Reports on trips taken in 2022.
On the Trail of Desert History
Bill and Julie Smith with Anne and Mike Story
Howdy Desert Explorers! Last Fall while Bill and I were camping in Sierra Vista, Arizona, we found ourselves tracking a bit of western history. Our friends and fellow campers Rose Ann and Mike had a 2009 True West Magazine article that had figured out the location of Wyatt Earp’s famous shootout at Cottonwood Springs. Most of us are familiar with this incident from reading history or viewing the movie Tombstone. Together we were surprised to figure out this shootout location was just across the road from our camping area in the foothills of the Whetstone Mountains! The four of us combined the info in the article with maps of our own, jumped in the jeep and bounced along seven or so miles of rough dirt roads and terrain to find the shootout spot. After several miles of beautiful chaparral, challenging dirt roads, and screeching ‘desert pinstripes’ we reached a point where we had to stop and hike in the rest of the way. We hiked up, down, and through sagebrush, tree lined gullies, and dry grass meadows being very glad it was too cold for rattlesnakes. It is a gorgeous area with high desert plants, rugged mountains, and open range cattle scattered over thousands of acres. After a few miles of hiking we saw Wyatt and The Cowboys’ shootout spot about a quarter mile in the distance – it was so exciting! However, the sun was going down quickly and we didn’t trust ourselves to hike and drive back in the dark in such a desolate area so we turned around. We hiked back and bounced the Jeep all over again, making it to our camp just before dark. Bill and I tried hiking in from another location a few days later and almost made it that way too. We decided we will try to get to the shootout location again but start out EXTRA early next time! ~ Julie
CLICK READ MORE (BELOW) FOR PHOTOS
Mad Mike Hughes
By Bob Jaussaud
Last month on Old Route 66 about four miles east of Amboy, Sue and I noticed an RV that had apparently been abandoned. We found the two-track leading to it and went to investigate. The unique rig had a rocket launch mechanism built on the back and markings indicating it had belonged to Mad Mike Hughes. So who was “Mad Mike”? It turns out he was a most unique desert character. Mad Mike was set on blasting himself into the atmosphere to verify his professed belief that the earth is flat. At any rate, Mad Mike succeeded in making a steam powered rocket and launching himself thousands of feet off the desert floor – not once, but twice. He barely survived his first rocket trip and sadly the second one did him in.
Mike had a “career” as a limousine driver. As such, he set a Guinness world record by rocketing his stretch Lincoln Town Car over a 103 foot jump. Quite a ride and perhaps the beginnings of his rocket career. Mike’s next adventure was to build a steam powered rocket so that he could ride it high enough to photograph the earth as a flat disc. After several attempts, Mike finally had a successful rocket launch onMarch 24, 2018. He reached a height of 1,875 feet and had a hard landing, but survived without serious injury. On February 22, 2020 Mike tried again. During the blast-off the parachute that was supposed to bring him and his rocket safely down was destroyed and he crashed to earth for the last time.
Seeing Mike’s rig in its abandoned state was sad for me. I could feel the life and times it was part of. I honor Mike Hughes as a man who lived his dreams and effectively reached for the stars. Who among us has the stuff it takes to do that? ~ Joeso
CLICK READ MORE (BELOW) TO SEE PHOTOS
The Ridge Route
Trip Leader: Bob Jacoby • Photos by Shane Daley,
Allan Wicker, Mo LeBlanc and Jay Lawrence
There is some truth to the old saying that the “third time is the charm.” That was certainly the case with the planning for the DE tour of the Ridge Route. The trip was originally scheduled almost two years ago. Unfortunately, covid came along and the trip was postponed indefinitely by the leaders from a local museum. After about six months I lost communication with these individuals and began a search for another leader.
I got extremely lucky to meet Michael Ballard, the CEO of the Historical Route 99 Association. Michael is truly an expert on US99 and other historic roads as well. Michael told me he had access to the keys for the two locked gates on the road and would be able to lead our group in November of 2021. When this trip was first announced in the DE newsletter it filled up immediately and a waiting list was soon established. Everything was set until I heard from Michael the Friday night before the trip. He indicated that he had a family emergency and would be unable to lead the trip the following morning. The bad news was that I had to contact everyone signed up for the trip that evening. The good news was that Michael was highly apologetic and volunteered to lead the trip in the late spring.
