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

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

javalina hair - hunter-killed

Javalina hair

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

deer lay

White Tail Deer lay

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

 

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

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

Casey- racoon track morphology

Racoon on the Gila

On Twin Sisters Creek

Twin Sisters_

Twin Sisters in the background

Three people striding along, hiking poles marking their yards.  Two helmeted men pass on mountain bikes, as I pull Pumpkin off to the side.  Greetings exchanged, I recognize one of the riders: Happy Sunday, we smile.  Pumpkin insists on a bit of a gopher hunt, off in the grass.  Something over there is unseen but smelled, heard; she stops on point, ears forward.  C’mon, Pumpkin, here’up, pup.  At the intersection of trails, here is a couple with a small canine, pick-up-able.  “Which way are you going? I’ll take that way.” A jogger with her dog,  on leash but curious.  She pauses and the dogs’ noses touch briefly; a bit of Labrador in both, hers black, mine mahogany.  Another mountain biker, slowly negotiating the narrow trail through the grasses and across the stony stream bed.  Move Pumpkin into the weeds on the side and receive a grateful nod.  She’s off again on a nose-hunt.  Pushing through the grass, snuffling, stopping to sneeze out the dust.  Through two gates and a couple of miles down the trail, we come to our turn-around point.

Target Practice.Ft BayardThis old metal frame is another bit of  Fort Bayard history.  According to my historian friend from our Tuesday hiking group, this frame was in the service of target practice for the Buffalo Soldiers.  Behind the frame is a bit of hill embedded with wooden boards that served as the backstop for the balls that pierced either the targets or with poorer aim, the metal frame itself.

On our way back to the trailhead, we are passed by yet two more bikers, these with a dog off leash, panting along in pace with them.  The dog hesitates slightly at sight of Pumpkin but keeps moving in response to the demand of the bikers.

We encounter a hiker unfamiliar with this trail.  Once I’ve told him where the trail goes and where it intersects with trails more familiar, we chat for several minutes.  Knees, hips and legs — an organ recital typical of folks our age; a touch on politics, just enough to admit that he is Libertarian and tends to avoid political discussions (altho he brought it up) and an avowed tree-hugger (me, since he mentioned having a few as friends).  Actually I just wanted to make sure he knew what specific topics to avoid as he avoided the general topic of politics.  3.7 miles later, we were back at the truck, sharing a granola bar.

It was a beautiful Sunday as so many of our days are, here in the high desert of the Southwest.  It was a good day to be on a trail along a creek lined with magnificent old cottonwoods, with the Twin Sisters in the distance in one direction, and the Stars and Stripes flying over the veterans cemetery, visible just over the ridge, on the grounds of the old fort.  Our public lands.  We are healthier, physically, emotionally, spiritually because those lands exist, because we can hike them, hunt them, bike them, bird them.  It’s a fact!

Wagon Ruts of Ft Bayard

High on the side of the hill, the slick rock has preserved a bit of the history of Ft Bayard, Grant Co, NM.  

The fort was established in 1866 and manned primarily by Buffalo Soldiers as a protection for settlers in the region against the Apache.  Ft Bayard has a storied history, though it is now unused and falling into ruin.

At the time of the Buffalo Soldiers, Ft Bayard was powered by wood.  The surrounding hills provided an unending (or so it seemed) source of trees to be cut and transported down to the fort for firewood; wood hauled in wagons with wooden wheels, which had iron rims.

Even stone cannot resist repeated friction forever.

 

Ups and Downs

CDTrail over Goat Canyon.1-30-18

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.”

Ode to Tuesday Group

hiking CDTrail

It’s Tuesday morning after Christmas.  We meet as usual at 8 am and discuss, first, where to hike, and then, carpool details.

Where to hike is always a fun conundrum.  Gila National Forest is crisscrossed with hiking trails.  Some of them are quite challenging, climbing and crossing ridges and shouldering mountain tops, dropping into deep-walled canyons. Each week, we head for one of the more accessible trails, often choosing to pick up the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) and follow it for 2 miles; we stop at that point for fuel, turn and head back.

We’re a good group, reasonably well matched in hiking endurance and strength.  We’re a fluid group: whoever shows up at 8 am, hikes.  Sometimes there are four or five of us, sometimes, like today, 13. We’re also fluid in our trail habits, changing conversational pairs as we trudge up and down rises and maneuver rough spots.  I may find myself toward the front, with voices falling away behind me.  On “ups,” I step aside to breathe, and catch up at the end of the line, chasing voices.  It strikes me, the more removed I am from the conversations, that we sound like a gabble of geese.

