Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Morning, Ponil Park, June

A rare spot, this bend in the North Ponil Creek. The canyon widens into a meadow of sorts, gentle ponderosa slopes lining to the east and west, views of Little Costilla Peak upstream, Black and Bear Mountains downstream. There's a little cemetery and some ruins of old wooden structures at the mouth of a small side canyon. The gravestones bear 19th century dates – there was once a railroad here. Now, a carpet of golden pea and aspen fleabane. A rare return, indeed.

The North Ponil is flowing – over a foot wide and nearly as deep in spots. It's cause for modest celebration amidst the drought-stricken years which have descended upon the state, where the follies of our race which transpired in offices and oil wells elsewhere now cripple even our most Edenic sanctuaries. But late snowfall and a bout of strong spring rains have provided a temporary reprieve from choking dust and gloomy thoughts. Not enough to forget the problem, but enough to savor this return to health, knowing we may not see another spring of its kind.

The elk have been out these last two days. At the Beatty Lakes they were searching for moisture in the low golden shafts of evening light, cavorting like camels on a gilded savanna. Again last night, a handful came down to the creek to drink. They didn't linger in this less-exposed area where a mountain lion (or in bygone years, a wolf) could race from tree cover and be tearing flesh from bone in three bounds, completing the ancient rite which left another member of their ungulate society nothing but sun-bleached skull, vertebrae, ribcage, and hipbones a little ways up Seally Canyon.

This morning came the other side – rebirth – as seven elk (three calves) crossed the creek, drank, then turned Seally's way, the last of the cows waiting as the final calf struggled up the steep little gully from the stream.

This peace – this relatively untrammeled continuation of things ancient and integral – makes me leap and shudder all at once. I am here with the purpose of training three young adults who will then train seven more apiece to lead scouts through these tranquil places. Just north of Philmont and visited by a handful of its itineraries, the Valle Vidal Unit of Carson National Forest has long held easy magic – so accessible yet so quiet and healthy next to the busy thoroughfares of Philmont's own property. These common elk sightings would be rare indeed in the heavier-trafficked canyons of the Ranch.

The Valle Vidal from Little Costilla Peak.
But Philmont has plans for the Valle. The NFS wants us to expand our use of the area (it must be hurting for tourist money like everything else in the state). There's talk of a rock climbing camp just below Clayton Corral, smack on the edge of the verdant sprawling valley which gives the area its name, and barely a mile from the slopes of Little Costilla Peak which remain closed through June for elk calving. Would not the sights and sounds of dozens of scouts strapping on harnesses and bellowing juvenile war-cries from the top of a little ascent disturb these protected grounds?

Presently, we are making it work up here. But that could change, even this summer, with a few more itineraries slated to explore some new parts of the unit. If we do our jobs well, these crews will pass through as we have the last few days – quietly, respectfully, quickly. I'd like to believe that we can accomplish that, that we can expand at a rate which does not disrupt harmony. But I am not overly optimistic: all we have for an example, after all, is our deer-stuffed, road-covered tinderbox to the south.

Just a handful of miles down this canyon is Metcalf Station, our new railroad-themed living history camp. The staff there invigorate scouts with talk of making history, of being the first to lay track in this canyon in a hundred years, track that their sons and daughters will see when they come to Philmont decades from now. Is that the proud legacy we're seeking? How far upstream will the sounds of hammering ties and pounding spikes reach?

No, if we want to give these scouts a real interpretive experience, let them listen to the chilling whines of the coyotes at night and rise to the sound of birdsong. Let them fall in love with the wild lands of our past, not with the ways we tamed them. Fifty years since the signing of the Wilderness Act and we have yet to raise the generation of true stewards we so desperately need.

There is such potential for good in a summer here, and such cause for concern alongside. It's the paradox of this business, this leading people into wilderness. We want it to stay here and stay quiet for aeons eternal, but the more folks we show it to, the less likely that becomes. The solution must start from the bottom, with a wholesale shift in our conception of our place in the world. And nothing inspires that shift like extended time in the wild.

These are dangerous circles to run. If anyone asks, I'm taking the hermit route. The Valle is a mosquito-ridden wasteland, to be avoided at all cost.