I decided to give it another chance and we rescheduled the trip again for May 7. Even though we had the two previous cancellations the demand for this adventure was still high and before you knew it we had another full trip scheduled that also had an extensive waiting list.
On Saturday, May 7th we gathered on a beautiful morning in the parking lot of Michael’s Diner in Castaic and lo and behold there was Michael and his spouse waiting for us! The following folks were part of the group: Jay Lawrence, Mignon Slenz, Bob and Sue Jaussaud, Glen Shaw, Marian Johns, Dave Burdick, Danny and Norma Siler, Lindsay Woods, Leonard and Rebecca Frieman, Ed and Joan Steiner, Alan Wicker and Glen Shaw. My apologies if I missed anyone.
We started out with our usual administrative items and then allowed time for Michael Ballard to give us a preview of the day by sharing his incredible knowledge of the history of the Ridge Route Road. He informed us that the road was originally designed to be a key part of the original roadway to connect northern and southern California. The concept was that these 22 miles or so would traverse the area between what is now Castaic to Gormon. Amazingly, the road was built through the mountains primarily with picks and shovels. The idea was that by following the ridges it wouldn’t be necessary to build bridges and deal with extremely difficult topography.
It took about two years to construct the road that became the “Ridge Route.” Construction was initiated in 1913 and the road was completed in 1915. This soon became a surprisingly busy route despite its isolation. It was eventually replaced in 1933 by a route that follows the valleys rather than hugging the ridges. (For some of that time the road was actually part of federal highway US99.) The road was then taken over by Los Angeles County and it is now under the jurisdiction of the United States Forest Service. It has been designated as a National Historical site.
As our trip got underway, Michael Ballard pointed out numerous historical and geological sites. This included the remains of gas stations and hotels. Among the most interesting sites was the location of the famous Tumble Inn as well as the Summit Inn in beautiful downtown Sanberg where our formal trip came to an end.
Overall the road is interesting and historic. That, combined with a knowledgeable leader made for a very interesting and fun day. I want to once again thank Michael Ballard for indeed making the third time the charm. ~ Bob
CLICK READ MORE (BELOW) TO SEE PHOTOS
Trip Leaders: Norma and Danny Siler
Photos by Norma Siler and Bob Peltzman
It was a bright and sunny morning on Saturday, April 23. We met at the Flying J Travel Center in Lebec where everybody gassed up for the day. Our group included Danny and Norma Siler (leaders), Pete and Janet Austin, Craig Baker, Shane Daley (newbie), Leonard and Rebecca Friedman, Marian Johns, Beth Mika and DE Puzzlemaster Bob Peltzman.
We caravanned through Frazier Mountain Park Road with a brief stop at the Ridge Route Museum to look at the outdoor exhibits. Everybody enjoyed this stop.
Another stop was at a campground at 4,000 foot elevation overlooking the plain and valley below.
We continued onto Pine Mountain Club and then down, down, down Cerro Noroeste Road to reach the plain. Our next stop was the Carrizo Plain National Monument sign for a group photo.
We continued on and drove pastsag ponds and chatted on the CB radios about “what is a sag pond?” (According to Wikipedia, a sag pond is formed along a strike-slip fault, which may create a depression in the earth. When water enters the depression from rivers, streams, rainfall or snowfall, it fills the low-lying area, and a pond is the result. Sag ponds of various sizes can be found along the San Andreas Fault, most notably within the Carrizo Plain and Sierra Pelona Mountains)
Our next stop was Traver Ranch - an abandoned ranch from way back when. There is an outdoor exhibit of farm equipment dating back a hundred years. Here we followed a numbered guide to all the farm equipment. And this turned out to be a good spot for our picnic lunch.
Then we drove up Elkhorn Road and for miles we had the Elkhorn Scarp on our left and Temblor Range on our right as we drove on top of the San Andreas Earthquake Fault.
A dominant feature of the national monument is the Dragon’s Back. We drove up to the top of it and had a great view looking out and down into the canyons. Next we went to the recently remodeled visitor center called the Goodwin Education Center. Everyone enjoyed the exhibits and asking questions of the two young park rangers working there.
The most dominant feature of the monument is Soda Lake. We drove along side of it for miles and it was very shiny. We had a discussion on the CB radios about whether it was dry or had water in it.
