The Ghost of Gully Three

san-francisco-peaks-lerouxBefore Thanksgiving we had a pretty decent storm system go through the northland that began with rain but ended with snow. Flagstaff itself didn’t see much of the snow but the upper San Francisco Peaks caught over a foot of heavy, wet stuff that coated all the trees above about 9,000 feet. The morning after the precipitation ended I parked the truck at the base of the mountain and hiked up into the Wilderness with my camera, taking my usual route onto Fremont Peak. Fremont Peak is the snowcovered mountain on the far right in the above photograph.

While I was hiking along the edge of the old Leroux burn I looked out across the remnants of the aspen stand at the top of the scar and there was a ghost standing in the field.

ghost-in-the-trees-2I did a double take when I saw the figure. It was kind of a strange place for someone to be standing on a Tuesday morning this late in the year, it being pretty far from any trails and most people either at work or over at the Snow Bowl. I was expecting to be alone there. The figure was absolutely still, which was also pretty strange. I took a couple of steps up the hill and when I looked again it was gone.

This mountain is haunted, of course. Actually, all mountains are haunted to some degree, but ol’ San Francisco Mountain is positively stuffed top to bottom with ghosts. I see ’em all the time up there. Well… maybe not all the time, but often enough that I don’t get alarmed when I encounter them any more. This is the first one I’ve gotten a clear photograph of, though.

Mostly they are already gone by the time you consciously notice them. Mostly they are just tricks of the light and shadow. Mostly they are manifestations of the “third man effect” and perfectly explainable as a side effect of isolation, dehydration and high altitude exertion. Mostly they are harmless. Mostly they don’t seem to want anything. Mostly they stay put and don’t follow you home.

Mostly.

Radio Waves

skaibab-camp-01A couple weeks before the snow arrived in the high country I pointed the red rambler to the southwest corner of the Kaibab National Forest south of Williams, Arizona and spent three days hiking in the alligator juniper and ponderosa. I’ve rambled in that area before, but because it’s an hour from Flagstaff I have fewer lines drawn onto my maps there. It’s still atop the Colorado Plateau but the Arizona Transition Zone isn’t far away so the land and the woods there are kind of a mishmash of the two. Not really ponderosa habitat, but also not full-on pinyon-juniper, either. It’s neat and I like spending time in it, especially in the shoulder seasons when the temperatures are cooler.

sw-kaibab-forest-2I finally got tired of the mushy highway tires I’ve been using limiting where I could go and special ordered some A/T (All Terrain) tires for the truck. They were a little expensive and I was limited in selection by the rims on this small (and old) SUV, but I think it was a good purchase. The truck gained about an inch in ground clearance from the stiffer sidewalls, doesn’t lose traction in the loose stuff like it did before, handles rocky two-track trails *much* better, and hopefully won’t suffer as many punctures from stray nails and thorns.

From the handful of times I’ve had it out since the tire upgrade I’d say that the truck is probably about twice as capable off road as it was before. The extra ground clearance and tougher sidewalls are coming in very handy. I’m still evaluating the loss of fuel efficiency due to the heavier tires and higher rolling resistance, but so far it’s looking pretty good. I think I only gave up about two mpg on a truck that was previously averaging 27-30 mpg on the highway.

sw-kaibab-woodsThere was a place below my camp where the forest road climbed out of a ravine and up a steep, rocky hillside. The road was sharply curved and tilted all wrong with boulders along the left side, a deep erosion gully up the middle, and loose stuff and rocks on the right. I’d been stymied by that rough patch before, having had to park at the top of it and hike an extra two miles down to the Matterhorn area a couple of years ago. There was just too much chance of popping one of those thin-skinned highway tires on it. This time I’d come in from the opposite end of the road and found myself at the bottom looking up at the beautiful mess.

I got out and scouted it, looking for a decent line through the obstacles. You could see where others had jammed important undercarriage components on the rocks and spun their wheels helplessly when they slid into the gully. It looked kind of hairy. Actually, it looked really hairy.

While I was standing there in the middle of it with the truck idling below an old guy on an ATV came riding down the hill.

all-terrain-tire“Everything okay?” he asked.

“Yeah, everything’s fine. I’m just trying to pick a line up this hill.”

He examined the slope then offered his opinion. “I think your best bet’s probably on the left side. Looks easier that way.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Maybe. Either that or stay over to the right and try to straddle the gully where the rocks aren’t so big.”

“Yep, that might work too.”

He worked the ATVs transmission into gear. “Well,” he said, “I’ll leave you to it. Be careful.”

“Thanks. Will-do,” I said.

And then he was gone, putt-putting the little ATV around the red rambler parked at the bottom of the hill.

I walked back down, nearly busting my ass slipping on the loose rocks, and got back into the truck’s cab. I shifted the transfer case down into 4WD LOW range and put the transmission into first gear.

