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)

 

Ups and Downs

CDTrail over Goat Canyon.1-30-18

I don’t like “up” very much. To be honest, it depends on how much “up” there is, and whether “up” is complemented by “flat” and “down.”  Too much “up” pushes my breathing and burns my thighs.  Working against me on “up”:  I grew up at sea level; I never hiked much until moving to 6,000 feet; I’m not 40 anymore.

It was another Tuesday, another foray into the Gila National Forest with the “Tuesday Group.”  Our hero route suggestion-er proposed Goat Canyon, a favorite of his, and frequented by us individually and as a group.  It lies next to Saddle Rock Canyon, and a canyon over from Black Hawk, and so on.  These Gila hills are only hills because of the canyons that define and divide them!

A Forest Service road climbs out of Goat Canyon up to a ridge threaded by the Continental Divide Trail (CDT).  While ones of us (often me) frequently request not too much “up,”  this morning we were more interested in sun, given that it was about 19 degrees at 8 am.  Off we went to Saddle Rock, and up Goat Canyon we headed.  The canyon itself is  beautiful, approaching “slot” width in places, heavily trafficked by cow and atv, and bounded and strewn with the amazing variety of rock that makes up the skeleton of the Gila mountains.  Still shadowed, the canyon air was chill and, chilled, we set a fast pace.

We reached the Forest Service road and started up.  Oh no.  Really “up.”  I kept hoping that every turn would bring us to “flat” or even, maybe, a little “down” where I could catch my breath.  Every turn opened up more “up.”  Shortly, I was the last of the line, with another hiker graciously keeping me company, despite my breathy assurances that he could go ahead and I’d catch up.

It’s a truism about hiking groups:  the faster ones stop to wait for the slower.  By the time the slower ones catch up and want to rest a minute, the faster have rested and set off at pace again.

We finally reached the end of “up” and the crossing of the CDT. Turning up the trail, we moved through native rock gardens, little groves of oak and pinion, and shouldered the hills on trails wide enough for one pair of feet.  But the views…oh, the views.  This is why I keep breathing through “up”–because my senses and soul expand with the views.  With the space and blue and clouds and distant mountains.

We who live snuggled up to the Gila National Forest are fortunate.  Our Forest, with its three Wildernesses, its cliff dwellings, forests, plains, rivers, elk, mountain lion, wolves, is not under threat of shrinkage, of undoing.  But there are other public lands that are.

Today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall led a group of 18 Democratic senators in introducing Senate Bill S. 2354 to enhance protections for national monuments against the Trump administration’s unprecedented attacks on public lands. The America’s Natural Treasures of Immeasurable Quality Unite, Inspire, and Together Improve the Economies of States (ANTIQUITIES) Act of 2018 reinforces Congress’ intent in the Antiquities Act of 1906: only Congress has the authority to modify a national monument designation.
If you are a public lands advocate — or simply a public lands user — this is a Bill to love.  More importantly, it’s a bill to support.  19 Senators will not be force enough to get this through.  But 51 would be.  If you have a moment, think views and trails and critters.  Think future and preservation and protection and national heritage.  Write you Senator today to thank him/her for support or encourage him/her to think “up.”

Ode to Tuesday Group

hiking CDTrail

It’s Tuesday morning after Christmas.  We meet as usual at 8 am and discuss, first, where to hike, and then, carpool details.

Where to hike is always a fun conundrum.  Gila National Forest is crisscrossed with hiking trails.  Some of them are quite challenging, climbing and crossing ridges and shouldering mountain tops, dropping into deep-walled canyons. Each week, we head for one of the more accessible trails, often choosing to pick up the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) and follow it for 2 miles; we stop at that point for fuel, turn and head back.

We’re a good group, reasonably well matched in hiking endurance and strength.  We’re a fluid group: whoever shows up at 8 am, hikes.  Sometimes there are four or five of us, sometimes, like today, 13. We’re also fluid in our trail habits, changing conversational pairs as we trudge up and down rises and maneuver rough spots.  I may find myself toward the front, with voices falling away behind me.  On “ups,” I step aside to breathe, and catch up at the end of the line, chasing voices.  It strikes me, the more removed I am from the conversations, that we sound like a gabble of geese.

When we’re stretched out, there may be no visual contact from one little cluster to the next. There is a sweet silence walking the trail alone, watching feet, glancing down stream beds and up side canyons, noticing birds popping up from the grasses, watching cloud formations.  But recently, there have been a couple of situations where, in one, vehicles got separated and ended up stopping at different points along the CDT; in another, hikers got separated, resulting in three-hour backtracking and a 911 call for Search & Rescue.  Today, we carefully tracked each other, waiting in a little flock on the trail for the trailing chicks.

