2012 Wildfire Season and Backpacking: June in the Pecos Wilderness?
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Kenneth Carter
(docbackpacker) - MLife

Locale: Midwestern United States
2012 Wildfire Season and Backpacking: June in the Pecos Wilderness? on 04/29/2012 21:22:09 MDT Print View

I know some of what happened last year (2011) with wildfire in New Mexico and other western states, and I've been hearing and reading scary things about the prognosis for this year's fire season. June is the heart of New Mexico's fire season!

However, mid June is the *only* time I can get away for mountain backpacking this summer. I've been planning a mid-to-late-June two-week solo backpacking/peakbagging trip (starting June 12 or 13) to the Pecos Wilderness near Santa Fe, New Mexico. I'm enthusiastic about the trip and location, especially after reading Eugene Smith's great trip report, “Mistaken for Strangers.” It's about time for me to buy the airline ticket to Santa Fe, as the lower priced tickets are nearly gone. But the more I learn, the more I've begun to question the feasibility of my plans.

In a recent phone conversation with the recreation specialist in the district ranger's office, he said that conditions were very threatening this year, not as bad as last year, but still with a very high chance of total forest closure (Stage III Fire Restrictions) beginning some time in June. I can deal with Stage I restrictions. (So long, Bushbuddy stove! Vaya con Dios!) I can deal with Stage II. (Hello, cold meals!) But with Stage III, I would be stuck for two weeks in a neat tourist town that is too expensive for me, pining for mountains that I could see but not touch.

None of us can unerringly predict the future. The recreation specialist gave me 60/40 odds of being able to get into the Pecos wilderness this June. That's in my favor, but not by much. There are a number of reasons why the Pecos seemed by far the most suitable destination for me this year, and I have *no* close second choices in mind. Of course my knowledge is limited, but some of the distant second, and third, and fourth alternatives I've considered would appear to present the same issue of concern, with fewer virtues to commend them for my particular druthers and constraints.

So, I face a conundrum. Do I risk the price of a ticket and keep the dream alive, or do I fold in the face of the specter of possible Stage III Fire Restrictions and a wasted ticket? Any thoughts, experience, or counsel?

Also, any insights that might be more generally useful to others as well?

Thanks!
Ken

Ken Thompson
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: Behind the Redwood Curtain
Re: 2012 Wildfire Season and Backpacking: June in the Pecos Wilderness? on 04/29/2012 21:43:30 MDT Print View

A) Always have a plan B.

B) You do not want to be escorted out.

3) What do you want out of your vacation? Since you are flying you do have options.

Kenneth Carter
(docbackpacker) - MLife

Locale: Midwestern United States
Why the Pecos appeared appealing on 04/29/2012 23:16:59 MDT Print View

Roger to your points! Thank you.

(A) Regarding a plan B, if I decide to buy a ticket, hoping for an open forest, then whatever plan B is, it would probably involve simply taking the loss on my airplane ticket, since I couldn't well afford two weeks of indoor accommodations in Santa Fe! Buying a second, last minute ticket would also stress my finances further, and seems wasteful. And, in light of what I'm looking for, as detailed below, I'm not sure where I'd buy it to, anyway.

(B) I agree wholeheartedly about the undesirability of being escorted out! If a closure occurred after I had legally entered the area, though, there would be no shame in being so informed, just disappointment. However, I expect I would already be on my way out without being told if the closure were due to actual fire. Situational awareness is key. In my experience, smoke upwind tends to make its presence known. Andrew Mattox's three part series ("Walking with Fire") here on BPL underscores that wildfire is not a matter to be taken lightly. I do have a question on this point, though: If a closure were declared, would they actually send sweeps for every trail in the wilderness? I would think that the manpower required would be utterly prohibitive, and that the authorities would have to depend, at least somewhat, on the common sense and preparedness of wilderness walkers, except perhaps on the most popular trails.

