THE WHITEWATER-BALDY COMPLEX FIRE:
LARGEST FOREST FIRE IN NEW MEXICO’S RECORDED HISTORY
Whitewater Baldy fire raging within the Gila Wilderness in the Mogollon Mountains on May 22, 2012
It was early on the afternoon of May 16, 2012 while taking the trash from Casitas de Gila Guesthouses to the Gila transfer station, that one first noticed the fire about 25 miles away to the northwest: two small columns of smoke drifting lazily upward on the southern flank of the Mogollon Mountains. At that time the smoke seemed confined to two small areas, possibly the result of a controlled burn by the Forest Service. If not, one thought, then surely the Forest Service was aware of them since their presence and location could be readily seen from the Glenwood District Ranger Station. And surely, because of their apparent small size, they would be put out soon, and easily too. But, on both counts, it was not to be.
The Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire began with a single lightning strike, first detected on May 9, 2012, as a small quarter-acre burn isolated on steep, grassy slopes on the side of Mogollon Baldy, a 10,770-foot mountain at the western end of the Gila Wilderness. Soon named the Baldy Fire by the Forest Service, the fire was not considered serious initially because of low amounts of fuel and some residual snow in the area where it was burning. Because of this assessment, the Forest Service placed the fire in monitoring status.
Fire on the Mountain—the Baldy and Whitewater fires combine, May 22, 2012
Then, about a week later, a second fire, named the Whitewater Fire and also the result of a lightning strike, was detected on May 16, high up in the headwaters of Whitewater Creek on the western slopes of Whitewater Baldy Mountain, the highest peak in the Mogollon Range at 10,895 feet. By May 23, the two fires had merged as a result of three days of winds over 40 miles an hour, and had turned into a raging monster of an inferno, rapidly consuming vast stands of old growth spruce and fir across the highest portions of the Mogollon Range. The Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire was now a mega-fire, the size and intensity of which had not been seen within the Gila Wilderness in recorded history. The Whitewater Baldy Complex Fire was to burn for another two months. By the time containment of the fire was officially declared on July 17 and controlled status declared on July 31, the fire had burned over 297,000 acres, at an estimated cost of $100 million, making it the largest and most expensive fire in the history of New Mexico.
The progression, suppression, and aftermath mitigation efforts of the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire are well documented and make for interesting reading. The five summary documents listed in the References at the end of this blog give a good overview of the fire from several perspectives, plus a current statement of fire fighting protocol of the U.S. Forest Service.
Almost immediately after the start of the Whitewater and Baldy fires, portions of the Gila Wilderness and surrounding National Forest were closed for safety reasons. Gradually, as the fire grew in size and magnitude, more and more areas had to be closed until virtually the entire western half of the Gila Wilderness and surrounding Forest west of the Gila River were closed to public access. This closure continued until August 9, 2013, when all areas and trails were reopened for public recreation and hunting.
THE NATURAL CYCLE OF WILDFIRE IN FORESTS
Forest fires caused by lightning are but one element of a vast, complex, eternally evolving, interconnected web of Cycles of Natural Change that exist within every forest. Wildfires in forests are not new; they have been part of Nature since the first forests began to cover the land in the Late Devonian Period 385 millions years ago.
Painting of a Devonian Forest done by Eduard Riou in 1892
Considered from Nature’s perspective, forest fires are neither good nor bad; they are simply a Natural Process of Cyclical Change. When viewed from the Human perspective, however, few people appreciate such a philosophical position. No, for most people forest fires are typically considered either good or bad depending upon one’s personal values. Neutral or indifferent positions are rare, especially when it’s a fire coming to a forest near (or dear) to you. Yet the fact remains … inhuman as it is to say it … Nature Doesn’t Care. Only humans care. Unfortunately (or fortunately—your choice), humans care about, or value, different things, values that are often diametrically opposed and mostly irreconcilable. And there’s the rub when you start talking about wildfire in forests. Game hunters or ranchers, for example, typically view forest fires as beneficial in the long run because more grass-covered open land equals more game and more grazing! On the other hand, to the advocate of the endangered Spotted Owl or the devotee of majestic stands of old growth, pristine spruce and fir, or the owner of that little cabin retreat in the pines in a private inholding surrounded by National Forest, wildfire in the forest is a threat and should be stopped. And so it goes—different values, different perspectives. Our National Forests – Lands of Many Uses, Lands of Many Values.
HISTORIC AMERICAN RESPONSE TO WILDFIRE IN FORESTS
Appreciation of the Forest Primeval—Recreational horseback riding in the Gila Wilderness in 1922.
Through the efforts of life-long forester, ecologist, and environmentalist Aldo Leopold, the Gila Wilderness became the first Wilderness Area within the National Forest system on June 3, 1924.
The history of response to wildfire in the forest in the United States, especially in the American West where periods of extended drought are more common, has varied throughout our history. Prior to 1900, most people saw the American Forest as something to be used; lumber, minerals, potential farm or ranch land, source of food, etc., all God given and free for the taking. And from this perspective, fires in the forest were mostly considered not good, something to be feared and fought, and to be put out wherever possible. Unless, of course, one wanted to start one’s own fire and use it as a means to clear land for other uses. Concepts such as conservation and preservation were given little thought in the Western Frontier. By the early 1900s some scientists and naturalists, such as Aldo Leopold, were beginning to speak out about these concepts, as greater insight and understanding emerged regarding the role that various natural cycles, such as wildfire, played in forest ecology.
Then came the Great Fire of 1910, also known as the Big Burn or the Big Blowup. As inconceivably large as the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire at 300,000 acres seems to most people today, by Big Burn standards it would be considered perhaps nothing more than a good-sized brushfire. When the Big Burn Fire was finally extinguished by Mother Nature in the form of a cold front that brought major rain and snow, over 3 million acres or 4,700 square miles (roughly the area of Connecticut) had been charred over Northeast Washington, the Panhandle of Idaho, and Western Montana in >two days! Losses included the total destruction of 7 towns in Montana and Idaho, plus severe destruction in several others; the burning of an estimated 8 billion board feet of timber; and the death of 87 people, 78 of whom were firefighters (second only in US history to the death of the 343 firefighters in the September 11, 2001 attack). During this monumental firestorm, winds blew at speeds of up to 80 miles an hour. It is estimated that during the firestorm, the energy being expended was the equivalent of a Hiroshima-sized atomic bomb detonating every two minutes!
Severe burn in a heavy stand of Idaho White Pine on the Little North Fork of the St. Joe River, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, 1910.
With the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1910 came a National Policy for the newly established, five-year-old U.S. Forest Service: a non-negotiable policy of complete fire suppression. This far-reaching policy was to last until the 1960s when discussions began to take place at the National level regarding the recognition that fire in the forest was a natural process and that forests should be managed as ecological systems, a concept embracing the conviction that total suppression was not always the best solution. As a result of these discussions, and with the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, naturally-caused fires were permitted to burn within the newly-established Wilderness Areas. In 1968, the National Park Service policy regarding wildfire was likewise changed, recognizing fire as a natural process. As a result, wildland fires were permitted to burn within our National Parks as long as the fires achieved management objectives. Finally, in 1974, the U.S. Forest Service abandoned its 64-year policy of complete fire suppression (which had been formalized in 1935 by the adoption of the so-called 10:00 AM Policy, a hard-line, no excuse policy that mandated that all fires within National Forests would be suppressed by 10:00 AM the day after they were detected), and embraced a more ecologically-based policy of prescribed fire management involving both suppression, allowing certain fires to burn, and the setting of prescribed controlled burns. Since that time, the protocol for prescribed fire management has evolved as experience was gained from major fires that occurred within fire suppression or exclusion zones, wildfire escapes from controlled burns, and the extensive monitoring of naturally-occurring wildfires throughout the West. As a result of this experience, although today’s management programs will vary somewhat from agency to agency, the first priority and prime directive for all federal wildland fire programs is that of firefighter and public safety.
FALL 2013: A RETURN TO THE TRAILS OF THE GILA NATIONAL FOREST AND WILDERNESS
As of August 9, 2013, all areas of the Gila Wilderness that were closed in 2012 because of the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire are once again open to the public. For the remainder of 2013, visitors to the Gila Wilderness and National Forest should be aware that some roads, trails and recreational areas are still being repaired or remain in poor condition as a result of the fire and subsequent damage from the 2012 and 2013 Monsoon rains.
Gila River at NM211 bridge at flood stage of 12,000 cubic feet per second on September 16, 2013.
The Monsoon Season for 2013, which began at the Casitas de Gila Guesthouses on July 1, is now over throughout the area, with the last rain received here on September 20. This year’s Monsoon Season was a long one, with most areas receiving substantial rainfall. Here at the Casitas total rainfall for the period was 11.4 inches, about twice the normal average. Higher elevations in the mountains and Wilderness areas, however, received greater amounts, with some areas, particularly in the western part of the Mogollon Mountains, reporting as much as 25 inches. While the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire covered a vast area of the Gila Wilderness, the most severely burned areas also occurred in the highest elevations in the western part of the Mogollon Mountains. Consequently, serious flooding occurred here in the latter part of the Monsoon Season, particularly in the Whitewater Creek, Silver Creek, Mineral Creek, and Gilita Creek drainages, leading to downstream damage in the communities of Alma, Mogollon, and Glenwood.
