casitas de gila guesthouses bed and breakfast new mexico 575-535-4455
info@casitasdegila.com

Southwestern Guesthouses on 265 Acres
near Silver City, New Mexico
overlooking Bear Creek and the Gila Wilderness

Casitas de Gila Nature Blog

Casitas de Gila Nature Blog

Memorial Day Star Party • May 27 – June 5, 2011

This year it happened that the week surrounding Memorial Day coincided with a New Moon. Consequently, most of the guesthouses at Casitas de Gila were occupied by amateur astronomers, along with their family members, from Arizona, Kentucky, Maryland, and Massachusetts. The astronomers were accompanied by a very impressive array of large telescopes for astrophotography and visual observing. As is typical for this time of year, the skies cooperated fully, with clear, dark skies prevailing throughout the week. According to Chuck B. of Maryland and Paul C. of Massachusetts, two of our regular astro-guests who have been visiting Casitas de Gila three or four times a year for the past several years, the skies were judged to be “excellent” each night of their stay.

chart of sky quality readings

Unihedron SQM-LU sky quality readings taken June 1, 2011, at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses by Lee B.

While most astro-guests who stay at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses are highly impressed with the degree of darkness, seeing, and transparency that we typically experience here, one of the first-time astro-guests was able to objectively quantify the validity of Chuck’s and Paul’s subjective determination. Using a Unihedron SQM-LU sky quality meter, Lee B. of Arizona monitored an entire night’s sky darkness, obtaining values ranging from a high of 21.8 to a low of 21.46 as dawn approached, with an average of 21.68 for the time period from 10 PM until 4 AM on June 1, 2011. These values correspond to what is considered a natural starry sky with no light pollution, and are exceptionally high when compared to other scales used to measure sky darkness.

guests and their equipment

Chuck B with the AP105 refractor telescope and Paul C. with the 18-inch Starmaster dobsonian reflector telescope

Chuck was able to acquire vast amounts of digital astrophotographic data (enough to keep him very busy processing for the next two or three months) using an AP105 refractor telescope with a PDF Focuser, on a AP1200 mount, and M8300 camera. The first of the photographs he has processed is of Omega Centauri, a dazzling globular star cluster in the constellation of Centaurus, some 15,000 light years distant from us. As our Milky Way Galaxy’s largest and brightest globular star cluster visible with the naked eye, Omega Centauri is a true giant, containing perhaps 10 million stars with a diameter of 150 light years.

Another object which Chuck has processed is the Dumbbell Nebula (M27), a planetary nebula discovered by Charles Messier in 1764, about 1,300 light years away, in the constellation Vulpecula. Messier listed this object as M27 in his catalog of nebulous objects, which are now known as the Messier objects.

Omega Centauri

Omega Centauri, taken by Chuck B.

Dumbell Nebula

Dumbell Nebula, taken by Chuck B.

However, of all the objects observed and photographed during the week’s star party, none could compare in excitement with the “astrophotographic capture” that Chuck made of a new supernova, the rare event of an exploding star. This new supernova was discovered on June 2, 2011, by French astronomers in the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51). Chuck was able to photograph it on June 5. Located within the constellation Canes Venatici, the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51) is one of the most famous galaxies in our sky. According to ongoing study by astronomers around the world, this new supernova must have taken place on May 31, 2011, as it is not shown in images taken prior to that date. As fortuitous as it may seem, Chuck had photographed the Whirlpool Galaxy on May 30, and, indeed, the supernova was not there!

Whirlpool Galaxy before June 2 Supernova

M51 taken on May 30th before Supernova takes place. Photo by Chuck B.

Whirlpool Galaxy after June 2 Supernova

M51 taken on June 5 after Supernova takes place. Photo by Chuck B.

The fact that Chuck and other astronomers around the world were able to pin the exact day that the star exploded is quite mind-boggling, to say the least! Of course, when one says that the event took place on May 31, it must be remembered that in actuality this event took place many millions of years ago, when humans were still but a twinkle in our Creator’s eye. So to put this event into an Earth geologic-time perspective, the Whirlpool Galaxy is some 23 million light years away from us, so what we are looking at is an event that can be pinpointed as happening on a specific day about 5 million years after the Bursum Caldera Supervolcano eruption in the Gila Wilderness, some 28 million years ago!

