PHILMONT TRIP -
Article by Mr. John Carlson
We arrive at Base Camp this morning, check in, meet our Ranger, Kim, and move in to Tent City, "Trailbound" side. It's a busy day with lots to do -- medical checks, meeting with Logistics, gear checkout, Ranger training, more meetings for Crew Leader and Advisors -- and we're shipping out tomorrow morning so it all has to get done today. At the Welcome campfire in the evening, we learn of the history of the New Mexico area and of Philmont.
We pile into a Philmont bus for the ride to our starting point at Lover's Leap turnaround and then a short hike to camp. Kim is impressed by the crew's hiking ability and is getting a workout keeping up with us. Lover's Leap camp is unexpectedly dry and it takes us two hours of searching before we finally find water about a mile back along the trail. Kim is puzzled and can't believe Logistics didn't warn us of this. (Logistics screw-ups are to be a recurring theme for the next ten days.) It clouds over and begins raining intermittently about 3:30, getting quite cool by 4:30. We camp in a meadow and I wake up at 2 AM and get out of my tent to find that the sky has cleared and the stars are so bright it just blows me away. The stripe of the milky way is painted in a glowing band across the middle of the sky and in the moonless night I can see by starlight and my flashlight is unneeded.
A seemingly easy 3 mile hike nearly wipes us out as the midmorning heat combines with the blazing sun on a shadeless trail to sap our strength. After setting up camp at Uracca, the crew heads down to the challenge course and does very well at three team-building events but then crumbles on a fourth as they fall to arguing over the best way to tackle a problem. They take an hour and a half to complete what should be a 20-minute challenge. In camp, we have our first encounter with Philmont's minibears, with a handful of them running around the site all afternoon. Minibears are Philmont's chipmunks, different from the ones we see in the east, with bodies the size of squirrels. They're brazenly unafraid of people and staffers say they're amazingly clever at getting hold of food. We will hear stories of them unzipping pack pockets and even a tale of one digging an apple out of a pack and rolling it away. I'm not sure how true these are, but by the end of the trek I think I believe them.
We say goodbye to Kim and head out on a short hike over the allegedly-haunted Uracca Mesa to Backache Springs, but we hike by day and encounter no one from the spirit world. Camp is in a nearly-shadeless meadow under a blazing sun in near-100-degree temperatures. Even the minibears are absent here. There's little to do all day except try to find shade under a tarp or one of the few trees.
A short hike to Zastrow Camp, once the only place in America where Wood Badge training was offered. We pass a rattlesnake on the trail; he rattles at us and slithers away. Zastrow offers the unexpected pleasure of a shower (unexpected because Logistics didn't tell us about it as they should have), along with an idyllic campsite on soft needles in the cool shade of a pine grove. A stream runs just a dozen feet from our tents. We ponder whether a depression in the stream bank was made by a bear or a mountain lion (both have been seen in the area recently) or by a Scout. Program here focuses on land navigation and the crew takes the Zastrow Challenge, sort of an orienteering course featuring trail signs, map and compass and GPS. They do quite well on the first two sections then fall apart with the GPS section. At dinnertime, with guidance from the staff, the crew bakes up a delicious cherry cobbler for dessert, and after dinner it's ultimate Frisbee against the staff followed by a very nice Scouting rededication ceremony in a clearing reached by a half-mile hike through the moonlight. Tomorrow looks like a tough day, with eight miles of hiking to our next stop.
A long hike to a program stop at Fish Camp and then on to Agua Fria to camp for the night. We stop for breakfast at The Notch, blasted by Waite Phillips out of a rock wall at the top of a ridge. Spectacular views in every direction. At Fish Camp we learn to tie flies and a few guys try their hands at fishing (without success). Several others take a 4-mile side hike to Phillips Junction (on top of the 8 miles we've already hiked) to pick up our next 3 days' supply of food, only to find out that this could have been avoided if Logistics had given us the choice -- as they were supposed to do -- of packing two extra meals from Base Camp. The campsite at Agua Fria is not very good -- small and unlevel, with the only tent space too close to the fire ring.
