiti mars petroglyphs. ATVs cut tracks where only deer should be leaving theirs.  So a plea from one who finds sanity and peace on our public lands: be careful-be responsible-be safe and keep it clean. Remember — Do No Harm.

Bear Mountain from the CD Trail

Bear Mountain from the CD Trail

Social Distancing in the Gila National Forest

20200406_093816

Returning to the Forest for the second – or is it third – time this week with Friend and Dog to hike up Little Cherry Creek Rd.  That’s a little service road that heads up-canyon along Little Cherry Creek to a trail-head that continues up the canyon and veers over to Twin Sisters peaks. Little Cherry Creek Rd is a favorite, especially with friends when we want to visit while we hike.  As with any wild place, it’s a favorite with Dog for all the things that dogs love.

Little Cherry Creek is alive and well, running with snow melt and collected rivulets from higher elevations.  This is another of our many ephemeral streams that only strut their stuff during monsoons, typically.  It’s been such a wet season that streams and creeks are engorged, even as long-time New Mexicans wonder if the state has been transported someplace with a more tropical rainy season.

It’s two miles up the dirt track to the trailhead.  The canyon sides are hoodoos, ledges and balanced rocks that come closer as the canyon narrows. Although it never becomes quite a slot canyon, there are stretches where one gets birder’s neck from standing and looking up at the vertical rock walls.  It’s also easy to imagine who might be peering over the edges back down at us interlopers: Fox? Bobcat? Creatures smaller or larger?

We walk to the rumble, rush and roar of water tumbling over rock falls that rarely see more than a trickle.  Friend and I stop and marvel at the amount of water sloshing down the canyon alongside the track.  We take pictures while Dog wades and shakes.

 

We reach the point where the dirt road makes a 90° turn to the left and the trail becomes the followed path.  As the trail climbs the side of the canyon and away from the noise of the water, we walk silently on pine needles between a throw of boulders.  We trade the sounds of water for the gentler whisper of the breeze talking with the Ponderosa pines overhead.  Friend and I joke about keeping 2 black-bear lengths apart as we practice social distancing.  Which reminds us that we need to make sure that Momma Bear, seen the last two seasons with cubs on this very trail, is also socially distancing herself from us.  So as we huff up the trail, we huff out just enough talk to let Momma know we are around and prefer to pass un-accosted.  As Dog pulls me up the path, I watch her behavior carefully.  She alerts on every squirrel, chipmunk, lizard but she would also alert on bear scent; she is our early warning signal.

At the intersection of trail and turning, we take the jog to the left to rejoin the dirt track and start back down.  On our descent, we pay more attention to what is blooming at this elevation at this early point of Spring.  Things at 7200’ are just greening and tiny flowers just popping.  In fact, we swear that the swaths of violas that we see now were not there when we walked up that way.  Probably they just opened their faces to the sun as the sun warmed them.

We cross the creek for the last time before reaching my truck, when I ask Friend if she has any guess as to how many times we crossed the creek up and back.  Her answer is precise: “Yes.  Quite a few.”

These are the treks that have always lifted me up.  Now, especially during this stressful time, my heart fills and my soul expands into the wildness and space and peace. I know how lucky we are to have these public lands at our doorstep.  And I know how important it is to keep them there.

Social Distancing down New Mexico way

Field of poppies.2.Portal.3-31-20

Social distancing requires us to stay at least six feet from each other. Six feet? That is awfully close!   Thus goes one of several New Mexico versions of this bit of coronavirus humor.

Another bit. Six feet is about the equivalent of: 6 Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout (or Gila Trout if you’re in my neighborhood); 2 mule deer bucks; 4 Roadrunners; or 2 Black Bears. This from NM Game and Fish recommendations for social distancing in the field. Of course, I’d rather be more than 2 black-bear lengths from any black bear, but that’s just me!

Down here in New Mexico, six feet of separation isn’t a problem for a large state, home to only about 2 million people, most of whom live in one of three cities.  Practicing social distancing can be as easy as getting out onto some little corner of our millions of acres of public land.

In 30 minutes or less, I can be on a trail in the Gila National Forest, hiking with my dog alone or with one, maybe two friends.  We have the choice of going low:  the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) starts down south in a desert environment at 6,000’ or less, wandering through pinion, juniper and boulders, as though through a carefully landscaped rock garden. Seen from the ridges, Big Hatchet and the Floridas stand stark against the border; Soldiers Return holds the near frame. The snaggletooth of Cookes Peak anchors the east.  The Peloncios, Chiricahuas and Mt Graham bound the south and west.  These days, Mt Graham and the tallest points of stone in the Chiricahuas are snow-topped.

