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.

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

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!

A Muddy Butt and A Diamondback

The Gila River-2

Gila River through the Bird Area (2016)

The recent rains made for expectations of good tracks on the river’s edges.  We headed for the Gila River’s Bird Area, books and rulers tucked into backpacks.  Along with us came the dog.  I wasn’t certain whether one energetic dog would have the patience for three humans standing around staring at the ground for minutes at a time, but she did need the exercise.

The river was running really high and some of the edges were under water.  There was one wash and several spits that were above the water line; they had been flushed by run-off and were rain-slick with mud.  Since the light rain the previous evening, critters large and small had been dashing and dancing around, leaving a plethora of foot prints behind.  The dog added tracks of her own, fortunately not overwriting the tracks we were most interested in deciphering.

As a highlight, we found absolute evidence of the resurgence of beaver on this stretch of the Gila River.  We’ve seen the beavers’ signature tree stumps, chewed to points.  And there’s a beaver dam under construction just a mile or so downriver from where we were exploring. But here, we found tracks – impressed in the mud just since last night.  Our “take” for the morning: beaver; two different skunk species—hog-nosed and striped; raccoon; great blue heron; spotted sandpiper; and squirrel. We might have found more, but for time and a dog’s tolerance.  We documented and submitted all but the sandpiper and squirrel to iNaturalist to become part of the scientific database.

The only downside  was when my backside went down into the mud.muddy butt Gila River bird area 10-26-18.ed

The next day took me in the opposite direction, down into the Chihuahuan Desert and in the shadow of Cookes Peak. We went to explore the remains of Ft Cummings, one of a string of forts originally built through the southwest along the Butterfield Stage line and set at critical water sources.  These same forts were later instrumental in, first causing and as a result, defending against the Apaches in the 11-year Apache wars.

There’s not much left of Ft Cummings: a few bits of adobe wall; a cemetery hill whose occupants have since been moved; parts of the stone structure that was the stagecoach stop; and a springhouse that is not only still in use but has been brought into the 21st century by the addition of solar panels to pump out water for the cattle that are grazed on this piece of desert.

Stopped in the old corral area, where we thought to sit on the walls, water ourselves and have a bite of lunch.  I wandered to the end of one wall to look for a seat in the shade under the only tree tall enough to cast any.  There was already somebody stretched out.  With due respect, I allowed as how he (or she) had first rights to the spot.  Nonetheless, he (or she) decided to remove him (or her)self into hiding until we interlopers stopped staring, left the corral and a snake’s peace was restored.

rattlesnake - Ft Cummings

Tell me what! Tell me who! and tell me how!

Here’s where the big cat sat for a few minutes watching; how small a sign for so large an animal.  See these digs on the edge of the road? This is where that cat bounded down, rear feet sliding down the mounded dirt, digging divots in the soft substrate, front feet barely landing before the cat was across the road.  Look around. There are cat tracks in the duff between the “sit” and the bound.  There are other cats’ tracks on the other side of the road and trailing into the bush.  Make up our own stories about what these animals were doing together: play? Mating dances?

javalina hair - hunter-killed

Javalina hair

Who’s hair is this, left in piles along the edge of another little road?  And what to make of that black, odd-shaped pile of something?  A javalina met its end here and was gutted out.  The questions are: how and by what?  and where is the rest of the critter? Follow the disturbed leaves and soil up and across the road, under the bush, across the stream bed and over under that oak.  Not hard to see – if you know what to look for. And the question remains: what killed this animal?  If a mt lion had made this kill, it would have look like this: [scatter/scrabble/draganddisappear].  If coyotes had killed the javalina, this is how things would look: [dragdrag/gnaw/scatter].  That’s not what happened here.  This javalina was killed by a hunter over there, gutted, skinned and probably stripped of best parts of meat. Here are the tell-tale signs: knife marks.  Coyotes probably dragged what was left here and chewed on the rib ends.

deer lay

White Tail Deer lay

There were many more opportunities during the weekend to sus out tracks, to tangle with strides and pace, to dance left or right foot and front or back, to read that the rabbit leaped away or where the deer rested in the sand. Gopher mounds versus javalina rootings. A branch chewed off by small teeth and scrapes on branches by young antlers.

 

Stories upon stories told by tracks and scats and sign.  Learn to read the sign to read the stories.  Look around.  Expand my view.  Go from ground level, nose a few inches above the soil, to circling the sign, to searching the surrounding landscape to get the bigger picture.

This is what I learned in an advanced tracking workshop.  I thought I knew a little bit about tracking – emphasis on “a little bit.”  I spent a weekend getting tested and evaluated.  Whether I passed or not wasn’t my concern (I did), and how I would manage without my tracking book (that was the hardest constraint to master).   What I learned was, first: what I don’t know.  Then to listen, watch, absorb, sort and remember.

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