A Congress of Ravens

The first we knew of them, we heard the wind brush through wing feathers, a soft shushing over our heads.  Three ravens passed just above tree level. 

A little further down the trail, the calls of several ravens stopped us again. In a clearing between juniper and oak, we saw more ravens lifting from tree line. 

Why were these ravens gathering?  Normally, ravens travel in pairs or family groups.  That means 2 or 5 or 6 birds together. A pair of birds will soar and pirouette as dancers moving synchronously.  A family group will gather to chase off strange ravens, not members of their territory – and territory is claimed for years, not a season or two.

The wider our angle of view, the more ravens we saw, coming from the four directions. At first it was as a gathering of different clans, socially distancing: 10 there, 5 overhead, another 8 or so to the east, more arriving from the west.

We speculated, guessed and assumed reasons for so many ravens gathering. I’ve seen a ‘muster’ of crows grieving the death of a fellow.  Ravens have their own reasons to congress together. 

While we watched, the ravens kettled into a single large swirl. We watched them coalesce into a tighter and tighter circle and move upward. A rough count was 20 or more ravens. Looking above their kettle, we saw a large, single bird soaring, dipping, turning.  Sunlight flashed off its head and tail and my first thought was, “Red Tail,” but soon it became clear that the soaring bird was too large and too high for a hawk.

“Oh,” I said to myself, “I have my binoculars here!” So taken with the drama going on above me, I totally forgot I had means to observe.  Friend had become mesmerized and needed reminding that she, too, had her binocs hanging from on a halter around her neck.  We put glasses on that single bird and noted a light head, white tail and white patches underwing.  A juvenile baldie!  Or was it?  We watched the bird maneuver as the congress of ravens came close enough to harass.  But what is a baldie doing down here?  They are typically up near Lake Roberts.  Or at least Bill Evans.  Not down this far south over the high desert.  I remembered that juvenile Bald Eagles have varied markings and this bird seemed to evidence that. But enough doubt lingered.  What else could it be? 

I pulled out my phone and logged into iBird.  First opened the page for Bald Eagles to look at various juvenile years.  Not quite.  No large white patches underwing, only random white feathers.  Took a look at Golden Eagle.  This is the right territory, right habitat.  And there was the image on the screen that duplicated what we were seeing live, high above the desert and above a mob of ravens. We looked back up—and they were gone.  Every raven.  The eagle. Gone. The sky was empty.  While we were busy studying pixels, the real creatures flew their own sky-paths, taking them over a ridge and away.

In the days since, I find myself remembering a chapter from Craig Childs’ book, Animal Dialogues, about coming across a congress of ravens in a canyon in Utah.  Here is a relevant paragraph that reflects what we witnessed there on the CDTrail, but ours was a less lethal outcome.  The link (over Ravens are mobbers) will follow to the full reprinted story in Sun Magazine. 

Ravens are mobbers; that much I knew. They frequently gang up on invaders, generally the likes of hawks, eagles, or owls, pecking the backs of their heads, getting in their faces and screaming. They have a sense of appropriateness, attacking something that is out of place when the time is right…

If a tree falls in the forest…

Splintered Oak Branches across McMillan Trail

Who notices?

I try to get out twice a week to hike, sometimes thrice!  Dog, Friend and I go back and back again to our favorite trails in the Gila National Forest: McMillan, Little Cherry Creek, Deadman’s Canyon, Signal Peak or to trailheads on the Continental Divide Trail that go through the Forest.  When you hike the same trails throughout the years and seasons, you get to know individual trees, individual meadows that bloom with specific wildflowers at specific times in season, individual boulders and hoodoos.  I have a favorite Grandmother Cottonwood on Little Cherry Creek trail that I stop and hug every time I pass.  There are favorite hoodoos that I stop to admire each time I am on Cherry Creek Ranch Rd. On McMillan trail there’s a boulder-created shelter with a smoke-blackened “roof” about which I comment that it would provide a comfortable dry shelter in a sudden storm – every time I hike by it.  A couple of old skeleton junipers along Deadman’s Canyon. A particular view of Cooke’s Peak and the Floridas from a section of the CDT.

Uprooted young pine on McMillan Trail
Uprooted young pine on McMillan Trail

Uprooted Ponderosa pine on Signal Peak

That may explain why I’ve been noticing all these downed trees.  Some are laying roots-up.  Some tops of trees are broken clean off trunks.  Shattered limbs and branches litter the ground around trees bearing fresh wounds.  If I wasn’t a regular visitor observing the environment around me, I probably would answer the question “Who notices?” with “Who, me?”

