Most every year since 2002 I’ve photographed these personable beauties, the first wildflowers to bloom as early as late February through the snows.
Early Spring Beauties
Early Spring Beauties
Most every year since 2002 I’ve photographed these personable beauties, the first wildflowers to bloom as early as late February through the snows.
A visit to a wilderness horse camp
Nugget and Colorado had eaten their fill of the rich early spring grass of the apple orchard, The Searcher pulled together the pair for the return to Pine Creek. Perched on Colorado, the lead held by The Searcher, I listened as he shared survival facts remembered from Peter Bigfoot’s desert survival course. The Reavis Mountain School of Self Reliance, founded 1979, is along same Reavis Gap Trail (#117) we traversed. After descending to Pine Creek and up to Reavis Gap (where I first met The Searcher), it descends to meet Campaign Creek where the survival school is located.
He pointed out on the many flowering Century Plant stalks along the trail. “These are great to roast when young, just as the stalk starts to bud from the center, before it starts to lengthen.” By the time the stalk flowers, as in the following photograph, it is quite tough.
At the base of boulders, shaded from the sun, the ridgeline fern takes hold. Surviving on seasonal water seepage, it dries out during dry spells to later revive and reproduce via spores. As I recall, the dry or fresh form is useful as an analgesic.
An absolute necessity for bushwacking (walking off the path), a pair of rattlesnake proof boots were worn on every expedition. These rose to mid-calf with a layer of lexan, the same as used for bullet proof glass.
We passed the time in this way, me holding on to the saddle horn bouncing and shifting as Colorado negotiated the rough and steep path down to Pine Creek where the vegetation changed from very sparse to the thick growth you saw in my post “A Peaceful Day at Pine Creek”.
On the east side of Pine Creek a trail, unmarked on the maps, follows the creek bed uphill north towards Mound Mountain. In 50 feet or so we passed the side trail to my campsite, our destination was The Searcher’s campsite. I was not paying near enough attention to the surroundings when I looked up to see an Arizona Oak limb headed to my chest. With no time or space to negotiate the obstacle I was left to grab hold and hang on to be swept from the saddle. The branch held my bulk for, at most, a second before giving way.
In bending flexibly before breaking the live Oak wood and centuries of soil underneath the trees softened my fall enough so I was badly shaken and unhurt. Falling a foot or so in any direction would have resulted in serious injury or instant death. Colorado stopped, looking briefly back as I slowly came to my feet. After taking account and letting the circumstance wash over me, I got up and proceeded slowly while we both contemplated my miraculous survival.
I now took up the rear as in a few hundred yards the valley wall rose on both sides of the Creek to form a short, narrow pass. The walls fell away just as quickly, the valley floor leveled out and we came to The Searcher’s camp. The bear shelter stood out right away. This was a ten foot high teepee of 4 – 6 inch diameter tree trunks tied with rope, within was a hammock . The three foot wide opening left only one unprotected side while he slept, offering some protection from the all too common roaming bears, most commonly from September to November when mazanita fruit ripens.
Well stocked in every respect, for a wilderness camp. In the following years of roaming the wilderness the camps of other horse people were similar in this way: stoves, comfortable cots, radios, pots and pans all fit into panniers. As a noun pannier is seldom used in the singular because there are always two, one on each side of the horse for balance. I sat on the wide top of one enjoying a cold beer pulled from a bed of ice.
We discussed the benefits and drawback of horses for exploration. I required a gallon and a half of water daily and in the desert wilderness provided for storage of three days, 4 and a half gallons. At 8 pounds each, that is 36 pounds!! Starting out, my pack weighted 90 pounds with a camera and tripod.
There are benefits to having a mode of transport that thinks for itself and drawbacks. Each individual has its own personality and horses do try to get away with what they can. It is wise to limit your dependence on a horse until you know each other well. In retrospect, I was “out on a limb” riding Colorado modified by being led by someone the horse knew well.
It was soon time for me to head back to camp. We set the agenda for the next day, an early start for the hike out. Colorado was to be fully loaded so my riding was not an option, just as well. It was possible to lighten my pack to almost nothing and I looked forward to that.