We then visited Wallace Creek which is a dry wash that shifted 400 feet during earthquake seismic events. Everybody was in awe of it and wanted to stay another hour hiking up and down it, but by then it was 6:00 p.m. and we were ready to head home. The Friedmans lead us through a curvy, winding, rough narrow road up and over the Temblor Range. From the summit we had a stunning sunset view of Soda Lake and Carrizo Plain. This is where we said our goodbyes to each other.
When we reached the San Joaquin Valley floor driving back to Interstate-5 we drove through oil fields with tens of thousands of active, pumping oil wells near the towns of Taft and Maricopa. It was quite a site to see.
Once near the freeway we again said our goodbyes over the CB radios. It was a long day for all and we estimate nobody got home before 10:00 p.m. ~ Danny
CLICK READ MORE (BELOW) TO SEE PHOTO
East Essex – “Hank’s Place”
by Joe de Kehoe
34° 45’ 06.01” N., 115° 13’ 40.67” W.
Although it is uncertain who first built the garage and Texaco service station in East Essex, from about 1960 to 1977 it was run by Henry Joseph “Hank” Cusson and his wife Elva and it was most commonly known as “Hank’s Place.”
Located one-half mile east of Essex, at the intersection of Goffs Road and National Trails Highway, old Route 66, the business operated as a gas station, garage, towing service, café, used car sales, an automobile graveyard for abandoned cars that had broken down on Route 66, and there was a 2,000-foot runway behind the garage.
In the late 1950s Hank was anxious to get out of his construction business in San Diego and flew his plane out to Essex hoping to get some leads from his friend and former co-worker, Al Rupe who was working in Essex. In the words of his daughter, Danna,
“He was banking the plane around looking for a place to land in the desert and lo and behold, there was a 2000-foot runway. So, he landed, and people came running out to see who was landing on their runway. And he said, ‘Well, I came up to see my friend, Al Rupe, because I want to buy a place in the desert.’ And they said, ‘well, this one’s for sale.’ And he said, ‘how much?’ They shook hands, he got back in the airplane and flew home and wired them the money. So, in 1960 we moved from San Diego to Essex.”
“The lady he bought it from was Frankie Moran. She sold it because her husband had died, and she wanted to move back to Oklahoma. The day we arrived in town, she gave my dad the keys to the front door, and she jumped in a car and took off and was never seen or heard from again.”
When Hank arrived home and announced to the family that he had bought a place in the desert, and they were moving as soon as school was out, he got mixed reactions. Joe, the oldest boy decided that wasn’t for him and he joined the Air Force as soon as he graduated from High School. So, Joe went off to boot camp and the rest of the family, Hank, Elva, Vick, Danna, and Tommy went to Essex.
During the time they were there the family basically ran everything, but Hank hired a waitress, Sue Cairns, and a cook to take care of the customers in the café, but cooks came and went with regularity out there. However, the service station, garage and towing service were all handled by the family and the business was open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Hank also sold used cars when the opportunity presented itself by scavenging parts and assembling vehicles from those that had been abandoned by unlucky motorists.
“Vick and I ran the place, and Tommy too. I mean, here’s a little 10-year-old kid changing truck tires, not on an F10, you know? Right, truck tires. Semi-truck tires, when you’re 10 years old which is a hard job, but Hank taught us fulcrums and, you know, ratios and how to do that. We had a little tiny wrecker, and we could do things that the big wreckers couldn’t, all because Hank taught the physics of how to do something with a tiny wrecker.”
In 1968 the café caught fire and was destroyed. Hank had been out on a tow job and was returning to Essex and saw the smoke coming from the café. He knew the fire was coming from the kitchen, but customers in the cafe did not realize it. Hank ran in, yelled for everyone to get out, he grabbed the cash register and that’s about all he was able to save. The nearest fire trucks were in Needles, 45-minutes away. A passing motorist happened to take a picture of the burning building and sent it to “Hank.” C/O Post office, Essex, California.
With the building and the family’s personal belongings destroyed Hank was out of business, but this is where Hank’s experience in the construction business paid off. Two of his brothers from Massachusetts flew in as soon as they could and worked day and night and got the place rebuilt and running again in record time. The building that burned was a wooden structure, so during the rebuild the brothers used corrugated tin sheeting wherever possible to minimize the risk of another fire and the business was reopened.
The family lived in the back of the restaurant in rooms built behind the freezers that were used for storing food. Danna, Tommy, and Vick were in one room. Next door was Elva and Hanks bedroom and the office.
