Monday, July 22, 2019

The Park, FR 378, FT 31- San Mateo Mtns, Cibola National Forest

 The last two summers I've been visiting some places of interest in the San Mateo Mountains. I know, I know, the extremely rugged, hot, dry and burnt over San Mateos are not exactly the best July destination, but I have time on my hands in the 6th and 7th months of the year. The driving distances have always been hard to justify ( although the the driving times aren't so bad to east side locations because of their proximity to I-25) for a day hike, which is why almost all of our hiking in the range has been in conjunction with a camping trip.
In 2017 I went to the amazing and awesome box of East Red Canyon. In 2018 I visited the nearly as amazing and awesome box of  Deep Canyon. It was hot both times, but I kept the hiking distances short. There was enough shade, so I didn't really ever feel uncomfortable.
 I was hoping for some earlier rain this year to green up the place a bit, and perhaps bring down the temps before I ventured out. I kept going back and forth in my mind between going to Cold Spring Canyon Trail(FT 87) or the  Indian  Creek Trail( FT 48). One had a much shorter drive, but a much tougher hike( Indian Creek). Cold Spring's trailhead was further away with the last dozen miles or so on forest roads that went from slow to slower to slowest, but, at least for the section I was planning on walking would be easy walking with only one elevation section on the way in and out, whereas Indian Creek would have two climbs that appeared to be mostly without shade.
 Thursday morning, I tossed out both, choosing to reserve them for cooler times of the year, and decided  I was headed to little canyon  in between called The Gorge. I quickly figured out how to get reasonably close with various forest roads and then off I went. I was hoping just to get in a short ( the continuing heat was precluding anything over 5 miles roundtrip) morning hike to what appeared to be a rocky, deep, scenic and steep little canyon and get out and on my way, much like the previous two years' hikes.
 Well, it got complicated. There was road closure sign at the beginning of FR 225 due to the Roberts Fire which had started  five days earlier. Still, I drove on hoping it didn't affect where I was headed. A local fire official in a  white pickup was coming the other way a short time later. He seemed to think the closure was meant for the very road I was on, and told me I was going to run into the fire camp shortly. Which I did, where I talked to two very nice forest service employees, who gave me the low down on the fire and the closure perimeter which handily eliminated all three of the options I had researched. We talked about a few options outside of the the perimeter, one of which was a place called The Park. I turned around and drove back out. When I got to NM 1, I decided to give this place The Park  a shot. I headed north to NM 107 and then west on FR 378. FR 378 starts off okay up on the grassy mesa, but then heads down into a shallow arroyo ( Horse Mountain Canyon) where the going gets rougher as it crosses back and forth over the dry streambed. Once it leaves the creek, it gets significantly rougher and slower still, as it narrowly weaves along the hillside, plunging steeply in and out of side drainages. The seven or eight miles from the Tigner Ranch to Park Well took around 45 minutes. Now, I wasn't super happy about the fact it was already 10:30 and all I had been doing for the last three and a half hours was driving, but I was glad to finally arrive somewhere. The Park was large and level enough for a ball field and the closely cropped grass was just beginning to green up. Juniper and a couple of pines dotted the flats and rimming hillsides.

 I got out. It was hot and just humid enough to feel a little unpleasant. I started  following a rutted two track to the west. I was thinking it would curve around to the north to Exter Spring where it would dead end. I only found after my hike that there was another set of tracks going past the well curving west and then north like I had expected.
Well the rutted "road" turned into single track trail and began heading into a sizable canyon. I headed down. Junipers grew out of red dirt patched with well mowed ( by bovine teeth) grass. I thought about going downstream first, but upstream there were red rock cliffs, pinnacles and fins, plus the massive  southern rim of the Mount Withington  section of the mountains rising above.

I headed up and eventually found remnants of a trail and well cut blazes.  This is when I finally clued in ( duh!) that I was in the upper reaches of East Red Canyon. I hadn't researched doing this trip, so I didn't know that East Red first curves to the north, and then to the west from where it's trail head is at the end FR 331 at Turkey Spring. I also was pretty sure that this trail( FT 31) was part of the closure order, but I wasn't heading straight back up the 300 feet I had just come down without seeing a little more of this canyon.

