Monday, May 22, 2017

Breathless on the Osha Trail


Let me start by pointing out that this Osha has nothing to do with a government agency charged with keeping us safe on the job and recording the details when we're not, but rather with a plant; the kind with roots and leaves, not the kind with factory-workers and time-clocks. Osha, which obviously grows here though it is at the southern end of its range, is considered an herb because of it's many medicinal uses. If you try a web search on Osha the search engine will be inundated with OSHA crap so use the scientific name of Ligusticum porteri




But before I could hike the Osha trail I had to get there. With the sun just breaking the eastern horizon I left my peaceful, solitary camp there near Sitting Bull Falls and started making my way back towards US 285, up to Artisia then west on US 82 towards Cloudcroft.

The trip is only about 140 miles, but this is one of those journeys where it's not only about the getting there, but also the going, and I was in no rush to miss anything along the way, so it took the whole morning and then some to get from here to there.




After poking around Artisia for a while, a disphoric little town torn between the distinctly different infrastructures necessary to support the oil-fields to the east and the ranches to the west, as well as a burgeoning, if incongruous, art and culinary scene, a town that is sometimes pretty and sometimes not, I headed west and immediately started encountering signs warning that trucks without engine-brakes, or over a certain length even with engine brakes, are prohibited west of Cloudcroft and this sign made it graphically clear why!

Between here and there US 82 isn't that steep, but it is divided into three distinct sections.

From Artisia to Hope the land is largely flat and the road runs straight, guided on its way between endless barbed-wire fences that prevent any straying, of livestock or road.

Just there on the eastern edge of Hope is a large picnic area that made for a decent mid-trip stop well off the road. Just up the way, within sight of the picnic area, CR 12 heads south and is, eventually, the gateway to points in the northern end of the Guadalupe unit of the Lincoln NF, but today I was headed elsewhere so didn't make that turn, though it was tempting.

From Hope to Pinon the land starts to roll. The restraining fences persist because this is still range land, but the road isn't straight anymore as it snakes up, around, and down the hills past large ranching operations perched out there on the high plains. As is normal for high-plains ranches, there's a lot of land, very few cows, and even fewer structures, to be seen. What can be seen are the eastern ramparts of the Sacramento Mountains there up ahead.

Then as soon as you go around the curve by the new-looking, and surprisingly large for being out in the middle of nowhere, Pinon-Durham elementary school US 82 plunges into the lower end of the canyon formed by Rio Penasco and the road gets downright kinky as you leave the high plains and start working up into the timbered land of the Sacramento Mountains. If you have a co-driver this would be a good place to start switching off because there is a lot to see with one beautiful vista after another but the road is a jealous one and demands the driver's attention.




When I got to Cloudcroft I took advantage of it being banker's hours and hung a left on SR130, passed below several 'houses' with the back side resting on a cliff-top and the front sides perched on ridiculously tall pilings far above the road, (as in forty feet or so above the road) and in less than a mile pulled in at the Lincoln NF Sacramento Mountains Ranger District Headquarters.

I told the ranger behind the info-desk I was interested in day-hikes and camping and walked out again with a handful of copied pages, each one detailing a particular trail, as well as three stapled pages of campground information. (National Forest Headquarters are closed far too often when you need them, but when open they are a great source of information.)



Among the information the ranger-dude imparted on me was that the Osha trail is by far the most popular day-hike trail in the system.

Now normally I don't consider 'popular' an asset for a trail, or pretty much anything else either, but it was Monday, lunch-hour had already expired so the fitness nuts were back at work now, and the trailhead is right there on the edge of town, so I was willing to give it a shot.

Westbound on US 82, just as you fall off the edge of town on a steep right-hand curve, 2nd street will appear on your right. Make that turn, then an immediate hard left puts you in the trailhead parking lot. When I pulled in there was only one other vehicle in the lot which I took as a good sign.



On paper the trail is what looks like an easy 2.6 mile balloon trail (A loop with a tail) with some 4 to 5 hundred vertical feet between the low and high points.

OK, hold on here. Notice that in the previous sentence that I said 'looks like an easy trail'? I'll get to the alleged easy bit later in this post.




The vertical part of the trail started, rather ruthlessly I thought, right off the bat as I walked past the trailhead sign and immediately started climbing up the 'tail' part of the loop which traverses skyward along the side of a ridge on it's way to the saddle above.



But all was soon forgiven, well almost all, when views of the curved Mexican Canyon Trestle started appearing over there on the other side of where US 82 is begining its plunge down to Alamogordo.


