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First Steps in the First Wilderness Part 2: April

Monday, April 22nd, 2019: First Steps in the First Wilderness, Trips, Wildfire.

So…a month and a half later, I went back to finish what I’d started: climbing over the crest, for a view into the back country, with its high peaks.

During the intervening weeks, I’d been carefully, and very gradually, tackling higher elevations and longer distances, trying to take care of my foot while walking on difficult terrain: crusty snow, avalanche slopes, loose rock overgrown by deep grass.

On this return visit to the Gila Wilderness, my experience of the trail was very different. I found the lower part of the trail much harder than the upper part, which just goes to show that the state of your mind and body are as important as your external environment. I’d started the hike with a certain lack of confidence, but when I passed the point that had stopped me before, I felt liberated. I knew I was going to make it over the crest and into the burn scar of the big wildfire, where I’d get a view of the backcountry with the highest peaks of the range.

The creek’s roar was toned down by now. Deciduous trees in the canyon bottom wore spring’s bright green foliage, wildflowers were coming out, butterflies were swarming. The banks of the creek were blanketed in lurid green grasses and forbs, and the golden bunch grasses on the slopes above had already gone to seed.

There’d been another vehicle parked at the trailhead before me, and a Silver City couple had signed in to the trail log before me. I encountered them about a mile and a half in. When they saw me coming through the riparian forest, they began scrambling about, and when I emerged fully into their view, the hysterical barking began.

It was a man and woman in their 70s, and the two of them were hugging a Rottweiler and a Shepherd each, holding them upright, barely restraining the big dogs as they filled the canyon with their violent barking, jerking and straining against their elderly owners to get loose so they could attack me. “Sorry! Sorry!” the owners kept shouting, but the dogs were so loud and so agitated that there was no question of me answering, let alone stopping to have a conversation. So I smiled and shook my head and continued up the trail, and eventually the barking ceased behind me.

If dog owners assume strangers are afraid of their pets, why do they impose their pets on us like this? I actually never have a problem with the animals themselves – the scourge of pet ownership is mainly down to pet owners’ irresponsibility, and it really has become a scourge, as a result of social media. Now, it seems like irresponsible pet owners form the majority. Dog owners, in particular, selfishly impose their antisocial pets on the rest of us, self-righteously adopting abused “rescue” animals and neglecting to train them or take responsibility for their behavior in public. And over and over again, when I’m in nature looking for wildlife, what I find instead is out-of-control pets and thoughtless, neurotic owners.

I labored up the side canyon, the trail’s grade exceeding 40% in places, through mature, dark, unburned forest with looming lichen-encrusted boulders and outcrops. There, a small hawk, maybe a male Cooper’s, dropped improbably to a limb in the dense lower canopy to check me out. After that, the switchbacks at the canyon’s head, and the long traverse to the stark, sparsely burned upper forest. A quarter mile beyond where I’d stopped in early March, I came to the runoff from a spring perched above the trail. The trail switched back again and climbed through the upper edge of the unburned forest toward the sharp edge of an outlying ridge.

I was already above 9,000′, and when the trail rounded the edge of the ridge, I entered the burn scar and saw the back side of Sacaton Mountain, five miles away across Big Dry Canyon, still draped with snow. On the stark east-facing slope ahead of me, young firs and pines had already established themselves at the feet of the remaining fire-killed snags. From here, it was only a short climb to the actual crest, at 9,500′, where thickets of aspens had sprouted after the fire, but hadn’t leafed out yet this season. Through the thickets I glimpsed the peaks of the range laid out in the distance to the east, each carrying the last snowfields of winter.

I walked down the trail another half mile on the far side, just to get a sense of it, but I’d already reached my objective and didn’t want to lose more elevation that I’d just have to regain. Besides, this part of the trail seemed to be completely hemmed in by dense aspen thickets.

It was gusty up there and I often had to hold onto my hat. I had a really hard time with my footing on the way down, trying to maintain grip and balance on loose rocks and the thousands of broken, rolling fragments of branches from trees that had fallen across the trail since winter. Struggling down a steep slope, trying to keep weight off the chronically injured ball of my foot, using the muscles of my ankle and foot to leverage my stiff boot as a semi-rigid platform, I ended up walking the five plus miles back to the trailhead with a pretty unnatural gait. This seems to be the new normal – I’ll never be able to forget this chronic injury, and I’ll never be able to keep up with robust hikers on treacherous ground. And I knew that after I got home, I’d need to ice my foot and do contrast bathing for a couple days, to get rid of inflammation, before going out for another hike.

But I was elated the whole way back, and even more so on the drive home, as my accomplishment began to sink in. Careful study of the topo map, elevation profile, and a GPS coordinate I logged before turning back, would show that I hiked a little over ten miles round-trip but climbed over 3,700′, the most I’d climbed in one day in over 40 years, since I was in my 20s. All in all, it was one of the six biggest day hikes of my lifetime, although nowhere near my 6,234′ ascent of Volcan Atitlan in 1978 or my 18-1/2 mile traverse of Utah’s Boulder Mountain in 1990.

The pictures hint at, but don’t fully convey how spectacular it was up there on the crest. The human eye is so far superior to the camera and digital screens – I was reveling in the details of the snowpack on distant peaks, which barely shows up in the photos, and I could see the rectangles of pastures, cropfields and farms many miles away and many thousands of feet below, through narrow passes in the outer ridges, which are totally invisible in the high-resolution photos I took.

It was great to be able to stride along the ridgetop, seeing the vast landscape shift around me in three dimensions, because the forest had been burned away. But it was also great, and surprising, to see patches where the forest seemed to be regenerating way up there on the crest, with abundant young trees and seedlings, in exactly the same mix of the parent forest, without any intermediate “successional” vegetation. The old notion of ecological succession was clearly an oversimplification – or could the Forest Service be doing some re-seeding?

The trail I hiked continues on for another four plus miles, to the heart of the wilderness where it intersects with a bunch of other trails which haven’t yet been restored since the big fire. There seem to be plenty of springs along the way, even at high elevation, so it might make for a good backpacking trip, a further exploration of wildfire adaptation. No end of future challenges!

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