Monday, April 25, 2011

Wildlife in the Superstitions

April 25, 2011 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

Prior to the turn of the 20th century, Desert Bighorn sheep and the Desert Antelope could be found in plentiful numbers around the base of Superstition Mountain. Today the antelope has disappeared. The Desert Bighorn sheep have been reintroduced to the Superstition Mountain area, but the numbers of sheep have dwindled considerably since their reintroduction.

The sheep’s greatest predator is the Mountain lion. When the sheep were numerous in the area, the sound of butting of their horns during rutting season could be heard throughout the canyons on the west face of Superstition Mountain. The early Native Americans who lived here, perhaps a 1,000 years ago, left remarkable images of the Desert Bighorn at Hieroglyphic Springs.

It is difficult to visualize giant rams bounding up and down the rugged cliffs of Superstition Mountain or Desert Antelope running across the flatlands south and west of the mountain. Old timers tell us the last Desert Bighorns were poached during the 1930’s. The last Desert Antelope reported killed in the area was in 1903. A limited number of Desert Bighorns were introduced into the area during the 1970’s. Last winter my wife and I stopped along the Apache Trail near Apache Gap and watched five Bighorns on the side of the hill grazing. Their presence created a traffic jam on the Apache Trail.

These two species were driven from their natural range by three major causes. One was over-hunting, two was the introduction of domesticated grazing animals, and three was encroachment of urbanization. Near the turn of the 20th century meat-hunters decimated the remaining animal populations in the area with modern long-range firearms using smokeless powder. Overgrazing by cattle destroy much of the land for native animal populations.

State and federal agencies attempted to manage game and range resources in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Their efforts in the beginning were feeble to say the least. The hunting and poaching of animals within the wilderness became somewhat controlled by game wardens. Even today there is insufficient human resources to manage the wildlife of the wilderness area. Beginning in 1909, when range management was first implemented it did help provide sufficient browse for domesticated stock and wildlife.

Controlled hunting seasons for Mule deer, White Tail deer, Peccary and other species of game animals insured a future for game hunting in the wilderness area. However, without game and range management in the early days there would have been a very dim future for wildlife in the region.

The Peccary (Javelina) is common to the desert uplands where the Prickley Pear cactus can be found in abundance. The Peccary, weighing between 35-45 pounds is one of the most sought after game animals in the region. Each February thousands of hunters take to the field in search of this elusive desert animal. The region near the Tortilla Ranch is an excellent range to spot a Peccary.

The remaining two large mammals of the Superstition are the Black bear and the Mountain lion. The Mountain lion ranges primarily in the eastern portion of the wilderness, but can be found through out the area. The Mountain lion is rarely spotted unless pursued by hunting hounds. Some claim the lion population has been dramatically reduced during the past three decades. Others will tell you there are more lions today then ever before.

The Black bear creates considerable controversy when a count is mentioned. Some even claim the Black bear is extinct from the region. However, sightings have been made as recent as 1996 near the Reavis Ranch. I spotted a Black bear on the side of Mount Mountain in 1987. My neighbor Keith and I were riding north of the Reavis Ranch in 2000 when we spot a good size Black bear in pasture north of the ranch. Deer hunters often report bear sign in the Reavis Ranch area. I am quite sure the old Cleman’s apple orchard attracts bears from around the region.

The Coyote is one animal that continues to survive despite the efforts of man to destroy it. He has adapted well to urbanization around the fringes of the Superstition Wilderness. Coyote numbers continue to increase while their range is being inhabited more and more by man.

To the Native American, the Coyote is God’s dog. To the cattleman and sheep man the coyote is a ruthless killer of young calves and lambs. To the environmentalist he is the salvation from plague and Hanta virus infected rodents. The Coyote has numerous enemies and many friends. There are many pros and cons about the animal’s future control within our area. His lonely call continues to sound through the canyons and from towering spires of the Superstition Wilderness. I have been listening to the call of the Coyote for more than fifty years in and around Superstition Mountain. I still love to hear their mournful call on a full moonlight night.