Paul, a long-time friend of astroimager Chuck and his partner in astronomical adventures, considers himself a member of the “old school observer astronomers clan”, those intrepid celestial explorers who, like the sea captains of old, prefer to hunt down their astronomical prey the old-fashioned way, relying solely on detailed, age-old star charts, masterful and precise visual celestial navigation, and dogged determination, instead of using any of those new-fangled, computerized, “go to” location devices. Using these tried-and-true methods, Paul was able to seek out, observe and explore numerous celestial specialties of the Spring and Early Summer firmament, such as the Whale and the Hockey Stick galaxies, the Wild Duck Cluster (M11), and the Omega or Swan Nebula (M17), using a 18” Starmaster Dobsonian reflector telescope. Back home in Massachusetts, Paul regularly gives public demonstration programs on astronomy, and so on several nights he graciously shared his extensive celestial knowledge with some of the other guests at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, as well as with local area residents who have not had an opportunity to look through a large telescope.

Trifid and Lagoon Nebulas

Trifid and Lagoon Nebulas taken by Lee B.

One of our new astro-guests, Lee B., was also able to obtain large amounts of digital astrophotographic data during the two nights he spent at Casitas de Gila. He will be processing these over the coming weeks. Lee has been been involved in photography for quite some time, and has an extensive collection of his photos available for viewing and purchase on his website. One night while he was at the Casitas, having some “time to kill at the end of an imaging run”, as Lee put it, he was able to take an amazing photo showing both the Trifid Nebula and the Lagoon Nebula, some 7,600 and 4,100 light years away respectively, in the constellation Sagittarius. The resulting photo was a single, 30-minute, sub-frame exposure which shows incredible detail despite the low altitude of the object (28 degrees) when it was imaged. Lee was using an AP130GT scope on a AP900 mount and a STL-11000M camera. This photo can be seen on the astrophotography website cloudynights.com telescope review forum. Following his return home, Lee completed processing his data to produce the photo shown here.

With the good weather and excellent viewing holding through the end of the week, eventually it was time for all of our astro-guests to return to Earth and head for their respective terrestrial abodes. All in all, it was another wonderful week for stargazing, astronomy, and astrophotography at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses.

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A Blessing of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Lambs!

Bighorn Lambs and their Mommas

Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep and Lambs on the cliffs above Bear Creek

What a treat! Two Rocky Mountain Bighorn lambs, born within the last couple of days, appeared around noon today on the cliffs across from Casitas de Gila Guesthouses on Bear Creek. Becky noticed the babies running along the side of the cliffs (amazing!) and had me get the camera. So exciting and wonderful to be able to watch new-born wild animals right outside our door!

The two ewes we blogged about in early January stayed here on the cliffs up until about three weeks ago, with only a few absences for three or four days at a time. The big ram never returned. It almost seemed as if he told the ewes, “You stay here, where you’ll be safe, and you have good water and food, until the babies are born”. As the weeks went by, Becky and I noticed (or at least convinced ourselves) that the two ewes seemed to be getting more rotund. Then three weeks ago they disappeared. We were worried. Did a mountain lion get them? Did they just decided to move on?

Bighorn Sheep and their Lambs

They are so small! And boy, can they get around already!

Three days ago, I noticed that three ewes appeared on the cliffs. The next day two Casita guests who had been hiking along the creek told us they had encountered five sheep below the cliffs eating the new grass along Bear Creek. They thought there were four ewes and maybe one young ram. They related how they had retreated back a safe distance on the opposite side of the creek so that they would not scare the sheep and proceeded to watch and photograph them. They were really quite excited because not only had they seen Bighorn Sheep, but on their way back to their Casita they came upon six young mule deer drinking from the creek and eating the new grass!

There was no way of telling if the two ewes that had been here were part of the new group of five, but the thought that they might have returned to have their babies was exciting. But yesterday, despite repeated inspection of the cliffs, I could find no sheep and concluded that this must be another group of sheep passing through …

Bighorn Ewes and Lambs

Time to eat!

