Monday, September 15, 2008

Monday, September 8, 2008

Medicine of Thunder Mountain

September 8, 2008 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

The majestic Superstition Mountain rises some 3,000 feet above the desert floor east of Apache Junction. This giant monolith was formed by volcanic action more than 29 million years ago during the Tertiary Period of geologic time.

The mountain is the remnant of an uplifted caldera formed by the deposition of alternating layers of ash and basalt. The façade of the mountain we see today was carved by the action of running water for four to five million years.

There are many legends and tales about this mountain, the mountain that thunders. Cowboys, horsemen, hikers and prospector[s] have told stories about how the mountain rumbles deeply. Some wonder if it generates its own thunder. Some researchers have cited the Native Americans as the first ones to call it Thunder Mountain. Researchers have attributed the rumbling of the mountain on cloudless days to earth tremors deep beneath the mountain or blasting at the Pinto Valley Mines west of Miami, Arizona.

The mountain was named by local Anglo and Mexican farmers of the Salt River who thought the Native Americans were very superstitious about the mountains to the east, hence the name Superstition Mountain. The U.S. Army called the mountain several names, however the two most common were “the Salt River Mountains” and the “Sierra de Superstitions.”

The U.S. Army, including elements of the 14th Infantry, 32nd Infantry and members of the 1st Arizona Volunteers campaigned against the Apaches and Yavapais in the Superstition Mountain from 1864 to 1868. The purpose of this campaign was to eradicate the Apaches and Yavapais who lived freely in the Superstition and Pinal Mountain areas. The Apaches and Yavapais were constantly accused of raiding the farmers in the Salt River Valley.

The Pima Indians called Superstition Mountain “Crooked Top Mountain” or in their tongue Ka-Katak-Tami, according to Dr. Charles F. Skinner. At sunrise you can see why the Native Americans called the mountain “Crooked Top.” Each Native American group had a different name for Superstition Mountain. The Apaches consider all large mountains to be sacred.

There is a legend about a German prospector by the name of Jacob Waltz who supposedly found a rich gold mine somewhere east of Superstition Mountain. Men and women have come from around the world to search for this legendary lost gold mine since Waltz’s death on October 25, 1891. The mine remains lost to this day even though many have claimed they found it, none have produced any gold. This legendary mine was called the Lost Dutchman Mine.

Gold was discovered in the foothills of Superstition Mountain in 1892. The sound of stamp mills crushing rich gold ore rang across the desert from 1893 to 1897. According to records approximately $3 million in gold was removed from the old Mammoth Mine. The Peralta brothers discovered the first gold prospects found in the area in 1879. The first gold claim was staked at the Lucky Boy in 1881. Another discovery was recorded at the Black Queen in November of 1892, however the richest and most famous mine, the Mammoth, was discovered in April of 1893, after a raging flash flood exposed a rich vein of gold ore. Prospectors had been searching the Goldfield area since 1864. They came down from the Bradshaw Mountains during the winter months to get away from the severe cold.

Superstition Mountain is part of the Superstition Wilderness Area and the Tonto National Forest. The Tonto National Forest was set up to preserve and protect the watershed of Roosevelt Lake and the Salt River lakes.

This wilderness area was set aside in 1939 to preserve the fauna and flora of the Sonoran Desert for future generations to enjoy. The wilderness encompasses some 159,780 acres or 242 square miles of the Tonto National Forest. The diversity of flora in this wilderness ranges from the giant Saguaro to the stately Ponderosa pine. It is certainly a land of extremes in plant life, animal life, climate and topography.

Superstition Mountain’s highest point is only 5,074 feet above sea level, while the highest point in the wilderness is some 6,242 feet above sea level at Mound Mountain. These mountains are part of the transitional mountain zone of Arizona.

Superstition Mountain is the second most painted and photographed landmark in Arizona second only to the famous Grand Canyon. Artists have painted Superstition Mountain since 1870 and photographers have photographed the mountain since 1893. Today more than 100 books have been written about Superstition Mountain and most of them are filled with photographs of this famous Arizona landmark.

The Superstition Wilderness contains some 240 miles of hiking and riding trails. The most popular trailheads are First Water, Peralta, and the trailheads in Lost Dutchman State Park. There are some 17 trailheads that provide access to the wilderness area.