When we’re stretched out, there may be no visual contact from one little cluster to the next. There is a sweet silence walking the trail alone, watching feet, glancing down stream beds and up side canyons, noticing birds popping up from the grasses, watching cloud formations.  But recently, there have been a couple of situations where, in one, vehicles got separated and ended up stopping at different points along the CDT; in another, hikers got separated, resulting in three-hour backtracking and a 911 call for Search & Rescue.  Today, we carefully tracked each other, waiting in a little flock on the trail for the trailing chicks.

National Forests are managed for multiple uses; the Gila National Forest is no exception.  We often pass mining tailings, test digs and old mining pits. There is frequently infrastructure for cattle grazing, including water tanks and old corrals.  Today was no exception. quartz mine.CDTrail An exposed chunk of quartz and a myriad of quartz chips scattered the ground at an old mine site.  The quartz was not the target for this mine, but some rare earth mineral contained in the quartz.  Because that mineral is slightly radioactive, we avoided picking up pieces of the glistening rock to bring home and joked about glowing in the dark.  Up the hill from the quartz mine, grazed a couple of cows.  Other cows complained in the brush.  We were blocking their direct path to water. old mine on CD Trail

Next Tuesday, the second day of the new year, will be another opportunity to explore the National Forest that is our back yard.

Manzanita Refuge

manzanita.1

Montana. Wisconsin.  Oregon.  Alberta. Saskatchewan. Just some of the license plates on the cars and motor homes in the private RV park where we stopped for a night in Yuma, AZ.  These snow birds migrated for the winter to the warmer climes of the desert.

Snow birds crowded the Fry’s Wholesale Food, pushing carts down unfamiliar isles with bemused expressions.

Two hours west of the crowds and noise and busy-ness of an urban area and 4,000 feet in elevation gain, we tucked ourselves back among the Manzanita and Oak in Cuyamaca State Park.

This state park adjoins the Cuyamaca Wilderness Area, a California wilderness set-aside, which in turn adjoins the Cleveland National Forest.  Miles and hectares of wildlands, some open to exploring by 4 wheels and much only open to 2 feet.  Our campground was on the edge between wheels and feet.

For Thanksgiving week, when schools in San Diego Country are out, the campground was about half occupied.  We almost had the place to ourselves.  And in fact, our campsite, sited on the edge of the campground in a grove of Manzanita, was isolated enough that we were visited in the middle of one night by a mountain lion and a bobcat.  I know because I found their fur-filled scat within 75 feet of our RV.  Mentioned the evidence to a park ranger and he said they know of a juvenile lion hanging around the area.  Given the cottontail bunny that visited us several times in camp, and the amount of fur in the scat, I’d say the lion, and the bobcat for that matter, have a full buffet without bothering us two-leggeds.

The hike up Pine Ridge trail offered great views into the Wilderness Area. water course Down in the valley, there was a water course lined with golden-leafed water-loving trees, paralleled by a fire road.  The mountainsides were pine-covered with polka-dots of yellow where the occasional oak tree caught fire in the afternoon sun.

The pines are Coulter Pines, a relative of the Ponderosa Pines that cover the mountains of New Mexico.

I have no argument with the snow birds whose 40 foot motor homes crowd the plentiful RV resorts; that’s a lifestyle they choose and enjoy.  Mine is of a different calling. Wildlands, mountain lions and their scat, pine trees, silence: that’s mine.

For folks like me, our public lands are critical to our health and well-being; public lands managed by local, state and federal agencies but belonging to all of us. These are sacred lands, deserving of our awe and protection.  Happy Thanksgiving wherever you are – in your kitchen at home or camped under a Coulter Pine.  #publiclandsworthprotecting .

Smokey Bear to Bear Tracks

I grew up in metro DC in the 50s.  That was the heyday of Smokey Bear.  Smokey was a native of New Mexico, a victim of a forest fire in the Capitan Mountains and rescued by a fire crew; he was brought to the National Zoo in DC and served as an iconic image for the US Forest Service, in service to fire prevention–his image still lives on in memes and posters.

I was reminded of Smokey last weekend as my tracking group left the Gila River, headed home.  The question came up whether bear were ever seen along that particular stretch of river.  The answer was yes, but not today:  no food to be had, and bears would be concentrated where there would be lots of mast to eat up for winter fat.  Not sure how we jumped to talking about Smokey, but there you are.  We jumped back to the topic of bear tracks, their size and appearance, and the likelihood of seeing them.