Trying not to think too much about what could happen if I misjudged things I gave the engine some gas and eased out on the clutch. The tires bit into the rock and dirt and the little SUV started to climb. I cranked the wheel hard right and gave it more gas, gaining confidence as the earth swung away and blue sky filled the windshield. The truck bumped over some of the larger rocks, the cab swaying wildly side to side, the big Reliance water container next to me on the passenger seat sloshing violently back and forth. I felt one of the rear wheels start to spin in the loose rock and for a fraction of a second I imagined the truck sliding sideways into the deep gully and the oil pan hitting one of the rocks and the truck’s life blood spilling out: The worst case scenario. I gave it more gas and then the front wheels grabbed hard and the truck pulled itself up and over the steep spot and with the engine racing I topped out onto flat ground.

I jumped out of the cab and looked down the hill where a cloud of dust still lingered in the air. It was way steeper than it had looked from down below.

“Hot damn!” I said, slapping the hood of the little truck. “Hot damn!”

There is a reason why people build hardcore rock crawling rigs out of these little Suzuki trucks. They’re small and light and nimble and the earlier sport utilities like mine have a strong 4WD platform under them. It’s too bad that Suzuki pulled out of the U.S. auto market back in 2012. They made great little cars and trucks for not a lot of money and I would buy another one in an instant if I could. Actually, I think that was the problem: Suzuki was trying to sell small, fuel efficient vehicles at a time when Americans only wanted giant full-size pickup trucks. When the Great Recession hit Suzuki didn’t have the market share to ride through it. It’s a damn shame, really.

skaibab-woods-3Anyway, that’s the adventure story from this trip. As it’s been said, the only thing better than a good pair of hiking boots is a good pair of hiking boots combined with a 4WD SUV.

One of the things I worry about while woods rambling in these remote areas is getting stranded if an unexpected rain or snow storm comes through. Day hiking isn’t a problem because you can check the weather reports before you leave. But if you’re going to be camping for a few days without access to the latest weather forecasts then your pre-trip intel will rapidly lose touch with reality as conditions change. There’s not much worse than being caught flat-footed on the wrong side of ten miles of snowed-in forest road or snot-slickery clay. A high clearance four wheel drive will only get you so far. Beyond that you’d better be equipped with something far more capable: Knowledge.

That’s why I picked up one of these:

ccrane-skywave-radioIt’s a C.Crane SkyWave portable radio about the size of a large cellphone, powered by rechargeable AA batteries and USB to connect to my battery bank or solar panel. This is not your father’s tinny transistor radio from the 1970s. This is a digital powerhouse tied to a strong, remarkably nice sounding speaker. It has the usual AM/FM bands plus additional shortwave, air band, and NOAA Weather with alert capability.

With this I can receive up-to-the-minute weather forecasts from the national weather service. This was especially helpful for me on this trip as there was a cold front and a possibility of snow forecast for the third day of my camp. Had the weather service started calling for a significantly stronger storm than expected then I’d have known about it right away and could’ve bailed out of there.

At night when the atmosphere calmed down I was able to pick up AM and FM stations from all around the West. I got all the local northern Arizona stations plus several stations from Salt Lake City, Utah (500 miles), California (200 miles), and even a Boise, Idaho station (850 miles.) During the day I was able to pick up Prescott’s NOAA weather station and after dark Flagstaff and Kingman came online too. So no lack of available news and weather information. This allowed me to enjoy my late Fall trip without worrying about getting snowed in.

sun-dogI could’ve gotten a cheaper version without the shortwave bands, but I wanted to be able to tune international transmissions too. I’m an old U.S. Army Signal Corps guy and was trained on a high power shortwave rig hooked up to voice and encrypted teletype. We ran radio networks between field deployed units in Europe and Saudi Arabia, acting as a backup communications channel for the newer satellite commo boys. Being mostly forgotten we tended to spend a lot of long hours in my rig listening to shortwave broadcasts during downtime. Lots of BBC, stuff coming out of Africa and central and southeast Asia. It was a fun and informative way to pass the time. You’d hear a lot of news and opinions that the regular news media — and especially the military news media — never covered.

