It was dusk when we heard the wolves start to howl. The resounding calls carried over the meadow, silencing our conversation and giving me goose bumps.
Three distinct groups were communicating with each other over the considerable expanse of Aeroplane Mesa, which sits at the northern end of the Gila Wilderness. Their yips and howls broke the still silence of the evening but died off after only a minute.
The trailhead at Loco Mountain sits nearly three hours’ drive away from Truth or Consequences. We arrived in the early evening and hiked a few miles over the meadow, eventually settling in for the evening amid a stand of Ponderosa pines. The moon was near-full, casting a soft, white light over the grassy field and drowning out all but the brightest stars.
I was joined on the three-night trip by my friend Gabe Boyle and his wife, Bianca Price.
It was our first Gila trip of the year; it was also the first time we had been back since the record-setting Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire ripped through the wilderness last year. The lightning-caused fire, which started May 2012, grew to nearly 300,000 acres. We were curious to see how it had affected our route, which we had been down multiple times before.
The Gila, with its big meadows and Ponderosa forests, is no stranger to fire. Multiple wildfires have passed through Lilley Park in the years since I first went there, but the impacts have been relatively minor.
This spring it was no different in the area we hiked. Though a sign at the trailhead warned us that we would be entering a burned area with potential hazards including loose rocks, falling trees and limbs, flash flooding and debris flows, we didn’t encounter anything serious.
Trees still bore the black char from the fire, indicating how high it had gotten, and some lower branches had been burned. The fire also burned up a lot of deadfall, essentially cleaning up the trails. Gabe was hopeful the fire had burned up some small Ponderosas in Lilley Park, which have encroached on the park since he started hiking there more than 30 years ago, but no such luck. They still stood at the north end, scarred by fire but otherwise unharmed.
However, the fire was more destructive in the western part of the wilderness, around the Mogollon Mountains. We heard Mogollon Creek, which we hiked to White Creek Flat last spring, had been dammed up by timber that had washed down after the fire. Earlier this year, the Gila National Forest released a map of trails still under a closure order because of the impacts of the Whitewater Baldy Fire.
The Gila has been dry, with junipers getting more brown by the year. Each step along the trail kicked up dust. We were pleased to find water at Lilley Park Spring, though, so we didn’t have any long-distance water hauling to do.
We felt lucky to hear the wolves on our first night of backpacking, and only a few miles from the car. Wolf reintroduction efforts have been fraught with controversy in southern New Mexico, but encountering them while hiking or backpacking is a pretty cool experience.
I still haven’t seen a wolf in the wild, but I’ve heard stories. In fact, we heard some stories from two men who were staying at the Forest Service cabin at White Creek Flat, who had just finished hauling a pair of wolves (including a pregnant female) into McKenna Park.
We day-hiked down to White Creek Flat from our camp among some huge oaks near Lilley Park. The deep, cold-water pools are refreshing, especially when one is coated in salt, residue from the sweat generated over several days of hiking.
I am usually disappointed to see other groups deep in the wilderness, but in this case it was something of a privilege. If you want to gain my respect instantly, tell me you just hauled a pair of wolves 15 miles into a rugged wilderness using pack animals. Then note my friend’s red heeler, Mangas, by saying, “Now there’s a fat dog,” like these guys did, and you’ll have proven that you’re a badass AND hilarious.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the male wolf to be recaptured. According to information from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the pair self-released by chewing through a mesh enclosure in McKenna Park May 3. Telemetry seems to show the female (known as F1108) is denning, but the male (M1133) traveled more than 75 miles from the site. He was captured just east of the San Mateo Mountains May 11 and returned to the Sevilleta Wolf Management Facility.
Hearing the wolves on our first night was definitely one of the highlights of the trip, and on our way out of the wilderness April 29 I got a look at why Aeroplane Mesa is so popular with them: I spotted a half-dozen elk resting in the meadow. I tried to approach them slowly and sneakily, but they became alarmed and ran while I was still probably a quarter-mile away.
During the course of the three-night trip, we covered about 30 miles, heard the wolves and saw elk, turkey, ducks, hummingbirds, and a red-tailed hawk. We waded through rivers and earned some sizable blisters, though the trails were in good shape. We only encountered three groups of people — one each day Saturday through Monday — all of whom rode in on horses.
Though I have been there many times and even taken the same route in previous years, the Gila never fails to impress. It is large, remote and spectacular country, full of challenges and things to discover. One of these days I’m going to see a wolf, but for now I’ll be satisfied remembering how the hair on the back of my neck stood up as their howls carried over the mesa.