Snapped at the base — Ponderosa pine on McMillan Trail
Snapped Ponderosa pine on Signal Peak – one of many down

But I am noticing. There’s no dominant species among the victims.  Well, maybe there’s a few more Ponderosa pines up in the higher elevations.  Among the articles I’ve been reading, some research suggests that taller trees are more susceptible.  Oh, but I’m getting ahead of myself on this rabbit trail of tree loss – the main and underlying cause of all this is drought.  According to NOAA’s Drought.gov we here in southwest NM are in exceptional drought. That’s the most severe category. And it’s not short-term.

Drought may be an underlaying weakening, but there is the complicating impact of windstorms causing breakage.  Our forest can be hit by strong down-drafts which are a sucker punch to already weakened tree structures. And then there’s the trifecta of long-term drought with incidental drenching with wind events.  What can resist?

But back on the main trail.  It’s disconcerting to walk a favorite trail and stop to exclaim to Friend or Dog or just to the Forest, “When did that oak fall?”  or “Look at that uprooted youngster.” or “That pine snapped off halfway up the trunk!” And to know that I’m only seeing the edges of tree death.  Match-sticks-pick-up-sticks throughout the Forest.  If a tree falls in the forest, someone needs to be there to notice. 

A grand old Arizona Sycamore on the Gila river suffered a broken trunk

Dogs With Wires

Rock and water, Deadman’s Canyon

Dog, Friend and I headed for Deadman’s Canyon one day last week.  We chose that particular canyon because it runs north/south and the wind, predicted to gust up to 30mph, was coming out of the west; we would be protected down in the canyon yet treated to the sound of the wind through the tops of the Ponderosas over our heads.

There was more snow and ice than we had anticipated, the days over the last week having reached 60°.  The warm temps and brilliant sun had left only a few residual patches of white around home or in town.  But snowy the trail was in long stretches, iced in the footsteps of humans and dogs passing through.  There were recent horse tracks, causing me to wonder how the horse got up the little rock fall that we scrambled over going in and out of the canyon. 

We were enjoying our hike, Dog racing here and there, pausing to stick her nose in the snow after some elusive evidence.

Light Patterns on Snow

Until, that is, two dogs bounded down the trail from up ahead, skidded to a stop a few feet away from Dog, lifted their noses to her scent then turned and dashed back up the trail.  But not before I noticed the heavy collars, small boxes attached under the chin and a foot of stiff wire sticking up in the air.

We hiked on, more observant of what might be ahead. In another quarter mile, I spied a horse tied to a tree a couple of hundred yards uptrail and a milling of dogs around the horse.  They dashed up the hill, down into the streambed, around the horse, too many dogs to count.  Then the dogs spied us.

By now, I had pulled my little canister of dog-strength mace (less toxic that human mace or bear spray) from my pack and had it ready in my hand.  Dog is always on leash; one dog leashed and others not leashed can be a dangerous mix, particularly for the tethered one.  The pack of dogs – eight in all – were down the trail and surrounding us.  While they were not acting aggressively, they were definitely making Dog uncomfortable by sheer numbers but I had no intention of pressing the button on the canister unless a confrontation developed.  Every one of those dogs was wired.  Every one, a hunting breed.

Finally, the hunters appeared uptrail where their horses were tied.  We hailed them and asked them to call off their dogs, which they did.  Fortunately, six of eight immediately obeyed; two continued to sniff around Dog and me.  Dog sat down to protect her tail, the object of all that attention. I stomped and commanded those last two to go away.

Many families in this part of the country hunt for subsistence.  Many others hunt for food because they enjoy a good elk steak. Hunters are sometimes employed in the Gila to reduce the plague of feral cattle. And I admire the effort a hunter on foot in the wildlands expends to get out and track or wait for that deer, elk, bear.

Wired dogs are used to run down prey until they are exhausted and cannot run further or defend themselves.  Or the dogs tree the cougar or bear and hold them up there until the hunter catches up.  The wires allow the dogs to range far beyond the actual control of the hunter, who tracks their location by radio transmission.  My values are that that is not a fair hunt, and typically, the hunter is not hunting to eat in any event. 

At home, I searched to find out what critters a wired pack of dogs might be employed to hunt, and the list included feral hogs, javalina (collard peccary), cougar or bear.  All but feral hogs are protected and require tags and permits during hunting season.  We don’t have feral hogs in the Gila. And we aren’t in hunting season for any of those species right now.  

