The mission was to hunt (with a camera) the bighorn sheep of the Aguila Mountains, find Eagle and Don Diego Tanks, then sneak past the Border Patrol via the Aztec Hills.
In southwestern Arizona, all trails lead to water. According to historian and author, Bill Broyles, there were only 17 perennial tanks, 3 springs, and a couple of unreliable wells in southwestern AZ prior to 1939. The Aguila Mountains have two historic watering holes: the Eagle Tanks, a series of depressions in a narrow, basalt canyon; and Don Diego Tank, 3/4 mile to the west. They provided water to ancient peoples and early travelers, many of whom left their mark on the surrounding rocks.
The first stop was Thompson Tank, a manmade water catchment built and maintained by the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society, in conjunction with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, and the BLM. The sheep typically stay within a few miles of standing water, so it was time to go hunting.
I followed the canyon north of Thompson Tank, glassing the mountainsides as I went. There is a smuggling trail on the same route, but it showed no sign of recent use. The trash all dated 2010 or older, as if the pipeline was blocked off somewhere, stopped cold. It had been rumored that the new observation tower up on hill 1800 was to blame, like an omnipresent Big Brother, keeping an eye on things.
The first bighorn sheep of the trip were on Hill 1451, a ewe and a ram. They spotted me right quick and spooked straight up the hill, to which I followed, hoping to get a better shot. The sheep disappeared without a trace, but I did see a giant chuckwalla on the way up. It looked more like a monitor lizard than a chuck; wish I could have caught him.
Around the corner from Eagle Tank, there were two big rams browsing in the wash. They also spooked up the hillside, but slowed down once they got into the rocks, which is their safety zone. Sometimes sheep will allow you to watch and photograph them when they are hanging around the cliffs, as they know good and well that nothing can reach them up there. The horns on these two were substantial.
Later in the afternoon, I stalked a herd of 8 sheep up Hill 1558, but they easily gave me the slip. However, the chase did lead to a discovery; the sheep had brought me to a spotter's mountaintop camp, the eyes and ears of the drug smugglers. The view from the cave/camp was phenomenal: one can see all the way to Old Mexico from there, miles in every direction. The site had not been in use for several months, judging from the trash dates, and the amount of dust covering the stack of porno magazines in the back of the cave.
Later, I was able to sneak up within 25 feet of a big ram and get some pics, which was the highlight of the trip, bar none. That ram nearly jumped out of his hooves when he looked up and noticed me standing right in front of him. I bet he is still running.
The next morning I bagged Hill 1800, the tallest peak on the range. It turned out that the "Big Brother" tower did not have a observation camera, nor was it part of any surveillance system whatsoever. All my fretting over being watched, the furtive glances, and clandestine bathroom breaks proved completely unnecessary.
A friend found out the rest of the story after chatting up the BP: This region of the borderlands has become motorized. The Cartel has exclusive control here, and they no longer allow foot traffic or independents to pass through. Smuggling vehicles tear across the desert each and every night, running hundreds of pounds of black tar heroin and methamphetamine up to I-8.
This information concurred with my observations in the field. Over a 33 mile wander, I saw no human footprints the entire distance, but I did see dozens of off-road vehicle tracks, which had crushed vegetation in their wake.
The return trip was rather uneventful, other than a nasty dust storm around 4
PM, which put my shemagh head wrap to the test, keeping blowing sand and dust out of my mouth. The epic sneak past the Border Patrol tower near Sentinel proved anticlimactic, for they did not even notice me this time. I would have welcomed their company, and a bottle of Gatorade, on account of me running out of water six hours earlier. An old Marty Robbins tune came to mind:
"All day I've faced the barren waste,
Without the taste of water, cool water.
Old Dan and I with throats burned dry,
And souls that cry..for water
Cool, clear water."
||Wildflowers Observation Isolated
||Don Diego Tank
|Nice little tank. It is small and probably will dry out before the summer rains.|
|Eagle Tank has a large capacity, and the Game and Fish Dept. has a tarp system to limit evaporation, though the tarps are washed out presently.|
|Man made steel catchment. The Game and Fish Dept. will fill it with a water truck if it ever goes dry. |