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

Old Forest New Forest

It’s amazing the lines and boundaries that a forest fire draws.  From the images you see in the media during a raging fire, you can imagine that the fire burns down valley and up-mountain clearing everything in its path, evenly and equally.  Not so.

We live snuggled up against the Gila National Forest.  The Forest trails are my go-to for dog-walking, friend-hiking, animal-tracking, and mind-settling.  Especially when it’s hot in town, I head up-hill.  It might be almost 80° at 7:30 in the morning when I leave my house at 6,000 feet, but at 7,000+ feet elevation on a Ponderosa-forested trail, my bare arms are chill at 63°.

The Forest has a history of wildfires, some of which have burned thousands and hundred-thousands of acres, some coming within too few miles of town. Whitewater-Baldy 2012. Silver Fire 2013. Signal Peak Fire 2014. Other years, multiple small fires burn a few hundred to a couple of thousand acres. Right now, eleven smallish fires are burning on the Gila. 

The education for me has been to see that the fires don’t take everything.  They create a patchwork quilt of burned-to-sticks mixed with barely-touched forest and gradations in between.  There is, once the embers die out, a succession over the next years, life that returns to the most badly burned areas, including plants, insects and birds.  In fact, there are birds that come just for the insects that erupt from the fallen logs and dead standing trunks.  Rewilding at its most elemental. Up Signal Peak Rd.burn area.2.7-14-19

I experienced again this patchwork effect in the last couple of weeks.  Week 1, with the Thursday Group, we hiked up McMillan trail, a narrow trail that heads uphill from the back of McMillan Campground.  Although the creek that drains this upward-bound canyon is dry now, it ran with early rains and snow melt, feeding a mixed forest of hardwoods and pines plus a lush understory of wildflowers and poison ivy. We passed an old tree trunk, split and harboring many years of rodent-chewed pine cone bits.

ancient tree w rodent nest.McMillan trail.6-2019

An old tree inhabited

Not quite two miles up, we turned on a side trail that led into a grotto backed by a stone cliff streaked with desert wash, the stain left on the rock from falling water. This is old forest at its best.

Week 2, a friend, Dog and I went up Signal Peak Rd a short way and diverted onto a little-used forest road to the left.  Heavily forested, with a few dispersed campsites not recently used, cool, green and fragrant.  We spotted bowl-shaped spiderwebs holding the sunlight.

Openings in the canopy let us look up the side of the next hill, a mass of rock and hoodoos.  Others have traveled this road as well: turkey, elk, cow and a large black bear, all leaving evidence in the muddy spots on the track.

Having never been up the length of Signal Peak Rd to the fire scar and the fire tower, I decided to drive a ways up, not necessarily to the peak, but to find the transition between old forest and new forest.

It wasn’t too many miles before we broke out of the Ponderosa into the recovery area.  The first in the line of succession is grass, mullein and wildflowers, which were there in abundance.  Next in the line is NM Locust, typically the first tree to recolonize a burn scar in our forests.  Depending upon the elevation, aspen may come next, though that doesn’t seem to be the case here.  In the minds of many people, tragically, the vanilla-scented Ponderosa take decades to return.  And yet.  And yet, it won’t be many years before there will be nurseries of little ponderosa, gathered as a bunch of children in clusters among the Locusts, until they come to dominate.  At least, that’s the plan.

I got to thinking that McMillan Campground and trail must be pretty close to the burn area on Signal Peak, even though there are such stark differences between old forest and new.  I got on the Forest’s website and pulled up the satellite map.  From green to burned is a distance of one ridge, a slight few miles.  On the other side of the burn is another favorite hiking area still intact, Meadow Creek, just another ridge away. Here’s the satellite image with the trail marked, the Signal Peak Lookout circled and the burn scar highlighted.  But look now, because it’s coming back.  It won’t be the same for a long time but it will be—and is—wild again. McMillan Trail and Signal Peak

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