Finally at Jack’s House

Pinochle wars. I won this night,
Pinochle wars. I won this night.

Thanksgiving is tomorrow and Burt and I are at Portrero County Park just this side of the Mexican border. Tomorrow we will cross at Tecate and start the clock on the bureaucratic process of securing our temporary resident visas. We will need some patience and determination to see the process through, I think. The internet is rife with rumors of how to do it and they all vary. We either have two week or a month to see immigration authorities in La Paz. After that it could be done that day or it might take as many as three more visits. It all depends. Some say we’ll need a lawyer. Others say it’s easy. Only the Shadow knows.

Meanwhile we finally made it to Jack’s house where we spent three days cooking food and playing cards. Stella is and all her associated boating equipment is stored under Jack’s porch. The California fires were on all our minds. Jack lives on the end of a dead end road crowded with trees, brush, sheds, and wood piles. The homes are tight. This isn’t your 5 acre ranchette style community. It’s a subdivision in the woods. I don’t think a single home has heard of the Fire Wise standards that minimize the home ignition zone. Trees hang over all the houses and stacked wood is stored against foundations. One neighbor has a brush pile ten feet in diameter. It looks like he’s planning a bonfire. There’s hardly a metal roof in the neighborhood. So as the fires burned north and south of us and the numbers of dead and missing climbed I sat there and wondered if we could get out in a similar situation. It seemed unlikely.

I asked Burt if we had a plan to drag Jack out if there was a fire. Jack is a former LA county fireman and despite the fact that he turns 90 in January I believe he would rather stay and face the fire with his house than flee. Burt and I agreed to pick him up and haul him out without giving him the time to think it over. Since Jack is very thin and a bit rickety we could just shove him in the truck and run. Burt also agreed to leave Jack if he somehow proved more than we could handle. He’s a wiley one, that Jack. But that seems impossible to contemplate. Maybe if we stole his dog he’d follow us willingly. A little carrot and stick.

Burt and I have driven two-thirds the length of California these last two weeks and she’s a barren land of over grazed fields and smokey skies right now. Everything is as dry as we’ve seen it. My eyes have itched and sinuses ached. I fear we are only in for more of this. The new normal as they say. The urban interface will continue to burn. Towns like Paradise are all over the Sierra and they are full of lots of people of limited means living like Jack and his neighbors. They are cheek to jowl in poorly built homes at the end of shoddy dead end roads. There isn’t a fire  hydrant for miles. Even if they wanted to clean up the ignition zone around their homes many of them are no longer physically or financially able to do the work.

Later.

Jack winning
Jack winning

 

 

 

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Will we ever get to Jack’s?

In case you were wondering here's the broken regulator.
In case you were wondering here’s the broken regulator.

They say you can get your kicks on Route 66. I did not know they meant literally. Every fall a gang of wild burros descend on the town of Oatman for free handouts. Tourists show up to oblige them. These burros are descendants of burros used by prospectors in days gone by. Burros are wild animals but they are not native and have, in not just my opinion, achieved a level of success that threatens the livelihood of nature’s local creatures. And they get free food in town just when supplies are disappearing in the desert. I came, I saw, I was disgusted. We did not get out of the truck. Passing by and peering out from the safety of the cab was enough for me.

I know I’m a party pooper. I love horses and burros and I wish they were not running amok in certain fragile ecosystems. I think they should be eradicated. Just like the audad in Texas. The desert creatures need their habitat. There are plenty of horses and burros in the world. I also don;t want to get kicked by an irritated mule in a traffic jam. Been there, done that, time to move on.

Pass above Oatman, AZ. Lots of cars off the edge.
Pass above Oatman, AZ. Lots of cars off the edge.
Drive-by Oatman shot.
Drive-by Oatman shot.
These are wild animals.
These are wild animals mixing with a crowd of people.
The wild burros of Oatman.
The wild burros of Oatman.
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Northward to Jack but not all the way there.