This is a remnant of the Alamogordo and Sacramento Mountain Railroad which I'll get to in more detail (probably more than you ever wanted to hear.) in other posts. (I know, I know, but as a certifi(ed/able) train nut would you expect any different of me??)



A little further on more vistas opened up, such as this one looking west across the Tularosa Basin, including the White Sands (Of missile range and National Monument fame) to the San Andreas Mountains, which are about 50 air-miles away at this point.

The floor of the basin is at about 4000 feet and at this point I'm within a couple hundred feet of being at 9000.

When I left camp this morning I was also at 4000 feet and it took me, or rather The Van, 140 miles and all morning to climb up here, yet Alamogordo, down there on the basin floor at the base of the Sacramento Mountains, hidden from here by the ridge forming the southern wall of the canyon, is only some 19 road miles away. And 14 of those miles are steep!



Having been well and thoroughly logged over through the 1900's, this is all second growth timber up here where I am



but second-growth or not, the rugged and towering Douglass Fir is impressive anyway.



A few patches of snow are hanging around to remind me that it's still only early April around here.



but this Northern Flicker doesn't seem to mind. (Although technically a woodpecker these guys spend a lot of time foraging on the ground for ants.)




And this gorgeous little Alpine valley tucked in between ridges at the westernmost part of the Osha trail's loop is looking decidedly spring-like.

All of which made for a great hike.




From this point, there in the little alpine valley, I could have switched over to T568 which goes up over the hill towards the Pine area out there along SR 244, but instead I stayed sensible (I know! What a surprise!) and made the sharp turn at the pointy end of the T10 loop and slogged my laborious way up the ridge heading back towards the trailhead.

OK, I might have just given the impression that I was being sensible in my choice of routes at this point, but the truth is, I had been struggling since almost as soon as I left the trailhead and was still only about halfway through the hike so my choice of route at this point had far more to do with necessity and any sort of intelligent sensibility.

From personal experience I know I can make elevation changes of about 4000 feet without really noticing them, (It used to be more like 5000 feet, but that was then and this is now and I don't want to talk about it!) more than that and I need time to acclimate, and I'm talking days here, not hours.

But little more than one week ago I had been hanging out for several months at slightly less than 500 feet, definitely flat-lander territory. A few days ago I was messing around in the 2000 foot range. Yesterday I was at about 4000 feet. Today I'm at 9000!  You do the math because I don't want to. . . In fact I can't, because it's taking too much effort just to get the occasional teaspoon full of air into my lungs.

I'm pretty sure that by the time I made it to the first viewpoint on the trail my legs weighed about twice what they normally do, and shortly after that they passed the three times mark. By the time I reached the halfway point of the hike I'm positive that if my hand hadn't been propped up by the hiking stick my fingers would have been worn bloody from dragging on the ground. At one point I considered lightening the load by dumping my emergency liter of water, but to do that I would have to take my pack off and I wasn't sure I could manage to get it back on again. . .

By the time I trudged, one floppy, jarring step at a time, back down the tail of the loop and returned to The Van I looked more like last-call at a country western biker bar than the triumphant and well conditioned hiker I pretend to be inside my head.

Damn! I really think it's time for a nap!

Oh, and by the way, anybody got some spare oxygen just laying around??? Otherwise all this gasping for air is going to keep me awake.











Thursday, May 18, 2017

Where to Stay After 'Braving' The Falls??


After escaping Sitting Bull Falls Day Use Area shortly before the gates got locked up for the night, (And let's not forget escaping my dumb-ass stunt above the falls too.) I had a decision to make.

Where was I going to spend the night?

I could always make the one-hour drive back out to US 285 and dock up for the night at the KOA once again, but that's kind of a budget buster. I didn't need the laundry room and $40 plus seemed like a lot to pay for a hot shower and hookups I didn't need.

For about the same driving distance and $10 I could always hit the Brantley Lake State Park.



Or I could just pick out one of the free spots within a couple minutes of the Falls area.

How do I know about these free camping spots?

Most National Forest Units produce Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUM's). These maps detail forest service roads and what you are allowed to do on them. Some allow highway-legal vehicles only, some allow all vehicles, and some only allow 4-wheelers or dirt-bikes. (All allow foot-travel though that's not always recommended, especially on those 4-wheeler roads during popular weekends when too many people seem to have brought their toys to the wilderness but left their brains at home.) The map also tells if there are seasonal restrictions on roads or not.