Hiking a forest trail up Whitewater Canyon towards the Gila Wilderness, September 2, 2013.
During the Fall Season from late September through December, hiking, birding, touring, camping, and other recreational pursuits are at their best in the Gila National Forest and Gila Wilderness. Typically the skies are clear, the air cool and crisp, and precipitation nil, with rivers and creeks running at normal levels and clear. This statement, of course, was significantly compromised last year in the aftermath of the 2012 Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire, with major trail, road, and area closures; rivers and creeks running black from colloidal ash and silt runoff; and charred, barren landscapes in the high country. This year, just one year later, however, visitors to the area will once again be able to experience the solitude and magnificence of the Gila Country and all that it has to offer.
Looking north into the Mogollon Mountain High Country towards West Baldy Mountain (9,875 ft.) on left and Sacaton Mountain (10,658 ft.) on right, from burned piñon-juniper area on Sacaton Mesa on September 6, 2013. Photo shows distribution of both unburned spruce-fir conifer (dark green) and new shrub and tree growth (light green and yellow) one year after Whitewater-Baldy fire.
Completely burned area of piñon and juniper showing rapid regeneration of flowering plants, shrubs, and scrub oak on September 6, 2013, one year after Whitewater-Baldy fire.
Hiking up mountain creek on September 6, 2013, the trail passes through fire-scorched ponderosa pine trunks from spotting ground fire set by wind-carried embers from Whitewater-Baldy fire.
Most popular day trips and hikes along roads and trails within the lower elevations and periphery of the Gila National Forest and Gila Wilderness show little or no sign of burning from the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire since the most severe burning was confined to the highest elevations in the interior of the Wilderness. Where such effects are encountered they tend to be isolated and small in area extent, the result of localized fire spotting from wind blown embers. Most lower elevation canyons and creeks show minimal effect, whereas adjacent ridge-tops may exhibit more extensive burning.
Alligator Juniper seedling growing at base of stump of juniper tree burned by Whitewater-Baldy Fire one year later, on September 6, 2013.
A short distance further up the same creek, the forest is untouched and remains in pristine condition.
During forest fires in the Gila National Forest, firefighters will, wherever possible, protect historic structures such as this old miner’s cabin by wrapping them in fire retardant material.
It is true that some favorite area trails in the high country are difficult to access and traverse, and will remain so for considerable time, as many of these areas were greatly changed by the fire. Yet if one does choose to travel these areas, one will be impressed to find a forest well into comeback mode, with much of last year’s barren landscape now showing an abundant growth of new grass, shrubs, and young trees. The Natural Cycle of Forest Regeneration and Succession has begun. And if one is able to focus on the present and what will eventually be again, without excessive obsessing on what once was, such a visit offers the potential for a rewarding experience of observation and insight as to how Nature never gives up, but instead adapts and perseveres within the never-ending Processes of Cyclical Change.
Immediately following the Whitewater-Baldy Fire, mountain streams draining the area ran black with ash and silt, but one year later, following the 2013 Monsoon Rains, all rivers and creeks have been flushed out and are once more running crystal clear and pure.
Crystal clear mountain stream running across lime green welded tuff bedrock near end of hike in the Gila National Forest on September 6, 2013.
When planning a hike or visit within the Gila National Forest or Wilderness this Fall or Winter, it is strongly suggested that one contact the Gila National Forest District Ranger Station in Glenwood (575-539-2481) regarding road and trail conditions in specific areas, as maintenance and repairs following the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire will be ongoing during this time period. Visitors that have computer access will find the Google Earth program to be of great value in planning and previewing a hike or outing since new high-definition imagery of the Gila Wilderness was taken this year on February 22, 2013. By comparing this imagery with the newly revised map of the Gila National Forest that came out on September 13, 2013, one should be able to determine probable conditions on various trails and roads.
Here at Casitas de Gila we do our best to stay updated on existing conditions on various roads and trails and are always happy to provide information and maps for our guests. And, as always, we will be pleased to give full directions and information regarding any hikes discussed or pictured in this blog.
These reports and documents present a good detailed summary and statistics of the beginning, progression, and aftermath of the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire.
- Wildfire Review Report of Whitewater-Baldy Complex and Little Bear Fires in New Mexico, May through June 2012 (.pdf file), William A. Derr, Legislative Fellow for Steve Pearce, Member of Congress, Second District, New Mexico.
- Narrative of Whitewater Baldy Complex Fire May, 23rd, 2012 to June 19th, 2012 (.pdf file), Observations and actions by Doug Bohykin, Socorro District Forester, NM EMNRD, Socorro District, New Mexico.
- Whitewater Fire, A Lasting Legacy (.pdf file), Alan Campbell.
- Whitewater-Baldy Complex, Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) Team, Executive Summary, Glenwood, Reserve, Black Range, and Wilderness Ranger Districts Gila National Forest (.pdf file)
- 2013 U.S. National Forest Service Wildland Fire Response Protocol (.pdf file)
2000 YEARS OF HARVEST TIME ALONG BEAR CREEK
Bear Creek at harvest time
HARVEST TIME AT THE CASITA GARDENS
It’s late August and the rains of the 2013 Southwest Monsoon season have shown no sign of weakening. As of this morning, Casitas de Gila Guesthouses has had 8.54 inches of rain since the monsoons began on July 1. Despite the devastating hailstorm of July 3, the courtyard garden at the house is thriving (except for the tomatoes, which were completely destroyed) and is now producing abundant yellow squash, basil, and green peppers for harvest, plus flowers galore. The over-composted soil brought up from the Bear Creek floodplain below the Casitas last year has obviously aged to just the right nutrient levels.
Experimental garden on Bear Creek at harvest time
The large experimental garden put in this year down on the Bear Creek floodplain has also been highly successful. While most plants located at the periphery of the garden and some situated beneath the protective shade cloth where it ripped apart from the weight of the hail suffered significant damage by the July 3rd hail storm, those areas quickly regenerated new growth and soon caught up with the protected parts of the garden. Now well into the harvesting phase, the garden has produced abundant snap peas, string beans, carrots, and tomatoes. The delicata and butternut squashes, potatoes, and two kinds of watermelon should be ready for harvesting soon. The experimental plot of Einkorn Wheat has also done well, yielding a dense growth of two-foot high shafts of wheatberries now ripening golden in the late August sun. Only the cantaloupe have failed. They continue to put out long vines with lots of flowers, but, alas, only a few fruit, seemingly unwilling or unable to compete with the overpowering growth of the delicata and the butternut squash.
THE UNFERTILE SOILS OF THE CASITA FLATS AND THE FERTILE SOILS OF THE BEAR CREEK FLOODPLAIN
U.S. Dept. of Agriculture USDA Soil Texture Diagram, as modified by Mikenorton 2011.
Productive agricultural soils consist of the right mixture of mineral particles (sand, silt and clay), water, gases, organic matter, and necessary nutrients which have developed over significant periods of time. The source of the mineral particles can be either igneous, metamorphic, or sedimentary rocks which have been broken down and altered by physical and chemical weathering at or near the surface of the earth. If the altered mineral material remains at the site where it was formed, on top of the parent rock, it eventually develops into what is known as a residual soil. Most soils, however, can be classified as transported soils, whereby the mineral particles are transported by the processes of water, gravity, wind, or ice, and then subsequently deposited. A third type of soil called cumulose soils are those that develop entirely from organic material that lives, dies, and collects in place such as peat or muck soils.
An essential form of both the mineral particles and organic matter in soil is the abundant presence of colloidal-sized particles (extremely fine particles between 2 and 500 nanometers). Colloidal particles act as storage repositories for essential nutrients and ions and act to stabilize soil chemistry through time and space.
Mesquite and Juniper growing on nutrient-deficient pebbly sandy soil on Casita Flat behind the Casitas de Gila Guesthouses.
Soils must contain sufficient nutrients in the right proportion in order to promote healthy and abundant plant growth. Some 20 elements are essential for plant growth and nutrition. Two of these, carbon (C) and oxygen (O) are taken in by plants from the air. The rest, including hydrogen (H) from water (H2O), are taken from the soil and are divided into four categories: the three primary macronutrients of nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and potassium (K); the three secondary nutrients calcium (Ca), sulphur (S) and magnesium (Mg); the macronutrient Silicon (Si); and the micronutrients/trace minerals: boron (B), chlorine (Cl), manganese (Mn), iron (Fe) zinc (Zn), copper (Cu), molybdenum (Mo), nickel (Ni), selenium (Se), and sodium (Na).