Sitting in the truck’s cab I spun ’round and ’round the shortwave dial trying to pick up something. Except for a fiery Jesus station and a time signal broadcast I was unable to DX anything. After I got back home I was dismayed to learn that the shortwave spectrum in North America is pretty much empty these days. Most of the foreign shortwave broadcasters that used to beam news and music programs into the U.S. from outside have all shutdown, killed by the Internet. This is a shame as shortwave is the only truly long distance broadcast medium that can’t be effectively jammed or traced and doesn’t require satellites. Receivers are cheap, too. If the U.S. government ever builds a Great Firewall around America’s Internet because of domestic spying or the nation turns inwards because of restrictive ideology (looking more and more likely these days, ain’t it?) then shortwave will be our only way to get uncensored news from outside.

skaibab-poolsAfter the low pressure system passed over I took a ramble down into a couple of the canyons that cut deep into the edge of the Colorado Plateau below my camp. I rock hopped down the canyons as far as I could get before pools of water or a pour-off would block further progress. The pools were from residual rainwater and a few of the bigger ones had tiny minnows and fingerling fish living in them. My fish identification skills are basically nonexistent so I have no idea what kind of fish they were. But I was surprised to see them there as it didn’t look like they could’ve come up from the Verde River many miles downstream. If forced to venture a guess I’d say that they were run-of-the-mill trout marooned in the pools, having been flash-flooded into the canyon from stocked cattle tanks higher up. (Of course they could’ve been native fish persisting in the little two-feet-deep pools since the end of the last Ice Age, but I kinda doubt that – ’cause Occam’s Razor and all…)

A while back the Arizona Game & Fish Department and the Kaibab National Forest published a document discussing the wonderful benefits of stocking the lakes and larger stock tanks on the South Kaibab with sport fish for anglers. They spent a whole lot of ink discussing how non-native fish from the stocked tanks and lakes could never make it down the normally dry drainages and creeks to intermingle with endangered native fish in Sycamore Creek and the Verde River. They made a pretty strong case and I believe that the fish stocking went forward, but it was all just words written by over-educated people who hardly ever leave their cushy office chairs. These fish would seem to have a different opinion on the matter. I’m discovering that this kind of thing happens quite a lot in these land and wildlife management agencies.

skaibab-alligatorsSome variation of the above is probably what much of the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau is going to look like in about a hundred years. I’m thinking lots of alligator juniper, gambel oak in the wetter areas and on north facing slopes, and a minor sub-component of unhappy looking ponderosa pine. Only in the highest elevation areas will traditional pine forest as we know it today persist.

It turns out that alligator juniper are a seriously tough badass species of a tree. They’re adaptable as hell and they’re sometimes capable of resprouting following wildfires and they do real well in droughty conditions like what are expected to become more prevalent as the climate warms. They’re a little like the oak and manzanita shrubfields that you can’t burn out and you can’t drought out once they’re established. Recreationists don’t like ’em. Cattle grazers don’t like ’em. The loggers don’t like ’em. Except for when they’re old and big even the fuelwood cutters don’t like ’em. The Forest Service hates them and doesn’t know what to do with them besides declare Total War on them – which hasn’t worked in the past and won’t work now, but they gotta keep trying. It’s kind of funny in a sad, pathetic sort of way, actually.

monalisaWe should probably talk more about these junipers as they’re going to play such an important role in the future. This post is getting kind of long (heading for 3,000 words, which is way too many for a typical blog post) so we’ll leave them for a future essay. Maybe we’ll go ramble in the alligator wilderness along the Rim Country and then I’ll explain the ghastly meaning behind the enigmatic Mona Lisa smile that the oldest of the old alligators smile. Because, you see, they’ve seen it all before and they know what’s coming.

Tending Fire

tending-fireThe other day I was driving one of the secondary forest roads south of Flagstaff looking for a place to camp for a few days when I thought I got a whiff of pine smoke. The road I was following was getting pretty rough so I parked the truck and walked up the draw a ways to see if I could find the source. Nope. Just more rough, rocky road. The smoke seemed stronger and thicker ahead but because of the wind and the terrain there was no telling where it was coming from.

I walked back to the truck and returned to the main road which was in much better condition. I drove a couple more miles on it and then tried the other end of the first road, coming at it from the opposite direction. After maybe a quarter mile the draw started to close in and the road became rough again. This time I pushed through, the truck’s tires riding up and over the rocks, the cab swaying wildly side to side. My persistence paid off, though, as the smoke became denser and finally I could see the source: An easygoing wildfire burning on the hillside above me.

spur-fire-day-1I stopped the truck and climbed up through the ponderosa to the fire to make sure it wasn’t a Forest Service prescribed burn. Nope again. It was definitely a wildfire – no fire line and no personnel present. I figured I should probably call it in in case it was human-caused so I went back to the truck and rung up the Coconino National Forest dispatcher on my cellphone (the dispatch office’s number is printed on the Forest MVUM map if you ever need it.) The voice on the other end of the line said it was a lightning sparked fire and was in monitor status. Ahh, okay, good to know, better safe than sorry.

So there I was out in the woods by myself with a wildfire the Forest Service didn’t seem to care about and three days to kill. What to do? Well, camp and take a ton of photos of course!

howard-mountain-campI drove around the area for a while before settling on a nice campsite about a half mile upwind of the wildfire. Someone had constructed a large campfire ring and even left some firewood piled neatly nearby for me. How nice of them, right? I pitched my little tent and table and chair and got some coffee started. By then it was getting late in the afternoon so I figured I should check on the wildfire before I needed to start getting dinner ready. I walked down the draw to the fire, hoping the sun would be low enough in the sky to provide some good backlighting effects for photos. Unfortunately the sky had turned grey with high thin clouds so no-go on that.

