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

Social Distancing — The Birds Do It

20200430_093633My friend, Dog and I go up to Cherry Creek trail early this morning while it is still cool.  This Gila National Forest trail is one of my favorites, especially in warm weather because it drops down from the road, following a creek through a canyon.  It may be 75° at 6,000 feet (where my house is) at 8 am; there in the canyon it is 55° and green.

Today, we take binoculars because there are several species of spring arrivals that we hope to see; that is, if Dog will be patient enough to let me put binocs to eyes and focus on the branches overhead.

The meadow, woods and riparian stretches are great attractors for warblers, wrens, vireos, and more.  The challenge, of course, is that the trees are leafing out, giving those little guys lots of opportunities to flit from behind one leaf to behind the next, with a duck behind a tree trunk along the way.  This is social distancing at its most frustrating.

One constant on this trail, at least at this time of year, is the sound of running water.  There are numerous crossings of Cherry Creek to be made, hopping from rock to rock and hoping that Dog, always leashed, doesn’t get too exuberant and pull me into the water.

Friend and I make poor time as hikes go, but great time for birding.  Neither of us are particularly good at identifying by song and not a whole lot better identifying what we see.  Still, there are a few spring celebrants who are impossible to mistake, assuming we can find them high above.

Those lovelies that we see and recognize today include Red Faced Warbler, Painted Redstart, House Wrens, Robins, Juncos, Stellar Jay, Vireo, Acorn Woodpecker, Swifts and an unidentified hawk. If those warblers weren’t so good at staying socially distant, despite my noisy efforts to pish them down, we might see more.

Butterflies are also warming to spring.  A variety of whites, blues, sulphurs and brightly-marked butterflies flutter from flower to leaf to blooming grasses.  Those I recognize are Sara Orangetip, Queen Alexandra’s Sulphur and Swallowtails.  I think I notice a Mourning Cloak – or is that an Arizona Sister?  Such engaging names we give these creatures.

Hard to take pictures of those fast-moving, darting beings.  I am reduced to beings that don’t move much except as the breeze stirs them.  A wild clematis in bloom – I’ve never seen one before.  Various yellow wildflowers, aka dyc or damn yellow composite–they are the equivalent of an LBJ to a birder—fill the sunny spots.  And there’s my hugging tree—a gnarled old grandmother cottonwood. Since we can’t hug our two-legged friends these days, a hug of that old cottonwood gives back a grounded energy.

Depending upon your frame of reference, the damper to the day or the interesting and unexpected find is a mule deer that had been taken by a predator, partially eaten and left right on the side of the campground entrance where we are parked and only 20 feet or so off the main road. Since I’m used to finding evidence of our four-legged neighbors that is far less graphic, I can’t resist taking some pictures and posting them to my tracking group to see if anyone has a clue whether this deer was taken by a mountain lion or coyotes. My guess is mountain lion.  As I said, it all depends on your frame of reference.

I’ll be leading a hike along Cherry Creek for our lifelong learning organization in July.  By then, the birds will be quieter, having found mates and being busy raising peeps. By then, the water will probably be found only in residual pools. By then, a whole new succession of dyc’s will be in bloom.  But it will still be cool. And green. And old grandmother cottonwood will still be giving and receiving hugs in a time of human social distancing.

Social Distancing on the Continental Divide Trail

New Mexico Blue on the CD Trail

New Mexico Blue on the CD Trail

This morning dawned New Mexico blue, offering an invitation to take Dog and go up to a favorite section of the CD Trail, a short 15 minute drive from home.  My hike on this portion of trail is usually about 3 miles round trip and takes Dog and I roughly two hours.  We frequently have this section of trail to ourselves.

As I pulled into the parking at the trailhead, a good friend pulled in behind me.  Meeting was totally random but welcome.  Up until this morning, we have seen each other through computer cameras and zoom.  Dog was thrilled; this is one of her most favorite persons who usually has a bit of doggy bacon in his pocket.  We visited for a few minutes at the distance of Dog’s 18 foot leash, then he went down-trail and I went up.

We didn’t get too far before meeting up with another hiker and her dog, Jack.  Jack and Dog know each other from the town’s dog park, so they shared a brief greeting and a sit-down while she and I caught up a bit.  Good to see folks I know, doing the same things I love in the places that make us smile and feel grounded.

Signs that this section of trail is loved and valued: someone left a painted rock on a tree trunk next to the trail.  Another someone carefully positioned a pine cone and a pebble on a lichen-covered rock. A little cactus, unusual to be found at this elevation and in this habitat, has been rocked off to protect it from mountain bikes.  These touches mean a lot in a time when human connection is more difficult to sustain.

Flowers are beginning to pop up.  And the oaks are turning golden, ready to drop their leaves in favor of new buds.  As an aside, when I first moved here and saw all the oaks turning yellow in April, I thought they were dying of some dread disease.  Coming from the East Coast where all the trees turn and drop leaves in the fall, I had no idea that here, this is the natural order of things.  Oaks drop their leaves in the spring so that the monsoons, when they come, can water the trees into full new leaf.

Another welcome sign on the trail: the rancher who had a lease to graze this section of forest must have moved the cows somewhere else.  For a full year, I found no tracks, no scat, no sign of the wild animals that inhabit the forest.  Only cow tracks breaking up the trail, crossing and tearing down the hillside, denuding the earth of its grasses. And piles of cow dung.  Now that the cows have been removed, sign is coming back.  The gray fox has been marking the rocks in the trail. Hawks or owls are sitting on overhanging branches, munching their lunch and leaving white stains of uric acid on the ground underneath them. And this morning, I heard a warbler calling in the trees nearby.  I could see it flitting through the branches, but not well enough without my binoculars to identify the little guy.  I pished at him for a couple of minutes but only succeeded in getting curious stares from Dog, while the warbler darted on off among the treetops.

By the time I got back to my truck, the day was growing hotter.  The Ponderosa pines were scenting vanilla and cinnamon on the breeze and the earth, in the sunny spots, was smelling flannel-warm.

During this time of social distancing, our Gila National Forest, like other parks, forests and wildlands, is getting heavily used.  Sadly, not everyone escaping to the forests or parks is treating their wildland of choice with respect, care and protection. Trash and worse are left along the trails and piled around the locked bathrooms and trashcans, creating health and safety risks for humans who have to clean it up as well as danger to animals. Graffiti mars petroglyphs. ATVs cut tracks where only deer should be leaving theirs.  So a plea from one who finds sanity and peace on our public lands: be careful-be responsible-be safe and keep it clean. Remember — Do No Harm.

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