But, no! There they are! We’re sure they are the same ewes that came all winter, and now they have babies, no more than 1 or 2 days old! Already those baby sheep are running along the vertical cliffs! It’s truly something to see and we, and our guests, are very, very blessed.

Posted in Bighorn Sheep, wildlife | Tagged | 1 Comment

Turkey Creek Hot Springs: The Perfect Wilderness Connection

turkey creek hot springs pool

Ahh! Becky finds just the right pool at the Turkey Creek Hot Springs!

There is something deeply primal about the allure that hot springs have over people. Just where within our psyche or corporeal being this attraction lies we may never know. Yet for most of us, it is there. Latent, perhaps, until one comes upon that first warm seep or gush of hot water bubbling up mysteriously from somewhere deep below. Cool springs encountered in the wild don’t appear to have the same effect. While interesting and refreshing, and certainly much appreciated on a long dusty trail on a hot summer day, cool springs do not seem to trigger the deeper emotional response as geothermal hot springs. As humans, we are drawn to warmth. We prefer sitting by the fire instead of in a cold corner; we enjoy hot showers, but endure cold ones. Our bare skin relishes the warmth of the summer breeze, but shrinks from the cold wind on a raw winter’s day. Could it be just a comfort thing, this attraction that drives us to struggle for miles over rough terrain in the pursuit of that one more distant hot spring? For some, perhaps, that is all it is, just another pursuit of pleasure. But for many it seems to be something far more, something that resonates at a much deeper level, the ineffable feeling that overcomes one while soaking in a hot pool in the middle of Wilderness …

turkey creek hot springs in the gila wilderness

The pools at Turkey Creek Hot Springs

The Gila Wilderness and surrounding Gila National Forest are blessed with numerous hot springs, most in untrammeled, pristine Wilderness. Some are well known and can be accessed easily, such as the Gila Hot Springs located just off State Highway 15 on the way to the Gila Cliff Dwellings, or Lightfeather Hot Springs (aka Middle Fork Hot Springs) a half-mile hike from the visitor center at the Gila Cliff Dwellings. Others are less well known, requiring moderate to difficult hikes in rugged country, such as Jordan Hot Springs, about 8 miles up the Middle Fork of the Gila River, or Turkey Creek Hot Springs, on the south side of the Gila Wilderness.

Yet as special as these and other known hot springs are, for many it is the mystique surrounding the unknown hot springs of the Gila that brings them back to this rugged landscape again and again, each time being drawn ever further into this very special Wilderness in search of what they know must be there. As one slowly begins to unravel and understand the ancient volcanic history of this little-known Gila backcountry, the realization soon comes that there must be countless other geothermal seeps, hot springs, and pools out there, their location long forgotten, places now visited only by the birds and animals. That is unless you are willing to consider the spirits of a hundred generations of Native Americans, and more recently, perhaps, the spirits of a few frontier prospectors or hermits who once called the Gila home.

Turkey Creek Hot Springs in New Mexico

Sunset over the Gila Wilderness from the Mile Long Ridge on FR155

Turkey Creek Hot Springs are not far from Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, only about 11 miles as the crow flies. However for us less-feathered-endowed mortals to get there and back, it will require a difficult physical journey, plus a good 10 hours of time. Though not for the faint of heart or the out of shape, a visit to the Turkey Creek Hot Springs promises the intrepid hiker or naturalist an intimate and inspirational sojourn into the very essence of the incredible Gila Wilderness. As special as this hike is, though, it is critical to know that access to the Turkey Creek Hot Springs is NOT always possible. High water and length of daylight hours are the two limiting factors, the most favorable times of the year being April through late June, and late September through early November. During these times the Spring runoff and the Summer rains and flash floods are generally not a problem; plus, there are enough daylight hours for a one-day visit. This is remote, rugged Wilderness and visitors who are not from the area are strongly advised to check with local authorities (such as the Gila National Forest District Ranger Station in Glenwood) before attempting a trip to the Turkey Creek Hot Springs.