Through another door was the bathroom, except it didn’t have a door, and we did not get a door on the bathroom until I was 18 years old, and people would be walking through and just, you know. One of the cooks quit in the middle of a busy day and said, “I’m not working until you put a door on the bathroom for that girl.” So, at the age of 18 I got a door on the bathroom.
And, as to the beds, you know, I had my bed, my brother had his bed, et cetera, et cetera, but you never knew who you’re going to wake up next to in the morning, because if people broke down during the night, Hank said, “Well just go in there and get in a bed. If they’re all full, just pick a place. “Yeah. So, I never knew who I was going to wake up next to. He didn’t charge ‘em; he was just being helpful to stranded motorists, you know. “Oh, I’m not going to make you sleep in your car, here, you go in there and sleep. You know, if we were doing it today, the cops would, turn us every which way, but loose... back then it was just a matter of necessity.”
PLEASE CLICK READ MORE TO CONTINUE READING
Cabins, Mills and Tucki Too
by Bob Jaussaud
We love to camp in Death Valley National Park and our choice is to boonie camp. Although that is allowed, park rules limit us to four vehicles. Yikes! That’s tough!
So, keeping our group size limited thusly, a few of us explored in Death Valley and environs during the recent March heatwave. Days were hot but nights were perfect.
I highly recommend that other Desert Explorers organize their own small groups and head to Death Valley this Spring.
The ﬁrst goal of our trip was a hike into the Greene Mill and cabin area about a mile west of the Emigrant Canyon Road. For those who love old cars, cabins and mills this is a rewarding hike even though it’s a bit of a grunt hiking up the canyon. The mill was developed by Thad Greene in 1952 or 53 to process tungsten. But, his ore was too poor so he sold to Erwin Denner who hoped to process gold ore from the Skidoo area. Denner sold to John Drake who had the same idea but neither was successful and the mill was abandoned around 1970. The cool old rusting car we found there was a 1946 Pontiac Streamliner.
Back in our vehicles, we decided to ﬁnd out if the road to Tucki Mine was open. It was and we ventured up a beautiful canyon for ten-plus miles before reaching the remains of Tucki which consisted of one standing cabin, one not standing cabin, four cyanide tanks and a big horizontal shaft. The Tucki was a gold mine that was worked from 1927 to 1944. While we were there a late afternoon wind starting blowing March cold. So, even though Mignon already had her beer in hand, it was decided to head to lower elevations and warmer climes. We ended up ﬁnding a nice balmy camping spot near Telephone Canyon.
After a pleasant wine infused evening, we slept well and awoke ready for another hike. Hefting our packs, we took off to explore Telephone Canyon, so named because a telephone line (as well as a road) from Stovepipe Springs to Skidoo was constructed through it in 1907. After less than a half mile hike we came to Telephone Arch. This arch is well worth expending the effort to see. A short ways beyond the arch we came to the remains of Telephone Spring and a signiﬁcant milling operation, including a nice arrastra. The spring is dry now but it used to be an important watering hole on the road to Skidoo. The arrastra was part of the “Hell’s Garden Mining Co.” whose letterhead read “The Mills of the Gods Grind Slowly, But Exceedingly Fine.” The operation evidently ran from the late 1920’s and well into the 30s. Because there was not enough water at Telephone Spring for a larger operation, a larger mill, the Gold Bottom Mill, was built in 1934 at the site now known as Journigan’s Mill. Interesting stuff!
Back in the vehicles again, we returned to the reality of civilization. Just barely surviving the sticker shock of $6.50 per gallon of gas at Stovepipe Wells, we ﬁlled up and headed north. Our destination was the Oriental Mine and Roosevelt Well. We found them both interesting, though apparently well-visited. Moving on we discovered rock ruins (Glenn affectionately named the ruins “Tule-Inn”) at the north end of Tule Canyon. We were moving higher rapidly and actually encountered snow beside our route. The afternoon shadows were growing long but, as luck would have it, we found a hunters’ cabin with a working stove and, although there was snow just outside, we spent a cozy evening inside.
Next morning we continued our exploration of the Slate Ridge Range on the north end of Death Valley and found a lot of neat old stuff. We found a stack, (yes, literally a “stack”) of old cars and a lot of abandoned buildings. We even found a very large abandoned crane that looked as if it only needed a competent operator to go back to work. Obviously not me!