You can get these in paper, but be warned that they are every bit as large and unwieldy as the old paper road-maps you used to buy off the rack near the door at full-service gas stations, or you can download PDF's of the MVUM's right onto your smart-phone. I got this one here.

These maps are subject to change (Fires, floods, over-use, lack of maintenance etc.) so it's a good idea to download a fresh one periodically.


And you see those little grey dots alongside FS 276 (highway legal vehicles only) and FS 227 (all vehicles) in this closeup?

Those mean that dispersed camping is allowed. In the case of FS 276 it is allowed in the first 2.8 miles from where the road crosses the NF boundary. In the case of FS 227 you can camp along the entire length of the road.

To disperse-camp you must find a spot where you can pull completely off the roadway (Not always easy!) but, in most cases, also stay within 300 feet of the road. (The Dispersed Camping Table located on the MVUM has details specific to that Unit.)



What the MVUM' don't have is any topographic information and given the terrain most FS roads cover this could be pretty important stuff to know before driving blindly down a road that is likely to be only one lane wide and probably have limited turn-around spots!

Another thing to be careful of with the MVUM's is that they don't have any information on just what kind of road surface it might be. If you're used to looking at other types of maps you might assume that FS 276 is paved and FS 227 is gravel when in fact how the road is depicted on the map dictates what vehicles can use it and not what type of road-surface it is. (Many, maybe most, FS roads are just graded dirt tracks, or at least they were graded at one point. . .)

By using both the MVUM on my phone and the Topo map on my laptop I know that I can camp along FS 276 anywhere east of the junction of Sitting Bull and Wilson Canyons and the road is fairly flat therefor probably doesn't need to be scouted out on the Quad-B before I venture down it with The Van.



But FS 227, though I can also camp anywhere along it, climbs right up the spine of a moderately steep ridge and should probably be checked out before committing The Van to it.

FS 276 is right there at the top of that little ramp behind The Van. I'm well clear of it here but still with 300 feet. 
True, according to my topo the graded rocky track of FS 227 (Again, I know it's a rocky track not from how it's marked on the map, but because I laid eyes on it on my way into the Falls area.) has the promise of some really great camping up there at the top, maybe even with views down into Gilson Canyon, but now that I know it's there I can always plan on checking it out next time I'm in the area.

Next time because in this case FS 276 was actually one of the rare paved FS roads and being the end of a long day I chose the easy way out.

Being a paved road FS 276 could be a busy place to camp next to, but since it dead-ends at a locked gate I knew that as soon as the last stragglers left the Falls day-use area for the night the traffic would be nonexistent. So as soon as I saw a likely looking spot I dropped down off the road onto a small bench above the river, as usual whenever possible, picking a spot that has been used before to minimize my impact.

The river, actually a wash here since the water has retreated underground, is down there where it's green.

And from a few minutes after arriving until I left the following morning I didn't see another vehicle or person.




I just sat back and spent my quiet, solitary evening watching the sun set on the hills and bluffs around me

Looking back up Sitting Bull Canyon towards the falls area. That little sliver of a roof to the right of The Van's mirror is a shelter at the trailhead for the ominously named Last Chance Trail and is as far as you can get by vehicle once the gate to the day-use area is closed.






and later tried to get some 'star' shots but my camera is limited to a 15 second exposure so that didn't work very well, even with a wide-open aperture and a high ISO. . .




It's Getting Crowded Around Here!





This photo was taken May 5th. She has just leapt up the bank near the bird-feeders and is obviously blaming me for having to move so quickly in her state of pregnant-ism.



but the real culprit is this Bobwhite (Oddly enough, the black-crowned Florida version and not the rust-crowned Texas variant.) who came strutting through like he was late for an assignation with his mistress, his little legs whirling round as fast as they could go as he zipped right on by the seed laying there on the ground. (Because of the unexpected encounter and some messing around I was doing just prior to that encounter I had the camera set up with a low ISO of 125 and didn't have time to change the settings, hence the slow 1/13 sec. shutter speed and rather piss-poor image.)



I took this photo last night just after sunset. She had the fawn about a week ago (At least that's when she disappeared for couple days then turned up again without the baby-bump.) and this is the first outing for the little one.




As you can work out from the 24mm focal length for this image, I was standing in plain view about 15 feet from them and neither one was too bothered.

In my experience brand new fawns take their cue from mom but within a few weeks they get pretty skittish, like this mom's fawn from last year that wants nothing whatsoever to do with me. This persists until they are around 2 then they settle down a bit again.