I had been hearing about the wonders of Turkey Creek Hot Springs ever since we came to live here 12 years ago, but not until last week did I finally have the opportunity to visit them with my good friend and neighbor Bill Marcy and a couple of his visiting family members, John and Becky. Bill is a local hiking guide in our area, and enjoys taking tourists and visitors to special, out-of-the-way places, such as the Turkey Creek Hot Springs.

Turkey Creek, Gila Wilderness, New Mexico

John and Becky fording the Gila River

The drive to the trail head from Casitas de Gila Guesthouses takes close to an hour. The first five miles pass quickly, driving through hilly ranch land covered with juniper, piñon and mesquite, along the less-travelled portion of Hooker Loop before returning to State Road 153 (aka Turkey Creek Road). Turning north towards the mountains, SR 153 soon becomes Forest Road 155 (still aka Turkey Creek Road). For the next nine miles one travels a rough, winding, gravel road that leads deep into the Gila National Forest. While a 4-wheel drive vehicle is not necessary, high clearance, good tires, and good brakes are strongly advised. Leaving the Gila Valley, FR 155 climbs abruptly and steeply into the lower hills and mountains of the Piños Altos Range to top out along a mile-long grassy ridge at 5,800 feet, sparsely vegetated with piñon, juniper, prickly pear cactus, and sotol agave. Upon ascending this ridge, one immediately encounters a most spectacular panoramic view extending every direction. So incredible is this view that it is impossible not to stop and get out to experience fully the vast natural grandeur of the Gila.

Turkey Creek Hot Springs, New Mexico

Sycamore Guardians of Turkey Creek

Looking north, the interior mountain peaks of the Gila Wilderness soar majestically upward from the deep canyon tracing the course of the Gila River hidden far below. To the east rocky cliffs of Gila Conglomerate outline the course of the Bear Creek drainage basin stretching upstream some 20 miles to Piños Altos, a few miles north of the volcanic peak of Bear Mountain looming on the far horizon. Five miles to the south, Turtle Rock and Telephone Mountain mark the location of Casitas de Gila Guesthouses in Bear Creek Canyon below, and further on the undulating range of the Burro Mountains makes up the southern skyline. Now turning to the west, the eye is treated to the verdant course of the Gila Valley that can be traced for miles, the Gila River itself hidden deep amongst the ancient cottonwoods lining its banks. Standing there, an awareness soon creeps into one’s consciousness that here, spread out in every direction, is the essence of Southwest New Mexico, and it is indeed a Land of Enchantment!

Continuing on, the road now drops off the ridge and begins a long and winding descent into Brushy Canyon, to eventually bottom out on the Gila River Floodplain where the trailhead to Turkey Creek Hot Springs is waiting. In years past it was possible to drive another half mile before coming to the first fording of the Gila River. But now, due to a portion of the road being washed out during a flood, a barricade of large boulders announces that it’s time to park Bill’s Bronco and start hiking.

Turkey Creek Hot Springs, Gila Wilderness

Bill demonstrating good balance

The first half mile of the trail takes us along the remainder of the washed-out road, passing beneath the arching branches of a grove of ancient cottonwood and white-trunked sycamore, the cottonwoods resplendent in their new yellow-green leaves. Soon we encounter a calf-deep ford crossing the Gila River, the first of three that must be crossed before reaching the mouth of Turkey Creek Canyon. A couple of our party pause to change into canvas footwear which they will wear until the final crossing is left behind. The clear water is rather cold, but unnoticed in the warm, late morning sun, the eastern peaks before us gleaming and beckoning us onward.

The last crossing is soon reached, the deepest of the three, but still only up to one’s knees. At this point the trail leaves the River and enters Turkey Creek Canyon. Almost immediately we come to the remains of an old wooden corral and loading chute, an ancient windmill, and a couple of collapsing buildings, remnants of ranching days gone by, now all but reclaimed by the encroaching Wilderness.

