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Summer Solstice Between Fires

Monday, June 24th, 2013: Hikes, Mogollon Mountains, Nature, Southwest New Mexico, Whitewater, Wildfire.


With no plans for the day, I got up before dawn and climbed the slope of Boston Hill to deliver my sunrise prayer. Silhouetted against the glow of the eastern horizon, the smoke of the Silver Fire, burning its way through the ponderosa pine forest of the Black Range, trailed away toward the south. And the sun rose precisely behind the base of the smoke plume, setting the theme for this solstice.

This is our third year of apocalyptic wildfires. First, in 2011, the monstrous Wallow Fire, caused by careless campers, consumed most of the vast White Mountains forest in Arizona, one of my favorite nearby retreats, and the Horseshoe Fire, blamed on illegal immigrants, torched the Chiricahua Mountains forest southwest of here. Then in 2012 the Whitewater-Baldy fire, started by lightning, burned the 300,000 acre heart of the high Mogollon Mountains just north of us, and still, a year later, all trails in that area remain closed.

I had spent my first New Mexico summer solstice on Whitewater Creek, and last year’s maps had shown the fire burning down the steep canyon slope all the way to the creek and stopping there. I decided to venture into the closed area by taking the back way in, dropping into the middle of the canyon from a high ridge, to see how things really fared down there.

Picking my way down the steep trail over sharp, loose rocks, I noticed individual scorched junipers and pinyons on this, the north slope, but here most of the vegetation was intact, whereas far across the canyon on the opposite slope, large swaths of forest had been browned by the fire. The walls of Whitewater Canyon consist largely of cliffs, pinnacles, and talus slopes, but ponderosa forest can cling to surprisingly steep slopes, and I was glad to see about half the forest still green.

When I finally neared the treetops of the riparian canopy I could hear the creek down there roaring over rocks, and I saw that here and there, individual trees in the canyon bottom had burnt. The opposite slope was ash-covered and cleared of undergrowth, and charred or half-burnt logs and branches were scattered amidst the luxuriant creekside vegetation. Lower Whitewater Creek has always been full of small trout, but I didn’t see a fish anywhere, not even a minnow.

Finding a place to bathe and hang out in the shade is tricky here; long stretches of the creek are shallow and gravelly, and the fire had reduced coverage of the canopy. I worked my way upstream until I found a narrow spot between low, overhanging cliffs where there was a large flat rock next to a small pool fed by a tiny waterfall. It would be shaded till mid-afternoon when I would move upstream a few yards. June is our hottest month, and I didn’t plan to hike out until just before sunset, hoping to be in shade on the way up.

A more peaceful day would be hard to imagine. The only minor hardship was the gnats and flies which would swarm me any time I moved. As long as I sat or lay still, they would lose interest in me and gradually drift away. All day long, I bathed, snacked, drank purified water from the creek, read a book about African pygmies, watched birds in the canopy overhead and butterflies and dragonflies flitting above the creek, listening to the never-ending song of water on stone. Whereas in the past, there were always other hikers or equestrians in this popular canyon, the trail closures ensured that I was completely alone. Imagine going an entire day without any human sound, not even an airplane!

Sunlight waned and returned above as high, thin clouds formed and dispersed. Finally, after 7 pm, I packed up and started back. It was a hard slog, and I was torn between hurrying to reach the ridgetop by sunset, and taking it easier to enjoy the last golden light on the canyon walls. About a third of the way up, I saw the moon, almost full and bright as a new coin, rising from the head of the canyon.

Then, when I was far enough up to see the golden mesa fanning out below the mouth of the canyon, I also saw smoke spreading from another wildfire along the rugged horizon way over in Arizona, somewhere north of Clifton and Morenci. When I finally reached the top, I saw the sun setting into the smoke of this fire, so that burning forests both opened and closed this longest day.

I drove a narrow, twisting, and empty road down from the mountain under spectacular crimson clouds in a deepening blue sky, and the big moon shed a soft light on the hills and canyons around me as I found my long way back home in the night.



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Thursday, July 25th, 2019: Hikes, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico, Whitewater.

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First Steps in the First Wilderness Part 9: January

Monday, January 20th, 2020: Hikes, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico, Whitewater.

Above 8,000′, the snow was too deep to hike my favorite trails. And my 4wd was in the shop so I couldn’t drive muddy and/or icy roads to most of the other trailheads. After trying and failing to drive an unfamiliar backroad an hour from home, I was forced to fall back on a low-elevation trail into a popular canyon, a trail much shorter than I usually hike on a Sunday.