The soil comprising the flats on which the Casitas de Gila Guesthouses are constructed consists of materials transported down from the hills to the west of the Casitas by surface rainwater runoff, and ranges in thickness from 5 or 6 feet beneath the Casitas to about 20 feet at the west side of the flat. The soil on the flats consists mostly of silt to course sand with variable amounts of gravel derived either from the erosion of thin residual soil developed on the underlying weathered and altered Gila Conglomerate or physical erosion of unweathered Gila Conglomerate bedrock exposed over the surrounding hills.
Profile of nutrient-deficient pebbly sandy soil in road cut coming up on Casita Flat.
Hill to the west behind flats around the Casitas from whence the poor nutrient soil on Casita Flat has been derived. Note that the soil is very thin on the hill as shown by the outcrops of underlying Gila Conglomerate.
Following the construction of the Casitas 15 years ago, numerous attempts were made at landscaping and gardening around the Casitas. These attempts included vegetable gardens, flower and herb gardens, and an orchard of fruit trees. While some of the efforts yielded results for a year or two, most ended in failure no matter what amount of physical effort was expended or advanced agricultural techniques, such drip irrigation systems, were implemented. Depending on the year, reasons for the these failures would be attributed to various scapegoats such as too cold and late frosts in the spring, too hot and a scorching sun in the summer, too little precipitation, too much wind, gopher attacks, grasshopper plagues, marauding deer, or even our own bad-acting horses. And, at first consideration, these were obvious and valid reasons.
Large grasshopper (up to 3 inches) on snap peas in Bear Creek Garden in August 2013. One of numerous species available to terrorize the would-be gardener!
Another 3-inch species of grasshopper seen around the Casitas in August 2013. Colorful, yes! But hard on one’s garden.
Yet in retrospect, all of these reasons were for the most part secondary to a fundamental underlying cause, namely that the soil was extremely poor, too poor for the struggling plants to prevail against the various challenges that face all plant life in the American Southwest. Essentially the soil was almost devoid of necessary organic matter, nutrients, and especially, the critically-important colloidal clay mineral and organic particles. No, because of its extremely fine particle size, the bulk of the colloidal material, instead of being deposited over the flat with the coarser mineral particles, would be be swept along, suspended within the rushing runoff waters, across the flat, and then over and down the cliffs to be deposited either on the floodplain or to join with the waters of the creek itself some 80 feet below. With little or none of the critical colloidal materials which act to retain moisture and store nutrients, the small amount of nutrients in the soil would be quickly used up during the first or second year after an initial planting and could not be replaced from the mostly-sterile mineral soil remaining.
It was with this understanding, plus the personal aversion to using commercial fertilizers, that the decision was made to utilize the silty to fertile sandy loam from the Bear Creek floodplain terraces below. As related in the July 2013 blog and the opening paragraph above, the decision was a propitious one. The gardens flourished and good veggies were at last being enjoyed by all at the Casitas, (albeit somewhat reluctantly by Becky, who really much prefers chocolate!). And thus it also came to pass that the knowledge of how to grow food crops in Southern New Mexico was rediscovered by this writer, a body of knowledge that had been worked out in great detail by the Native American Mogollon Culture who were farming the Bear Creek drainage for hundreds of years some 2,000 years ago.
THE PRE-COLUMBIAN NATIVE AMERICAN MOGOLLON CULTURE
Map showing extent of Anazasi, Hohokam and Mogollon homelands (source: wikimedia.org)
The Mogollon Culture was one of four essentially contemporaneous prehistoric Native American cultures that included the Anasazi or Ancestral Pueblo People, the Hohokam, and the Patayan cultures. These cultures thrived a huge area in the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico that is sometimes referred to as Oasisamerica during the time period of roughly 1200-100 BC until 1300-1450 AD, a time span that has been subdivided into various eras under the Pecos Classification in the Four Corners area.
The large area in which the Mogollon Culture lived included Southern New Mexico and Southeastern Arizona in the U.S., plus Eastern Sonora and most of the Chihuahua states in Northern Mexico. Their cultural boundaries joined with the Hohokam Culture of Southeastern Arizona on the west and the Anasazi or Ancestral Pueblo Peoples Culture of the Four Corners area of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico on the north.
Pottery sherds representing several Mogollon phases. Photo taken during archaeological excavation of a long-term habitation site on the Gila River.
The Mogollon Culture is thought to have developed from an earlier nomadic Archaic Culture called the Cochise around 150 AD, at which time pottery was introduced, probably from the south in Mexico. Over the years, archeological investigations of the Mogollon Culture have led to the recognition of several chronological phases in the development of the culture1, including:
- the Georgetown Phase, 550 to 650 AD, characterized by deep, round pit houses for living quarters, development of San Francisco Red, Alma series plainwares and San Lorenzo red-on-brown pottery
- the San Francisco Phase, 650 to 750 AD, characterized by shallow rectangular pit houses with rounded corners, continued production of San Francisco Red and Alma Series plainwares, plus the development of Mogollon red-on-brown and Three Circle red-on-white pottery
- the Three Circle Phase, 750 to 1000 AD, continued use of shallow rectangular pit houses with rounded corners, gradual replacement of San Francisco Red and Alma Series plainwares by Reserve Plain and Corrugated wares, plus development of the Puerco and Mimbres black-on-white pottery
- the Reserve Phase, 1000 to 1125 AD, pit houses giving way to surface pueblos of rock and adobe, development of the Reserve black-on-white pottery
- the Tularosa Phase, 1125 to 1300 AD, rectangular surface pueblos now the preferred building mode plus development of cliff dwellings, introduction of Tularosa black-on-white and some polychrome pottery
- the Mimbres Phase, 1025-1300, rectangular surface pueblos, some attaining large compounds of adjoining room blocks up to 150 or more rooms, development of the classic black-on-white Mimbres pottery which featured intricate geometric designs as well as figures of animals, birds, insects and humans
Mogollon Culture Mimbres Phase bowl showing wild turkeys feeding on a large centipede. (Source: wikimedia.org)
Starting in 1250 to 1300 and continuing until 1400 to 1450, the Mogollon people began to abandon the large pueblo complexes and disperse. Traditional explanations for this depopulation have centered on climate change, as evidenced by a 50-year period of extended and persistent drought that began in 1250. More recent investigations have considered outside pressures brought on by an influx of other Native American cultures with resulting conflict and warfare.
BEAR CREEK: AN ANCESTRAL HOMELAND OF THE MOGOLLON CULTURE
Mogollon Culture snake petroglyph pointing way to nearby spring on mountain at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses.
The mostly mountainous area enclosed by the Gila, San Francisco, and Mimbres rivers and their tributaries in Southwest New Mexico were heavily populated by the Mogollon Culture, and ruins of their early pit houses and later adobe and stone pueblo complexes and various cliff dwellings are found throughout the area. In the vicinity of Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, numerous village ruins and habitation sites are found along the Gila River near today’s communities of Cliff and Gila, upriver to the Gila Cliff Dwellings, and throughout the Bear Creek Drainage from its confluence with the Gila River at Gila upstream to its headwaters in Piños Altos. In the Bear Creek drainage, signs of the Mogollon Culture are especially abundant, including pit houses, small pueblo complexes, cliff dwellings, occasional petroglyphs, and sites of intense and extended agricultural activity, as evidenced in small caves and on bedrock surfaces along the creek that contain abundant mortar holes in which maize, acorns, and other harvested wild seeds were ground.
The Mogollon Culture depended on farming, supplemented by hunting and gathering, as a way of life. Like the Anasazi, Hohokam, and Patayan Cultures, they employed what is known as Three Sisters Agriculture, a type of farming used by many North American Native American cultures in which maize (corn), squash, and climbing beans are planted in close association. When planted in this manner, these three plants have a unique symbiotic association with one another. The maize provides a pole for the beans to climb on, the beans provide nitrogen to the soil that the maize and squash utilize, and the squash spreads out horizontally covering the ground with big leaves that retard weed growth and retain ground moisture.
FARMING THE STREAM TERRACES ALONG BEAR CREEK
Looking north from the Casitas’ Self-Guided Nature Trail at the Experimental Garden, which is located on a five-foot terrace on the west side of Bear Creek. Piños Altos Mountains in the Gila Wilderness are in background.
Having spent some 15 years on foot and horseback studying, observing, and researching the natural and cultural history of the Bear Creek drainage, it seems highly probable that most if not all of the lower stream terraces bordering Bear Creek and the active floodplain were farmed by the Mogollon peoples during the thousand years or so that they lived here. On Bear Creek these terraces occur at elevations of 5 to 10 feet above normal creek level and range from a few feet to several hundred feet in width. The typical composition of these terraces is that of an organic rich, fine-grained silty and sandy loamy soil which accumulated over time from repeated deposition from sediment laden flood waters that overflowed the main channel and spread across the floodplain. As the flood waters spread out across the floodplain, the velocity of the water slowed, allowing the suspended fine sediment and organic debris to settle out and be left behind as a new thin layer of soil over the floodplain. It is this process operating repeatedly year after year down through the ages that produces the thick stream terrace deposits of organic rich, loamy soil that the Mogollon People farmed so long ago along Bear Creek.
