The mission was to check out a section of the Limestone Hills in the remote western Mazatzals, along with a few springs and a section of the E. Verde River.
The first 2 1/2 miles from the Doll Baby Trailhead is a drudgery of road walking, with each time in passing, I ponder new and ingenious ways to smuggle some sort of motorized vehicle past the locked gate. One failed experiment was the mountain bike idea, which had a net result of scrapes, bruises, and lost time, on account of my several crashes. A heavy pack wreaks havoc on one's center of gravity and balance.
Along the way I spied a fresh set of footprints, no doubt belonging to the other fellow parked at the trailhead. Hmmm. Not many folks out there in the heat of the summer; let alone on a weekday. Curiosity got the better of me so I made a game of following his tracks, if for no other reason, for the practice. Like any other skill, to be a good tracker, one must put in the work. Typically, the only trace left behind is a small indent in the ground left by the front of the shoe, leaving very little to observe. Mix in a couple of wild animal tracks into the mix, and the whole thing becomes a garbled mess.
I followed the tracks for about a quarter mile before losing the trail, presenting three possible destinations: the western springs, over the hump, or to the river. I figured there was enough time to check all three, providing that I hustled.
The first leg of the trip was up Bullfrog Canyon. It has intermittent water flow in several places and a few springs. Walking the waterways is always a good idea in the summer heat, as I had drank five 32 oz jugs by noon and needed to tank up before the long trek across the ridge line. The creek is clogged with vegetation much of the way and makes for slow progress. It was past noon before I finally reached the top of the hump, well behind schedule. For each hour of delay, my return leg was to become all the worse, turning it into a nocturnal forced march.
The Limestone Hills run parallel to the E. Verde River for about seven miles. They are somewhat rolling and easy to hike, having a portion of the Manzanita cleared out from the last fire. Much of the 'old growth' forest remains in the far western stretches and below the rim on the E. Verde side. The trees consist of junipers, pinion pines, and a handful of ponderosas here and there. As per usual, the chaparral and Manzanita are thick in places, especially on the southern slopes. Animal life is sparse, but that is to be expected on account of the absence of water for much of the area. There is a decent herd of elk down in Bull Springs Canyon, below the cabin, and in parts of Wet Bottom Creek. The Game and Fish Dept. requires that hunters bring a pack horse if they plan on hunting the area, as it is the only way to lug out the carcass without it becoming spoiled.
I hustled to get to the first set of springs before dark, for there was no stopping until I reached water, regardless of the terrain or late hour. Night hiking + Mazatzal cliffs = no fun. True to its name, the Limestone Hills have a layer of limestone on the top, presenting me with a cliff challenge just before dark. The maps do not give the north face any justice, and I was lucky to have found a break in them so near my destination. I rode out a rockslide down to the 4000' level, roughly to where the first spring complex occurs, the last stretch under a headlamp. Somewhere along the way, a buzzworm nearly scared me out of my boots, darkness having set in.
The original plan was to have camped at the river with all its amenities, but this mountain spring would have to do. Despite being exhausted, I made the effort to pitch the tent, as there are just too many things that go bump in the night, things that bite, and things that kill; for me to risk sleeping under the stars. The tent offers a cocoon of safety, giving a guy a few seconds to grab his gun should a bear come near, or at least I can pretend that it does.
Morning was spent canvassing the several springs along the hill. Here, I found a broken gold pan, which likely belonged to the fellow who worked the area back in the early 90's. I remember reading his story in the AZ Republic, his adventures on the E. Verde, prospecting for the source of the gold flakes in the bottom of his pan. He never did find the gold ledge; however, he lived a dream. How many of you can say that? I found no other evidence of mining activity or a camp, his main camp was no doubt located on the E. Verde somewhere.
The next day I spent some time fishing but had little luck. The fishing was not so good in the stretch of river near LF Ranch, the water being muddier and lots of shore birds along the way. I stowed away the fishing pole and moved up river, trying to make up some time. There are two more springs high up the hill that I checked out around noon, leaving my burdensome pack by the river. Good thing that I did, for the hill is steep and clogged with vegetation. Sans backpack, I can slither through the hedge much more easily. The western spring was just a drip and the eastern one was dry for the most part, though it was home to three deer.
Moving up river with even greater haste, I traveled another two miles before sighting the tracks of the mystery traveler once again. He had crossed the river but spent no time there fishing or anything, not even taking the time to fill his canteens. He likely had already filled them with sweet water from the spring to the north. I followed his tracks again for a while and ascertained that he was headed to the top of Polles Mesa, likely to West Polles Tank; then off to the AZT, two miles to the east.
Judging by all the bumper stickers featuring antlers on his pickup truck, it is a fair guess that this fellow was a diehard elk hunter doing some scouting before his September hunt. He definitely is putting in his homework, having spent at least two nights out there this week alone. He was getting close to a good area, but not quite there yet. Having spent much of the summer, starting in late April, hiking the Mazzies; I have the Knowledge that he seeks.
The rest of the day was uneventful and became a race to the LF Ranch road before dark. Bushwhacking is ten times more difficult in the darkness of night. I made it just in time and slogged the last 2 1/2 miles under a dim headlamp. Along the way, I ran into two spastic rattlesnakes and a tarantula. The temperature must have been just perfect, for the snakes were full of crazy energy and vigor.
I had hoped that I could hitch a ride with the LF cowboys as they drove into Payson for a night on the town, but unfortunately, they must have left early on this Saturday night. After a long, forced march, I made it to the truck at 10:30 PM, greeted with a warm Rockstar energy drink and Gatorade. The mystery hiker's truck was still parked at the trailhead; making me wonder if the dude ended up dead, which is a very easy thing to do in the western Mazatzals in the middle of August.