Dispatches
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Lion Food

Sunday, August 2nd, 2020: Animals, Black Range, Hikes, Nature, Sawyers, Southwest New Mexico.

It was forecast to reach the low 90s in town, so I figured I’d head for the high country. I could do the Black Range Crest Trail to 9,700′ Sawyers Peak, a hike I’d only done twice before because it was less than 7 miles round trip. I could make it longer by fighting my way through another mile and a half of deadfall, or I could try a branch trail that might or might not be passable since the 2013 wildfire. Although it’d be hot at first, I figured there was also a good chance of clouds and rain in the afternoon.

When I got to the trailhead up in 8,200′ Emory Pass, there were already two other vehicles, plus a pile of stuff concerning a lost dog: a khaki jacket, a pile of dog food, and a note with a phone number.

As I hiked up the trail, I pondered the dog note. All dogs are supposed to be on leash on these trails, but nobody complies with the rule, hence the lost dog. And if their dog was lost, why did they leave? Why wasn’t the owner still here, waiting or looking for their dog? Why did they expect others to find the dog for them? If I’d lost something that important, I’d be camping out on the mountain.

A quarter mile up the trail I met a young guy with a camouflage backpack and an Aussie cattle dog. He said he’d been out here before dawn, scouting for elk, since he had a hunt coming up in November. He said he’d seen four bulls together, up around the peak. I wished him luck with the hunt.

A mile farther, I passed an older couple, also with an off-leash dog, who said they’d climbed the peak. A little farther and I reached the branch trail junction. I was starting down through the high-elevation forest, aiming for vague patches of tread, picking my way over fallen trees, when suddenly a dog barked up ahead. The lost dog!

I talked to the dog in a friendly way, and soon it came into view. It was a dark brown, short-haired little hound, and it looked on its last legs. Holding my hand out, I got it to come to me. It seemed in a state of shock or severe depression. It had a collar but no tag. It looked like it could hardly stand, let alone walk. As I walked past to check out the trail, the dog laid down in a depression it had made in the dirt under a ponderosa pine. I hiked another 50 yards and discovered there was literally no trail left to follow. I told the dog I’d be back later, and continued back to the crest trail.

With no branch trail I was doomed to battle deadfall past the peak. But I’d done it once before, and this time might be easier because I knew where I was going.

Traversing the side of the peak I encountered the four bull elk. They were in the standing snags above the trail, and their racks were huge. This was the first time I’d encountered a group of mature bulls in the wild, and it was pretty impressive.

I decided to skip the peak on the way in, and decide on my return whether to climb it or not – it’s only a few hundred feet above the trail. I continued south on the abandoned part of the crest trail as dark clouds moved over the range from the northwest. Finally, as I approached the grassy knoll that was my destination, I saw three young buck deer up ahead. It was a day for male ungulates!

The bucks took off and I climbed the knoll. Lightning and thunder had started farther north, and there wasn’t much cover up there. I crawled under a low juniper and ate a lunch of mixed nuts while I watched the storm come to me.

Rain started as I got up to start back. It was light at first, but by the time I got to the saddle below the knoll I had to unpack my poncho. By the time I was working my way up through the steep jungle of deadfall toward the peak, I was in a full hailstorm with lightning striking nearby and deafening cascades of thunder. Just my kind of weather!

When I reached the saddle below the peak, I decided to climb it. I hadn’t stopped thinking about that poor dog, but I wasn’t going to cut my hike short just for some fool’s pet. Besides, the dog could at least find some water now that it was raining.

There was no trail to the peak, and it was a difficult hike up broken, rocky ground with lots of deadfall. On the way back down, I strained my knee, which had been giving me trouble for the past couple of months, so I had to stop and put on a stronger brace. My pants and boots were soaked.

Continuing down the trail, I thought about the dog. I checked my pack and found a nylon strap I could use as a leash. And luckily, I’d brought two sources of meat protein – a venison bar and some salmon jerky. I’d give the salmon to the dog. And I could lay my poncho down in the dog’s dirt depression and fill it with water. I’d taken a photo of the stuff at the trailhead, and when I checked my camera, I discovered I could zoom in on the note and read the phone number. I was planning to give the owner a hard time. No leash, no tag, what were they thinking?

