Happy Father's Day to both of mine and you or any of yours. It is 105ºF. Tomorrow will be hotter. An extreme heat advisory is in effect through Thursday and Tucson may break record temps of 115-117ºF. I've picked the right time to be headed north.
This morning I knew I had only a few hours before furnace-like air would drive me into air conditioning. It was beautiful at 6:30 a.m. I sipped my coffee on my campsite patio and the air was only in the low 60s. But I knew comfort would be short-lived.
I drove into the Chiricahuas without a game plan. A casual hike was the most likely way to spend my morning, but when the road turned to head into Cave Creek Canyon I decided to go straight to Paradise. For five weeks I have always followed the road left, but today a whim steered me straight. The pavement quickly ended and the rocky dirt road carried on. The only thing I knew about Paradise was that the George Walker House would be found there five miles further on. It offers lodging and is an oasis for birders. Casual visitors are welcome to enjoy birds drawn to the feeders. Paradise is an old mining town and its year-round population is twelve. Yes, 12.
I wasn't thinking about George Walker House as the road became narrower and rockier and I reached for the dial to put my truck into four wheel drive. I was just taking in the scenery and the view of the "backside" of the Chiris I have enjoyed since mid-May. The familiar sign warning of smuggling and illegal immigrants was joined by those warning of the primitive unmaintained road ahead and its serpentine path. As always, I had the road to myself and I enjoyed the rugged driving.
Traveling the five miles was scenic and fun and I finally came to the end of Portal-Paradise Road. The T-intersection with Turkey Creek Road gives you the option of turning left toward the George Walker House (GWH) and the few other scattered buildings and continuing on toward the high elevation Rustler Park or heading to San Simon, AZ twenty-five miles farther to the north. I pushed on south and slowed to take in GWH from the road. I knew the hosts were very welcoming and it was tempting to just laze on the property and photograph birds. However, I was really enjoying the winding, rocky primitive road and decided I'd climb toward Rustler Park and then do the loop back into Cave Creek Canyon. Mule Deer and Pinyon Jays were the most common sights. In the Chiris you find three magnificent blue-colored jays: the Mexican Jay or Western Scrub at lower elevations and the darker blue and dark-crested Steller's Jay usually higher elevations. A fourth blue jay – the Pinyon Jay – is occasionally seen, but its range is farther north. It is the Arizona subspecies of the Mexican Jay I see most. They are beautiful birds, albeit raucous and bold. Jays aren't favorites of birders because of their scavenging, nest raiding and aggressiveness, but they're among my favorite birds. The Steller's distribution extends into Washington State and I enjoyed them near Seattle when I lived there.
The wild narrow road continued to twist and dip south of Paradise and I tried to identify other birds that flitted across my path. Then I saw something large in the road. Two hundred plus pounds large. The rusty fur confused me momentarily, but there was no mistaking the bear when it bounded up the hillside into cover. I had no opportunity to really observe it much less capture a photograph. When I first sighted the bear the road was rising and I briefly lost sight of it before my truck crested the hill and descended quickly toward the large russet mammal. I then realized that it had been attracted to the stream that the road crossed in this valley. I stopped in the six inches or so of water in the stream bed. This was the second stream crossing I had made, but it certainly was the more dramatic.
I sat in my truck for ten minutes hoping to see the bear again. Then I pushed on. South Turkey Creek Road is a beautiful scenic drive leading southwest, especially when you have a vehicle made for rugged driving. I would have hated to be in a car. It was a struggle to keep driving slow in hopes of being quiet enough to encounter wildlife as I really wanted to blast it.
Turkey Creek Road ends at 42 Forest Road, which goes by different names at different points. At this second T-intersection I had the option of turning right to continue on the narrow mountain road to ascend to Rustler Park or turn left and descend back toward Cave Creek Canyon and Portal. I chose the latter. When I neared the AMNH Southwestern Research Station there was a Survey Checkpoint manned by two U.S. Forest Service Rangers. This voluntary survey about my usage of the Coronado National Forest took about fifteen minutes. I'm sure it took longer since I had spent the past two months in and out of the national forest here and in the Catalinas and Santa Ritas and beyond.
Seeing the bear was very special. I told the ranger about it and he called it a "cinnamon". The black bear is smallest and most widely distributed bear in North America. It is the only species found in Arizona. Most are some shade of black or brown, but the rusty coat I saw is referred to as cinnamon. I mentioned before how few javelinas and coyotes I've seen, and how jackrabbits and cottontails are ridiculously abundant. I've commented on the deer that I see every morning in the Chiris. I also have seen many Mule Deer at dusk or dark when road cruising. What I don't think I've mentioned is the hordes of small rodents that sprint across the road when I am cruising at night. I don't know one species from another, but I've distinguished several varieties of smaller "mice" and gerbil-sized mice with long tails and my favorite, the Kangaroo Rat. These are much larger and have large hind feet and run bipedally. They can leap incredible distances (six feet or more) from a run of about 6 mph. I watch them dash to the other side of the road to elude my truck and then when they get to the 18" high roadside grass they spring a couple feet in the air right over it. But seeing a wild animal your own size is a much more dramatic experience. Seeing a mammal larger than me – male orangs in Borneo this past February - was mindblowing.