The Sylvania Mill was next on our agenda. We discovered the road down Sylvania Canyon was newly graded and once again connects with the Eureka Valley Road. The wonderful Sylvania homes and cabins had sadly deteriorated quite a bit since we had last visited them, but the mill a bit down the road was a new treat. Silver-lead ore was discovered at Sylvania in 1869. It’s probable that Christian Zabriskie of Death Valley Borax fame ran a general store in Sylvania. After World War II, a man named Don Clair lived in Sylvania and operated the large mill there. He stayed in Sylvania through the 1980’s but the mill probably ceased operation in the mid 70s.
To ﬁnish out the trip, Glenn and Ron led us to pictographs along the Eureka Valley Road that Sunny and Jean had originally shown us. Then we fueled up in Dyer and camped for our last night at one of our favorite spots, Cottonwood Creek. ~ Joeso
CLICK READ MORE (BELOW) TO SEE PHOTOS
Wandering in Arizona
By Jean Hansen
Sunny and I just returned from a trip into the Tucson area and we saw a few interesting things we’d like to share. We were out in the back country near Picacho Peak, Arizona when we came upon a really nice old stage station which had been designated a heritage site. Then as we were on our way to a hike in the wilderness, we saw some really nice stone cabins, of which I have included pictures. Finally, we were well below Tucson, looking for a rock art trailhead, when we came upon three tank replicas. They weren’t tanks, but were made to look like them.
They were all on the type of frame/trailer one would set a boat or trailer on. The desert is truly full of mysteries and interesting things! ~ Jean
CLICK READ MORE TO SEE THE PHOTOS
What’s on the way to Ocotillo?
By Dave Burdick
On the way to join the Desert Explorers at Octillo,we turned off Interstate 8 onto old highway 80. Along the old highway we came upon the town of Jacumba which was passed by when the new lnterstate was built. To the South of the town there is a massive picket fence… What was it?
We continued east on the old road and under the Interstate. We came to a dead end and the Desert Tower which was built in 1923.
Watch out for the animals guarding the tower. It’s well worth seeing. ~ Dave
CLICK READ MORE (BELOW)
Report: Jay Lawrence • Photos: Dave Burdick, Bill Smith,
Glenn Shaw, Mal Roode & Mignon Slentz
We had folks heading for the cultural hub known as Ocotillo from far and wide. Our crew of intrepid travelers included Glenn Shaw and Mignon Slentz from Nevada, Craig Baker from Sylmar, Dave Hess from Bakersfield, Bill Smith from Cypress, Dave Burdick and his buddy Dean from Corona, Mal Roode from Highland and me from Long Beach. Needless to say, various travel progress reports filtered in by email and text and as luck would have it, everyone arrived at our Friday evening camp spot at Dos Cabezas Spring well ahead of the trip leader, who showed up with barely enough time to enjoy a little time around the campfire and a ‘safe arrival’ beverage.
Saturday morning everybody gathered themselves up and we headed for the water tower crossing of the currently defunct San Diego and Arizona Eastern Railway. The day was beautiful and the desert looked terrific. Recent snows had left low spots damp and the dust was down. We turned north a bit off Mortero Wash and followed the tracks to the trailhead of our first destination, Indian Hill.
Our hike was relatively short, just over a mile each way without too much elevation gain. A few Ocotillos had blooms and some yuccas had shoots and blooms, but it was too early and still too dry for any of the small wildflowers to show their colors.
We found Indian Hill without a hitch and explored the area, finding rock art and a built-up shelter cave. Photos were taken, speculations on rock art meanings were made. No casualties to report. It was a fine walk in the desert and we saw what we came to see. It was an excellent start to the day.
Next, we made our way east out Mortero Wash to S-2, up the pavement a few miles to the Badlands Overlook and turned off the pavement to Cañon Sin Nombre (canyon without a name). This canyon is the southern entry to the Borrego Badlands and includes a winding trail through high walled canyons that show amazing twisted rock and sediment foundations and evidence of huge earth and water movement from long before recorded time. It’s pretty spectacular.
We eventually found a shady spot for lunch and watched a small parade of newly minted overlanders pass by in groups of three or four or five vehicles. Several of us speculated that all this activity and new equipment was a reflection of people being frustrated and cooped up by the pandemic over the last two years. Whatver the reason, more folks are out exploring and having a good time. All were well behaved, though a few needed some help with directions. We helped.