When I reached the branch trail, I took off my poncho so the dog would recognize me. I started calling it, and when I reached its little bed under the big pine, I saw it coming up the slope toward me.

I laid my poncho down and poured a little water into it, but the dog wasn’t interested in that. So I poured out the salmon jerky, which it ate, but not with much enthusiasm. Then I fastened my nylon strap to its collar and started leading it up toward the saddle. The dog soon balked and stood firm, and I couldn’t drag it forward. So I took the leash off.

I noticed it was a female. “Come on, girl!” I urged. I walked a little ahead, and the dog slowly followed, stopping frequently to sniff the ground. We continued this way, slowly, to the saddle, and then down the trail, me turning back frequently to encourage the dog. Soon we reached a couple of fallen logs that had to be climbed over. I crossed easily, but the dog seemed completely at a loss. She glanced from side to side, then turned around and walked away from me, her head hanging down.

I went back and called her again, and she came up. “Come on,” I said, patting the logs. She put her front legs up, and as I backed away, she finally climbed weakly over. It was as if she’d never seen a log before. Her entire attitude seemed one of shock and depression. I forged ahead, but after I’d gone a dozen yards I turned and saw she’d stopped again. She sniffed the trail, then turned and headed back toward her comfort zone. She was apparently just going to lay down and die back there under that pine.

Lion food, I thought. I’d been thinking about this for a while. People pride themselves on adopting “rescue” animals from shelters, animals that would otherwise be euthanized. The new owners are supposedly “rescuing” these animals from death.

I have a better idea. Pets make great food for wild predators. These clueless pet owners could actually help native ecosystems by donating their domesticated animals to the wild. Pets are ecologically negative – they only serve to damage nature; as food for predators, they would actually be helping nature. I did feel sorry for that dog, but it had already given up. Its spirit could live on in a mountain lion, a real animal with an actual, positive role in this ecosystem.

I reached a place where a couple bars showed on my phone, so I called the owner, but it went to voice mail. I told them where to find their dog and said if they really wanted her, they’d have to come and get her.

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Getting Away

Monday, July 27th, 2020: Chiricahuas, Hikes, Southeast Arizona.

As Sunday approached, I’d been having trouble with chronic conditions in both my foot and my knee. I’d been using treatments that had always been effective on both conditions. The foot seemed to deteriorate with distance, whereas the knee was sensitive to elevation, so I figured I should do a little shorter hike with a little less elevation gain.

Our monsoon had started, so canyon hikes where flooding was a possibility were out of the question. I was all set to hike a peak in the Black Range, 7 miles round trip and less than 2,000′ of elevation gain, but something snapped when I got in the Sidekick.

I had to get away. I’d refrained from leaving my local area since lockdown began, last March. The Chiricahuas were an hour and a half and two counties away, across the Arizona border. But despite being across the border, the Portal area, in the northeast Chiricahuas, was more New Mexico than Arizona. The only paved road into that canyon was from the tiny unincorporated settlement of Rodeo, NM. And if I tanked up with gas, I could drive from my house to the trailhead and back without getting out of the vehicle, without interacting with strangers. Surely I could do that safely, just this once?

The Silver Peak hike entailed over 3,000′ of elevation gain, but was less than 9 miles round trip, and as I recalled the trail was in good condition and would be easier on my foot. Miraculously, on this beautiful monsoon Sunday, there was hardly any traffic into Portal, and the trailhead for this, the most popular trail in the entire range, was deserted. I wouldn’t see another soul the entire day.

Wildlife was reveling in the wet conditions. A hepatic tanager barely missed darting against my vehicle as I crossed the bridge over the mouth of Cave Creek. A big rattlesnake greeted me a hundred yards past the trailhead. Hawks and falcons swooped from ridge to ridge. Whitetail deer bounded through the trees from bottom to top of the peak. In the rockier drainages, water from recent rains was trickling down to the trail.

Despite this area being 1,000′ lower than my home, temperatures were mild, but humidity was high and my shirt was soon drenched with sweat. I figured I’d wait until I neared the peak, and rinse it out in runoff, but the higher I went, the less surface water I found.

