Thursday, August 28, 2014

Philmont Scout Ranch - Day Three - Cook Canyon to Ring Place

Day three dawned, and we said good-bye to Sam, our ranger.  Before leaving, Sam imparted us with some words of wisdom from his experiences at Philmont, and encouraged us, "Don't let this be the pinnacle of our scouting adventures; let it only be the beginning."  (Yeah, right, I was thinking to myself.  I'm getting too old for this crap!)  The hardships of the trail were beginning to set in.

We set off on our own toward Ring Place.  The trail took us up another thousand feet or so, and we entered 8,000 ft in elevation, with the environment changing to forests of spruce and Ponderosa pines.  A fun fact about the Ponderosa pine:  If you get your nose right into the bark, actually touching the bark with the tip of your nose, and deeply inhale, you'll get a strong scent of heavenly butterscotch. 

Another fact, not so fun, is that most of the Ponderosa pine are under siege from an invasive beetle which is eating away at the trees, and slowly killing them all.

At the ridge, we stopped for our first view of Mt. Baldy, which seemed so very far away.  In later days, we'd be hiking up and down that monster, and it was hard to imagine how far we had yet to travel.

After cresting our first big ridge, we came down into Dan Beard camp, where our lovely staffer, a pretty girl named Lily, showed the boys the COPE (Challenging Outdoor Personal Experience) course.  (I was happy enough to be provided with hot coffee by the camp staffers!)

We didn't have an awful lot of time, so the boys elected to try their skill at just the scaling wall.  The wall was a twenty-or-so foot tall wall whereby each boy had to get over the wall using just his own crew for support.  Lily arranged the boys in order of birth-month (pseudo random), and then they had to get up and over the wall.  They enjoyed this activity very much.

After a brief pause, then, we were back on the trail and headed north.  Leaving Dan Beard camp, we crossed a barbed-wire fence which meant we were leaving Philmont property and headed into the ranch country of Valle Vidal.  Canyons turned to high mountain meadows, and we encountered our first cattle, who were always curious to see the strange bi-peds hiking through their meadows.

It got hot in the meadows.  Many of the trees had been burned in the previous years' forest fires, so we missed the coolness of shady trees.  Instead, we donned bandannas like Arab sheiks and slathered on tons of sunscreen.

The meadows were gorgeous open fields with huge sky bracketed by mountains on all sides, and interspersed with windmills.  The meadows were also thriving prairie dog metropolises, and you had to be careful not to drop a foot into one of the numerous holes while you hiked.  The prairie dogs would pop their heads up and watch us, stone faced, as we tread past their city, making sure we didn't stop and overstay our welcome.

Just past an intermittent lake in the meadow, we decided to stop for lunch.  We sat under the shade of a single pine tree, eating our fill of (you guessed it) trail mix, nuts, squirt cheese and Spam.  Yuck.

Lunchtime was our first and only bear sighting for the trip, when a small black bear was seen running at remarkably high speed, away from our picnic spot.  We must have scared him away with our noise.

Hiking on, we later arrived for a brief water-fill at Dan Sealy camp, where we then had a choice to make.  Our final stop would be Ring Place, which was either five miles on a looping road to the west, or eight miles on a long road to the east, or we could bushwhack and make a two mile bee-line for the camp using our orienteering skills.  The staff at Dan Sealy recommended the orienteering, and so we did.

Orienteering is a tricky business.  Let me lay it out for you, briefly.  If you are on point A on the map, and you want to get to point B, using your compass, you orient your map so that it lies in line with true-north, and then you plot the angle you wish to travel.  For our purposes, it was 281 degrees, or west-northwest-ish.  Then, once you start moving, you have one navigator with compass in hand, and he follows the bearing.  The most practical way to do this is to find your bearing, find a landmark, such as a large tree or mountain that lies in that bearing, and hike until you reach that landmark.  At this point, you find the bearing again, a new landmark, and continue until you find your destination.

That's how it works in theory.  In practice, this is really hard, because there are things like mountains and ravines in your way, and you might have to detour.  What's harder still is when a trail comes up, you are tempted to say, "Oh, this must be the trail we're looking for!" and you will be led away from your bearing.  This is what we call "lost."  And lost is what we got.  After a few hours of hiking in this way, we found ourselves in an open meadow with trees all around, but no view of any landmarks by which we could relocate ourselves on the map (mountains, streams, etc.).  We were lost.  Following a 281 bearing after wandering off the track will do you no good, as you must find yourself on the map and strike a new bearing.  But first you have to find yourself on the map, and that is hard.

The boys spent over an hour trying to figure all this out, hiking to a high point so they could find a landmark by which to navigate, while we adults quietly rested and waited for them to figure it out.  Our job was not to tell them what to do, but to make sure they stayed safe.  This wasn't our hike, it was their hike.  So if we were lost, the boys had to fix it.  (Mind you, I had a GPS, and knew all along where we were, but I would not divulge that information unless we'd been there for six hours and it became a safety issue.)

The boys finally projected another waypoint, and we set off, and found ourselves two or more miles off target from our Ring Place camp, but we found the Ring Place road, and were able to hike that back into camp and finally set up camp, much later than we liked, much more tired that we liked, but definitely with a lesson learned for the day.

Ring Place was a cowboy camp (a real cowboy camp) where horses roamed free while the cowboys camped during breaks in their cattle drives.  The cowboys had trailers and RVs, and camped separately, near the corrals where they kept some of their horses, while the BSA staff cabin sat atop a hill overlooking the old Ring family ranch ruins, now a local landmark.

Our staff at this remote camp focused on another cool topic: astronomy.  Once the stars came out, they brought out the gigantic 12" lens telescope and we spied several nebulae, Saturn and all its rings, and a glorious full moon.  On a whim, I put my camera to the eyepiece and captured the remarkable photo below from the telescope.  The good and bad of it was that while it was good to see the full moon, and it made navigation to the latrine at night an easy job, it obliterated the stars in the sky, and we desperately wanted to see the Milky Way and all the dramatic western stars.  Oh well, perhaps we'd have to wait for another time.

The astronomy was a nice end to a rather long day, so having eaten well, and set up camp earlier, we all went to bed to ready ourselves for the next day's hike.

Tomorrow, it would be a short hike, just two miles, to Whiteman Vega, the northernmost point on our trek.

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