We hike through beautiful Bear Canyon where the still surface of a pond reflects the surrounding pine trees and the cloud-dotted deep blue sky. Then on to Crooked Creek and a homesteading program. We chop down a tree with an axe, limb it, strip the bark, haul it 100 yards and heave it to the top of a log cabin under construction. Our campsite, roomy and level, is somewhere over 9000 feet in altitude and it's getting noticeably cool as we crawl into our tents for the night. We're having trouble with the stoves -- both the Troop Whisperlite and Rob's XGK. The stuff they call white gas out here is definitely not the same thing we use at home; it smells more like lacquer thinner or some similar solvent. The stoves are smoking and burning weakly and it takes a long time to cook dinner.
We wake up to a 40-degree morning (an incredible change from the 100-degree heat of just a couple of days ago) and set out on a steep hike up to Clear Creek. At 10,200 feet it's the highest staffed camp in Philmont, and the air is thin and the hiking slow. Clear Creek features the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and we learn about the trapping industry that once flourished here. Tomahawk-throwing provides a diversion as we wait our turn for the real event: 50-caliber muzzle-loader rifle shooting. Mike Buono furnishes the target -- his KPHS class of 2001 T-shirt -- which has several huge holes in it by the time we're done. (Mike removes himself from the T-shirt before the firing begins.) The campsite is small and steeply hilly, and much of the day is cool, cloudy and occasionally rainy. If not for the neat program and the super-friendly staff, this would be a crummy day.
The literal and figurative high point of the trek is today's hike over Mt. Phillips. We set out from Clear Creek on a cloudy morning and climb another 1500 feet up the steep western face of the mountain. As we hike, the sky clears and the sun warms the air. By the time we reach the top, it's an absolutely beautiful morning and if the thin air at 11,700 feet doesn't take our breath away then the view from the top surely does. Baldy Mountain is to our north, with a whole range of mountains fading into the distance behind it. Taos NM is to the southwest, and we can see for miles -- I have no way to judge how many miles -- in every direction. It's a spectacular view, well worth the effort it took to get here. From here, it's seven more miles of hiking to descend the "easy" side of the mountain to Cypher's Mine. We're not camping at Cyphers's, but rather at Lambert's Mine, another mile and a half down the trail. So we relax for a while, take a tour (actually a careful walk by flashlight) into the cold, damp darkness of an actual (though no longer active) gold mine, and then stop to visit the blacksmith's forge before we hoist up packs for the hike to our camp. But we've heard that Cypher's Mine has the finest evening program in Philmont, so after setting up camp at Lambert's, we hike back up to Cypher's, eat our dinner and wait. We're not disappointed. The "Stomp" features the very talented camp staff in an eclectic program of music ranging from Good Old Mountain Dew to Hotel California. Campers pack the Stomp Cabin literally from wall to wall and an overflow crowd listens from outside. By the time the program ends and we make yet another hike back to camp at Lambert's Mine, it's 10 PM and we've probably covered nearly 15 miles for the day.
Today takes us to Cimarroncito, or "Cito," as everyone calls it. Another resupply day and a group of four heads out on a five-mile side hike to Ute Gulch to pick up our last batch of food. We decide to eat our dinner meal for lunch because Cito, a staffed camp, has plenty of water available while Webster Park, our destination for the night, is dry. So we'll save our no-cleanup lunch for dinnertime and have our supper now. There are showers available at Cito and a chance to wash some clothes before our slot at the main event of rock climbing. Thunder clouds are rolling in as we await our turn on the rock face and we fear we're going to be shut out, but luck is with us and the rain holds off until about five minutes after the last man finishes. We wait out the brief but heavy downpour and then head off to Webster Park for the night. Another nice site, in a pine grove on top of a hill. The Ponderosa Pines smell of butterscotch and vanilla. On the other side of a meadow from our campsite we see deer -- three, then four, and later two others. They can't help but notice us but seem unconcerned.