Once formed, these stream terraces may persist for decades or even hundreds of years, or may be eroded away depending on the local action of the never-ending process of stream migration. In stream migration, the main channel of a stream constantly meanders or shifts back and forth in broad loops across the floodplain as it seeks to maintain a dynamic state of equilibrium between the sediment being transported and the velocity of the stream. As the channel meanders across the floodplain, it will often cut away the stream terraces that have existed for many decades. In other places it will bypass a stream terrace for a sufficient length of time to allow the downward cutting of the entire canyon bottom to be lowered sufficiently so that the terrace is left at an elevation high enough above the creek that even the largest floods will no longer inundate it.
Looking west from Bear Creek, showing present channel, active floodplain, and line of cottonwood and willow trees at the lower edge of cut-bank into 5-foot terrace on which the Experimental Garden is located.
Looking north to Experimental Garden on 5-foot terrace showing steep rise immediately to left of garden to ancient 10-foot terrace now vegetated with old growth juniper, oak and mesquite trees, which was probably farmed by Mogollon people.
The garden that was put in below the Casitas this year is located on a terrace some five to six feet about the present level of the creek. Presently about 100 feet in width, this terrace was at least 50 feet wider when the Casitas were built in 1999. As described in the June 20, 2013 blog the big flood of 2005 caused the main channel of Bear Creek to shift from the east side of the floodplain to the west side. In the process a large part of the east side of the terrace where the garden is now located was cut away. Over the next couple of years the cut bank of the terrace was stabilized by new growth of cottonwood and willow. Today the cut bank at the edge of the terrace is completely stabilized and protected from further erosion by a continuous row of shrubs and trees up to 50 feet in height. From time to time major floods will spread out across the terrace to deposit a new layer of fine nutrient rich loamy soil gradually raising the level of the terrace surface ever higher.
Mogollon Culture adze or maul found on 10-foot terrace at Casitas de Gila, probably used in farming there. Groove for attachment of handle extends three-quarters the way around tool. Tip of tool (left end) broken off.
It is unlikely that the terrace on which this year’s garden was planted existed at the time of the Mogollon Culture, but rather is a product of stream deposition in much more recent times, probably within the last 100 to 200 years. However, just a few feet to the west of the garden, the surface of this modern stream terrace rises abruptly four to five feet to another level surface that extends westward several tens of feet to terminate against water-worn cliffs of Gila Conglomerate that form the west side of the Bear Creek Canyon. This higher level surface, now vegetated with old growth juniper, oak and mesquite, is a remnant portion of a much older stream terrace that can be traced along Bear Creek throughout much of the Casitas’ property. Evidence from personal research conducted to date on this ancient terrace indicates that it not only existed at the time of the Mogollon Culture, but that it was probably farmed by them as well.
During the initial development of the Casita property a small access road was constructed to the edge of the Bear Creek floodplain, terminating at the edge the ancient Bear Creek terrace just described. In the process of doing so, numerous rocks left in the path cut by the bulldozer were personally cast aside under nearby trees. About three years ago, while hiking the Casita trails, one of our guests picked up a rock off to the side of the terminus of this road and noticed that it showed evidence of having been worked. Indeed it had been. Examination suggests that the artifact had been quickly and roughly worked into a maul or adze-like shape with medial grooves for attachment of a handle. When shown the location of where the artifact had been found, it turned out that it was one of the rocks that had been scraped up from the ancient terrace at the end of the road during construction and cast aside under the trees 15 years ago!
CULTIVATED FOOD CROPS AND WILD EDIBLE PLANTS USED BY THE MOGOLLON PEOPLES
Most information that is written for general consumption concerning the lifestyle of the Mogollon People will start out by mentioning that they cultivated and depended upon the Three Sisters crops of maize, squash, and beans, which they supplemented by hunting and gathering. Typically, however, that’s about as far as these articles go. For the curious sort of person, and especially one who had just expended considerable amount of time and energy on an experimental garden down along Bear Creek, however, several inevitable questions soon began to pick away in one’s brain as to just what kind of squash and beans and corn were they growing, and what sort of plants might they have been gathering. Fortunately, there is a vast body of information available regarding these questions residing in the numerous in-depth archaeological studies that have been done on the Mogollon Culture over the past 80 years or so. But it does require a bit of digging (unearthing maybe?) to get it. Sorry … Anyway, here are some answers to those questions, gathered from two reports published in 19562 and 19863.
The 1956 report by Martin, et al, Higgens Flat Pueblo, Western New Mexico, details results of excavations done in 1953 on a Tularosa Phase Mogollon Pueblo village site located near Reserve, New Mexico, dating from about 1200 to its abandonment around 1250. Considerable identifiable plant remains of both cultivated and wild plants were recovered at this site from partially burned or charred material, which are summarized below. Wild plants identified in these studies and which are listed below as being used for food or medicinal purposes have been researched against the University of Michigan at Dearborn’s Native American Ethnobotany Data Base, an excellent reference source for those readers interested in learning more about how Native Americans have used various species of wild plants throughout history.
Cultivated food plants:
- Corn (Maize), specific name Zia mays: The bulk of the preserved plant material was corn and considerable research is presented comparing the Higgens Flat corn types to other varieties found at other Native American sites in the Southwest based on cob and grain measurements
- Squash, genus Cucurbita: Two types of squash, identified by seeds, were cultivated at Higgens Flat. Most abundant were seeds of a cultivated variety of Curcubita pepo, which at the time of the study was still being farmed by many Native Americans throughout the southwest. Today there are many cultivars of this species including Acorn, Delicata, Yellow Summer Squash, and Zucchini, as well as some winter squash.
Second in abundance was a variety of Cucurbita argyrosperma, syn. C.mixta Pangalo which at the time of the report was still being farmed by the Hopi and at Taos pueblo, a cultivar known as the Green Striped Cushaw. This species includes numerous cultivars of pumpkin and winter squash.
Beans, genera Phaseolus and possibly Canavalia: Two species of Phaseolus were identified, P. vulgaris, the Common Bean or Kidney Bean, and P. acutifolius var. latifolius, the Teparary Bean. A large third type of bean was identified as possibly being either P. lunatus, the Lima Bean, P. coccineus, syn. P. multiflorus, the Scarlet Runner Bean, or Canavalia ensiformis, the Jack Bean, all three of which have been found at sites in central and southern Arizona.
Delicata Squash (cucurbita pepo cultivar)
Green Beans (Phaseolus vulgaris cultivar)
Wild food or medicinal plants:
- Utah Juniper, Juniperus osetosperma, syn J. utahensis: berries.; used as medicine
- Arizona Walnut, Juglans major: nuts; gathered for food
- Freemont’s Goosefoot: Chenopodium fremontii, a member of the Amaranthaceae family: seeds; leaves and stems used as vegetable greens and seeds as grain in bread and porridge
- Cactus, Oputnia sp.: fragments of pads; pads and fruits used for food
- Jimson Weed or Sacred Datura, Datura wrightii, syn: D. metelodies Seeds; used as medicine and as hallucinogenic drug
Sacred Datura (Datura wrightii)
The 1986 report by Anderson, et al, The Archaeology of Gila Cliff Dwellings, is a report that analyzes, synthesizes, and interprets existing field research data, excavations and collections made on the Gila Cliff Dwellings since the time of their discovery in the late1800s. As presented in this report, the Gila Cliff Dwellings, like the Higgens Pueblo site near Reserve, were constructed and occupied during the Tularosa Phase of the Mogollon Culture and housed some 40 to 60 people during a short period from roughly 1270 until 1290. Cultivated and wild plants used for food and medicinal purposes recovered and identified from the Cliff Dwellings include all of the plants listed from the Higgens Pueblo, plus some additional ones which are listed below.
Butternut Squash (Curcurbita moschata cultivar)
Cultivated food plants:
- Squash, Cucurbita moschata: This species includes cultivars of both squash and pumpkin. Modern day cultivars include the Butternut Squash
Devil’s Claw (Proboscidea parviflora)
Wild food or medicinal plants:
- Wild or Spotted Bean, Phaseolus maculatus, syn. P. metcalfei: used both as food and as medicine
- Wooton’s Devil’s Claw, Proboscidea parviflora or Hollyhock Devil’s Claw: young pods and seeds used for food, and also used as medicine
- Pinyon, Pinus edulis: seeds used for food
CULTIVATED FOOD CROPS AND WILD EDIBLE PLANTS USED BY THE MOGOLLON PEOPLES ON BEAR CREEK
Massive stand of Careless Weed (Amaranthus palmerii) surrounding the experimental garden on Bear Creek.
It is highly probable that the Mogollon Peoples who lived and farmed on Bear Creek cultivated and gathered all of the plants recovered and identified from the Higgens Pueblo and Gila Cliff Dwellings archaeological studies. It is also highly probable that these plants are only a small fraction of the large number of plants found within the Bear Creek drainage that were gathered for food or used for medicinal purposes. For example, this year one of the most common plants found throughout the Bear Creek drainage and surrounding area and known by its common name of Careless Weed or Pigweed, Amaranthus palmeri, has virtually taken over most of the ground surface surrounding the Casitas de Gila Guesthouses and has formed thick massive stands of up to five feet high down on the Bear Creek floodplain. It is known from other archaeologic and ethnobotanical studies that this plant was extensively gathered and used throughout Native American history as an important food source, the leaves and stems boiled or baked as vegetable greens, and the dried seeds ground for flour. Also this year, a fine crop of Wooton’s Devil’s Claw (Proboscidea parviflora) and Hollyhock Devil’s Claw (Proboscidea althaeifolia) are to be found both around the Casitas on the terraces below along Bear Creek.
