Thursday Apr 15th, 2021, 0700-1930
San Mateo Canyon to Indian Springs, segment 29, mm 535
Coyotes howled all night but their antics didn’t bother me in the least…I kind of like the sound. I also heard a western screech owl. It stayed pretty warm overnight and we woke to high cloud cover. I was glad that it would stay cool for the climb into the San Mateos but worried that the bad weather was moving in early. We began walking up the Burma road towards the southern end of the Apache Kid Trailhead. The road seems to have several offshoots and I’m uncertain where it goes or comes from.
We bothered some more cows, unintentionally as always, then came over a rise to see 2 javalina trotting along the next hill. I had never seen them in New Mexico before. I found cell service so I made a brief call to my mom as I walked the road. It was all uphill but not too bad. At a point where it flattened out, I checked my GPS and sure enough, I had missed a turn…but only just.
The trailhead was pretty indicative of what was to come. The gate was hard to open and there was no kiosk or information display…it had been long abandoned by any authority. Nor were there signs of any use. We thought the other 3 GET hikers had been through here within a week or 2 but we couldn’t even see footprints. I guess they get erased by the wind pretty quickly. We started up the Apache Kid trail, into the Apache Kid wilderness (though I’m not sure of the boundaries of said wilderness since we never saw a sign). The Apache Kid was killed in these mountains and his gravesite is noted on the map, a ways down a gully where the trail didn’t go.
We headed up a gully, which was steep, but I knew to expect lots of these kinds of ups and downs all day, so it didn’t bother me. I also knew we’d be walking through predominantly burned areas, which we encountered as soon as we got near the first saddle. Some of the burns were from as recent as last year, so there were a few really charred areas. The trail was obliterated in these parts and we had to be careful not to fall into the collapsed holes of burned tree roots. We found the foundation of an old cabin that had burned. Only some random metal objects remained.
It’s interesting to experience such devastation. You really get a sense for just how ruined an area can become during these overly hot burns. In addition to all the vegetation being destroyed, the soil is decimated for many feet down, zapped of its organic nutrients and biota. It turns into a powdery grey and black dust. This leads to severe erosion problems. We saw whole hillsides sliding into the drainages, choking them with dead trees and black mud. Where once there might have been healthy little springs and creeks running, most of the drainages were dry and scoured.
We did find several springs that were still running well or at least had a few puddles (Myers, Nave, & Yard). We stopped for lunch at Yard Springs, which still had live trees surrounding it. I don’t know if the spring was spared because the trees didn’t burn or that the spring kept the area moist enough, sparing the trees (probably the latter). There are positive feedback loops like this in forest ecology and likewise negative loops, keeping forests from regenerating for a long time after a burn.
It all has to do with how hot and long a burn lasts. Healthy burns are those that go through quickly and frequently, clearing the underbrush and deadfall, creating space for new trees to grow. Fire resistant trees, like ponderosa, are protected by their thick bark and are able to survive. We’ve suppressed these kinds of fires for over 100 years, so now the ones we get are very hot and massive because there’s 100 years of clutter in the understories to burn. Plus drought conditions make even the live trees into matchsticks. These kinds of fires cause total devastation to the forest, soil and watersheds, leaving behind a landscape that may take decades to recover, if ever.
We made the best of the day but it has been discouraging to walk through so many mountain ranges here in the southwest and see that most of them have had large regions affected by fire. This has also meant that the trails in these ranges have all but been abandoned. We did encounter quite a bit of deadfall on this trail (probably close to the order of hundreds if not thousands) but most of it was small low trees, so it was easy to just step over. It made the trail a bit more tiring and challenging, but the roughly 6000′ of elevation gain was the clear winner on that front.
Again, I knew to expect a hard day so I just put some music on and attacked the climbs. The trail had been built properly back in the day, with good switchbacks and ramps, so it was actually pretty fun. We made it to the top of Blue Mountain, 10,301′, in the afternoon. We took awhile to do some peakfinding and cell phone play. The view to the north and west was obstructed by live trees, go figure, but we could see our next mountain range to the NE pretty well. We’ll need to go up and over them as soon as we finish this range, before we get to the next town, Magdalena. This sure is a tough stretch!
We headed down down down for the rest of the day, which was a nice break. We’d had a good run and were perhaps feeling a bit overconfident when we made a huge tactical error. From blogs, FB posts, and the water report, we were expecting to find our last water source at potholes springs. Not wanting to schlep any more weight than we had to, neither of us had carried more than a liter up the mountain, confident we would find more on the other side. We passed by a hole with a good sized pool early on but didn’t give it much thought since the springs was still 2 miles down. Well, as you might have guessed, the water reliability 3 (highest rating in our system) spring wasn’t running. There was a muddy puddle surrounded by cow dung, not collectable. How could this be I wondered? I had read a lady’s FB post that she had found water at this spring just a week before and also a 2019 report said there had been scoop-able pools. That report had been spot on with all the other sources we had come to this day, so again, we had just assumed.
The clear choice was to drop our packs, make camp, and walk 4 miles RT back to where we had seen the pool earlier. But of course we didn’t do that. I hate backtracking and that clouded my judgement. So we forged on, hoping that one of 2 springs in another 4 miles might be flowing. Ironically we were hiking down a drainage named Water Canyon…named for its weakness and not its strength I guess. We wasted 40 minutes and almost a mile going off trail to look for one spring. All we found was a small stock pond with the foulest muddy cow shit water imaginable at tool box spring. The next, Indian springs, was a bust too, with just a muddy puddle. I was able to scoop a few ounces before it got too disturbed. The water smelled bad. I used it to rinse off my feet, which were completely black from walking through all the burns.
I had less than half a liter of clean water left at this point and Stellar had none. It looked like there weren’t any more water sources for the next 15 miles so we were really in a pickle. I was also really tired and cold. The wind had blown like crazy all day, chilling me to the bone. Plus we’d done a herculean day, mileage and elevation wise. And it was getting dark. I just wanted to crawl into my sleeping bag to deal with the problem the next day, and that’s what I did. But first I made a hot meal with the remaining water I had, because I was also starving. I saved a few ounces just to be able to wet my mouth and swallow my vitamins. What a lousy end to an otherwise good day.
Poor Stellar, I know he was suffering just as much as I was and without even a sip to tide him over. He made his mind up to walk 7 miles (14 RT) back to the pool, like we should have done when we were only 2 miles away. He took all my containers to fill as well and marched off into the darkness. I felt so utterly helpless and guilty but I guess it didn’t make much sense for both of us to go back. I tried to reason that I’d helped him once on the AZT by giving him a spare liter of my water. We’d joked that I was going to call on my liter debt this trip but I never imagined these would be the circumstances.
Well, I wasn’t going to die but I was pretty concerned for my hiking partner. At least he had his garmin emergency device. Lesson learned… study the water situation better and don’t pass up good water. Then again, all the information led us to believe the spring was good. So I don’t know what the lesson is…don’t hike in the desert and burned mountains during a 10 year drought, maybe?