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.

Social Distancing in the Gila National Forest

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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.

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!

It was a one-dog night!

Black Canyon map

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. Pumpkin.5-14-19 (2)

 

Favorite trail tales

 

Little Cherry Creek RdLittle 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.

Ponderosa candles and spiderweb.6-10-18

Ponderosa candles and spiderweb

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:Puffball.6-10-18

 

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