2007 Trip Reports - Miller's Cabin Spring
Hot on the trail of the Bighorns
by Debbie Miller Marschke
By design, we had intentionally planned our trip when it was expected to be hot. The wary and skittish bighorn sheep can go without water for up to three days – it was our goal to visit a watering site with a known history of bighorn usage during a dry arid season to see them. Basically, you have to sneak in when the weather is intolerable for long distance travel away from the water sources. Of course, if the heat is baking the sheep, it is worse for humans who are accustomed to air conditioning. Steve and I were not too sure which Desert Explorers were up to this mission.
We arrived in Ludlow Friday afternoon at 5:00. Our partner Gary Thomas was already out in the field performing bighorn sheep volunteer work since Wednesday. The temperatures had been grueling, as much as 110 in some places. When we called him for a rendezvous, he had toughed about as much heat as a Cranky volunteer could stand; he was already home! Gary warned us that there had been some thunder showers in the high desert which may have filled the tinajas (natural watering holes) the week before. Therefore, the sheep may not be where we were expecting them. It is always a crapshoot with wildlife.
We had a little time, so we bounced down the dirt trackway to revisit the Bagdad Chase Mine, south of Ludlow. This area is particularly special to me; I visited this mine in 1998, which was the springboard that launched me down the path that introduced me to the Desert Explorers. That first day my travel companions included Dennis Casebier, Joe Pizzitola, and Don Putnam. But that is another story altogether. Steve & I checked out an area called Swede Hill that was cheese-holed with prospects. Steve was ahead of me, and stuck his head into a low adit that went back some twenty feet. “There’s a big turd pile in there,” he mentioned as he moved to the next pit, “maybe some owl barf…?” Of course, I HAD to check it out. Indeed the turd pile was at the adit’s terminus, and as I eased closer I could see that the turd-maker was still there! The butt end of a very large tortoise and his elephant-like rear legs protruded from an even smaller sub-adit the tortoise had excavated into the rear wall. We thought this was rather odd. Having not disturbed Mr. Tortoise, Steve and I spent the rest of the afternoon arguing whether or not he was dead. Since I am writing this report, I am happy to say he was quite alive.
We returned closer to Ludlow to pitch camp. The temperature had cooled from 98 to the low 80’s, correlating with the setting sun. Ludlow being a town founded to serve the railroad, it is still constantly passed over by freight trains 24/7. We looked for a hill that would offer enough structure to buffer the railway noise. Our CB radio had been suspiciously quiet – the absence of irritating chatter from the I-40 truckers was the telltale sign that something was wrong with our CB. No problem! We had brought a backup CB and antenna, which we interchanged, trying all combinations. All this did was prove that we had already lost part of the proverbial percentage that we all joke about…our trip essentially had not even begun and we had already lost our 10%? Meanwhile, over a nearby hill, Neal Johns faithfully beckoned to us on his CB until he dejectedly crawled into his camper and sobbed himself to sleep (keeping Marian awake). The evening, otherwise, was very pleasant.
Seven O’clock Saturday morning, we arrived again in Ludlow to find four beaming faces: Chuck Claussen, Bob Rodemeyer, Marian Johns, & new member John Kuzma. Oh, yes, and Neal – scowling. After a briefing, we all caravanned down the National Trails Highway, Old Route 66. The Johns’s brought up the tail end, and despite of what Neal has told you, we did have plan C – the lead and tail vehicles were using hand held FRS radios. We turned off the highway at the townsite of Bagdad and regrouped north of the railroad tracks. Looking south, we could observe the expanse of the Twentynine Palms Marine Base, physically off-limits, but unobstructed to our wandering eyes. The group exchanged knowledge and anecdotes about this desert facility that trains our troops for Iraq. Off in the distance, we could see the concrete structures of the mock village which is used to train troops with live ammo. Bob Rodemeyer shared some military tidbits and recanted the sad story of a lost soldier on the base that had died of exposure when he was inadvertently left behind. Steve also discussed the military base’s involvement in nature conservation and mitigation. Within the boundaries of the Marine base are two bighorn sheep water sources, called “guzzlers”, that Steve monitors and maintains. This is done in partnership with the Base biologists.
