Smoke, Pestilence and Overcrowding in the Gila

Tadpole fire -- USFS-Gila Forest photo

credit USFS Gila National Forest

Summertime in southwestern NM in times of social distancing, closures and forest fires.  Challenges about where to hike.  Criteria include an amenable temperature, amenable air quality and amenable solitude.

Summer temps typically lead me higher into the Gila National Forest where trails can be 10 to 20° cooler at 7,000’+ than in town, at 6,000’.  However, since lightning strikes on June 6, there is a 6,000 (and growing) acre wildfire 12 miles from town that has caused the closure of the main road into the forest from here.  Tailheads are all inaccessible, and some favorite trails are engulfed as the Tadpole Fire smolders and flames along the ridge and runs up Rt 15 to Signal Peak and Meadow Creek forest roads. We worry for our firefighters – notice how easy it is to take possession of what we value – out there fighting a so-far uncontained wildfire in the time of a coronavirus pandemic.

Tadpole fire smoke -- USFS-Gila Forest photo

credit USFS Gila National Forest

Smoke becomes a fact of daily life and a factor in where to hike.  If I can’t head “up the hill” into the forest, I’ll head west to the Gila River for a walk IN the river, the river now being much reduced and more compatible to wading.

On Wednesday, my friend, Dog and I head to a campground on the Gila which provides easy access into the river for a cooling walk.  We comment as we drive west that the smoke that had been so oppressive in town has lessened this morning.  Then we begin to notice that the air is thickening the further away we get from the Tadpole Fire and the closer we get to our destination.  At some point, the Mogollons disappear in the smoke and we begin to wonder where all this smoke is blowing in from.  We arrive at the crest of the road down into the river-side campground only to see smoke blanketing the cottonwoods, the river itself now invisible. This is not what we anticipated nor where we want to exercise our lungs.

We decide to go back to the Gila Bird Area, the stretch of river we hiked along yesterday.  We can dip our feet in the river there and wander along the shallows and wade the riffles.  Back down the road, with Dog in the backseat getting a bit antsy.  We turn down the track that leads to the giant sycamore that shelters the trailhead and river at Pancho Canyon.  Round the last little bend to encounter a virtual tent city.  Where the hell did all these people come from; they weren’t here yesterday!  Six, maybe seven tents all crowded under the sycamore arms, facing each other as though creating a thoroughfare. Ice chests, camp chairs, other miscellany scattered around tents and a couple of children wandering along the “street.”  While it’s not my thought to deny others the enjoyment of “my” (there’s that possessive again) Gila River, this is unexpected.  Because so many official campgrounds are closed and because NM is surrounded by states that have taken no health precautions against Covid-19 and thus have soaring rates of infections, we are seeing campers in tents and rv’s and vans with out-of-state license plates pitched up in dispersed camping areas in the forest. No problem.  Except when folks congregate where there is no bathroom, no water and no trash containment.  Where are they going to poop?  Behind a tree, in the weeds, among the rocks – and then leave it and the paper they used.  Ugh and disgusting.  One would think…but then most people don’t.

Needless to say, we leave only the dust of our quick departure, head back out to Rt 180 and now try to figure out just where the heck to go.

The Iron Bridge!  We joke that we can see my truck tracks coming and going as we once again backtrack west.  Fortunately the Iron Bridge is just down the road a couple of miles and we find the parking area deserted!

20200610_111915The Iron Bridge is on the old Rt 180, now in disuse except for swallows and hikers.  It’s a beautiful old structure.  The Gila runs under the bridge, along private ranch land and through property now owned by The Nature Conservancy.  No official trails, but paths that are trod enough to keep the weeds down.  It is getting warm, though and we are pretty exposed. We encounter a young man coming toward us as we stand uncertain, trying to discern where through the weeds we are meant to go.  We head down the parting in the weeds that he just left.