Monday, May 15, 2017

How Not to Fall off Sitting Bull Falls


Tucked in there behind Capital Reef is the southernmost ranger district of the Lincoln National Forest, the Guadalupe unit.



It anchors itself on the back side of both Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains National Parks to the south and coma's some 42 miles up towards the north-northwest from there.

This is a remote piece of ground!

An escarpment, the Guadalupe Rim, as tall Capital Reef to the south, protects the western boundary of the NF, a few county roads poke around the edges of the northern end, one state road penetrates from the east and there are no, as in zero, US highways anywhere near this unit of the NF.

The state road, SR 137, or Queens Highway, named not for a monarch but for the sort-of-community of Queen, population around 50 - services iffy, that it passes through, is the only road that breaches the Guadalupe Rim on the western side of the NF, spilling over the edge there at Sixshooter Canyon on its way down through El Paso Gap to where the road abruptly ends at the New Mexico/Texas border and turns into a NP road for the short run into the otherwise isolated Guadalupe Mountain NP Dog Canyon campground. (9 tent and 4 RV sites, No hookups, no showers, no dump.)



Queens Highway, other than being long and lonely, is a decent road, though this is open range out here and some of the lushest grass can be found alongside the road where runoff keeps the ground slightly wetter than the rest of the area so you have to be careful because, as bad as hitting a squirrel is, hitting one of these will totally ruin your day!!

I've found that a good way to get a feel for a place I've never been before is to head to the visitor center, of which there are none out here. So second best is to head for a popular spot because I know I can not only get there without too much nail-biting, but probably pick up some more information about the area in the process.

One of the most visited sites in this part of the Lincoln National Forest is Sitting Bull Falls so that's where I headed. (Dog Canyon down there in Guadalupe NP was tempting but required even more commitment to get to so I decided to save it for another time.)

About 23 miles from where Queens Highway turns off of US 285, (Itself a lonely spot miles north of Carlsbad.) I came to CR 409. A right turn and 4 miles later on this paved road I entered the NF. 3.5 more miles, still on paved road, and I came to the Sitting Bull Falls day-use area parking lot.



This is a self-pay fee area so I whipped out my Geezer card and copied the number onto my pay envelope. Unlike my Texas State Parks pass with its 16 digit number, my geezer card number is only 9 digits long, less than a telephone number, so it's not so bad writing it down.

The picnic shelters are rather palatial and there are flush toilets and even volunteer hosts available here, and pretty much all the walkways in the vicinity of the parking lot are paved,

The falls are that white slash just visible on the far right

including the short trail out to the base of the falls. Perfect for when my body devolves to a walker or wheel-chair situation

Looking down the paved 'trail' from the falls viewing area back towards the picnic area which is just around the corner there.

The falls are about 150 feet high and it's an easy scramble from the paved 'trail' down to the pools at the base of the falls.

But don't be fooled by this bucolic scene. In April 2011 the Last Chance Fire swept through and really dinged thing up, so much so that it took a year to repair the damage and open the area back up again. Then in 2013 and again in 2014 a flood tore the place up all over again. The current trail out to the falls has only been there since the area reopened yet again in 2015 but there's no reason to expect that it too won't succumb to the natural forces of Mother Nature sometime in the near future.



If the short paved stroll out to the base of the falls is disappointingly easy, not to worry, there's some other trails in the area that are a bit more challenging.

Unfortunately the USDA chooses to operate all the National Forest Ranger District Headquarters, your source of maps and information, on a banker's 9 to 5 schedule so if you happen to be around the area on a weekend, like most National Forest visitors are, tough shit!

(On top of that, if you poke around the official NF web sites you will find two different Carlsbad addresses listed for the Guadalupe District Headquarters and I don't know which one is correct.)

In this case there was a rudimentary trail map posted near the parking area that I could take a photo of for reference, of sorts, but most of the time



these cryptically numbered trail markers found at trailheads and some trail intersections are all you are going to get.



In this case T68A is an alternate or branch of T68, the Sitting Bull Falls Trail, that skirts the upper end of the falls. When you start from the picnic area T68A is a shortcut rather than going down below the parking lot and then climbing up the backside of the bluff the falls spill over,

Here I'm on T68A, The first little bit of T68 can just barely be seen snaking up the slope down there at the top center.

but that just means it has to gain the same altitude in less distance!