But it was worth it! I’d forgotten how beautiful the landscape is from this trail. The side canyons had rushing water, and the main creek was raging with snowmelt.

After reaching the canyon bottom trail, working my way up along the raging creek, and fighting my way through clouds of leafhoppers that rose from trailside shrubs in the few sunny patches, I was finally stopped when the trail ended in an impassable rockslide. None of these trails has been maintained since the 2012 wildfire.

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Wet Enough?

Sunday, July 4th, 2021: Hikes, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico, Whitewater.

What is it about this year? First, the summer solstice fell on my hiking day. And now, the 4th of July, the day Americans celebrate the violent founding of their colonial state by blowing things up.

There was no way I could get away from my fellow Americans on this day, they’d be swarming all over the backcountry – except for our wilderness area, which was still closed, despite the big wildfire having been snuffed out by monsoon rains. Almost all of my favorite hiking areas had been off limits for over a month now, and I was getting desperate.

One trail remained open, far to the north, another two hour drive from home. It traversed some of the worst burn scars from the 2012 wildfire, near the crest of the mountains, gradually descending into the headwaters of the longest and most dramatic canyon in the range. The Forest Service listed this trail as “cleared”, but I’d tried it a couple years ago and found it badly eroded and blocked by some nasty deadfall.

However, since then I’d hiked much worse trails, so maybe I should give this one another chance. In general, I prefer peak hikes rather than canyon descents, but the climb back out of this canyon didn’t look too bad on the topo map.

We’d had a week of cool days with light rain – typical monsoon weather, but a little too early. The old timers say “rain in June, poor monsoon”. Sunday was forecast to be warmer and drier, and most of this hike would be exposed on a south-facing slope, so I packed ice in my drinking water reservoir again.

However, when I finally reached the mountains, the air was cool and storm clouds were forming. The access road passes through the little ghost town, and then becomes a very rough, steep dirt track that twists through dense forest and climbs 2,000′ in a few miles. After the first mile or so I was surprised to pass a young woman dressed in a stylish fitness suit, hiking up the road alone, carrying a tiny day pack.

At the trailhead I found three young guys, probably college students, camping and having a party. They’d gotten there in a tiny, 20-year-old Nissan sedan – I’m often amazed by the vehicles people bring on these backcountry roads.

The hike starts at the very edge of the wilderness area, with a super-steep climb through dark fir and aspen forest to the top of a ridge at 9,000′, followed by a long traverse across moonscape burn scar, dipping into remnants of intact forest here and there. Summiting the ridge, you enter a new world that can only be reached on foot: the vast watershed of the range’s biggest and deepest canyon system, with 3,000′ of surface relief between the peaks and the shadowed canyon bottom. That steep-sided canyon system, rising to the peaks and ridges on the skyline, becomes your view as you traverse the burn scar. The fire left big swaths of dark green conifer forest, especially on the lower slopes, but even the burn scars are carpeted now with the brighter green of aspen, Gambel oak, and New Mexico locust.

On my first visit I’d found a big pile of fresh elk scat on the trail at ridgetop, and it was no different this time. I found no human tracks anywhere, but lots of elk tracks and scat, plus scat from numerous small carnivores and the occasional bear. Elk often seem to use man-made trails as highways through the mountains between favorite forage grounds.

Despite being abandoned by humans, the first mile and a half of trail turned out to be easier than I expected. There were clear stretches of a hundred feet or more between fallen logs, and the monsoon wildflowers were lovely. I’d missed strawberry season, but the raspberries were on their way to ripening.

A dark mass of clouds had been forming straight ahead, over the highest part of the range, accompanied by the rumble of distant thunder. When the rain reached me, it started light, and I didn’t pay it much attention because the hike was getting harder – the farther I went, the more deadfall and the more thorny New Mexico locust filling in the burn scars and choking the trail.

But suddenly rain began falling harder, and I had to stop and pull on my waterproof poncho.

Now I was hiking in a downpour, and everything got much harder. The deadfall logs were slippery and the footing underneath – loose dirt and sharp rocks – more treacherous. I had to slow down and use a lot more caution. The trail came to a deep gully containing intact forest, descending hundreds of feet at between 30 and 40 percent grade, then climbing up the other side. I suddenly realized my boots were filling with water – I could feel it sloshing back and forth. They’re made of leather and GoreTex and should be water-resistant – how was the water getting in?

