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

The earth is flat — until it’s not!

We cross a saddle in a ridge from the trailhead and pass into the Gila Wilderness. Lying before us is almost three miles of flat mesa.  Walking across that wide meadow of grasses and wildflowers, we follow a narrow trail, pitted by mule and horse feet, rocky and muddy thanks to impact of monsoonal drenching.  The views are expansive from the slight rises, and intimate in the dips. I can tell we are approaching the edge of nothing when I start seeing, instead of the trunks of Ponderosa, the crowns.  Through the crowns, a blue haze of air. The trail tends away obliquely, making me wonder how far this mesa goes and when it will drop away from under my feet.

Old Truck on Aeroplane MesaWilderness isn’t empty, not of people and not of things.  To the right of the trail, silhouetted against the sky is a relic: a 40’s era truck driven out to the edge of the world and abandoned, fodder for curious hikers’ wonder and speculation.

Then we are there, where the flat becomes vertical. Approximately 1500 feet of rocky switchback trail lies between mesa and river bottom.  Meadow and Gila River.2.edThere’s an overlook where we see our destination, a river-side meadow specked with the white kitchen tent secluded under a clutch of pines. The scary aspect of the view is that we have to get down there. As we pick our way among the trail rubble, we hear the mules coming with our weight of tents and bags.  The outfitter calls down to us, “Move to the downhill side.  Mules spook if a critter is above them.  Is that you behind a bush? Move out where the mules can see you.”  I step down and out of the way, and watch the outfit step on by us, more surefooted than I am, for sure.  Then, we work our way on down to level ground, off the sun-exposed cliff-side and into the shade.

Our first night around the campfire and under the Milky Way.  There’s a flicker on the far horizon that isn’t city-generated.  By mid-night, planets, stars and campfire are overwhelmed by a strong storm cell that parks overhead for the next several hours.  Lightning flashes my tent-sides bright, and thunder rolls overhead and on down the valley.  The storm is centered right overhead and the ground vibrates under my sleeping mats.  What’s to do except lie awake and in awe.  Saturday morning, we stand under the kitchen tent, sharing storm stories, drinking cup after cup of coffee and looking anxiously for spots of clearing overhead.  Suddenly, Lightning-struck tree.1

WHAMBOOM — a lightning strike about a football-field distance away.  We all duck and, on straightening, see the smoke and steam rising from a single pine tree on the edge of the woods at the far side of the meadow.  It still stands, but has been split in two and its roots boiled up out of the ground around it.  Splinters scatter on the newly-bared earth.  I’m not sure any of us have ever been that close a witness to the power of lightning’s electric impact.  Over the course of the morning, we go in ones and twos over to look at the result: at the split tree, the splinters, the upheaved earth and the scorched ground scar.

It’s late summer and in the meadow, along the river edges and under the pines, the earth explodes in bloom.  We count perhaps two dozen species of wildflowers, all native because how else would they be, out here in the wild.  Purple, orange, blue and more blue, seemingly a dozen shades of yellow, we wade hip-deep in color.

A diversion is suggested: a hike up river a mile or so to see a beaver dam.  Beaver are coming back on the Gila; they are cutting trees, dragging them distances and lacing them across the river to catch up and slow down the flow.  We find the dam stretching across most of the river’s width.  A cheerful rush of water through the branches, a pond held up behind and extended wetlands.  While we stand on the edge, a ripple surfaces and crosses the pond.

The day comes to leave the magic meadow retreat.  Roll the sleeping bag and mats, drop and pack a dew-wet tent, sort my day-pack to its lightest possible weight and sip a last cup of camp coffee.  Slowlyslowly climb up the cliff from river to mesa; take a last look over the edge at the kitchen tent, to be broken down by the outfitter the next day; face forward the long trail across flat earth and over the ridge to the trailhead.Down from the Saddle

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