Tuesday, July 15, 2014

On the Lookout

I didn't do any wandering to speak of this spring. I usually stick fairly close to home during fire season, since there may not be much time to evacuate critters and valuables if a wildfire threatens the neighborhood. This season, I had a special opportunity to stay in one place and watch the world around me.

I volunteer for the USFS at our local District Office. I heard that they had no plans to staff any fire lookouts this season, even though two lookouts are still fully equipped. So, I talked to the Fire Prevention Officer and volunteered my services as a fire lookout. It's something that has been on my bucket list, and here was a perfect opportunity. I then convinced a friend and fellow volunteer to join me in this endeavor so the lookout could be staffed almost every day. The FPO and Fire Management Officer decided that we should staff the lookout closest to the urban interface (such as it is here), which happens to be a fifteen minute drive from my home. So, I didn't have to camp at James Ridge Lookout. I commuted.

James Ridge Lookout is a 7 foot by 7 foot Aermotor LX-24 cab on a 62 foot tower. It was first erected near the Mayhill Ranger Station in 1935, but was relocated to James Ridge in 1967. It has a view of the northern part of Sacramento Ranger District and the southern part of the Mescalero Indian Reservation.

Inside are the usual tools: an Osborne Fire Finder, a radio to send in my weather and fire reports, binoculars, weather instruments, maps etc.

The north window of the lookout had a bullet hole in it. A lot of splinters of glass had to be cleaned up from the cab.  The bullet then passed into the ceiling, but didn't exit - at least we think it didn't because it never leaked during rain. It took a while, but by the end of fire season the pane was replaced. The first replacement shattered when they tried carrying it up the tower stairs unprotected. The second time, it came up in a protective box.

After only a few days in the lookout we had our first fire. It was down on the southwest end of the district, far from James Ridge. I heard chatter on the radio for about a half hour before I could see smoke rise over Pumphouse Ridge. It was named the Benson fire, which was a misnomer, because it was on Joplin Ridge and nowhere near Benson Ridge. It was human caused - an unattended campfire.  It turned out to be the largest fire of the season in our district, and was just shy of 100 acres in size. Really, we had a very light and lucky fire season!

About a month into fire season, four forest service green vehicles rolled up and parked at the lookout. I had no idea what was going on, although I had heard on the radio that someone was driving up to James Ridge. It turned out it was the Pike, Colorado Hotshots who were on fire detail in the area, and they were just out for a joyride and a view of the countryside from the lookout. Good guys.

In late May, we had a light rain with cool temperatures, and I got a photo of some waterdogs - patches of condensation that can be mistaken for smoke. Often after a rain there will be phone calls to 911 or the sheriff or the District Office from concerned folks seeing smoke that turns out to be water dogs. They dissipate differently than smoke, and to me, their edges look fractal, where smoke is more "puffy". It will dissipate, then recur. I've learned that you want to watch a suspected smoke for a few minutes to see if it "puffs" repeatedly.

Most days, the routine was quiet and regular. Open up and check in with Dispatch at 8 am. Collect weather data - rainfall amount (if any), wet and dry bulb temperatures, relative humidity, wind speed and direction, cloud cover and visibility (how clear the air is based on how far you can see). Radio in weather reports at 9 am and 1 pm. Scan for smokes every 15 minutes and catch up on reading in between scans or listen to baseball on internet radio (yes, being near the urban interface there was good cell signal). Watch birds and other forest critters. Watch the changing shadows on the landscape. Watch the aspen stands turn green. Be friendly to any visitors that show up. Clean the windows or the cab. Check out with dispatch at 5 pm and lock things up.

Wild turkey visiting the tower

Even though these days were pleasant and peaceful, there is no denying that I looked forward to sighting a smoke, just for the adrenaline rush. I just wanted the smoke to be small and stay small. And I did see a few before the season ended. One was very far away on the north end of the Mescalero Reservation. I was surprised I was the first to see it, and it had already grown to ten acres by the time I did. Eventually, the Black Forest fire grew to about 100 acres, but that was because the BIA crews managed the fire to get rid of some slash in the area, so let it grow in a controlled way.