My visa
My visa

We finally got out of Tucson with plans to head north and see Burt’s dad Jack. Jack will be 90 this January. Our dog Elvis has caught up to Jack in relative age. They both limp and can’t hear so well but have their faculties. We try to handle both with care and respect. The leaving of Tucson was a bit drawn out because we had a leaky trailer tire and we could’t find a place that could fit us or fix us. Eventually we landed at a tire shop on the north end of town. I walked a nearby shopping center for most of the two hour wait. When we finally cut loose we headed to a place called Kaiser Canyon in search of another hot spring. We made it through rush hour Phoenix traffic and made it to a rest area just south of Wickenberg for the night.

Kaiser Canyon is northwest of Phoenix between there and Las Vegas. It has a nice campground and we were relieved to find it after the trials of the day before. We arrived early enough in the day to park and then head out on the hike and look for the hot spring. If you haven’t noticed, Burt’s been on a bit of a hot springs mania this fall. Our route to Jack had a bunch of promising spots to keep the drive entertaining. Kaiser Hot Springs was spot number one on the list of potentials.

While the hot spring was only mildly interesting it was not a slimy, gross, smelly, trashed spot. So I’ll give it a thumbs up even though I did not bother to go in. Burt suggested it might be a long time to my next shower and even then I didn’t bother. The water was luke warm and, after a breach of the walls by Elvis, shallow. I did not feel like wallowing in 18″ of tepid water. The sand was gritty and besides my heroic reconstruction efforts were the only thing keeping any water behind the walls so Burt could enjoy himself. I shoveled. He soaked.

I enjoyed the scenic hike and fun birds enough to be able to say the hike alone was worth the stop. There was a mine and some wild burro sign and hooded mergansers and a nice oasis. The water was attracting a lot of wildlife.

Early the next day we discovered our propane regulator had died. After ten years of service the regulator called it quits. We first noticed a problem the day before when the refrigerator was on FAIL. We hoped it was just because we hit a big bump in the road because it restarted without difficulty. The next day the fridge went down again and then the stove flame dropped to a flicker. The propane tanks were full so we deduced the regulator. Regulators are projected to last ten years and ours had read the rules and bailed as predicted. For the last couple of years we’ve been saying, “We should pick up a spare regulator.” Did we? No. So there we were without cooling or heating and hungry. It was a Sunday but I was able to google a RV repair shop open on Sunday in Kingman so off we went.

Cordova RV repair was out of town and when we pulled up it seemed like we might get shot easier than finding a repair guy. As I dialed the number Eric Cordova ran out and assured us we were in teh right place and he was happy to help. “I charge, you know,” he said to seal the deal. Well, I hope so. The weather had shifted towards winter and I stayed in the truck while Burt dealt with our hyper repair man. The dogs and I played with the internet and Burt supervised the regulator repair.  The bill came to $91 for labor and materials. It was worth it but it was also another example that Burt and I need to diversify into RV repair. The regulator was easily replaced. I could have done it had I had the spare regulator we’d talked about for two years. The Gypsy RV Repair coming soon.

So here we were off the beaten track and more hours of winter daylight lost to repair. Our trek to Jack was slow to launch. Three days in and we hadn’t left Arizona. Instead of hitting the highway we took a back road over to see the wild burros of Oatman, Arizona. Route 66 you own us.

Dude in a hot spring
Dude in a hot spring

 

 

Kaiser and Burro canyons intersect here.
Kaiser and Burro canyons intersect here.
Spider with egg.
Spider with egg.
Duck weed
Duck weed
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Boquillas Canyon

Ahhh, shade.
Ahhh, shade.

It was a long day getting into Boquillas Canyon. There’s a ten or twelve mile stretch of park where floaters are not supposed to camp. The Mexican side is available but it’s populated and we chose to avoid those areas. When we finally reached the canyon it was late afternoon and time to decide where to spend the night. This was never an easy decision. The Rio Grande does not offer wide sandy beaches with trees and plentiful tent sites. We juggled the various shortcomings and amenities. There were mud landings, no moorings, steep banks, hummocks. On the plus side were views, hiking, grass, shade. Ideally we wanted a flattish spot with a cobble landing and a tree somewhere within 100′. No mud. Well, no mud was impossible but we could dream. Access to a walk was nice, too.

