Monday, May 28, 2012

Fire Season in the Desert

May 21, 2012 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

The beauty of the Sonoran Desert after a wet spring is fabulous. This past winter has been witness to very little precipitation. There will always be weed growth even in a dry year. A lot of the older growth that is dead provides fuel for the slightest spark whether accidental, careless or natural. Once the temperatures get up in the hundreds the desert becomes a tinder box ready to explode into a fire. A dry desert is often marred with dangerous wildfires in the late spring and the early summer months prior to the monsoons. The fire danger increases as late spring and early summer temperatures increase. The wild fire season also 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 wildfires in our area during the past fifty-five years. The first real wildfire 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 wildfire 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 wildfire raged through Needle Canyon in 1969 destroying several thousand acres of desert landscape. An abandoned campfire was the likely cause of this wildfire. 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 fifty-foot 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). 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 itself out. Several other man-made fires occurred in the wilderness or around Superstition Mountain between 1984 and 1994.

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. The fire destroyed twenty-three hundred acres and it threatened several homes near Gold Canyon worth more than a hundred thousand dollars each. This particular fire produced huge columns of smoke that could be seen from Phoenix  skyscrapers.

This past four or five years has 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 onethird 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, one the largest fires 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 Wallow Fire in June of 2011 near Alpine burned more than 520,000 acres. The largest wildfire in Arizona history. The Wallow fire was human-caused.

The Superstition Wilderness Area 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 wildfire 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 deadfall 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 buildings during extreme fire conditions. Your caution with fire protects everyone from immediate danger.

We can help by having a reasonable firebreak around our homes, 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, May 21, 2012

Gold Fever - Contagious!

May 14, 2012 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

Thirty years ago I was involved in a very bizarre search for a Crystal Skull in the rugged and vast Superstition Wilderness Area. Joseph Mays was so convinced he had found an ancient Aztec treasure he convinced “Arkie” Everett Johnston to pack his outfit into the mountains on July 6, 1980. The temperatures were extremely hot, both animals and men could easily become dehydrated. Somehow, I was convinced to make this trip with Mays and Johnston. I must admit the temperatures were extreme but Joe and Arkie made sure we had the proper supplies and sufficient water for the expedition. If ever there was a gold expedition into these mountains that could go deadly wrong, it was this one. Joe’s crew spent nine days digging for gold in extreme heat. The gold hunt was a total failure, but to save face Joe Mays made a video documentary about the trip.

I spent three days and nights with them in the mountain. It was hot, but we managed because we had plenty of water, shade, and food. “Arkie” had a packer going out daily and returning with ice, soft drinks and water. We were there under ideal conditions, and still we had one case of sun poisoning, one case of heat exhaustion, and one severe laceration. The outfitters were well prepared for emergencies and could get someone out quickly to the hospital. We all survived this living hell because of the thorough preparation.

Ironically, thirty years later three Utah prospectors ventured into the mountains on July 6, 2010 looking for gold. They literally vanished. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office conducted a two-week search without finding a trace of the missing men. After the sheriff’s office closed down their search, the Superstition Search and Rescue continued the search for six months. On January 5, 2011, Richard “Rick” Gwynn, a local prospector and author, discovered two of the missing men’s remains on Yellow Peak, virtually ending a long and difficult search. Again, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office withdrew from the search for the remaining third member of the expedition. The Superstition Search and Rescue, under the direction of Commander Robert Cooper, located the remains of the expedition leader Curtis Merworth about a quarter of a mile from the other two men on July 15, 2011, ending the search for the three missing Utah prospectors.

Today, Monday, May 7, 2012 Carol Merworth, age 70, her daughter Tammy and other family members met with member of the Superstition Search and Rescue (SSAR) at the Apache Junction Elks Club. Members of the SSAR were on a humanitarian mission that day visiting with Carol, her daughter and family about the search for her son and the two men who accompanied him into the mountains.

After the discussion was completed at the Elk’s Lodge, the group drove out to First Water Trailhead. Carol Merworth wanted to see the general area where her son and friends went missing. SSAR Commander Cooper carefully explained the search sequence undertaken by the search team to try and find her son and friends.

Shortly after the visit to First Water I interviewed Carol Merworth and her daughter Tammy. Carol was a very serious and matter-of-fact person. She appeared to be very independent and self-reliant. She wasn’t gregarious by any means, but she did answer questions and offer opinions. However, some of rhetoric was very similar to what we hear everyday about the government. For example, “the government will not allow people to take the gold out of the mountains.” She was convinced that her son knew where the gold was located in the mountains.

Carol Merworth stated she believed the gold was located back in the mountain and the government protected it. Tammy said she warned her mother if Curtis went into the mountains in the summer heat he wouldn’t make it out alive again. The interesting thing about this whole story is that all three prospectors shared equally in the expense of the trip, according to Merworth’s mother. She said it was Malcolm Meeks idea to go during the height of the summer heat, however Tammy said it was her brother’s idea because he wanted to get into the mountain unnoticed by other treasure hunters. All of these statements point to
an obsessed gold hunter so cautious that he endangered himself and others.

