Sunday, December 27, 2009

Big Bend Winter Solstice/Christmas

Well it only took me 54 yrs and 319 days but I finally made the sojourn to Big Bend. Somehow it always seemed too far to drive, and anyway, I could be paddling in the Sunshine State before I made it all the way out there. It's not like I haven't traveled, I have, but for some reason, Big Bend was always somewhere I was going to get to some day.

I left the dog at the kennel at 4 pm on Sat. Dec. 19, and made it to the Wal-a-day Inn in Abilene, rose at 4 am and arrived at Rio Grande Village campground at about 11:30 after making a quick tour of Marathon.
Part of me, upon entering the park, really wanted not to love it, "see, it's just a big desert, no big deal, I was right not to have come for all those years." However, the desert was just exactly what I did love about Big Bend. Yes, I drove to Chisos Basin, and the vistas were beautiful, but the desert drew me back down out of the mountains. The expansiveness took my breath away, but it was the silence, the silence broken by only a bird's song, no disruptive planes incessantly flying overhead, no cars roaring off in the distance...just blissful, peaceful silence.
My plans were to spend a night or two at RGV to see the east side of the park, and then mosey on over to Cottonwood campground at Castalon. When I arrived and took a look at my reserved campsite, I drove around in circles through the campground looking for a more suitable spot. After about 3 turns, a ranger flagged me over and I explained my predicament. I found a spot on the back loop in the no generator zone. I asked her about switching over to Cottonwood in a couple of days, and she assured me it shouldn't be any trouble, as it didn't fill up like Chisos. Of course no sooner had I changed sites when a family settled in a few sites over, and let their small children scream at the top of their little lungs..they were the only noise in the campground. Well I wasn't planning on doing anything but sleeping here, so I stayed put, as I knew this scenario could go on and on.
I quickly headed out to walk the nature trail, which had only recently been re-opened due to last years flood. After that I headed over to Boquillas Canyon, past the Barker house, which was once the center of Boquillas, Texas, walked around a bit, and then drove to the Hot Springs. By the time I finished hiking the springs trail, shooting some of the pictographs, the ruins of the old post office and early settlements; the Hot Springs were teeming with kids,the sun was beginning to sink, and I made my way back to camp, stopping first to catch the sunset over the mountains.

Monday December 21, the Winter Solstice
Wow the drive must have affected me more than I thought, as I slept til almost 7!!! I dressed, made coffee, ate a bagel, and headed out.
I decided to drive back over to Boquillas and hike the trail, since I'd run out of time the day before. I stopped at the Marufo Vega trailhead and walked a ways out and back, enjoying the early morning sun.
I had seen the wares, the walking sticks and scorpions made of wire, along with other trinkets, displayed on the river bluff overlooking the tiny town of Boquillas Mexico, the evening before, and had heard the men across the river talking.
I arrived at the trailhead at the same time as a couple, but lingered at the car in order to let them go on ahead. They were deep in the canyon when I started down. As I descended the trail, I heard a beautiful male voice singing in spanish from across the river. While I truly relish my silence, this was not altogether unpleasant, and I kind of appreciated his sense of entrepreneurship; he did have a lovely voice, and he was just trying to make a few bucks. A bit later the couple passed me on their way out and I asked them if the enjoyed the serenade, they smiled commented on his good voice and left. Now I was alone in the canyon, and the man started singing again, this time to me. He tells me the song is for me, and I thank him in spanish. He sees me looking at his wares, and asks if I'd buy something, and I tell him I have no money, which in fact is true; I am notorious from leaving home without cash, and this time I only brought a handful of quarters for the showers at camp, which I never used;that's right no bath for 5 days, well I had wet ones and I was alone after all.
Later in my trip I met a couple who told me the man actually came across the river and fairly harassed them. I'm not sure, but I'm guessing he didn't resort to this with me for one of two reasons.
First and most likely, was because I was a woman alone, and in his eyes figured I'd have been frightened by it, and would likely report it to the park. The second was that I was carrying a sheathed fixed blade knife and bear spray in plain sight at my waist. I had considered hiking the Hot Springs trail to Daniel's ranch and back, but the prospect of running into the good men of Boquillas deterred me, as prudence overrode desire.
From hear I decided to drive up to Chisos Basin and the Lost Mine Trail. There were already many cars parked there and I drove on into the campground to check it out. While to basin is beautiful, I didn't care for the campground at all, which had been touted as the favorite and hard to get into. The campsites were stacked on top of each other and very open. The view was awesome though. I decided to drive out the Grapevine Hills road and hike the trail at the end. It was another clear beautiful day, cool but warming, a good day for a hike. A great way to celebrate the shortest day of the year. Especially with the knowledge that the days will gradually lengthen from here on til the summer solstice and it starts to swing back again.
I have always been accustomed to hiking early or late in the day, but there was so much to see and only 5 days to do it.
Hiking at midday did have a detrimental effect on my photography throughout the trip, along with a couple of rather flat overcast days, and some haze from somewhere far away, maybe El Paso, but this trip wasn't really about the shots; it was about hiking and exploring. Grapevine Hills was awesome, one of my favorite hikes of the entire trip. By the time I finished the hike and the drive the day was nearing it's end and I drove back to camp, setting my alarm for early the next day.