I went up and examined the active flame front, the live part of the fire that was consuming unburned fuel.

spur-fire-combustionThe lightning strike had presumably sparked the fire near the top of the hill and the fire had been creeping down the hillside for a day or two, cleaning up pine needles and turning old stumps and decomposing logs into white ash. The flame front was moving at perhaps three or four inches a minute, slowly moving downward and against the breeze.

Watching the fuel combustion was fascinating, almost hypnotic even. Usually it would move steadily, like a cloth soaking up water. But sometimes the flame would jump ahead an inch or two into unburned fuel, the pine needles igniting suddenly from beneath as if the fire was invisibly leapfrogging itself through the substrate. I would imagine that at night the burning gases would be more visible and the flames appear more contiguous.

There was a passage in Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard in which he described the reincarnation of the Buddhist Dalai Lamas as a sort of passing of a flame from one candle to the next, not an actual physical reincarnation. I didn’t mark the page so can’t recall the exact text. But this concept always struck me as beautiful. It is exactly what the slowly moving wildfire was doing on the hillside, passing the flame from one patch of pine needle and woody debris to the next in a kind of recursive reinvention of itself.

spur-fire-combustion-2If you could spin the arrow of time backwards and run the process in reverse you could watch the flame stepping backwards up the hillside to a snag hidden somewhere in the forest and then a hesitation and then a sudden leap in a flash-bang of lightning up into the heavens. The sky had literally come to Earth and you could squat down next to it and pass your fingers through it in the same way as you might do with a candle flame on your desk. I hesitantly did so and for a moment I felt the sensation of purring within the flames as with a cat dozing in the sun.

There is magic here.

I rose and stepped away from the tendril of flame, shaking my head to clear the spell. Such thoughts are dangerous for those rambling alone. There’s no one to pull you back and you can start to blur a little around the edges. You can slip away.

Higher up I noticed this little pine sapling had come through the fire almost unscathed:

spur-fire-low-intensity-burnThe little guy was barely even scorched. He’ll probably be okay. A hundred years from now someone will cut this tree, now grown to full maturity, and note that it survived a low intensity fire when it was ten years old. The evidence of its brush with wildfire will be recorded in the rings as a dark circle.

Back at camp I made dinner and scribbled notes in my journal, referring to the photographs on my camera’s memory card. It was windy and cold so I sat in the truck’s cab watching an old movie on my Android tablet and listening to the wind gusting hollowly through the treetops. Some of the gusts were quite strong and I thought the wildfire would probably make a run to the northeast with the winds, down into the hollow and across to the adjacent hill. Perhaps it would grow large and attract the unwanted attention of the landlords back in Flagstaff and then the guys with drip torches and pulaskis would show up. I hoped not. I hoped that the fire would stay small and be allowed to live free for a little while longer.

The next day was a hike day. My planned loop through the surrounding countryside took me by the wildfire site before casting me out to the four points of the compass and back to camp. I walked the wildfire perimeter and contrary to my expectations the fire had actually lain down and backed in upon itself, the flames all but out. A few stumps and logs still smouldered, the bright early morning air filled with light residual smoke from the night’s burning. If there’d been anyone around to ask me what I thought the prognosis for the wildfire was I would’ve said it would probably be out by the afternoon.

smoke-angelsThinking that there wasn’t much to see there on the hillside I checked my GPS and then set off for eight glorious miles through the pines and the gambel oak. I climbed two summits and looked out across the ponderosa pine expanse towards the San Francisco Peaks and to the south towards the Mogollon Rim.

howard-mountain-northhoward-summitsan-francisco-peaks-from-howard-mountainLater in the afternoon I found myself looking down into a familiar scene:

coulter-ridgeBack in 2003-04 a friend and I went looking for a geocache in that big oak hollow on the far ridge, which we came to know as Coulter Ridge but actually doesn’t have a name on the topo maps. We ended up going back there several times with our GPS units and signing the cache logbook; I think my buddy became the de facto owner of the cache after the original owner went MIA. A year later I returned with my dad and we camped along a nearby forest road for a few days. One morning we walked all around that ridge and down through the oaks, tracing out game trails and admiring the extensive hardwood forest. There was a ramshackle fence around a bunch of sickly looking aspen growing in the hollow bottom and when I asked him what the fence was for he said it was an exclosure meant to protect the aspen from browsing elk. It was an interesting factoid but didn’t really stick.

