Monday, November 29, 2004

A Winter Trail

November 29, 2004 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

Thirty years ago I was asked to join a group of men on a pack trip to the Reavis Ranch and Circlestone. The group included Allan Blackman, Gary Hunington, Nyle Leatham, William F. Wright, Jay Drazinski, and Bud Lane, a local outfitter, who served as the guide and packer. 

The purpose of the expedition was a leisurely ride through the eastern portion of the Superstition Wilderness Area. I’m sure the trip was motivated by the 1974 Copper Cavalcade special titled Trails of the Superstitions. This Copper Cavalcade special was one of the first color documentaries filmed in the Superstition Wilderness Area. 

The film focused on all aspects of recreational use within the Superstition Wilderness Area. The men I was riding with wanted to see the region firsthand for themselves. Nyle Leatham was assigned by the Arizona Republic to document and photograph the trip.

We departed the I.V. Ranch at 7 a.m. on the morning of December 5, 1975. Floyd Stone, the operator and owner of the ranch, bid us a friendly farewell and advised that we would have a couple of really cold nights ahead.

The morning air was cold and crisp as we passed by the Castle Dome corrals. We rode through mud and snow as we followed the trail along the eastern slope of Castle Dome Mountain. We finally reached Windy Gap after struggling with the mud and snow for an hour or so.

The “Gap,” according to old timers, was a place where the wind continuously blows. As we rode from Windy Gap to Plow Saddle we could see the extreme ruggedness of the Superstition Wilderness to the west of us. Nyle Leatham composed his photos with professional expertise as we traveled along the trail. After about three hours we arrived in the Reavis Valley. 

The ground was still covered with about eight inches of snow from a previous winter storm. We rode up the Reavis Valley through thick stands of dark shivering Ponderosa pine and groves of giant Sycamores that looked like skeletal ghosts in their winter dress. There was a stark contrast between the stands of pine and the snow that covered the ground. The old Reavis Ranch apple orchard with its feral trees stood out with its neat rows as we rode by. Once past the orchard we could see the old stone Clemans’ ranch house in the distance. A field of white snow covered the ground. The snow had drifted up some four or five feet against the ranch house on the north side.

The stone construction of the house reminisced of an ancient pueblo except for its corrugated metal roof. The sticky, gooey mud hindered our every move and the reddish clay stuck to everything in layers. We struggled, but finally got the packhorses unloaded and our supplies stashed away in the old breezeway of the ranch. 

Bud Lane had us put away our horses in a corral below, east of the ranch house near the creek. The creek was frozen over with a light crust of ice, but the horses could still get water. The old corrugated metal barn and tack room used by Floyd Stone prior to 1967 was still intact. Amazingly enough, the old anvil was still in place.

North of the barn old farm machinery lay in ruin. A disc, a plow, a tiller, hay rake and land leveler all laid in ruin as reminders of the agricultural past of this valley. It was bitter cold at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Clouds were moving in and it looked like more snow was in store for the night.

Several of us began gathering firewood for the large fireplace inside of the old Reavis Ranch house. The mantel of the fireplace was covered with many designs of different ranch brands. Metal cots filled the room. The old wood stove was still in the kitchen. Ornate copper panels decorated the ceiling of the kitchen.

We knew we wouldn’t have to sleep on the floor tonight. Of course we didn’t have the convenience of a mattress, but it was much better than a cold concrete floor. Eventually, Blackman and Hunnington had to ride up to the south pasture to gather firewood. Deadfall was scarce around the old ranch house.

Horses cared for, wood gathered, and bunks laid out signaled it was time to prepare for supper. Jay Drazinski was the designated cook for the outfit. He made a roast fit for a king over the fireplace. As we sat around the fireplace and ate our evening meal we could hear the wind howl through the trees. Knowing another storm was blowing in, Blackman, Hunington and I plugged and patched up all the windows and fixed the doors so the cold wind and snow wouldn’t blow into the house. The outside temperature after sundown was well below freezing and snow continued to fall. Soon the logs in the fireplace turned to brilliant red-hot coals. We finally got into our bedrolls and called it a night. As we laid in our bedrolls we could see mice running from roof beam to roof beam above our heads. Also there was a family of Mexican raccoons living in the attic of the old ranch house. Once we were quiet, they were a very noisy family.