Our next stop was up Arroyo Seco del Diablo (dry wash of the devil) to take a look at the Diablo Drop Off, a somewhat notorious drop into the basin of the connector road to Fish Canyon that heads toward the eastern part of Anza-Borrego DSP. Hearty folks were taking the steep downhill then trying to come back up the silty, rutted, whooped out road back up to the area where we were parked and many made it. Those appeared to be the folks with front and rear lockers.
We didn’t stick around to see what happened to the stock vehicles...
We ventured back out the way we came in to Arroyo Tapiado (walled Wash) then north in a loop that would bring us to the locally world famous (?) Mud Caves. We looked. We found the interpretive sign, but no caves. They’re there somewhere but the Park Service has thoughtfully discouraged folks from finding or exploring them these days due to some unfortunate happenings in the past. Several of us had been in them years ago... What we did find was a great camp spot, level and protected on the west from wind but with a low eastern exposure for some warming early morning sun. We camped. We had a fantastic potluck feast with some adult beverages, a fine campfire and excellent company. The moon was just beyond first quarter so the night was well lit, but once it was down the stars looked like you could touch them.
Sunday morning everybody had coffee and a bite then we continued down the canyon to our bail out point. We turned west on sand back toward S-2 and the Overland Stage stop then headed north on S-2 to Blair Valley for several short hikes. The first was to check the pictographs at the eastern corner of the valley, the second was to find the morteros a bit further to the west. Both hikes are well marked on park maps.
By this time, the wind was picking up so we headed back toward S-2 and stopped for lunch. Dave Hess had a long road home so he said his goodbyes early, then we all headed back to pavement, each of us turning toward our respective homes having had a fine run through some great back country with good friends. No lives lost, very little blood shed... An excellent weekend. ~ Jay
CLICK READ MORE (BELOW) TO SEE PHOTOS
Eight Days A Week
By Ingo Werk
You may remember when the Beatles sang us the song “hold me, love me, I ain’t got nothing but love, babe, Eight Days A Week!” That’s how long it took two dachshunds to pursue their love for the California/Nevada desert. Two brothers, the eight year old Coco and seven year old Dino. They are pure bred imports from Germany and have been in America since they were eight weeks old. Now naturalized U.S. citizens and very proud of it!
Coco & Dino took their Louisiana Tacoma on a ﬁeld trip to Pahrump, Nevada. From their base station there they headed out to various destinations for eight 4x4 days. First they ventured out to China Ranch at Tecopa, California, where they hiked the fabulous trails along the Willow Creek and Amargosa River. History buffs that dachshunds are, they visited the world-renowned Museum in Shoshone. Then their Tacoma took them on the Badwater Road into Death Valley, with sweeping views into the distance of the mountains and at 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point in North America. At the Furnace Creek Ranger Station they got their Golden Age Geezer Pass, and off they went to discover Death Valley.
Once back in Nevada, Coco & Dino explored the Amargosa Valley. The day ended with a lavish dinner at the Amargosa Senior Center, although the ham radio folks there did not have any ham on the menu. Next on the agenda was Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. The visiting dachshunds discovered meandering boardwalks among Caribbean-style blue pools, legendary Wild West history, and the whole gamut of plants and animals found nowhere else on earth. In the vicinity of Longstreet Casino, the brothers even met an oversized cow and wild Mustangs in the Valley.
Another trip was to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, with spectacular geographical features such as towering red sandstone peaks and the Keystone Thrust Fault. Coco and Dino also had the pleasure of visiting Desert Explorer Glenn Shaw, who lives in a paradise-like setting near Red Rock Canyon. This Eight Days A Week desert trip was ﬁlled with some awesome impressions, observations, and experiences. Recommended by desert-loving dachshunds to be duplicated by any member of theDesert Explorers. ~ Ingo
CLICK READ MORE TO SEE PHOTOS
Water Development in Our Challenging Environment
By Debbie Miller Marschke, SCBS
For over 55 years, The Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep has been the California based volunteer “boots on the ground” organization to provide man made water developments for desert Bighorn sheep. Before the passing of the 1994 Desert Protection Act, installing new drinker systems in arid zones involved the challenge of coordinating resources and a volunteer workforce. The locations of historic systems were selected with collaboration and expertise from the California Department of Fish and Game’s field biologists and an SCBS labor force; both fueled with passion and desire for the common goal. After the passing of the DPA, our State employees began to sink in a quagmire of interagency problems and legal disputes with special interest groups. This has continued to spiral into a history of inaction, leaving SCBS volunteers increasingly unsupported by the agencies that used to be equal partners.