Reporting these hunters in a non-hunting season would be an exercise in frustration.  After all, I took no pictures, and what would I shoot anyway – a bunch of brownandwhite dogs with wires standing behind an ear and two camo men and one visible horse some distance away.  Nothing else to tie to them after the fact, such as a vehicle parked at the trailhead.  Just left me feeling sad for whatever target they had in mind up a beautiful canyon on a mild winter day.

UPDATE: A friend who read this blog story has corrected me that javelina are in season for hunting this month. Wasn’t clear on the NM Game and Fish website.

Big Rock Candy Mountain

“I’m headed for a land that’s far away

Besides the crystal fountains

So come with me, we’ll go and see

The Big Rock Candy Mountains”

Quartzite Outcrop – southwest Grant County NM

If I were writing this song today, I have found the perfect inspiration.  There are one or two singular outcroppings of quartzite rock just off the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) — big ol’ white knobs of rock standing each one alone above the ridge just south of the Burro Mountains.  Those knobs remind me of a mountain of rock candy, shattered and spilling bite-sized bits down the sides of the ridge in river-flows.

A River of quartzite

There are old tracks that go up to the outcroppings if I wanted to venture up for a closer look. And actually, I have – had a closer look, that is.

Couple of years ago, when I was hiking pre-Covid days with the Tuesday Group, we ventured off the CDT up the old track to one of those quartzite outcrops.  The ground was scattered with chunks of quartzite, some of which were very pretty – some solidly snow white, some bits darkly-veined.  Taking our mid-hike snack break, we sat on the larger blocks of rock while some in the group rock-hounded, filling their pockets or packs with manageable chunks. I refrained from collecting only because of the added weight that I didn’t want to carry 2+ miles back to the trailhead.

Chunks of rock-candy quartzite

It wasn’t until we were packed and ready to start back to the CDT and our vehicles, that our resident historian-slash-geologist told us a bit more about this formation, its history and its mineral makeup.  “Did you know that this area was mined for uranium?” he asked us.  Umm…uranium?  Isn’t uranium radioactive? And we have pocketfulls of the stuff?? “Well,” he reassured us, “not very high level.”  I noticed a few of the group covertly emptied their pockets of the now-suspect rock, diligently brushed off their fannies where they had been sitting, and headed back down the track, quick-stepping to abandon the area.

This region is known for copper mining, along with silver and gold.  All the way back to the Apaches who ranged this area, copper was extracted.  But the fact of uranium is not as well know, probably because the metal was not found in enough quantities to warrant major investment.  Still, there were, and possibly still are, a number of mining claims in the area that proved out for limited uranium deposits.  I was curious and Google came through with a 1952 report by US Geological Survey on the geology, the formations, and the mine claims that is an interesting bit of history to read. And looking closely at my cell-phone picture, mining piles show evidence of abandoned hopes.

Enlarged to show mining piles bottom left of image

Now, I just admire the Big Rock Candy Mountains as I hike the CDT just below them.  I step past the flow of candy quartz and hum the tune remembered.

“I’ll see you all this coming fall

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains”

A wealth of quartzite — a hint of uranium

A Hike Interrupted — aka We Were Buzzed

Continental Divide Trail – Grant County NM

Dog, Friend and I, and one additional friend headed out this week to a section of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) that we haven’t hiked before.  It’s a roughly 3-mile segment between C-Bar Rd and Knights Canyon Rd.  We struck off up a track pocked with wide-mouth tire treads and eroded from too-frequent atv-ing; the CDT often shares with such as this.  Wasn’t long, though, before we came to two huge cairns, one on the right side of the track and one off to the left appearing to direct us up a gully.  Fortunately, 20 feet or so up the gully, we spotted the CDT/Forest Service trail marker heading off to the right.  

Cairns are often an ecological problem,
but make a great Facebook post

A rabbit trail:  Friend and I have a now-ongoing joke about cairns.  Are they: navigational tools? spiritual exercise? or a Facebook post, as in “lookie, I was here!”  Well, yes to all but in context. They can do ecological damage; they can keep hikers on the right path; their construction goes against “Leave No Trace”; they are ego statements for a picture and a post. It’s all context.  I don’t pass one by without notice. Some I appreciate.  Some I kick down.  And I have repaired one or two.  In this case, the cairns were directional to keep us from plodding down this unlovely track that paralleled the highway 100 feet away.

Ridgeline — CDT

We hiked through three habitats: juniper/pinion/mahogany groves in the dry creek beds; trail that hugged the side of the ridge, offering long views; and rock outcrop.  The trail was expressed in two directions: steeply up and just as steeply down, with some modest sections modestly level.  There were two rocky crevices to descend into and to climb out.  One of them made me think of the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania. The trail through this area was accommodating with switchbacks to make breathing in transit a little easier.

