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The last couple of days have been pretty hectic around the Gila and we may have more excitement tonight. As I write this, I try to remember that many parts of New Mexico are having issues with big rains and flash floods.
Both last night and the night before there have been lots of rain in the upcountry, resulting in flash flooding down at our level. Yesterday at about 10:45 a.m. I was in the visitor center when someone called my attention to a huge raft of logs jamming the entire Middle Fork of the Gila River just outside. We had a lot of people around the VC because we had two Search and Rescue operations going on, too. (More about that later.)
I immediately got on the radio to our contact station (where people go to start their trek to the cliff dwellings). Our supervisor and his wife, Marie, a park superintendent, were there and were pretty incredulous. They had just hiked along the Middle Fork and could not believe that anything this dramatic could have happened in the few minutes since they had arrived along the West Fork of the river. It was a few very tense minutes until we all realized that only the Middle Fork had flashed.
Anita and Dave, who have worked and volunteered here a long time quickly called key residents downstream and warned them of the impending doom. A SAR helicopter pilot reported that all the rubble had blocked off the opening to the Gila Hot Springs area and when the logjam broke everything downstream would be washed away. By everything, of course I mean the residents, too. To add to the tension of the day, a few hours later we learned that 5 people had launched on the Middle Fork with inflatable rafts, kayaks, etc. on a 3 day trip! We truly did not ever expect to see them alive again. The mountain of swift moving water and debris would certainly crush them.
We were lucky yesterday because we had a big SAR team from Silver City here. They found 2 women backpacking and brought them out. The amazing thing was that they were not even looking for them! They were in search of a couple and their almost 3-year old boy who were several days overdue from a week-long trek into the wilderness. He was reportedly an Oxford professor and we mused for days about why such an intelligent man would have left the rag top OFF of his vehicle, parked at one of the trailheads! They were found on a bluff and helicoptered out.
She and I cried together as she told me that they never expected to get out alive. They had camped as high up as possible, but the raging flood washed away their tent and all possessions. She told me that they had just managed to scramble up a very difficult bluff to reach high ground, but fully expected to be swept away, too. How they escaped carrying their little boy and climbing, too, is amazing. Mom and son are shown with the team below. Dad was being debriefed.
The destruction to the floodplain is amazing. I will try to put some of the best photos below. Another SAR volunteer and I provided all the photos and video to the press, but they still do not do justice to the sound of the raging waters. Other frantic activity centered on rescuing the forest service livestock (yes, including the two I had fed a couple of weeks ago). They were trapped in their corrals at the barn, thoroughly panicked and soon to drown. They ran for high ground as soon as the gates could be forced open against the raging flood waters and debris and are safely up in their pasture above our residence area.
Later in the day, the SAR team was going a little stir-crazy with nothing to do. So instead of waiting for endloaders to move the debris from our only road out they pitched in and moved it themselves. They had to use 4WD trucks and other devices to move some of the huge trees, but they got ‘er done! (and went home to their families!)
Last night big storms rolled in during the night and this morning I woke up to the sound of trees shattering along the river banks and being swept away. So, another big flash flood happened this morning!! We were already closed for the day due to some minor road damage, but today’s flash flood closed us for another day (tomorrow – Monday) and separated our group. Those who lived at the Gila RV park could not safely cross to the monument. They monitored the rise and fall of the flooding from their side of the devastation, then were released to go enjoy the day at their rigs. As soon as a helicopter could get in the air up here they found the 5 kayakers alive!
Interestingly, another storm is predicted for tonight, but now it seems like “just another day in the Gila!” As I hiked around tonight at sunset, I was thinking of John and Delona who were able to get out of here early this morning. I’ll see them again at Big Bend in January, but I know they will be reading this. I love you guys, sure missed you on tonight’s walk, wish you safe travels and Godspeed back to Big Bend so we can have more fun together.
Yesterday I slept until almost 8:00 a.m. – truly amazing! Zuni tried to wake me up a couple of times, but when I finally opened my eyes I understood why I slept so long. The whole Gila was shrouded in a thick fog. By the time I got up, dressed and ready to roll the fog was burning off the immediate area and I got packed for hiking.
My destination was a simple 2.5 mile hike up Signal Peak to see the fire watch tower. By the time I got to the trail head the weather had cleared up, the sun was shining brightly and a 72 degree breeze stirred the pines. What a picture perfect day!
The hike took me 2 hours and 15 minutes – lots of huffing and puffing and stops to photograph anything that did not fly or run away. Shortly after summiting (I love to use that term as if I ever climbed like a mountain climber! Ha!), another hiker came along and we chatted. He had hiked Tadpole Ridge yesterday and overnighted in the huge thunder storm that came through. He said it poured for over 2 hours. The evidence was in all the debris and new troughs on the trails. Today he was doing Signal Peak with full pack to practice for his rim to rim of the Grand Canyon next week. He was also a site steward (checks up on archeological sites to see if anyone has messed around or looted them). He works for Marilyn Markel, the lady who helped get us involved with the archeological digs this summer!
Anyway, the trip down the mountain only took 50 minutes! Worth the extra time to get up there, though. Here are some photos from today, starting with the fog as seen from Coperas vista, lots of lizards, mushrooms, slime and puff balls!