National Forests are managed for multiple uses; the Gila National Forest is no exception.  We often pass mining tailings, test digs and old mining pits. There is frequently infrastructure for cattle grazing, including water tanks and old corrals.  Today was no exception. quartz mine.CDTrail An exposed chunk of quartz and a myriad of quartz chips scattered the ground at an old mine site.  The quartz was not the target for this mine, but some rare earth mineral contained in the quartz.  Because that mineral is slightly radioactive, we avoided picking up pieces of the glistening rock to bring home and joked about glowing in the dark.  Up the hill from the quartz mine, grazed a couple of cows.  Other cows complained in the brush.  We were blocking their direct path to water. old mine on CD Trail

Next Tuesday, the second day of the new year, will be another opportunity to explore the National Forest that is our back yard.

Ghosting after O’Keefe

Stormy Pedernal

We pulled into camp in Ghost Ranch, near Abiquiu, NM just ahead of the storm front.  While Nick headed in for the start of his 3 day retreat, I started my 3 days of exploring the famed landscape that dominated Georgia O’Keefe’s art for decades.  Or, I would have started exploring but for the thunderheads that moved in and kept me within running distance of our rv.

I am not conversant in O’Keefe.  She remains, for me, an iconic but abstract name in the world of 20th Century art, like Frida Kahlo, Dali or Pollock.  And yet, it’s impossible to live in this state and be unaware of her images of the high desert heartland and her impact on the psyche of New Mexico. So here I am, camera in hand — or rather, on-neck — ready to see for myself.

Clouds are a photographer’s best friend.  Over the next 48 hours, the formations and patterns were pure Southwest, giving me wonderful context for the landscape.  At the time, I didn’t realize that I was taking shots of O’Keefe’s guiding spirit mountain, Pedernal, when I watched and tried to capture the moving storms, clouds, fog and clearing sky.  Pedernal Clearing

The story told later was that O’Keefe had a dream that God told her he would give her the mountain if she painted it enough; she painted some version of this mesa almost 30 times.  I’m glad the mesa is still there for the rest of us to capture in our own forms of expression.

I did a few little studies in black and white, which seemed natural given the gray, rainy skies.

Typical tourist, I took an afternoon bus tour that left public-access behind for a drive through the red hills that O’Keefe hiked daily,  where she painted the same scenes at various times of day, and on one or two occasions, painted various times of day on the same canvas.  And like all the other tourists, I took pictures of the same formations, hills and canyons O’Keefe painted.  Then, in processing my images, I decided to have a little fun.  I found online a couple of her paintings that were highlighted by the tour guide, locations which I had also photographed.  And I tried, using my processing software, to come close to the effect that she created with oils, pastels and watercolors. Here’s O’Keefe’s original Cliff Chimney, followed by my approximation, followed by my more typical processing.

Because there are so many ways to explore and understand a landscape, I went from 4 wheels to 4 feet — that is, I followed the bus tour with a horseback tour of the same limited access ranch area.  Where the bus had to stay to the road, the horses were able to meander among the hills, drop down into the arroyos, circle the outcroppings at a much more deliberate pace.  This guide/wrangler didn’t hold photos of O’Keefe paintings for our appreciation and elucidation; she told us the local origin story of a monster snake coiled around a big mesa, which ate interlopers, about mad witches after which the ranch was originally named, about the cattle rustlers who made a living and a killing there, and the bad turn of a gambler’s card that cost him the deed to the ranch.

Fall-ing in Saddle Rock Canyon

Saddle Rock Canyon, September 2017

Autumn is unwrapping her colors in Saddle Rock Canyon. Willow and Walnut are beginning to glow, just a little bit.  Soon they will be in full golden glory.  Cottonwood hasn’t started her costume change yet, but when she does, her heart-shaped leaves will glitter in the breeze like gold coins. Poison Ivy somehow manages to change each of her three leaves a different shade such that her tangled vines hanging from rock cliff are a panoply of red and orange.  A brilliant red dress of a vine creeps up the granite face–she’s one of the first, along with Ivy, to go scarlet in September.  Jewels of tuna now adorn Prickly Pear, giving me dreams of jelly and syrup.

Saddle Rock is a riparian canyon, protected for restoration, on the edge of the Gila National Forest just outside Silver City.  It’s popular for hikers, birders, trackers, photographers and just plain-ol’ ooglers because it’s close, though it requires a steady driving hand and high clearance to get through the sandy track back into the canyon area.  It’s neighbors are Goat Canyon (tho I’ve never seen goat one in there, just cows), Tuff Canyon, called so by my hiking group because of the fascinating tuff formations, and a network of other intersecting canyons, arroyos and slots.

Saddle Rock and its neighbors are a few of the gems in the Gila.  Our 3-million-acre National Forest is not under the same threat of abuse as other National Monuments both in New Mexico and the rest of the country–land and sea.  Yet, hiking,  birding, tracking, photographing and just oogling our Forest gems reminds me how precious all our public lands are and how critical they are to the health and wealth of the larger environment, thus to our own benefit.  And it seems that millions of Americans agree with me; all except the US Secretary of the Interior.  Willow and Walnut, Cottonwood and Poison Ivy, and Prickly Pear can enchant us with their autumn displays; they depend upon us to speak up on their behalf.

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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