By Patricia Lee Sharpe
A little over a week ago I made my first this-season, on-foot circuit of the Nordic track, where the altitude makes the air refreshingly cool even in June, which is Santa Fe’s truly hellish month. Dappled sunny spots excepted, the path was bordered with tiny wild strawberry plants in bloom—minute white flowers that would soon give way to equally minute berries, each offering a taste stab of super-concentrated strawberry perfection. Gathering a meager handful of these mini berries would take ages, but popping just a few in the picking process would make it impossible to buy any more California pretenders. This year, at least.
California strawberries! I’d actually bought some only a week ago. How could I have fallen so low? If you must buy commercial strawberries, look for the smaller, redder ones from the Northeast, which don’t need sugaring to be edible. Alas, northern berries are as seasonal in stores as wild berries in the woods.
Anyway, I’d planned to return to the Nordic track, first, with my camera, to take flower photos for a WhirledView post, and then, a little later, with a bowl for collecting berries. I’d also planned to capture, digitally, some of the many varieties of tiny yellow, blue and pink flowers now in bloom at 10,000 feet. They’d have been offered to you readers for identification, because (shame! shame!) I can’t name them.
No luck. The Pacheco Canyon fire got in the way. It began a week ago, the day after my Nordic trail excursion, and its present smoke plume (Saturday afternoon, June 24) looks pretty dramatic (see above) from my back garden, which is about 20 miles away. The distance from the Nordic trail and the Santa Fe ski basin is much less. Only a couple of miles, which is why I couldn’t get back to the strawberry patches. The road was and is closed.
This fire was not caused by lightening; it’s man-made, and the forest service is seeking information about anyone who may have been in the vicinity when it burst out. In short, someone left a camp fire untended or threw away an unquashed cigarette butt or tootled around on a spark-spitting ATV, all inconceivable behaviors when the entire state is tinder-dry. And now there's a big debate over whether to ban fireworks this year. Much as I love to watch the darkness fill with starbursts of color, it's hard to see how anyone can do anything but keep the kids from shooting off bottle rockets, too. But some people hate the idea of restraint, self-imposed or otherwise.
The fire has now consumed about 8500 acres of mixed conifer forest, and firefighters are having a hard time containing it. The land is high, steep-sloped and roadless—and all too often the winds have been too strong to allow helicopters to drop water or fire-retardants (about the use of which there’s well-founded controversy.) As for the road that leads to the ski basin, its closure rules out most trekking at high altitudes in the Santa Fe National Forest and the Pecos Wilderness. The prohibitions are painful. No Windsor trail. No Borrego trail. No waterfall-watching along the Rio en Medio. No climbs to Nambe Lake. No peak-bagging along Skyline trail. No overnight camping at Lake Katherine.
So the hungry bears, seriously under stress from the prolonged severe drought which has tortured New Mexico since early winter, can have the strawberries. Already, it seems, they’re breaking into cabins and kitchens in the Taos area, looking for food. What's more, here in Santa Fe the birds are also in trouble. Water evaporates so quickly its hard to keep the bird baths full. Meanwhile, the fire burns merrily, and the public discourse over the benefits of regular controlled burns intensifies.
Under these conditions, what’s a serious, heat-hating hiker to do? Santa Fe is a wonderland for people who enjoy walking, but it’s hard to enjoy the loveliest low elevation offering when the temperature is over ninety fahrenheit, and the trailhead closes at dusk, just as termperatures are falling to bearable. However, there is a resort. It’s a trail I’ve sneered at for years. Too low. Elevation only 8000 feet. Too easy. A three mile loop with no particularly challenging inclines.
It’s the Black Canyon trail, lying just south of the nine mile no-go barrier. Now that I’ve walked it a couple of times, I’m happy to report that it’s not bad at all, not only as second choice, but as a very pleasant hike you can do when you don’t have time to drive to a distant trailhead or to embark on a more arduous undertaking. For allowing me to discover this option, I thank the Pacheco fire.
The most annoying part of the Black Canyon trail is that the first (and last) half mile involves walking past one camp site after another. As I was plodding on nicely maintained asphalt toward forest proper that first day, my nose alerted me to meat cooking, which had me wondering indignantly: “Who’s playing around with fire? Are these people crazy?” When I came to the scene of the possible crime, I tried to phrase my query as innocuously as possible. “Gee! What a bummer! You can’t light a charcoal fire.” The answer: “That’s why we have propane.” Ok. No legal offense. But it's hard to believe that bottled gas is 100% safe under the dry conditions that currently obtain in the forest.
So I kept walking past camp sites. Some were occupied by people satisfied with compact cars and two-person tents. Others had been reserved by the occupants of enormous mobile mansions. Except for the picnicers I've mentioned, people were nowhere to be seen. Hiking, I supposed. Or shopping for supplies. Or hiding in the air-conditioned comfort of an RV.
I kept walking. Eventually all vestiges of civilization (except the rough path I was following) were behind me, and I was in forest so thick and beautiful, I could have been lost in an officially designated wilderness area. Mixed conifers. A few aspen. Wildflowers on the forest floor. Look at the last two photos. The Black Canyon trail may be second best, but it’s not bad at all.
That doesn’t mean I don’t want the Pacheco fire to be extinguished as soon as possible. Nor does I mean I wouldn't rejoice were the negligent persons or persons responsible for its ignition apprehended. To that effect, I pass on this notice: The Santa Fe National Forest is requesting that anyone having knowledge of or having been in the vicinity of the Pacheco Fire (north of Aspen Ranch by the Borrego Trail) between June 17 and June 18 please contact the Santa Fe National Forest at (505) 438-5372.