Our second night in Boquillas was the penultimate night of the trip. We had in a mind a spot vaguely described and near a feature called the rabbit ears. Early on we had hoped to lay over and explore this canyon but we never were able to make more than 15 miles a day and did not store up enough milage to allow a rest day. Late in the afternoon we thought we had found the rumored canyon but there was no landing area. We decided to stop at the next hospitable bend. This was as magnificent failure to achieve a goal as I have ever experienced.

The camping area was merely meh. Two spots for tents and room for a kitchen. We’d arrived with enough daylight to explore the side canyon heading off into Mexico. On the beach we noticed some very small cat tracks and lots of twisted scat. If you’ve cleaned a litter box it was the same size as a house cat. One upside to the shellacking of mud was we could see tracks everywhere we went.  Once the area dries out the tracks will all blow away with the wind. We headed up the canyon in the creek bed which required some boldering and thorn wrestling. We were rewarded with waist high blanket flowers and desert marigolds. Wet spots in the canyon walls featured mysterious flowers with lush leaves and scores of stamens. Flowers in fall would normally be all it takes for an satisfying hike but this canyon had even more to offer. The walls were packed with crystals. Literally packed. There were crystals of all shapes and many hues everywhere we looked. I’d never seen such a thing. I like a pretty rock as much as anyone but this was mind blowing. A site like this would be world famous on any of the western U.S.’s popular rivers. Here in Big Bend it was up to us to find it on our own.

I was tired. This was the first multi-day backcountry trip I had taken since before my heart troubles started more than four years ago. I had resigned myself to never doing an arduous trip again but my recent change in medication changed my mind. I figured I’d try and see how it went. This trip went well but by day 7 I was tired. So while Margaret scrambled up a pile of rocks I sat and gazed off into the canyon. My eyes were unfocused. I sat and looked without looking. I had the unfocused gaze of a hunter that sees nothing but catches movement in a wide field. Suddenly I saw something slipping between the rocks and cacti above us. I yelped, “It’s a mammal, it’s an otter, it’s an I DON’T KNOW WHAT IT IS! It’s black, it’s moving! Look! Look! Look!” Burt had his binocluars and he spotted it as I pointed and continued to describe what I was seeing. “It has a long tail, its face is flat, the ears are rounded, it looks like a squirrel, a really huge squirrel, its legs are short, it’s a squiotter!”  Each of us took a turn with the binoculars before it disappeared behind a ridge only a couple hundred feet away. Nobody had an idea what we had just seen. All we could say was a short legged, long tailed, flat faced mammal that moved like an otter or cat.

M and M contiuned up canyon in the direction our mystery animal had headed. Burt and I returned to camp. The animal sighting was filed away for later research. I figured there must be a massive Coahuilan squirrel we’d never heard about. Maybe neotropical otters were in the area.

Mystery flower
Mystery flower. Look at all the stamens.
Possible jaguarundi tracks.
Possible jaguarundi tracks. Front and back. You can see a slight shape difference between the tracks.
More crystals
More crystals
Cool rocks
Cool rocks
Crystal canyon
Crystal canyon. This is where M was when I spotted the animal off to the far right.
Up there was the jaguarundi.
Up there was the jaguarundi.
Crystal walls.
Crystal walls.
Entrance to Boquillas Canyon
Entrance to Boquillas Canyon
Is this what we saw? This is a jaguarundi. I think so.
Is this what we saw? This is a jaguarundi. I think so. Colors vary from light to nearly black.
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Day 2 through….

Stick bug or walking stick
Stick bug or walking stick
I must have just washed my shoes. This was a rare moment mud free.
I must have just washed my shoes. This was a rare moment mud-free. Note mud-free does not mean free of mud but you can move as though you have no mud.

