Interpretations of spring seem to vary. I forget that sometimes, only to be quickly reminded as I head north each year thinking that summer must surely be setting in everywhere else, having already spent a couple of months baking in the desert sun myself. While once an avid proponent of winter, I’ve managed to do a decent job of skipping that season for a few years now, heading south of the border for a couple of months around December and returning to the Big Bend just about the time the heat starts to set in. This winter was about the same, though we found ourselves enveloped in snowstorms in Mexico in January, and again in New Mexico and Utah in April and May. The between times, however, were spring to me, starting, as a matter of fact, in late January this year as we floated through the Great Unknown blessed by unbelievable weather, and continuing on through early April when it was time to flee the hazy skies and 100+ degree temps setting in. It was not spring elsewhere, we soon discovered, but it is always nice to see a bit of snow each year, just to know what you’re not really missing. Here are a few highlights from the past few months.
Conservation Work. Or something like that. Spent all of February working on a restoration project around the confluence of Terlingua Creek and Rough Run Creek. The project, developed by Fred Phillips Consulting out of Flagstaff, consisted of harvesting sandbar willows and other varieties of native plants, and then strategically replanting them in zones where they historically thrived before the severe denuding brought about during the ranching and mining era. By the end of the project, our team of six had planted around 4,500 cuttings. Two months afterwards, around 80% of them were sprouting, in spite of no precipitation and ruthless spring temperatures nearing and exceeding triple digits. Here’s hoping that the project continues to be a success, and that its effects last for generations to come.
Rancherias Loop. While working on the project, we put in the standard 40-hour week, allowing time to plan weekend excursions. One trip that I’ve wanted to do for several years was a three-day backpacking trip in the state park called the Rancherias Loop. The trail leads across a wide variety of rugged desert terrain, running up a narrow canyon for the first day’s stretch, then following a 4×4 road for a few miles on the second morning, and eventually dropping down another drainage before heading up, across, and back down a huge mesa. Even in February, things warm up quick out there, and water becomes a staid concern once you commit to the trail. Fortunately, there are two fairly reliable springs along the way, spaced perfectly apart for a three-day walk, though the drier the year, the less reliable the springs become. The information at the ranger station as to their status is also of questionable reliance, as neither of the rangers that we spoke to had ever hiked the trail, leaving them to depend on sporadic reports from returning trail users. This year being about as hot and dry as it gets down there, we certainly had some anxiety with relying on the availability of water, even once we spotted the stands of vibrant green cottonwoods popping out of the otherwise dried up landscape. The first night’s stop had one bubbling brook that appeared out of the ground near the roots of one tree, and disappeared back into the ground 20’ further down. Plenty for filling up, but not necessarily for assuaging concerns about the following day’s spring. The next afternoon we arrived at even bigger stands of cottonwoods, but had to search for a long while before finding a mudhole big enough to filter out of. But, we eventually filled up every receptacle we had, and carried a couple of gallons up onto the mesa to a dry camp and a stunning sunset. A great trip and a great trail with lots of varied terrain along the way.
River Guiding. From the end of the project in early March, until the beginning of April, we guided canoe trips on the Rio Grande, which has been a spring staple for several years now. This year, the busiest few weeks of the season were enough to satiate my annual desire to run commercial trips down there. I will always love the Big Bend, but the river continues to drop to near dismal levels each spring while the temperatures continue to rise, the wind rips up the canyons, the long drives to and from the river only get longer each day, and the crowds are getting there earlier and sticking around later… Still, however, I love it somehow, working down there, being in the canyons, being on the river, even if I’m dragging a canoe up a canyon instead of floating for days down through it. Love it for a little while, at least. And I did get to do a Boquillas Canyon trip, four days of downstream travel on my favorite stretch of the Rio Grande, which also meant that I got to float the full length of the park plus some this year. Pretty awesome. At the end of the month, my mom came down south to visit for a week, which was a whirlwind of a Big Bend tour and hitting all of the highlights from Balmorhea to Ft. Davis to Ojinaga to both Big Bend parks and several other state parks and a few miles on the river in a canoe to boot. Was great to get to show her around and let her in on a bit of van life for a while.