I tried to speed up, but the trail was getting much worse the farther I went, and the storm was really dumping. Locust thorns started tearing my poncho apart, so I tried to stomp them as I walked, but they were just too thick.

These monsoon storms usually only last 20 minutes or so. I was hoping this one would end soon, and I could stop in the canyon bottom, drain the water out of my boots, and put on the spare socks I carry in my pack. They would get wet, but they were wool so they’d still keep my feet warm.

The rain did eventually fade, but shortly afterward, I reached a point where the trail just disappeared into a jungle of thorns and deadfall. If I’d been dry, I might’ve tried to penetrate it, but with my poncho torn up and my feet sloshing in water I was frankly miserable. And my last view of the canyon had shown it to still be hundreds of feet below me. I wasn’t anywhere near my planned destination.

I stopped there in the jungle, used a deadfall log as a bench, and spread out the damaged poncho on the ground underneath. All my clothing was soaked. The only thing I had that was dry was the spare socks and three bandannas in my pack. I dumped the water out of my boots, took off my wet socks and used two bandannas to dry my feet and sop as much water out of the boots as possible. Then I put on the dry socks and had lunch.

I’d really been looking forward to reaching the canyon bottom – there’s supposed to be a nice meadow there where backpackers camp. This spot in the jungle was cramped and uncomfortable and I hated to end my explorations there, but I really had no choice.

As I headed back up the trail, storm clouds were parting, opening up patches of blue sky, and re-forming in the distance to the west. I could see a veil of rain hanging over the mouth of the canyon, a dozen miles away. I knew I should be grateful we were having this rain, but I was just bummed about going home early from another failed hike.

While I was returning up the trail, and watching the weather developing to the west, another mass of clouds was forming behind me. For some reason, I’d assumed I wouldn’t have any more rain today, but I was wrong. Just as I began crossing the deep gully with intact forest, drops began to fall, and as I climbed the steep slope out the other side, the rain fell heavy on me again. I pulled the wet, torn poncho out of my pack and pulled it back over me and my pack. By the time I topped out of that gully, my feet were soaking wet again, and I still had a couple miles to go. I was not a happy hiker.

Between climbing over logs and pushing through locust thorns, I gazed down at my boots, and suddenly realized that the GoreTex on the “tongue” of the boot simply wasn’t working. When the boots are laced, the base of the GoreTex tongue forms a little hollow, and rainwater was funneling into it and directly through the layer of GoreTex straight onto my toes. So much for “water-resistant” GoreTex.

There was nothing to be done about it, so I just kept picking my way carefully through the maze of thorns and deadfall. Lightning was striking all around me, every few minutes, followed by cracking, rolling thunder. And there I was in the midst of a burn scar, totally exposed, high up in the sky.

Under the brighter sky of morning, my eyes were free to enjoy the mottled tapestry of the mountains. Now, negotiating an obstacle course in the midst of a storm, I was mostly staring at the ground in front of my feet, until a flash of lightning or crack of thunder yanked my attention up to the low, dark ceiling of clouds.

Eventually I crested the ridge. I gave no thought to leaving the dark clouds and stark slopes of the big canyon – I was relieved to be dropping back down through the dark forest, returning to my truck and driving home to dry off. The rain faded to a drizzle.

The partying campers had left, but as I approached my truck, a late-model minivan came careening down the steep, rocky road, where it encountered a convoy of three big pickup trucks heading up. The first of the pickups stopped beside my truck, and the passenger window rolled down. There were two teenage guys inside staring at me, and the driver said something – I could only make out the word “truck”, so I stepped around my vehicle and said, “What’d you say?”

Still staring at me, he spoke again, but so quietly it seemed he might be speaking to his companion instead of me. I walked up to their window and repeated “I can’t hear you.”

The driver looked embarrassed. “Sorry, we’re looking for somebody.” He smiled and drove off, the other vehicles following.

I loosened my boots – everything I was wearing was wet, I didn’t have any more dry clothes with me, and I would just have to drive home that way – all two hours of it, including the scary one-lane road from the ghost town.

Fortunately I didn’t encounter anyone on the one-lane road, but I did pass through some apocalyptic rain on the highway – twice. It rained so hard the road was flooded and I had to slow to avoid hydroplaning. Wet as I was, I felt lucky to get home safe.

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