Five years later I joined a local Flagstaff volunteer group that amongst other things helped maintain those same fences for the Forest Service. When it came time to divide responsibilities for the 30+ exclosures on the Flagstaff District I volunteered to steward the exclosure on Coulter Ridge because I was already somewhat familiar with it. For about three years I visited that fence alone, with my geocaching buddy, and with large work parties from the volunteer group to work on the fence. We put a whole lot of blood, sweat, tears, and $$$ into that fence for the sake of those aspen. When I eventually left the group in 2012 the fence was up and in pretty good shape. As for the aspen, well, they never quite got the memo that they were saved and were now supposed to grow stronger. They just sort of sat in there looking kind of glum and sickly.

I went back there again this past summer after a four year absence and almost all the aspen inside the fence were long dead, killed by poplar borers and swarms of tiny sap sucking insects. The gambel oak – who were the true owners of that ridge and the hollow beneath it – were doing fucking great, though. They were kicking ass and taking names, which is what we’d overlooked in our zeal to save those aspen trees. Looking through the wire at the sad remains of the aspen clone it looked to me like our hard work had amounted to pretty much nothing.

Undoubtedly there is a lesson in how the natural world works buried in all of this.

spur-fire-coulter-parkBack at my camp later that afternoon I looked across the park toward the wildfire and there was just a little smoke rising above the trees. Obviously the fire had gone out during the day, leaving a few smoking stumps. I went about my business, reading and jotting notes from the day’s long hike and listening to podcasts on my tablet.

One of the podcasts I listened to was from Outside Magazine, called National Parks Don’t Need Your Stinkin’ Reverence. In it a grouchy editor tried to make the point that wilderness shouldn’t be referred to as “shrines” or “magnificent outdoor cathedrals” because the reverence we think we feel when viewing such places is a clichéd concept that isn’t real, it’s a learned, passed down idea from earlier times after we’d beaten all the real wilderness into submission and no longer needed to fear it. The cathedral idea is especially bad because it removes humans from these places and allows us to selfishly place ourselves (meaning white people living in the global north) at the center of natural vistas minus everyone else.

I sort of agree with the editor that reflexively describing beautiful places as “magnificent outdoor cathedrals” kinda makes you a sap, but most of his arguments to back up his claims were borrowed (consciously or unconsciously) from Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and the neo-green Anthropocene boosters who will see the last bits of wilderness marginalized, degraded, commodified, and managed away into oblivion. I have a problem with that and found myself resisting the urge to throw the tablet into the woods. It’s too complex a subject to get into in this post so see George Wuerthner and crew’s book Keeping the Wild if you want to learn more about the “neo-green” platform and why it’s so insidious and bad.

After dark the temperatures dropped quickly and the wind died down so I lit the first campfire I’ve had on one of these solo outings in about two years. Normally I don’t build campfires because they’re dangerous and too much trouble to put out properly. But this night it seemed appropriate to have one. I sat at the edge of the campfire ring feeding pieces of wood into the flames, warming myself and listening to the little song dogs bark and yip and howl somewhere down the park. Finally, about 10 p.m. I let the fire burn down to coals, used my shovel to push the ashes into a heap, and doused them with a half gallon of water. Because I’d kept the fire small and manageable it was easy to put out before I crawled into the tent.

tending-fireSometime in the very early morning I woke up to the smell of very strong pine smoke.

What the hell?

For a second I thought the campfire had somehow rekindled itself and I needed to douse it with more water. I opened the tent and looked out. Nope, the campfire was still cold. But the wildfire down in the draw sure wasn’t! An inversion layer had formed in the atmosphere above and the whole forest was filled with thick smoke. It wasn’t bad enough to make me think about packing up camp but it was still pretty bad. Zipping the tent shut tight and burrowing deep down in the sleeping bag was enough, but it wasn’t particularly pleasant.

The next morning I woke up before dawn and made coffee on the Coleman stove then walked out into the park to see what was up. Everything was smoked in like a San Francisco fog bank. As sunrise approached a breeze picked up and the heavy smoke started to lift and then with the coming of first light a great wheel of ravens erupted from the stock tank down the way and whirled round and round the sky, spinning free and spinning free, their raucous cries filling the vast park with unintelligible but unmistakable conversation. They were very, very excited about something.

And then then the sun broke the eastern ridge in white hot incandescence and the world turned into the light.

smoked-in-sunriseAnd then I knew I had about ten minutes to get my ass down the draw to the wildfire site because something amazing was happening down there and if I waited any longer I’d miss it. I snatched the camera from the truck and practically ran across the park and down the road. The ravens wheeled insanely above, their wings cutting and chopping at the air.

Down in the draw the wildfire had rekindled itself and grown, puffing up great quantities of white smoke and sending out long whip-like tendrils of flame across the bottom of the hollow and up onto the adjacent hillside. It was still low intensity, still creeping along the forest floor, but something about its mood had changed.