New Mexico. After dropping my mom off in Midland, we headed over to New Mexico for a few weeks, primarily to attend a couple of classes, but also just to do some poking around. On the way over we stopped off in Guadalupe NP for a run up McKittrick Canyon followed by dinner at the Frijole Ranch, and then spent the next morning touring around the pictographs at Hueco Tanks SP. That afternoon, we drove into downtown El Paso and took a quick walk over into Ciudad Juarez for some lunch. In spite of all the stigma, Juarez seemed like every other town in Mexico I’ve ever been to, just a bunch of decent people trying to go on about their lives. And good tacos. After that, it was leaving Texas and a couple days of driving up to Taos, where we spent three days renewing our Wilderness First Responder certifications, followed by a week of swiftwater rescue instruction with Tommy Gram from the American Canoe Association. Both classes were excellent, and after receiving our instructor credentials with the ACA, we headed west for a ways to check out the Rio Chama.
Rio Chama. I’ve wanted to run the Chama for years now, but was never in the vicinity at the right time. Now we were, and with one of our beater canoes along to provide the ride. Having heard only that the Chama was awesome, with no real specifics, I suppose I had no idea what to expect, nor had I put any significant thought or effort into finding out what the run might entail, other than ensuring that there wasn’t any major whitewater to be encountered along the way. I guess, due to its relative closeness to the San Juan in Utah on a 2-D map devoid of elevation markers, I’d always imagined it would be desert river, and somewhat warm in mid-April. Not so. From the mountain town of Taos, we drove up to get there. Up and up and up. And then down a little, but not that much. Our first day on the water the wind blew cold and steady at around 30 mph. That night the temperature dropped down into the low 20s. It warmed up a little the next day, but not much. We were adequately prepared, but it was still pretty dang chilly for most of the four-day trip. Early early spring in the Rocky Mountains. Snow on the tent the last morning.
It was quiet out there, being still winter like, with almost no signs of life other than birds. At one point, after trying to name all the avian species of the morning, I said aloud that I’d like to see at least one mammal. A bear, perhaps. And about two minutes later we floated past a strange looking piece of fur on the right bank. It took while to realize that it was in fact the fluffiest blondest little bear cub I’d ever seen, just kind of hanging out all alone waiting for its mom to return. And that was about the only land based creature we spotted other than a couple of squirrels and a bunch of cows and a few other humans.
The scenery was spectacular. We floated through open canyons of mixed conifer forest interspersed by massive multi-hued sandstone walls extruding along both banks. Walls of purple and orange. Other highlights were fossilized dinosaur tracks up one wash, a hot spring, and several short side hikes with stellar views of the canyon. With the flows we had, it was fun canoeing with steady current, lots of riffles, and the occasional rapid. Near the end, the rapids got a bit bigger, and we swamped pretty good dropping into a big ledge-hole at the bottom of Bridge Rapids, barely making it to shore and calling it our last night’s camp as we pulled everything out of the almost capsized canoe. That evening, we went for a run on the Continental Divide Trail, which happened to cross the river on the bridge just upstream of us. The wind went back to blowing cold, and continued to do so till the end. We navigated a couple more rapids the next morning, packed up, and ended up finding a few unanticipated diversions in the hours to come.
Abiquiu, New Mexico. After packing up our gear, we debated as to what to do next. Having been slightly cold for several days, and with the breeze going, and big thunderstorms blowing in, the hike up to the canyon rim we’d been discussing lost its appeal. We decided to check out a couple of nearby locations on the map, with no real destination in mind. Just the way I like it. And it ended up being a really sweet day. The first stop was Echo Amphitheater, just up the road. The site is a monstrous sandstone amphitheater, as the name suggests, a huge half-dome of naturally sculpted rock. We hung out for a while with the place to ourselves, ate lunch, made some noise, checked out the acoustics. From there we drove a few more miles and visited the Ghost Ranch, where we were surprised to see hordes of busy artists scattered across sprawling parking areas diligently producing landscapes in a variety of mediums. And the natural landscapes they were attempting to recreate, albeit while leaving out the car-crammed chaos of the parking lots they chose to stand in, were indeed unique and amazing, replete with towering spires and animated colors in constant flux due to the briskly shifting clouds. Knowing nothing about the place when we entered, we eventually learned that the ranch was a long-time base of the famed artist Georgia O’Keeffe; many of her works can be directly correlated with iconic rock formations found around the ranch. The site also has a lot of history with Hollywood movie production, as an impressive list of films have shot parts here, and as a paleontological site of renowned interest. A bit overwhelmed by the crowds of people and their easels everywhere, we decided to take off after a short visit to the museum and headquarters. Less than a half-mile back out the driveway, we found an easy ridgeline trail to stroll along with incredible views of the surrounding features and not an artist in sight.