The future of wildlife preservation in the Superstition Wilderness will depend largely on impact control and the education of the public. Today almost three million people are living in the Valley of the Sun or the greater Phoenix metropolitan area. The urban pressures created by this rapidly growing population forces more recreation eastward each year toward Apache Junction and the Superstition Wilderness Area. The wilderness is not an unlimited resource capable of withstanding the urban impact created by the greater Phoenix metropolitan area. Each year thousands of more people are looking for recreational area for the weekend. The Superstition Wilderness Area has become such an area.

Eventually the Department of Agriculture will have to closely regulate access into the wilderness. Without access control the wilderness and its wildlife will have a very dim future. After all, what is a wilderness experience? Isn’t it a place you can go to avoid crowds? To protect this wilderness the public must be educated about its care.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Fire Season in the Desert

April 18, 2011 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

The beauty of the Sonoran Desert after a wet spring is fabulous. The past winter has been witness to a little less precipitation, but there will always be weed growth that will present a great fire danger for the late spring and early summer.

Once the temperatures get above 100 the desert becomes a fire threat. A lot of the dead older growth provides fuel for the slightest spark whether accidental or natural, and a dry desert is often marred with dangerous wildfires in the late spring and the early summer months prior to the monsoons.

The wild fire season has increased dramatically as more and more people move to the arid deserts of the American Southwest. Many of these new residents don’t realize the extreme danger of a dry desert under the extreme high temperatures of summer. This desert tinder can be as volatile as gasoline.

Most wildfires result from two things. One is lightning and the other is human carelessness. Lightning strikes usually occur during the July monsoons, and most fires prior to the monsoons are usually human caused. It is usually a carelessly tossed cigarette or an abandoned campfire that causes these fires. A carelessly tossed cigarette could cost you your home and your life.

As we move into summer, families are beginning their summer vacations and outdoor activities. These activities include backyard cookouts, camping, and other outdoor activities. Any of these enjoyable activities can lead to disaster if we are careless with fire.

I have witnessed many major  wild fires in our area during the past fifty-five years. The first real wild fire I recall occurred in July of 1949. This fire raged out of control east of Reavis Ranch for several days before it was brought under control. Another wild fire broke out west of Roosevelt Lake in the Pinyon Mountain area in 1959, and burned several thousand acres of the Tonto National Forest before it was contained. Lightning caused these fires.

A fire broke out south of the Reavis Ranch in 1966, destroying much of the Ponderosa pine forest in the area. This fire was known as the Iron Mountain Burn and was attributed to a campfire. The forest service planted drought resistant grasses in the area to prevent soil erosion. This grass has become the climax vegetation in the area today. A large wild fire raged through Needle Canyon in 1969 destroying several thousand acres of desert landscape. An abandoned campfire was the likely cause of this wild fire. This fire eventually burned itself out because of the inaccessibility to the area.

I witnessed and photographed one of the most dramatic wild fires on the slopes of Superstition Mountain in July of 1979. This fire raged across the slopes of Superstition Mountain with a fiftyfoot wall of flame engulfing everything in its path. This fire was caused when a high wind blew over a charcoal grill in somebody’s yard near the base of the mountain. One careless neighbor endangered hundreds of lives and millions of dollars worth of property as the fire spread over the mountain within an hour. The smoke was so thick Superstition Mountain could not be seen from State Route 88 (Apache Trail). The glow of the fire after dark could be seen from Phoenix. If it had not been for slurry bombers many homes would have been lost in this fire and lives could have hung in the balance.

On July 4, 1983 another major fire raged on the eastern side of Superstition Mountain destroying several thousand acres. This fire eventually burned its self out. Needle Canyon was struck with another wildfire in March of 1984. This fire burned up the northeastern side of Bluff Springs Mountain and eventually also burned itself out. Abandoned campfires most likely caused these fires.