Tuesday, December 22
I began the day by driving the Ross Maxwell Scenic Road and making stops along the way. First, was a sunrise stop at Sotol Vista, then back tracking to Burro Mesa Spring Trail; this was a lovely hike too, especially early morning, and it amazed me later, that Santa Elena Canyon is visible from so many spots in the park. From there to the Pour Off, a short hike, on to Tuff Canyon, and finally to Cottonwood to scope it out. It was beautiful and best of all, practically empty! I drove back to the Castalon Historic Compound, where I inquired about spending the rest of my stay at Cottonwood. I could see that this was not going to be as easy as I had hoped. They radioed for the park host, who was out of pocket, and told me to go pick out a site. I did and as I was heading out to Santa Elena Canyon, I met the host on his golf cart and told him I was the one switching campgrounds, whereupon his face contorted as he explained the difficulties of this process. I smiled and ended the conversation by saying I was off to the canyon, leaving him to work it out. Before going he admonished me to "observe the speed limit in the campground" , now I'm not sure if it was the peace sign Buff I was wearing or if I just looked like an undesirable, but I quickly shot back "hey I have a Leave No Trace bumper sticker on my car!" thinking this would allay his fears of me somehow. There is a possibility he now thought I was completely nuts.
It had been overcast all day and still was, so the shots I got were mediocre to say the least. I hiked the trail, watch a family drag their canoe down across the sand and launch into the canyon. This was about the same time I noticed a woman painting the canyon from down river and I walked over to check it out. They were a delightful couple from Mandeville, Louisiana. We talked about all things South Louisiana, the festivals, the food, and then about the Buffalo river. While the woman painted, and was very good, the husband photographed. They ended up giving me their email address so we could exchange photos after we got home. He had a very nice Canon DSLR. The sun was waning as I headed back to camp, and the cottonwoods were glowing when I arrived. I couldn't get over how I had managed to stretch the fall foliage from October in the Ozarks, to Thanksgiving at Lost Maples, to Christmas here...amazing.

Wednesday December 23
It became obvious to me that time in Big Bend was on a whole other dimension, as I have never seen it fly by so fast anywhere else.
I set the alarm again to wake early as I was determined to go back to Santa Elena and try to get something other than drab, flat shots. I was hoping sunrise would light up the canyon, and it did. I got there before first light and watched the stars slip out of sight and the canyon take on the glow of a new day. It was also wonderful to be in the canyon alone, without the throngs of people from the day before. Just me, the sun warming the canyon, and the sound of the river running through a shoal. The world at its finest.
Upon leaving the canyon to head for another hike, I detoured at the the Sublett/Dorgan ruins; two old ranch houses. The sun lit up the earthen bricks like gold. I ended up spending the better part of an hour here, contemplating the view from what was once these settler's front porches. It really made me think about what it must have been like back then. Hard, I'm sure, but incredible at the same time.
I didn't make it to the Mule Ears Spring Trail until nearly 10:30. There was one car already there, the occupant must have been in the backcountry, as I never saw him on the trail to the springs. It was a glorious day, warm but with a wonderful breeze. The forecast had been for cold and mostly cloudy, but this didn't materialize until late in the afternoon. Meanwhile the warm sun and brisk breeze made for a wonderful hike to the springs and back. It was a little disconcerting that the springs were located in a thicket of mesquite, cottonwood, rushes, and boulders, as it was a perfect place for a cougar to lie in wait for a meal, so upon entering the oasis, I picked up a rock and banged it on the trail sign hoping to run off whatever predator might possibly be lurking nearby. This was one good thing about getting on the trail later in the day, as these places tend to be visited by animals early morning and late afternoon...well in the summer anyway :) I cautiously took off my boots and cooled my feet in the spring water, which gurgled and burbled, surrounded by maidenhair ferns, frogs and bird song. After a while I hiked back to the car, the wind was picking up considerably, and the sky was darkening with the arrival of the cold front. I decided it might be a good time to venture into Terlingua and Study Butte. It was about what I expected, I'm sure with friends out for a night, it would be fun. I drove back to the park,stopped at the site of the old Sam Nail Ranch and managed to shoot off a few pics of the approaching storm. I hoped for a great sunset which often accompanies such a cold front, but it was not to be. By the time I made it back to camp at dusk, the wind was blowing so hard that I began to question choosing a campsite under the big cottonwoods. As beautiful as they were, I didn't want one landing on top of me as I slept. It was predicted to get into the high teens to high 20's that night so I dressed accordingly in my warmest thermals, slipped the liner into my 35 degree bag and had the synthetic down comforter at the ready. I never needed the comforter and woke to a just below freezing morning.