> Regarding what I was hoping for, it would probably be easiest to list my reasons why the Pecos was appealing. Here goes: Apart from the risk of being shut out altogether, the Pecos Wilderness in June was seeming to be the perfect time and place for me this year. To be practical and beneficial for me at this point, I needed to find a mountainous place:

0) that would be accessible in June, my only time this summer for an extended trip.
1) that I could get to by plane. (It is questionable whether my good old car is sufficiently reliable for long distance travel.)
2) where I could get to the trail head (perhaps even walking from the airport!) without having to rent a car. (Two week's car rental is hardly in the budget! I teach for a living. I'm careful with money, but not rich. I may have to flex on this point and eat more beans next year. I already eat lots of beans, though, and my non-hiking clothes are, many of them, purchased from the Salvation Army Store (or, failing that, on sale!)
3) where I could hike moderate daily distances (say 8-18 daily miles, at a leisurely pace) for two weeks without resupply.
4) with no campsite reservations or other artificially restrictive permitting required. (A strict itinerary just ruins things for me on a solo trip. I'm like Colin Fletcher in that way, if none other. I can live with permits, just not ones that specify locations. Land management is great, but I do not go to the backcountry to be micromanaged. I realize some folk feel differently. I'm happy for them, and they will enjoy tightly managed, spectacularly beautiful areas such as the Wonderland Trail. (but not in June!) The Great Smoky Mountains would be a great June choice for me, but reserved, designated campsites are just not my cup of tea, as least not as a legally mandated requirement. I want to hike where responsible stealth camping is legal.). By the way, I'm not an obligate solo hiker. I've enjoyed backpacking with friends old and new, but none of mine here can find two weeks. (I understand. It is a rare opportunity for me, too!)
5) with the high backcountry free enough of snow that only intervals of postholing might be necessary, and I wouldn't need to carry snowshoes. I'm not going SUL or even simply ultralight, but I AM trying to reduce equipment weight, what with all that food I plan to be carrying. Other things being equal, I would prefer someplace where my two ursacks(tm) would suffice legally, and actually, for food protection.
6) with the prospect of cool, even cold, mountain air (at least in the evenings).
7) with alpine terrain and peaks to scramble up (class 2 and/or maybe class 3. No class 4 for me on a solo trip.. I do have a 12 oz ice axe for those last little steep patches of late season snow.) Mountains nourish my soul. What Eugene said about walking in alpine terrain above treeline fits my experience to a t.

Pecos fit the bill on every one of the foregoing points. I wish I knew of a dozen other places that would do so (or even one or two)! If anyone knows of even one, I am all ears. Thanks!

Joe Clement
(skinewmexico) - MLife

Locale: Southwest
2012 Wildfire Season and Backpacking: on 04/29/2012 23:47:35 MDT Print View

The sky is always falling with the Forest Service in northern New Mexico. Buy your tickets.

Kenneth Carter
(docbackpacker) - MLife

Locale: Midwestern United States
I've bought my tickets on 05/01/2012 14:22:24 MDT Print View

Thanks, Joe, I've now bought my tickets!

I appreciated getting perspective from someone with more experience closer to the scene. In a related vein, my father pointed out that even (gloomy) 60/40 odds are better than zero % odds, which is what I would end up with if I didn't take the risk.

New monthly seasonal wildfire outlook was posted just today at the following site:
http://www.predictiveservices.nifc.gov/outlooks/monthly_seasonal_outlook.pdf

I suppose next in order is working up my gear list and menus!
I've also ordered a scale, and will be setting to work to whittle my load to light (not ultralight) proportions. Also hoping to construct a new MYOG framed backpack. I've bid on an old (pre-cruise) REI UL60 as a backup if my gear making plans hit a snag. If I'm able to work as planned, the UL60 may furnish some inspiration for an internal compression system. Joe, I think you had one of the newer UL cruise packs and liked it, yes? Couldn't find a cruise UL60 in large, but I jumped at the UL60, figuring a bird in the hand... A good pack on my back being worth to me more any number of better ones sitting in someone else's gear closet.

Also important: getting my hips in shape for a food-heavy backpack! I know you SUL folks don't have to concern yourselves with that, but my food alone for two weeks will weigh more than an entire SUL 4-day-weekend load. I'm gluten intolerant, alas, so resupply, even when possible, is sometimes not very practical, particularly if there are restrictions on stove use. Brown rice is a carb staple for me, not very practical without cooking, in my experience.

Again, thanks.