Monday, July 13, 2020

The White Mountains, Arizona

Monsoon thunderstorms moving in over Crescent Lake in the White Mountains. The mountains look like hills here but the base elevation is over 9000 feet above sea level.

My girlfriend "M" and I spent last weekend in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona. This is an area I have wanted to visit ever since I read the essay "The Mountain," by Aldo Leopold, an important figure in the history of conservation, wildlife management, and environmentalism, back in the 1990s, if not earlier. I recall reading about the White Mountains in Arizona Highways magazine in the 80s. The White Mountains are the other extensive mountain range with high peaks in Arizona, aside from the San Francisco Peaks around Flagstaff. Visually they resemble the foothills, lesser ranges, and high plateaus of the Rocky Mountains, and it was refreshing to see so much surface water, including flowing streams, and lush green valleys with hay fields, grazing cattle, and elk. The region is very reminiscent of the verdant valleys of Colorado and New Mexico.

The plan was to do at least one hike and one paddling trip on a lake. Since we are in the middle of the North American monsoon, we knew we had to get things done early in the day. The drive to our Airbnb just outside of Alpine was over 3 hours, so I found a trail to hike on the way to break up the trip, one that would follow a flowing stream, something rare in this state, and we got hiking at 10 am sharp. The trail was Apache National Forest Trail #97 along the South Fork of the Little Colorado River. It was a small, bubbling creek with cool water.


The trail was fairly easy, although the air temperatures were relatively hot, despite the trail being around 7800 feet above sea level. The early part of the trail was well shaded but we soon broke out into a large burn scar that would persist until we decided to turn around.

The hot trail of the burn scar. Eventually it clouded up and made the return hike slightly more comfortable.

We saw plenty of birds and insects. The trail generally follows the stream uphill but moves away in places and much of the course is lined with dense brush including young aspens and a tree that M tentatively identified as tamarisk. We finally found a place where free range cattle or wildlife obviously have pushed their way down to the water, but not recently. We settled in for lunch on a shady rock in the middle of the stream. It was very pleasant with the stream and shade cooling the hot day. We spent perhaps 20 or 30 minutes relaxing there.

Lunch spot on the South Fork of the Little Colorado River. This water ends up in the Grand Canyon.

Monsoon clouds and raindrops in a pool of the Little Colorado River. There were some water striders too, but we definitely got sprinkled on in this spot.

I had noted early signs of monsoon moisture building cloud in the direction of the higher peaks. These clouds grew steadily throughout the morning and I insisted we get moving. I have been caught out in thunderstorms a few times over the years and it isn't an enjoyable experience. The growing clouds provided some shade through the extensive burn scar that had been hot hiking on the way upstream, and it was easier walking downhill back towards the car. Eventually it started sprinkling intermittently and broke into a light rain for just a few seconds at one point. We started passing groups of people heading out even as the storms were looking ever more threatening. We were lucky and got back to the car without getting soaked or zapped and headed to our Airbnb rental outside Alpine.

The Airbnb was a modest place, a "modular home" set onto a foundation, kitted out as a cabin, with wood paneling on walls and ceiling. It wasn't great. The appliances and furniture were old but the bathrooms were clean. We settled in for a nap, burgers, and then headed over to nearby Luna Lake to get in a second hike. There was no official trail but we followed some fishing trails and enjoyed the waterfowl and the mountains. The air cooled off with a few sprinkles but no thunder.

Luna Lake. It kind of looks like Scotland here but it was actually green and lovely. The rain clouds are making it look gloomier than it was. We got sprinkled on here too.

We returned and enjoyed the evening on the deck of the Airbnb house, watched hummingbirds buzz us, apparently two different species, and were serenaded by a bull elk somewhere nearby. I heard him in the middle of the night, and heard the hummingbirds again in the early light of the next morning. We packed up early, handed the keys back to the host, and headed over towards Big Lake, where we planned to kayak and enjoy the views of Mount Baldy, the highest mountain in the range at 11,409 ft.

The drive over to the lake was amazing and the road climbed up into high country that was reminiscent of some of the higher areas in Colorado and New Mexico, especially US highway 64 that crosses over the Rockies between Tres Piedras and Tierra Amarilla in New Mexico. It features high parks and fir forests with aspen groves, though there are many signs of wildfire and possibly bark beetle damage. I have no patience for these people who will not behave responsibly with camp fires. It isn't that difficult, and it's a small minority that feel entitled to a fire even during burn bans; thoughtless, selfish people.

I suggested we listen to an audio book recording of "The Mountain" because it refers directly to the landscape we were driving through and was therefore as poignant as possible in the modern era. Unfortunately I somewhat forgot the melancholy and wistful nature of the writing as Aldo Leopold had been stationed there as a US Forest Service ranger in the early 1900s and the essay contains his regrets about his participation in the extermination of the last of the wild wolves from the region. He also related a tale of a government trapper who killed the last grizzly bear on Escudilla Mountain, which looms over the northern and western parts of the range and can be seen from a hundred miles away. Eventually Leopold became a professor at the University of Wisconsin and developed an understanding of the unintended consequences of making the mountains safe for human economic development by removing the wild predators. He wrote that what seemed good for humans at first, was bad for the mountain, and as a consequence, eventually bad for humans too. It was sadly moving but informative. It's one of my favorite essays of all time, and has influenced the modern environmentalist movement.

Panorama of Big Lake. Click for larger version. Mount Baldy is on the horizon left of center, the fifth highest peak in Arizona.

Big Lake is at 9,000 feet above sea level and Mount Baldy is visible from most of it. There are a couple of boat launches and other points where small craft could easily be launched. There are fishing boats on the lake, but no jet skis or speedboats, so it's a good place for kayaking. M has an inflatable kayak. I chose to bring one of my hard shell, closed deck whitewater kayaks because I haven't had it out of the garage in a couple of years. I was very comfortable paddling it but the spray skirt was almost impossible to get on the boat after two dry years in storage for the rubber rand. It's always been a tight fit, good for hard whitewater, but I think I'll order a bungie cord type of spray skirt because my days of hard whitewater are probably over and the bungie cord rands are easier to get on.

We saw numerous fish flop on the surface, a great blue heron, and numerous other waterfowl and soaring birds, along with an osprey. The scenery was amazing and we paddled about half of the lake before returning. Thunderstorms were brewing over the high country and the skies were awe inspiring.

Our lunch view of Crescent Lake from a ramada. My friends and family back east may know this as a "pavilion," but out west they always call them by the Spanish word ramada.

After loading up, we drove a few miles to another high country lake a bit closer to Baldy and found a ramada for a picnic lunch. It was a nice, quiet place in terms of people, but soon we heard thunder. There were a few more booms before we finished and loaded up to head home. It was a great weekend and my travel bug has been satisfied enough to last me a few more months.

The drive from Crescent Lake to Springerville was astonishing, featuring high, rolling sub-alpine grassland, ponds, marshes, and distant peaks. I think that is the summit of Escudilla Mountain in the distance, 10,916 feet above sea level. I hadn't realized there was such a large area of high country in the White Mountains.

High desert on the drive home. These are isolated cinder cone volcanoes on the Colorado Plateau, with monsoon storms building over the triple-digit surface of the desert. My car thermometer read as high as 105 degrees as we passed through the Painted Desert between Holbrook and Flagstaff - huge contrast to the high country of the White Mountains. That's Arizona for ya.

Cheers.

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