We pack out into the Gila Wilderness on a Friday. Our destination is Rawmeat Springs, 20 miles away over desert canyons and way up onto the ponderosa forests of Langstroth Mesa. The first 7 miles or so are all uphill, through open desert or grassland. There’s no water until we reach Mogillon Creek. Obviously, in such a situation, you want to start your hike as early as possible so that you won’t get caught in the heat of midday.
Zack and Tyler and I get up at 4:30 am and make it to Gila by 6ish. Then we drive to the trailhead and wait around for everyone else to show up. When they do, we mess around for a while (this waste of time will become a recurring theme), then the hikers leave. The riders (Penny, Tyler, Zack, and I, plus Wendel and Ceci with the pack strings) stay behind to get the stock brushed, saddled, and packed. The riders head out around 10:30.
And so we ride out. Drake, Zack’s black lab, has a lot of trouble in the heat until we finally reach the creek. Heat glares off all the rocks. Some of the cacti are in bloom. Many miles later, at the creek, Cassie is having a bad bloody nose and will later sit in poison ivy. It is hot, hot, hot, and because we’re moving slowly and got such a late start, we have to stop for the night at a halfway point. Plus, the trails are badly overgrown and are easy to lose under deadfall. Later in the evening, we riders scout ahead to flag the trail and find our trail fork. Tyler and Zack continue on foot past the fork to check the trail, because if it’s impassable we’ll have to go around. Chaco, my big foxtrotter gelding, is so eager to get back to camp (and I’m leading another gelding) that he crashes through the brush at top speed as Chinook drags me back, and in the confusion of trying to rein my mount in, a dead branch gives me a nasty cut in the side of the neck that hurts for days. My hands and shoulders are also sunburned, but I brought aloe and feel better in the morning.
The next day, we pack out of our camp and up onto the mesa. The trail is so bad that it spooks the stock, which must often be walked, and we lose the trail often. Happily, I do quite well at finding and following the faint trail and working the stock around obstacles, and Penny praises me very highly. I think she named part of the trail after me. We head up Turnbo Canyon after turning off Mogillion Creek, and come out on top of Langstroth Mesa.
For those of you that have read the Chronicles of Narnia, I imagine that the Wood Between the Worlds looks much like this forest. It’s a sea of ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa)that stretches as far as you can see, studded with centuries-old Gambel oaks (Quercus gambelii) and carpeted with a sea of breast-high bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum, shockingly green.
We get into camp at dusk and Zack makes steak and gardenburgers for dinner. These gardenburgers result in me being sick with horrible nausea for the next two days, so I’m bedridden for this time. I’m not sure if the burgers were bad, or if I was just sick (nobody else was sick), but I was pretty wretched. These two sick days were the best of the trip, because they were the first in weeks where I was truly able to rest. I slept. I took light walks. I read my book (Frank Herbert’s Dune). I washed in the creek. The stock had disturbed the sod at the creekside, exposing wet mineral soil that attracted thousands of tiny pale blue butterflies. It was wonderful.
Rip, the packer’s dog that’s a 12 year old part Great Pyrenees, did not make the trip well and slept in the middle of camp for 3 days afterward.
The problem was that due to the nausea, I couldn’t eat anything for two days, so I was pretty weak when I went to work. This was made doubly hard by the fact that we were camping 5 miles away from the majority of our plots, and the hike to the plots involved going down and climbing up out of two sizable canyons. By the time I reached our first plot on my first day of work, I was wasted and had to sit down any time we weren’t moving, which wasn’t very helpful to my coworkers. It took a couple of days for me to recover, but by that point, Penny had decided that we would pack in later in July directly to these sites, and for this stint, we’d survey plots closer to camp. Made sense, considering how many hours it took to walk to and from camp.
There were enough of us that we split into two teams to work for the length of our stint. Each plot (1/10 acre) took about two-and-a-half hours to survey. We measured fuels, surveyed vegetation (species ID, height, and % coverage for 25 quadrats) counted all the trees in the plot and measured diameter (DBH), height, percentage of live crown, distance to live crown, status, and took core samples. It’s a bit of work.