I took some time before dinner to set up the tripod for a self portrait on my last full day in Pine Creek. The view is northeast from the Arizona Trail near my camp, the ridge overlooks Reavis Gap. I did a version of the view with an without me.
Here is a gallery of the same photos. It is fun to flip back and forth with me disappearing from the scene.
Persistence of agriculture
Imagine walking across the ranch house ruin towards where I described the former pond. Looking to the east and north from the elevation you see this sight.
In the near distance a grass pasture slopes into Reavis Creek. The creek has flowing water in all but the longest dry seasons. By the way, the trail from Pine Creek is on the slopes of that conical feature in the distance, to the left.
From the ruin, walk down the Arizona Trail, south, for a few hundred feet and turn left into the fields to encounter the same apple tree, and a close up of pure white apple blossoms.
This tree is an outlier of a thick stand of several hundred trees to the north. The Searcher and I rode into the middle of the grove for a rest and chat. The horses were allowed to graze in the abundant new grass brought on by the winter rains.
The Searcher told me the story of the valley and that it was a man named Clemans who planted 600+ apple trees, trees in bloom all around us. The Reavis Valley was long a site of agriculture, starting in the 19th century with Elisha Reavis, who passed away in 1896 and is buried on the slopes of White Mountain, and continued with a series of ranchers and entrepreneurs in the 20th: John Fraser, William Clemans, who planted the trees, and John A. “Hoolie” Bacon, then Bacon’s son-in-law Floyd Stone who sold the land to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1967.
We talked about some earthwork I noticed, in the southern part of the valley. It was part of a water system that diverted Reavis creek flow at the head of the valley to the ranch house. We decided that strange hexogonal structure on the elevation above the house ruin was the site of water storage. At that location the structure would provide a pressure feed for the house and much else.
A mix of winter rains and fertile soil were exploited in the Reavis Valley for a handful of decades, the enterprise now is set aside. This abandoned hay rake and chassis, used to harvest grass in seasons past, is evidence of the work. The apple trees produce to this day without irrigation.
The Searcher touched upon the subject of the “Circlestone” ruin he mentioned on our morning ride. He had never been there, but mentioned some books on the subject. It is a wide circle of rough stone wall enclosing mysterious structures. At this point, I was hooked, and decided to check Circlestone on a later trip. Here are some photographs from one of those trips, in November 2006.
In my next post The Searcher and I return to Pine Creek, Colorado gives me some trouble and we visit a stand of wild oats in the Reavis Gap.
Some history and exploration
Hitching the saddled buckskin and lightly packed pinto onto trees on the trail, The Searcher came up to my camp for a visit. I started water for tea and soon we were chatting. Right from the start The Searcher asked for privacy. Devoted to searching the Superstitions for the gold of the “Lost Dutchman Mine”, he assembles his expeditions from a staging point near Phoenix and spends about 60 days a year in the wilderness. Part of his preparation was a desert survival course provided by the Reavis Mountain School, conducted by Peter Bigfoot.
The Search described a place near Pine Creek, he called it “Circlestone,” a large almost perfect circle, of precisely constructed stone wall, on the slopes of Mound Mountain above the headwaters of Pine Creek. My sister, Diane, and I found Circlestone on backpack expeditions March and November 2006.
Here is a panorama from March 2006, southwest from the forests of juniper and pinion on the slopes of Mound Mountain.. The southern tip of Reavis Valley is to the right, from there Arizona Trail lead to White Mountain in the distance. It was taken on a later trip, in November of 2006 when my sister, Diane, and I visited Circlestone.
The Searcher also told of Elisha Marcus Reavis, who settled the Valley west of Pine Creek in 1874. At one point, a band of Apaches planned to kill Reavis, but were respectful of his reputation as a rifle shot. They were waiting him out across from the his dugout, when Reavis stripped naked and with wild hair and a flaming red beard charge their camp, knives in both hands. The Apaches rode off, wary of his insane behavior, and never bothered him again.