Just before the summer monsoons hit in full force we had our most dangerous weather - thunderstorms with lightning, but little rain. On June 30, we had a "lightning bust" and about six small fires started on the district, all within a few hours of each other in late afternoon. I turned in two that were very close to James Ridge. They were between one and two miles away. All the fires stayed small, thanks to favorable weather, but there were crews scattered all over the district chasing down these small starts.

Here are the two starts near James Ridge. I could see the base of the Walker fire and watched it glow as it consumed brush well into twilight.

Not long after the lightning bust and one more nearby start caused by a landowner leaving a brush pile he was burning unattended, the monsoons started in earnest and soon the fire danger was low and fire season was over. By mid July we cleaned the lookout for the last time, covered the Fire Finder, powered down the electronics and said good bye to James Ridge Lookout. We've already been asked if we want to come back for next fire season.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Valley of Life

(Remember that you can click on each image for a larger version.)

When I was at Red River recently, I picked up a map of the Valle Vidal unit of the Carson National Forest. Running through the unit are the Rio Costilla and Comanche Creek, both reputedly chock full of Cutthroat trout. I had also been told I should check out Little Blue Lake. Little Blue is in Rio Costilla Park, which is privately owned by the Rio Costilla Cooperative Livestock Association, and camping access closes to the public after Labor Day. Since August was drawing to a close, I had no time to lose. I packed up the camper and headed north.

I approached Valle Vidal from the east side, passing through the village of Cimarron. The access road is a 30 mile long gravel road, in good shape except for some washboarding. It being a weekday, I saw no one on the way in. This access road passes through part of Ted Turner's Vermejo Park Ranch. You can fish there for $550 per day (guide not included; minimum stay of two nights). Yeah, right. Although I truly appreciate the fact that Ted & Co. are restoring the land and wildlife, it irks me that over a half-million acres are off limits to all but the rich. I have the same ambivalence about all private waters.  Reducing fishing pressure is great, but to do it by excluding the poor is not, IMHO. I'd rather see lower prices and a lottery. By comparison, the cost for camping and fishing at Rio Costilla Park was a bargain; $20 per day to camp and a $7 per day rod fee. The pressure is no doubt higher, but I still had Little Blue lake to myself for about four hours. Not bad. Camping in the Valle Vidal unit runs $12 to $16 per night, and is half-price with the Senior Access card.

Unlike many National Forest districts, Valle Vidal allows no dispersed camping. You must stay in one of two campgrounds; McCrystal or Cimarron. Cimarron is the more popular campground. I opted to stay at McCrystal on my arrival, and only one other campsite out of 60 was occupied that night. It does get more crowded on weekends and during hunting season. The unit also does not allow ATVs. Compared to the Lincoln NF, where I live, and which allows ATVs and dispersed camping, there is a very noticeable improvement in the overall health of the land. Although I would prefer a dispersed camp, I have to admit that this unit's policy has been beneficial.

Here's a view from my campsite at McCrystal. Are those Ted Turner's cattle? I could hear them and coyotes all through the night. The creek is McCrystal Creek. I didn't fish there, but I understand there are some Cutthroats in the creek.

The next day, I headed west through the Valle to Rio Costilla Park. I would return to fish Comanche Creek and the Rio Costilla in a couple of days. After paying the RCCLA fees, I headed up a four wheel drive road to Latir Lakes. These are nine small alpine lakes that had a reputation for holding large cutthroats in the 1980's (including the state record), but there was a die-off and the trout fishing hasn't really recovered since. When I got there, I saw other campers and anglers, so decided to head directly over to Little Blue Lake. I'm afraid I didn't even take any pictures, but the best fishing lake, Latir Lake #3, is a round tree-lined alpine lake, several acres in area.