Our first evening was spent counting stick bugs (phasmatodea) is the shrubbery. Bug sticks, walking sticks, whatever you call them, stick bugs are herbivorous and generally adorable. The recent rains appeared to have ignited a bug bloom of the most auspicious kind. There were beetles and mantids and spiders and butterflies but nearly no mosquitoes or biting flies. The bug wonderment continued all week and I’ll have a separate bugs only post. As dark descended Margaret fed us a bacon laced spaghetti and Burt and I played some tunes. The water continued to rise and we presumed more easy sailing for the rest of the trip. Everyone sang. We were on a new river and we had it all to ourselves.

The next morning we woke to find a big increase in flow and the news that Mark had saved our boats when a 4AM ramble revealed a messy situation. I can’t recall the details. The Rio Grande flows from northern New Mexico through Texas to the Gulf of Mexico. It is fully dewatered in a couple of sections so flow isn’t really the correct word. If you wanted to traverse the entire Rio Grande you’d need to hike a few hundred miles of dry stream bed. Upstream of us the river flows from El Paso to the gulf with one intervening dam below our location. The river is one of the most polluted I have ever floated since the industrial effluent and domestic wastes of Juarez and El Paso are added daily. The high flows we saw were bringing with it a parade of plastic and styrofoam containers. While plastic trash is unsightly it is the unseen contaminants pose a greater danger.  The park service strongly advises against submersion in the river’s noxious water to avoid contracting some waterborne disease. This and the mud were why we carried our own water.

The stream side is a nearly impenetrable wall of cane and mesquite and tamarisk but just beyond the banks lies the glorious Chihuahuan desert. It’s a wilderness on both sides of the border. The river is a part of the border between the United States and Mexico. Building a wall here seems fantastically ridiculous, terrifying, and stupid. The first few days of our journey took us through thick cane on a sluggish brown river. Our scope of vision was very narrow. Rarely we could see a bird. More frequently we spotted turtles on the banks. We’d camp when we found a gravel or grass lined opening in the wall of cane. We’d pop up and see the horizon above the tunnel and remember we were traveling through a massive landscape of open space. Shore line mud threatened us bodily and spiritually. I imagined how death by quick sand really worked. All you need is two feet of mud and 6″ of water and a slip. You could  drown just trying to regain your feet.

The weather predictions were accurate. The rain stopped and the flow dropped and with the drop in flow our pace slowed. The mud did not go away. As the water receded from the bank wide tracts of saturated silt yawned between us and dry land. Even when we found a spot where we could land the mud wars were not over. Campsites that appeared dry in the evening would become saturated with dew overnight and we’d be in mud again. Resistance was futile.

We all went through the seven stages of grief. Acceptance would come and flare back into anger. Laughter mixed it up, too. Denial, as ever, got us nothing but muddy asses and wrecked zippers. It was as though everything was so wonderful we had to have this bit of hell to remind us we were still humans on earth.

We ate well and marveled at the beauty and every morning the worst part of our day was putting on out cold muddy shoes.

Sierra Quemada a part of the Chisos Mountains.
Sierra Quemada a part of the Chisos Mountains. A failed caldera.
Chihuahuan Desert
Chihuahuan Desert. Mule’s ears on the horizon just to the right of the ocotillo.
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Put-in at Cottonwood, Rio Grande

The red circles are where we put in. The flow is in the opposite direction of the arrow. The arrow was a mistake.
The red circles are where we put in. The flow is in the opposite direction of the arrow. The arrow was a mistake. The blue squiggly line is the river and the border between the US and Mexico.

There’s this saying about notoriously muddy rivers: Too thick to drink, too thin to plow. And here’s the only thing I had the energy to write during our trip down the Rio Grande: No water in sight. We float a ribbon of mud. There’s no keeping anything clean. Energy spent avoiding mud is energy wasted.

That was Day 3. On Day 1, put-in day, it was drizzling and the river was muddy from a storm the previous few days. The previous day’s stormwater had washed out the usual put-in road and we could not use its boat ramp. Instead we went to a place called Cottonwood and our gear was dropped off 100 yards from the river. Between the trailer and the shore was a gauntlet of cane and mesquite and a tube of shin deep mud. The weather was predicted to clear and we hoped the mud would dry out as we floated downstream but meanwhile we carried our boats and supplies over a slippery thorny landscape and got to work rigging it all together.