The Superstition Wilderness Area is now a very crowded wilderness. It is one area that will experience controlled access in the very near future if the forest district plans on keeping the region pristine. It is estimated some 70,000 people visited the western end of the Superstition Wilderness last year. Most of these visitors hiked into the mountains less than a mile. These kind of numbers have changed the meaning of the world “wilderness.” A wilderness area was envisioned to be a place of pristine and tranquil beauty, a place where contemporary man’s things are left behind and only nature can be experienced. Men like Leopold, Muir and Pinchot had a vision of protecting some of America’s outdoors for future generations to enjoy when they advocated [for] wilderness areas in America.

Today, some of the most beautiful pristine areas in [America] are wilderness areas. [text cut off] Americans. Some of the individuals, who criticize the wilderness concept most, build their homes on the wilderness fence line and pay the highest price for their property.

We Americans are fortunate to have these special areas to retreat to when we have been overwhelmed by urban America. The fast lane society and stress kill more Americans [than] anything else. If only these people could just share a few moments of tranquility and solitude afforded by one of America’s wilderness areas they might increase their survival chances threefold. A famous American once said, "Slow life’s pace and enjoy being alive.”

Monday, September 1, 2008

Death on the Mountain

September 1, 2008 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

Many people have fallen victim to the rugged terrain and extreme climatic conditions that often prevail on Superstition Mountain. Siphon Draw, on the west face of Superstition Mountain, is a classic example of a climatic basin affected by weather extremes during the cooler months of the year. The elevation changes from 2,400 feet to 5,024 feet in a very short distance. This rapid change in elevation can alter the temperature dramatically, especially during the winter months.

On Sunday, November 15, 1964, two brothers decided to go deer hunting in the canyons along the west face of Superstition Mountain. A winter storm was moving in, but they believed they could hunt until dark and then hike back to their pickup truck without difficulty.

They hiked a trail just north of Mining Camp Restaurant that followed the slope of the mountain into Siphon Draw. Richard Kermis, the older of the two brothers lived in Mesa with his expectant wife Barbara. Robert Kermis, his brother, was visiting from Fredonia, Pa. Hunting in this rugged terrain can be real challenging even to a veteran outdoorsman.

The brothers had hunted together before. However, they were young and inexperienced to desert conditions. On this particular day they hunted most of the time and climbed around the rocks in the area.

At sundown the brothers had not returned to their pickup. Later that evening, Barbara, Richard’s wife, reported her husband and his brother missing to the Pinal County and Maricopa County Sheriff’s offices. The next day a search was implemented by both counties that continued for four and a half days.

On Wednesday, November 18, 1964 the temperature in Siphon Draw had dropped to 15 degrees F. and above four thousand feet there was a foot of snow. After the third day hope was given up that the brothers would be found alive.

Roy Leubben, Tom Daley, and Deputy Sheriff Toby Drummond had worked the search area for three days by nightfall on Wednesday, November 18. Roy Leubben claimed all the trails had been checked in a 15-mile radius of the search area. Still there was no sign of the two missing brothers. The search continued, and the number of searchers had grown to several hundred [horsemen] and hikers by Thursday. The weather began to clear Thursday morning. Still there was no sign of the missing brothers on Superstition Mountain. 

On Friday, November 20, 1964, Mike Laughlin of Coolidge, making his last pass through Siphon Draw discovered the two bodies. The position of the bodies indicated the older brother was trying to shield his younger injured brother from the extreme cold. Investigators believed Robert Kermis fell from the top of a ledge some 60 feet. He was severely injured and couldn’t move. The weather changed rapidly and darkness was upon them.

A closer examination of the bodies assured the investigators that Richard tried to protect his younger brother from the extreme freezing conditions in Siphon Draw.

Judge Norman Teason called for an inquest to be held at his office in the Palo Verde Lodge on Apache Trail. An autopsy was performed by Dr. Alford D. Musgrave, Pinal County pathologist. He determined Robert died from a broken back and the complication of freezing temperatures. Richard died from hypothermia.

Temperatures at night probably dropped down to 22 degrees below freezing on the Fahrenheit scale.

Richard and Robert Kermis died on the mountain from the results of a severe winter storm. They were challenged by weather, severe injuries and isolation even though they could see the lights of the houses below and the lights of Apache Junction in the distance. The brothers didn’t attempt to build a fire because they didn’t have any matches or dry tinder.

Death on the Superstition Mountain under these circumstances is nothing but tragic and overwhelming to the family and loved ones. The story goes to show, you don’t have to be in the rugged interior of the mountain to meet up with tragedy. The Kermis family suffered the ultimate during that tragic week in November of 1964.

Since the turn of the century many individuals have lost their lives on Superstition Mountain. One should always approach the mountain with caution and common sense. Always let somebody know where you are going and when you expect to return.

It is recommended to always go prepared for extreme weather conditions during the winter months or summer months.