 The canyon got very narrow as I continued on. There were oaks, chokecherry and other forest shrubs I see frequently in shaded areas but can't ever seem to get the names right.  The lack of any real riparian trees  told me that this canyon only flows very infrequently.Occasionally there were clumps of willows and I had seen some pieces of black rubber hose, so I checked my forest  map and saw there were two springs in this reach of the canyon: Narrow Spring and Bear Spring. I  found one but it wouldn't even qualify for moist, more like damp.
The walking was pretty easy for a couple of miles. The higher I went, there began to be firs and spruce in the canyon bottom as well as emerging from the scree slopes of the steep canyon sides. Bear and elk scat  were here and there along the path. I kept telling myself as I went " just around this next corner, and I'll stop." I rested, I drank. I ate a plum, which wasn't a good idea because it puckered up my mouth which continued to feel relentlessly dry.

 I hadn't eaten breakfast, but the thought of lunch, perhaps because of the heat, humidity and exertion, nauseated me. My anxiety was high. I wondered why I put myself directly into situations that are guaranteed to make it worse. Oftentimes it's hard for me enjoy the moment because of the worrying:"Will I get flat?, will I get caught in thunderstorm,? struck by lightning? Will I get attacked by a bear? Why am I always going to such remote areas?" etc. etc. etc..
 Sometimes I think I just do things to have  something to write about, because this time, sitting at the computer writing and looking through my photos, which always look peaceful and never can convey the heat, sweat, dehydration, exhaustion and, yes, the anxiety, is alway good.
Eventually the trail headed northwest and I had to climb up a boulder strewn ravine. At a spot where it leveled off, below a rock tower, and the first aspens I had seen, I saw one more blaze in a stout oak, but I really couldn't find another nearby or any tread whatsoever. I had the idea at that point of making it to Lava Spring or New Lava Spring or even the dividing ridge to look down West Red Canyon, but I was  too tired for any bushwhacking. I was probably less than a half mile from the top, but I also surmised there was still a lot of elevation to be gained. I turned around.

I hustled back, realized how much the trail had been uphill as I went back  down with gravity on my side. Clouds had darkened the sky now. I heard distant thunder and very few drops landed on me, although I wouldn't have minded had there been a whole lot more. Climbing on the steep trail back up to The Park was a slow process due to frequent resting periods. I could smell smoke from the fire as I reached the top. I made it back to the blue, blue Tacoma and let that AC flow.

NOTE: My apologies to the very helpful Forest Service personnel at the Magdalena Ranger District as I  inadvertently ended up hiking on a trail that was part of the closure order. It was definitely not my intention.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Wet Burnt Canyon - LIncoln National Forest

 We went out Friday afternoon to camp on a friend's property on 16 Springs Road. They've done a beautiful job of thinning the 20 acres to let the sun in and the grass grow. It was peaceful spot in the pines, where we could see across the valley to the ridge to the north. We watched deer as they watched us. Green hummingbirds came to say hi and each night the moon grew fuller.

Saturday morning we drove on the Carr Gap Canyon Road(FR 607) to the top of ( well nearly the top) of Wet Burnt Canyon. We hiked down what was once an old road, but now a single track wildlife trail in the drooping clumps of long grass.
 We saw elk early on and listened to jays and ravens talking in the trees. Small open areas had ungrazed meadows. Oaks and a few cherry trees grew among the pines and firs.  Unfortunately the streambed of white and gray limestone cobbles was completely dry along the 2 plus miles we hiked, although there is a spring much farther downstream on private property that can flow for  a ways.

We passed  primitive roads, not on any map, coming in from both the north and south, but saw no tire tracks of any kind in the canyon until we reached our turn around point near where  FR 607D comes in at the confluence with Lower Wet Burnt Canyon and an un-named tributary from the north. We sat in the shade near a limestone bluff contemplating what would become  a return trip with many rests and even a bit of carrying for our overheated dogs. The hike had been from 7800 to 7200 feet  elevation but it was in the mid-eighties and in the open areas it felt more like the mid-nineties.
 Luckily a few clouds had mercy on us and blocked the sun for few crucial stretches of the return trip.