Turkey Creek, New Mexico

Slow going, but gorgeous

The trail up Turkey Creek is a journey of indescribable beauty. Mostly sticking to the west bank of the creek, it leads us on a marvelous Spring adventure into an ever-deepening canyon of vertical, multicolored volcanic walls that soar into the cobalt sky beneath the eccentric tangle of bone- white branches of mature sycamore reaching for the sky, their Spring buds just starting to swell. At first only a trickle, the flow of Turkey Creek slowly increases as we make our way northward. The canyon gradually narrows as the boulders of volcanic welded tuff scattered within and along the creek increase in size and number.

Two miles up Turkey Creek we come to a lovely, spacious, and inviting camping area on the west side of the Creek within a delightful grove of mixed pine and hardwood. The canopy of piñon, gray oak, walnut, ponderosa, sycamore, and ash provide a cool, shady respite from the warming sun. It is obvious from the old rock-lined fire pits that this has been a favorite camping site for many, many years. Yet it has been well cared for by those who stopped here, with no trash in sight anywhere.

Crawling through the Keyhole

Bill in The Keyhole

A couple of hundred yards past the camping spot we come to the only critical fork in the trail for those seeking the Turkey Creek Hot Springs. Very easily missed, and only marked with a couple of small cairns of stacked rocks, the little-used trail to the hot springs forks off to the right while the more heavily-used Skeleton Canyon Trail bears to the left before crossing the dry wash at the mouth of Skeleton Canyon, and then begins a steep climb up a series of switchbacks to continue north along a high ridge between Turkey Creek Canyon and Skeleton Canyon. We take the right fork and continue up Turkey Creek Canyon, which immediately becomes narrower and more difficult to traverse.

The trail soon achieves faint to non-existent status, requiring increasing amounts of scrambling over large boulders and precipices and back and forth rock hopping across shallow, crystal clear pools in the Creek. But as the pace slows and the difficulty of forward progress increases, the physical beauty of the journey increases proportionately. Large, recessed alcoves of overhanging rock and layered ledges of black, shattered, glassy volcanic rock called vitrophyre, with enclosed splatter-shaped inclusions of deep red jasper-like material and crystal-lined geodes, repeatedly slow this geologist’s progress to a standstill. Entering the Narrows, we slowly pick our way along the rocky cliffs now extending to the water’s edge. And then, there it is: The Keyhole, through which all seekers of the Springs must pass, crawling and wiggling on one’s belly like a snake, praying with each wiggle and grunt that the real ones are not around and that we are indeed as slim as we think we are! Once safely through the keyhole, one is immediately confronted with another challenge: The Squeeze, a 100-foot-long narrow cleft of delightful scrambling consternation.

The big pool at Turkey Creek Hot Springs

The big pool at Turkey Creek Hot Springs

Once past the squeeze, the way becomes easier. After a final tenth of a mile and negotiating one last rocky ledge, a deep, elongated pool, complete with a rock slide and waterfall at its upper end, announces that we are there: Turkey Creek Hot Springs!

What a marvelous and fascinating place! A series of pools, some completely natural, some enhanced with hand-laid rock dams, stretch upstream from the elongated pool. The various sized pools offer enough variation in temperature to satisfy even a hiking Goldilocks, ranging from too hot to too cold to just right. The control for the variation is, of course, Mother Nature herself, as the cold waters of Turkey Creek mix with the 150–165 degree geothermal waters that seep, flow, and bubble from innumerable cracks and crevices both within the smooth rock and sandy bottoms of the pools and from the adjoining rock ledges.

Turkey Creek Hot Springs pools

So many pools, so little time!

As with all warm and hot springs, wherever they are found around the globe, the hot springs of the Gila do have the amoeba Naegleria fowleri, which are extremely dangerous to humans if allowed into the nasal passages, causing primary amoebic meningoencephalitis or PAM. While infection is extremely rare, it is usually deadly. According to the medical experts, the amoeba can only enter through the nose, so keeping one’s head out of the water or wearing a nose clip is considered sufficient protection (more detailed info in references below).

