The New “Normal”

For years, I’ve hiked and backpacked into the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park. This is the only mountain range totally contained within the boundaries of any national park in the U.S., so it’s no exaggeration to say it’s an isolated habitat. That said, I’ve gone years between black bear sightings there, and it’s not due to a lack of bears; rather, to an abundance of habitat that is removed from human contact.

But that is changing.

For the past 6 months the trails and remote backpacking campsites have been closed to humans, due to closures for Covid-19. October 1 the backcountry sites were re-opened for backpacking, and I took advantage of the first sites available. I was curious to see if anything in the high Chisos complex had changed with a lack of intrusion by humans, and boy, has it ever. BEARS WERE EVERYWHERE.

After reaching my campsite, a wonderful, secluded site down a side trail in Boot Canyon, I unpacked and set up my tent. It was late afternoon, so I sat on a stump with my book, and unwrapped a meatloaf sandwich for a snack. Nothing out of the ordinary attracted my attention, but for some reason I looked up from my book, and to my shock, I was being watched by one of the largest black bears I’ve ever seen…a mere 25 feet away, right in my camp…and sniffing the air and licking his chops with an eye on my sandwich:

A beautiful male animal of 300 pounds or more.

He had walked into my camp without making a sound…not a twig snap or a leaf crinkle, his huge paws caressing the ground like cat feet. He watched me with curious interest, and showed no fear when I stood and waved my arms and shouted for him to move on. That’s not a good sign. He slowly moved off through the juniper grove and disappeared. I fully expected him to return in the middle of the night, but thankfully I never saw him again.

I put a bottle of water and my camera into a day pack and headed up Boot Canyon toward the south rim of the Chisos Mountains, the high rim that drops off into the desert and overlooks the mountains in Mexico. I had gone less than a mile when I walked up on this very large bear in the middle of the trail, having quenched his thirst in the water contained in the tinajas from the last rains. This was definitely not the same bear that came into camp, a slightly different color, but was similar in size.

Very health and fatted up for the coming winter.

A short distance on up the trail in the upper reaches of Boot Canyon, I rounded a corner and walked up on a sow and her cub, just off the trail, drinking from the only dependable water source in this part of the mountains. This is usually a bad scenario, so I was careful not to approach, and certainly to not get near the cub. I worried that the youngster might approach me out of curiosity, but it kept its distance and shortly moved off up the hillside, showing a little fear of me.

A sow and her cub along the trail, drinking and snacking on a sparse crop of berries. One of this year’s cubs, still dependent on mom, but gaining in size.

On the way back to camp I was startled by two rare Del Carmen Whitetail deer. These deer are found only here in the Chisos, and across the river in Mexico in the Sierra del Carmen Mountains. These deer have spent generations among humans on this mountain and have no fear of humans.

The situation with the bears coming down using the trails in the absence of humans is critical. If they lose their fear of people, it’s only a matter of time before a careless hiker feeds them and they begin to habituate to humans as a source of food. Even if no one is injured by the bears, increased sightings and close proximity contact will surely lead to artificial control of the bears through removal or destruction.

The Perseid Meteor Shower

The Perseid meteor shower peaks in the early-morning hours. This is the finest meteor shower of the year for northern stargazers, with 40-60 meteors per hour visible at the peak in the hours before dawn on August 13. Once called the Tears of St. Lawrence, this meteor shower occurs as the Earth moves through a stream of debris left by Comet Swift-Tuttle.

This first image, captured about 2:00 a.m. on the morning of August 12, features the Milky Way and Jupiter setting just to the south of Santiago Peak, with three visible meteors, captured on a Canon 5D MkII with a 14mm lens, ISO 3200, 20 seconds @ f/2.8.

This year, the Moon is at third-quarter, not ideal for seeing the faintest meteors, but get started watching before midnight, away from city lights, and you will be rewarded with a bright meteor every few minutes or so.

Three metors above Santiago Peak, looking southwest about 2:30 a.m. Camera Canon 5D MkII, ISO 3200, 20 seconds @ f/2.8, 14mm lens.

The Perseids are also a long-lasting show, running from July 17 through August 25. So if you miss the peak, you still have a good chance to see some meteors.

