We did not receive the typical summer monsoons which usually saturate our whole mountain in July and August. Now, in September, we’re still hoping they arrive. Today we’re just grateful for the small amounts of rain that we did receive, spotty as they were. Winter and spring moisture boosted early growth and the ongoing light and scattered showers have been enough to perpetuate shallow-rooted vegetation. Many areas of the late summer landscape appears productive despite meager summer moisture.
A friend and I are out in the high country to hike a short distance up Thompson Creek today. We got a late start this morning so we won’t go far. It has been hot of late and the high elevation sun is very intense. The trailhead begins a couple miles down the Reservation Lake Road from Big Lake where an old railroad grade goes southwest through the canyon which hosts the creek. A train traveled this route to the current ghost town of Maverick, which was a booming logging town in the 1950’s. Today, the dirt grade is the only evidence of the train’s existence.
Different kinds of wildflowers appear in splashes of color, and tall spruce trees reach for high summer clouds, probably trying to convey to them in their special silent language that they need a deeper soaking. The landscape is stunning despite some burned areas from the Wallow Fire of 2011, or in many cases, because of it. Among an array of wildflowers, brilliant fireweed dominates the mountainside east of the trail. Bumblebees are busy partaking of the sweet nectar. These loud-buzzing, hairy bees have a mix of black, yellow, orange, or red coloration on their furry-looking bodies and are closely related to the honey bee. The males do not have stingers so they leave the defense work to the female workers who are not as aggressive as honey bees.
My friend’s little dog darts under a low branch of a spruce tree beside the trail. The response is a heavy scolding from a pair of dark-eyed juncos. The leashed pup is easy to retrieve. We scrutinize the area under the spruce. Juncos are little sparrow-sized birds who nest on the ground or on lower dense branches (and may nest in your flowerpot). Since the nest is within easy reach of prey, concealment by brush is the main defense. In this case, the parents’ ability to hide the nest amidst all kinds of vegetative debris strewn around the base of the tree is very effective. Hard as we look, we can’t spot the little cup-shaped abode. Higher up in the spruce tree both adults continue to rebuke us, which is definitely an additional deterrence. We don’t spend too much time looking because we don’t want to keep our feathered friends in distress.
On up the creek a cement structure spans the water among the willows. It has been constructed here as a means of protecting the species of native Apache trout which was almost brought to extinction by the introduction of non-native fish. To increase fishing opportunities in the early 1900’s, wildlife agencies introduced rainbow, brook, cutthroat, and brown trout into many White Mountain streams. They dominated the food chain, preyed upon the native fish, and tainted the genetic pool of the Apache trout. By the mid 1950’s the White Mountain Apache Tribe had begun to protect the native species from the introduced trout. The cement barrier we see is one of many which has been placed across the small clear steam to prevent the re-invasion of non-native trout which have been eliminated above the dam, thus leaving the Apache trout to recover. Water passes through, but the native species retains its territory in the higher elevations. The White Mountains is the only place in the world where this unique fish is known to exist.
We hike a ways further, but before long I realize my knee is still not 100% healed from recent surgery, so we stop to rest a bit before heading back. I sit on a rock by the stream listening to the slow trickling sounds. A golden-mantled ground squirrel hops up on another bolder and sits staring at me. I watch. Another one joins it. My friend is across the way resting on yet another boulder with her dog quietly by her side. High puffy clouds come and go. Whatever concerns I brought along with me about the outer world fade away. For me, this is one good reason for spending time in nature. Peace reigns.
We still have most of the afternoon and evening so we decide to drive over to the west side of Big Lake. On the way we stop at several puddles of water because my friend is a frog aficionado. Sure enough, one of the puddles is full of polliwogs, some of which she is determined to catch despite the fact that we didn’t bring a net. Some are eating algae so she snatches up a handful of a green filament-like substance and sure enough, the organic mass contains some wiggling tadpoles. She surmises that they will be tree frogs.
She brings the mass over to show me, and at first I think the clump is a hair net. “No,” she says. “It’s algae.” I can’t say that I’ve ever paid much attention to the details of algae, but this stuff is amazing! Indeed, it looks like a finely woven net. On the internet we discover that it is actually called net algae and is “an interesting fresh water green algae with cells arranged in pentagons and hexagons.” The details of nature absolutely astound me. Where did this algae come from? How did it appear in this temporary puddle just in time for the polliwogs? How does it weave strands together during its growth process in such a way as to create a net? For me, there’s always something new to learn about nature, and this glob of life just might be one of the most amazing new things I’ve seen all summer.