Our next to last day on the trail takes us to Clark's Fork, a western-themed camp. We're unable to get in on the horseback ride, but we get a chance at branding (boots and Nalgene bottles are the targets of the irons), roping and an impromptu horseshoe tournament. We stumble across the missing horseshoe that staffers had asked us to look for and are rewarded with a box of chocolate chip cookies. Sitting around and talking, we make friends with Darin, a trekker from Minnesota who, after getting hurt on the trail, was sent back to Base Camp for a medical check. Pronounced healthy, he's here to meet his crew, who should be coming by today to pick him up. He's a little worried because he's been told that if his crew doesn't show up by 6 PM he'll have to go back to Base Camp, but he's confident they'll be here. Tonight, in lieu of the standard trail supper we get to feast on a chuck wagon dinner of beef stew, biscuits and peach cobbler. The first "real" food we've had since Base Camp. Quite good and very filling. Clark's Fork is a crowded place with about 8 or 10 crews spending the night and probably an equal number passing through on their way to other nearby camps. The meadow in which we camp must have 30 tents in it by nightfall. This camp is pretty much the gateway to Tooth Ridge and most crews, like us, are hiking in to Base Camp tomorrow. We decide to skip the campfire and turn in early so we can get an early start on tomorrow's long hike. As we head up the hill toward our tents, it's 7 PM and Darin is still here, and still waiting for his crew. We'll later learn that they showed up about 5 minutes after we left and Darin hiked out with them.
We're up in the dark at 4:30, watching the sun rise as we finish packing an hour later. By 6 AM we're on the trail with just enough light to see by. The first part of the hike is tough -- the climb to Schaefer's Pass is nearly 2000 feet -- but we get through it in a couple of hours and stop for breakfast. We pass several other crews as they stop for breakfast and they in turn pass us when we stop. This leapfrogging will continue all day; the trail is so busy that we'll rarely be out of sight of other crews. Even the busiest trails in Harriman are never this crowded. After Schaefer's Pass, the trail is fairly level but rocky, and we spend a lot of time stepping from boulder to boulder. We take a break at the base of the Tooth; about half the crew decides to side-hike to the top (actually more of a climb than a hike) and are rewarded with a fabulous 360-degree view. After this the trail becomes smoother and eventually hits a long series of switchbacks leading down to Base Camp. We first catch site of our destination at the beginning of the switchbacks but from there to the bottom is another two hours of hiking. Much of it is in shadeless scrub and by now -- nearly noon -- the sun is high and hot. We break for lunch in one of the few shady spots and to our relief it begins to cloud up a bit. With every switchback, Base Camp is a little closer but still maddeningly far off. In fact it's hard to estimate how far; guesses range from 45 minutes to two hours. But suddenly the trail seems to drop quickly and when we come around the next switchback we realize we're at ground level. Another half mile brings us within sight of the "Welcome Back" sign at the Base Camp gateway and we're home! The trail is behind us! We check in at the Welcome Center and get our assignments in Tent City for the night, this time on the "Homebound" side -- a word that has a wonderfully sweet sound to it. We spend the next couple of hours running around to Logistics, Services, Administration and assorted other places doing all the things we need to do to wrap up, and then hit the showers for a real cleanup and a change into clean clothes for the first time in nearly two weeks. What a great feeling! We skip the Mess Hall and gorge on $110 worth of Simple Simon's pizza for dinner. The evening's Welcome Home campfire is as lighthearted as the Welcome campfire was serious, including a hilarious sketch about the attack of the minibears. Then a relaxed hour of sitting around the snack bar eating ice cream, chips and other long-missed junk and it's time to sack out. Tomorrow we're going home!
- Mr. John Carlson, ASM
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