[Part II – December 6]

The next morning Bud Land was up early, but couldn’t easily get off the porch because of the deep snow. Snow had drifted up to the eaves of the ranch house on the north side. What a struggle it was to feed the horses! 

The Reavis Ranch house’s elevation was close to 5,000 feet above sea level. Even though the snow was belly deep on the horses, we were packed and ready to go by noon. If everything went well it was only a three and a half-hour ride to Angel Basin from the Reavis Ranch house. We knew everything wasn’t going to go well for us as we rode southward from [the] ranch through a meadow filled with snow. Bud was convinced if we got down to Angel Springs there would be very little snow to contend with.

We basically bypassed Circlestone because it was another thousand feet higher and would be impossible to reach under these conditions. As we continued our ride south of the ranch the snow kept getting deeper and deeper. The horses were jumping up and down to break through the deep snow. Our progress through the downed timber area was slow.

We were riding through an area called the “Burn.” A forest fire had destroyed much of the Ponderosa pine south of the Reavis Ranch. This was an area covered with deadfall caused by the 1966 Iron Mountain burn.

We finally made our way up to Reavis Gap. It was miserably wet and cold. Slowly the snow began to melt, but not fast enough to please the riders of this expedition. As we rode down from Reavis Gap the wind was howling furiously. The chill factor must have been below zero. We stopped briefly at Reavis’ Grave in Grave Canyon and took photographs. We were now out of the snow for the most part, but it was still cold.

Reavis’ Grave had a stone marker that revealed his birth date as 1827 and his death date as 1896. Once we were in Roger’s Canyon the cold was less severe. As we rode down Roger’s Canyon the sun made its debut and it began to warm up a little. We were planning on a cold night at Angel Basin. We rode by the Roger’s Canyon Cliff Dwellings without stopping. We planned to visit them the next day from camp.

There would be no warm ranch house tonight! We would be sleeping on the wet ground. I had a good bedroll and plenty of plastic. Everyone else was also well prepared for a cold night. The horses were tethered, fed; we had dinner, and again we prepared for a good night’s sleep. The next morning Jay Drazinski was making pancakes, eggs and bacon. I could smell the aroma of coffee and bacon on the early morning air currents around Angel Basin. Actually it had warmed up a little and things were improving. We had survived the cold night very well.

After breakfast we hiked up to the cliff dwellings and Nyle Leatham spent a couple of hours photographing the ruins. We packed up and saddled for the journey out.

As we began our climb out of Angel Basin the muddy trail took its toll on the horses and men. Horses lost shoes and we stopped to replace them. Thus we used up valuable time for our journey out. Jay Drazinski was also a professional farrier. He was certainly a valuable contributor to the pack trip being both a cook and farrier.

Bud Lane announced that he knew of a shortcut that would save us at least an hour between Angel Basin and Tortilla Ranch. We all followed Bud blindly into rugged rocky mountain hell for man and beast. The terrain became so rugged we had to get off and lead our horses into a deep canyon. We soon realized we could not rendezvous with our pickup crew at Apache Trail. It was apparent we would be spending another cold night in the mountains. We crossed the rugged upper reach of Goat Canyon and made our way over to the Tortilla-J.F. Ranch trail. Riding in the dark we finally made our way into the old Tortilla Ranch.

After camp was set up and the horses fed, Jay Drazinski tried to round up a decent meal with what was left of our supplies. Jay managed coffee and hot chocolate with a dinner of canned hash and stew. The next morning we were out of food supplies. We rode to the Apache Trail, some two and a half miles away, without breakfast.

As we rode and looked at Four Peaks covered with a heavy layer of snow it reminded us of how cold it had been in the mountains during our trek. Nyle Leatham had his photo essay of the Superstition Wilderness Area and we had our over-extended wilderness pack trip vacation.

Oh, so this is what they call a pack trip vacation! Our derriere was sore from the saddle, your nose and ears were numb from the cold, your stomach was empty from lack of food and your bones were sore from sleeping on the cold ground. You call this a vacation? Why, of course, we were roughing it in the wilderness.

Well, at least we were home in time for Christmas.

Monday, November 22, 2004