We reach a cluster of trees and find a small citizens science project underway.  A teacher and kids from Aldo Leopold High School have set up a bird-banding station.  They have caught birds in mist nets and “bagged” the birds, one each in little bags hung from the branches of the tree.  When we arrive, they are just in the process of banding four sibling Yellow Warblers, recently fledged.  We stop and watch, and get a brief lesson in tagging each of these little guys with US Fish & Wildlife numbered tags. These small birds don’t ruffle very much as they are held, weighed, banded and finally, taken back into the cluster of trees where they were netted to be released.

Encountering this group of young scientists-to-be and environmentalists-in-fact is a treat and a pleasure.  A reassurance that our world hasn’t entirely gone up in smoke, pestilence and overcrowding.

Social Distancing in the Gila National Forest

20200406_093816

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.

Social Distancing down New Mexico way

Field of poppies.2.Portal.3-31-20

Social distancing requires us to stay at least six feet from each other. Six feet? That is awfully close!   Thus goes one of several New Mexico versions of this bit of coronavirus humor.

Another bit. Six feet is about the equivalent of: 6 Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout (or Gila Trout if you’re in my neighborhood); 2 mule deer bucks; 4 Roadrunners; or 2 Black Bears. This from NM Game and Fish recommendations for social distancing in the field. Of course, I’d rather be more than 2 black-bear lengths from any black bear, but that’s just me!

Down here in New Mexico, six feet of separation isn’t a problem for a large state, home to only about 2 million people, most of whom live in one of three cities.  Practicing social distancing can be as easy as getting out onto some little corner of our millions of acres of public land.

In 30 minutes or less, I can be on a trail in the Gila National Forest, hiking with my dog alone or with one, maybe two friends.  We have the choice of going low:  the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) starts down south in a desert environment at 6,000’ or less, wandering through pinion, juniper and boulders, as though through a carefully landscaped rock garden. Seen from the ridges, Big Hatchet and the Floridas stand stark against the border; Soldiers Return holds the near frame. The snaggletooth of Cookes Peak anchors the east.  The Peloncios, Chiricahuas and Mt Graham bound the south and west.  These days, Mt Graham and the tallest points of stone in the Chiricahuas are snow-topped.

Or I can go high, above 7,000’:  Signal Peak, Cherry Creek trail, the trail out of McMillan Campground, Meadow Creek trail are all favorites when Ponderosa and fir are preferred, and a shady path calls.  This time of year, the Redstarts and Red-faced Warblers are moving in and singing their territory.

We’ve had a wet late winter and early spring.  Rains have come with regularity.  The soft female rains – or farmer rains, depending on your argot – soaked into the land at just the right time and right temperature and the result is a golden explosion.

Field of poppies.3.Portal.3-31-20Poppies. Mexican Poppies glowing along the roadside, in painterly splashes on the hillsides.  And most spectacularly, spread across fields as quilts made of yellow, orange and gold, with love-knots of white. In New England, they go leaf-peeping in the fall.  This week, I have indulged in Poppy-peeping.

Poppies don’t bloom alone.  There are lupines, brittlebush, bladderpod, mustard and other yellow ground flowers whose names refuse to stick with me.  There’s a spot along AZ Rt 191 where for about 3 miles, the hillsides look as though Monet was trying to improve on his Garden at Giverny.

And, the other evidence of generous rains and snow-covered elevations is water.  Dead Man's Canyon.2.3-28-20

Water running in the most ephemeral of streams, bubbling down stony creek beds that rarely entertain a flow outside of a good monsoon.  Seeps become creeks, creeks become challenging crossings and waterfalls sing over rock.

The Gila River gorges on the melt and silt from the snows on the Mogollons, spreading beyond its banks and filling the acequias.

The happening-together of a glorious wildflower bloom set against the backdrop of snowy peaks, and water courses that live up to their names has made for a rapturous spring of hikes and drives, indulging in color and sound, and following Dog’s nose up the trails.  I hope and pray for the recovering health of my community, nation and the world.

Mogollons.3-2020

 

Here, though, is my refuge.  Social distancing at six feet?  That’s awfully close!

 

 

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