We talked about my prospects and plans when The Searcher offered to take me to the Reavis Valley the next day, on horseback. There is a large apple orchard there and, this being April, we’d be treated to masses of apple blossoms. The day after Reavis Ranch, I could pack out with him down the Arizona Trail, past the Reavis Mountain School, over Campaign Creek and drive back to the Lost Dutchman Park. I readily agreed.
The following morning dawn rose from colorless darkness, thin birdsong and brightening high clouds. When the Searcher arrived around 8 am he was leading the pinto, introduced as Colorado, equipped with a western saddle instead of a pack. As an absolute novice trail rider, the Search would hold Colorado’s lead. The reins were wrapped around the saddle horn, leaving me to hang on and “enjoy the view” and swishing tail of the buckskin, named Nugget.
The 2.5 mile trail to Reavis from Pine Creek is typical of the eastern Superstitions, minimally improved, dramatically uneven with large and small boulders to navigate. From Pine Creek there’s a climb of a 631 feet to 5,278 foot elevation, where it meanders beneath a dramatic red cliff with a view of the pinyon/juniper forests on the slopes of Mound Mountain. As he picked our way, The Searcher pointed out the sights. “Circlestone is somewhere over there, a ring of stones overgrown with Alligator Juniper.” I was able to do little more than observe, photography was out of the question.
A cliff along the trail to Reavis Ranch offered cover and the flat perches preferred by cougars. It was not an issue for us in daytime and attacks against horses are very rare. The most either of us ever saw of the cat in all our time in Arizona was the tip of a tail slipping behind brush. This was a lush April after a “wet” winter, so small game was plentiful. Only a sick cat would be hungry. The worst case scenario is for a cougar to meet and become infected from a rabid animal at a water source and we did not linger on this thought.
Eventually, the cliff descended with the path, steeply, to Reavis Creek, the valley floor and the intersection with the Reavis Ranch trail. Heading south the Reavis Ranch trail passes the site of a long abandoned ranch. What’s left of the adobe and stone ranch house is on a level valley elevation overlooking what used to be the corral and a large open expanse.
Apple trees in bloom from the former site of the ranch house. There used to be a pond near this spot. With a little imagination, the trail from Pine Creek can be seen on the far ridge.
The US Forest Service razed the building after it “burned to the ground” around Thanksgiving 1991. I would not call what is left “a foundation,” it is a platform where the house stood. You can see for yourself in this photograph what was once was a homey tile floor. I’ve seen old photographs of the structure with a large pond to the left of this view, a door and simple porch face east and the pond used to hold irrigation water.
Turn around from this ruin and a platform comes into view. Built on the west valley slope, overlooking the ruined house is a hexagonal foundation of adobe bricks. We are looking here across the Reavis Ranch trail. My opinion about this structure rests on an examination of the land to the south, there is excavation of a shallow canal and this was the way water was captured from the upper Reavis Creek or tributary and directed to this catchment basin where it was then directed for storage or irrigation. The spot enjoys clear views of the central valley, an excellent place to enjoy the fall of evening.
The Searcher led me to a place a few hundred yards south, in a narrowing of the valley, where he let Colorado and Nugget roam free. The horses appreciated the level, open spaces and I enjoyed the Ponderosa pines on the west valley slope. We sat on the smooth trunks of fallen trees, 4 feet in diameter, near Reavis Creek.
Colorado took this opportunity to bolt, headed south. We took off after him into and through a thicket of locust trees where The Searcher cornered Colorado to regain control. “He was abused by his previous owner and is difficult at times,” was how The Searcher put it.
We were close to the end of Reavis Valley where Reavis Creek originates from the drainage of White Mountain, to the west.
We headed north here, back to the ranch house site, to the lush new grass of the apple orchard.
Nugget grazed unfettered. Colorado was tethered with plenty of slack for grazing. This photograph of the pair shows their personalities, Colorado edgy, Nugget content to feast while the grass is available.
The Reavis Valley was long a site of agriculture, starting in the 19th century with Elisha Reavis, who passed away in 1896 and is buried on the slopes of White Mountain, and continuing with a series of ranchers and entrepreneurs into the 20th,,,,,,,
Enjoying the best of an Arizona desert at high elevation
My third wilderness evening was unlike the others. I rested with an unhurried exploration of the camp area. Underfoot was a scatter of dry oak leaves, acorns on hardened desert soil not much softer than the numerous lichen encrusted boulders, all of which formed a bench above Pine Creek.