 Even though this canyon is near well maintained roads, and not far from ranches and private homes at Sixteen Springs, because of lack of livestock,  it had a very remote wilderness feel to it, a definite rarity in much of the Sacramentos section of the Lincoln.
 We returned to the camp for lunch, and then set out to spend the rest of the warm afternoon at another friend's property on the Rio Peñasco. As we drove on the twisting and turning, but well designed and wonderfully maintained  Car Gap Canyon Road  as it  traversed ridge tops and dove into canyons for its entire length, I became quite curious at to why this route would even exist. My guess is that like many roads in this part of the Lincoln it was once a logging route, only this one got the star treatment from the Forest Service and now is a wonderful, if hopelessly remote, scenic drive.
 Down at the river  where it was shady and cool, the dogs forgot their travails of the morning and found new energy.  They waded, drank and smelled the smell of every creature that visits this oasis for a sip of water. I got in the water up to my neck, because it just seemed like the thing to do. Later, I noticed some fly leader and a box of flies still in my backpack, so I rigged up a cane pole with a stick and caught a couple of chubs. I was hoping for a trout, but I'm pretty sure all of the  many fish I could see in the clear water were chubs also.
 We drove back on the county road( C-9) that runs  from US 82 back to Sixteen Springs. This was a narrow rough  road that follows Elk Canyon and only improves when it returns to Forest Service land. What was surely once a scenic valley area through steep hills and limestone cliffs has been vastly altered by fires and relentless livestock grazing leaving it looking rather sad and in need of a lot of rain and  a lot of love.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Mineral Creek, Cooney Canyon - Gila National Forest

  Last year, when the store in Alma was the only place around to pick up supplies, Doug Scott and I drove up from Glenwood's Los Olmos Lodge  to buy some bread and few other items. As we were leaving and heading back, I looked longingly down the Mineral Creek Road ( FR 701, also Catron County 007), and silently promised myself I would return soon.
 A little more than a year later, I'm driving down this road a before seven in the morning, happy as I go for keeping my promise. There are two parking areas at the trailhead, I first I parked in the outer one, but then as I saw a small, very vintage, pickup come out past the sign that points to Forest Trail 201, I got curious about how much farther the road went. I often make the mistake of parking further away than I need to, and decided not to this time. Turns out, it didn't matter  as it was maybe, a bumpy 100 feet or less to the second parking area and the start of the trail.
Off I went, first on the well worn trail, and then onto the bedrock of the box canyon. Cliffs and towers  of  pinkish rhyolite rose up hundreds of feet on each side of me, dazzling in the early morning light. I saw a few fish, not trout, but dace, in the deeper water of tight bend. I blind casted into a few likely spots with no results and then below the largest single waterfall ( perhaps 6 or 7 feet) of the several small ones in the box, I hooked and pulled up a healthy Gila that was  10 -11 inches or so.  It put up more of fight than I expected. The Butterstick's extremely soft action contributed to this, but I got it released in a reasonable time, even if it was a bit longer than ideal.

 I stayed with the creek, and not the trail from this point on, excepting a  few stretches where the willows and alders grew so thickly on both sides of the shallow stretch of creek. Approaching the stream, and getting off a cast in these spots seemed like a waste of precious time given the lack of pools and the difficulty involved.
As I walked on the fish were now in most any  pool that was over a foot deep ( and there were many much deeper) below small falls and where the stream ran dark  under gray boulders. Sometimes I was casting my little coachman style dry fly into the clear, cold water, deep enough  to hold  a fish or drifting it in and out of the froth. The larger ones would appear from the shadows for a lazy look, or slow take.  Some stayed hooked, some did not. The smaller ones( most around 7 inches) would dart out with unbelievable speed, so that at times I did a double take to see if my eyes were playing tricks on me. I knew soon enough, when they were hooked and we were off to the races.
Other times I was casting to fish I could see, which is I always feel is kind of a luxury, even though I usually get to enjoy  it at least part of time on small streams like this. Watching the take is always fun, although being patient enough with the set was a little hard for me, now that I fish so much less often, but I did okay.
 Large red and black dragonflies buzzed the pools,  and I saw a trout throw itself out of the water at one.  It would've been like Thanksgiving dinner had it been able to get it in its gullet. After that I did some false casting right above the pool's  surface with my dry before letting it land. It worked.
 Through the old mining camp of Cooney, there were foundations and walls, a tin roofed shack, a heavy iron safe, and other rusty artifacts. Various sizes of water pipeline, some still suspended by cables from the cliffs were there as well. There were still fish to be caught as well, although this section was probably the least shady.