In preparing this blog, it also must be said that some possible insight may have been gained in understanding the hierarchy of horticultural success of the various plants tried in this year’s experimental garden on the Bear Creek floodplain terrace. As discussed earlier, of all the plants tried, only the cantaloupes failed to produce fruit in abundance, seemingly having been completely overgrown and outproduced by the neighboring Delicata squash cultivar of Cucurbita pepo and Butternut squash cultivar of Cucurbita moschata. A little research has shown that the cantaloupe, while it is a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, belongs to an entirely different genus and species, Cucumis melo var. catalupensis. Cantaloupes originated in Iran, India, and Africa, and were cultivated in Iran 5,000 years ago and in Greece and Egypt 4,000 years ago. Cantaloupe is not native to North America. Yet down in the Bear Creek garden, the two squash that were planted beside the cantaloupe, Curcubita pepo and Cucurbita moschata, belong to a genus that is native throughout the American Southwest, and are species that have been genetically adapting and thriving here on Bear Creek for over 2,000 years. No wonder they did so well!
- Power point presentation Beloit University: PPT Southwest Complex Societies – Oneonta
- 1956, Martin, Paul S., Rinaldko, John B., Bluhm, Elaine A., Cutler, Hugh C.,
Higgins Flat Pueblo Western New Mexico, Fieldiana: Anthropology, Volume 45, Chicago Natural History Museum
- 1986, Anderson, Keith M., Fenner, Gloria J., Morris, Don P., Teague, George A., McKusick, Charmion, The Archeology of the Gila Cliff Dwellings, Western Archeological and Conservation Center, Tucson, Arizona, The Digital Archaeological Record
THE 2013 MONSOONS BEGIN RIGHT ON SCHEDULE: RAIN, HAIL, AND FLASH FLOODS!
An intense afternoon thunderstorm bearing down on Turtle Rock and the Casitas, completely obscuring the view of the towering Piños Altos Mountains in the Gila Wilderness behind.
The Dry Season, the typical climate at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses during April, May, and June, is over. On July 1st the Summer Monsoon rains arrived in Southwest New Mexico right on schedule, with a respectable 0.67 inches being measured here at the Casitas. It was the first significant rainfall since March. So far, the total for the month through the third week in July here at the Casitas stands at 4.08 inches, a number that portends a strong Monsoon Season for 2013.
As is typical for Monsoon rains here in Southwest New Mexico, almost all of this July precipitation has been as brief showers, plus a few more-intense thunderstorm events, occurring on 12 separate days. For 11 of those events, precipitation was typical, ranging from .04 to .45 inches, and averaging about 0.2 inches per event. Most of the events were of short duration, less than 20 minutes, which is also typical for the Monsoon rains here in Southwest New Mexico.
But then there was that one event …
THE HAIL AND RAIN STORM OF JULY 3, 2013
Afternoon thunderheads rising to the north above Casita de los Arboles.
The day started out clear and bright with a nice breeze out of the Northeast. By early afternoon the thunderheads began to rise above the Piños Altos Mountains in the Gila Wilderness, five miles north of the Casitas, a common sight this time of year. By late afternoon, though, it was noticed that one could no longer see the mountains in the Wilderness as heavy rain was falling in the Bear Creek drainage, between the mountains and Bear Creek.
Watching thunderstorms move around on NOAA weather radar and speculating as to whether your area will receive some rain from it is a great spectator sport here at the Casitas during the Monsoons. And this day was no different. After a considerable time of monitoring the storm’s slow progress towards the Casitas, one’s analysis vacillated every few minutes from “Yes, we will!” to “No, we won’t!” to “Well, it looks like we’ll just catch the edge of it.” Standing outside as the approaching storm entered Horseshoe Canyon (about one and half miles to the north of us), one watched as the dark gray wall of rain slowly advanced towards the Casitas. Then, to one’s deepening consternation, the gray wall of rain turned white and one’s ears perceived a distant, familiar-yet-ominous roaring sound … That was not rain coming. That was hail. And by the increasing sound of it, it was a massive hail storm that was now bearing down on the Casitas.
The porch outside the office, during the hail storm.
And what a storm it was! Within 15 or 20 minutes the Casitas received 1.75 inches of precipitation, over half of which fell as large, half-inch to three-quarter-inch hail, driven by 50 to 60 mile an hour winds out of the northeast. Physical damage to the Casitas was minimal and mostly cosmetic, with some chipped paint and one broken window.
The plant kingdom, however, was decimated. The hardy Honey Mesquite, having just begun to fatten up their annual crop of mesquite beans, was very hard hit with most of the compound leaves and immature beans being stripped from the branches and pounded into the ground. The One-seed Junipers also suffered greatly, with most losing about half of their deep green foliage, stripped off by the hail and left as a deep green blanket carpeting the ground beneath the trees. The Scrub Oaks, at least those that had stored enough moisture during the Spring to put on new leaves, were stripped completely bare. In addition, all ground cover, be it dead grasses or weeds left from last year, or any new growth of green grass or weeds that had struggled to emerge during the dry Spring, was completely obliterated by the pounding hail. With the ground now devoid of any cover, the resulting runoff of nearly two inches of a dense slurry of rainwater and hail completed the devastation by scouring and eroding the ground surface unlike any storm witnessed here during the 15 years we have lived here.
A juniper on the east side of the Casitas, facing the direction from which the hail came, with about half of their foliage stripped from their branches, forming a green carpet under the tree.
East-facing hillside in foreground showing Honey Mesquite, Catclaw, and Scrub Oak completely stripped of foliage, plus complete destruction of all the vegetative ground cover.
About a half-hour after the storm had moved on to the west, the resulting flash flood that traveled down Bear Creek reached the Casitas. It had been over a year since flood waters had reached this magnitude – over 4 feet in depth, covering the entire floodplain bank to bank, and moving at speeds nearing 20 miles an hour. Although a 4-foot flash flood level is fairly common on Bear Creek during the Monsoon Season, there were two factors that set this event apart. First, the water itself was not normal floodwater runoff. Instead, it was a highly viscous, density current slurry of water and hail that resulted in much greater scouring, erosion, and sediment transport within the creek bed than water alone would have done. Second, because of radar monitoring of the storm’s approach towards the Casitas, one knew that the storm had concentrated its fury on several of the canyons feeding into Bear Creek from the Piños Altos Range to the north. Because of the high volume of water and the steeper gradients on these side canyons, vast amounts of vegetative debris had been scoured from these canyons and was carried downstream as a dense debris flow mixture of hail, floating mats of branches, twigs, leaves, and smaller particles, on up to large cottonwood logs, more than sufficient to take out all of the stock-animal water-gap fences across Bear Creek at property boundaries all the way down to the Gila River … After months of slumber, the physical dynamics of the High Desert Landscape had once more roared into wakefulness.
VEGETABLE GARDENS AND HAIL DON’T MIX
Over the last 15 years various attempts at horticulture have been tried at the Casitas. So far, what has been proven is that gardening of any type in the High Desert Landscape of Southwest New Mexico can be a frustratingly difficult challenge. Essentially all attempts to date, and there have been many, have failed for various reasons, including searing drought, swarming insects, foraging deer, tunneling gophers, rampaging javelina, ravenous birds, nutrient-deficient soil, or excessively nutrient-rich soil due to over composting. Determined to overcome failures from previous years, this year two more attempts were made at vegetable gardening at the Casitas.
In the courtyard at the office/house a very small garden was planted consisting of yellow squash, a couple of tomato plants, a few sweet peppers, and basil. This garden was basically a scaled down repeat of last year’s efforts, which had included initial removal of the original rocky and nutrient-impoverished soil down to 12 inches depth and replacement with nutrient-rich loam brought up from the Bear Creek floodplain. That garden, while it could be considered somewhat successful since it did produce luxurious towering tomato plants that Jack of the Beanstalk would have admired, and yellow squash leaves the size of a Ringling Bros. elephant’s ears, was definitely not a famine stopper since little or no fruit was produced, due to the over abundant addition of too much of the Casita’s own composed horse manure. Building upon our by now substantial wealth of knowledge-through-failure agrarian enlightenment, this year no compost was added and by the end of June the courtyard garden was off to an excellent start with baby squash, tomatoes, and sweet peppers already forming on the plants.
The Bear Creek garden in May, at time of planting.