Small Rift Valley on the CDT

While we were in the shelter of the groves, we commented that it felt like a rock garden planted by a large hand. We frequently stopped to bird-spot.  Up on the ridge-hugging trail, we took advantage of our 360° views of Mexico borderlands, the Floridas, Cookes Peak, Jacks Peak, and the rocky ridges above us. 

Florida Mountains in the Distance

On crossing the rock outcropping, I thought of a trail called Billy Goat at Great Falls, MD. While walking, I didn’t register beyond my feet, which demanded all my attention.  Stopping, I looked around at raw stone painted with several shades of lichens; the trail was etched across the face of the outcrop.  Each territory had its unique beauty. 

Dog perched on the rocky trail

Our turning-around point was just shy of 2 miles and was marked by Dog alerting on several cows with calves.  Dog sometimes forgets that she’s on a leash; she throws herself to the end of the line in wished-for pursuit.  Throws my shoulder out, too, if I’m not expecting it.

Coming back, we crossed the rock, hiked up then down the switchback through the small Rift, and started on the ridge-side trail. 

A roar became louder until it crashed over our heads, followed by a fighter jet cresting a few hundred feet over the ridge and starting to drop toward us.  Pilot may have seen 3 humans on the trail and pulled up slightly.  As the jet screamed overhead, banking slightly south, its buddy-jet howled just over the next ridge down and the pair headed east, low and fast.  Too fast for us to get out phone cameras.  Too fast to mentally record aircraft profile.  Too fast to see my middle finger waving.  Not 15 minutes later, jet-noise drew my eyes southward a few miles to two more jets pulsing across the landscape, safely higher in altitude, hot-dogging it across the Forest and private lands. Three friends standing stunned, one dog sitting low.  We marked our location on gps with the intention of reporting the overflights.  We believe that this is not a legal training MOA for any of the military bases in the region. 

Before we could move on too far, that roar came again.  Fumbled for my camera, thinking that the jet would appear in front of us where the last low-flyer did.  Suddenly, I realized that the roar was leading the aircraft from behind us; I turned quickly to see this jet coming at us, following us on the trail, so low my natural instinct was to duck.  I tried to get my phone up and aimed as the jet passed overhead. I may have hit the shutter button, I may not have.  I didn’t record anything with a jet in it, though.  We singed the leaves on the trees with our blue language for the next mile or so down the trail.  I was particularly incensed, having been similarly and dangerously buzzed by two fighter jets in the Gila Wilderness on a steep canyon rim trail on horseback. 

Top Gun may be the most viewed movie for wanna-be fliers, and Top Gun Maverick may break viewing records.  But hot-shot Top Guns are not welcome at minimum altitude and maximum speed over a wilderness area.

Here before me

There is much in my natal state of Maryland that is not archaeologically permanent.  I imagine it’s in part because of the weather which decomposes materials in short order, in terms of generations and eras.  Surely, though, the tramp of human history obliterates most of that which came before in the course of plowing, logging, scraping, building, paving and all the development inflicted on the land. During my growing-up years, I never heard of, let alone saw, stuff like arrowheads and pottery bits just lying around on the ground.  Read about it, sure, but never heard-tell that it was a common phenomenon.

Rusted metal sleeve
Metal sheet

It’s a different story here in the southwest, where the weather plus the expansive and uncluttered landscape contribute to preserving history by way of what is left on the ground.

When I hike in the forest, I find myself poking under trees, around boulders and on flat spots that have good views to see what has been left behind by those who were here before me. Even better when I’m with friends for whom this is natal country and whose eyes are accustomed to picking out the smallest fragments of people long past.

Tin can with lid

There is both a timelessness and a time-bound nature to the left-behind.  Rarely, though, is there an explanation for the leaving. I often find myself standing, pondering, wondering who left this and why, and when?  Miners explored this area, looking for gold, silver, copper, turquoise.  They left mining claim markers and tin cans stripped of labels. It not uncommon to find metal sheets, purpose unknown but shot full of holes by bullets and rust.  But then again, these artifacts could have been left by hunters in past years.

Grinding stone

Older still, evidence of the first people to live in these mountains.  The Apache were here and long before them, the Mogollon people and their ancestors, the Archaic.  All left their legacies.  If you know where to look, and how, you find pottery sherds,  arrow heads and spear tips and sometimes the chipping and scraping stones that made them. Grinding holes in granite boulders and slabs, where grain for eating was prepared.

