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)

 

Continental Divide Trail in Two Acts

From the CDT.3-25-19.edAct 1

One of my favorite stretches of the CDT near home is a forested section of the trail, cutting just under a ridgeline at about 6400 feet elevation.  It’s my go-to place when the temperature encourages hiking in the shade.   The trail dips and rises – on the dips, it passes through pinion and juniper and crosses erosion streamlets, and on the rises, Ponderosa pines dominate.  A gentle place, a refuge from the busier sections on nearby Gomez Peak and 80 Mountain.  The dog and I walk a couple of miles each way at a leashed-dog pace.

Last week, I looked for Spring.  Little signs.  Tiny blooms and grass.  Signs were there, but not in abundance; not yet.  There was plenty to entertain a dog’s nose. And grab her ears’ attention, for that matter. Nothing that I ever saw, but she knew “they” were out there.

I noticed a White-breasted Nuthatch, an “ass-up” bird as my Ornithology Prof called it.  The Nuthatch was shopping up a pine tree trunk, gleaning among the crevices in the Ponderosa bark.  My eye followed the bird, past the bird, up the trunk and higher into the early Spring blue sky, where a Red-tailed Hawk was also shopping for dinner, soaring in circles, eyes down.  The dog was sniffing a chipmunk hole so I had a moment to watch the sun firing the red tail as the hawk moved between me and the light.

The clouds on this day were herringbone and cross-hatch.  They moved and morphed into jelly fish and mares’ tails.  A full sky and a good camera would have made this photographer happy.  As it was, it was lovely to check out the clouds at each break in the overstory.

I had plenty of incentive to look up and around.  Normally I would be watching the ground, noticing the tracks left by neighbors who passed recently: mule deer, fox, dog, bicycle, horse, once a mountain lion.  But now, the trail is crossed, edged, saddled with the destructive tracks of cattle.  This section has been pristine till now.  This is Forest Service land, and cattle leasing competes with recreational uses.  Now, there is a leaseholder who has moved cattle into this section.  Seeing the impact of those animals’ passing, even understanding the mission of multiple use, makes me sad and discouraged.  It’s hard to be poetic about cow tracks.

Act 2

Later in the week, and on a cooler, windy day, dog, husband and I went south to another section of CDT, off the appropriately named Gold Gulch Rd.  This is another favorite section, mostly thanks to the incredible views from the open trail at an elevation over 6300 feet.

Husband hikes at a different pace and with a different attention than me.  He’s not leashed to dog who waits for no human – except when smells dictate pauses.  He fell further behind than usual, so after waiting for a few minutes for his hat to top the rise, dog and I went back down the trail.  He was alternately bending over scratching in the dust of the trail, and standing up staring at his hand.  Caught up, he held out a bit of gold.  Not enough to start a gold rush, but enough to give us a little rush of discovery. Would have been nice if it were big enough to pay the mortgage.

The land is covered by mostly bear grass, scrub and pinion/juniper, it’s more exposed, and Spring is making more of an appearance.  locoweed.CDTrail and GoldGulch.3-28-19One of the many forms of locoweed is in bloom and tiny yellow sprigs are popping.  This is not an area where we get the glorious wildflowers that are stunning hikers across the Southwest, but at 25 miles from home, I’ll take what is offered.

The dog’s nose perked and dragged us both off trail about 50 feet.  I caught her just before she buried her teeth into the scavenged remains of a javalina, officially known as a collard peccary.  No bear here, no wolves, possibly a mountain lion kill shared afterward by coyotes.  More likely a hunter took this animal, stripped it of meat and dignity, and left its bones, hide and head to the sun and wind.  I know hardcore trackers might bag the head with incisors intact, take it home and clean it, saving the skull.  I was satisfied with a few pictures and an observation documented on iNaturalist.Javalina.1 on CDTrail and GoldGulch.3-28-19

Here, we are within 50 miles of the southernmost end of the CDT.  From the rises, we stare at Big Hatchet Mountain, the mountains of the borderlands, the Floridas.  To the east, the blue haze of the Organ Mountains;  Cookes Peak stands alone; to the west, glimpses of the Peloncillos. Years ago on a little mountain in my home state, I saw a family with a young son come up the trail to the edge of the rock and look over the farmland 900 feet or so below.  He turned in excitement to cry, “Hey mom hey dad.  We’re bigger than the world.”  Exactly the way I feel up here!

