Dogs With Wires

Rock and water, Deadman’s Canyon

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

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

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

Light Patterns on Snow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Rock Candy Mountain

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

Besides the crystal fountains

So come with me, we’ll go and see

The Big Rock Candy Mountains”

Quartzite Outcrop – southwest Grant County NM

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

A River of quartzite

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

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

Chunks of rock-candy quartzite

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

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

Enlarged to show mining piles bottom left of image

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

“I’ll see you all this coming fall

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains”

A wealth of quartzite — a hint of uranium

A Hike Interrupted — aka We Were Buzzed

Continental Divide Trail – Grant County NM

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

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

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

Ridgeline — CDT

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

Small Rift Valley on the CDT

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

Florida Mountains in the Distance

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

Dog perched on the rocky trail

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond the Gate

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

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

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

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

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

Cottonwood – Pancho Canyon on the Gila River

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

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

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

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 — The Birds Do It

20200430_093633My friend, Dog and I go up to Cherry Creek trail early this morning while it is still cool.  This Gila National Forest trail is one of my favorites, especially in warm weather because it drops down from the road, following a creek through a canyon.  It may be 75° at 6,000 feet (where my house is) at 8 am; there in the canyon it is 55° and green.

Today, we take binoculars because there are several species of spring arrivals that we hope to see; that is, if Dog will be patient enough to let me put binocs to eyes and focus on the branches overhead.

The meadow, woods and riparian stretches are great attractors for warblers, wrens, vireos, and more.  The challenge, of course, is that the trees are leafing out, giving those little guys lots of opportunities to flit from behind one leaf to behind the next, with a duck behind a tree trunk along the way.  This is social distancing at its most frustrating.

One constant on this trail, at least at this time of year, is the sound of running water.  There are numerous crossings of Cherry Creek to be made, hopping from rock to rock and hoping that Dog, always leashed, doesn’t get too exuberant and pull me into the water.

Friend and I make poor time as hikes go, but great time for birding.  Neither of us are particularly good at identifying by song and not a whole lot better identifying what we see.  Still, there are a few spring celebrants who are impossible to mistake, assuming we can find them high above.

Those lovelies that we see and recognize today include Red Faced Warbler, Painted Redstart, House Wrens, Robins, Juncos, Stellar Jay, Vireo, Acorn Woodpecker, Swifts and an unidentified hawk. If those warblers weren’t so good at staying socially distant, despite my noisy efforts to pish them down, we might see more.

Butterflies are also warming to spring.  A variety of whites, blues, sulphurs and brightly-marked butterflies flutter from flower to leaf to blooming grasses.  Those I recognize are Sara Orangetip, Queen Alexandra’s Sulphur and Swallowtails.  I think I notice a Mourning Cloak – or is that an Arizona Sister?  Such engaging names we give these creatures.

Hard to take pictures of those fast-moving, darting beings.  I am reduced to beings that don’t move much except as the breeze stirs them.  A wild clematis in bloom – I’ve never seen one before.  Various yellow wildflowers, aka dyc or damn yellow composite–they are the equivalent of an LBJ to a birder—fill the sunny spots.  And there’s my hugging tree—a gnarled old grandmother cottonwood. Since we can’t hug our two-legged friends these days, a hug of that old cottonwood gives back a grounded energy.

Depending upon your frame of reference, the damper to the day or the interesting and unexpected find is a mule deer that had been taken by a predator, partially eaten and left right on the side of the campground entrance where we are parked and only 20 feet or so off the main road. Since I’m used to finding evidence of our four-legged neighbors that is far less graphic, I can’t resist taking some pictures and posting them to my tracking group to see if anyone has a clue whether this deer was taken by a mountain lion or coyotes. My guess is mountain lion.  As I said, it all depends on your frame of reference.

I’ll be leading a hike along Cherry Creek for our lifelong learning organization in July.  By then, the birds will be quieter, having found mates and being busy raising peeps. By then, the water will probably be found only in residual pools. By then, a whole new succession of dyc’s will be in bloom.  But it will still be cool. And green. And old grandmother cottonwood will still be giving and receiving hugs in a time of human social distancing.

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

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