Or I can go high, above 7,000’:  Signal Peak, Cherry Creek trail, the trail out of McMillan Campground, Meadow Creek trail are all favorites when Ponderosa and fir are preferred, and a shady path calls.  This time of year, the Redstarts and Red-faced Warblers are moving in and singing their territory.

We’ve had a wet late winter and early spring.  Rains have come with regularity.  The soft female rains – or farmer rains, depending on your argot – soaked into the land at just the right time and right temperature and the result is a golden explosion.

Field of poppies.3.Portal.3-31-20Poppies. Mexican Poppies glowing along the roadside, in painterly splashes on the hillsides.  And most spectacularly, spread across fields as quilts made of yellow, orange and gold, with love-knots of white. In New England, they go leaf-peeping in the fall.  This week, I have indulged in Poppy-peeping.

Poppies don’t bloom alone.  There are lupines, brittlebush, bladderpod, mustard and other yellow ground flowers whose names refuse to stick with me.  There’s a spot along AZ Rt 191 where for about 3 miles, the hillsides look as though Monet was trying to improve on his Garden at Giverny.

And, the other evidence of generous rains and snow-covered elevations is water.  Dead Man's Canyon.2.3-28-20

Water running in the most ephemeral of streams, bubbling down stony creek beds that rarely entertain a flow outside of a good monsoon.  Seeps become creeks, creeks become challenging crossings and waterfalls sing over rock.

The Gila River gorges on the melt and silt from the snows on the Mogollons, spreading beyond its banks and filling the acequias.

The happening-together of a glorious wildflower bloom set against the backdrop of snowy peaks, and water courses that live up to their names has made for a rapturous spring of hikes and drives, indulging in color and sound, and following Dog’s nose up the trails.  I hope and pray for the recovering health of my community, nation and the world.

Mogollons.3-2020

 

Here, though, is my refuge.  Social distancing at six feet?  That’s awfully close!

 

 

Old Forest New Forest

It’s amazing the lines and boundaries that a forest fire draws.  From the images you see in the media during a raging fire, you can imagine that the fire burns down valley and up-mountain clearing everything in its path, evenly and equally.  Not so.

We live snuggled up against the Gila National Forest.  The Forest trails are my go-to for dog-walking, friend-hiking, animal-tracking, and mind-settling.  Especially when it’s hot in town, I head up-hill.  It might be almost 80° at 7:30 in the morning when I leave my house at 6,000 feet, but at 7,000+ feet elevation on a Ponderosa-forested trail, my bare arms are chill at 63°.

The Forest has a history of wildfires, some of which have burned thousands and hundred-thousands of acres, some coming within too few miles of town. Whitewater-Baldy 2012. Silver Fire 2013. Signal Peak Fire 2014. Other years, multiple small fires burn a few hundred to a couple of thousand acres. Right now, eleven smallish fires are burning on the Gila. 

The education for me has been to see that the fires don’t take everything.  They create a patchwork quilt of burned-to-sticks mixed with barely-touched forest and gradations in between.  There is, once the embers die out, a succession over the next years, life that returns to the most badly burned areas, including plants, insects and birds.  In fact, there are birds that come just for the insects that erupt from the fallen logs and dead standing trunks.  Rewilding at its most elemental. Up Signal Peak Rd.burn area.2.7-14-19

I experienced again this patchwork effect in the last couple of weeks.  Week 1, with the Thursday Group, we hiked up McMillan trail, a narrow trail that heads uphill from the back of McMillan Campground.  Although the creek that drains this upward-bound canyon is dry now, it ran with early rains and snow melt, feeding a mixed forest of hardwoods and pines plus a lush understory of wildflowers and poison ivy. We passed an old tree trunk, split and harboring many years of rodent-chewed pine cone bits.

ancient tree w rodent nest.McMillan trail.6-2019

An old tree inhabited

Not quite two miles up, we turned on a side trail that led into a grotto backed by a stone cliff streaked with desert wash, the stain left on the rock from falling water. This is old forest at its best.

Week 2, a friend, Dog and I went up Signal Peak Rd a short way and diverted onto a little-used forest road to the left.  Heavily forested, with a few dispersed campsites not recently used, cool, green and fragrant.  We spotted bowl-shaped spiderwebs holding the sunlight.

Openings in the canopy let us look up the side of the next hill, a mass of rock and hoodoos.  Others have traveled this road as well: turkey, elk, cow and a large black bear, all leaving evidence in the muddy spots on the track.

Having never been up the length of Signal Peak Rd to the fire scar and the fire tower, I decided to drive a ways up, not necessarily to the peak, but to find the transition between old forest and new forest.

It wasn’t too many miles before we broke out of the Ponderosa into the recovery area.  The first in the line of succession is grass, mullein and wildflowers, which were there in abundance.  Next in the line is NM Locust, typically the first tree to recolonize a burn scar in our forests.  Depending upon the elevation, aspen may come next, though that doesn’t seem to be the case here.  In the minds of many people, tragically, the vanilla-scented Ponderosa take decades to return.  And yet.  And yet, it won’t be many years before there will be nurseries of little ponderosa, gathered as a bunch of children in clusters among the Locusts, until they come to dominate.  At least, that’s the plan.

I got to thinking that McMillan Campground and trail must be pretty close to the burn area on Signal Peak, even though there are such stark differences between old forest and new.  I got on the Forest’s website and pulled up the satellite map.  From green to burned is a distance of one ridge, a slight few miles.  On the other side of the burn is another favorite hiking area still intact, Meadow Creek, just another ridge away. Here’s the satellite image with the trail marked, the Signal Peak Lookout circled and the burn scar highlighted.  But look now, because it’s coming back.  It won’t be the same for a long time but it will be—and is—wild again. McMillan Trail and Signal Peak

Four on the Floor…er, Mud

On Friday morning, three of us plus dog went to the Gila River Important Bird Area (IBA) which is part of the Gila National Forest and about 30 miles from home.  We are barely-better-than-beginning trackers, and we need more practice identifying the evidence our 4-legged neighbors leave behind. Pumpkin digging

Dog has no such need, but goes because she loves the smells, the company and the opportunity to dig for a gopher or two.

We carry books and rules and phones with cameras. When I remember it, I also carry a small reflector that can be used to direct more light into a track under examination. We walk looking down.  We pause often and study the ground.  We skim over grassy and debris-covered areas, preferring the silt, sand, mud fresh and hardened, even gravel and ant-hills.  That’s where we have a chance of seeing tracks and sign. Although same would exist in the grass and among the fallen oak leaves and pine needles, it would take a tracker far more expert than us to notice, let alone identify tracks in that substrate.  [Substrate: a fancy term for the ground we walk on.]  We’re even known to get down on our hands and knees to blow debris out of a possible track or to sniff at possible sign for telltale marking odors.  Believe it or not, dog is pretty patient, only straining slightly at the end of her lead. Her trade-off is that we are patient while she digs into gopher and mole holes and tunnels or slaps around in the river.

We’ve gotten pretty good at the big guys.  Bear tracks, canine and big cat feet and scat: we see those pretty regularly and they are easier to identify.  It’s the medium to smaller folks’ tracks and sign that resist for-certain identification.  So we study and puzzle and flip through our books and open up our phone apps, measure and photograph and debate.  To document a track or sign in our official transect, reported to Sky Island Alliance, we have to have a consensus of three.  On our informal forays for our own benefit, we do the best we can.  I have to say, we’re getting better.

This outing netted us four tracks that we agreed upon.  Black Bear.Gila River IBA.6-7-19A black bear paced back and forth along the river bank.  We found a relatively clear track for a front foot, and deep impressions where the bear stepped down a slight rise in the gravelly sand.

At another point along the river, we found a dance-party of mountain lion tracks: front and rear, going in multiple directions in a small area, as though the big cat was square dancing.  mountain lion.Gila River IBA.6-7-19Of course, there could have been more than one cat, but we couldn’t read that much in the mud.  Unfortunately, the very best track, a large front foot, got overstepped by dog who came poking her nose in to see why we were all on our knees. 

 

Our other two finds were a spotted skunk and after long debate, a white-nosed coatimundi.  That last is still a bit up in the air, because the group of trackers to whom I submitted the picture of the coati track for confirmation were 2/3 in agreement and 1/3 of the opinion that the track belonged to a jackrabbit.

Oh, and this is the Important Bird Area and the trees were a glory of birdsong.  We didn’t identify — or even really see one bird.  I’ve learned you can’t look down and up at the same time!

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