Fall comes to Railroad Canyon

My friend, Dog and I had a full day to devote to a hike, giving us the time we needed to head a little further afield.  When we have that luxury, one of the first and favorite places that pops to mind is Railroad Canyon up in the Black Range of the Gila National Forest. 

Another luxury is going to the same trails throughout the seasons to watch the changes in water, in plant life, in color and smell and sounds.  When we hiked Railroad Canyon last it was probably in late August, when water in Gallinas Creek still ran freely across the river rock and the wildflowers were still in their summer progression.  In August, the Ponderosa still smelled like vanilla when the sun warmed them.  Birds were still calling, showing us glimpses of Painted Restarts, Robins, a shy Hermit Thrush, a Red-tailed Hawk sailing on the air currents above us.

This fall day was clear and bright with a New Mexico blue sky.  We found, at the entrance to the trail, an artform that someone had created since the last time we were here.  This is not a trail cairn because none is needed here, but a balancing act of rock on rock.

We beat the sun into the canyon, feeling a chill for the first quarter mile until the uphill slant to the trail warmed us.  The first creek crossings were dry.  Gallinas Creek runs over and dips and slides under the creek bed so except in the very wettest spring, when snow melt has swelled the creek, many of the creek crossings are really rock crossings, showing only the evidence of dried algae to remind the passer-by that this ephemeral creek can run charged.

Although the sun had yet to light the canyon floor, it was filtering through the Ponderosa above us. 

The south-facing canyon sides were already ablaze with golden oak in brilliant display.  On the north-facing slope, seed-headed underbrush was still dully lit with the sun sitting just below the ridge. The fuzzy heads would soon be backlighted as soon as the sun edged over the hill. 

But tarry we didn’t and by the time we hiked back down-trail, the sun was high and the light was lost.

We walked to the point where the trail splits into Railroad and East Railroad Trail with directional signs pointing up to the Crest Trail on the ridges of the Black Range.  A good place to sit. A good place for Dog to go digging after whatever small dark creatures lived under the duff. And eventually we started back down-trail.

The sun had moved further overhead, as it is wont to do.  The canyon was now warmed, and the pine needles were fragrant. Friend and I kicked at dried oak leaves on the trail, as though we were still 10 years old. Birds were moving around – Juncos, Wrens; Jays were calling.  A few lingering, late-season wildflowers caught our attention: Purple Aster, Larkspur, white Yarrow, a couple of wild Geranium and one small offering of Cinquefoil.  North-facing hillsides of oak and seed-headed underbrush were now limned with gold light.

And pools of water, layered with fallen leaves, reflected color back to the morning light.

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.

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 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

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!

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)

 

View From Casita Colibrí

gringa musings from a rooftop terrace in Oaxaca

National Parks With T

A tour of Public Lands & National Parks in the USA

Colorado Chelsea

Hikes and Travels in Colorado and Beyond

Mark All My Words

Original Nature Photojournalism

Adventures Of A New Floridian

Join me on my adventures through life!

%d bloggers like this: