Sycamores and Riparian Space

a Preview of Reavis Ranch

….continued from the chapter “A Peaceful Day at Pine Creek.”

Compare these Arizona Sycamores with the struggling specimen from the last chapter, “A Peaceful Day at Pine Creek.” Many Sycamores such as this one flourish along Reavis Creek, a perennial stream of the eastern Superstition Wilderness. The drainage that feeds Pine Creek is far less acreage than that of Reavis Creek and, when the Pine Creek flow fades in the driest seasons, plants go into survival mode and halt growth and may even slough off limbs to conserve water.

These Sycamores grace a stream that seldom stops flowing, even in the driest of seasons. I had the good fortune to visit the Reavis valley of the Superstition Wilderness in November 2007, when these trees were at peak autumn foliage.

The tree requires a supply of water to thrive. This specimen demonstrates the species growth habit growing multiple trunks with a shape driven by water availability and the environmental context. The multiple trunks may be a desert survival mechanism. In dry periods a trunk or trunks are sloughed off to reduce moisture loss. This is why the Sycamore of “A Peaceful Day at Pine Creek” has a single trunk.”

To encounter a riparian space of the Arizona desert is a revelation, to progress from Sonoran desert spaces assailed by the breath of dry wind, to see the first signs of water in the distance as a welcome fluttering of leaves, to feel a welcome odor of water.

Yes, the first effect of a riparian space on the senses is the smell of water. Let’s finish this post with limbs of the Reavis Creek Arizona Sycamore reaching for the sky.

Click me for the next episode, “Desert Luxuries.”

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Copyright 2021 All Rights Reserved Michael Stephen Wills

A Dry Piece of Paradise

A hellish shriek assaulted the cold 3 am darkness.

A hellish shriek assaulted the cold 3 am darkness.

The scream was instantly recognizable. Anything but terrified, after a confused scramble I reinserted the pin into a personal security device hung from my backpack. Wrapped in a silly waffle weave blanket, tossing restless in the cold, the pin lanyard hung up then pulled free. Several minutes had passed with that sound flowing out over the canyon, calling all carnivores to breakfast.

I had drifted off with the wind shaking my tent like a drunken prankster and now all was totally and absolutely quiet. In spite of the cold, the inadequate blanket and the imaginary creatures looking for the source of that scream, the next two hours sped by in a fitful doze.

Agave Heart

At 5 am I crawled out to find the thinnest crescent moon imaginable gracing the eastern sky, kept company by a century plant silhouetted against the early dawn light.

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Century Plant Dawn
Century Plant Dawn

Click this link to see my photograph “Superstition Spring”

These stalks raise the golden flowers of this agave 10 to 15 feet above the green prickly rosette. Century plant stalks can be seen throughout the Superstitions, even at the high elevations among towering Ponderosa Pine.

Here is an agave in predawn light I caught on the next day, in Pine Creek canyon.

Agave
Agave in PreDawn Light

The leaves are used as needle and thread with the very sharp tip as the needle and the long leaf fibers, when properly dried and shredded, as thread. These leaves guard the agave heart from the harvest. A poke from an agave spike can be deep and painful.

The young shoots of the stalks are a succulent delicious treat raw. Roasted, the agave heart is a fresh, somewhat sweet delight. The earliest residents of this desert left numerous roasting pits on the mountain slopes, located where the agave still grows.

Dawn and the Pretty Hedgehogs

Although cold, the still dry air felt marvelous and even distant objects appeared absolutely clear. In this environment the spread of sun with its rising is a ritual. Here’s a photograph of the canyon walls a few minutes before the sun reached them.

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Slopes of Two Bar Mountain in PreDawn Light

And, a few minutes later, as the sun passed the ridges of Two Bar Mountain.…

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Dawn on the Slopes of Two Bar Mountain

By the way, that’s a desiccated agave stalk to the lower right, on the rocks.

At my feet, spread at intervals on the brown red broken rock, small Hedgehog cacti bloomed lavender.