Little Blue Lake is a tiny alpine lake at an elevation over 11,000 feet and up another steep four wheel drive road. I had the place to myself when I arrived in the late afternoon. The westering sun peeked through the clouds and lit the nearby slopes near the camping area.

The lake is only accessible by foot, down a short trail. I didn't measure it, but I'm guessing it wasn't more than a half mile to the lake. I walked down after setting up camp and cast near the shore where I saw a few rising fish. I caught and released a rainbow, then headed back to camp at sunset.

The next morning, I pumped up the float tube (yes, I remembered the accessories this time - fins, boots, waders and even the PFD), and toted it down to the lake. It was tons of fun kicking around the tiny lake, and if I held still long enough, even caught a few rainbows now and then. They are certainly stocked, although some were large enough to be holdovers. There was a good morning midge hatch, but I don't know if there's diverse enough aquatic life to sustain a large trout population here.

You can see how low the water level was. That's my Creek Co. float tube for scale.  There are two other anglers on the right shore, which also gives an idea of the lake's size.

A Little Blue Lake Rainbow

After lunch back at camp, I packed up and headed back down the four wheel drive road to Midnight Creek. There are designated campsites spread along the creek, so although there is no dispersed camping, you still get some privacy. I picked out a campsite where I could enjoy the creek.

Camp at Midnight Creek, just before the rain started.

Midnight Creek

I fished the creek a little, but had no luck. There are trout there - Cutthroat or Cutbow. I watched one for a few minutes. It had a perfect lie under a bank with roots arching over it. You couldn't drift a fly near without getting it caught in the roots, but it was along a seam that brought food near. The trout would dart out, snatch a morsel from the surface, and dart back to safety, all in a second. It had a fine home.

The next day I went back to the Valle Vidal unit. I spent the day along the Rio Costilla and Comanche Creek. It was a fine day. There are many trout in these waters, but they are educated. There is a fair amount of fishing pressure, and the trout are hard to fool. I saw trout head for my fly and then veer off on most of my casts. Only when I could pull off a good dead drift did I get a hookup. The type of fly was less important than the presentation. Anything buggy looking seemed to draw their attention.

Small trout, big fly on the Costilla

A little bigger one from a Comanche Creek hole.

Comanche Point, where Comanche Creek joins the Rio Costilla

Looking toward Shuree Ponds.  They are hidden in the distance. The pond levels were low and they were covered with algae. I did not fish there.

Driving over "the Rock Wall" you get a good view of the east half of Valle Vidal. The topography is less dramatic looking east, because the start of the Great Plains is not too far away.

Back at McCrystal camp, I took the short hike over to the Ring Ranch, which was active from the 1890s into the first half of the 20th century. It is now part of the Valle Vidal unit of the Carson NF.  In 1890 Timothy Ring bought 320 acres for $3 per acre and started a cattle ranch. The ranch house is slowly being restored. The Ring family had seven daughters, and built on to the house until it had ten bedrooms.  I'll bet it was a popular place with the local cowboys.

Baldy peak from the Ring Ranch

Baldy had a rip-roaring mining history.

The next day, I headed home. As I was driving back on the gravel road toward Cimarron, I stopped to take this panorama of the "Rock Wall" that separates the east side of Valle Vidal from the west, and bid a fond farewell to the Valley of Life. 

If you like fly fishing, be sure to keep this beautiful place on your list.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Red River and Cabresto Lake

During fire season I tend to stick pretty close to home. There can be very little advance warning to evacuate, and a few fires in the last decade have come close enough for me to take fire season seriously. Plus, the last time I took off for an extended trip during fire season, lightning struck a pine in my yard, arced to the shed and set my shed on fire. If a neighbor hadn't seen the smoke and called the VFD - well, I'd rather not think about it.

This year's monsoon season started up pretty much on schedule, right around the 4th of July. By the third week of July, things were looking pretty green, the fire danger was down to moderate and I was really ready to hit the road for a little camping and fishing. It had to be a short trip because I had a weekend volunteer commitment with the local Ranger District. So, this trip report won't be too long.