What is the source of these hot waters, one might wonder? Well, far beneath Turkey Creek Hot Springs, as well as beneath most of the Gila Wilderness, lies the now solidified, but still slowly cooling, magma chamber that once fed the repeatedly explosive volcanic Bursum Caldera and its northern neighbor the Gila Cliff Dwellings Caldera some 28 million years ago. The evidence for these massive eruptions is the thick deposits of volcanic pyroclastic flows and welded tuffs that are found throughout the Gila Wilderness and through which we have travelled this entire day. But here, deep within Turkey Creek Canyon, even more tangible are the hot springs themselves, a sensuous, primal reminder of just how wild this part of the West once was.

moon over gila wilderness

Gila Moon Rising!

A well-earned leisurely lunch is followed by a closer land inspection of the various pools by Bill, John, and myself, leaving Becky to conduct a systematic aquatic survey of the thermal variation of several of the more inviting pools and natural water slides. Great fun!

The trip back goes quickly, more direct since we know the way; 4.5 miles as opposed to the 5 mile hike in according to the GPS. In two hours of fast hiking, we arrive at the Gila River, where, just as we begin our first ford, we come across some large, fresh mountain lion tracks right where we had passed that morning. What a great reminder they are of the Wilderness that we have travelled today, that there are places where the imprint of Nature still reigns supreme. Just as we arrive back at Bill’s Bronco, a near-full moon rises over the volcanic rock cliffs, now golden in the setting sun. Wow! How perfect is that!

Old Windmill in Gila National Forest

The Old Windmill

Traversing The Squeeze

Traversing The Squeeze

Pools at Turkey Creek Hot Springs

More hot pools


References:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hot_spring

http://www.southernnewmexico.com/Articles/Southwest/GilaWilderness/HotspringsintheGilaNation.html

http://www.nps.gov/gicl/naturescience/hotsprings.htm

http://geoheat.oit.edu/bulletin/bull23-4/art6.pdf

http://microbewiki.kenyon.edu/index.php/Naegleria_fowleri

http://www.soakersforum.com/3/viewtopic.php?f=19&t=1693

Posted in hiking, hot springs | 3 Comments

Springtime Amongst the Cottonwoods

native grass along Bear Creek

Native grass along Bear Creek

Signs of Spring are everywhere on Bear Creek now. At last, our long, cold, dry La Niña Winter is over and the dormant, monotone-gray vegetation along Bear Creek is waking up. While a few late starters are still sporting furry whitish-yellow catkins, most stands of the Bluestem Willow (Salix irrorata), which grows in spotty thickets along the Creek, have progressed to putting out their first small green leaves. Shiny deep-green clumps of native grasses have also poked up here and there along the water’s edge, much to the delight of the Mule Deer and Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep who come down from the adjacent hills to drink and feast.

Yet as interesting and as promising as these and other first signs of Early Spring may be, it is the electric yellow-green leaves of Freemont’s Cottonwood (Populus fremontii), now lighting up in abundance throughout the Bear Creek floodplain, that command one’s attention, their borderline-garish verdant display simply impossible to ignore. Hiking along Bear Creek, one’s eye is repeatedly entrained in silent awe of these magnificent cottonwoods, as both young and ancient specimens alike stand illuminated in the brilliant, hard, early-morning light, silhouetted against the reddish-tan conglomerate cliffs rising precipitously in shadow from the floodplain across from Casitas de Gila Guesthouses.

Freemont's Cottonwood

Freemont's Cottonwood showing its spring colors along Bear Creek

Fremont’s Cottonwood is one of several species of cottonwoods found in the US, and is the dominant species found throughout the Southwest United States, in Arizona, California, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, and Utah. It is a large tree, attaining heights of up to 120 feet, with diameters of 5 feet or more, and a crown often spreading in excess of 100 feet. The bark, while smooth in younger trees, becomes deeply fissured as the tree matures.

Fremont Cottonwoods are dioecious, putting out flowers from March to April in the form of a long, drooping catkin that differ between male and female trees. The fruit consists of egg-shaped capsules which split open when mature to release quantities of wind-dispersed seeds carried by tufts of cotton-like filaments, often covering the ground like snow. Leaves are heart-shaped, 2 to 3 inches long, a shiny deep green with white veins and serrated margins. In the Fall, these leaves turn a beautiful deep yellow to orange, turning the floodplain into rivers of gold when viewed from the hills and mountains above. Leaves are attached to the stems by a 1-1/2-to-3 inch long vertically-flattened petiole which produces the characteristic fluttering in the slightest of breezes.