I trotted around the lower side of the perimeter and positioned myself so that the wildfire would be between me and the sun and waited. About two minutes later the sun peeked over the crest of the eastern hill and – call me a sap – the angels sang and the doors of the hated “magnificent outdoor cathedral” flew open and sunbeams poured out.

mocmocmocmocmocmocOnce the light show ended I walked around the expanded fire perimeter and it looked to me like the wildfire had doubled in size since I’d looked it over the previous morning.

Uh, oh. The landlords are going to take notice of this.

Sure enough, about an hour later while I was packing up camp I heard a vehicle on the road and a Forest Service pickup towing a UTV trailer drove past. It stopped at the head of the draw and a guy in a yellow shirt got out and set up a red Wildfire Activity Ahead sign.

I put everything into the little red SUV, said thank you and farewell to the campsite, and drove back up the road. I found the Forest Service dudes milling around in a field next to the main road. I parked and walked down to them.

moc“Good morning,” I said. “Does this fire have a name?”

“It’s called the ‘Spur Fire.'” he replied. “It was caused by lightning.”

“Yeah, I called the dispatcher a couple of days ago. They said it was lightning sparked.”

“Yep.”

“Are you going to let it run? Or are you going to suppress it?” This is what I really wanted to know.

“We’re not sure. We’re thinking about managing it for resource benefit,” the guy answered. “Rain’s coming and we’re going to see what we can do with it before then.”

“I hope you can let it burn for a while. I walked around the perimeter this morning and it was beautiful. I’ve got some pictures of the smoke backlit by the sun that are pretty amazing.”

He grunted disinterestedly and shrugged on a backpack. “Have a good day, sir.”

That was my cue to move on. I’ve noticed that many of the low level people you talk to in these agencies have no real interest in what they’re doing and if you try to engage them about it they get bored. I guess it’s only to be expected.

When I got back to Flagstaff and checked my e-mail there was a notice from the Southwestern News Release service that the Spur Fire was going to be contained and suppressed. Something to do with staffing levels and heavy fuels. I’m not sure why, but I felt a little sad at the news.

A Good Hell

 

east-fork-of-the-sevier

It’s been a couple weeks since my last post so I thought I’d share a few photos from my recent ramble to southern Utah’s Paunsaugunt Plateau. The Paunsaugunt is the high, bisected plateau situated above Bryce Canyon National Park, forming part of the uppermost “step” of what is often called “The Grand Staircase.” I didn’t go into the Park itself (I’m not big on crowds) but rather spent a week camping and hiking in the nearly deserted Dixie National Forest lands to the west of the park. I figured there’ll be plenty of time for touring the big, crowded National Parks via shuttle bus when I’m old and my knees are too shot to hike in the backcountry anymore.

I’ve been eyeing the Paunsaugunt for a while now. First it was just a bunch of contour lines on my topographic maps, the next seemingly logical destination beyond the Kaibab Plateau of northern Arizona. But then it became a real, physical thing when I saw it standing darkly on the far horizon from a camp I had near Jacob Lake this past summer. Paunsaugunt represents a sort of psychological crossroads for me, offering several interesting options for extending my “known world” of Public Lands rambling to the west, north, or east. The hardest and most time consuming part of this endeavor has been extending my thin line of hikes and camps beyond the “big ditch” of the Grand Canyon. The connection to Paunsaugunt is tenuous and skips across a whole lot of interesting country, but it is there and it’s real and now that I’m past the Canyon I have a plethora of places to go.

Anyway, the Paunsaugunt is a long, narrow north-south plateau that’s shaped kind of like a loaf of bread that’s fallen in the center. The East Fork of the Sevier River runs up the middle of it with a whole network of deep side canyons and drainages feeding into it. A main forest road runs along the Sevier and from it you can branch off into most of the side canyons for dispersed camping or hiking. There is an extensive ATV trail system on the plateau, so if that’s your thing then you could probably tour most of the plateau in a couple of days. Me, I like to walk so I spent most of my time there rambling along ridge tops and looking for high points that weren’t tree’ed in so I could see where I was at.

Here’s a Google Earth overview of the plateau:

paunsaugunt-google-earth

The outer edges and the southern end are higher than the middle and north, so if you’re looking for big views or high elevation forest then that’s where you want to be. I camped in three different places, roughly equidistant down the western side of the plateau and then did big loop hikes from them.

One day I hiked around several of the high ridge tops around camp, shooting photos down into the white and red cliffs and exploring the dense mixed conifer growing there.

paunsaugunt-cliffs

paunsaugunt-plateau-mixed-conifer-forest

This was a really hard hike, covering about 3,500 feet of elevation gain and seven miles or so of walking. I’d go up one ridge, see something interesting on the other side, and then have to cross over the canyon to reach it. Did this several times. All the rough rambling was too much for one of my tired old Asolo hiking boots as coming down from the final ridge the right boot’s leather upper started to split apart at the vibram sole. Asolo makes a high quality boot and they got me back to camp without disintegrating entirely, so it was what I used to call a “graceful” failure in my software engineering days. A cheaper boot would’ve just fallen completely apart, leaving me barefoot and SOL in the woods.