Pumping a gallon of drinking water though the ceramic filter takes more time than meal preparation. The four gallons I packed up were almost used and I enjoyed the luxury of pumping two days supply, 3 gallons in all and planned to down a quart or two of “gator aid” before dinner with the luxurious enjoyment of a flowing Pine Creek for company.
Pine Creek is the most common type for Arizona, recurring. To recur means to happen periodically or repeatedly and, for streams, this means for part of the year no water flows. For these days the flow was low, the water clear, what was left from the plentiful winter rains of 2004/2005.
The wind gently rustled the manzanita and the sun just above the western cliffs as I settled on a boulder to enjoy a quart of fluid. I mulled over my next steps.
Initially, the plan was to walk across the Superstition Wilderness, starting on the remote eastern end and emerging on the populated west side, in the Lost Dutchman State Park. My sister expected me there on day 10, but today was the end of day three. I didn’t know at that time the climb on my second day was the steepest of the wilderness and the way forward was much, much easier.
Before a decision could be reach, my thoughts were broken by a different sound from the manzanita: several horses approaching on the trail.
Explore a remote location of the eastern Superstition Wilderness
The spring gales persisted through my late afternoon arrival in Pine Creek, into the night and next morning. Protected from the west wind by the rising land, the tent was not buffeted like I described in the chapter “A Dry Piece of Paradise.” The song of soughing pines was my last impression of the evening and the first of the next morning.
Where the Arizona trail crosses, Pine Creek flows at 4,600 foot elevation through a canyon of broadly sloping sides. The flow originates at the foot of Mound Mountain to the southwest, at 6,253 feet the highest elevation in the Superstitions. There are 5,500 foot peaks to the east and west. The land falls away to the north giving great views of the Four Peaks Wilderness.
I chose a flat site to camp above the creek among Arizona White Oak, Arizona Sycamore, Ponderosa Pine and Manzanita. Of these, it’s Manzanita fruit for which the bears come in the summer. Manzanita thickets made approach to the camp site difficult from all directions but the path. Bear sign was thick among this growth. Go to my chapter, “Racing the Sun,” to see the red barked Manzanita and pink blossoms from which grow tiny green fruits that ripen summertime into a bright red, like tiny apples. Indians used this bland tasting fruit containing five hard seeds for food and a cider beverage.
Well before dawn I grabbed warm clothes, hat, camera to head out for a full day of leisure.
On a shallow rise above Pine Creek I took the two shots of agave (Century Plant) stalks in dawn light. These start the chapter, “A Dry Piece of Paradise.” One dry agave flower is to the left in this North view, looking down the creek not far from the creek crossing.
In the photograph notice how the canyon narrows as the creek flows north, the walls rising above it for hundreds of feet.
When I climbed about 200 feet above the creek to a ledge that provided great views, the protective canyon walls fell away and wind gusts threatened to up end the light tripod. It was necessary to anchor it with the daypack and I tied down my hat as well.
Shadows of night lie below, dominated by Four Peaks Wilderness. A unique long flat ridge is behind the near dramatic ridge above Pine Creek. This view leads me to daydreams. The long ridge is clearly visible in two photographs titled “Nameless Canyon in the Dawn” and “Nameless Canyon Morning” of my post “A Dry Piece of Paradise.” A view from the west is available in my post “Racing the Sun.” Look at the photograph captioned, “Overview of my path to the Nameless Canyon behind Two Bar Mountain,” the flat ridge is just above the shadow of Castle Dome. The view from that spot must be incredible across the lower Reavis Creek valley. From here it is a day trip 4+ mile roundtrip bushwhack over the cliffs above Pine Creek.
Those evergreens in the following photograph are Oneseed Juniper (“Shagbark Juniper”) of the three species common to the Superstitions, this has this spherical, bushy appearance. Here the elevation is just high enough for junipers because there are none down below. The trail crosses Pine Creek to ascend the lower slopes of these red cliffs, following it around to the west and over to the next valley, Reavis Ranch, a distance of 3.5 miles. In my “Two Meetings” blog is a sweeping view of Pine Creek Canyon, from the southern approach.