Bowl or pot lip
Bowl or pot lip

I pick up a sherd or stone and feel the energy of the user of these bits.  I admire the artistry and skill of the maker, the painted sherds with black and white or red on white lines and geometrics; the pottery pieces that still show the coils that created them; the lips and holes that were integral to the function of the pots and bowls. But don’t take them.  Ethics require that those ancient relics be left as they were.  Pick them up, admire them, and then put them right back on the ground. This is where they belong. Not my pocket, not my shelf.  Here, where they were before me.

Pottery sherds — Mogollon People

Beyond the Gate

I have my favorite hikes, each starting at a trailhead in the Gila National Forest. I mark multiple turn-around points on each trail, depending on my energy level and the anger of arthritis in my hips. A modest turn-around might be shy of one and half miles; on more energetic days, I might turn around at two-plus miles. Most of these trails are so familiar that I often don’t set my meter because I know just where I’ll turn back based on how far I want to hike.

The furthest endpoint of three of my favorite hikes is at a gate.  I guess I never thought about going through those gates to see what lay beyond.  Not that I’m not curious.  But I remember the advice of a long-ago friend: “Hike until you’re half-tired.”

The first gate breeched was on the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) near my home.  This is a section of the CDT I prefer when I’m hiking alone and want to just do a quick in-and-out. Dog needs her exercise and Sunday mornings are good opportunities to get her on this trail just long enough to work her nose, to wear off a little of that energy. Not long ago, my friend and I decided to hike this trail to the gate, just two miles from the trailhead.  Good weather and good conversation, plus a good pace, and we got to the gate before my hips had a chance to complain.  We decided to see what was on the other side. The CDT continued, of course; the gate simply marked the boundary of the rancher’s grazing lease.  On we walked for another, oh, maybe half a mile and then the trail began a switch-back down into a deep arroyo. We turned back, but not before I took a picture of the view.  This was one of those times when I kept thinking: just a little farther – just around that big juniper – just a little up that hill – and we’d get a great view of Bear Creek Canyon.  That hike, having gone beyond the gate, added up to just about five miles.

From the CDT, looking toward Bear Creek Canyon and Tadpole Ridge

The next gate was at the end of the trail in Pancho Canyon, on the Gila River. Another favorite hike, Dog, Friend and I retreat to this trail in the heat of summer, always ending up with our feet in the river watching the idling birds. This section of trail is not much more than a mile one-way but it’s shady, rife with Common Black Hawks and warblers and perfect on an early morning before the temps hit the 90s. A couple of weeks ago, we headed out there in cooler weather to leaf-peep at the golden Cottonwoods and white-barked Arizona Sycamores. 

Cottonwood – Pancho Canyon on the Gila River

Lower temps are conducive to longer walks so when we reached the gate at the far end of this stretch of river, we decided to keep going.  I knew what was on the other side; I have driven up and over the ridge and down to the river, ending at Ira Canyon at the far end.  I have never hiked from one end to the other.  This seemed like the day to try.  Once through the gate, we dropped down to the river on the only obvious trail – and came to a dead end.  Retracing our steps, we found another spur through the weeds.  That spur wandered through a small copse of Sycamore, Cottonwood and coyote willow, only to end at another point on the river.  We stood listening to the water moving over the rocks in riffles while Dog hopped around chest-deep in the river.  Filled with river-music, we turned back for that gate and Poncho Canyon.

A final gate marks the two-mile point on the CDT heading south from Gold Gulch Rd. This section of the CDT is not one for summer.  The trail is exposed to both sun and breeze, traversing the sides of a ridge, dropping into two meadows and climbing out before finally relaxing through a forest of waist-high bear grass. On this clear cool morning, Dog, Friend and I decided that a sunny trail was just the thing. We hiked until we reached the gate and contemplated returning to the road where we were parked.  But neither of us had been beyond this point and, having plenty of time and the best weather for hiking, we slipped the chain on the gate and went through, securing the gate behind us.  We had rather anticipated we might connect with Rt 90 and the cross-over to C-Bar and the CDT on the east side of 90. Or at least see 90 in the near distance.  Once up on a little hillock, we could see that Rt 90 was still a long distance to the southeast.  After hiking about three-quarter mile through an unchanging landscape, we decided to head back.  Back at Gold Gulch and the truck, we recorded almost five miles and one tuckered Dog.

Not all gates are made of metal. Not all gates demark grazing leases. Some are just there to mark the way and to bring a smile to the next to pass by.

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.

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

Exploring Nature + Health

Adventures Of A New Floridian

Join me on my adventures through life!

Sacred Soul Mysteries

🐛 For Caterpillars Seeking The Butterfly Within 🦋

%d bloggers like this: