River House Ruin on the San Juan River
Ty and Barb Belknap in Baby Blue
Another tale of tales from the San Juan River
It was finally fall—the best time of perfect days and cool nights. We loaded up the Subaru with rafting gear, sent out the invoices, and delivered a couple more stacks of the Signpost just before the Bernalillo rush hour, and drove to Utah.
It was way past dark when we arrived at the San Juan River put-in at Sand Island. Our party had already inflated the rafts and hit the sack somewhere in the packed full campground. All the motels in Bluff were booked full of tourists as well. Luckily, we knew of a commercial camping area with a nice grassy spot under a tree. The office was closed so we enjoyed a free night under the stars, got up at dawn, and were inflating our raft on the riverbank when the rest of the group arrived. They were happy to see that we would not be delaying the trip, since there were eight groups scheduled for put-in that day. It gave us first choice of the limited campsites along the first stretch.
We passed up the fabulous petroglyphs because all of us had seen them plenty of times before. We wanted to claim a campsite that Mike knew of in the cottonwoods just below the Anasazi River House ruins where we made camp before lunch. I am fortunate to have a copy of Joe Butler’s handwritten guidebook. Joe left the river for a better place a couple of years ago—I’m sure he would agree that heaven couldn’t be much better than the San Juan.
This stretch of the river offers few whitewater thrills. Our priorities were hiking, exploring Anasazi ruins, horseshoes, swimming, and eating. Music was provided by Mike Hill and Barb Belknap on fiddle, mandolin, and guitar. They must know a thousand songs. Enthusiasm for sing-alongs, dancing, and hula hooping depended somewhat on the quantity of alcohol consumed.
There is easy access to the well-traveled River House ruins, which were inhabited for about four hundred years. We had plenty of time to sit next to the beautifully preserved pueblo under a big white snake and imagine those better times for the Anasazi when it was relatively safe to farm and hunt in the broad floodplain that changed over thousands of seasons along the free-flowing river—whatever it was called back then.
Put-in was early the next morning, and we were first to Big Stick camp a few miles downriver and again set up camp before lunch, this time for a two-night layover. Camping and hiking at Big Stick is some of the best on any river I’ve ever seen. Sunsets light up the fantastic landscape of Chinle Wash across the river to the east in red. Sunrise offers the same view in a different light.
Horseshoe champ Bill set up the stakes for anyone with the nerve to challenge, while Barb and Mike practiced for the coming night’s hootenanny. They take on a new name each trip—this time it was Big Stick and Twiggy (available for private parties, weddings, and funerals.)
The rest of us hiked off in different directions. For the first time, I found my way up a difficult climb to the top of the broken ridge behind camp where the view upriver to Comb Ridge and distant mountain ranges can only be described in clichés as breathtaking in its grandeur and beauty. Coming down a side canyon was easier walking, but I got a little disoriented and was happy to swim and wade a half mile downriver rather than bushwhack though the thick growth of tamarisk and Russian olive.
I stayed up past way past ten and managed to fall asleep, despite the din of epic sing-alongs that continued until late and was followed up with sounds of wild turkeys, donkeys, owls, and coyotes.
In the morning, Barb and I joined Jim and JoAnne, veteran hikers of Chinle Wash for an exploration that I had envisioned for years. Usually such a hike is cut short by the heat of the day, but this one started off overcast and cool. Hikers need to apply to the Navajo Nation in advance for a permit. Jim led us up to a trail above the muddy water and tangled brush that led below the cliffs, past a pair of ruins stacked in natural amphitheaters.
We have explored the lower ruin a number of times in the past despite the rather difficult approach. I’ve only been to the upper ruin the one time I was accompanied by a rock climber who dropped a rope down to me. The climb itself is aided by ancient Moki steps carved into the cliff and requires only moderate skills, but part of it is massively exposed and a fall could be fatal. Probably due to its inaccessibility, the upper ruins are amazingly well-preserved. Wooden lintels are still intact above several windows, as are some of the ceiling latillas. The ground is carpeted with pottery shards and ancient corncobs. These sites were Tony Hillerman’s inspiration for the frog pond ruins in A Thief of Time. One can’t help but imagine the families of this dying culture and wonder, as he did, about the violent environmental and social forces that must have driven these people to such a forbidding place.
The trail led to a lush side canyon with cottonwood trees and a clear stream complete with pools big enough for a welcome dip now that the day was starting to heat up. We climbed along the bottom of the cliffs, or bushwhacked through the stream until we came to some more ruins in more amphitheaters that probably offered transitional shelter that was required to be more defensible. We got into the ruins, but were obviously not the first. A newer accumulation of artifacts including rusted cans and a shovel blade told the story of pothunters that had looted the sites many years ago.
The canyon got steeper and finally topped out onto a vast rocky moonscape with an easy hike back to where we came past the top of the frog pond ruins. We took another dip and sunned ourselves around a large tinaja with 360-degree views. I risked my neck while unsuccessfully trying to climb into the ruins from above and quickly retreated from the canyon’s edge.
It was a long walk back to camp, followed by another evening of frivolity. I was asleep long before ten, dreaming apocalyptical visions of beauty.
The next day was a time to man (or woman) the oars. It was day four of a five-day trip and though we had traveled through a lot of time on our feet and in our minds, we were only at mile eight of a twenty-six mile river trip.
Gearing up for winter in the Sandias
Winter time in the Sandia Wilderness yields to deep, untouched snow trails, endless territory for hiking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing in an incredibly beautiful alpine ecosystem. As the weather cools, migrating raptors and Rosy finches stop by, on their way from the Rocky Mountains to the Manzanos and then down to Central and South America. Bears compete for the last remaining nuts and forbs, trying to fill up enough to hibernate. Roads become icy and dangerous, and New Mexicans bring out their sleds and snowboards and pray for snow.
Before you head out this winter, Karen Takai, of the Sandia Ranger District, urges you all to remember what wilderness is all about: “One of the things about National Forest is your experience on your own.” This means that you must take your expeditions seriously, preparing properly, knowing what to expect, and expecting the unexpected. Karen says, “As a society, we are losing our understanding of being alone.”
The Sandia Mountains are not a National Park, but a Wilderness. From the base to the summit there is over a four thousand foot altitude change. This means that what starts out in the morning as a warm, snowless trail in Albuquerque (or the bottom part of Highway 165, leading up the backside of the mountain) can easily turn into a slippery, dangerous, and freezing adventure by the time you get close to the top. Karen urges skiers, snowshoers, hikers, and campers to bring plenty of extra water, food, warm clothes, a source of fire (and the ability to make it count), a good map, and most importantly, something to keep you dry in rain or snow, no matter how small the expedition. She says, “If you’re new to the area, stay close to the main trailhead. It doesn’t take much to get out there and see how beautiful the area is.” She recommends that all visitors should take a survival course, or at the very least, go online and figure out some survival techniques. Weather in the Sandias can change very quickly, and cellphones don’t always work up there.
For drivers, the same rules apply. Few people know that during intense snowy conditions, the mountains are one of the last places to be plowed. Las Huertas Canyon Road (Highway 165) is a dirt road and, at times, is not plowed at all. From Tijeras, stretches of black ice can remain in the shadows long after other ice disappears. It is important to check road conditions before venturing out, and, basically, at any time, drive carefully in the snow. Karen says that every year there are pile-ups and countless stuck vehicles in the ditches on the side of the road that must be dealt with. “People should carry extra blankets, water, food, and a shovel in their car when heading into the mountains,” she says.
Having said all that about being safe, have fun and go adventure in the snow! The Capulin Snow Play Area will be open as soon as we get a good snowfall (plastic sleds only), hopefully the ski area will open, and right now is one of the best times to go watch migrating birds. On the Crest House porch, the Rosy Finches are a beautiful attraction, pecking at birdseed. Deer are a common site as well, according to Karen. The La Luz Trail, one of the most gorgeous and wild trails in the universe should be snow free for a while longer, the aspens turning yellow and red, the winds blowing stronger, and the air growing colder in a new season.
Roadless Rule decision upheld
—U. S. Forest Service
The US Forest Service is pleased that a federal appeals court has upheld the 2001 Roadless Rule.
The Obama Administration has been and remains a strong supporter of the protection of roadless areas. These areas are vital for protecting watersheds, providing recreation, and hunting and fishing opportunities. We applaud this decision, upholding the 2001 rule, and are proud to have vigorously supported the rule in this case. The Roadless Rule prohibits road construction and timber cutting in 58.5 million acres of inventoried roadless areas, covering about thirty percent of the National Forest System.