The second garden undertaken this year was carefully designed to be a totally fail-safe garden, one that would implement all 15 years worth of our hard-won knowledge-through-failure experience. This new and improved garden would be fairly large, 20 x 30 feet, situated 6 feet above the active floodplain of Bear Creek on a flat terrace of rich loamy soil that had been built up and periodically naturally fertilized by the occasional exceptionally high floods that occur here every 10 to 25 years. The garden would be fenced with 6 foot high, 2 x 4 inch steel mesh to thwart the foraging deer, encircled with 20 inches of sub-ground-level 1-inch mesh chicken wire to block the tunneling gophers, and extending 16 inches above ground to keep out the baby rabbits, as well as being totally covered over with 50% shade cloth to protect the young plants from the blazing sun and the hungry birds until the Monsoons began. In addition, the garden was also carefully located geologically so that it would not be subjected to strong currents should a 10-year flood happen to occur and submerge the garden for a day or two.
To our delight, by the end of June this proof-of-concept garden was well on its way to becoming an agrarian success story. Potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, string beans, snow peas, cantaloupes, large and small watermelons, butternut and delicata squash, and even a test plot of Einkorn wheat, favorite grain of Otzi the 5,300 year old Bronze Age Alpine hunter, were all thriving beautifully, and by July 2, some plants had even started to put out flowers!
But then, on July 3, the hail storm came. If the tough-as-nails mesquite couldn’t stand up to the hail storm, what chance did the soft, vulnerable plants of the Casita’s Vegetable Gardens have? Absolutely none …
The Bear Creek garden after the July 3rd hail storm. Everything under the shade cover was pretty well battered, and the shade cover was full of balls of hail which took several days to melt away!
Those bare stalks used to be sweet pepper plants in the Courtyard garden, before the hail hit.
The courtyard vegetable garden was essentially destroyed since the most of the plants were not protected in any way. Only a few squash plants that had been covered with a small shade cloth survived. In the large garden down by Bear Creek, the shade cloth protected the young plants initially, until the cloth ripped under the weight of hundreds of pounds of hail, and at which point many of the plants were exposed and decimated. Yet, as disheartening as it was to look at this pulpy, flattened mass of green, at least we had the fall-back position of the vegetable section at Albertson’s Supermarket. One could only imagine how the Ancient Ones, the Mogollon Pueblo Peoples who lived and farmed their life-sustaining crops of maize, beans, and squash here on Bear Creek a thousand years ago must have felt when these natural events occurred, knowing that there was insufficient time to replant and reap a harvest … if they even had enough remaining seeds left to do so …
THE FOLIAGE RETURNS… WITH A VENGEANCE
Within a week after the hail storm, new green buds could be seen growing on the mesquite and scrub oaks, and on the ground small shoots of grasses and weeds were poking their heads up everywhere. Two weeks after the hair storm all of the smaller mesquites and most of the scrub oaks were now covered in bright green leaves, spurred on by four small rain showers that had fallen at the Casitas during the interim. Perhaps even more amazing was that the ground which had been virtually stripped bare of any living plant or weed by the storm, was rapidly being covered with a dense variety of grasses and weeds. It was if the pounding of the ground by the hail had served to waken and germinate every seed that had been buried in the ground and had laid dormant over several years, just waiting for the wake-up call. Unfortunately, such was not the case for the unprotected garden plants. While a few plants that were only peripherally damaged did eventually manage to stage a comeback, many simply shriveled up and died.
Two scrub oaks on east-facing slope three days after the hail storm: all leaves stripped off oaks and surrounding ground vegetation pulverized and obliterated.
Same view of two scrub oaks on east-facing slope photographed 16 days after the hail storm, showing amazing regeneration of leaves on scrub oaks and ground-cover vegetation.
FLASH FLOOD … ROUND TWO
During flash floods, large deposits of logs and smaller vegetative debris collect along the sides of the main channel and across the floodplain, which can be measured later to determine peak water depths.
Exactly two weeks after the big hail storm, one was watching the radar as a large and seemingly extremely-intense thunderstorm made its slow journey towards the Casitas from the East downstream along the Bear Creek drainage. Going outside, the sky did look somewhat dark to the east but not all that threatening. By the time the storm reached the Casitas, most of the its energy had dissipated, but it still retained enough moisture to drop about a third of an inch of rain in a brief 15 to 20 minute period as it passed through. “Not much of a rainstorm,” one thought, looking down at the Creek. “It hardly even muddied the water.” It was at least an hour later, while working at the computer in the office, that one’s concentration was intruded by a persistent sound outside the building. Opening the door it was immediately apparent what the sound was: Bear Creek was once again running and it was running very big and very loud!
Going to the edge of the cliff and looking down, an impressive spectacle of sound and fury greeted the senses. Obviously, the storm that had been watched earlier on the radar had been quite severe upstream, and had continued to release several inches of rain as it made its way down towards the Casitas. Soon, the flash flood arrived, in full force, with chocolate-colored water now transporting an even greater charge of floating debris, this time with logs up to a foot or more in diameter and up to 10 feet in length. Awesome! It was obvious that the water was much deeper and running faster than the flood following the hail storm, but it was not until the next day when observations down in the Creek showed that the water had been over 6 feet deep, raging across the entire floodplain.
Forced against the cliffs of Gila Conglomerate along its course, the sediment-laden waters of Bear Creek continue the slow abrading.
The flash flood of July 17th crested at 6 to 7 feet within the main channel, overflowing its banks and surging across the entire floodplain.
As discussed in the June 2013 Nature Blog, during the Dry Season and the run-up to the Monsoons, Bear Creek at the Casitas had gradually shrunk in volume until most of the open water was confined to sporadic shallow pools. Within the creek channel itself, extensive mats of drying Watercress and Duckweed coated everything from broad sand and gravel beds to periodic jumbles of large boulders. And with the passing of two flash floods, the landscape of the Bear Creek floodplain was entirely changed.
FLASH FLOODS: PRIMARY CHANGE AGENT FOR SOUTHWEST LANDSCAPES
Bent iron t-posts are all that remain of the Casitas’ southern boundary watergap fence.
Unless one has the opportunity to witness the occurrence and the aftereffects of a flash flood in the American Southwest, it can be difficult to understand that the stunning iconic beauty of this dry and often barren landscape is almost entirely a product of running water. Each year numerous visitors to the Southwest, along with newly-arrived residents, find themselves in deep and often fatal trouble by underestimating this powerful force of nature.
The following photographs illustrate the changes observed along Bear Creek following the July 3 and 17 flash floods. While Bear Creek is not very large, the processes that produce these changes are the very same as those that have carved the Grand Canyon. It’s just a matter of scale, both in magnitude and time.
Lag deposit of boulders near the southern end of the Casita property created by extreme turbulence developed when the south-flowing Bear Creek is forced by cliffs of Gila Conglomerate to abruptly change direction and flow to the west.
Log jam left at side of main channel of Bear Creek after the major flash flood on July 17th, when waters peaked at 6 to 7 feet above normal flow in the channel. Our dog Bower (center of pix) is 24 inches tall.
Deposits of heavy mineral sands (minerals with a high specific gravity, such as magnetite, rutile, zircon and garnet) accumulate where the velocity of flood waters is sufficient to selectively remove lower specific gravity mineral sands, such as quartz and feldspar, from the transported sediment. Heavy mineral sands or black sands are sought for and panned by prospectors when seeking placer deposits of gold.
Ripple marks are formed when running water transports sand along the bottom of a creek, stream, or river. This photo shows that Bear Creek was flowing from right to left. In this case, the ripple-marked sand has been coated with a much finer layer of silt and clay that was deposited as the flood waters receded, transport of sand-sized particles stopped, and fine silt and clay particles settled out of slow-moving to still waters along the creek. The bright yellow cottonwood leaf is about 2-1/2 inches in diameter.
THE GREENING OF BEAR CREEK CANYON
People often ask when is the best time to come to see wildflowers. The answer is always: When the rain comes!, as this brilliant hillside of Summer Poppies illustrates.
The strong start of the Monsoon Season of 2013 was to continue for the rest of the month, as persistent brief showers and thunderstorms brought welcome relief from the enduring dryness of the previous Winter and Spring months. By the last week of July the rain total for the month measured 6.18 inches, only 0.8 inches less than the Casitas had received for the entire year of 2012 … And in less than a month, the Bear Creek landscape was transformed into an undulating landscape of brilliant green.
Amazingly, everything in the office courtyard garden came back with the exception of one tomato plant. Even the sweet pepper plants, which were literally just a stem after the hail storm, have many new leaves and may even produce a pepper or two. Many of the mesquites have regrown their leaves; the scrub oaks are now fully-leafed and beautiful, and the floodplain garden is thriving.
Looking north along Bear Creek canyon at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, with Turtle Rock and the Gila Wilderness rising in the background.