I hadn't been up to Red River in a long time, and never tried fishing there, so I packed up my camper and headed north. It took about seven hours to drive from Southern New Mexico to a USFS campground just outside the town of Red River.  Here's the Google Map of the route.

I was disheartened when I got to Red River, because it was jam-packed with tourists, even on a weekday. Well, okay, it was vacation season, and I was told later that Red River advertises in Texas.  Most of the license plates were Texas ones, alright. I drove right through town to a USFS campground on the Red River. I grabbed one of the few spots left, which turned out to be right next to a trailer with the world's loudest generator. I walked a little way out of the camp along the river with my Tenkara rod and a Utah killer bug, but had no bites. 

This was not an auspicious beginning.

Campsite Sweet Campsite

In the morning, I had a quick breakfast and broke camp. I went back to town to a fly shop I had seen, to get some advice on flies and where to fish, and pay for that advice by buying the recommended flies. I was told to go upriver from town and use a fly that imitated the moths that were around. They looked like Western tent caterpillar moths to me. We'd been having an outbreak of them in the Sacramento Mountains, and it looked like here, as well. A bleached elk hair caddis was tied on.

The Red River upstream from town.

The Red River was too narrow here to wade without spooking every fish around, and the banks were overgrown, so dapping was the order of the day. This would have been perfect for the Tenkara rod, but I had brought my western style fly rod per the fly shop guy's recommendation. Maybe he didn't know about Tenkara?  Regardless, I caught and released a few smaller rainbows and lost as many flies in the brush and rocks. These were all stocked fish, so I started dapping my way back to the truck with thoughts of heading to Cabresto Lake.

My last fish on the Red River was the smallest, yet most dramatic. It was just a six-incher, with parr marks still visible, but as I brought it to the bank, it suddenly got heavier. I had a fish thief firmly latched on.

The thief was a Wandering Garter snake, a little over two feet long. It had a literal death grip on the little trout. We had a brief tug o' war while I snapped the picture and retrieved my fly, then both snake and trout quickly vanished into the brush along the bank. It would have been interesting to watch it fit the fish down its gullet. The snake must have been lying in wait just under the bank. I understand that garter snakes like to be near water and fish are in their diet. I wonder if they are learning to hang out near anglers?

The walk back to the truck was pleasant. All along the trail, berries were ripe. I had to sample the wild raspberries.

Then, it was off to Cabresto Lake. From Red River, I drove west to Questa, then followed the signs to the lake. Camping is allowed at the lake, but the "campground" is just a couple of tables in a gravel parking area. a little bit away from the lake. The price is right (free), so I shouldn't complain.  The USFS improved the access road to the lake recently, and I discovered that it is an ATV hotspot from about 10 a.m. to an hour before sunset. That's a good time to be at the lake or on the non-motorized trail into the Latir Peak Wilderness. The ATVs reach a dead-end at the campground.

Cabresto Lake looking toward the Latir Peak Wilderness area.

This is a perfect little reservoir for a float tube, which I brought, but somehow forgot both boots and fins (D'oh!). Fish were cruising near the shore and keying on those tent caterpillar moths, so it turned out okay. The elk hair caddis in size 12 or 14 and a little tan foam moth pattern I had tied up earlier worked best. It looks like Brook trout are the dominant species, but there are some Rio Grande Cutthroats in the lake as well. They were all healthy and vigorous. Moths must be nutritious.



I finished the day with a simple dinner and Happy Camper IPA from Santa Fe Brewery. I admit it was the big Zia on the can that caught my eye (Ooooh, New Mexico Proud beer!), but the beer wasn't half bad.

Then, with the ATVs gone and the campground quiet, it was time to relax and watch the setting sun light up some nearby virga.

