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Mogollon Meandering: Waking to an Ecology of Fear

This is the second part in a four-part series about John Davis’ trek around the Mogollon Rim in Arizona.

I was camped on one of these seasonal shallow ponds, fringed with marsh, Vail “Lake”, when I was awakened at about 3 a.m. by piercingly bright lights. As I’d been filtering muddy water at dusk before falling asleep, I’d enjoyed seeing three flocks of ducks whooshing overhead to those most graceful of landings in water, and had heard many bull elk bugling for mates. So I knew the lights meant guns, and I was suddenly scared of my precarious campsite in firing range of any hunter too hasty to look carefully before shooting. Two of the hunters eventually approached me, as I read quietly by solar lamp (figuring, no one will fire at a light), and they were perfectly friendly, but the experience made me empathize with ducks and deer in rifle season. I’m not against hunting, but I wish much more of it were done with tooth and claw and less with motor and bullet. Wolves and cougars hunt the weak and strengthen the herd. Human hunters too often work against natural selection by targeting the trophy animals. As I hurriedly packed at dawn that fearful morn, Coyote howls and elk bugles were replaced by gunfire. Ducks fled overhead, and I hastened back to the AZT.

MULE DEER

I encountered other human hunters on my long tramp that second sunny windy day, all friendly. Some were on ATVs; most were going after elk, though I worried that some would also shoot any predators they happened to see. Despite the autumn surge in guns and motors, I saw wildlife, including elk, woodpeckers, nuthatches, Northern Harriers coursing over playas, a Red-tailed Hawk swooping down on a flock of juncos, Acorn Woodpeckers noisily rushing tree to tree, Turkey Vultures, two mule deer, and several small herds of elk. Most exciting, I glimpsed a kit fox, trotting across the trail in front of me, bushy tail seeming nearly as big as its gray and buff body. Kit foxes hunt rodents and other small animals in these dry grasslands and juniper/pine savannahs.

Up on the big mesas, especially Anderson, I was in open sun most of the time, in grassland punctuated with junipers and pines. West and south of Mormon “Lake” (in these dry years a wet meadow at best), I was usually in second or third growth pine and oak forest, dense enough to afford some shade. Conditions remained dry, though, and water hard to find. I’d set a course that necessitated hiking goodly distances each day, but I was spending much time looking for and filtering water. Some springs shown on Forest Service maps were completely dry, and several times I had to filter muddy (and worse!) water from cow tanks. I lost another half hour a day opening and closing cattle gates.

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Still, I ought not complain. Despite the wounds and insults to the land, the scenery was still lovely and weather sparkling clear. Near Dairy Springs above Mormon playa, I even had the pleasure of a short walk in stately old ponderosa pine/Douglas-fir forest. Much more of Coconino and other National Forests of the Southwest should be allowed to regain these natural park-like qualities.

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