Could I have imagined, standing in front of Smokey’s cage in the late 50’s, that I would one day live in Smokey’s home state and learn to track his natural cousins?  Hardly, yet here I am.  I took a certifying class in tracking, found a new avocation, and have been collecting tracking data for citizen science projects for the last several years.

mt lion ed for blog

Cougar track

This particular day, my group and I went out to the Gila River for the sheer pleasure of walking very slowly and staring at the ground.  We almost didn’t get out of sight of our vehicles, captured as we were by evidence of critters small and large left in the dust of the road. Four-leggeds are lazy; they’d rather walk roads and trails just like  two-leggeds. We did make it on

 

down the trail and came across a typical latrine where fox and then coyote and lastly fox left their calling cards perched on a flat-topped rock in the middle of the trail. Marking, or as a friend would say, posting on their Facebook page. Reaching the river course, we found where bobcats had walked along the river bank, back when the river reached the bank, and left us a story of stalking in the dried mud.

Spotted skunk track

Spotted skunk track

At the muddy edge of the river, we crawled around with rulers, books and glasses trying to identify a plethora of footprints. Raccoons galore and bits of crawdads that had been caught, washed and munched.  More coyote and someone’s large dog.  A rodent, but what kind?  A ringtail cat? No, the claws are too long.  Maybe a little bitty skunk?  Photographs on my cell phone to bring home and puzzle over with my tracking bible and online query.

And here’s the motivation for so much crawling, puzzling, measuring and photographing.  The reason for all this tracking for citizen science projects.  To paraphrase a well-known politician, It’s The River, Stupid.

The Gila River is the last wild river in the state.  The Rio Grande has been tamed for agriculture from just about the northern border of the state.  The Gila itself disappears into irrigation ditches by the time it reaches the Arizona border.  We are fighting, for the third time in as many decades, an existential battle to keep the river free from diversions and dams to ensure that the endangered fish, birds, lizards and turtles continue to have a place to live.  In addition, the Gila River flows through the Gila National Forest, including the Gila Wilderness, which is also under existential threats from fire to fighter planes.  We do what we can with what talents we have to contribute to protecting the River, the Forest and the Wilderness. #Publiclandsareworthprotecting !

road to Gila bird area

The road into the Gila Bird Area, Gila/Cliff NM

 

Fall-ing in Saddle Rock Canyon

Saddle Rock Canyon, September 2017

Autumn is unwrapping her colors in Saddle Rock Canyon. Willow and Walnut are beginning to glow, just a little bit.  Soon they will be in full golden glory.  Cottonwood hasn’t started her costume change yet, but when she does, her heart-shaped leaves will glitter in the breeze like gold coins. Poison Ivy somehow manages to change each of her three leaves a different shade such that her tangled vines hanging from rock cliff are a panoply of red and orange.  A brilliant red dress of a vine creeps up the granite face–she’s one of the first, along with Ivy, to go scarlet in September.  Jewels of tuna now adorn Prickly Pear, giving me dreams of jelly and syrup.

Saddle Rock is a riparian canyon, protected for restoration, on the edge of the Gila National Forest just outside Silver City.  It’s popular for hikers, birders, trackers, photographers and just plain-ol’ ooglers because it’s close, though it requires a steady driving hand and high clearance to get through the sandy track back into the canyon area.  It’s neighbors are Goat Canyon (tho I’ve never seen goat one in there, just cows), Tuff Canyon, called so by my hiking group because of the fascinating tuff formations, and a network of other intersecting canyons, arroyos and slots.

Saddle Rock and its neighbors are a few of the gems in the Gila.  Our 3-million-acre National Forest is not under the same threat of abuse as other National Monuments both in New Mexico and the rest of the country–land and sea.  Yet, hiking,  birding, tracking, photographing and just oogling our Forest gems reminds me how precious all our public lands are and how critical they are to the health and wealth of the larger environment, thus to our own benefit.  And it seems that millions of Americans agree with me; all except the US Secretary of the Interior.  Willow and Walnut, Cottonwood and Poison Ivy, and Prickly Pear can enchant us with their autumn displays; they depend upon us to speak up on their behalf.

6 degrees on the road plus new friends.

 

Hotchkiss farmsPer Wikipedia: “Six degrees of separation is the idea that all living things and everything else in the world are six or fewer steps away from each other so that a chain of “a friend of a friend” statements can be made to connect any two people in a maximum of six steps.”

Six degrees works on the road.  Even more surprisingly, we found 2 degrees of separation in Gunnison, Dolores and Mancos, Colorado and in Mavreeso campground in the San Juan National Forest.

We asked the barista at The Bean Coffeehouse in Gunnison if we could hang out for awhile, taking advantage of their internet, since we were by that time totally bereft of decent signal.  Which led to the question where we were from, which led in turn to her exclaiming that her sister lived in Gila, NM, right up the road from us here in Silver City.  Well, she lived there in the past for several years, but had now moved on to some small community in Utah.