Moon beginning to rise in the east, causing the Milky Way to face slightly and illuminate Santiago Peak and the Santiago Mountains with three meteors visible.
The light on the horizon, as well as on the mountains is not from sunrise, nor from sunset, but from moonrise, even though the moon is in its third quarter. Imagine the brightness if it had been a full moon. These images were from a Canon 6D, 14mm lens, ISO 3200, 20 seconds @ f/2.8.

So far this month, August 2020, we’ve been treated to Comet Neowise, Perseid meteor shower, and a bright planetary show of Jupiter, Saturn and Venus. In these times, there are still lots of reasons to be thankful for the world, and universe, around us.

August in the Desert

At summer’s midpoint, it seems appropriate to post a couple of images representative of the environment of the Big Bend region of Texas at this time of year.

First, an iconic critter with a badly maligned nickname of “horny toad.” Another name for his animal, taken from the 1887 yearbook of Texas Christian University and later adopted as the athletic mascot, “Hornfrogs” has stuck as another piece of misinformation. This wonderful little critter is neither a toad nor a frog, but is in fact a lizard, known officially as the Texas Horned Lizard, or (Phrynosoma cornutum).

The Texas Horned Lizard is listed as a threatened species in Texas, and its numbers were declining so fast in Oklahoma that the legislature tried unsuccessfully to have it listed as an endangered species. When threatened, it freezes perfectly still and does an amazing job of blending into its surroundings. Like all lizards, it’s a welcome addition to our yard, due to its ability to gobble up insects at an amazing rate. The biggest problem is that it tends to freeze motionless and blend into its surroundings, and is therefore difficult to see and avoid when walking around its territory.

Another summer icon of the desert is the rising full moon over Tabletop Mountain east of Marathon.

In addition to the full moon, late July and early August is a fantastic period of summer for stargazing. We were visited by the comet Neowise for several weeks, and one of the best meteor showers of the year is beginning now and increasing to its peak in the early morning hours of August 12-13. Also, Jupiter and Saturn are putting on a great show in the southeast, and the Milky Way is reaching its peak show for the summer during August and September. So, get outside after dark and KEEP LOOKING UP!

Family Ties Update #2

It’s been over two weeks since our last update to a previous post about a family of red tail hawks and the care and feeding of two fluffy white chicks in the nest. Well, in that short time period, those chicks have been growing, and today they appear nearing that time when they are fully fledged and ready to leave the nest. We observed them both testing their flight feathers and strengthening those wings for a day in the not too distant future when the parents’ job will be complete.

One sibling to another, “so, are you quite done?”
Not far away, Mom multi-tasks, as all moms do, keeping watch on the youngsters and hunting for lunch.

Family Ties Update

A week ago, I posted a story about a family of red tail hawks that had just hatched a little one and were tending the nest just outside of town. A return visit to the nest today begged for an update to the story:

After a week of absence, we dropped by the red tail hawk nest today, and to our great surprise, we spot a second little hawk on the nest. Mom & Dad were not far away, hunting for lunch and keeping a watchful eye on their brood.
A short time later, Mom returns and fills the bottomless bellies of her little ones, who immediately stretch out for an afternoon nap.

The Big Bend 100

The April, 2020, issue of Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine’s cover story spotlights The Big Bend 100, a new 100-mile-long through-hike across the largest national park and the largest state park in Texas…Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park. The route description is available at www.bigbend100.com.

This month my good friend and longtime hiking buddy Joe joined me to hike several sections of the 50-mile route through the state park. Since both these parks cover hundreds of thousands of acres of the Chihuahua Desert, our main concerns were finding water where very little exists, and route-finding through an area of desert where no established trails exist…two factors that have the potential for disaster for the unprepared. In fact, just the day before we started out on the first leg of the route, there had been a search-and-rescue event to save lost hikers on the same trail we were attempting.