BEAR CREEK IN JUNE: A BRIGHT GREEN OASIS
IN A HIGH-DESERT LANDSCAPE WAITING FOR THE RAINS TO COME
In mid-June a solitary flowering Sotol accents the surrounding mostly-brown hills in the foreground sloping down to the ribbon of bright green riverine forest along Bear Creek
MAY AND JUNE: DRYING TIME IN THE HIGH DESERT SOUTHWEST
Cane Cholla bloom each year at the Casitas in late May to mid June
It is late into the “waiting for the rain time” again here at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses on Bear Creek in Gila, New Mexico. It has been a dry Spring with only minimal precipitation, the predictable result of a prevailing neutral to weak La Niña climatic condition over the past Winter that has left the surrounding high desert hills along Hooker Loop in Southwest New Mexico looking somewhat parched and brown. Standing out in scattered counterpoint against the dominant drab browns and tans of the rolling landscape are the ubiquitous deep green One-seed Juniper trees and clumps of Honey Mesquite, now decked out in their sporty new lime-green foliage and fragrant racemes of golden flowers. Most of the stock tanks on the surrounding ranches are already or soon will be totally dry. It’s not as dry as it has been in some years, however, as one observes that a few of the Soap Tree Yucca and Sotol have sufficient water to put up their marvelous flowering stalks, and most of the Cane Cholla are now bedecked in their annual flourish of magenta blooms.
Also, some of the Scrub Oak, particularly those on north- and east-facing slopes, have already replaced their recently shed, tan, dead leaves of last year with new, small olive-green leaves. The others, particularly those on the drier hilltops and south-facing slopes, will wait patiently, of course, for the rains that are soon to come.
BEAR CREEK CANYON: VERDANT OASIS IN A HIGH DESERT LANDSCAPE
Looking north towards the ramparts of the Piños Altos Mountains in the Gila Wilderness, the early morning light of June illuminates the viridescent Bear Creek Canyon in front of the Casitas
Sitting in front of one’s Casita gazing down into Bear Creek Canyon, however, is to witness a totally different landscape altogether than that of the surrounding hills. Here, a mere hundred feet below, the vegetation is lush — very lush! — with all plants and trees in full foliage, a verdant oasis of a thousand shades of green. It is a time when animal and bird life of all types migrate into the Bear Creek drainage as more of natural sources of water in the surrounding hills dry up.
Perennial pool along Bear Creek during the dry season
This year, up until the last couple of weeks or so, Bear Creek has been running the full length of the Casita property. But now, after a solid week of higher temperatures and low humidity, stretches of the Creek have gone dry as the water table dropped another two or three inches in response to the increased uptake of water by the dense riverine forest. Nevertheless, the Creek is still flowing, albeit out of sight, just a few inches below the surface of the stream bed. That this is so is quickly evidenced if one digs a shallow hole or simply walks the stream bed until one comes upon one of the natural depressions scoured by the stream during a previous flooding event, which remain full of water.
Depending upon the depth of these “water holes” and their location relative to 1) the thickness of sediment over the underlying bedrock, 2) the composition of the stream bottom sediments underlying the water hole, 3) the amount of shade from direct exposure to the mid-day sun by water plants or overhanging vegetation, or 4) the possible presence of one of the numerous springs that exist in the bottom of Bear Creek Canyon, these water holes may or not persist until the Monsoon rains begin and the water table of Bear Creek is raised. Having observed these life-sustaining waterholes over the past 14 years, one is aware there never has been a year when at least some of these water holes remained, providing habitat and sustenance for an extremely wide variety of animal species for both year-around and seasonal creek and canyon residents, as well as adjacent upland dwellers.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN SHEEP ON THE CLIFFS:
A SIGN THAT MANY OF THE UPLAND SOURCES OF WATER HAVE DRIED UP
Bighorn Sheep taking a morning respite on the cliff across from the Casitas on June 8, 2013
Over the past two weeks a large group of Bighorn Sheep have been frequenting the sheer cliffs of Gila Conglomerate that line the east side of Bear Creek Canyon across from the Casitas. From past observations, this annual event is a sure sign that the upland stock tanks and natural springs and water holes are drying up. This year the group consists of seven ewes, one young adult ram, and five of this year’s lambs. For our guests and ourselves it is always a great treat to watch the lambs scamper around in death-defying abandon on the 120-foot-high vertical cliffs under the ever-watchful eyes of the adults!
This year the sheep have been coming in for two or three days and nights at a time, where their daily routine consists of grazing on the shrubby vegetation and taking mid-day siestas along the top of the cliffs. Periodically they leave the cliffs to descend to the creek bed below to feast on the succulent fresh green grass lining the creek and to drink from the cool, clear water holes at the base of the cliff. Around dusk the sheep retire to the security of narrow ledges high on the cliffs. Here they will bed down for the night, a relatively safe haven from their two primary predators: the mountain lion and the coyote. Members of the Bear Creek Bighorn Sheep herd have been frequent and regular visitors to the cliffs every year since the Casitas opened nearly 15 years ago. In recent years, however, one has noticed that their visits to the cliffs have been of much shorter duration. Whereas in times past they used to stay for a week or more at a time, now it is only for a night or two before they move on. Game officials and local ranchers attribute this to a greater pressure from their primary predator, the mountain lion, whose population has been on the increase due to an area-wide decrease in lion hunting by the local ranchers. Most likely there are other, unrecognized factors, too.
A MORNING’S NATURE EXCURSION ALONG BEAR CREEK
A pool bordering cliffs at the southern Casita boundary containing young shoots of Broad-leaved Cattail and partially covered with Pale Duckweed and Watercress
In the shade of overhanging willows, Bear Creek continues to run partially covered over by Pale Duckweed and Watercress
It was a perfect mid-June morning for another Nature excursion along the Creek in front of the Casitas. It had been quite warm and dry since the last visit a couple of weeks ago, and it was time to see what changes were taking place. The plan was to start at the Casitas’ south boundary fence and quietly work upstream to observe the progression of the shrinking water levels and study possible affects upon the wildlife present. On this morning, and much to his dismay, Bower, the Casitas’ Dog-of-the-Eternal Hunt, would be left behind to ensure that wildlife would actually be seen.
At the downstream border of the Casita lands there are low cliffs of Gila Conglomerate that extend down to the water’s edge on the west side of Bear Creek. Cut by sediment-laden flood waters over hundreds of thousands of years, these cliffs form ledges a few feet above the Creek and afford a perfect spot to study the varied types of volcanic rock that make up the conglomerate, and to observe the activity in the shallow pools that are perennially found here during the dry months of May and June. This morning found the pools present but greatly contracted, just a few inches deep. Here and there across the drying creek bed a few Broad-leaved Cattails had sprouted up. Most of these succulent cattail shoots, as evidenced by the countless foot prints in the area, had been chewed down to creek bed level by the small band of four to six Mule Deer that had been coming down to the Creek on a daily basis from the surrounding hills in the early morning and evening to drink and forage.
Oh! You scared me! Back off or I’ll . . .
The Striped Skunk shuffles by foraging for its breakfast, totally oblivious to one’s presence
A hundred feet or so upstream from these lower cliffs, the channel of the Creek turns due east for about a thousand feet, passing beneath a dense growth of mature willow and young cottonwoods that overhang and shade the creek. This is a favorite haunt of all types of birds, animals, and creek dwellers, and this morning was no exception, as one paused to watch the Spotted Towhee scratching for insects in the dead cottonwood leaves at the edge of willow-shaded Watercress– and Duckweed-covered pools (the species found here being the Pale Duckweed), and the totally oblivious-to-one’s-motionless-presence-until-it-almost-tripped-over-one’s-feet Striped Skunk hunting for breakfast at the water’s edge!
A Spotted Towhee searches for insects beneath cottonwood leaves at the creek’s edge
Continuing upstream, one soon encounters the high sheer cliffs so readily seen across from the Casitas on the east side of the Creek, the same cliffs that comprise the safe haven refuge for the Bighorn Sheep when they are in the area. These cliffs consist of two sections: a short downstream section that faces north, and a much longer upstream section that faces west. Dividing the two sections at the exact point where the downstream course of the Creek changes from north-south to east-west is a steep, narrow cleft, eroded into the cliffside walls over thousands of years by sediment-laden storm runoff cascading down from the mountains above. This cleft serves as a much-used up-down passageway for numerous animals in the area, providing a protective, hidden pathway for the sheep in their stealthy descent from their aerie sanctuary above to the creek below, as well as providing an access route for other animals unable to scale the near vertical cliffs on either side.
Deep pools at the base of the upper section of cliffs, just above the cleft int he cliffs where the creek makes its abrupt change in course to the west
Favorite watering hole of the Bighorn Sheep at the base of the cleft in the cliffs showing numerous footprints and well-grazed vegetation
Bear Creek flows tight up against the cliff face on both sides of the cleft, and it is here that the deepest pools are generally found during the dry times. This is due to the extreme turbulence and high-energy scouring of the creek bed that takes place here when the fast moving flood waters along the cliff face are forced to make a nearly right angle turn as the course of the creek changes from a southerly to westerly flow.
Although the sheep had moved on several days ago, signs of their last visit were obvious everywhere around the pools at the base of the cleft in the cliffs: cloven hoof prints by the hundreds, small mounds of distinctive pellet-shaped scat, and grasses and other creekside vegetation recently nibbled to the ground.
