All pictures in this article were taken on my 2010 backpack into the Gila Wilderness in Southern New Mexico.
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The mesa above Salamander Canyon, Gila Wilderness, New Mexico
The Gila Wilderness Area in Southern New Mexico was the world’s first wilderness area. In 1922 Aldo Leopold, a US Forest Service supervisor, proposed that the entire area be saved from commercial exploitation and private ownership and that it be preserved as a pristine wilderness free from the often destructive hand of man. Leopold was an early naturalist who wrote a famous book called “Sand County Almanac” about his home county in Wisconsin which has become a classic of environmental literature. It is still a very good read. Due to Leopold’s insistence, the US dept of the interior decided to save the Gila for posterity. On June 3, 1924, the Gila Wilderness become the first of the US Wilderness Areas and the first location in the world to be deliberately set aside as wilderness.
The Gila Wilderness is almost 600,000 acres of high southwest buttes cut by the deep canyons of the West, Middle and East Forks of the Gila River. It is a land of rock and pinyon and juniper and ponderosa, full of bear and elk and mountain lions that is still one of the most lonesome places on earth. Quite a few people visit the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in the southern part of the Wilderness, but the interior of this road-less land is seldom visited compared to many of the more popular Wilderness areas. Indeed, the loneliness of the area is one of the prime reasons for visiting it. We didn’t see a soul on our five day wilderness backpack.
Last week, near the end of March, 2010, eight of us set out from the Visitor Center near the Gila Cliff Dwellings for a five day backpack in the canyons and mesas on the east side of Middle Fork. My son Mike was our leader. Mike teaches in the outdoor department of a nationally renowned private school in Albuquerque, The Albuquerque Academy. Since he is the faculty sponsor of the school’s Outing Club, he was asked to lead a group of five students on a backpack into the Gila and he asked me and his twelve year old daughter Rachel to come along. Since I’m always up for a good backpack I was happy to accompany him.
I was a little worried about keeping up with a bunch of nineteen year old kids who all looked like lean and fit high school athletes. So, when we hit the trail I tried hard to keep from falling behind. As it turned out, I did struggle a bit, but I quickly saw that I had a big advantage over the kids (as I soon began to call them) even though I was three times as old as most of them. The kids all showed up with huge packs full of all kinds of luxury food, fresh vegetables, tubs of butter, bags of fresh meat and heavy cooking utensils. Clearly they had never heard of Ultra Light Backpacking, or maybe they had heard of it, but were tough enough and young enough to care less about lightweight anything. The upshot was that their sixty or seventy pound packs dwarfed my dinky little thirty pound pack filled with the absolute minimum of dried food and lightweight gear. In short, I lucked out; I would have never been able to keep up if their packs had not been at least twice as heavy as mine.
Since Mike has walked a ton of wilderness trails in his time, he has gotten a little tired of trail-walking. As a matter of fact, trails bore him silly, so all of his trips are cross country, trail-less epics guided only by his well honed sense of where he is and his well used topo maps. In fact I’ve never been with Mike in the back country when he didn’t know exactly where he was, give or take a hundred or so feet in any direction. One of his favorite sayings (stolen from some famous old-time mountain man) is, “I’ve never been lost. Maybe a mite confused for a day or two, but never lost.”
Actually, following the standard trail which heads up the Middle Fork of the Gila at the bottom of a rugged seven hundred foot canyon wasn’t a real possibility anyway. The Gila Wilderness got 200% of the normal snow pack last winter and in late March it was all melting. The result was a raging torrent crashing down the Middle Fork Canyon. The regular trail, tight in the bottom of the canyon, crosses the Middle Fork something like thirty times per mile. In midsummer, these crossing are no problem, an easy shuffle across ankle or maybe knee deep water in the old tennis shoes that everyone wears for this hike. However, now there was no way anyone was going to cross this torrent safely. So Mike’s cross country proclivities fit right in.
And Mike’s trail-less preferences also worked in well with teaching kids about wilderness. One of the main purposes of his trips has became teaching kids to navigate wilderness safely and confidently without a trail and only the topo map for a guide. If you have never used a USGS topo map, you are missing out on a thing of joy and wonder. For the most part these maps are so good that when you really know how to use one, every little wrinkle and promontory of the land is recorded in minute detail. Even little groves of trees and the tiniest of little streams which sometimes flow and sometimes don’t are visible on these maps.
So off we went into the Gila wilderness, up a short canyon filled with ponderosa trees and into a several mile long valley six or seven hundred feet above the Middle fork of the Gila to our West and an equal distance below the top of North Mesa rising to the East above us. This was a trip into some of the more remote back-country of the Gila which is seldom visited since this is usually a waterless area and water is the one thing that determines where you can and cannot go in the Gila. No one can venture more than a few miles into this country and carry the many gallons of water (at eight pounds per gallon) needed to survive. For our group, even in this cooler weather, we would need at least a gallon of water per person per day. This is sixty-four pounds of water per day and over 300 pounds for the trip. No way is anyone going to carry this kind of weight.