There was a large wildfire in the area of the Massacre Grounds and along the northwestern slopes of Superstition Mountain in April of 1984. This fire was contained and in some areas burned its self out. Several other man-made fires occurred in the wilderness or around Superstition Mountain between 1984 and1994.

The next big fire to strike the region was the Geronimo blaze near the Gold Canyon development area. This fire started around June 11, 1995 and was fought for three days. A hundred and twenty firefighters eventually brought this blaze under control before lives or property was lost. Twenty-three hundred acres were destroyed by the fire and it threatened several homes near Gold Canyon. This particular fire produced huge columns of smoke that could be seen from Phoenix skyscrapers.

The past few years have been quiet except for the Lone fire on Four Peaks near the end of April 1996. The Lone fire destroyed almost sixty-two thousand acres of the Tonto National Forest. To put this figure in perspective, this would be almost one third of the Superstition Wilderness Areas. This was one of the most devastating fires on public land adjacent to the Superstition Wilderness Area during the past twenty-five years Then, on June 18, 2002, the largest fire in Arizona history began. This was the Rodeo-Chediski Fire. This wildfire burned 470,000 acres of Arizona timber and grasslands by time it was under control July 7, 2002. Recovery from this fire will require more than a century.

The Superstition Wilderness experiences some kind of a wild fire almost each summer. On several occasions the wilderness has been closed to camping and hiking during extreme fire conditions.

This historical accounting of wild fire in our area gives you some idea of what a potential fire hazard the desert can be between late April and mid July. Precipitation is often a double-edged sword. Rain always brings relief to a dry desert region reducing fire danger, but it always produced an abundant growth of brush that can create more fuel and cause more fires. Precipitation also causes severe erosion in areas that have been burned and denuded of vegetation. This in turn destroys the watershed that is so crucial to water conservation in an arid state like Arizona.

As the dry season approaches this summer the fire danger will continue to escalate, bringing dangerous conditions to our desert. There is plenty of tinder and dead-fall to burn on the desert. Once the high temperatures arrive and dry out the tinder it is extremely volatile.

Your care with fire, smoking and open flames at all times is extremely important and will protect us all. Smoking should be confined to automobiles or building during extreme fire conditions. Your caution with fire protects us all and the firefighters that have to fight these desert fires.

We can help by having reasonable firebreak around our home, especially if we live on a large lot containing a lot of dry tinder. I would like to encourage everyone to be extremely careful with matches, cigarettes, outdoor cooking, power tools, and any other use of open flames or sparks. Fire safety in the desert starts at home and should be practiced at all times.

For more information about fire safety around your home call the Apache Junction Fire District at (480) 982-4440.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Wilderness Graves

April 11, 2011 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

Grave markers or grave stones are quite rare within the boundaries of the Superstition Wilderness. I recall a few, but most of these have been totally obliterated. Fifty or sixty years ago there was a very primitive marker at the gravesite of old George Miller and his two partners. Twenty years ago all that remained of this marker was a steel fence post driven deep into the ground. I doubt this old steel fence post marker can be found today. Miller was buried in April of 1936.

Another very old marker lies near the old Kennedy Ranch on the eastern extreme edge of the wilderness area. According to stories, this was the grave of an old cowboy who wanted to be buried on the range he worked most of his life. I have heard this story from more than one old timer. Many of these gravesites are keep secret because friends or relatives do not want the sites vandalized or disturbed.

Probably one of the oldest markers was that of Elisha Marcus Reavis’ grave in what the forest service now calls Grave Canyon. Reavis’ grave is located some four miles south of the old Reavis Ranch house along the trail to Roger Trough Trail Head. The grave no longer exhibits a stone marker.