Thursday December 24, Christmas Eve
Well my time at Big Bend was coming to an end, as I had plans to leave at sunrise the next morning. I had originally thought of leaving before dawn, but it seemed sacrilege to sneak out in the dark.
As I left camp about 7 and climbed in elevation toward the basin, the temp slowly dropped into the twenties. I decided to drive the Dagger Flats road and let it warm up a bit, then hike Dog Canyon. As I drove to the trailhead I saw a javelina foraging near the road.
I was anxious to be hiking again, my body was really enjoying the workout, and by the time I got to the Dog Canyon pull off there were already two cars and two more pulled in as I arrived. One of the cars left shortly, and I gave the others time to get out of sight on the trail before heading out. One couple was funny; the man stretching for the trek with his walking stick as a support while he flexed this way and that. Less than an eighth of a mile I would meet them coming back to the trailhead. That left a threesome of girls far ahead and one guy in between, who I also met coming out; not sure he even made it to the canyon. I didn't see the girls again until I was leaving in my car, so they must have gone out the other side of the canyon, farther than I.
It started off clear with a few interesting lenticular clouds, but by the time I reached the canyon it had clouded up considerably, so again I was left with flat scenery. Once again I was left considering that the canyon walls, with their overhangs and small caves, were prime real estate for puma concolor. I was making plenty of noise walking through the cobbles lining the draw, but I did look around a lot! I scanned the cliffs hoping not to make eye contact with a big kitty. Peace to the big kitties became my mantra. (This line shamelessly stolen from a well wishing friend);I had read way too much about cougar attacks prior to my trip.
I drove once again to the Lost Mine Trail, and once again, the parking lot was full. It was Christmas Eve and the park was getting crowded. I opted instead to hiked the Chimneys Trail, it was after 3 pm before I got started, and I walked almost to the end, when I discovered a group of people climbing all over the rocks ahead and shouting back and forth. I had completely forgotten about the pictographs, and was just enjoying the hike. I drove to the nearby Homer Wilson/Blue Creek ranch site and hiked down to get some shots of the old house and outbuildings, and again was amazed when imagining the people who made this their home. It was getting dark, and I headed back to camp, checked the posted weather report which predicted lows for the night between 19 and 29...brrrrrr. It would be a night for the heavy thermals,the bag, liner and the comforter. I sat in the car eating dinner, watched a coyote trot down the fence line, and contemplated not leaving at sunrise, I then remembered about the rock art! Well, I couldn't leave without see it, now could I? I contemplated going back and hiking the Chimney Trail and finding the pictographs....I would let the weather decide. Just before dawn, a chorus of coyotes broke out, as if to welcome the day.

Friday, December 25, Christmas Day
I awoke to frost on the inside of the car (when the weather is cool/cold, it is easier to camp in the car rather than the hassle of a tent, since the Matrix is as roomy as my tent) and 26 degrees. It did finally get cold !! Again as I headed out just ahead of sunrise and up in elevation, the temp steadily dropped, leveling off at 20 before beginning to inch back up. I had already made up my mind not to leave without seeing the rock art! I had warm gear and only waited for the sun to crest a peak before heading down the trail, it was 31 degrees, a veritable heat wave! There were two cars that I recognized from the night before so I guessed they had backpacked in, as there were connecting trails past the Chimneys. It was a beautiful morning and as it warmed up I began to shed layers. When I reached the Chimneys I saw a figure high atop one of the peaks, and by the time I reached the base and started searching for the art, I met two young men whose sleeping bags I had passed just off the trail. I apologized for the intrusion, and they were cordial, but didn't know anything about the pictographs. I hiked up some of the trails, and not having any luck, began to feel a little disappointed, when I decided to try the single chimney to the south, and looking up, there they were!!! I got my shots, and was on my way, not wanting to intrude on the guys who'd enjoyed a night of solitude, albeit, frigid, under the stars. I felt a twinge of envy as I walked again past their sleeping bags lying on the ground. I took my time hiking back, stopping again this time taking advantage of the early morning light. As I made my way back I passed a couple of groups and a single hiker, all who wished me a Merry Christmas, not a bad way to spend the day, we each opined.
When I got back to the car I quickly shed my warm clothes and hiking boots for comfortable "road" clothes for the drive home.