We stop for a late lunch overlooking Big Lake. I thought cattle were being kept out of this area, but a healthy looking herd of Angus is grazing the lush hillsides which slope down to the lake. An immature meadowlark stands alone on a boulder in the middle of the grasslands which are dotted with the colors of an array of small wildflowers. Peace reigns on this side of the lake today because school has started and only a couple of anglers sit on the bank fishing. The mountain is regaining her tranquil countenance after a busy summer of people.
Driving around the lake, we spot a herd of elk cows grazing on the east side up near the forest edge. We pull over to watch. It won’t be long before bulls appear and the rutting competition begins, but today the cow and calf herd is still peacefully on its own. Late afternoon sun shows them to be healthy, sleek, and fat.
My friend from the Valley has seen even less rain than we have this summer and really hopes we encounter a storm before we get home. At the turn-off by Crescent Lake, it looks like Hwy 261 is our best route if we want to drive through rain. Various showers are coming down in the north and east, so we head toward Eagar instead of taking the more direct route back to Lakeside. Clouds finally hide the sun from us. As we drop down in elevation toward Round Valley, large patches of lavender verbena among dark green junipers appear in splashes across the hilltops. Becker Lake appears in the background, but the promising rain clouds move on to evade us.
Between South Fork and Greer we slow down as a mixed herd of bighorn sheep casually comes toward us from the grasslands. I can tell they want to jump the fence into the right-of-of way and cross the road. We pull over and wait. Ewes, lambs, and rams group along the fence line and are not the least bit afraid of us. Some jump over the barbed wire and graze even closer to the highway. When other cars pull over to the shoulder, it suddenly looks and feels like Yellowstone National Park. People get out of their cars and walk up closer to the sheep to take photos with their cell phones. Probably not too wise. Peaceful as they appear, bighorn sheep are unpredictable wild animals.
We head on down the highway but never catch up with the rain. We can’t seem to make ourselves head straight home however, while we still have an hour of daylight, so we take the turn-off to Sunrise Lake. I’m hoping we’ll see the herd of pronghorns which have been hanging around in this area, but none show themselves today. No humans are around the lake either. In fact, lush undisturbed grasses and flowers span the edges of the lake making me wonder if anybody has been fishing here at all this summer.
We take the dirt road east to the far end of the lake where a huge herd of elk cows and calves was grazing a few weeks ago. The grasslands are quiet today but I spot an osprey perched on the top of a fence post. It flies away just as I focus my lens. It has a fish in its talon and will be looking for another place to perch and stabilize its dinner. Since there are no trees close by the lake, it will probably fly on down the fence line a ways. Sure enough, as we continue onward, I see the evening angler again land on a wooden fencepost near the road. We slowly approach, and this time I get the image I’m after. Sharp claws on the right foot hold the fish steady against the top of the post while the left foot grasps the wood. With its sharp barbed beak the osprey tears the fish into small bites.
As we leave the osprey to her dinner, we spot huge rafts of waterfowl on the eastern end of the lake, but in the waning light I can’t discern what most of them are. I scan the shoreline closer to us and spot a flock of ibis, most likely white-faced ibis, although it’s possible they are glossy ibis, stopping here on their migration south. Their dark silhouettes are distinct with their long de-curved bills. I’m reminded of the scarlet ibis I filmed in Venezuela on the Macareo River and of the white, glossy, and white-faced ibises on the Gulf of Mexico. The only colors showing here at this late hour are on the rainbow grasses swaying in the gentle breeze in front of the dark profiles of the wading birds.
The last of the day’s light is leaving us, and as we drive away from the lake I feel great contentment. Even though we never caught up with the rain, we saw a variety of landscapes with more wildflowers than I’ve seen on the mountain in years. A special friend, a short hike, a gurgling stream, two quiet lakes, an array of wildlife, and an amazing clump of algae added the perfect touch to the peaceful ambience of an exceptional late summer day.
Barbara Davis is a published author on books about birds of the Southwest. She grew up on a cattle ranch in southeastern Arizona and now lives in a cabin surrounded by nature and wildlife in the White Mountains. “My deepest gratitude goes to Kathleen Varhol who graciously sponsors this column in loving memory of her parents, Clarence & Elizabeth Ramel, who loved and appreciated nature.”