 

The earth is flat — until it’s not!

We cross a saddle in a ridge from the trailhead and pass into the Gila Wilderness. Lying before us is almost three miles of flat mesa.  Walking across that wide meadow of grasses and wildflowers, we follow a narrow trail, pitted by mule and horse feet, rocky and muddy thanks to impact of monsoonal drenching.  The views are expansive from the slight rises, and intimate in the dips. I can tell we are approaching the edge of nothing when I start seeing, instead of the trunks of Ponderosa, the crowns.  Through the crowns, a blue haze of air. The trail tends away obliquely, making me wonder how far this mesa goes and when it will drop away from under my feet.

Old Truck on Aeroplane MesaWilderness isn’t empty, not of people and not of things.  To the right of the trail, silhouetted against the sky is a relic: a 40’s era truck driven out to the edge of the world and abandoned, fodder for curious hikers’ wonder and speculation.

Then we are there, where the flat becomes vertical. Approximately 1500 feet of rocky switchback trail lies between mesa and river bottom.  Meadow and Gila River.2.edThere’s an overlook where we see our destination, a river-side meadow specked with the white kitchen tent secluded under a clutch of pines. The scary aspect of the view is that we have to get down there. As we pick our way among the trail rubble, we hear the mules coming with our weight of tents and bags.  The outfitter calls down to us, “Move to the downhill side.  Mules spook if a critter is above them.  Is that you behind a bush? Move out where the mules can see you.”  I step down and out of the way, and watch the outfit step on by us, more surefooted than I am, for sure.  Then, we work our way on down to level ground, off the sun-exposed cliff-side and into the shade.

Our first night around the campfire and under the Milky Way.  There’s a flicker on the far horizon that isn’t city-generated.  By mid-night, planets, stars and campfire are overwhelmed by a strong storm cell that parks overhead for the next several hours.  Lightning flashes my tent-sides bright, and thunder rolls overhead and on down the valley.  The storm is centered right overhead and the ground vibrates under my sleeping mats.  What’s to do except lie awake and in awe.  Saturday morning, we stand under the kitchen tent, sharing storm stories, drinking cup after cup of coffee and looking anxiously for spots of clearing overhead.  Suddenly, Lightning-struck tree.1

WHAMBOOM — a lightning strike about a football-field distance away.  We all duck and, on straightening, see the smoke and steam rising from a single pine tree on the edge of the woods at the far side of the meadow.  It still stands, but has been split in two and its roots boiled up out of the ground around it.  Splinters scatter on the newly-bared earth.  I’m not sure any of us have ever been that close a witness to the power of lightning’s electric impact.  Over the course of the morning, we go in ones and twos over to look at the result: at the split tree, the splinters, the upheaved earth and the scorched ground scar.

It’s late summer and in the meadow, along the river edges and under the pines, the earth explodes in bloom.  We count perhaps two dozen species of wildflowers, all native because how else would they be, out here in the wild.  Purple, orange, blue and more blue, seemingly a dozen shades of yellow, we wade hip-deep in color.

A diversion is suggested: a hike up river a mile or so to see a beaver dam.  Beaver are coming back on the Gila; they are cutting trees, dragging them distances and lacing them across the river to catch up and slow down the flow.  We find the dam stretching across most of the river’s width.  A cheerful rush of water through the branches, a pond held up behind and extended wetlands.  While we stand on the edge, a ripple surfaces and crosses the pond.

The day comes to leave the magic meadow retreat.  Roll the sleeping bag and mats, drop and pack a dew-wet tent, sort my day-pack to its lightest possible weight and sip a last cup of camp coffee.  Slowlyslowly climb up the cliff from river to mesa; take a last look over the edge at the kitchen tent, to be broken down by the outfitter the next day; face forward the long trail across flat earth and over the ridge to the trailhead.Down from the Saddle

There are additional images on my flickr page, linked below.

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!

Soul Mysteries

is the journey of souls

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