For most people a 400+ foot climb over these steep cliffs is impossible. Fortunately, a saddle to the right of this photograph is a possible route.
The saddle is 100 feet lower without cliffs. Still, this entrance to remote, fascinating locations is a steep 300+ climb.
“The Searcher” arrived around this time riding the buckskin gelding and leading a pinto. He saw me and my camera equipment and stopped for a chat. His plan was to follow the trail I came up yesterday to find a rumored camp with good water. The howling wind made conversation difficult. I wondered where his camp of last night was located, since there was no sign of him. Before I could ask, his cowboy hat flew away with a wind gust. He hopped off the gelding, “That’s my best beaver hat.” After a quick brush and tie-down they were off.
Heading back down to the creek, here is a macro of lichen that covered the crumbling surfaces of boulders that littered the slope.
During the previous night fresh primrose blossoms opened, this one flourishing in the earth of a south facing slope. There is a reddish spent blossom at lower left. The soil here formed over eons by the action of the creek water, atmosphere and plant life. I have more about the Primrose and these yellow flowers in the background in my “Two Meetings” blog.
Turn left (up stream) where the Arizona Trail crosses Pine Creek and jump boulder to boulder for a hundred feet or so and you come to this view. The creek bank, covered by vegetation, rises on both sides and makes it difficult to leave the creek. Those are Arizona White Oak leaves floating along the large foreground boulder.
This is a very young Arizona White Oak, common species growing along the creek. The leaves are not what you’d expect from an oak, being 2 – 3 inches long in the shape of a lance blade and without obvious lobes Mature Arizona White Oak has a rough bark and, at most, 24 inch trunks.
There are better examples of grand Arizona Sycamores along the perennial Reavis Creek. Pine Creek does not flow in the driest seasons, this tree sloughed its branches in order to survive. You can see from the many young Sycamores in the Pine Creek Pool photograph the previous photo the sycamores are successful in this environment.
I spent some time with this Sycamore, capturing abstract patters of the bark.
The abundance of Ponderosa Pines here demonstrate the species thrives at this altitude and dry environment. This specimen grows on the creek bank. Those are shrubby Arizona Oaks around the trunk.
Abstract patterns in the bark of this Ponderosa. The popular and scientific name (Pinus ponderosa) for this species is from the dense weight of the wood.
The tree is over 100 feet tall. I patched together four shots for this view.
In the afternoon I explored the Arizona Trail to Reavis Ranch. It crosses the creek to ascend the cliff in broad switchbacks. Eventually it follows a contour below a cliff with fine views of Pine Creek Canyon. I turned back to leave the hike to Reavis Ranch for another day.
First view of Pine Creek
Imagine a bowl with steep sides, rough and sharp in places.
Look along the bottom and see a silver stream, sparkling and singing through rocks.
A figure is clinging to the upper side, almost to the rim.
The figure is me in the setting of my blog, “A Dry Piece of Paradise”. Here is my view from that spot.
Hiking along this bowl rim I came to a clearing in the juniper and Manzanita bushes, with a fire ring and pile of roughly broken wood with outstanding views on all sides. This tradition of leaving wood is a welcome intrusion of human kindness and sympathy in this wilderness. We gather wood for total strangers, people we will never meet, to potentially save them in a rainy, cold darkness.
At noon Pine Creek was two miles ahead as I looked into a steep descent, a wide canyon and open range of low oaks, almost shrubs, and small juniper trees. Later, well along the trail, I stepped over Walnut Spring, a silent thread of water through a thin blaze of trees, yellow flowers and continued toward Reavis Gap and Pine Creek on Oregon Ed’s recommendation.
“Even a blind man could find water there this year,” Ed claimed.
Ed’s van was parked at the Superstition Wilderness Tule trailhead when my sister dropped me off the morning before. She noted the van thickly coated with dust over grey primer with an Oregon license plate and changed her plan to accompany me the first mile or so for fear the van’s owner was lurking inside.