However, with the 200% above average snow-pack the Gila received last winter, every little gully was now running with its own little temporary steam. This gave us a special entry permit into country that is seldom seen.
Our plan for the day was to make a big easterly loop up our valley around the head of a deep cross canyon that lay in front of us. As it happened, we didn’t completely miss the cross canyon but ended up walking along quite a bit of it over cool, tan, rocky shelves, under ponderosa and pinyon trees that made the first several miles very pleasant. Soon however, we were back up to the surface of our valley again and following an old elk hunter’s path that circled back around to a meadow perched on top of the cliffs overlooking the Middle Fork where we planned to camp that night.
Unfortunately, a couple of miles before camp it started to rain, hard. Soon the gumbo covered ground turned to sticky gray mud that clung to our hi-tech, lightweight boots and turned each one into a ten pound clod hopper. It wasn’t long before even lifting our feet was a chore.
This was about the time that I discovered that I had eaten almost nothing all day on the long drive in to the trail-head. Soon all my calories were gone and I was experiencing the dreaded caloric crash that quickly leads to complete exhaustion. Luckily we staggered into the camp that Mike had picked from the map before I totally crashed. And then the rain stopped, we had a few handfuls of snacks and the world looked better again. We got our tents up, camp mats inflated, dry sleeping bags spread out and thoughts of supper filled our heads.
But before supper we needed water. Since Mike had camped in this spot once before; he knew of a secret, narrow passageway down through the cliffs to the river and he decided it would be fun to trek the 200 feet down and fill our water bags. This involved carrying our dromedaries (big rubbery water containers) down a steep slot to the river. About half way down was a twelve foot vertical wall that had to be down-climbed on minute little nubbins. At this point I decided I really didn’t need to visit the river after all. Mike and all the kids did make it though and returned with five or six gallons of water an hour or so later. I used the time at the top of the canyon to take a few pictures. I find this is always a good excuse to get out of serious work.
Supper that night was dried gerbil food for Mike, Rachel and myself and while the the sixty-pound-pack-toting-kids gorged themselves on what looked like French cuisine. Ultra light backpacking didn’t look quite so good as it had when we were planning the trip.
The next morning all our precious water was frozen solid as we were at about 7000 feet and a cold front had rolled in overnight. But we all had down jackets and everyone was more or less warm. In fact, the kids got so carried away with their crispy fried hash browns, scrambled eggs and cheese quesadilla breakfast that it was almost noon before we were on the trail again.
Today, the plan was to head for a little canyon that climbed 2000 feet out of our valley to the mesa above us. Mike, of course, had no intention of taking the easy ridges leading up to the mesa top. Boring, boring, boring. So up the deep, rocky canyon with a beautiful, small, crystal, clear steam in the middle we went. Before long the canyon deepened and and then deepened some more and Mike got more and more interested the rougher the canyon got. Soon we were rock climbing over little six and eight and ten foot vertical walls with our full packs. ” Great fun,” Mike informed everyone. Not nearly all that much fun I thought.
At one point we came to a beautiful little grotto carved into the black volcanic rock of the canyon. At the bottom, the river made a deep, crystal clear pool ten feet or so wide and five or six feet deep. At the bottom of the pool several salamanders, probably still in the middle of their winter hibernation (I guess salamanders hibernate), lay on the sandy bottom. Of course Mike was soon into the pool where he captured one of the amphibians. The kids were enchanted while I was busy wondering how the hell I was going to get my pack up the cliff wall which was obviously going to be our next “interesting” problem. Mike christened the previously un-named canyon “Salamander Canyon” to the loud approval of all and we all headed for the little cliff waiting to be climbed.
Finally we had climbed over enough boulders and small cliffs to come out into a small hanging valley and Mike declared the day a success: we had navigated no boring, flat trails at all. All we had to do now was fill our Dromedaries with fifty pounds of water and climb the remaining 200 foot high, steep, wooded slope to the top of the ridge above us and reach the camp that Mike declared would be absolutely beautiful.
So up the slope to the mesa top we went, and Mike was right, as usual; it was a gorgeous flat mesa covered with the golden 18 inch tall grasses that cover so much of the open area of the Gila, studded with old juniper trees with gnarled, four foot thick trunks and perfectly shaped, round pinyon trees.
The Juniper trees in the Gila are Alligator Junipers and they are truly beautiful. The trunks are covered with little squares of gray bark that are about one inch per side–hundreds, maybe thousands of little blocks of bark in intricate patterns that are more than pleasing to the eye. Here and there the bark is pealed off the trunks where it has been hit by lightening or a branch has broken off and the interior of these junipers is revealed in gorgeous golden-red flashes that has to be seen to be appreciated. The natives call these juniper trees cedars, and the interior of them look just like the insides of cedar trunks.
That night, there was more gerbil food for us and more French cuisine for the kids for supper. Twelve year old Rachel, eyeing the golden brown fried burritos the kids were wolfing down by the dozen, declaring she was no longer an ultra-light backpacker and mutinied to the side of the butter tubs and fresh green chiles. Mike surreptitiously snuck a 2 pound skillet into her dainty little twelve pound backpack. The next morning, when she put her pack on, she was not quite so thrilled with gourmet cooking as she had been the night before. Everything has its price.