Curtis Merworth outfitted his crew with umbrellas, one plastic bottle of water, a battery-type lantern and other unknown items. The men did not take enough water with them to survive. Water is the single most important item to carry in the summer months. Carol Merworth didn’t mention what else the men carried on this expedition planned by her son. She said her son was also convinced that James Wilson had the puzzle of the lost gold buried around Yellow Peak figured out in his book “To Crack A Golden Egg.” Merworth used this book to search the Superstition Wilderness Area for lost gold bullion. A copy of Wilson’s book lay in back of the prospector’s vehicle at First
Water parking lot.

As we look back, can anyone be held responsible for this human tragedy? I would say no. However, there are many contributing factors to this very sad scenario that led these three men to their deaths. Could their deaths been avoided or prevented? Yes, if common sense had prevailed.

I interviewed the last man the three men talked to on July 6, 2010. I ask Louis Ruiz a very blunt and direct question. “When these men asked to buy a map of the area and told you they were headed for First Water when you knew temperatures were soaring to about 114 degrees, what did you tell them?”

Louis Ruiz replied, “You’re stupid going in there this time of the year.”

Knowing Louis personally, I am sure that is exactly what he told them. That was a very blunt warning as to how dangerous these mountains could be in the summer time. Merworth had been here before and been lost, so therefore he knew the dangers they faced. The loss of the lives of these three gold prospectors under nearly identical conditions is very difficult to accept or even fathom.

Monday, May 14, 2012

My Favorite Trails, Part II

May 7, 2012 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

The Superstition Wilderness Area is filled with many beautiful and mysterious areas. Searching out these special places has been a lifetime avocation of mine. I worked on a cattle ranch for several years, hiked the trails as a young man, and continue riding the trails throughout adulthood. My love for the history, beauty and solitude of the region has not diminished in any way. I continue today hiking and walking in the Superstition Wilderness Area, and even enjoying it more because it has been saved from development.

Many years ago, a gentlemen asked me what was my favorite hide-a-way in the Superstition Wilderness. This certainly was a difficult choice for me because I had so many places I loved and cherished within this rugged mountain wilderness of deep canyons and towering spires. Wandering the trails and remote regions of this wilderness was as exciting as gathering the history and legend of the region. After a moment of indecision, I decided to make my choices of favorite locales in the wilderness.

Last week was Part I, and I covered Rough’s Canyon, Log Trough Canyon and Weaver’s Needle. This week, I discuss the rest of my favorites.

I love the ride down into Reavis Canyon from the Reavis Ranch Trail. This ride or hike produces one of the truly scenic locations in the Superstition Wilderness Area. At the end of the trail is the spectacular Reavis Fall, when there is sufficient water flowing over it. The fall drops over a basalt ledge and the water falls one hundred and ninety-six feet into a large plunge pool. The best time to visit this area is during the winter months.

Another favorite trip of mine is a hike or ride to the top of Summit 5024 on the top of the northwest end of Superstition Mountain. I have been climbing Superstition Mountain since 1951. My last trip up Siphon Draw Trail was in the April of 2002.

The hike up Siphon Draw can be somewhat crowded if you do it on a weekend during cool weather. Of course, the higher you are up the trail the fewer people you will encounter. Ninety per cent of the hikers abandon the climb to the base of the first stretch of slide rock. From this point on, the trail is almost vertical and requires considerable care to prevent injury. My last trip up Siphon Draw required almost four hours and thirty minutes to complete. The view from Summit 5024 towards Mesa and Phoenix is spectacular on a clear day. Superstition Mountain is the line of demarcation between rural and urban Arizona.

The other choice to the top of Summit 5024 is by horseback. This is a trip I do not recommend. Yes, a horse can make it to the top of Summit 5024, but it could be the horse or the rider’s last trip anywhere. The endurance of the animal you are riding will depend whether or not you can make it to the top. The average horse is not in good enough shape to make the climb to the top of Summit 5024. The ride to the top includes loose talus debris, shear drop-offs exceeding 500 feet, steep inclines of 50 degrees or more and along trails so narrow there is absolutely no room for error in judgement. A calm horse is a real necessity for this trip. The horse must be accustomed to walking on solid rock, slanted slide rock, loose talus debris and must not become panicked when slipping on rock. I haven’t owned a horse in the past ten years that I would trust on such a trip. The climb to the summit 5024 requires about three hours and thirty minutes and the return trip requires only about two hours. I am certain the Summit Trail is not a forestry system’s trail, therefore, it probably shouldn’t be used. Also, the summer months are not the time to try these trails.