Climate change has become a formidable adversary, complicating the situation. Last year, volunteers assisted in providing over 40,000 gallons of water by hauling water to guzzlers that did not receive enough precipitation to replenish themselves. Obviously, manually hauling water is an unreasonable and unsustainable water management plan. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor report, California’s precious snow pack base did improve due to a series of early winter storms between December 7, 2021 and January 4, 2022. However, most of the California desert remains in some level of drought. Last year was the third driest on record in terms of precipitation.
There are also new threats to the already stressed deserts due to technological advances. California has been pushing initiatives which encourage solar energy farms and a high-speed rail between Rancho Cucamonga and Las Vegas. Installation of “efficient” technological advances comes at a cost to the environment, further fragmenting historical range lands and essentially removing available acreage that is usable by wildlife. Beginning with the installation of highways, paths of migration from range to range have become impeded by man made developments. Some States, such as Nevada and Arizona, have done a better job of mitigating the adversity with the installation of wildlife overcrossings. The biologists working for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon State University, and the National Park Service are currently collecting GPS collar data to support the installation of wildlife overcrossings in the Mojave, but there is no current plan on the drawing board that suggests the State will demand or support such actions.
For all the challenges, SCBS has strived to remain nimble and pivot attention to projects that we can achieve successfully. Opportunities arise, sometimes with unlikely partners. During the weekend of January 7-9, 2022, SCBS partnered with Kaiser Eagle Mine, on the Eagle Mine property near Desert Center, California. Since 1948, this property had operated as Southern California’s largest iron mine by supplying ore by rail to Fontana’s Steel Works. The property was moth balled in 1981 but it’s maintained by a skeleton crew. Upon the expansive property, the Mine and SCBS had installed two Bighorn Sheep drinker tanks which the mine employees have been maintaining for decades. It was the dying wish of mine superintendent Jennifer Roberts that these wildlife drinkers continue to be maintained for the benefit of the bighorn sheep. Recently, SCBS was contacted by the mine because the free standing water tanks had aged past their useful life. The Eagle Mountain mine welcomed SCBS and hosted a modest crew for several days to remove the aged tanks and install more efficient Raincatcher tanks as reservoir systems. This was a unique project working on two separate water systems simultaneously.
The first water system, now known as Jen’s Eagle Tank is located at a higher elevation and closer to the Mine’s property border with Joshua Tree National Park . The mine had installed the cylindrical upright water tank and attached the feeder hose to a steel drinker box and had been manually filling this tank with their water truck. The old aged reservoir had suffered at least 4 leaks on its side due to Bighorn rams head-butting the side and causing the tanks to split. After four field patches by the caretaker, this tank was no longer usable. The mine’s caretaker assisted SCBS here with a backhoe to remove the old tank and replace it with a Raincatcher. During the installation, a class 3 Ram came in to investigate which was a welcome sight to everyone. SCBS plumbed the system and painted the Raincatcher with camouflage patterns to protect the system from UV light because this tank will not be buried. This was in accordance with the Mine’s specifications.
The second water system, now known as Ghost Eagle Tank, is located within sight of the Mine’s ghost town of 400 residential dwellings that used to house its employees (hence, the name). Perched atop a hill overlooking the main facility, Ghost Eagle tank rests in the shade of an enormous water tower which used to service the town. Water was replenished directly from the tower to the tank by mine employees. It’s our understanding that herds of Bighorn like to congregate here in the shade of the water tower during the summer months, taking advantage of the guzzler and precious shade. This reservoir tank had also suffered beatings inflicted by exuberant rams. SCBS swapped out the old upright tank for a Raincatcher reservoir and plumbed it to the existing drinker box. The stature of the Raincatcher is lower to the ground, so we should hope that this will make it less likely that the Rams will find it an attractive target to practice on.
SCBS had arranged to remain on the premises of the mine for three days and three nights to perform the work. The entire job was completed ahead of schedule, so SCBS was also able to hike and survey an enormous tinaja in the hinterlands of the Eagle Mountain property. We believe that Eagle Mountain Mine is very pleased with the results of this relationship, and we will continue to nurture our relationship with this partner. It is our hope that this endeavor will be the springboard for other Raincatcher systems upon the property, with the goal of locating them nearer to the Joshua Tree National Park boundary. Our efforts to maintain and install new guzzlers within JTNP have been discouraged and unsupported in recent times, so finding a suitable alternative approach is our present solution to keep sheep on the mountain.