This was my fault, of course. Cash is tighter than it used to be so I’m constantly trying to squeeze every last ounce of use from my outdoor equipment before I have to replace it. This time I cut it a little too close. I knew this was going to happen sooner or later and should’ve replaced the worn out boots with a new pair before leaving Flagstaff, but was hoping to get one more trip out of them before parting with the dough. Nope. Fortunately I had a second pair of lighter weight boots along for wearing in camp and while driving, so no real problem from the LPC (Leather Personnel Carrier) failure. But the point was well taken and I got a new pair of Asolos as soon as I got back home.

The next day I moved camp farther south into higher, even steeper country. My legs and feet were still tired from the previous day’s hike so I decided to take it easy and just walked a meandering loop around the surrounding two ridges, photographing aspen and peering over the edge of the Sunset Cliffs. Fantastic!

paunsaugunt-aspen

paunsaugunt-sunset-cliffs

This is the kind of forest I found myself bushwhacking through for much of that hike:

paunsaugunt-mixed-conifer

In an earlier time I think you probably could’ve spooked up a grizzer in there. Today those woods are mostly still and silent save for a few mule deer and the ever-present tree squirrels. Still, there is a kind of presence there that cannot be entirely ignored.

That evening it rained hard, then hailed, then rained some more. The temperature dropped into the low forties. Just before sundown I went back on the ridge behind camp and walked along an old logging road filling in with aspen and manzanita. Not really sure why.

paunsaugunt-aspen

There was something about the grey gloom and the wind blowing through the young aspen and the cold rain that made me pause. A powerful feeling of deja vu crashed down over me like a wave on the beach. I stood there for long minutes with the rain pattering on the hood of my rain jacket, trying to remember where or when I’d been there before. I was about to shrug and continue on when I realized that what I was remembering wasn’t one of my own experiences, but rather one of my father’s old stories.

One Fall back in 1985 or 1986 he’d seen a strange bear in the Apache National Forest of eastern Arizona and the location he’d described to me was exactly like what I was standing in now on the Paunsaugunt. The old clear-cut filling in with aspen. The gloomy Fall afternoon. The spitting rain. The creepy feeling of not having been alone and then, like something out of a Lovecraft story, an impossible thing that could not be but somehow was crossing the end of the overgrown road and slipping silently into the dense forest beyond. He’d described the spectral form of what he’d seen in such terrible detail that there was no doubt what it was: a lost grizzly still haunting the Escudilla woods fifty years after the last one had been hunted out by government hired guns. No one would’ve believed him had he told anyone so he kept it to himself, relating the story to me only in the last months before he died in 2013, almost thirty years after the fact.

I guess it was probably one of his tall tales, one of the whoppers he’d sometimes slip into a story just to see if he could get it past you. My dad was kind of like that. The western Apache called it the Slim Coyote and I guess he had an element of old Slim in him… come to think of it, maybe I do too.

paunsaugunt-mill-creek

It was another hike day so the next morning I broke camp and moved the truck down into the open along the East Fork of the Sevier where a Forest Service trail started. The trail followed Mill Creek up a wide canyon all the way to the Pink Cliffs at the far southern end of the plateau. I followed the trail for maybe a half mile before an old wildfire scar on the point above caught my eye and I left the easy walking for a steep bushwhack through regenerating spruce/fir forest.

straight-canyon-burn-scar

straight-canyon-burn-scar

straight-canyon-burn-scar

For a change it was nice to see a burned mountainside actually bouncing back from wildfire. This fire occurred in 1994, a couple years before the Southwest drought started to really dig in.

At the top of the ridge I walked through the forest to the edge of the Pink Cliffs. From one of the points you could look back on a small part of the Cliffs. These pictures don’t do them or the view southwards justice, believe me.

pink-cliffs

paunsaugunt-pink-cliffs

paunsaugunt-pink-cliffs

I found a very old, very steep, very poorly designed foot / horse trail that went along the gravelly edge all the way up to the top where you could look out across the great expanse of the Grand Staircase and see the Kaibab Plateau in the hazy distance. As usual, the Kaibab Plateau was on fire because the Kaibab National Forest are a bunch of fire-bugs (but in a good way, if that’s possible.)

paunsaugunt-pink-cliffs

paunsaugunt-pink-cliffs

I ate my lunch there on the edge, trying not to think about what it would be like to accidentally slide down the gravelly slope, futilely clawing at the shrubs and loose rock, and then slip out over the cliff edge below into 800 feet of empty space. It’s not as high of a precipice as parts of the Mogollon Rim in northern Arizona, but it’s gettin’ there.