That’s all for today! Off to work!
Yesterday Jari, Greg, Jeff and I hiked a high and dry forest service trail and are giving it a AAA rating! The weather was beautiful, the trail ranged from rugged to woodsy, steep to flat and, in general, was perfect! Jari and Greg hiked a about 2/3 of the trail but Jeff and I went the whole distance – 17 miles round trip.
Flora and Fauna: The most amazing was the little green froggie that Greg spotted hiding under an oak leaf. Later in the day I spotted the lady bug orgy happening in a downed oak branch. . .
Here are some photos of the intrepid hikers, the wonderful scenery, and great weather. We really lucked out because there were lots of clouds to protect us from the sun but no monsoon storms. We also saw bear scat about every 50 yards but no bears! Dang – I really wanted to get a photo of one. Jeff and I also strategized on what to do if we saw one! His question was, “Do you want to get a picture first, or scare it away?” Of course, the photo! But we also discussed the location of the bear mace, the importance of standing our ground, how to operate the little air horn I carry (that was a waste of money as it barely tooted!), etc.
Since the trail was only about 20 minutes from Silver City Jeff and I went to the Buckhorn in Pinos Altos for a delicious buffalo burger and fries, then on to Walmart for groceries and Chevron for gas. I drove and we got home at 9:00 p.m., having to dodge only one deer and two javelina on the way through the wilderness. Plans for doing trail maintenance training today were scuttled because our park superintendent (who was to have been our instructor) had been up last last night. Five visitors had been stranded for several days 17 river crossings away from safety and had to be rescued last night. They had run out of food Sunday afternoon, so the team took them MREs (which they reportedly raved about! Naturally if you have been without food a couple of days nearly anything would have tasted great!), and shuttled them out of the wilderness using two mules for the crossing. Jeremy (superintendent) said it took about 45 minutes per crossing due to all the gear, the inexperience of the visitors with stock & river crossings & all the challenges, etc.
Labor Day weekend coming up! We expect as many as 600 visitors per day so time will tell!
Last week coworkers, Chris, Jari, Greg and I decided to hike the 9 mile trail from the Military Road trailhead to Grapevine campground. The trail kind of faded out and we had to turn around and go back to our starting point. The afternoon storms were building and we got caught in a huge storm complete with hail! Sorry that our cameras were packed away to keep them dry and we did not get any photos of the hail piled up along the roadways. What a scare! Chris, her dog Spike and I huddled under a low juniper tree to put on rain ponchos but Jari and her husband made a run the last 1/3 mile or so to the car. We all got soaked to the bone but none of us got struck by lightning – thank God!
Today, another coworker, Jeff, and I decided to hike the same trail and managed to get to our destination!!! Jeff suggested we follow the fencelines. So combined with my compass to keep us going the right direction we made it! No lightning storms either! By the time we returned to the visitor center at 3:00 p.m. though the entire cliff dwelling area was a huge mass of lightning strikes. They had closed the trail to the dwellings at about 1:30 today and were not able to reopen due to the lightning and driving rain at their location. Jeff and I really lucked out today!
First last week’s photos:
I forgot to mention that the last two photos above are of mushrooms. The red one was about 4″ in diameter and the little white one was less than 1″ in diameter. Here are some of the photos from today:
Below is a photo of Jeff showing the way the fence builders have used boulders suspended from the fence wires to hold the fence in place at some locations:
The funniest part of the day was right before we got to the only two river crossings as we approached Grapevine campground. It reminded me of when I stepped over the gopher snake when I was hiking a couple of months ago. Jeff was in front of me and all of a sudden he yelped and jumped a few feet over to the right. Then he started laughing when the snake just lay placidly! It is a desert striped whip snake and it truly did not move at all:
At the tail end of the trail we hiked through some lovely forested area and a bald eagle startled out of a tree and flew away. We changed into water shoes and made 2 easy river crossings and were elated as we wound up where we were supposed to be – Grapevine campground where my car was parked!! Yippee! A great day!
The contact station is where all the visitors to the Cliff Dwellings have to stop and pay their fee, get an orientation from us volunteers, etc. These are just some photos of life around there, the constantly changing array of flowers and some of the bugs, spiders, and assorted wildlife that appears there daily. Enjoy!
Over one weekend recently I got to feed two of the trail crew horses, Birdsong and Gordo. Poor horses were getting eaten alive by the flies. I have to toughen up because they spend their lives out in the wilderness. It was fun taking care of them for a few days and treating them to a few applies. They would not take them from my hand, but readily ate them after I put them into the trough and turned my back! Here is Birdsong:
A few more pictures from the contact station a few days later: (The first 2 photos are of Long-Flowered Four O’Clocks)
Just a few pictures from my hike today to the Heart Bar Wildlife Refuge adjacent to the cliff dwellings . . . no state money for restoration of the Heart Bar property after the fires of two years ago, but pretty flowers all the time this year. Someone asked recently what they do at the Hear Bar and a staffer here jokingly answered: “Raise elk!” I haven’t seen any since about a month ago when I counted 27 of them.