Spring cottonwoods

Spring cottonwoods along Bear Creek

Cottonwoods are water-loving trees, with their deeper roots extending below the permanent water table. The wood is much like a living sponge, and the heavy, water-saturated branches are highly prone to breaking off in high winds. While inviting for shade and refuge, they can be deadly for campers during a storm. Normal life span is referenced as being 130 or 150 years; but in certain favorable and protected sites this could well be exceeded by many, many years. The largest known specimen recorded in the National Register of Big Trees is in Santa Cruz, Arizona, measuring 42 feet in circumference, over 13 feet in diameter, 92 feet in height, and has a spread of 108 feet.

spring cottonwood leafing out

A cottonwood leafing out in the Spring

For many a pioneer wagon-train family crossing the dry, parched wilderness of the American West, their water barrels running dangerously low, the sight of that distant sinuous band of Spring green to Autumn gold cottonwoods snaking across the landscape was the tangible godsend to their prayers. They knew that cottonwoods meant water – either at the surface or shallow enough to dig. They also knew that beneath those lofty, rustling boughs awaited a welcomed cool, shady respite from the incessant, searing rays of the Western Sun.

Many of these pioneers would put down their own roots along these cottonwood-lined valleys. “No need to go further”, they would say, “it looks mighty fine right here”. Some would try their hand at farming, finding out fairly quickly that cottonwoods, while not much good for firewood or fodder for their animals, made a decent fencepost. Others, with more expansive dreams, would end up ranching the adjacent hills and mountains that spread out in endless emptiness before them, quickly learning to site their homesteads on the hillsides well above the reach of the floods that would periodically rage through the ancient cottonwood groves below. In time, quite a few of them would choose a more obsessive path, that of eternally chasing the illusive golden flakes that occasionally could be found shining enticingly in the stream beds beneath those same cottonwoods in the clear, shallow waters of the deeper canyons. And so it was in the valley of New Mexico’s Gila River and along the more hidden meanderings of Bear Creek. All the while the cottonwoods watched in soft, rustling observance.

To the Native Americans of the American West, however, the cottonwoods were much more than just a cool drink in a shady spot. For countless generations of various tribes, cottonwood trees were an integral part of daily life whose cultural uses ranged from offering a sacred connection to the Great Spirit to being Nature’s provider of everyday basics, from medicinal to edible to the utilitarian, and, sometimes, to the special. Several of these specific uses are listed below.

Freemont's Cottonwood bark

Fissured Bark on The Old One, along the Big Tree Trail at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses

Native American tribes associated with these uses, as documented in reference literature, are indicated by numerals in parentheses following the specific use. These tribes and their locations are as follows:

  1  Cahuilla, Central Southern California
  2  Chumash, coastal areas of Central and Southern California
  3  Diegueno (Kumeyaay), Southern California and Baja California, Mexico
  4  Havasupai, Grand Canyon, Arizona
  5  Hopi, Northeastern Arizona
  6  Hupa, Northern California
  7  Kawaiisu, Southen California
  8  Maidu, Northern California
  9  Mendocino, Northern California
10  Pima, South Central Arizona and Sonora, Mexico
11  Pueblo, Arizona and New Mexico
12  Wintun, coastal area Northern California
13  Yokut, Central California
14  Yuki, Northern California

In reviewing the uses listed below, it is highly probable that many, if not most, other Southwest tribes besides those listed used Fremont Cottonwood in most of the various ways listed, particularly in the medicinal and edible categories.