The next day, I fished for just a bit (caught and released a brook trout), then packed up. It was time to head back home for my weekend volunteer "work" of helping with a guided hike in the Lincoln NF. Tough work, but someone has to do it ;-)

On the way back, I stopped at the Questa Ranger District office and picked up a map of the Valle Vidal unit of the Carson NF. I hope to be traveling north again to this special area before too long.

Approaching Carrizozo, I had to stop and grab this quick pic of my home territory - the north end of the Sacramento Mountains. That conical peak is Nogal Peak, the subject of a previous post here.

Thanks for tagging along on this short trip.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Otero Mesa - Collins Hills

On March 5 and 6 it was time for more BLM wilderness inventory on Otero Mesa. This time, we went to the northern part of the mesa to an area known as Collins Hills. The area isn't jaw-dropping spectacular; just rolling hills with grass, yucca, cholla and creosote, but it offers great opportunities for solitude. The first day was very windy and dusty - oh wait, since New Mexico is the Land of Enchantment I should say that there was a lot of enchantment in the air.

We camped for the night in the lee of the Collins Hills, to get a break from the wind.

What we discovered on both days in the Collins Hills area is that although the scenery isn't spectacular, the area is a paleontological treasure trove. There is a huge number of coral fossils and some ammonite fossils as well. I think this whole area was an ancient coral reef - part of the Permian Reef, I guess. There are also lots of fossilized silt impressions - cracks, raindrops and the like. There was no North America when this moment in time was frozen into rock. Pangaea was forming.

Fossilized silt cracks and some fossils

A wash exposed the silt-stone.

The next day we explored a little to the south in a unit called Cornucopia Draw. Here we found some spectacular coral fossils.

We camped in another sheltered area, did more inventory on the third day on the east side of the hills and headed for home at the end of the day. We did see a few people over the three days; one rancher and a few petroleum company employees looking for a blockage in a natural gas line that runs from Artesia to El Paso. Mostly though, it was solitude, solitude, solitude.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Hanging in the Lincoln National Forest

It has not been the kind of winter I had planned on, although my plans have, admittedly, been vague. I have spent most of the season in my backyard - the Lincoln National Forest. That is no bad thing.

The only traveling was to the east coast for a few days for the funeral of my cousin. In fact, I put off a trip to the Gila, because I thought I might have to make those unhappy travel plans. She had fought lymphoma for 23 years,  and lived a good life in that time.  I guess we hoped she would have one more battle in her, but it was not to be. The world lost a special woman, but is better for her having been here.

While hanging around the Lincoln, I found a public access fishing area very close to my home. It is a spring creek with some wild brown trout. There are supposed to be rainbows there, too, but I don't think so. I have yet to catch a 'bow there, and they are more reckless than browns and easier to catch. Here are some pictures of a few of the little browns I have caught and released on my new keiryu fly rod. Wouldn't you know I didn't have my camera for the prettiest - an 11 or twelve inch male still in spawning colors. It's the truth. It was the first fish caught with the new fly rod, too.

And here is where the little brownies live. I am delighted to have found this place, as I really enjoy fly fishing and it is only a fifteen minute drive from home.

It has been a below-average-snowfall winter, but we have had a few storms that brought enough snow for snowshoeing and backcountry skiing on the local trails.

And I have my volunteer work, too. Looking for downed trees on trails for the USFS has let me get some hiking in. On one of those trips I saw where some high drama had occurred.
A bird of prey left wing and claw marks in the snow. The wingspan was only about 2 and a half feet, so I don't think it was a hawk. Also, there were no squirrel or mouse prints in the snow right there (although squirrel prints were all over the general area). So, I think the prey was under the snow and was heard, not seen. That indicates the bird was one of the smaller owls.

If the trees are small enough, I just remove them. Otherwise, I log their positions for later removal.

Heading home after an afternoon on the trail.

There is plenty to keep me busy here in all seasons, but I am itching to take the keiryu rod to another rio. I hope that will happen soon, before my next volunteer session out on Otero Mesa. Spring will be here before we know it, and the winter trout waters are calling.