When I first visited the site in late 1960’s the stone marker was on Reavis’ grave. The marker read Elisha M. Reavis 1829-1896. Somebody had scratched this information into a stone. When I visited the site of the grave again in 1975, the stone marker was still in place. When I returned to the gravesite in the mid-1980’s I found no marker remaining on the grave. The last time I visited the gravesite in late 1990’s I found no marker on Elisha M. Reavis’ grave.

There are several stories about other unmarked graves in the wilderness area. Bud Lane, a local cowboy and packer, use to tell a story about an old Indian that was buried in the apple orchard at the Reavis Ranch. He had worked for the Cleman’s Cattle Company. According to Lane he was buried under his favorite apple tree sitting up. The old man had maintained and cared for the orchard for many years and had lived nearby the ranch. He was given food and other essentials in return for his help.

Another interesting story involves a prospector named James Kidd. He prospected the eastern edge of the Superstition Mountains for more thirty years. He worked the area around Pinto Creek, but never found what he was looking for. His partner Walter Beach said he and Kidd worked a claim in the mountains west of Globe but never staked it. Beach said Kidd never wanted anyone to know where he was working in the mountains. He was an extremely secretive individual. When his heart started failing him he wanted to be buried in mountains near his claim. Walter Beach told an old acquaintance of mine that James Kidd got his wish. If you ever discovered his burial site you would find his gold Elgin railroad watch. Beach said it was buried with him.

Several years after Kidd’s death, a fortune was discovered in his bank account. His bank account exceeded more than $500,000.00. The battle for this fortune between various groups lead to a book titled The Great Soul Trial. Kidd believed in ghosts and the hereafter. The group that could prove the existence of a spirit or the soul would receive his fortune.

Another interesting story about a burial site in the wilderness area is the alleged grave of Alfred Senner. There is little documentation that Senner actually existed, yet there is enough information about this man to believe he did indeed exist. A story is told about a burial site high up in Monument Canyon where Senner body supposedly came to a rest after plunging over a 2,000 foot ledge where he, his riding horse and pack animal went over the edge during a snow storm. Senner supposedly high-graded (stole) rich gold ore from the old Mammoth Mine and cached it somewhere on Superstition Mountain above Goldfield. The story was Senner fell while trying to retrieve his cache of high-grade gold ore from the top of Superstition Mountain. Is it fact or legend? Who knows for sure?

Buried in several different sites along the face of Superstition Mountain are the remains of Native Americans. Several residents in the Apache Junction area have found graves when they were excavated the foundations for the their homes near the base of the mountain. Some were very elaborate burials including several different kinds of artifacts ranging from turquoise jewelry to small ollas a (ceramic jars) filled with arrowheads.

Another interesting burial site lies in a very remote canyon in the heart of the Wilderness Area. Buried in this grave is man who wandered the mountain for five decades searching for a gold mine he believed existed. The story goes something like this. When he finally succumbed to pancreatic cancer he was deep in the mountain and begged his two friends to buried him rather than call out for a rescue crew. His friends knew how important it was to him for his remains to be left behind in the mountains. I have always doubted this story, but who knows for sure?

I am sure there is others buried within the wilderness area whereby no records or information exist about their burial sites. Especially during the period following the American Civil War when the first miners and ranchers entered this country in search of a new way of life. All my life I have heard stories about obscure burials within the wilderness of old prospectors who died, were cremated and interned somewhere in this vast wilderness; a practice that is technically illegal.

These prospectors and treasure hunters were true individualists and they were determined to have their way even in death.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Bear Tanks Incident

April 4, 2011 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

The following incident is somewhat strange by modern standards, but the Arizona Citizen, on December 7, 1877 reported a case of accidental poisoning at Bear Tanks, a spot north of Picket Post Mountain. The story goes something like this.

Two men, one named Reavis and the other Lewis were camped at the Tanks and had just completed cooking their dinner. The men then made some tea from water they had carried in small oak kegs from Florence. Soon after drinking their tea both men became very ill. Lewis became violently ill and went into convulsions.

