This one was a difficult one for me, both physically and mentally. We returned to Willow Creek for the third time with the intention of doing further plots on Iron Creek Mesa. The first couple of days weren’t too difficult, as we just used the main trail to climb up the mesa and sample (it’s a mile long, and steep…but not as steep as going straight up the hill).
However, some of the following days were. We spent one morning hiking far out on the mesa to get into an area that, according to the fire atlas, had not burned within a hundred years (a potential control site). Upon arrival, we found that they were clearly mistaken (this turned out to be a recurring theme for this trip). Therefore, we hiked across the mesa (I don’t have as much energy as the others, and it’s frustrating to waste it) and spent the next few days sampling on a high-elevation leg of the mesa that was right above our camp…so instead of using the trail to get up and down, which was a much longer hike, we’d go straight up the 45 degree hill, navigating major deadfall and scree for about a 45 minute hike up. It was incredibly difficult, easy to get lost, and very frustrating for me, because I can’t hike as quickly as everyone else and usually wind up struggling to catch up.
The other problem with that is since I’m usually so far behind (well out of sight), I miss things. There’s a herd of 15 elk there that the 3 guys all saw, but I missed because I was way behind, and because it’s hard for me to follow someone when there’s no trail to mark his or her path, so I usually give the impression that I have a poor sense of direction because I don’t wind up in the same place—and I KNOW that’s not true.
Because I’m slower, I usually wind up leaving camp well before everyone else (so they don’t have to wait for me at the top, and I can take it easier), and I return the latest. The thing is, there’s a lot of cool things to see in these woods that will only be seen by the first couple people to show up. If I’m 5 minutes behind, I’m out of luck. Elk come to graze on the lush grass around Iron Creek Lake in the early morning, and I’ve occasionally seen the hind end of one there as I hike up because the elk’s been disturbed by the person in front of me. Sadly, every single time I’ve left early to be the first one up at the lake, there’s not been a single elk. And I’m being quiet.
On one truly frustrating day, I got up to the trailhead only to discover that I’d forgotten my rain gear and had to go back for it. I passed Tyler on the way back, then got my gear and headed up the trail with CJ and Zack well behind me. Halfway up the trail, I came upon Tyler, stopped, and amazed. That herd of 15 elk had been stopped and grazing on the trail, and he had watched them for 15 minutes. The ONE day I forget something, and I miss THAT. I saw not a single elk.
A few days into the trip we got tired and took a trip to Reserve, which is 45 miles out of the Gila (but on a much better road). We’d had an unsuccessful day of sampling because all the areas we tried to plot had not only historically burned (in contradiction to the fire atlas, and we have no way of knowing what year or with what frequency), but from the looks of the many stumps, had also been logged and/or thinned in the past. We never encountered this stuff in the wilderness area, but the Gila Wilderness is also bordered/encompassed by the Gila National Forest. Where wildernesses forbid logging, motorized objects (like chainsaws) or transport (cars, ATV’s…and necessarily, roads), all those things are permitted in national forests, which not only diminishes MY experience and damages the forests, but also messes up our sampling credibility. Bah.
So anyway, after little luck sampling in the NF that day, we climbed up (in Zack’s words) “that fucking hill”, did two plots, then hopped in Der Truck and peeled out for Reserve, NM.
It turned out to be a much smaller town than we thought, but still a nice change of pace, although it did seem to be the type of tiny town you’d associate with tumbleweeds and shootouts. Zack and CJ wanted beer, and neither of Reserve’s little stores sold packaged liquor, so they went to the saloon (“Uncle Bill’s Bar”, made more scary by the fact that I have an Uncle Bill) and got drinks there. Me being 21, I wandered in to see if I could get a virgin margarita. The bartender asked to see my ID, which says that I’m not 21, but also shows my birthdate, proving the opposite. The bartender drawled “if you’re smart, you’ll get this changed.” I ignored him, but what I SHOULD have said was “no, next time I will visit an establishment run by proprietors who can add.”
It doesn’t really matter, since I don’t drink anyway…but jeez, it’s expensive to renew licenses. I’m not renewing mine until it’s good and ready to expire.
We also got lunch at a little café I will call the Three Elk Heads Café, since that’s all I remember about the décor. Tyler and I shared a fabulous green chile pizza.
We hit the little grocery stores and got a few things, then headed back to Willow Creek for several more days of sampling. The monsoons will be rolling in soon, which has made things hard for us as we frequently get hard rain in the afternoons, which makes it hard to sample because we can’t write in the rain (and we don’t have Rite-in-the-Rain paper because Penny doesn’t think it rains in New Mexico).
We sampled hard at Willow Creek for 6 days. Then we packed up camp, drove to Snow Lake, and hiked back into Iron Creek…the camp from which we’d evacuated 2 weeks earlier. It was a long hot hike, but we made it okay. We had lunch, set up camp a little, and then…hiked UP Clayton Mesa into the burn to do tree plots all afternoon. Trust me, I’m toning up and losing weight.
I’d never been in a burn before, so it was interesting to see the aftermath of the ground fire that had recently chased us out. Clayton Mesa’s shape is quite the stereotype…steep sides and a totally flat top. It was also thickly scattered with volcanic rock, so the ground, ignoring the tree trunks, looked much like the surface of Mars after all the basal vegetation had been burned away. Our footprints left ashy clouds, and some places were still smoking where the fire continues to smolder in underground tree roots. All the ponderosas had yellow needles for most of the tree’s height, where the heat of the fire had killed them off. It was interesting to see the progress of the fire, what burned and what didn’t. In some places, the fire was stopped by a simple footpath. In others, a single tree would sit in a small island of unburned vegetation, saved for no discernible reason that I could detect. Such was the case of one extremely old, beautiful, lush green Gambel Oak, which sat in the middle of a char field like a miniature rainforest on the surface of the moon.
We got sooty.
We spent the whole next day up on the end of Iron Creek Mesa, and by pushing ourselves really hard, we actually completed our first 5-plot day. I think we’re going to keep it historic, though, since it was a strain on us all. 3-plot days are the norm, and although we’ve become efficient enough to crank out 4-plot days, we’ve often been thwarted by rain.
The next day, we returned to the aftermath of the Moonshine Fire on Clayton Mesa, did tree plots for a few hours, and then hiked back to camp, packed, and hiked out. It was hot and tiring and uphill, but we were tired and ready to have a break, and so I actually made the hike in 105 minutes…not bad with a full pack.
The hike was also cheerfully highlighted by my brief and frightening encounter with another hiker’s two dogs, one of whom gained the distinction of being the first dog to ever bite me (in the thigh, through my pants…two minor punctures, but STILL). The hiker apologized, and I warned him that three other hikers would be coming behind me, and one had a dog. He tied up his beasts. Thankfully, although the skin was broken, the teeth didn't pierce my pants, so I don't think I need to worry about infection.
That is all.