Social Distancing in the Gila National Forest

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Returning to the Forest for the second – or is it third – time this week with Friend and Dog to hike up Little Cherry Creek Rd.  That’s a little service road that heads up-canyon along Little Cherry Creek to a trail-head that continues up the canyon and veers over to Twin Sisters peaks. Little Cherry Creek Rd is a favorite, especially with friends when we want to visit while we hike.  As with any wild place, it’s a favorite with Dog for all the things that dogs love.

Little Cherry Creek is alive and well, running with snow melt and collected rivulets from higher elevations.  This is another of our many ephemeral streams that only strut their stuff during monsoons, typically.  It’s been such a wet season that streams and creeks are engorged, even as long-time New Mexicans wonder if the state has been transported someplace with a more tropical rainy season.

It’s two miles up the dirt track to the trailhead.  The canyon sides are hoodoos, ledges and balanced rocks that come closer as the canyon narrows. Although it never becomes quite a slot canyon, there are stretches where one gets birder’s neck from standing and looking up at the vertical rock walls.  It’s also easy to imagine who might be peering over the edges back down at us interlopers: Fox? Bobcat? Creatures smaller or larger?

We walk to the rumble, rush and roar of water tumbling over rock falls that rarely see more than a trickle.  Friend and I stop and marvel at the amount of water sloshing down the canyon alongside the track.  We take pictures while Dog wades and shakes.

 

We reach the point where the dirt road makes a 90° turn to the left and the trail becomes the followed path.  As the trail climbs the side of the canyon and away from the noise of the water, we walk silently on pine needles between a throw of boulders.  We trade the sounds of water for the gentler whisper of the breeze talking with the Ponderosa pines overhead.  Friend and I joke about keeping 2 black-bear lengths apart as we practice social distancing.  Which reminds us that we need to make sure that Momma Bear, seen the last two seasons with cubs on this very trail, is also socially distancing herself from us.  So as we huff up the trail, we huff out just enough talk to let Momma know we are around and prefer to pass un-accosted.  As Dog pulls me up the path, I watch her behavior carefully.  She alerts on every squirrel, chipmunk, lizard but she would also alert on bear scent; she is our early warning signal.

At the intersection of trail and turning, we take the jog to the left to rejoin the dirt track and start back down.  On our descent, we pay more attention to what is blooming at this elevation at this early point of Spring.  Things at 7200’ are just greening and tiny flowers just popping.  In fact, we swear that the swaths of violas that we see now were not there when we walked up that way.  Probably they just opened their faces to the sun as the sun warmed them.

We cross the creek for the last time before reaching my truck, when I ask Friend if she has any guess as to how many times we crossed the creek up and back.  Her answer is precise: “Yes.  Quite a few.”

These are the treks that have always lifted me up.  Now, especially during this stressful time, my heart fills and my soul expands into the wildness and space and peace. I know how lucky we are to have these public lands at our doorstep.  And I know how important it is to keep them there.

Favorite trail tales

 

Little Cherry Creek RdLittle Cherry Creek Road, Gila National Forest, early on a hot Sunday morning.  Third hike in as many weeks on this rough little two-track north of Pinos Altos.  It’s a good place to bring the dog, a good place to bird, a good place to find water in the right seasons and critters in any season.  I start at appx 6500′ elevation.  At a mile I’m over 6800′ and if I walk up the track to the intersection of track and trail, I’ve topped 7800′ — a 1300′ gain in a little less than two miles. It’s not a tough hike, though, despite the gain: gradual up with plenty to distract from any climbing discomfort.

 

Hoodoos define the walls of the canyon at the low end; they lean over the creek bed and crowd the oak, ash and other  deciduous trees.  Slabs of rock dip toward the track, laced with green lichens and, sometimes, desert varnish; shelves and overhangs provide cover and crevices for critters to shelter and burrow.

Ponderosa candles and spiderweb.6-10-18

Ponderosa candles and spiderweb

Another couple hundred yards up the track and Ponderosa  pines come to dominate the hillsides, still mixed with Gambels Oak.  The understory is a mix of green shrubs like gooseberry, elderberry, sumac, many of which are fruit- or berry-bearing.  Wildflowers can be plentiful, though not so much this year, thanks to the drought.

At 7,000′, the Ponderosa are mixed with fir on the hillsides that pinch the creek and track.

On this day as on my last two hikes up Little Cherry Creek Rd, Pumpkin pulls right and left — she’s kept on lead — running her nose on the ground gathering every scent of human, domestic and wild footprint.  A very brave chipmunk dashes across the road, tail straight at 12:00, right under the dog’s nose.  Can I blame the dog for her lunge at the critter and efforts to follow it over the side of the hill into the weeds?  And I know that when we come back down, the dog will remember exactly where that chipmunk disappeared over the edge; she’ll stop once more to strain to the chase.

I pished up a pair of Red Faced Warblers.  They darted among the pine branches to points right over my head, pishing being a very seductive sound, where they peered down at me.  I’m told that the warblers have moved down-mountain from the fire a few miles further north and a few hundred feet higher in elevation.  Normally, there are a few warblers along this track; now with the fire, there is an abundance.

I don’t know whether to count myself lucky: probably so, since I had Pumpkin with me.  Reports of a sow black bear with two cubs have come from two friends who have hiked that area in the same time frame as my forays.  In one encounter, the sow tried to move her cubs off in a different direction, but one curious cub headed straight for the human.  Mom grunted something comparable to “come back here right this minute” and the cub did turn and run back.  On the same day that I was just there with my dog, another friend and his wife, higher up the trails from me, unexpectedly confronted the bear and cubs.  This time, one cub ran straight up a tree.  Same little rebel?  I wonder.  Mom got very agitated, communicating warning to my friends by bouncing and huffing. They backed slowly, with a can of bear spray at the ready.  I always wish it was me that saw the critters; I usually just find their tracks and scat.  Pumpkin is a hunter with a strong instinct.  I know how she reacts to chipmunks and rabbits, even lizards.  I don’t think I want to find out how she would react to Momma bear or babies.

So I will satisfy myself with “encounters” like this:Puffball.6-10-18

 

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