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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The half-moon set sometime early in the night. The temperature dropped and my head got a little cold. Solved that by pulling my fleece vest from my “pillow” stack of clothes and wrapping it around my head. Peeking through the armhole of the vest, I gazed up at the star-struck night sky. Saddle pads do not a soft mattress make. Hips sore from being launched onto and sliding off a saddle do not an easy rest make. But the stars made up for a lot. I must have fallen asleep because suddenly, it was dawn.
The fire was crackling as Corbin moved around in front of the flames, throwing firewood on. Horses were released from their overnight ties and hobbled, turned out to graze on the sparse grasses. I got dressed in the confines of my sleeping bag, pulled on socks and shoes and rolled up the bedding. Stumbled over to the fire to find my cup left on a rock and made a cup of instant coffee. No creamer but mocha/chocolate powder made a sweet substitute. Rocks were fireside patio chairs, topped with saddle blankets for cushions. Breakfast was foiled and laying on the coals to heat. Red chile beef tamales, bread and fresh fruit.
We didn’t hurry breakfast, taking time for coffee and a bit of conversation even though we had about 10 miles over 5 or so hours of riding. What’s the trail and schedule for today. What is our destination. Where will we find water for the horses and for ourselves. And for me, what terror awaits.
I went to find Smoke, who was hobbled and befuddled. I tried to lead her back; she stumbled and mumbled. Once I took the hobbles off, she was happier and came along peaceably. We curried, saddled and packed. The packhorse, Kissee, was loaded and strapped. Breakfast fire was extinguished. We were up and off.
We had several miles of quiet, peaceful Ponderosa pine forest to travel along the Prior Creek drainage. Prior Creek was full and running, and the horses slurped water up through their “straws.” Upstream a little further, we dismounted, let the horses graze and filled our own water bottles at the spring source. Joe and Corbin trusted the spring water and only filtered it through their kerchiefs into their bottles. The three of us took advantage of Carol’s filtration system to remove all doubt, filled 3 water bottles each for a total of about 6 liters. This water had to last us until tomorrow.
I rode second in our line, behind Corbin in the lead. Behind me, I could hear Carol, Allyson and Joe in conversation, though I could not hear enough to follow. A word or phrase but not a thread. I let that go and just rode, staying present and holding in memory my surroundings, my experience of Wilderness, and my body’s movement in concert with my horse. Looking at the Ponderosa forest, seeing an owl take silent wing from a low-hanging branch. Knowing in the moment that this would be one of the highlights of this trip.
We cut across from Prior Creek trail to Lilley Park trail, somewhat reversing direction and headed for our lunch stop.
Hells Hole. There is only one way to get from the plateau to the river and that is down. Hells Hole is the point Joe chose to make that descent. It is called Hells Hole because when you are on the edge of it, you can’t see the bottom. One and one-quarter mile down the side of the gorge. A narrow trail switchbacking along a sheer face and definitely no gentle fall-away. And me with my fear of heights and edges. Compound that by being several feet off the ground on a horse and not in control of my own fear – um, feet.
Of course I knew it was coming. Joe told us the route well in advance and I had the topo map. He had ridden the route a couple of weeks before to check the trail conditions and water sources and confirmed that even he was a bit nervous going down; he assured me I could walk if I needed to. From our lunch stop to the edge of the abyss, I repeated my mantra: “Trust your horse. I can do this. Trust your horse. I can do this.” I got as far as the first switchback, looked down into an eternity of empty space and called out, “Joe, I can’t do this.” We stopped the horses, he got me down off Smoke, neither of us went over the side in the process. For the next 1/2 mile or so, I walked at a horse’s pace behind Joe, the pack horse and Smoke, followed by Allyson, Carol and Corbin on their horses. Joe walked too, to slow the pace enough for me to keep up. I could hear the breath of Allyson’s Young Gun at my back and her frequently calling “Ho” to slow him down. Finally, I could see trees and a slight leveling of the trail. Joe stopped the horses, came and boosted me up on Smoke and I felt, whew, we’re almost there. No. We rode the trail for a few hundred yards around several more switchbacks and then out onto open edges again. Back off my horse, back on my own two feet, down another 1/2 mile at horses’ pace. Until finally, the river was in sight – and a most wonderful sight it was. I got back on Smoke, to let her do the walking and to rest my burning thighs.
We dropped into the river, literally, crossed over and continued for a mile or so to the campsite Joe had planned for the night. Repeating the routine of the night before, we unsaddled and hobbled the horses, staked out sleeping areas, gathered firewood and started the dinner fire.
This night, the sun set on the cliffs and hoodoos of the West Fork gorge. We sat by the fire later into the night, talking and sipping hot tea. I found a spot for my sleeping bag that had a nice little concave area, perfect for resting sore hips. I crawled into my sleeping bag with my saddle blanket on top for warmth, wrapped my head in my fleece vest again, and watched the stars brighten until I found sleep.
I’ve never backpacked. I am not a horsewoman. So I’ve never been able to experience true Wilderness. Last year I decided that I wanted to take a pack trip into the Gila Wilderness on horseback for my 70th birthday.
We didn’t get out on the trip until the last weekend of September this year, thanks to a full schedule last year and two forest fires this summer that forced postponements.
We gathered at Woody’s Corral at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. We started with lessons on currying our horses, slipping the bit between unwilling teeth and getting the saddlebags on either side of the horse as close to equally weighted as possible. Everything we would have at our disposal for three days and two nights was loaded into those saddlebags. In addition to our clothing and personal items, that included one bowl, one cup and one spoon, one roll of TP, one small knife, one flashlight, one bandana and one pair of work gloves, all provided by the outfitter. Be sure to put the bowl, cup and spoon in spots where they wouldn’t rattle and clack against each other.
Joe, our outfitter, is Warm Springs Chiricahua Apache and is a practicing advocate of the historic and cultural ways. Once everyone was packed, balanced, bitted and bridled, Joe came to each of us and our horse. Stand, hold hands out in front and receive the blessing, with pollen touched on forehead, chest, each hand and each foot, while Joe whispered the prayer. Each horse was just as solemnly blessed with pollen on the forehead. I and my horse wore our pollen for the rest of the day; the spirit of the blessing surrounded us through the entire trip.
We mounted up, all except me. Joe and I led my horse to a large rock, from which I was boosted into the saddle, stretching to get my leg up and over, not just the saddle, but the pack behind the saddle that held my sleeping bag. This would become the ritual for the remainder of the trip: find a rock or log, be boosted into the saddle and likewise assisted down. For Joe and his wrangler,Corbin, this was a lot of boosting and assisting, since we stopped for breaks morning and afternoon as well as lunch and for the night.
We headed out of the corral and along the trail that passed by the foot of the trail up to the Cliff Dwellings. Cars, picnickers, dogs all making noise I would be happy to leave behind. And we did – we left all behind within a mile. We plunged into verdant growth of narrow leaf cottonwood, willow and undergrowth. The Virginia Creeper made scarlet notes on the trunks of trees showing gold and yellow. Another half-mile and we were in the flood plain of the river and a meadow of Chamisa, colloquially called rabbit bush. Chamisa is a sage-green bush with bright yellow flower heads which usually attract every species of butterfly in the county. Evidence of the severe drought and uneven weather, we did not see a single butterfly as we rode through.
We reached the boundary between the National Monument and the Gila Wilderness and took the trail to the right, starting up Big Bear Trail. Boy, do I mean UP. Joe stopped us briefly to tell us just how to “help” our horses climb 540 feet in less than ½ mile. “Stand in your stirrups. Lean forward. Grab the mane. The horse must run up the hill; she’ll never make it if she tries to walk. Keep her moving. Oh, by the way, there are steps she has to scramble up.” We stopped on two sort-of flat stretches between switchbacks and steps to let the horses catch their breath. Smoke was sweating and breathing heavy, sides heaving between my knees. At the top, we rested again until all horses were cooling and breathing normally.
We were now on top of the plateau in a dry-grass landscape. There was no water here. We had enough for ourselves, but none for the horses. It’s 5+ miles on Big Bear trail to the next trail juncture. At about 2+/- miles per hour, that’s a little over two hours. But I wasn’t in a hurry; I was too busy looking around. Plus we had a lunch stop to look forward to and a chance to go two-legged for a little while.
