The sun sets over a montane meadow before Escudilla Mountain. Photo by Nico Lorenzen.

Written by Nico Lorenzen, Wild Stew Field Crew Leader.

Greetings and well wishes from the Wild Stew Crew! We hope the monsoons have brought relief to your corner of parched desert, and for our readers further afield we hope more temperate time in the sun is in order. 

As with best laid plans, hitches can often go askew with the imposition of the unexpected. In our case, mother nature and wildfire season sent us from one side of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest to the other. We began where we had left off in the Bear Wallow Wilderness, seeking to revitalize the connection between the Reno Trail and the Bear Wallow Trail. With six crew members and help from our Forest Service partners we brought an ardor and strength in numbers to this hitch’s bout of trail work. In short order we brushed a two mile section of trail, restored over a half mile of tread and cut the last trees on the Reno Trail, fully opening the route for future hikers. And all of this in the span of three and a half days!

Saturday took a turn not wholly unexpected, but certainly wild. Either side of the canyon had wildfires in full swing when we descended into the wilderness. They were not close enough to be unsafe or dissuade us from setting up camp in a creek-ringed meadow at the canyon bottom, but that changed precipitously. By Saturday morning, winds bereft of moisture picked up and jostled the smell of burning pine across the landscape. We had heard increasing radio chatter throughout the hitch; wildland firefighters making their stands before handline before retreating to a more substantial bulldozer fireline and calling in ever more frequent aerial attack to defang the flames. With only increasing winds ahead of us in the forecast the Interagency Dispatch Center in Springerville made the call for us to leave the canyon. Owen, our Forest Service trail crew partner, relayed the information and descended the trail to help us make a safe and rapid egress from the Bear Wallow Wilderness. Our crew gathered up camp and trudged up the canyon with stolid determination.  

We made it safely away from the fires without any complications and I would like to remind you, our readers, that wildfires should be respected and require extra preparation should you plan to hike in an area near them. That said, they are a natural part of a healthy forest landscape and should not be feared to the point of paralysis.

Recovering lost tread on Overland near its spur to the Apache Vista trailhead. Photos by Nico Lorenzen.

We then made our way north to the Overland Trail. It’s a nineteen mile trail projecting south through Water Canyon, itself south of Springerville/Eager, AZ, to its terminus near Crescent Lake. The trail steers through rocky canyons, ascends into and back out of large ponderosa and aspen stands before making a series of large runs through expansive grass meadows in which pronghorn and elk are your primary company. The trail is in need of extensive maintenance and we proceeded to mark areas of motorized vehicle intrusion, as well as brush and clear the grass that had overgrown the trail. We will return to these myriad of challenges next hitch to make for a trail that has tread as outstanding as the panoramic views it already possesses.

Our final evening of the hitch we had to run for cover as a monsoon storm swept down upon us, bringing a salvo of hailstones and thunder that shook the ground. It was the kind of storm that is only staccato in its intensity but doesn’t fully abate until you’re caught in awe of it. I was awoken in the middle of the night to a distant peal of thunder and when leaving my tent was caught, enraptured by the scene. The storms had retreated to recesses beyond Escudilla mountain and the ranges on the periphery, only illuminating the crisp silhouette of the horizon line accompanied by the percussive heartbeat of thunder. Played out above our camp was the bowl of the firmament slashed by the Milky Way and punctuated by the first outlying meteors of the Perseids. As the stars shot themselves across the pointillist light field contrasting with the treacle nightscape and the flashes beyond the mountains I recalled, once more, why we must protect our wild places.