During the severe southwestern drought in the summer of 2011, I had to change my plans to fly-fish northern New Mexico. Leighanne and I turned our heads away from the raging fires near Las Alamos and the threat to the southern Rockies, and looked to the Gila National Forest near Glenwood and the Arizona border.
I already felt a bit crippled due to the fact that, before we left New York for our flight to El Paso, our otherwise adorable daughter had borrowed the digital camera and forgotten to replace it in our luggage. So, we had to shuffle into the Alamogordo Wal-Mart and buy disposable memory-keepers, damn-it, and the certainty that our photos of New Mexico would reflect less of the renowned “Enchantment” and more of a second-rate bewitchment. Despite that disappointment plus the tension produced from the fire crisis in the region, the end result of our trip was more like a fine whiff of desert rain.
It was our first visit to Glenwood village and the southwestern section of New Mexico. The Catwalk National Historic Trail follows the upper Whitewater Creek in the headwaters of the San Francisco River system. Whitewater Canyon has 15 miles of fertile trout water that remains cool and fishable all summer for hybrid Gila-rainbows. The rare Gila trout has been down-listed recently from the EPA’s endangered list to that of threatened status. This small, golden, finely spotted trout can be fished for on a catch-release basis in several remote streams of the Gila Wilderness. Our three-day sojourn at Whitewater Canyon did not allow time for a backcountry hike to the Gilas, so I tried to focus on fishing for the pretty hybrid. Some of the fish I caught resembled the genetically pure Gila, whereas others clearly showed not only the yellow and olive coloration but also the parr markings of a rainbow. The introduced trout is the main competitor in the native’s struggle to survive.
Other attractions of the canyon include a birding wonderland where some 300 species can be found throughout a typical year. When a gorgeous painted redstart settled briefly on a branch just 10 feet from my head, it seemed to mock the cheap camera in my pocket, saying, “Forget the plastic, buddy; just remember me as I am.”
The Catwalk Picnic Area, at 5100 feet above sea-level, gives access to the canyon. From here, one can hike and fish upstream for miles to the trail-less heart of the Mogollon Mountains. When you climb and note that the canyon walls are stretching skyward for thousands of feet, you’re either humbled and bound to earth or else you’re hallucinating and not paying much attention to your passage. The Catwalk, that half-mile elevated route at the lower end of the Recreational Trail, is a memory now. That renowned suspension trail was the route of a pipeline once supplying water to a settlement of miners at the mouth of the canyon. Those miners are vanished now, as are most of the tourists and hikers that had set out walking with you on the trail. Again it’s time to drop down to a lovely Whitewater pool and tie on a barbless Yellow Stonefly to your leader. With a careful approach and a short cast of a 2 or 3-weight line, another Gila-hybrid is sure to revive your visions.
As we left our cabin for the drive south to Silver City, we listened to a chorus of coyotes from across the roadway. The cacophony of yips and cries reminded us of kids suddenly shouting and screaming. I wondered how far inside the big wilderness their larger cousins, the Mexican grey wolves, might be found. Hopefully the reintroduced wolves were doing fine despite the hardship faced through forest fires and an element of unsupportive cattle ranchers in the state.
When we stopped at the Aldo Leopold Vista south of Glenwood, we stood alone on arid ground dedicated to the great twentieth-century environmentalist and writer. A jackrabbit hopped into shade of a pinyon pine, and a family of Gambel’s quail scurried for cover. At this interface of desert and mountain worlds, we enjoyed an excellent view. The land was fine by virtue of its being there– for its own sake first of all, and secondarily for whatever non-destructive pleasures people could derive from it. This was America’s first designated wild place, thanks to the early efforts of Aldo Leopold who was once a forest supervisor for the Gila. It was here that Leopold’s famous experience with the “fierce green fire” in the eyes of a dying wolf ignited a slowly evolving land ethic in our culture.
Driving nearly 50 miles north of Silver City on a mountain road, we passed great tracts of newly charred forest land and came to the Visitors’ Center at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. Green growth was already pushing outward from the burnt lands, and we climbed on foot for a mile along Gila River headwaters, crossing Leopold’s “Mesa of the Angels” to the caves on a south-facing slope. The side-by-side caves of the ancient cliff dwellers echoed the quiet words of visitors and park volunteers. We learned of the pre-Mogollon peoples and the later Apaches, of the harsh lives anchored to a beautiful canyon and its shaded stream. In my own effort to further investigate this country of caves and mesas, I would have to string up the fly rod, seek the cool riffles in the cottonwood shade, and stroll the West Branch Gila. After we enjoyed a quick lunch in the valley, I didn’t need much prodding to go.