Lavender Hedgehog, overview
Lavender Hedgehog Blossoms
Lavender Hedgehog Blossoms
Lavender Hedgehog Blossoms
Lavender Hedgehog Blossoms
Lavender Hedgehog Blossoms with Buds

Cacti, such as the blossoming lavender Hedgehog seen above, require a space which enjoys full sunlight for most of the day. The thick grown of juniper trees limited sunlight and compete with the cacti for water. This image will give you an idea of the extent of the juniper growth.

Nameless Canyon in the Dawn
Nameless Canyon in the Dawn

Looking into Nameless Canyon

In the above photograph you are looking west over a canyon that is unnamed on maps. The dramatic flat ridge bathed in light is a landmark marking the canyon of Reavis Falls, on the far side in this view. Make your way down the canyon where is joins Reavis Creek, turn left and the falls are a few miles upstream. This is NOT the easiest path to the falls.

As the sun rose I needed to prepare for the day’s trekking, but took one more portrait of this lovely nameless canyon traversed by an almost non-existent path.

Nameless Canyon Morning
Nameless Canyon Morning

This season, a cold stream ran at canyon bottom. Flowing among the rocks the water produced peals of a crystal bell, but this was not my last memory of this place.

In the “Nameless Canyon Morning” image, on the left there is the almost vertical (no exaggeration) canyon wall I climbed in 4.5 hours that morning. It traversed 800 feet altitude in less than a mile. The path was substantially longer because it followed the contour lines of the land in long loops called switchbacks. As I proceeded up the canyon wall, to the southeast, above the opposite canyon wall, the memorable Four Peaks gradually appeared. Here’s the view from my lunchtime perch…..

Four Peaks from Nameless Canyon
Four Peaks from Nameless Canyon

This view looks over the basin of Reavis Creek and includes the, out of sight, 140 foot high Reavis Fall, the highest free fall in Arizona.

Click me for the next episode, “Two Meetings.”

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Copyright 2021 Michael Stephen Wills All Rights Reserved

Racing the Sun

Through that afternoon the wind gusts hit me as a physical force like a cat playing with her next meal.

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Mexican Poppies bloomed in profusion throughout the Superstitions after the plentiful winter rains of 2008.
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The four mile climb up the 2,000 foot eastern Superstition Wilderness bajada and escarpment consumed the morning and much of the afternoon.  It was the 80 pound backpack that did it.  Ten days of supplies, tent, equipment and 3.5 gallons (28 pounds) of water; enough food for a trek across the Superstition Wilderness, water enough for two days.  One day in, one day out if the water could not be replenished.  Mine was a water commitment, enough water storage to allow two days to trekking to another source.

Two Bar Mountain
Two Bar Mountain from Tule Canyon trail with corral made from mesquite trunks and barbed wire. Yucca and prickly pear in foreground.

Here the canyon rim view from atop the escarpment…..

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Here I found the huge mountain lion track in the dry mud from the spring rain, where water pooled and the cat drank.

…over trail 122, the Tule Canyon Trail, looking out from the wilderness.  Tule Canyon trail is very lightly used and only present in the form of occasional cairns.  There is a red rock cairn in the midground.  Theodore Roosevelt Lake of the Salt river is in the distance, as is the dirt road to the trail head.  A settlement is visible, on the right.

A rancher formed a cattle watering hole by damming an ephemeral stream and that day the pool held some water. Shortly after a rain a large mountain lion had approach the pool for a drink, leaving a footprint in the now dry mud.

I knew a mountain lion attack was improbable: I ran more risk of being run down on a New York City sidewalk by a madman or, even more so, of having a heart attack.  Still, during my brief lunch I faced east, looking over Apache Lake for the possibility of a cat leaping up from the canyon.  On all other sides was an open area until, a quarter-mile uphill, there was a thick growth of Manzanita reaching to the ridge.

After that climb to the escarpment rim I was in a race to reach a safe campsite at an unknown location, the other side of Two Bar ridge, before sunset at 6:46 pm mountain time.  Yes, the time was exact to the minute.  If sunset found me on the mountain side or ridge, rapid fall of darkness would force me to set camp.

The following photograph was taken the winter of February 2006 from a campsite below Castle Dome on Reavis Ranch Trail.  A red line, starting to the left, is Trail 119, my path along Two Bar mountain ridge, beneath the mountain peaks, with switchbacks into a nameless canyon.

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Overview of my path to the nameless canyon behind Two Bar Mountain.

Ahead of me was a 400 foot ascent in a half mile to Two Bar Ridge, two miles along the glorious ridge providing endless views to the west and northwest.  An 800 foot descent to a nameless canyon below Two Bar Mountain.  This left no time for photography!!

This photograph, taken 4 miles to the west and 10 months later, is similar to what I enjoyed, and dreaded, that day.  A flowering century plant stalk grows at the end of the plant’s long life, usually 10 – 30 years.  After death, the plant is reborn through suckers from its roots.

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A Superstition Wilderness Sunset from a February 2006 backpack.

My hope was to find some flat terrain in that canyon, for a camp site. If only there was time enough to reach it. My progress was bedeviled by sudden gusts of wind, grabbing like a large cat, throwing off-balance.  

The west wind was whipping the bushes as I entered the Manzanita.  Here is a photo of the plant from a later backpack to the Rincon Mountain Wilderness.  Yes, the trunk is a dark, rich red.  “Manzana” is apple is spanish, the plan is named “Little Apple” for the small green fruits much loved by bears.

Manzanita.
A mature Manzanita growing along the Miller Trail of the Rincon Mountain Wilderness. There is an enlargement of the flowers, to the right.

Manzanita leaves were thick around me snapping in the wind, making it seem at all moments a large creature was moving. The trail was difficult and several times I needed to turn back to find it, all the while climbing continuously.

On ridge was the highest point for a hundred or more miles to the west, so the wind was free to run which it did in huge gusts.  You can get an idea of the openness from the Superstition sunset photo.  For awhile the Manzanita acted as protection, then I descended along the west face of the Two Bar Mountain ridge.

Evening from Lime Mountain to East with Risen Moon
Two Bar Mountain and Ridge from Lime Mountain with rising moon.

My hat tie-down were tested on that two miles of ridge, the brim was molded around the right side of my head. The backpack acted as a sail so that it was taken in the wind gusts, affecting my balance.

On mountain trails the path is full of stones of all sizes and,  aside from the occasional rattlesnakes, critter scat or, at lower elevations, Gila monsters, it is the rock that forces hikers to look four steps ahead, planning moves carefully to avoid falls.  The 80 pound backpack, wind, rocks, high perch and, not forgetting the prickly pear cactus and jumping cholla, all slowed me to less than a mile an hour.  I was jumpy walking through that Manzanita and this slowed me down more.

Trail 122 joins Trail 119 on Two Bar Ridge.  On the ridge a substantial barbed wire fence separates federal land from the working ranch.  Where the trails crosses, the fence has a break.  The hiker needs to wend through a simple maze impassable to cattle.

Of all the trail, this is the most clearly marked.  Fences have deep historical significance for the western United States.  Range wars were fought between men who had different beliefs about land use and ownership.  Many historians associate the building of barbed wire fences with the passing of the Old West.

Up until the fence, cattle grazing visibly damaged the land and plants.  After the fence, the land was free to become as it was since the beginning of time.  Up here, there’s wonderful grass that was, in this season after heavier than normal winter rains, was lush and green.

The trail followed the fence for a ways, then descends steeply into a fold of the land, leaving me in shade as the sun, low in a cloudless sky, raked over the mountainside with a brilliant golden light.  The Two Bar Mountain and Ridge with Moon photograph, above, gives an idea of the effect.

Below, the canyon floor seemed a mass of prickly pear cactus groves.  I decided the lower canyon wall was the best choice for camp…as unlikely as that sounds.

Here, the trail was anything but straight and almost invisible, descending in looping curves called switchbacks.

Here’s a photo from the following morning.  I found a small shelf on a ridge overlooking the canyon floor, amongst wonderful shrubby Juniper trees.  Tiny hedgehog cactuses were covered in lavender blooms.  There is a decrepit stalk of a Century (yucca) plant lying over the rock.

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Morning view from my camp in a nameless canyon below Two Bar Mountain.

On approaching the shelf, the air turned suddenly cold as the sun fully set and the wind gained even more in strength flowing up the canyon and over Two Bar Mountain.  Stony ground made it impossible to stake the tent, instead I used small boulders to fix the corners and sides of the tent.  Once inside, I was grateful for an excellent mat to protect me from the small jagged stones at one with the ground.  The tent walls held back the wind.  I forgot to back an excellent sleeping bag for the trip.  Instead of buying one in Phoenix, my sister lent me a light waffle weave blanket.  “What was I thinking???”  It was a restless, cold night.  The sun was very welcome the following day.

Lavender Hedgehog Cactus Blooms
Lavender Hedgehog Cactus Blooms in pre-dawn light
Click me for the next episode, “Dry Piece of Paradise.”
Copyright 2021 Michael Stephen Wills All Rights Reserved

Rincon Peak Summit

Experience the Sky Island view from Rincon Peak

The Rincons are one of 42 Sky Mountain islands isolated from each other by the gradual warming and drying climate changes since the last ice age, 10,000 years ago. While this marvelous environment of oak and pine forests only accessible with much effort on foot, it is literally visible from every point of the Tucson valley and million human inhabitants.

Rincon is Spanish for corner, the mountains are called that from their shape enclosing a space on the west, northwest until recently used for ranching and is now falling into use for tract housing. The mountains themselves are reserved as wilderness, parts in the Saguaro National Park and the Coronado National Forest.

In the past 44 years I was lucky enough to visit the Rincon Wilderness interior three times, shouldering different style backpacks onto the mountain, walking different boots. The first, during college the 1970’s, a party of six left from the end of Speedway, up the Douglas Springs trail. The climb was an exercise in desert survival that several friendships did not survive, replace by new friends met on Mica Mountain. I have no photographs from that experience, only memories and the backpack.

Reconnecting with Arizona in 2004, thirty one years after that first experience, I took no chances. My first attempt on Rincon Peak was a success. Risk and effort were reduced, not eliminated by hiring a guide for the four day trip. We made it to Rincon Peak via the Turkey Creek Trail out of Happy Valley, climbing a mountain buttress, views ever widening and lengthening.

These are some photographs from that experience and a landscape photograph of the peak at sunset, taken the following year.

Sego Lilies bloom among a stricken oak and drying grasses on the Turkey Creek trail. This is an overview of the environment, it is the winter rains that trigger the bloom.

Sego Lilies -- CLICK ME!!!!

We paused while I unpacked my gear to capture Sego Lilies growing along the Turkey Creek Trail.

Sego Lilies -- CLICK ME!!!!
Sego Lilies -- CLICK ME!!!!

Deer Head Spring, at the top of Turkey Creek Trail was a moist spot with no accessible water when we reached it April 27, 2004. With the remains of a gallon of water each we needed to press ahead to Heartbreak Ridge and climb into Happy Valley Saddle were, thankfully, the creek was low and full of algae but usable. Here are my first views of Rincon Peak, looking across the aptly named Heartbreak Ridge and Happy Valley Saddle.

Distant View of Rincon Peak-- CLICK ME!!!!
Telephoto view of Rincon Peak -- CLICK ME!!!!

The view to south from Rincon Peak. The white rocks at lower right forms a Valley of the Moon wall. San Pedro River valley at the root, Mae West Peaks at left margin, Dragoon Mountains with Cochise Stronghold center. Taken around 12:30 on April 28, 2004 as a thunderstorm approached.

View from Rincon Peak -- CLICK ME!!!!

The Rincon Peak view looking south, southwest over the Valley of the Moon to the eastern Tucson Valley and the Sky Islands the Whetstone Mountains (Apache Peak), behind are the Santa Ritas. The works of man are overpowered by sky, rock, distance.

We made a hasty departure in front of the thunderstorm. It was a touch and go decision to attempt the peak that day, we made it with moments to spare.

View from Rincon Peak -- CLICK ME!!!!

April 29, 2004 the morning after reaching Rincon Peak I set up the tripod near our Happy Valley Saddle camp to capture Rincon Peak in early morning sunlight.

Rincon Peak from Happy Valley Saddle, dawn -- CLICK ME!!!!

The day we descended to the X9 Ranch via the Rincon Creek trail. My guide’s grandfather had a homestead at the X9 and his access to the trailhead through private lands opened this route for us. This is a photograph of sunset on Rincon Peak from the X9 ranch. I am looking east from the Rincon (Spanish for corner) made by the massifs Rincon Peak, Mica Mountain and Tanque Verde ridge.

Rincon Peak from the X9 Ranch-- CLICK ME!!!!

The evening of November 2, 2006 I climbed the Saguaro National Park, East, Tanque Verde trail for about 30 minutes to reach this view of Rincon Peak and waited until just before the sun set behind the Tucson Mountains for this shot. Then hiked back to the car in twilight. In my hurry, I tripped on a stepped turn and dove headfirst into a large prickly pear. It was a very painful experience and I regretted damaging the cactus and the loss of and good hiking shirt. There were large spines in my face and tiny, pesky spines covered my chest and back. The large spines are not barbed and come right out. I needed to visit a physician to remove them.

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Rincon Peak from the X9 Ranch-- CLICK ME!!!!

Copyright 2017 Michael Stephen Wills All Rights Reserved

Saguaro Sky

dramatic skies from Saguaro National Park

November is a special time for the ranges and basins of southern Arizona deserts.  Climb a bajada of foothills, face west and wait for the sunset.  That is what I did this day, November 3, 2005.  East of Tucson the Saguaro National Monument at the foot of the Rincon Mountain Wilderness is where I parked, unpacked the photo gear and climbed the side of the Tanque Verde Ridge for a favorable view.  Weather was pushing high level moisture from the west, clouds were developing.

You see here a shot from that session.  In the distance, looking across Tanque Verde, are the Santa Catalina mountains.  Months since the last rainfall, the giant Saguaros are using internal moisture reserves drawn up from a shallow root system, the flesh is less plump, the supporting structure of the ribs, always evident, are more pronounced.  The last light catches these ribs in relief against a dramatic sky.

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Saguaro Sunset -- CLICK ME!!!!

Copyright 2021 Michael Stephen Wills All Rights Reserved

Saguaro Sky

dramatic skies from Saguaro National Park

November is a special time for the ranges and basins of southern Arizona deserts.  Climb a bajada of foothills, face west and wait for the sunset.  That is what I did this day, November 3, 2005.  East of Tucson the Saguaro National Monument at the foot of the Rincon Mountain Wilderness is where I parked, unpacked the photo gear and climbed the side of the Tanque Verde Ridge for a favorable view.  Weather was pushing high level moisture from the west, clouds were developing.

You see here a shot from that session.  In the distance, looking across Tanque Verde, are the Santa Catalina mountains.  Months since the last rainfall, the giant Saguaros are using internal moisture reserves drawn up from a shallow root system, the flesh is less plump, the supporting structure of the ribs, always evident, are more pronounced.  The last light catches these ribs in relief against a dramatic sky.

Click this link or the photograph for my Online gallery of this offering
Saguaro Sunset -- CLICK ME!!!!

Copyright 2020 Michael Stephen Wills All Rights Reserved

Rincon Peak Summit, repost

The Sky Island Experience

The Rincons are one of 42 Sky Mountain islands isolated from each other by the gradual warming and drying climate changes since the last ice age, 10,000 years ago. While this marvelous environment of oak and pine forests only accessible with much effort on foot, it is literally visible from every point of the Tucson valley and million human inhabitants.

….Click me for more story and photographs.

Copyright 2020 Michael Stephen Wills All Rights Reserved

Marvelous Rocks

a ghost story

Texas CanyonGranite2007-5

Texas CanyonGranite2007-1

Weathered granite boulders greet visitors to the Triangle T Ranch.

Texas CanyonGranite2007-2

Texas CanyonGranite2007-3

Your imagination roams among the natural forms.

Texas CanyonGranite2007-4

A tableau of figures keep silent watch with the ghosts of Texas Canyon.
Copyright 2020 All Rights Reserved Michael Stephen Wills

End of the Beginning

Exploring Arizona in my Fifth Decade of Life

….continued from the chapter “A Rocky End to a Perfect Day.”

The Searcher arrived after breakfast. My camp was bundled up to join the rest of The Searchers equipment and supplies on Colorado’s panniers that replaced the saddle where I sat, and was dumped from, yesterday. This fifth morning of the adventure, I was to have the experience of a light pack for the 4.7 mile trail from Pine Creek to Campaign Creek, past the Reavis Mountain School of Self Reliance.

First, there was the climb to the edge of Pine Creek canyon where we, for the last time, enjoyed the view to the north of the Arizona Trail and, in the distance, the Four Peaks Wilderness.

North from Reavis Gap

At Reavis Gap we took a rest before the 1500 descent to Campaign Creek on a trail rated as so difficult backpackers go miles out of the way to access Reavis Ranch.

I split an energy bar and took a swig of water before setting up the tripod to capture the following view of our path. The ridge, hazy in the distance of 22 miles, is Apache Peaks, the near descending ridges an improbable green after a wet winter. In the previous photograph, “North from Reavis Gap” you can clearly see the transition from the desert to a grassland biome as the elevation increases.

Generations

On this, the southern shoulder of Two Bar Mountain, we enjoyed desert grasslands almost the entire length, starting with this unlikely oat field. The higher, eastern Superstitions are the western and northern-most Sky Island of Southern Arizona: rising from the desert as isolated mountain systems, catchments for passing storms, with life zones progressing with altitude, the highest typical of Canada. As with oceanic islands, each is a haven for life with potential for evolution of unique species from the isolating effect of the surrounding desert.

These oats are domesticated grain spilled from a horse or donkey pack to thrive in the decades since, sprouting into this spread of light green after a wet winter, ripening, then turning gold with the summer, the grains falling to wait for the next opportunity. This green hue is my first impression of Reavis Gap, see my post “Two Meetings” for a video of the morning breezes rippling along the hillside.

The camera sweeps 180 degrees for all the views from this spot, including prickly pear cactus among the grasses, a butte-like formation to the west, as in the following photograph.

Upper Horrell, the end of the beginning.

We passed the length of the Reavis Mountain School of Self Reliance, the Reavis Gap trail is 100 feet or so higher on the north side. The name “Upper Horrell” is attached to this location. Reavis Gap trail used to start at a ranch house, part of the “Upper Horrell Ranch.” Horrell is the family name of the former owners.

Upper Horrell is a fortunate location for the school, with the perennial Campaign Creek flowing parallel to their 13 acres on which is a large garden, many fruit trees, livestock and poultry. The school provides lodging and classes throughout the year.

The Searcher initiated his time in the Superstitions with wilderness survival classes and they allowed him to park is horse trailer and pickup outside the gates. We were loaded and out of there with a stop at Roosevelt, population 28, where we were the only customers for mesquite grilled hamburgers and french fries. We talked about the potential for future trips and I took him up on an offer to store my stuff until then. In the following years I did more Superstition Wilderness day trips, backpack expeditions, some with my sister Diane, and one horse expedition with The Searcher and a friend.

Here is a gallery of this post’s photographs, for you to flip through.
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Click me for the first post of this series.

Copyright 2019 All Rights Reserved Michael Stephen Wills