If one looks closely at this small stretch of the creek, with its dependable, deeper pools and protective cliffs above, it is obvious that it is a special gathering place for other inhabitants of Bear Creek Canyon as well. Looking up at the cliff faces, numerous crevices and horizontal recesses of various dimensions can be seen at different levels above the creek bed. High up, virtually inaccessible from the ground, large open nests of sticks and dried vegetation can be seen that are constructed and used by Chihuahua Ravens year after year. In other places, larger sticks and debris are piled into conspicuous mounds within shallow recesses on wide ledges with no apparent entrance visible, most likely the home of the Gray Fox.
Looking closer, one also observes numerous smaller crevices that extend back into the cliff, some of which appear to have been blocked off purposefully with bits of organic material and rock. It’s obvious that these conglomerate cliffs towering above Bear Creek are home to creatures of all types and sizes, mammals, reptiles, and insects, essentially serving as Nature’s high-rise condominiums in stone!
A hundred feet or so upstream from the cleft in the cliffs the creek bed diverges away from the cliffs and ascends a long, straight and narrow boulder-strewn channel running between dense growths of young Freemont Cottonwood, several species of willow and Arizona sycamore lining the banks on either side. In times of normal to high water levels, this section of the creek is characterized by a high-energy turbulent flow over a steeper gradient that leads to active downcutting of the channel and adjacent creek banks, plus selective removal of finer-grained sediments from the stream bed itself. The predominance of course sand to boulders, abundant concentrations of heavy mineral sands or “black sands” (high specific gravity minerals), coupled with an obvious steepening of the stream bed gradient suggests that the Gila Conglomerate bedrock is close to the surface along this section of the creek bed.
High-energy section of creek looking downstream towards cliffs
Today, however, the water level in this section is very low with only a few deeper pools and large boulders protruding from the creek bed as evidence of the higher energy flow that is found here during higher water levels. The weedy vegetation covering the banks of this section of the creek is thick, lush and now matured to the stage of flowering. The profusion of weeds along the banks is obviously enhanced by the amount of shade afforded by the tall cottonwoods and cliffs lining the creek, plus the continued presence of abundant water.
Blue damselfly looking for prey
Orange dragonfly resting after last patrol up the creek
Female broad-tail hummingbird in flight (photo by B. Miller)
On this morning, the airspace above the channel is alive with the buzz and whir of flying insects of every type, from near-microscopic gnats, to pollen-coated honey bees and grey and white flitting butterflies in search of their favorite nectar, to small blue-bodied damselflies and large bright-orange dragonflies constantly patrolling up and down the creek bed, voraciously feeding on their smaller winged prey. Sitting quietly on the creek bank one is soon mesmerized by the primal spectacle of this lilliputian food-chain dance of Nature. Suddenly, the reverie is broken as one’s focus is drawn upward, startled by the rhythmic a-rumm, a-rumm, a-rumm zooming sound produced from a tiny Broad-tailed Hummingbird‘s alternating dives and ascents, engaged a little-known aerial stratagem, known only to the most dedicated avian devotees as “hover-hawking”, as it selectively gorges on the smorgasbord of insect prey below.
FLOODS: PRIMARY AGENT FOR PHYSICAL AND BIOLOGICAL CHANGE IN THE HIGH DESERT SOUTHWEST
Wide floodplain in front of the Casitas, showing dry creek bed in foreground, young cottonwood, sycamore and willow riverine forest growing across the floodplain
Change in the physical and biological landscape of the High Desert Country of the American Southwest is immeasurably slow and unrecognizable by human standards most of the time. Weeks, months, and in some cases years can go by without noticeable visual change. Then, often in the matter of just a few hours, greater change can take place than has occurred in the past several previous decades. The primary agent of this change, of course, is running water, that eternally rare and unpredictable phenomenon of the American Southwest that turns flat desert landscapes into temporary lakes called playas, and gentle slopes, sandy dry washes or small creeks into raging torrents of mud and debris charged water called flash floods ravaging everything in their path. Unless one has personally witnessed such an event, the prime importance of running water upon the High Desert landscape is typically not appreciated or understood. However, it is in the floodplains of the creeks and rivers of the desert that one has the best opportunity for to observe and decipher the effects of running water upon this otherwise stoic and inscrutable landscape. Over the last 15 years here at the Casitas, Bear Creek has experienced one major flood and numerous small flash floods that have left behind an excellent observable record of the affects of running water upon this High Desert landscape. The final section of our morning’s nature walk up Bear Creek displays an excellent record of these high water events.
Continuing a few hundred feet more upstream from our “hover hawking” hummingbirds and dragonflies and past the end of the cliffs on the east side of the creek, the overall nature of the creek changes abruptly. The main channel is now found to be running along the west side of a broad floodplain that gradually widens in front of the Casitas to twice and then three times the width of the floodplain observed in front of the cliffs. East of the channel the broad floodplain is covered with a dense riverine forest of young cottonwood, willow, and sycamore, with some individual cottonwoods already reaching heights of 60 to 80 feet. This riverine forest provides a diverse habitat for a variety of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians who live here as well as visit regularly from the surrounding hills and mountain slopes. Many of these species are commonly observed by Casita guests during a quiet early morning or late afternoon nature excursion along the several maintained trails that traverse the floodplain.
Rock Squirrel also hunting for brunch along a dry portion of the stream bed near the Desert Whiptail.
Doe Mule Deer enjoying brunch along the dry portion of the stream bed
Having observed the changes in this section of the floodplain for the past 15 years, it’s hard to believe that most of this dense forest is only 8 years old, with most of the young trees having grown up since the last major flood on Bear Creek in February 2005.
The 2005 flood resulted from a three-day precipitation event, in which a warm front coming up from Mexico dropped 2-1/2 inches of rain over the entire Bear Creek drainage, while simultaneously melting most of that winter’s snow pack in the mountains. The resulting high water on Bear Creek lasted for two weeks, and at its peak covered the entire floodplain bank to bank with waters up to 8 feet deep that swept downstream at speeds sometimes in excess of 20 miles an hour.
Bear Creek in front of the Casitas on February 12, 2005, at peak of flood
When the waters finally receded, it was seen that the main channel, which previously had been located along the base of the mountain across from the Casitas on the east edge of the floodplain, was now relocated 500 feet to the west on the opposite border of the floodplain up against the cliffs below the Casitas. Even more impressive were the changes in the floodplain itself. Not only had the floodwaters scoured away much of the vegetation covering the floodplain as the channel migrated to the opposite side of the canyon, but simultaneously, as the channel was migrating to the west, a backfilling process had occurred whereby the scoured floodplain was subsequently covered over with thick new layers of sand and gravel, leaving the surface across the new floodplain elevated by some four to five feet!
The changes just described in the Bear Creek floodplain that resulted from the 2005 flood are typical of any stream or watercourse not confined in solid rock, where the valley or canyon is wide enough, and the gradient low enough to permit the migration of the main channel in response to the changing energy of the stream, be it a small brook, creek, or large river system. Such streams are called meandering streams.
The Bear Creek flood of 2005 was an uncommon event for this area, and one that resulted from a unique combination of climatic events. Much more common are the small to medium-sized floods that occur each year during the summer Monsoon season, where intense thunderstorms, typically of short duration, will dump anywhere from an inch to three inches or more in rain over various parts of the Bear Creek drainage, resulting in flash floods. These floods will move downstream at speeds of 10 to 20 miles an hour, often arriving as a wall of water a few inches to several feet in height that will raise the water level for one to several hours. Flash floods can be very destructive because of the high percentage of sediment and debris that is being carried. However, because of their short duration they do not usually result in the large scale changes in the floodplain as occurred during the 2005 flood. Occasionally during the Monsoon Season, however, conditions will result in numerous intense thunderstorm activity being concentrated in a localized area for an extended period of time. While not common, the results can be disastrous in which the floodplain of a creek or river can undergo monumental change that will endure for decades.
The deepest pool on the floodplain, refuge of last resort during the dry season
On the east side of the floodplain across from the northernmost Casita, there are several mature growth cottonwoods that are situated on an old stream terrace about 7 to 10 feet above the present floodplain. These trees are very old, with the largest one measuring some 27 feet in circumference. Dating of old cottonwoods and sycamores in the floodplain is difficult, but the age of this tree is estimated to be in excess of 200 years. The tree is growing against a cliff face of Gila Conglomerate which clearly has protected it from severe wind storms, lightning, and rampaging floods down through the years. Undoubtedly this tree has witnessed floods in the past which would dwarf the 2005 flood in terms of floodplain change. Oh, what stories this tree could tell if we mortals could only hear!
It is a few feet in front of this giant cottonwood that we end our nature excursion, at the side of a small, but quite deep pool that was scoured out by high-energy flood waters during a substantial summer monsoon a few years ago. Approaching the pool, one notices that the water level in the pool has dropped more than a foot to expose numerous roots and fallen branches that are now draped in drying duckweed and watercress. Several splash and kerplunk sounds are heard as one draws closer to see that the pool, still at least a foot deep, is completely covered over with duckweed, that is, all except for one pair of protruding, large and knobby, green-rimmed black eyes.