The mission was to explore the lower miles of Wet Bottom Creek, scout some elk, and check out that old mine that I had been wondering about for so long.
The hike started bright and early, arriving at Sheep Bridge around 7:30 AM. The first 6 miles were along the Verde River Trail, to which I hustled to make up some time for the tougher miles ahead. How tough, I could only surmise, knowing full well that nothing comes easy in the Mazatzals. Time was to prove me right.
Wet Bottom Creek is a rather unknown entity, and is in an area rarely traveled. I have seen it mentioned in water flow reports, to which great floods are possible due its watershed of 58 square miles, topping off at 7,380 cubic feet per second in the great flood of 1993. The region is also known for a high number of nesting birds, especially around Sycamore Creek, averaging 400 nesting birds per acre. The Red Hills were also of interest, as I have been to their edge many times but never made it very far back in.
The first mile or so of walking the creek was uneventful, other than spotting the water gauge station and cable car that crosses the dry stream bed. Yes, it is true that this tiny facility must have cost the U.S taxpayer untold millions, however, at least we got some tangible asset for our money, something real; instead of our tax dollars going into the black hole called 'to big to fail'.
The first pools of water are found a few minutes above the gauge station, supporting a modest riparian area with a few fish. I was hoping to find the elusive Arizona Squawfish (recently renamed the Colorado Pike Minnow) which has been reintroduced into the Verde River. The fish have died off due to the dams that restrict their traditional migration routes and have modulated the water temperatures. Wet Bottom creek does have some largemouth bass, sunfish, suckers, and a few red shiners. The pools are very shallow and the fish so small as to elicit pity, not even worthy of breaking out the fishing pole. Water flowed at a mere trickle, no more than 10 gpm, despite being at the tail end of the summer rains.
At the 8.5 mile mark, is a narrow section and promontory called Church Rock. It did not have a name before but it does now. By this time it was noon, so I figured it a nice place to take a lunch break, chill in the shade, and listen to the water. Here, the canyon narrows with rocks jutting out at odd angles, along with deep voids and overhangs that create a bizarre acoustic resonance. The sound of gurgling water changes pitch and plays tricks on the mind. I had no sooner finished my jerked beef and bread, when the sounds of the water morphed into that of voices. "Hello...Anybody here," I said, looking around for a mystery traveler, hanging out in the middle of nowhere on a Wednesday afternoon.
Having satisfied myself that I was most definitely alone, I continued to listen, trying to make out the words. The mumbling was near inaudible, until I heard something say: "Ahoy ye landlubber, the ship be lost" and other seafaring tripe. Either I am certifiably crazy, or that place is haunted with pirate ghosts. While it is true that pirate ghosts are quite uncommon outside of Hollywood, I thought it prudent to make a hasty departure, just in case.
Upon passing the narrows, the valley opens up around the 9 mile mark into a thick forest of cottonwood and elm trees. While the green vegetation is easy on the eye, it is very tough to cut through the masses of bamboo the clog the waterway. The bamboo must be cut, pushed through, or crawled over, burning an exorbitant amount of energy and time. It is bushwhacking in its purest form, the kind that makes one question his sanity for being there in the first place. Nonetheless, I did get past the tar pits, putting me hopelessly behind schedule. I would just have to move all the faster the next three miles in the rock fields.
The rock fields of Wet Bottom creek are in a league of their own. The Red Hills granite sloughs off into the canyon in great slabs, creating river rock of giant proportions, ranging in size from a Volkswagen beetle to a city bus. The concept of walking does not apply here; it is more of rock hopping and climbing than anything else, with that 2.5 mph hike speed a mere fantasy. I pushed forward, hoping to make it to Bull Springs Canyon before dark. In the end, I missed my destination by a mile or so, setting up camp at the big bend at mile 14.4.
No sooner had I put up the tent and than a storm blew in, raining hard for about an hour, putting my new cheap China kiddy tent to the test. It worked perfectly: not a drop of water poured in, nor was I tormented by a single insect. What a deal.
The next day was to be an overland route across the Red Hills. No matter how rough it became, I could always count my blessings that the bamboo was behind me, from which all other torments are mere gravy. Walking is rather easy up there; the mountain sides being more hill than cliff, with a good portion of the Manzanita burned off or reduced. The Red Hills are a series of mountains and upland valleys, each nearly equal in height, with the drainages going in several directions.
Grass was abundant, though there is little evidence of recent use by wildlife or cattle. I did see the tracks of one stray critter, no doubt long since forgotten and written off by the LF Ranch, many miles away to the north. Each beast is worth over $2000; one would think that a rancher would take better care of this investments. Water is scarce up here, which explains the lack of wildlife. Even after the rains, nary a drop of water can be found.
The next stop was the old mine that had intrigued me for some time. It is the only mineralized area in the region, aside from the slate zone to the east and minor gold deposits to the north. The mine has a vertical shaft filled with water, no deeper than forty feet or so. The fact that no road was driven, or mill site erected, tells me that the place was a prospect and never went into production. The mine has some of the best samples of purple azurite (hydrous copper carbonate) that I have ever seen. Really nice specimens can be found in the ore pile, though there are no crystals. Whether the mine is claimed I am not certain, but I do know that the red tape and restrictions for mining in a federal wilderness area are prohibitive, allowing for no mechanization. Copper is not worth mining on a small scale, anyway.
Then I headed to Dutchman Grave Spring, and it came in rather handy, as I had run out of water some hours back. However, the weather was delightful, with the temps hovering in the 80's throughout the day, making it easier to cope with want of fluids. The spring has a good flow and supports a little oasis in the middle of the desert. Few hikers ever venture in there and the quail go unmolested. I tanked up on water and limped on in the last three miles across HK Mesa, reaching Sheep Crossing at dark. Someone was there camping below the bridge, unaware of the dark figure crossing overhead. Sometimes it is better to not be seen, to be a shadow in the night. The truck started and I was home before 1 AM, minus a few pounds of flesh.