Chatting with our neighbors in an RV park in Chama, we learned that their son and his boy scout troop had biked from points west, through Silver City, across the Black Range at Emory Pass and on through TorC to Alamogordo NM. Quite a ride for a bunch of kids; parents rolled along comfortably on 4 wheels.

The camp hosts in Mavreeso came through Silver City a few years ago to visit the Gila Cliff Dwellings.  They tried to find the old downtown, but missed the signage — a common problem, as our Main Street organization tells us — and left unimpressed with the commercial strip that is Rt 180.  They were, however, impressed with how “big a town” is Silver.  That is, big compared to their small Texas home town of around 800.  Goes to show, it’s all in your perspective; I came from the sprawling DC metro area so by contrast, Silver City is small.  There were others in other campgrounds who have been to Silver City or know someone who has lived here.  This is all fascinating: you have to come to Silver City on purpose; you don’t just stumble upon our corner of the world, tucked up next to the Gila National Forest.

And then, in Dolores and in Mancos, CO, we dropped the name of a friend of ours here, and made instant new friends of our friend from the years he lived in Mancos.  One of my biggest regrets of the trip was not accepting the invitation of the old guy, a Korean War Vet, to come to his house for a cup of coffee.  After a month of taking the slow roads through Colorado, I still had not slowed down enough to see friendship when it stood on the sidewalk.

Sometimes, there are no degrees between you and the folks you encounter.  We were sitting in our rv in Thirty Mile Campground, Rio Grande National Forest when I saw two familiar figures walking past our campsite.  A couple of fellow camper/travelers were making a similar trek through the San Juan Mountains and happened to pull into the same campground.  We got together a pot luck supper and shared stories of the roads past and roads to come.

irrigating_ While in Heron Lake State Park, NM, I learned from the folks in the next campsite that there was an Osprey nest on a platform nearby, where the parents had one chick.  We chatted about ospreys, state parks and national forests and generally the state of the world of public lands.  Later I took some pictures of the osprey mom (the chick was too small to see over the rim of the nest) and the neighbor gave me her card and asked that I send her a copy of my photo.  When I did, I received in return an invitation to visit them if we were in that area.  As it turned out, we were passing very nearby on our way to Grand Junction CO, so accepted her invitation.  This couple opened their home to us, fed us, and gave us a tour; we talked for hours about water and wild fires, travel, hiking and biking.  They live on 35 acres where they grow alfalfa.  We learned a lot about irrigation by pipes, water brought down from the reservoirs on top of the mesa; we walked out that afternoon to see how the pipe vents are opened and closed to “move” the water from one area of the field to another.  I would not have guessed that much of that area of Colorado is high desert, and what was lush and green was only so thanks to irrigation (the picture at the head of this story is an example of this rich farmland).  Reminded me of the Rio Grande valley down our way. We headed out for Grand Junction the next day, leaving behind a heart-felt invitation to come down to see us, and let us show off our National Forest and local highlights.

There’s a memoir, Blue Highways, by William Least HeatMoon, that we both read in the last year or so.  Our hope as we planned our meanderings through Colorado campgrounds, small towns and public lands was that we would experience something of our own blue highways.  In six degrees and less, we succeeded.

 

May the Forest be with you, to borrow a phrase…

West Dolores River, Mavreeso CG San Juan NF

…from the coffee mugs we bought at a US Forest Service office.

Fraternal twins hug the West Dolores River about a mile apart.  Small and intimate, they invite lengthy meditation, listening to the many voices of the river, breathing in the fragrance of water and green, and watching the firs and spruces do nothing obvious at all.  Mavreeso Campground and West Dolores Campground keep a low profile among the trees in the San Juan National Forest, not far from the town of Dolores, CO.

Trails lace up the mountain slope through fir, aspen, and open benches covered with wildflowers.  The trailhead for Lower Stoner Mesa serves up an encounter with Christy sitting high on Diva and a brief conversation about trail ups and downs and getting a horse some exercise.  Forest trail lesson: who yields to whom?  Motor bikes yield to hikers and to bicyclists and we all yield to horses.  And even horses yield to the bear who has been regularly lunching in the serviceberry patches that crowd the trail.

 

Late afternoon brings out a flock of Cedar Waxwings hawking swarms of insects over the river. They start at tea-time, hawk on through the dinner hour and right up to dusk.

This treasure in the Forest seduces us to spend days connected to the real world and disconnected from the digital sphere.  Mavreeso will beckon us back each time we pour coffee into a mug…May the Forest be with you

#publiclandsworthprotecting  #sanjuannationalforest

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