We stopped at Eagle Point. From this vantage point, we could see down into the Middle Fork of the Gila River. Views were stunning. Although I couldn’t see the River itself, I could follow the lushness of the Cottonwood trees until both river and tree fringe turned into the heart of the gorge.
We didn’t have a lot further to go before we stopped for the night. There were about two hours before sunset to unpack and unsaddle the horses, get the saddle pads and blankets on the line to dry, drag over firewood to get a dinner fire started, and choose our “sleeping quarters.” Joe and Corbin got the fire going and started dinner. The saddle pads served as our mattresses, with a saddle blanket as “pillow top.” Throw down a sleeping bag, put clothes into a little pile for a pillow, and go eat dinner. Joe traveled lean but he fed us well: beef stew with corn bread for dinner, plus fresh fruit. A little time by the fire, a cup of tea and into the sleeping bag under a half-moon.
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
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.
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.
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!
The 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.
I 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.
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.
caterpillar leaving tracks in sand
beetle at the top of the pic leaving tracks in the silt
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.
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.
Beaver track and sandpiper track
Great Blue Heron
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.
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.
I don’t like “up” very much. To be honest, it depends on how much “up” there is, and whether “up” is complemented by “flat” and “down.” Too much “up” pushes my breathing and burns my thighs. Working against me on “up”: I grew up at sea level; I never hiked much until moving to 6,000 feet; I’m not 40 anymore.
It was another Tuesday, another foray into the Gila National Forest with the “Tuesday Group.” Our hero route suggestion-er proposed Goat Canyon, a favorite of his, and frequented by us individually and as a group. It lies next to Saddle Rock Canyon, and a canyon over from Black Hawk, and so on. These Gila hills are only hills because of the canyons that define and divide them!
A Forest Service road climbs out of Goat Canyon up to a ridge threaded by the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). While ones of us (often me) frequently request not too much “up,” this morning we were more interested in sun, given that it was about 19 degrees at 8 am. Off we went to Saddle Rock, and up Goat Canyon we headed. The canyon itself is beautiful, approaching “slot” width in places, heavily trafficked by cow and atv, and bounded and strewn with the amazing variety of rock that makes up the skeleton of the Gila mountains. Still shadowed, the canyon air was chill and, chilled, we set a fast pace.
We reached the Forest Service road and started up. Oh no. Really “up.” I kept hoping that every turn would bring us to “flat” or even, maybe, a little “down” where I could catch my breath. Every turn opened up more “up.” Shortly, I was the last of the line, with another hiker graciously keeping me company, despite my breathy assurances that he could go ahead and I’d catch up.
It’s a truism about hiking groups: the faster ones stop to wait for the slower. By the time the slower ones catch up and want to rest a minute, the faster have rested and set off at pace again.
We finally reached the end of “up” and the crossing of the CDT. Turning up the trail, we moved through native rock gardens, little groves of oak and pinion, and shouldered the hills on trails wide enough for one pair of feet. But the views…oh, the views. This is why I keep breathing through “up”–because my senses and soul expand with the views. With the space and blue and clouds and distant mountains.
We who live snuggled up to the Gila National Forest are fortunate. Our Forest, with its three Wildernesses, its cliff dwellings, forests, plains, rivers, elk, mountain lion, wolves, is not under threat of shrinkage, of undoing. But there are other public lands that are.
Today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall led a group of 18 Democratic senators in introducing Senate Bill S. 2354 to enhance protections for national monuments against the Trump administration’s unprecedented attacks on public lands. The America’s Natural Treasures of Immeasurable Quality Unite, Inspire, and Together Improve the Economies of States (ANTIQUITIES) Act of 2018 reinforces Congress’ intent in the Antiquities Act of 1906: only Congress has the authority to modify a national monument designation.
If you are a public lands advocate — or simply a public lands user — this is a Bill to love. More importantly, it’s a bill to support. 19 Senators will not be force enough to get this through. But 51 would be. If you have a moment, think views and trails and critters. Think future and preservation and protection and national heritage. Write you Senator today to thank him/her for support or encourage him/her to think “up.”