During his second expedition in 1871-1872, explorer John Wesley Powell made his survey of the Grand Staircase area from this point on the Pink Cliffs. What isn’t commonly known is that in December of 1871 Powell’s own survey set off a minor gold rush when two of his packers panned flour gold from gravel in the Colorado while searching for a route to Kanab Creek. The news got out and hundreds of potential prospectors showed up, irritating Mormon settlers and the local Paiute indian bands. Because of the escalating tensions and fears that the Paiutes might not honor their promise of safe passage, Powell was forced to end his second great river expedition at Kanab Creek. As for the hundreds of prospectors, most found nothing and left Kanab Canyon “swearing vengeance on the originator of the story.” I couldn’t find any references stating if Powell knew that it was his own people that ultimately wound up ending his expedition. If he did I wouldn’t think he’d have seen much humor in the situation. (But I do.)

Anyway, after lunch I walked north along the ridge away from the Pink Cliffs. There was an old burn scar there and from it you could see north along the length of the Paunsaugunt all the way to the Sevier Plateau and to the northeast (I think) the Aquarius Plateau.

paunsaugunt-looking-north

The Sevier Plateau is the dark grey form on the far middle horizon in the above shot. It will probably be the next outbound step northwards for my little rambles. It is higher than Paunsaugunt but has far less trees on it thanks to an escaped prescribed burn a few years back. I was looking at it through binoculars. The rock looks different there, sharper, less eroded, less hospitable for trees, so it may be geologically younger. It’s possible forest never had a very good foothold there. But I need to do some research and see what’s there, see if it’s worth taking a drive up there.

paunsaugunt-camp-3

Later, after the hike I moved camp to a canyon farther north where I hoped it would be a little warmer, not far from Tropic Reservoir. There was a Forest Service campground at the reservoir but I wasn’t in any kind of mood for that so found a dispersed campsite up another side canyon. Below this new camp there was a big meadow and I settled into a large already impacted site next to it.

It was after dark when I arrived so didn’t notice that the summer boondock campers had left a little surprise there: an open latrine back in the trees where some nasty bastard had dumped his RV’s black water tank. I didn’t find it until the next morning when I walked around the area on my “magic hour” photography walk.

paunsaugunt-blubber-creek

This was my last day on the Paunsaugunt before leaving for the Kaibab Plateau and ultimately home so I took my time walking around the area. Just down the meadow I found some very old looking aspen trees growing in a copse next to a stock tank.

paunsaugunt-blubber

On one of those trees someone in 1914 had carved the question

It’s a good Hell aint it?

into the white bark in very fine, exquisite cursive script.

I stopped and stared at it, coffee cup in hand. Then, thinking back over the past week spent exploring the Paunsaugunt, I raised the cup as if to make a toast to the unseen and almost certainly dead author of the arborglyph and said:

“Yes, sir. It was a good Hell. A very fine Hell indeed.”

Tarp

tarp-shelter

I’m short on long, profound post ideas these days so figured I’d just share the above photograph and talk about an overnighter I recently went on up in the Kachina Peaks Wilderness. It was getting to be time to see what the whole tarp shelter thing was about so I got a tarp, aluminum stakes, and fifty feet of parachute cord from an outdoors store and hiked it up into the Wilderness. It was fairly light and l think all together it came to no more than $25, which is a fraction of the cost of any decent quality backpacking tent. So some definite advantages to it.

I had high hopes for this setup but after trying it out I think I’ll stick with my tent. The tarp did what it was supposed to do, namely keep the elements off of my down sleeping bag, but that’s about all it did. It was noisy and rustled in the slightest breeze and bugs were constantly crawling through the living space. I think you could cowboy-up and get used to it but I guess I don’t see the point when I already own a much nicer 1-person tent that doesn’t weigh much more. In any case, it didn’t make for the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had and the next day’s woods rambling suffered for it.

Here’s a bonus photograph taken a few hundred yards above my campsite looking into a small clearing I found in the forest:

humphreys-peak-clearing

They’re very pretty to look at and often make convenient campsites, but it’s super inconsiderate to camp in or near these little clearings. Animals use them and if you’re there with all your gear then they won’t be able to. You can be a better houseguest if you camp farther back in the trees out of sight and smell range and away from any obvious game trails. That way the local residents can come and go as they please and you’ll have less chance of midnight visitors passing through your camp.

If you really want to be a considerate wilderness visitor then you should move your camp on a daily basis so that you don’t stink up the place too bad and the wildlife don’t become accustomed to the human presence. It’s better for them when hunting season rolls around. This high up in the Wilderness they don’t have much to worry about from hunters (most modern hunters arrive with a Ford pickup’s bucket seat permanently affixed to their hind ends) but still, it’s better not to encourage bad habits.