Back to the Gila River

The Upper Gila River ecosystem occupies a good chunk of southwestern New Mexico.  It includes the first federally-designated wilderness area, 2.7 million acres of national forest, and is home to mountain lions, black bears, elk, eagles, and Mexican wolves.  It’s been occupied by humans as long as almost any place in the country, but because there are no nearby major population centers, visitation is relatively light.  All of these factors make the place irresistible to a nature sound recordist.

During the last few years, I’ve made many recording trips to the Gila (“hee-la” see Bird Conversations, El lobo pt. 1, restoring balance, Of fire and flood, dynamics of the Upper Gila River Ecosystem, Nighttime visitors, among others).  This time I headed over in early June, eager to explore the east side of the Gila Wilderness, along the Mimbres River.  Fifteen miles of dirt road in the faithful-but-getting-weary CR-V, traveling up and up ridges and mesas, then dropping into a steep canyon, and we arrived at the Rocky Canyon Campground.  This is a very small campground (2 sites) along a small dry riverbed (with cautionary signs warning of flash floods).  I picked the site furthest from the road and the dog and I set up camp, which for Shadow meant marking the area as his territory and sniffing for goodies left by previous campers.

The surrounding forest was lovely and diverse – a mix of pines and Douglas-firs, Gambel’s oak and mountain ash.  We wandered down to a nearby trailhead into the wilderness, and quickly came across tracks of wild turkey and black bear.

Our camp at the Rocky Canyon campground.

Our camp at the Rocky Canyon campground.

The nights were full of the sounds of Mexican Whippoorwills and crickets.  Distant Great Horned Owls called, and a Mexican Spotted Owl called fairly close to camp.  Mexican Spotted Owls are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, so it was quite a treat to be able to record them:

The next day we took a hike into the wilderness, backtracking some very fresh bear tracks that had wandered very close to camp before veering around.  The map showed some springs down the trail, so I didn’t pack a lot of water; when the springs turned up dry, I gave Shadow the last of my water and we headed back to camp.  We spent the afternoon lazing in the shade, enjoying the peace and quiet.  A rustling in the leaves on the far side of camp caught my attention, and I watched a hen turkey with at least 4 tiny chicks disappear up the hillside.

At 10 o’clock that evening, another group pulled into the remaining site.  They weren’t real noisy, but they were pretty obnoxious with the bright lights they used to illuminate the entire area.  They finally quieted down shortly after midnight, leaving the night to the whippoorwills and crickets.

After recording a little of the dawn chorus and enjoying a lazy morning, I decided to pack up and head for the Gila River.  I stopped near the confluence of the west, middle and east forks for the river to make a recording:

It was almost midday by then, so the birds weren’t being very vocal.  The cool, rushing waters of the river were very refreshing and Shadow and I enjoyed getting our toes wet and washing off the dust from the previous few days.   After the confluence, the river winds through the wilderness again, before coming out of the mountains near the town of Cliff.  A dam has been proposed in this area, supposedly to provide irrigation and household water to places as far away as Deming.  It’s primarily to satisfy legal requirements related to the Central Arizona Project; there is no current need for diverting the Gila, but it will likely have major effects on the tremendously rich riparian areas downstream.

Wild canyons of the Gila Wilderness.  Escudilla Peak in the background.

Wild canyons of the Gila Wilderness. Escudilla Peak in the background.

The campgrounds in the area were mostly full, so we headed back toward Piños Altos.   There are a couple of road-side campgrounds along Cherry Creek.  Although much closer to a highway than I like, the road isn’t much used at night, and I wanted to check out the riparian area along the creek.  The campground actually turned out to be pretty nice, and we had the place to ourselves.  A lovely footpath headed back up a canyon behind the campground, winding through tall trees and dramatic boulders, with lush vegetation on the ground, some pretty wildflowers, and a nice crop of poison ivy.  I was unable to convince Shadow to stay out of it, so he got a bath when we got home.

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