Photographs have the habit of flatting a scene and editing out the drama, but you see that person sitting in the notch right of center? That notch is where the falls drop off the bluff and - well, fall - for 150 feet. As I took this photo I was shaking my head at the foolhardiness of some people, but that was going to come back and bite me in the ass later.



From a different angle, (The previous notch is hidden around there behind the outcropping to the right of red-shirt.) these people in the lower center are playing in some pools just above the falls that must really be refreshing, if not a little scary, on a summer day.



But if I turned and faced the other way, up the canyon, this was the view and it's every bit as refreshing as the previous but without the knee-knocking drama.

5 foot high falls; not scary at all!

Small pools, so relaxing!




At one point as I hiked up the canyon above the falls I bushwacked down a rocky mini-draw to creek-side because I was drawn to this fire-de-barked tree and wanted a photo that showed some of the damage of the 2013 fire, as well as how quickly the land recovers from the natural event of a fire, all showcased against the backdrop of blue sky (Of course our protracted efforts at quashing natural fires over the years has allowed dense under-stories to grow up which makes modern fires burn hotter and more destructively.)

I hadn't been down by the water for more than 60 seconds when a group of three, ill-prepared for any serious hiking in bare heads, shorts and tennis-shoes with no socks, came crashing down behind me. They had seen me go over the edge and I suppose were desperately afraid they were going to miss something. When they saw I wasn't doing anything particularly interesting they proceeded to trample all over the fragile habitat, walking right up the creek jumping from bank to soft bank just for the hell of it.


But it was a beautiful spring day so I put the stupid/uninformed/callous/ignorant (Pick your adjective of choice) out of mind and retraced my steps,


returning to the less sensitive hard-pan of the trail and going on my way. 


In the lower reaches of the canyon the trail is easy hiking as you can see by the stone and concrete ledge spanning this bit of slick-rock, but the farther the less the less traveled and defined, and refined, the trail became.

I was limited in how far I could actually go by the fact that the day-use area closes at 5 PM, as in a gate is pulled across the road and locked.

When I left the parking area I set the timer on my phone (In airplane mode since there is absolutely no signal out here and searching for one sucks the crap out of the battery.) for one half the time remaining to closing minus a half hour for contingencies.  When the timer went off, ready or not, I turned around and headed back.



I made good time on the way back so when I got to the area above the falls I had some extra time to poke around.

It didn't take long to discover this cornucopia of fossilized sea-life standing out conspicuously against the smooth limestone surrounding it.




That discovery, and the promise of more, lured me on to further exploration.

Well - remember back when I shook my head at the foolishness of those people hanging around where the falls went over the edge??  Right about here is where I got bit on the ass by that.

If you remember from an earlier photo, Sitting Bull Falls isn't a single torrent of water leaping over the edge, but a number of smaller flows that braid their way across the rock and go over the edge at several places. That yellowish green stuff right in front of me isn't some unusual coloration of the rock, but is water forming the eastern most of these 'branches' of the falls as it flows over the edge of the perfectly normal colored, but abruptly ending rock.

See that ledge down there, center-left? To the left of the tree near it's center is a small dark dot and next to that a very tiny patch of purple-red. That's a couple of people standing a few feet from where I'd hit the ground like Sloppy-Joe mix dripping out the end of the bun after a 150 foot fall! 

I guess I have to use my 'damn fool' stamp on myself today, a scarlet 'DF' right square in the middle of my forehead! But first I have to get myself out of here and onto somewhat less precarious ground!!

They say 20 minutes of aerobics a day is good for the body, and what is aerobics other than a fast-beating heart? I'd say I got several days worth in just a few minutes there. . .



After I scared myself away from the edge of oblivion, and grip of stupidity. . . I had to sit down and contemplate the meaning of life for a while before making the final decent to The Van.

You see that pale blob the arrow is pointing to? That's sort of a buttress, a parapet, extending from the wall of the canyon up there. While I was getting a grip I was scanning the far side of the canyon and I realized that some large bird kept landing up there on that buttress.



It was so far away it forced me out beyond the 1200 mm optical zoom and into digital zoom territory, and I didn't have a tripod with me, but I rolled over on my belly behind a rock (Nothing like the bliss of good solid ground against the belly after an encounter with the wrong side of a cliff!) and used it to steady the camera as best I could



to get these iffy shots.



Like Black Vultures, these Turkey Vultures mate for life and clearly this pair have found a primo nesting site!



OK, one last quick visit to the pools below the falls and I need to hustle myself on out of here before the gates get locked. (And before anybody else sees that scarlet DF on my forehead!)