Since this hike gains more elevation in less distance than any of the trails back home, it’s a relentless slog, and gets harder near the top. There must be a hundred switchbacks, many of them only a few yards long. Often stopping to catch my breath, sometimes after only a short rise gained. Always a relief to see the sky through the trees when you’re approaching the ridgeline.

Thunder clouds were growing, and I felt a few sprinkles near the top. Ladybugs covered most of the peak. From up there, I could see exactly where it was raining hard: over the encircling crest, to the west and south – although it also seeming to be pouring back toward home, way across the plains in the far northeast.

I took off my sweat-soaked shirt and bandanna, hung them over bushes, and sat down against the little shed below the ruined fire lookout. It had recently been vandalized. After a half hour my things were no drier, so I decided to hike down shirtless.

I hiked in and out of light rain and brief openings of sunlight. Finally, as I rounded the shoulder of the mountain and entered the Portal basin, the clouds pulled back and I was in full sun. A mile from the trailhead, I found a little waterfall and a pool of clear water to rinse out my shirt. That kept me cool all the way back to the vehicle.

Unfortunately for my foot, I realized that the last half-mile of the trail is the worst of our surfaces, a combination of loose and embedded rock, averaging fist-sized. This is probably one thing that will always trigger inflammation and limit my hikes – despite my stiff-soled hunting boots, prescription orthotics, and the biomechanical tape and felt I carefully apply before each trip. I recently read an online rant by an older hiker, complaining that big wildfires had removed soil and conifer duff from our trails, making them rockier, but I suspect these Southwest trails have always been tougher than trails farther north and east, or on the coasts.

Nearing the trailhead I encountered a group of three horses wandering through the dense oak forest near the paved road. One of them approached me, hoping for a handout, but I spread my empty hands and apologized. Sidekick was still alone at the trailhead. While hanging my shirt up to dry and loosening my bootlaces, I watched one of the horses rolling happily in the dust nearby.

Driving home, I could see a very dark sky ahead, and approaching town, I entered the rain. I’d been lucky, nothing had gone wrong, and maybe now I’d be content to stay near home for a while!

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Return of the Rain

Monday, July 20th, 2020: Hikes, Holt, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

Our drought, and our record heat wave, ended Friday with the first of our delayed monsoon thunderstorms. So I headed out to the high wilderness Sunday morning looking forward to a cool day and possible rain.

What I found, working my way up the creekside jungle in the canyon, was an explosion of red raspberries, and humidity so high my clothes were literally drenched with sweat before I’d reached the halfway point.

As I climbed the switchbacks toward the crest, thunder rumbled from within a dark mass of clouds to the southeast. The illegal cattle I’d surprised in the canyon a month ago had continued to follow the trail upwards, leaving their pungent cowpies on the trail and attracting flies that swarmed my dripping face.

A cold wind chilled me as I traversed to the final saddle. I could see curtains of rain behind me, out west over the plain. I’d gotten a late start and would stop at the little hill topping the eastern spur of the peak. The cows had been there before me.

My return trip down the canyon was slowed by foraging on raspberries. Bears had been up and down this trail as recently as this morning, eating voraciously and pooping copiously. It was shadier and cooler than earlier and my clothes had partly dried out, when it started to rain, pretty heavily, so I pulled my poncho out of the pack. After that, the problem was pushing my way through the thorny jungle without ripping the thin poncho to shreds.

The rain ended before I climbed out of the canyon, but on the drive home, I was rewarded by several rainbows.

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Closer to the Sun

Monday, July 13th, 2020: Black Range, Hikes, Hillsboro, Southwest New Mexico.

A heat wave across the entire Southwest had brought us record high temperatures, compounding the stress of our already unusually hot pre-monsoon in May and June. Our monsoon rains were delayed for at least three weeks, and the entire landscape was super dry.

During the week, I’d continued my afternoon hikes near town, because although it was in the high 90s at home, it always felt cooler in the forest. Now, on the weekend, I was hoping to find lower temperatures on the crest, 2,000′ to 4,000′ higher. And if not cooler temperatures, at least a breeze.