Our intrepid and muddy crew was comprised of Margaret, Mark, Burt and me. M and M drove a 13′ raft of an unknown but elderly age. The Gypsy Carpenters managed a 15′ cataraft born in the late 80s. Both boats and crew had seen many river miles. It had been ten years since I had rigged my dear Stella for a lengthy expedition but I’d done it so often it wasn’t too difficult to put her back in working order, rigged to flip. Burt and I only had a few skirmishes over rigging protocols. The captain is always right (me) even when she’s wrong. It’s part of my plan to over throw the patriarchy. I’m starting with my boat. Do as I say even when it’s stupid. My mantra of recent weeks is, “I am done seeking equality. I want domination and retribution.” Burt humors me on the boat.

We rejoiced at noonish that the boats were built and loaded and no ankles were twisted or backs misaligned. We had 10 days of food, 40+ gallons of water, spare oars, a kitchen, tents, camping gear, a bathroom system and beer on ice all stowed.

A bathroom system? What’s that? On most wilderness rivers in the US you are required to pack it in/pack it out. That means poop, too. So boaters have to carry a receptacle to carry the poop. We call it the groover. The groover is so named because typically you poop into an ammo can and when you sit on it it leaves grooves in your back end. The old days were much rougher than now. These days, and for as long as I have been boating, people are smart enough to put a toilet seat on the ammo can and add comfort while eliminating grooves. Yet the name and its lore stick. The word has stuck so well that grooving is now code for making a bowel movement in most circles of boaters. I have to groove. Did you groove, yet? The groover rode on my boat. I almost always take the groover. It’s the best response I have if someone complains that my boat is too light. I non-chalantly say, “But I have the groover.” No response. Nobody wants to risk a trade. Works every time.

And so we set off onto a ribbon of dirt. The silt was so fine you could eat it and not grind your teeth. It was so fine you couldn’t claim you were exfoliating. It was so fine your private parts were unmolested when you sat in it. It was as soft as flour and made just as effective a glue.

We had 100 miles ahead of us and 9 days to get it done. The river was up and we floated along without effort. Our guess was we were making 5 miles per hour. After the arduous put-in and drives down we made an early day and hit camp around 3.

Far Flung Outfitters did our shuttle.
Far Flung Outfitters did our shuttle.
Last mud free moment for 9 days.
Last mud free moment for 9 days.
This was the last bit of terrain we had to carry our gear through.
This was the last bit of terrain we had to carry our gear through. Grass was a salvation.
Too thick to drink, too thin to plow. It's not funny.
Too thick to drink, too thin to plow. It’s not funny.
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Portal Rodeo Hiking Club

Lunch on Fly Peak
Lunch on Fly Peak

Thursday morning the Portal Rodeo Hiking club met just as it has for several decades. The proposed hike was up on the Crest Trail high above our meeting place at the Silver Peak Trailhead. At 8:00 AM Arizona time the prospects looked wet. The recent cold wet weather meant the Crest Trail on the Chiricahuas might be full of snow or wet and cold. The group pondered some lower hikes considering. I was hoping to go high regardless but kept my mouth shut since I was just passing through. I figured the regulars should decide where they wanted to hike. Luckily, Al said let’s go up. It could be great up there. I and a couple others said, “Yes!” and the momentum shifted to taking our chances up high. We piled back into cars and headed up the mountain road.

I was in the lead vehicle with Rolf and Carol and we saw a flock of turkeys cross the road as we neared Rustler Park. I love seeing a big band of turkeys running through the trees. They are the dinosaurs of today. Up top all was well. The sun was shining and the clouds below added drama to the landscape. The warming air brought out all the critters looking for a spot of sun. We saw spiny and bunchgrass lizards, a tarantula, and a twin spotted rattlesnake. It’s breeding season for the spiny lizards so they were showing off their finest push-ups. Also seen were five Border Patrol Agents on foot looking for a rumored someone.