We continued north on a sandy track that became rockier. The road forked and we turned east. We werenow traveling against the grain of the drainage, which meant it was slow going with a miserable amount of ditches to cross. The monotony of the slow pitching vehicle makes this road difficult. We endured this nonsense for at least 20 excruciating minutes. Our signpost to turn off was the Miller’s Cabin mailbox, which still stands sentinel on this carnival ride of a road. We have always wondered who actually delivered to this box? Or was it erected as a joke? Turning north again, we ascended into the foothills of the Bristol Range.
Before reaching the ruin of Miller’s Cabin, we parked the vehicles and began a 15 minute hike (workout). By now, it was 90 degrees. Steve took one of the radios and leapt up the canyon, in search of sheep. The group trudged up the steady grade slowly, remaining single file and silent. Actually, I think we all were concentrating on simply MAKING THE GRADE, since the heat made this short hike seem brutal. The Cabin is perched on the side of a ravine, and the guzzler is seated in on the floor of the wash within the ravine. We were expecting the sheep to be hanging out in the ravine, at the water source, so we could creep to the edge near the Cabin and spy down upon them. Suddenly, there was the sound of plinking stones. Steve shouted a whisper and pointed up “SHEEP!” The sheep knew we were there before we had a chance. Two bighorns, a nice ram with ¾ curl horn and a ewe, were making their way up the opposite hill. Everyone froze and tried to spot them. John Kuzma managed to snap our only documentary photo as the pair crested the hill. The moment was fleeting, but very exciting nonetheless. Chuck Claussen exclaimed that he was happy for the reward at the top for having to push forward at such a grade in the grilling sun.
I don’t know the story behind Miller’s Cabin, but it is an intriguing ruin. The roof has come down, and thus the slow dismantling and decay is claiming the sun-cured wood structure. I always enjoy examining the stonework of the stove, fireplace, cistern, and numerous oddities in stone and mortar. The group began to ask me the same questions that I have wondered about this place for years. It remains one of those odd desert mysteries I may solve one day. The spring, located down in the ravine, runs year-round. It is fringed with arid trees and growth that are watered by the steady trickle. Historically, the spring was pooled in a concrete reservoir which was constructed approximately 50 years ago. Bighorn sheep have relied upon this only reliable source of water in the Bristol Range for decades. The Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep (SCBS) installed a rubber basin when the concrete reservoir fractured. DE member Gary Thomas, who concurrently carries an active membership with SCBS, became aware of repetitive vandalism to the existing tank. To his horror, he found the carcasses of many bighorn that had relied on this spring and died of thirst during the first half of 2006. Working with the Department of Fish and Game, Gary spearheaded the project with SCBS and a permanent tank was airlifted by helicopter to the Miller’s Cabin spring site . It was installed in November 2006 and remains prolific. Steve is the current President of SCBS, and thus, Miller’s Cabin spring successfully continues under the stewardship of the Society as an oasis for all dependant wildlife.
Our group was satisfied, having spotted the elusive bighorn. We ambled back down to our vehicles in the increasing heat of the day. Steve and I decided that we had not really lost our 10% portion of the group, suggesting that Neal allow his camper shell to be sacrificed as tribute, but he smugly declined. After enduring the road against the grain of the drainage once more, we enjoyed our lunch at the Bagdad cemetery. The site is forlorn and the desert is winning at reclaiming the land. We all pondered who lay buried here in such an unforgiving lonely place. Steve and I had planned to stay out in the field, but the rest of the group had endured it’s fill of the blazing sun, so we parted ways and watched our group beeline home. We intend to lead a similar trip to a different guzzler next year, perhaps with more tolerable temperatures involved.