Big Bend is a hard place to leave. I had spent five full days there and hadn't even hiked any of the Chisos trails, but I don't have any regrets, the weather was perfect for hiking, I fell in love with the desert, and while the Rio Grande was low and somewhat sad, given its status as controversial border and downdrawn, polluted water source, it is a beautiful country and I'm glad that I finally made the trip. A spring trip would be beautiful......
As an aside, my wildlife sightings totaled several mule and white tailed deer, mostly in the basin, a lone javelina in the northern park, a lone coyote at Cottonwood, jackrabbit, cotton tail. No bears or mountain lions :) Bird sightings included several first timers, a pair of vermilion flycatchers, canyon and cactus wrens, scaled quail, black phoebe, and black-throated sparrow, along with common ravens, red-tailed hawk, roadrunner, shrike, pyrrhuloxia,mockingbird,dove, cardinal and swallows. I would have loved to spend one day just birding, but just got too wrapped up in everything else.

Link to pics

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Thanksgiving in the TX Hill Country

Sometimes things go the way you plan, and sometimes....well, you know. I originally had this trip planned for Mon-Fri. but due to friends paddling plans moved it up to Sat-Wed. These plans fell through and I was left with Sat-Wed. Kennel plans are hard to change at the last minute on a holiday, without making me less than popular, and I want to stay in their good graces. I don't like to leave the dog at the kennel too long, so most of my trips are 5 days, which is how long the cat feeder runs without refilling :-)
I headed out early Sat morning to meet friends for lunch in Austin. I arrived at the prearranged time, but no friends. I got a table, and waited a few minutes, then stepped outside to call them. The words "that was this weekend?" pretty much says it all. Well I wasn't really hungry, and was kind of anxious to get to my destination, so I jumped in the car and got back on the highway. My destination for the first night was Garner State Park. Now I grew up in San Antonio, and have spent many summer days and nights at this park, but haven't been there since those days, many many moons ago. What I do know is that this park it the most popular in TX , and can be very crowded at times. I was going to end up there on a Sat night, but fortunately being the weekend before Thanksgiving, it wasn't too bad, and by Sun it was almost empty. Unfortunately my next days destination was not.
Lost Maples in the fall can be a nightmare since the fall foliage draws people from as far away as India and Japan. I dropped by the park to pick up a map Sunday, as I thought I'd lost the one I'd printed out prior to the trip, and immediately got the "tooooo many people heebie jeebies." This is a common affliction I come down with in places like malls, Walmart's and recently REI, when I arrived 10 minutes before opening, so I can get in and out asap, and find they have chosen this day for one of their famous "garage sales" and not only is the parking lot completely full, but there are several hundred people waiting to get in. I don't do crowds well. Anyway, back to the park. I arrived Monday morning, bright and early, only having to stop at the cafe in Utopia for coffee, as somehow, having packed the coffee, the stove, the fuel, etc, I had left the coffee press on the kitchen counter upon leaving home.
Monday turned out to be a busy day as well, I hiked and took pictures and tried to keep my sanity while small children ran up and down the trail yelling....Yes, I too was once a child, and I remind myself of this at times like these, but I don't think my parents allowed me to run amuck like that, at least not in a public place. I honestly think I was too wrapped up in nature study as a kid to exhibit these behaviors anyway. I hiked about 5 miles this day and would have liked to do the west trail, which probably would have been less crowded, but by then I was no longer sane and needed to flee.
Tues morning I left Garner and headed for Pedernales, since I wanted to be close to Austin to get me home sooner, and I planned on visiting with my friends whom I missed on Sat.
I hiked eight miles this day, carrying a pack that weighed about 20lbs trying to acclimate myself in case I decide to actually take up backpacking. Yes I know, most people do this the other way around, backpack when young and strong, instead of taking up such nonsense at 55. I like to think it will help me stay young and strong. I love walking long distances in the woods alone. The last time I'd hiked here was when I lived in Austin, and I'd never caught the creeks running. It had rained the week before, and to my surprise, I had to ford all three creeks on the trail. About half way I stopped at Jone's spring and had lunch. I removed my hiking boots to soak my toes in the cool water, only to find it wasn't all that cool. I did find a nice pothole above the spring which was icy due to the low temps of the night before. Ahhhh! I continued on, stopping to photograph different scenes along the way. The day was bright and crisp, but the light was too harsh for good photos, unlike the day before at Lost Maples where there sky stayed overcast all day. It was a perfect day for a hike though, in the low 50's and windy. By lunch time I was hiking is short sleeves. At the last stream crossing coming back I stopped and removed my boots again, sat on a rock in the sun with my feet in the rushing water and soaked up the day. Very pleasant.
I got up the next morning, headed to Austin, where I ate at Magnolia Cafe, before heading over to my friends house for a quick visit. I left town about 11 not thinking what I-35 would be like the day before Thanksgiving......someone shoot me the next time I pull a dumb stunt such as this!!!!! I finally managed to exit on hwy 7 east and took the backroads home. All in all it was a wonderful trip, but would have been even better I think if I'd stayed with my original time and learn, live and learn.