The rest of the surveying days are a blur in my memory. We’d get up well before sunrise. I’d be packed and ready to go after I had breakfast. Most of the rest of the crew would have a leisurely coffee, then breakfast, then there’d be an elaborate cleanup, we’d make lunch to take with us, then get ready to go and leave. Then we’d hike up onto the mesa, the leaders would argue about where they wanted to survey and why (this took time), then we’d actually hike out to the location, pick a random spot (which often took several picks, since our random sites often turned out to be in clearings), and survey. After our 3rd plot we’d hike back to camp, arriving just before sundown. Dinner would be ready after sunset (around 9 here, which is too late for me to eat), then we’d clean up the elaborate meal and go to bed. At least, Tyler and I would go to bed. Everyone else would drink.
There were a lot of annoyances. We wasted a lot of time hiking. We got back too late and so had very little time to relax. People on the trip that claimed to be ecologists would defecate in drainages and urinate or bathe upstream of our camp…even after Tyler and I asked them to stop. Several people even urinated in camp, 20 feet from the kitchen and 20 feet from the stream (Tyler caught one of the girls in the act). Our meals were too elaborate and rich, and I got really hungry for simple food. The PEOPLE were very nice and fun to work with, but the PROCESS was extremely inefficient, which compounded my frustration daily.
Wendel packed in our second load of food, packed out, and returned several days later to pack us out (we were out around 12 days). Ceci came with him, bearing treats for us…salad greens that had already gone bad, a flat of suspicious strawberries (I ate them anyway), angel food cakes, and 4 pints of Haagen-Dazs ice cream (kept cold with dry ice). The ice cream was good, but it felt weird to be eating it in the wilderness. It was very generous for Ceci to have brought it, and Penny bought our other food with the best of intentions, but…it just felt as if nobody had any idea of what appropriate backpacking food was.
The day we left camp was awful. Tyler and Zack left at a good time (before sunrise) so they could survey snags on the way to our halfway camp. The other hikers headed out somewhat later. I stayed in camp with Penny and Matt to help the packers. Everyone (but Tyler and I) was hung-over from the night before. Now, listen:
Stock need to feed for a couple of hours in the morning and evening. This means that when you get to camp, you get the tack off right away so they can feed before dark (otherwise, they get agitated and paw up the ground under the highlines). This also means that if you want to get out of camp early, you have to get up and let the stock loose very early, so they’re fed by the time you need them. Therefore, packers are usually the first ones up. Wendel and Ceci slept in for several hours that morning. Eventually, Wendel came up for a leisurely coffee, THEN let the mules out. I had the joy of trying to pack up all the kitchen stuff so it wouldn’t rattle…again. This included a square metal box that held enough silverware and utensils for 16 people. -_____- We packed and packed and packed. Then we had to catch the animals, brush them clean, get the saddles on, pack the loads, attend to a bad hock wound on one of the Mollies, adjust our own saddles, mend a bridle that one of the mules had chewed through in the night, and go.
We left camp at 12:30.
In my opinion, that is f***ing unacceptable.
We made camp back at the poison ivy flat (I’d never seen poison ivy, but I learned to recognize it without getting it, luckily). I had been riding a light McClellan saddle on a tall roan mare, which had no crupper, and no breast strap. That’s like wearing a tube top. I had to stop three times to adjust my saddle blanket, which kept working back and diagonally. Plus, the leather straps on the stirrups kept catching and pinching the skin on the inside of my right leg, below the knee…VERY HARD. It hurt terribly, and I couldn’t identify what was doing it or how to fix it. My leg was deep purple and green when I got into camp that night, and that, combined with the asinine inefficiencies of that awful day which I had been stewing over for hours, had made me silently, absolutely livid. The hikers had reached camp an hour after the riders packed out.
I helped Wendel doctor Rhody’s hock again, which was badly infected, and went to bed. Luckily, everybody pitched in the next morning and the riders made it out of camp at 10, which was better, but still bad. That means we hit the open desert at the hottest part of the day. It was extremely hot, glaring, and I was very tired, sore, and irritable, as were the horses. We had a spook at a rattlesnake, Tyler’s horse went down on some slickrock, and Rip got exhausted and had to be packed out over Chaco’s saddle. It sucked. But we made it, eventually, and drove out of the trailhead in late afternoon after helping take unpack and take the tack down.
Blech. It was an unfortunate trip. Luckily, Zack is a sensible person, so I don’t think the subsequent trips will be this disorganized.