In the morning, after dealing with more frozen water, we made another heroically early start at noon and hit the trail to see what adventures the day would hold. As it turned out, this day was a fairly easy one of climbing easy ridges through more pinyon and juniper, and walking almost all day on small volcanic rocks varying from lemon size to large cantaloupe size. All these rocks are so close together you really couldn’t step between them and when you step on top of them they always roll to one side or the other. After 870,000 of these rocks, they really become a royal pain in the ass. The highlight of this day was the large herd of elk that we ran into.
After an epic three hours (don’t laugh now, those little round rocks were really, really hard) we set up camp again at the top of a high rocky cliff. Here the Gila Wilderness spread out in front of us for mile after mile of blue hills with high snow-covered peaks in the far background. About 500 feet directly below us was the headwaters of Jordan Creek which ran down a beautiful ponderosa filled canyon to the Middle Fork several miles away. After a leisurely lunch we all made our way down to the valley of the Jordan.
This is truly a beautiful little valley: long, lush yellow grass, tall Ponderosa with red bark and deep green needles, banks of snow on the north facing hills, patches of early spring green grass with a clear little creek rushing down the middle of it all. We spent several hours here lying in the warm sun pigging out on cold water and snacks. (Dried nuts for our ultra-light crew; fruit and french bread and chocolate delights for the mega-pack kids.) And then the not-so-fun 500 foot vertical slog out of the canyon to our cliff top camp.
That night the kids really outdid themselves with golden fried, crunchy slabs of cheese quesadillas topped off with a huge pan of dark-chocolate brownies cooked in their infamous three pound Bake/Fry pan which they heaped with glowing coals that cooked their savory brownies to perfection. That night, being the last night of the trip they allowed us ultra-light mortals the privilege of cleaning up the remaining crumbs.
Every night of the trip we had crackling campfires which are a real luxury for backpackers. In most backpacking areas where there are many more people, fires are prohibited and all cooking is done on tiny little 4 ounce or less backpacking stoves that use white gas. But the Gila is so little used and it is such a huge area that campfires are allowed. Mike, however, always takes special precautions whenever he builds a campfire. In the first place, no fire ring of circled rocks is ever used. This creates black unsightly rocks that litter the landscape for years and years and years.
Second, all of his fire spots are always scrupulously cleaned up. Every morning before leaving a site where he has had a campfire, Mike always crushes all the remaining coals into black dust with no remaining charcoal bigger than a pencil eraser. Then all the ashes, black dirt and bits of charcoal are scooped up by hand and scattered over a large area until nothing is left but a slightly scorched piece of ground. Then deer and elk manure is found and pulverized and scattered over the fire site. Finally grass seed in the area is harvested, mixed with dirt and scattered over the elk manure and the whole thing covered over with fresh dirt. When the rains come in late spring, the seeds sprout, are fertilized by the manure and a new clump of grass is created. Mike says he has often come back to old camps and there is no trace of his old fire, only a bright new patch of the local grasses.
The next morning we headed for home. We planned to cover in one day, what had taken us four days to cover on our trip in. As it turned out, the kids not only taken a lot of heavy food on this trip, but a lot of heavy everything. Thank God for that, otherwise I would have never kept up.
This was especially true for Antler Boy, as we called Nick, a slightly built kid with seemingly endless amounts of energy. Antler Boy found a pair of huge elk antlers that must have weighed at least ten or fifteen pounds apiece. He insisted that he had to take them home with him. His entire pack, including the elk antlers, must have weighed 80 pounds or more. He found the antlers at least ten miles from the trail-head and carried them all the way in, over hill and dale with only mild moans and groans and muttered curses. Ah, to be young again.
At 6:00 pm on the last day of our hike we trudged up and over the last 500 foot ridge and made it back to our vehicle with sore feet and aching shoulders and legs. Coming down the final steep trail (which was littered with millions of baseball sized rocks) slipping and stumbling, with ominous black clouds building in the distance, we finally made it back to semi civilization.
You just don’t realize how wonderfully soft car seats are until you have spent a week sitting on sharp rocks and lumpy iron hard ground with no backrest at all. The kids of course each had a four pound special backpacking seat complete with backrest, but naturally us ultra-light purists scorned such luxuries. Such is the misfortune of purists.
After spending the night camped in a lovely little campground alongside the combined Middle and West Forks of the Gila, not far from the highway, we drove home through the rain and snow of the cold front that had moved in overnight. Rain and snow and wind and sleet never looked better than it did from the cozy interior on our van as we left the last pinyons and junipers of the Gila behind.
March 28, 2010
Yucca and Volcanic Boulder, Gila Wilderness, New Mexico
Alligator Juniper trunk with typical checkered bark.
Gila Wilderness, New Mexico
Backpacking in Salamander Canyon
Gila Wilderness, New Mexico