On the narrow highway winding up the canyon toward the pass, I was approaching a blind, shaded curve when I suddenly realized a tree had fallen across the road, and there was a log blocking half of my lane. I slowed and carefully drove around it. There was no cell signal here, so I continued to the pass, and after ten minutes of fumbling with automated directory assistance, managed to reach the local office of the state police.

A young woman answered, and I told her about the log blocking the highway near Emory Pass.

“What mile marker?” she asked.

“I have no idea, but it was just east of the Iron Creek Campground.”

“Sir, what was the mile marker?”

“Ma’am, I was driving and I didn’t have a cell signal until I reached the pass. But you can find it on any map, it was between Iron Creek Campground and Emory Pass.”

“Sir, I need the mile marker.” Silence. The signal was broken.

I shouldered my pack and locked the Sidekick. It felt just as hot up here as at home. I wondered how far I would get. I’d filled my 3 liters of water bottles with all the ice cubes in my freezer, but I knew they’d all be melted before I got halfway through the day. At least they’d be cooler than the air.

The first half of the hike is totally exposed, through the burn scar, so I raced up the trail, sweating profusely, aiming for the shady forest around the peak. In a minor miracle, a cloud mass was growing outward from the 10,000′ peak, and halfway through the hike, it covered me with blissful shade that lasted for most of the rest of the day. In the shade, it felt like the low 80s; whenever the sun hit me it felt like the high 90s.

The flowers were less spectacular than a month earlier, and the big butterflies had been replaced by swarms of little butterflies. When I reached the trail junction at the peak, in its rain forest-like habitat of old-growth firs, lush grass and tall ferns, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. It was a buck deer, youngish, lying down in the shade of the firs, about 40 feet away. He watched me without moving – he’d found the perfect resting place on a hot day and wasn’t anxious to give it up.

I hiked down the back side of the peak to a saddle 1,000′ lower, where the trail is blocked by a massive blowdown. I hung out there for a half hour or so, then did a leisurely climb back up the slope. The buck was still there, two hours later, but now he was surrounded by a flock of wild turkeys. As I stood watching, the tom turkey fanned out his tail in a display for the ladies, while the buck watched in seeming amusement. Peaceable kingdom on a hot day!

Driving down from the pass, I came upon a group of tourists, with two vehicles stopped in another blind curve of the oncoming traffic lane, doing something with their two vehicles, oblivious to the fact that they were blocking a state highway. I passed them and cautiously approached the bend where the tree had fallen across the road. The log was still there in the eastbound lane, eight hours later. But farther on, closer to town, the state police had set up a speed trap. Just in case you survived the log in the road, they were there to write you a ticket.

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Year of the Butterflies

Monday, June 29th, 2020: Animals, Hikes, Holt, Mogollon Mountains, Nature, Southwest New Mexico.

It’s been going on since early springtime, and I can’t keep quiet about it anymore.

There are more butterflies this year than ever before! I have no idea why. Are their predators in trouble? I don’t even know who their predators are.

First the small ones, yellow and white, along the wilderness trails. Then the bigger ones, in my yard at home. By now they’re darting and sailing back and forth all the time – I often mistake them for birds.

Landscape

I returned to my favorite local trail, the one with over 4,000′ of elevation gain that takes me to a peak with a view of the interior of the mountains. It’s more of a struggle each time, because more trees have fallen or been blown down across the trail.

Birds

Hectic time of year for birds, too! Turkey vultures and hawks circle overhead as mother quail shepherd their tiny young across the road. As I traverse stark burned slopes on the peak, the boomerang shapes of white-throated swifts rocket past my shoulder. And in the forest from canyon bottom to ridgetop, constant calls and song from a diverse community. Birds are less timid, often allowing me to walk right past them.

Flowers

In the lead-up to our monsoon, as the heat rises, the air dries out, and the creek dwindles, the first wave of flowers reaches its peak.

Butterflies

On the way up the mountain, I just enjoyed the butterflies. But on the way back, in the canyon bottom, I suddenly reached a large clump of Monarda where butterflies were converging from all directions, and I stopped in their midst to photograph them as they ignored me and went about their business.

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