It didn’t quite happen that way.
We were set to camp at the confluence of Iron Creek and the Gila River (don’t let the name fool you; the river and creek are about the same size: small). The best way to envision the topography is to take a good look at your right hand. Snow Lake, a man-made reservoir where Der Truck was parked, is located in the curve where your thumb and index finger meet. Your index finger is Iron Creek Mesa. We had previously surveyed at the near end, where the index finger touches the hand. We were going out to survey on the far end, or the index fingernail. We camped between Iron Creek Mesa (index finger) and Clayton Mesa (middle finger), at the fingertips (so to speak).
It was a 4 ½ mile hike out, and we needed to pack out gear and food for 4 people for at least 8 or 9 days, so Wendel packed us in. We left Silver City, drove into Snow Lake that evening, and met Wendel there so we could hike out of the trailhead early the next morning.
The first morning dawned COLD. I had neat icicles in my water bottle. We hikers headed out on the trail (Zack, CJ, Tyler and I), and Wendel followed up an hour or two behind us. It was a long, winding walk, but we made it okay. We got in to camp, Wendel dumped our stuff and left with the mules, and we all took a nap in the heat of the day…which turned out to be a mistake, since we were seriously unmotivated when we got up and decided to take the rest of the day off. Tyler and CJ and I hung out at camp and read, while Zack hiked around the surrounding area to check out prospective plots.’
Mid-afternoon, smoke starts rolling into camp.
Now, we already knew that there were fires in the area. Zack had contacted Gila Dispatch before we left, and had received assurance that the area was safe to enter. Still, watching smoke drift through camp and seeing the sun and sunlight be the yellowest you’ve ever seen is a little worrisome. We went to sleep that night fairly resigned to the fact that we probably wouldn’t be able to stay the whole 8 or 9 days. Tyler got ashed on.
When we got up the next day, matters were much the same. We decided to get up on top of Clayton Mesa (middle finger) to start surveying, since the elevation would help our radio reception. We hadn’t been able to hear or transmit anything from camp. The supposed trail up the mesa was completely unfindable, resulting in an hour-long scramble up loose rock and gravel, over boulders, and up some rock faces with our day packs. I had a bad, bad encounter with a yucca, and CJ got spiked by a handhold that turned out to be somewhat cactusy.
When we got to the top, we saw more smoke…and the source. The fire was burning on the next mesa over (ring finger), and was working its way down the slope toward us. Bear in mind that this is not a wildfire, or a crown fire, but a slow-moving, nonetheless dangerous ground fire. We didn’t see any flame, but the conclusion was inescapable. We still couldn’t get anyone on the radio, so we hiked back down the mesa, bypassed camp, and hiked up the OTHER mesa (Iron Creek, index finger) to collect data and to try and radio out. Imagine hiking up two mesas in blazing heat and you will understand my weariness. The second mesa took me quite a while to summit.
Eventually, we made it up and did two plots. Then we hiked up to the very very top of the mesa for one last plot at about 3:00, when finally, we were able to make outside contact. For some reason, we were unable to reach the nearby Mogillion Baldy lookout, but we did reach Eagle Peak lookout…twice the distance away and at a lower elevation. Go figure. They relayed our message to Gila Dispatch. We were ordered to abandon camp at once and return to Snow Lake.
Let me elaborate. After a full day of double-intensive hiking and after doing two plots, we had to hike the 4 ½ miles back to Snow Lake, uphill. We were packed in with mules, so we have no frame packs…just little day packs, to hold all our gear. We had to abandon the food (locked down in panniers—Wendel retrieved it a few days later, but we had to leave the perishables behind). The trail is long, uphill, windy, lined with poison ivy, crosses the creek 9 times, and we are starting just before sunset.
I’m the slowest hiker, so after we book it down the mesa and pack up, I head out first. I have my day pack crammed to capacity with gear to the point where the seams are actually straining (it feels like a boulder). In one hand, I’m carrying a compression sack with all my clothes. In the other, a compression sack with my sleeping bag. Tyler fills one of the panniers with gear and packs it out on his back. Zack fills up his frame pack (he brought his, to carry plotting gear), and CJ fills his day pack to capacity, straps gear all over the back, and carries a duffel bag.
By the time I reached Snow Lake, after dark, I had an itchy red lump on my left palm that persisted for days. Crossing the creeks was an adventure, but I did it. Saw 2 glowworms. Barely ever stopped to rest, but was pretty proud of the way that I pressed myself to continue…the men never passed me. The worst part was the horseflies. If you don’t know, horseflies are large flies that bite, but don’t just puncture…they take bits of flesh out and it stings like bees. Furthermore, I had been bitten by any number of other flies and was covered in tiny, itchy little welts.
We all arrived at Snow Lake around 10, whereupon we checked in on the radio, had a chat with the campground hosts, and utterly crashed…no dinner.
The next day, Zack hiked back to get a pack he left and we all repacked Der Truck, then we drove back to Willow Creek (where we’d surveyed on the trip before). We stayed in the same campsite as before. We took the rest of that day off to recover, which made sense because it would have taken a long time to hike up the mesa and because the monsoons have arrived here and now every afternoon we get a hard rain. We set up camp, slept, and for the next 3 or 4 days, surveyed up on Iron Creek Mesa where we’d been the week before. Zack was disappointed, but we were short on options. Interestingly, our campground was also the launch point for the fire crew headed for the Moonshine Fire, which we had escaped. It turned out that they were holding it at Iron Creek, where we’d camped. -_- For the next few days, we’d pass fire crew on the trail, pass mule packers taking food into their camp, and have helicopters landing in the campground to airlift gear.
The fire budgets are so huge that food is ordered for these guys without paying much attention to how much is needed, so there’s a heinous excess that just gets thrown away. Zack talked to some of the packers and rescued cups of applesauce, Snickers bars, Oreo cookies, cans of fruit juice, and all sorts of treats that were dumpster-bound. We made short work of them.
Day before yesterday, we hiked up the mesa, walked about 3 miles to do two full plots (and two tree-only plots), walked back to camp, packed up, and drove out. Let me also tell you about this road. Our campground is about 2 hours from Silver City. One hour of that is along conventional highway. The other is the forest road that leads from Willow Creek, down the canyon, through the teensy ghost town of Mogillion (much like the little mining town on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride at Disneyland), up the canyon, and to the highway. Imagine a road that is unpaved, extremely dusty, and covered in loose rock. Imagine this road hugs a canyon wall, with a hard vertical wall on one side and a sheer, deadly dropoff on the other. Imagine this road winds about so much that your visibility is rarely 200 feet in front of you, with terrible hairpin turns and blind corners. Imagine that this road gets traffic in both directions, but is only one lane wide. Now imagine that this road is over 30 miles long. That’s our road to get in and out of Willow Creek. I’ve driven it 4 times now, and don’t care to ever again.
Returned to Silver City, had dinner, and Tyler and I made for Los Alamos yesterday morning. Excellent. Sadly, we return tomorrow. I’m tired.