Our group bagged Fly Peak and had lunch as the wind shifted and socked us in. We’d gotten all the blue skies we were going to get that day. You can see the wall of fog behind us in the photo above. Moments later we were in the mists. It was time to head down. On a personal note this was a big day. My new medicine allowed me to hike 7 miles above 9,000′. I struggled a bit going up hill but I made it. Flats and downhill were easy. I was wearing my brand new fit bit and it was very pleased with my efforts.

Fog below and blue skies above
Fog below and blue skies above
Bunch grass lizard. Just a new baby.
Bunch grass lizard. Just a new baby.
Tarantula
Tarantula
Two males displayed while this female discretely checked them out.
Two males displayed while this female discretely checked them out.
Here's a male trying to impress the female. He's got to do his push-ups just right or she'll ignore him.
Here’s a male trying to impress the female. He’s got to do his push-ups just right or she’ll ignore him.
Trail maintenance
Trail maintenance
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Asarco again

A falcon on the slag pile.
A falcon on the slag pile.

My friend and former colleague, Betsy, invited me out to fish the newly rehabilitated stretch of Prickly Pear Creek as it passes through the former Asarco lead smelter in East Helena. Last year Betsy took me on a tour and showed my the stream work in progress. This year it’s already coming back to life. Fish! Birds! Vegetation!

This was a weepy moment for me. Way back in 1997 Asarco entered into a consent decree with the U.S. EPA that was the result of a multi-year and multi-state investigation requiring the cleanup of this plant and many other things including cold, hard cash. That investigation was successful because EPA and the Department of Justice had a team of young, driven, and excellent investigators and lawyers. I just happened to be the investigator that discovered the original violations that got the whole ball rolling. It was not an easy push. I had to convince many people that our long culture of giving the mineral processing industry a pass on waste management was a misinterpretation of our laws. Unbelievable to me today was that I succeeded. I’ll spare you the details but suffice it to say neither the State or the Feds were in the habit of asking lead smelters to do anything to manage their hazardous wastes. It was because they were misinterpreting something called the Bevill Amendment in our Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Or at least, that’s what I thought. From my remote outpost in the Montana Office of the 1990s I was able to convince or cajole management to let me try. Through the course of the work I found other like minded people and together we changed the face of the mineral processing industry.

Many further developments have happened. That first Consent Decree started a cleanup process that twenty years later is showing real results both above and under ground. Teams of contractors and EPA staff (Looking at you Chuck and Betsy) have wrangled the site into a pocket of beautiful habitat. All of us feel lucky to have seen this from start to success. Soon the general public will be able to access the area and catch their own fishes. This is the good that government does.

Maybe they change the wording?
Maybe they changed the wording? Is it a typo?
I'm wondering who thought this was a good idea?
I’m wondering who thought this was a good idea? You had the worst accident! Here’s a plaque.
Betsy, Queen of the Cleanup.
Betsy, Queen of the Cleanup.
Another cleanup queen working the pool on the new stream.
Another cleanup queen working the pool on the new stream.
Look, a German brown!
Look, a German brown!
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Birdies

Pine siskin
Pine siskin

It’s August. In Montana we’re expecting to break 100 this week. The birds are quiet. They’re resting up after the hectic breeding season and they are molting in new feathers for the long migration next month. It’s not an easy time to bird. I kind of want to rest up myself. All year I’ve been participating in eBird’s citizen science challenges trying to earn myself a free pair of binoculars or a spot in an online bird course. So far no luck. August’s challenge is to provide eBird with fifty photos or recordings of birds. I am not enjoying this challenge. I find it bothersome. The birds are hiding, I am hot, I can barely take a descent photo when I’m not trying to count birds and fifty is just a lot of birds. On the upside it doesn’t have to be fifty different birds. So I came up with a plan to make this as productive as possible. I take photos at the bird feeding station every few days.

Here are a few.

Red crossbill
Red crossbill
Red crossbill
Red crossbill
Rufous hummingbird
Rufous hummingbird
Eastern Kingbird
Eastern kingbird. This was at Spring Meadow Lake.
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