Thanks go to the project crew: Project Manager David M’Greene, Mine Liaison Arioch M’Greene, Steve Marschke, Debbie Miller Marschke, Don Moore, John Voght, Robert Jewel, and John Maley. Technical advice and assistance during preparations provided by Glenn Sudmeier, Dave Mahosky, and Scott Gibson. Special thanks to the California Chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation for providing the necessary funding that made this project possible. Gratitude to Colleen Bowden for her generous donation which was used to purchase meals for the crew. ~ Debbie
CLICK READ MORE (BELOW) TO SEE PHOTOS
Desert Explorers at Large in the Tucson Area
By Julie Smith
A period of serendipity occurred this February as a group of unsuspecting Desert Explorers discovered that we all happened to be in the Tucson, Arizona area this month. So a few emails and text messages later we were able to get together for a lovely day at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum thanks to Barbara Midlikoski. On our trip were: Barbara Midlikoski, Ellen and Nelson Miller, Bill and Julie Smith.
The Arizona Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson is a wonderful venue with indoor and outdoor exhibits. We arrived early to get a good spot to view the marvelous Raptor Show! Birds swoop over your heads and demonstrate their various attributes as the narrator describes each species. This is a must see event!
The museum sits on a hill with nice meandering trails to get a great outside desert experience as you wander amongst the flora and fauna. So many beautiful desert plants! The paths lead you back up to the exhibit buildings which house archeological displays, minerals, reptiles, desert history, artwork, and more! They also have nice lunch choices. Overall, a wonderful way to spend the day when you find yourself in the Tucson, Arizona area.
We seem to have several Desert Explorers who live full and part time southeast of Tucson, Arizona. Ron and Barbara Midlikoski in Vail, Arizona; Ellen Miller in Benson, Arizona; and Bill & Julie Smith in Sierra Vista, Arizona. Barb & Ellen suggested that if any Desert Explorers were in the Tucson/Benson/Sierra Vista area they would be welcomed to contact us for a possible get together and information about the area.
CLICK READ MORE (BELOW)
And one final tale of hiking the rugged trail to the Cave
Tracy DeVault wrote me this account of his and Neal’s and Richard Greene’s attempted cave hike – sometime in the early 2000’s ~ Sue Jaussaud
Here is what happened on our trip. We started down to the cave in the morning. For some reason we took a short cut and did not walk down the trail to the main canyon. The cave is up a side canyon. Somehow we missed the side canyon and walked much further down the main canyon than we should have. We walked almost all the way to the river. Finally, we reached a steep drop off and realized that if we went down the drop off we would not be able to get back up.
When we turned around, we discovered that Neal was not able to walk uphill at anything near a normal rate. Also, he needed to make frequent long stops. We had not taken enough water for an all-day trip. It took us several hours to get back to the side canyon where the cave was and by then we were all pretty tired. We were also very low on water. Richard decided to hike down the side canyon to the cave while Neal and I continued to slowly make our way up the main canyon.
Eventually Richard caught back up to us. We decided that Neal and I would find a shady spot and rest. Richard would head back to the trucks and bring us back some water. Richard was using his GPS to tell him how to get back to the trucks. The problem was that there was a very steep hill between Richard and the trucks. We were in contact by radio. Richard finally got to a point where he could go no further.
When I realized that Richard was not going to save us, I decided I would hike back to the trucks on my own. I gave Neal half of my water, about two ounces, and headed for the trucks. Neal and I had hiked further up the main canyon so I did not have to go over the high hill that had stopped Richard.
As soon as I left the main canyon I discovered the trail. I made it back to the trucks just as it was getting dark. I was going to take water back to Neal first but it turned out that he was slowly making his way up the trail and back to the trucks. It turned out that it was Richard that needed immediate help. I had Richard’s GPS coordinates and hiked to where he was stuck. It was more that he was dehydrated than being blocked by the high hill. Once he had a drunk a couple of bottles of water he was back on his feet. By the time Richard and I got back to the trucks, Neal was already there.
We were all too weak to try to drive home. Neal dug out his satellite phone and we let everybody know that we were safe and would come home in the morning.
I always felt that I missed out on visiting the cave. ~ Tracy DeVault
CLICK READ MORE (BELOW)
... and an earlier Hike to the Cave
Neal Johns’ 1996 escapade, culled from the DE Archives by Bob and Sue Jaussaud
CLICK READ MORE