Friday, July 31, 2015

2002 Sierra Club Volunteer Trail Project in Arizona's Superstition Wilderness

This Sierra Club service outing was in Arizona's Superstition Wilderness, located 40 miles east of Phoenix near Apache Junction. The area is rich in history -- from Indians (800 A.D.) to Spanish explorers (1539) to Mexicans to settlers and miners (1870s) and ranchers (1890) and military, all of which are traced in the guidebook listed at the bottom.

Its special quality was noticed early as it was declared a Forest Reserve in 1908 and was part of the original Wilderness Preservation System established in 1964. Comprised of 160,200 acres in the Tonto National Forest, it spans a distance of 24 miles by 12 miles at its widest point. Over 140 miles of trails are available. Visitors should be alert for venomous creatures such as rattlesnakes, scorpions, centipedes, brown recluse spiders, black widow spiders, tarantulas, and Gila Monsters. Vegetation includes creosote, palo verde, ironwood, cholla, jojoba, prickly pear, and the stately saguaro, and along water sources you can find sycamore, cottonwood, willow, and walnut trees. Animal life includes mule deer, mountain lions, javalina, coyote, hares, skunks, rabbits, porcupines, squirrels, rodents of various varieties, and a number of bird species.

We entered at First Water Trailhead and backpacked the eight miles or so to Charlebois Springs (pronounced by the locals as "Charley Boy.") The trails can be sand, boulder outcroppings, rocks, or combinations thereof, often with encroaching vegetation, and since most everything in the desert stings, stabs, scratches, or sticks, it is a good idea to wear long pants while hiking. Those with shorts invariably incur war wounds and may have to spend some time removing spines. Of course, wearing long pants does not guarantee an injury-free trek, as cactus spines often penetrate pants legs and still draw blood.

Below are some photos from our eight mile backpack to our base camp.

It is called the Superstition MOUNTAINS because there are mountains. In fact, the trails consist of much up and down, with the high points providing vistas in all directions. Here the trail goes up over Bull Pass. The highest point in the wilderness tops out at 6265 feet (Mound Mountain) from a low of about 1600 feet.

Weaver's Needle, a predominant land feature in this part of the Superstition Wilderness, is a weathered volcanic plug reaching 4535 feet above sea level. If you stay on the Lost Dutchman Trail instead of taking the shortcut over Bull Pass, you head right for the formation. A jumping cholla cactus is in the foreground, so named because clumps of the plant drop from it and start a new plant (or embed in your clothing and skin!)

Here we hike the Peter's Mesa Trail which takes us high above Charlebois Canyon and affords vistas in several directions. We even are able to see our camp area in the valley far below. Continuing on this trail takes you to Tortilla Well Trailhead (off the Apache 4WD Trail) but this trailhead has an extremely rough access road leading to it and is not recommended as an entry point. Steve, down on his knees, pretends to be dying of thirst, though the second photo below shows that the drought is not a laughing matter for the wildlife in the area.

Bleached bones along the trail emphasize the danger inherent in desert living. Carry plenty of water and always check with the rangers regarding current water availability in the wilderness. Water becomes crucial in the desert. Much of the wilderness lies within the Sonoran Desert and there are few reliable water sources, so check with the local ranger office before embarking on a backpack trip. Day hikers should carry all the water they will need for the day. The availability of water can vary significantly from year to year. For example, in spring of 2001, (so I was told) rainfall was plentiful, dry washes ran wet, and the desert bloomed brilliantly. In the spring of 2002, they were in a drought and water was only available in two places in the entire wilderness. So check before you hike!

Our Sierra Club Service Project Outing was an unusual one since we were not actually going to construct new trail.  We did some spot maintenance as we noticed the need, but our main mission was prevention of illegal use. Charlebois Springs is one of the few reliable year-around water sources in the Superstition Wilderness, and it is therefore a popular destination or overnight stop for backpackers and equestrians. Although no camping is ever allowed within a quarter mile of water sources in order to protect these fragile resources and to allow wildlife access to the water, this rule has been widely ignored and broken over the years, and eight or more inviting campsites (as shown below) had been etched out and enlarged in the shade of the trees adjacent to the various pools of water at the springs. Horses tied to trees had been especially destructive to the area.

Our group was assigned the job of obliterating and revegetating these areas, hopefully making them cluttered with rocks and cacti and thereby uninhabitable for overnight users. Numerous nice camp areas are available in the open canyon below the springs, and this is where visitors are supposed to camp, walking the short distance to the springs when they need to replenish water containers, or riding their horses up to give them water. The photo below is the "after" example of the same camping area pictured above. We left a trail to hike on, but filled the remaining area with boulders and rocks and hundreds of cacti which we transplanted, all of which we brought down from the mountainside. Signs were also posted informing visitors of the "no camping" rule.

How did we accomplish this transformation?  In the photo below, Gordon and I are rolling a large boulder from up on the hillside down to the work area. Behind us, Peter waits to transplant a prickly pear cactus. As we brought more boulders down from the adjacent mountainside, we naturally had to go farther away to locate even more boulders. This was heavy work, but digging up and transplanting cactus was worse, with spines in your body a natural and unavoidable consequence of the work. Several wrapped duct tape around the fingers and palms of their gloves, but many of us were still pulling spines out days after the project had ended!

Holes were dug to bury half of each boulder to make it more difficult for illegal campers to try to make room for a tent near the springs.

An interesting side note: In 2003, while sitting around our first evening's campfire with another volunteer trail crew in South Carolina, we began to get to know one another. A young married couple, both chiropractors from Canada were on their first trail project. I asked how they had learned about the American Hiking Society, and she replied that she had been searching online for outdoor volunteer opportunities and came upon a website showing a volunteer group transplanting cacti and boulders in the desert. She saw me smiling and asked why, and I admitted that she had found my website. Small world, indeed!

Jim and Young show one safe way to carry a cactus for transplanting, cleverly using the shovel handle draped through the cactus. Others carried cacti using a tarp as a sling. After transplanting, we watered each cactus, giving it more water than it has probably gotten in quite some time and hopefully increasing its chances for survival.


We also cut back encroaching vegetation ("brushing") along several miles of the Lost Dutchman Trail in both directions from the springs as we day hiked to see the area in our off-time.

The entire, hard-working crew: 
Top row (l to r): Paul, Peter, Rita, Gordon, Chuck, Jan, Alan, Jim R., Jim I., and Judy;
Bottom row: Bruce, Steve, and Young.

Hiker's Guide to the Superstition Wilderness by Jack Carlson and Elizabeth Stewart; Clear Creek Publishing, Tempe, AZ; 1999; 319 pages.

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