It was just as well Diane stayed behind because I met Ed two miles up the trail that first day. From the start, Ed was too outgoing and his pack more empty than light. He chatted me up on how “blue my shirt was”, seen from above, about his trips from Oregon to Arizona a few times a year, about his claim to be returning from a five day round trip to Tortilla Flats.
Ed’s good news about how the usual springs were flowing was welcome. Then, Ed expected me to give him some water for this information. This expectation of his was irrational, given his reports of good water sources. Plus, Ed was only a few miles from his van showed no physical signs of needing water.
I was to discover, a few hours in the direction he claimed to have walked, a flowing stream.
Ed’s attitude changed upon his spotting my .45 in a tactical holster strapped to my leg. Thirty seconds later he was heading down the trail. I had no water to spare and was relieved I didn’t need to escort Diane back to her car. Maybe Ed was an anti-gun advocate, but my conclusion was he had some lurking to do, back at the van.
While planning this trip I imagined “Reavis Gap” to be a narrow trail between towering peaks. While walking under the water heavy pack I elaborated on this expectation, but coming on the gap I walked through and into the reality of this photograph, taken from a point looking over the gap and down into Two Bar trail. This was the site of my first meeting with “The Searcher.”
“The Gap” itself is a high, narrow ridge over a 7,000 foot high valley with peaks, ridges and the occasional hoodoo. That rock formation in the mid-distance includes a hoodoo. It was this hoodoo that introduced me to the gap, being what I saw first high above in the distance from Walnut Spring, a silent thread of water through a thin blaze of cottonwood trees and yellow flowers.
Here’s a link to a video I did of a vast field of Wild Oats which covered Reavis Gap that season.
I first saw the “The Searcher” on that high, narrow ridge above Two Bar trail. I guessed he was a mounted park ranger; from the wide brimmed hat he was holding and the loose fitting shirt. From a half mile away his golden brown mount was standing steady, apparently at rest. Walking up that long, moderate grade my feet hurt and the 70+ pound pack, heavy with water, was chafing. Eager to climb the steep ridge ahead, between me and Pine Creek, I passed the signpost marking the juncture of Two Bar and Reavis Ranch trails and headed up that rocky ridge.
The clatter of horse hooves came up behind much sooner than expected. Turning, I came upon the unexpected site of two horses. The mounted stranger was not a park ranger, but a well dressed cowboy on a western saddle, riding a buckskin gelding.
Behind them, on a lead, was a brown and white pinto loaded with panniers.
I was polite and climbed up on the rocks, off the path, to let them by.
Here’s a photograph of these horses, taken a few days later.
“Colorado and Nugget, grazing at Reavis Ranch”
Our chat was brief, but practical and meaningful: where we came from and conditions along the way. The stranger, who I came to call “The Searcher”, inquired about conditions in the very steep bowl behind Two Bar Mountain. He planned to camp overnight and do a Two Bar Mountain daytrip the next day, but would not if the trail was washed out by that spring’s heavy rains.
I replied the trail was obliterated in spots and even though I could pass his horses might not get by. His reply, “If you got up, so can they.” And with that he gave the buckskin a nudge and they were soon out of sight, over the ridge.
Fifteen minutes later this was my view of Pine Creek, a valley of steep sides sloping to a stream of cool water with mountains and sheer cliffs on all sides. Part of The Arizona Trail.
Just before reaching Pine Creek I passed a southeast facing bank sheltering a garden of tufted evening primrose and a member of the crassulaceae family both in flower. The white flower is the primrose and the yellow the crassulaceae. I was so moved by the beauty of this patch, after trekking for seven hours through endless rocks, cactus, juniper and oak, I unloaded my pack and captured this shot. As the name suggests, the flower is an evening bloom that wilts in the day’s heat. That’s why the flower is a bit floppy in this late afternoon photograph.
Note flower b
The crassulaceae is a succulent, similar to a kalanchoe, with tiny flowers composed of tiny yellow balls.
In future chapters you’ll see more of Pine Creek, visit the wilderness apple orchard at Reavis Ranch, learn more about The Searcher and an ancient, circular, rock wall on a peak overlooking Reavis Gap.