My wife Margo, our dog Chester, and I completed a day trip to the Gila Wilderness last week, with my goal to finally catch an elusive Gila trout on one of the streams where they have been re-introduced.
Thanks to very low water, failure to venture far enough up the stream and my dog’s need to investigate every hole before I could sneak up on it, I didn’t catch anything. I think I spotted a couple of very small Gila trout, which was encouraging.
But the trip was far from a failure. I renewed my appreciation of this first designated wilderness area in the United States and forced me to think about how much it is “on the edge.”
Why is it “on the edge?” First, it’s one the very western edge of New Mexico, far away from population centers and largely forgotten by many in our state who have never ventured south of Socorro to that “drive-though” part of the state. It’s on the edge of catastrophic destruction from wildfire, thanks to climate change and already challenging meteorological, geographical and geological conditions. And for me, it’s “on the edge” of my ability to understand how such a complex eco-system exists in such an arid landscape.
It’s easy to love the wilderness areas with snow-capped mountains, lush meadows, lakes, roaring rivers and dense forests. At first glance for many, the Gila is probably not easy to love — too rugged, too dry, too far away, not enough big mountains, too few rivers, hardly any lakes and maybe just too ugly for some.
But if you take time to explore it, you’ll find it fascinating and spectacular in its own way.
I think the thing that amazes me most is the incredible contrast in the eco systems of the rugged slot canyons on the western side of the wilderness. Small streams wander though narrow solid rock walls towering hundreds of feet above you. In the bottom of the canyons is an unbelievable variety of lush vegetation, including giant sycamore and walnut trees, flowering bushes, vines and grasses. But if you glance up just a hundred feet above you, the canyon walls sprout cactus, yucca plants, stunted pinon trees and mesquite bushes better suited for a high desert landscape.
Our trip took us up Mineral Creek canyon, and I’ve included some photos. Some parts of the canyon make you fear a delicately balanced rock formation is about to fall on you. Other sections look like someone took a giant ice cream scoop and carved a trough through a layer of pumice and volcanic rock. Remnants of mining activity a century ago are everywhere — rusting pipe, iron anchors in the stream bed and canyon walls, slowly rotting timbers from a mine shaft or a mill. I’ve seen spectacular waterfalls tumble off the overhead cliffs following summer thunderstorms. I’ve encountered elk and other critters, thrashing through the underbrush. But I only occasionally see another human in these places.
Mineral Creek Canyon is very similar to nearby Whitewater Creek Canyon, which was my favorite place in the entire world for fishing and solitude until the 2012 Whitewater-Baldy Complex fire transmogrified it. The horrifying blaze destroyed the watershed and subsequent thunderstorm-induced flooding wiped out virtually every fish in the stream. The fire, the largest in New Mexico recorded history, burned 465 square miles of forest. At least, finally, native Gila Trout (I’ll post a blog on Gila Trout later) are being re-introduced to populate the stream, but I fear it will never be the same as when I discovered it more than 20 years ago. I remember noting in my fisherman’s log that day that I caught more fish in one day than I had ever caught in a single day before. All were tiny 6-8 inch hybrid Gila/Rainbow trout, feisty for their size, colorful and all were returned alive to the beautiful waters of that spectacular canyon.
I hope you’ll forgive my rambling. It does my soul good to go to places like the Gila, and I hope you’ll consider going there yourself and discovering why it’s such a significant and spectacular place. And I hope someday it won’t be “on the edge.”
P.S. There are many wonderful books written about the Gila, much more eloquent in their description of the country than I can do. And be sure to note the contributions of M.H. “Dutch” Salmon to preserving the mystique of the Gila. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M._H._Salmon