From there, we drove a few miles to the town of Abiquiu, a name I’d recognized from a post on a random blog I’d read two years before. The basis of the article had to do with a church of sorts, the still utilized meeting place of an archaic religious sect, a secret brotherhood of practicing penitents. I won’t get into the details here, but will say that we somehow happened to stumble upon the site on the outskirts of this odd little town, which had a distinct aura of insularity about it. The town itself, that is, whose empty dirt streets were enough to kindle a strong sense of foreboding. Aside from the church (technically a ‘morada’), there wasn’t much to the town other than another church, a library, and an art gallery, which we visited on our way out of town. The gallery itself housed an eclectic collection of pieces from around the world, with one half of the location packed with myriad Buddha sculptures and African peculiarities, and the other half filled with a combination of Americana kitsch and Indian weavings. None of it seemed to be priced to sell, but I don’t think I qualified as the target clientele. The most interesting part of the gallery turned out to be the manager, who offered us a detailed history of the Abiquiu area. As we were leaving, I asked him what his personal interests entailed, and he mentioned photography, pointing to a few works mounted on the wall which I’d been admiring earlier. I asked him where one of them had been taken, a shot of a distinctive rock formation I’d never seen before, and he told me that it was from nearby, at a place called Plaza Blanca, another site frequented by O’Keeffe. He gave us directions to get there, I thanked him sincerely, and we headed out of town. We ate dinner beside the Chama, and then drove several miles down another dirt road to arrive at Plaza Blanca, which actually sits on private land owned by an Islamic foundation which sponsors educational programs at their mosque a few miles outside of Abiquiu. Another story in itself, as you can imagine. Anyways, we spent a couple of hours wandering alone around the ‘Plaza’ which is actually comprised of many acres of spectacular surrealistic landscapes. Formations of white rock sculpted by wind and water. The sun began to set about an hour after we arrived, softly shifting both sky and sandstone through revolving pinks and blues. A perfect end to an inspiring day.
Utah. Well, really Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Nevada, then Utah, but mostly just Utah. The day after taking off the Chama, which was also the day with the amphitheater, the Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, and Plaza Blanca, we decided to head out of New Mexico and on towards Tennessee, where we were planning on leaving the van for a while as we traveled on to Utah, then Peru, then Alaska (where I’m finally getting around to writing all of this…) So it was out of New Mexico, USA (distinguished on their license plates for some reason), over to the panhandle of Texas for a quick visit with the folks, across Oklahoma on the freeway, and then onto some Arkansas backroads through vast miles of flooded rice fields for a change of scenery. It was a couple of days in Tennessee hiking and running around a couple of state parks, followed by a long day of airports, delays, lost luggage, and an eventual arrival in Brian’s Head, Utah about 24 hours after waking up in Tennessee.
The week in Utah was hanging out with Erin’s family. Lots and lots of driving, some day hiking, and several different parks – Bryce Canyon, Zion, and Snow Canyon State Park. It was navigating throngs of other visitors in the insanely crowded national parks, and having a bit of space to ourselves the days we didn’t go to the national parks. It was cool weather, sunshine at times, and a day of heavy snow. It was hotel living and internet service and all the hot water you could handle. I think those things are commonplace for most people, but not always part of my personal reality. It was healthy eating and plenty of sleep. It was another good reminder that March and April really only mean spring when you’re in the Big Bend. In the most parts of the country, it’s still winter, apparently. I forget that some years. So yeah, Spring 18, and now for my own annual winter – summer in AK.