Medicinally, the uses were legion, in the form of infusions (steeping of plants in water or oil), decoctions (mashing, then boiling of plants to extract soluble oils and organic compounds), or as poultices (soft, moist mass of plants put on injuries or bites, generally applied heated). Primary active ingredients are salicin and populin, which are closely related to the chemical ingredients of aspirin:

Infusion of bark and leaves on cloth tied around head for headaches (1)
Infusion of bark or leaves taken for colds (14)
Infusion of bark or leaves taken for sore throats, fever or (14)
Infusion of bark and leaves used as a wash for cuts (1)
Infusion of bark or leaves taken for cuts and sores (14)
Infusion of bark or leaves taken to expel worm and intenstinal parasites
Infusion of leaves applied to bruises, wounds or insect stings (3)
Infusion of leaves effective against scurvy, urinary infections, heart troubles, and as a diuretic
Infusion of bark and leaves used on horses for saddle sores and swollen legs (1)
Decoction of bark used as a wash for bruises and cuts (9)
Decoction of bark used as a wash for horse sores caused by chafing (9)
Decoction of plant used as a bark for sores (10, 14)
Decoction of green leaves used applied to breaks or sprains (3)
Decoction of inner bark to wash broken limbs (7)
Poultice of leaves applied to bruises, wounds or insect stings (3)
Poultice of inner bark applied to injured areas (7)
Poultice of boiled bark and leaves applied to swellings caused by muscle strain (1)
Poultice of hot leaves applied to breaks or sprains (3)
Poultice or salve of leaf buds used for burns or skin irritations

Use as an edible food source:

Young, green pods or “berries”(female flower catkins) eaten or chewed as gum (4, 10)
Catkins (male flower catkins) eaten as a snack food (10)
Flowers (male and female catkins) eaten as a snack food (10)
Sweet and starchy sap consumed raw or cooked
Inner bark can be scraped off and eaten raw, cooked in strips like noodles or dried and powdered as flour substitute

Various utilitarian uses:

Pealed stems split and used to make baskets (4)
Wood used for the construction of shades and houses (4)
Twigs used for basket making (8, 10, 13)
Roots used to make twined baskets (6)
Wood used for fence posts (4, 10)
Trunks used to make wooden mortars (1)
Wood used to make bowls and plates (4)
Wood used occasionally but considered a poor source of firewood (3, 4, 9)
Inner bark fibers used to make skirts (2, 12)
Bark fibers used to pad baby cradles (12)

Special uses:

Central pole used in the Sacred Sun Dance Ceremony (numerous Plains Indian tribes)
Roots used for the carving of sacred Kachina dolls (5)
Hollowed logs used to make drums (4, 11)
Falling seeds used to indicate time to plant (4)
Wind rustling leaves believed to be gods speaking to people (5)

Freemont's Cottonwood

The Old One — the big cottonwood along the Big Tree Trail

Most of the trails in the Casitas de Gila Nature Preserve along the Bear Creek floodplain have extensive stands of Fremont Cottonwood. The growth of the younger cottonwoods in the central part of the floodplain since a major flood in February 2005 (8 feet above normal flow, bank to bank) is well documented in the Casita’s Self-Guided Nature Trail.

The Big Tree Trail leads past several old-growth and very large cottonwoods, including one giant specimen that measures 27 feet in circumference (8.6 feet in diameter)! This tree is well protected from floods and high winds by vertical ledges of Gila Conglomerate that buttress its east side. Thus protected, it is thought that this tree is probably the oldest tree on the property, possibly in the neighborhood of 200 to 250 years. To pause and sit quietly on the log bench placed at its base and to contemplate and listen to the fluttering leaves rustling far above is a treat for one’s soul. Judging by the numerous tracks commonly found in the trail next to this tree, it is apparent that this is a favorite spot for other residents of Bear Creek as well. Examining these tracks over the years, we and our guests have identified a wide variety of passerby fauna, including Bobcat (Lynx rufus), Coatimundi (Nasua narica) and even the occasional Mountain Lion or Cougar (Felix concolor).

References

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Populus_fremontii
http://www.treenm.com/education/fremont_cottonwood.shtml
http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/tree/popfre/all.html
http://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_pofr2.pdf
http://herb.umd.umich.edu/herb/search.pl?searchstring=Populus+fremontii

Posted in Bear Creek, New Mexico trees, wildlife | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Becky & Michael O'Connor, Owners
CASITAS DE GILA GUESTHOUSES & ART GALLERY
50 Casita Flats Rd • PO Box 325 • Gila, New Mexico 88038
575-535-4455

info@casitasdegila.com

 

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