 Past a large headframe with concrete foundations and  rusty ore processing machinery on the north side of the canyon, the valley narrowed and Mineral Creek seemed to transition into a middle elevation forest stream. There were still many idylllic pools to cast into as I continued to march upstream, catching and releasing fish as I went. Large boulders( though nothing on the scale of those I saw in Rain Creek) had fallen into the stream through this stretch. On the north facing hillside: red cliffs and bright green firs. On the south facing side were wavy black and white cliffs with ponderosa pines and juniper.

 I had set my turnaround at 10:30, but as the weather wasn't threatening in the least, I continued on till 11:00. What a luxury it was to not be hurried. I had mostly gotten my fill of fishing, a rarity, and it wasn't even lunchtime.  I followed the trail more on my return, but still threw a renegade fly into a few more pockets and still caught a few more fish. One of the last ones of the day was from a pool, fed by spring, rimmed with algae whose center was crystal clear in the bright sunlight, Several 9-12 inch Gilas, these with large black spots toward the back unlike most of the fish caught which were fine spotted all over, swam around unconcerned. I had a good hiding spot, but thought they'll never take the fly. It's too clear and too still. It took just a few casts, and I had one, maybe not the best, but still a beauty.
The algae made the fight and release a little problematic, as it had several other times during the morning. In retrospect it might have more sense to just wade in and release from the deeper water. Note for the future.
 I ate my lunch  slowly around 12:00. Further on, back in the box canyon, I unzipped the bottom halves of my pants, took off shoes and socks and got right into the cold water below a waterfall. It hardly fazed me, the day had gotten so warm. I sat on the very warm bedrock afterwards and dismantled my rod and reel and then walked jauntily onward. I met a couple of guys and a dog named Zeke coming upstream.  I told them what I had seen,  and warned them about the poison ivy. I saw their wives resting in the shade a little further down. Wanting to snap a few more photos before I left, I noticed the large natural arch that I knew was somewhere along the creek but had not noticed on my way in. I was back to the truck at around 2:15. Perfect day.

 A few comments on the Gila Trout in this stream: Some takes were hard, but many were very soft. A couple of times I was ready to pull back to cast only to realize there was a fish on my line. Some fish were real fighters, even as I tried to limit the time on the hook, one even did a couple of low leaps.Others gave up without much struggle. All had the golden Gila cast, but some were dull, and others were bright. Some, the purple parr marks were prominent and looked like the fish I had seen on Rain Creek, while others had none at all.
 One last comment on Mineral Creek: Many places to fish and hike in the Gila have changed in the  25 years I've been visiting. Most, or nearly all not for the better. I had never been to Mineral Creek before, but gauging from Rex Johnson Jr.'s description in Fly Fishing Southern New Mexico (written in the mid-90s), this stream may be an exception. It appears, from the overgrowth of grass, and the lack of cow pies, that grazing pressure is absent ( at least for now). 10 to 20 foot alders line the stream which will eventually form a canopy. New growth of willows is present in many places  as well.
Gila Trout are here now as well, answering a question put forth in Johsnon's book. A little over a thousand were put here in 2016 after ash laden floods post Whitewater Baldy fire removed the hybrid trout that had been there. They are  a stock from a hatchery originally, but will hopefully continue surviving, adapting and reproducing well, perhaps one day reaching the numbers of the hybrid trout that were in this stream way back when.