P1110142 Bob Joe

From the trailhead, the route crests a ridge and descends 200′ down into a drainage of Leyva Creek, a dry creek bed that drains this section of the mountains:

P1110144 trail

At about two miles, we find our first water, at a bedrock wall and pouroff across the creek:

P1110151 pouroff tinaja

A short distance down the creek e come upon another water feature, beautiful deep pools cut into the bedrock by years of flow:

P1110164 creek pool

P1110166 creek pool

Further along this “dry wash” we spot an igneous “dike,” formed by lava forced up into cracks and fissures in the earth which cools, then is exposed by eons of erosion, with more water pushed to the surface by the bedrock. The many prints in the sand are from longhorn cattle, deer, elk, javelina, desert bighorn sheep, aodad sheep, and the occasional bear or mountain lion:

P1110172 creek pool

Our campsite the first night was at the base of a beautiful granite wall, complete with a stream of running water just out our front door:

P1110181 tent camp

P1110182 canyon water

A short hike down canyon yields more water, not to mention fantastic views of the strata that makes up the interesting geology of this area:

P1110190 canyon pool

P1110195 canyon layers

After a beautiful, clear, cool night filled with stars, satellites, constellations, a few meteors and the Milky Way, we awake to the clamoring of the hooves of a group (herd or flock, whichever you prefer) of aodad (barbary) sheep. These are non-domestics imported from Africa years ago for hunting by area ranches, and are now running wild across west Texas, competing for scant resources with native species, such as desert bighorn sheep:

P1110309 milky way

P1110222 aodad

We headed north from camp for a day hike to find the trail that follows Terneros Creek to its intersection with Leyva Creek. Along the way we came upon a small cave that had obvious prehistorical use by native people, near a livestock pen that probably dates to the middle of the last century. We found rock art at the entrance, and the ceiling of the cave was blackened by years of fires burning for warmth and cooking:

P1110246

P1110250 rock art cave

Instead of following the designated trail that follows an old ranch road due north, we diverted through a side canyon, an extension of Lava Canyon, that shows on our topo maps to contain water. In fact, it contained LOTS of water:

P1110262

P1110269 lava canyon

 

P1110272 lava canyon

 

P1110274 lava canyon

At the end of the canyon, it turns into a form of “slot canyon” before opening out into Terneros Creek:

P1110276 lava canyon

After returning to camp, the day hike ended with a cool night under the stars, and a 5.5 mile hike back to the trailhead on the third day. We passed many signs of spring in full bloom, such as these Big Bend Bluebonnets:

P1110322 flowers bluebonnets

From the trailhead at Cinco Tinajas, the route passes the Sauceda Ranch House, now the location of the park interior headquarters, then follows the Leyva Loop ranch road to the Puerta Chilicote trailhead, and the start of the Mexicano Falls Trail which begins the second half of the route, and the remaining 25 miles of the Big Bend 100 through the state park. This section uses slightly more established trails, complete with cairns to aid in navigation:

P1100882 trail cairn

Some of the flowering cactus along the trail includes rainbow cactus as well as claret cup cactus in bloom:

P1100888 cactus

P1110077 flowers cactus

The trail follows cairns across solid rock until it drops down through a drainage to a spring indicated by telltale cottonwood trees:

P1100907 desert spring

At the bottom, a pouroff holds water in small tinajas, which can be filtered to replenish water supplies. This series of tinajas (spanish for “earthen jar”) features a large panel of rock art above a pool:

P1100916 desert spring

P1100921 rock art

From here the trail climbs 200′ over a saddle and follows the trail of cairns to a spectacular overlook above Mexicano Falls. This is the second highest accessible waterfall in Texas, and unlike Madrid Falls (which I covered in the previous blog post), it is more intermittent in flow:

P1100948 waterfall

My campsite was on a high mesa just past Mexicano Falls, and I was treated to the warm glow of late light:

P1100953 tent camp

P1100963 desert sunset

P1100968 sunset

As if that wasn’t enough, the sunrise next morning was breathtaking:

P1110027 sunrise

The views down Arroyo Mexicano, with the “Flatirons” of the Solitario (a round “lacolith” left from the volcanic activity of ancient times) in the distance:

P1110062 desert canyon mountains

P1110081 canyon mountains

Moonrise over another adventure on the trail:

P1100996 moon full

From Mexicano Falls, you can continue on southeast to the Mexicano Falls Trailhead, then down another half mile to Chorro Vista Camp, where you pick up Chorro Vista Trail which drops down to Madrid Falls. From Madrid Falls follow the Arroyo Primero Trail through Chorro Canyon, past the Madrid Ranch another mile and a half to Fresno Cascades, where you pick up the East Contrabando Trail which follows Fresno Creek for 11 miles to the end of the Big Bend 100 in Lajitas, at the East Contrabando Trailhead, all covered in previous posts.