These are my favorite spots in the Superstition Wilderness Area and I am sure other people have their favorites. The beauty of the wilderness is enjoying the solitude and tranquility away from the congestion of our cities, their sirens, traffic and lights. Thanks to the vision of conservators such as Leopold, Pinchot, and Muir, we today enjoy the beauty and solitude of these wonderful wilderness areas. If it where not for men like these, we would be looking at a large hotel on the Flat Iron and cable cars running up and down Superstition Mountain.

For information about the trails on most of these hikes pick up a copy of Jack Carlson’s and Elizabeth Stewart’s book, “Hiker’s Guide to the Superstition Wilderness.” In fact, any serious hiker should have a copy of Carlson’s and Stewart’s three hiking books on the area. Most stores and museums in the Valley carry these books.

(Superstition Mountain: A Ride Through Time, a book authored by Tom Kollenborn and Jim Swanson and originally printed in 1981, has been reprinted in a special paperback Arizona Centennial edition and is currently available at the Superstition Mountain Museum and other local booksellers along with their other book Superstition Mountain: In the Footsteps of the Dutchman.)

Monday, May 7, 2012

My Favorite Trails

April 30, 2012 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

The Superstition Wilderness Area is filled with many beautiful and mysterious areas. Searching out these special places has been a lifetime avocation of mine. I worked on a cattle ranch for several years, hiked the trails as a young man and continue riding the trails throughout adulthood. My love for the history, beauty and solitude of region has not diminished in any way. I continue today hiking and walking in the Superstition Wilderness Area and even enjoying it more because it has been saved from development.

Many years ago a gentlemen asked me what was my favorite hide-a-way in the Superstition Wilderness. This certainly was a difficult choice for me because I had so many places I loved and cherished within this rugged mountain wilderness of deep canyons and towering spires. Wandering the trails and remote regions of this wilderness was as exciting as gathering the history and legend of the region. After a moment of indecision, I decided to make my choices of favorite locales in the wilderness.

The first one was the rugged interior of Rough’s Canyon that flowed into Fish Creek Canyon in the eastern portion of the wilderness area. This canyon is beautiful in its transition through desert flora to high-mountain flora. Water is generally found year-round in this canyon, making it an oasis in the desert.

The canyon floor is filled with house-size boulders making it almost impossible to hike through. An old cattleman named Floyd Stone once told me he got a horse down into the canyon and actually had to build a trail to get him out. Knowing old Stone and his ability with livestock I didn’t doubt his story at all. He ran the old Reavis and Tortilla allotment for a couple of decades with his father-inlaw John A. “Hoolie” Bacon.

The early inhabitants of the Superstition Wilderness built cliff dwellings in Rough Canyon and these ruins today are a mute testimony to their survival instincts of almost millennium ago.

Another favorite location in the wilderness is Log Trough Canyon. This canyon is filled with large Ponderosa pines and thick underbrush. It is extremely difficult for a man or woman on horseback to negotiate the trail along the canyon’s floor. Near the head of this canyon there are some old “trigger-traps” used to catch wild cattle. The brush in this canyon was so thick it was impossible to work cattle on horseback in the old days. Cattlemen like William J. Clemans, John A. Bacon, and Floyd Stone would tell you, “A good cow dog was worth a dozen good cowboys in this brushy country.”

The beauty and solitude of Log Trough Canyon is unique. Several years ago, I spent several hours watching a clearing among the towering pines of this canyon. As the wind rustled through the tops of these pines and the rays of the sun broke through into the clearing a young doe browsed on the deep green grass that covered the floor of the clearing. It was such a tranquil scene it mesmerized me for several minutes. This was the kind of beauty and tranquility you found in Log Trough Canyon.

Another favorite location is the top of Weaver’s Needle. I am quite convinced I will never climb to the top of Weaver’s Needle again, but my experience climbing the “needle” in the 1950’s and 1960’s will live with me forever. I really don’t consider climbing the “needle” a technical climb, however it is highly recommended only for experienced rock climbers or mountain climbers. An old friend of mine, Clay Worst, climbed the “needle” in an emergency in the 1960’s and I doubt very much he would recommend the average person to undertake such a climb. I don’t encourage anyone to climb Weaver’s Needle unless they are in good physical shape and experienced in mountain climbing.

There was an old retired Navy photographer named Dewey Wildoner who mastered the climb when he was seventy-two years old. Dewey was a veteran hiker and climber. He celebrated his birthday while camping out over night on top of Weaver’s Needle. Dewey was a dedicated photographer of the Superstition Mountains during the 1960’s and 1970’s. He shared his photographs and slides with the public ny doing slide programs on the Superstition Mountains in the 1960’s. Many people in the Apache Junction area knew Dewey as “Superstition Curley.”

The climb to the top of Weaver’s Needle is a very exhilarating experience. Once on top, the view is spectacular. Looking to the northeast and into Needle Canyon is a magnificent view. The three or four times I have climbed the Weaver’s Needle the wind blew constantly on top. There is a small area cleared for putting up a tent. Over the years many people have climbed Weaver’s Needle safely, but as a word of caution, many have died in their attempt to climb “the needle” also.

Next week, Part II