Reavis saddled up and rode to Hewitt’s Station for assistance and a team. When he returned with help, Lewis was found across the fire with his stomach burned to a cinder.

Elisha M. Reavis later testified he purchased two onegallon water kegs in Florence. The Florence store clerk testified the kegs had contained a little dirt, water and a dark red liquid resembling port wine. The contents of the kegs were rinsed out at the store.

Reavis further testified he and Lewis began a cattle-driving expedition, camping that evening at the residence of Mr. Stilles on the Gila River. The kegs were filled with water at Stilles for the long journey across the desert to Hewitt’s Station.

The two men had used the kegs crossing the twenty-two miles desert. They filled the kegs once again at Hewitt’s Station and decided to camp at Bear Tanks four miles away. Both men preferred Bear Tanks because it was easier to picket their horses. Once in camp at Bear Tanks Lewis took the kegs to refill with water while Reavis built a fire and prepared supper.

After supper both men drank tea made from water taken from the kegs. Shortly afterward both men became violently ill. Reavis recovered enough to saddle up and go for help. He returned with a party of citizens and found Lewis dead.

Judge Blakely impaneled a corner’s jury and proceeded to the spot. The body was found in the fire. The water kegs were opened, showing a dense white precipitate, which was believed to be a lead compound. After examining the evidence at the site, the jury was taken to Picket Post and reconvened.

A coroner’s inquest into the strange death of James Lewis was held in Picket Post on December 9, 1877. Judge Blakely acted as coroner. Blakely ask Professor DeGroat to make an analysis of the sediment in the kegs. DeGroat announced the sediments were arsenic. Judge Blakely then requested Dr. Bluett to make a post mortem of the victim. It was soon concluded the victim, James Lewis, had died of arsenic poisoning.

The corner’s jury was reconvened several days later when all results were back. It was decided the poisoning and death of James Lewis at Bear Tanks was a tragic accident. Elisha M. Reavis’ survival of the incident was extreme luck. He was also poisoned, but not as severely as Lewis. Reavis was cleared of any wrongdoing.

The records involving the Lewis death did not reveal whether or not Elisha Reavis was living at his mountain retreat at this time. There was a lot of mining and milling activity in the area during the late 1870’s. The Silver King Mine was in full production and the mill town of Pinal was in full operation.

This was another incident in the life of the “Hermit of Superstition Mountain”, Elisha M. Reavis (1829-1896). Reavis lived in his mountain valley about 8 miles north of the Silver King Mine for almost 20 years while becoming an Arizona legend.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Roosevelt Dam - 100 Years

Recently my wife and I were invited to attend the 100th Anniversary of Roosevelt Dam on Friday, March 18, 2011. This was a great honor because we attended the 50th Anniversary of Roosevelt Dam, March 18, 1961.  Many times over the years we had talked about whether or not we would be here for the 100th Anniversary. It was quite a celebration for about two hundred invited guest. We had an opportunity to visit with Marsh Trimble, Apache Junction City Councilman Jeff Serdy, Apache Junction City Councilman Chip Wilson, and many other guest while at the celebration.  Lunch was served on the dam and then various speakers talked about the importance of the dam to the Arizona, Phoenix and the Salt River Valley. The keynote speaker of the day was Governor Jan Brewer. Also a Teddy Roosevelt impersonator gave a speech similar to the one given in 1961, and of course the original on March 18, 1911.

My wife and I had mixed emotions about this historic event. Several of my relatives who lived in Tonto Basin worked on the dam. My Uncle Riley Brunson hauled freight over the Mesa-Roosevelt Wagon Road for the Packards at the Tonto Basin Store shortly after the roads completion. Riley Brunson required his family to walk down Fish Creek Hill on the return trip because of the danger of losing a wagon on the grade.  Yes, the celebration brought back a lot of memories for our families.

Tom Kollenborn