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Sept. 27, 2008 My Surprising Encounter in the White Mountains, AZ

(See the Photo Album section for pictures of this hike)

Friday, 9/26/08, I had taken a day off from work to plan a 2 day, 1 night backpacking trip in the White Mountains near Show Low/Greer, AZ. This is a hike I had been wanting to do for a couple of months. The only thing that had stopped me every weekend was the weather in the region: it was always forcasted with a high likelyhood of weekend isolated or regional thunderstorms during the whole Summer season.

Since hearing about how great this hike is during the Summer season, I had been waiting for an opportunity to present itself for a weekend outing. Well, one did present itself on Friday and I made a run for it. I researched and created a route on the TOPO! Arizona topographical software for the area, delineated what I was going to take, packed up and was on the road in the late morning on Friday. The GPS was not helpful in getting me directly to the closed road near Apache territory in the White Mountains that the trailhead began at. I eventually found my way there and it was a good 4 hour drive from Mesa, AZ through the beautiful Mogollon Rim lands that the winding roads passed me through.

The Baldy Trail can be made into an 18 mile loop as I had planned on doing. It would start from the trailhead, lead to the beginning of the West Baldy Trail, running alongside the West Fork Little Colorado Creek, round about near Baldy Peak (which is off-limits to hikers, since it is located on the Apache's Reservation), continue on the East Baly Trail, which parallels the East Fork Little Colorado Creek, and finally close the loop on the Baldy Connector Trail. Looking down from an aerial perspective, the entire loop looks like a giant triangle pointing west-southwest. 

My plan was to hike from West Baldy Trail, get to at least as close as possible to Baldy Peak (this peak is the second highest in Arizona - at 11,400+ ft. - second only to the San Francisco Peaks in Flagstaff), set up camp here, and then wake up Saturday morning and continue the rest of the loop.

I parked my car about 1/2 mile from the trailhead, as the rest of the dirt road was closed. One other car was parked. I packed up and started to hike through the trailhead and the beginning of the West Baldy Trail. This trail starts out on what appears to be an old Forest Service road and continues deeper and deeper into the White Mountain forests. The forests are filled with old-growth Firs and other pines. Squirrels were everywhere. The forest was alive with noise, not just from the wildlife, but also from distant construction machinery. I came upon a family of four along the trail, along with their dog. I'm assuming that it was their car that was parked near the trailhead, leaving this land open to only us and the wildlife...great news, or so I thought! They had asked me if I'm hiking alone, how long I've been hiking for, where I'm from and if I plan to hike the whole Baldy Trail. They looked like they were on a leisurely stroll through the woods and were heading back to the trailhead.

After about another mile I began hearing a couple of long-winded trumpeting sounds, as if they had come from Elk in the distance. I had playfully estimated that the sounds came from about 2 miles away in the misty mountains up ahead.

The temperature was a nice 70 or so degrees F.

I continued on and passed through many wide-opened clearings in the forest that consisted of rolling hills of thick straw. Soon, I came to the West Fork Little Colorado Creek; a fast-moving, crystal-clear, cool water creek that wound up and down through the woods. It was beautiful and gave me some relief, as this was the stream that was going to replenish my water once I was done with what I brought. I thought that if I could help it, I would like to set up camp that night right alongside the creek. On the left of me were thick forests that the creek ran through and on the right was more of the grassy straw fields that went up to high elevations along the the foothill of the mountain range that I happened to be paralleling.

The trail followed the creek for several miles more and I found myself approaching another straw hill. This was uneventful due to the fact that I had approached many already. I promptly made my way up the hill and began to hike down when I saw 2 black bears directly in front of me on the trail! They must have been within 150 feet of me. Surprisingly, they did not see me. Their fur was a copper color. I was absolutely shocked to see them, because I didn't do my homework; I was under the impression that there were no bears in the White Mountains. Not only were there bears here, but the White Mountains are also home to Mountain Lions.

At this point, the only thing I could think of was my safety. I needed to leave from the sight. I slowly backed up, watching them the whole time. I backed up behind the hill and thought about what I should do next. I backed up another 50 feet to the beginning of where I last emerged from the forest into this open field and began wondering if there was a way to bypass the bears. There were no other routes. This was it and they were directly in my way. The only other thing I could do was to wait and see if they would move and then I could continue. However, I couldn't see them now. I needed to get to a higher elevation to watch them from behind the trees. I hiked a bit up the steeply sloped foothills of the mountain on the right and tried in vain to find a tree to hide behind. I couldn't find any. I still wasn't high enough to see them. I climbed some more and eventually hid behind trees (as quietly as possible) and made my way to a point where I could see them. They weren't moving. About 30-45 minutes had elapsed while waiting for them. I wanted badly to take out my camera and take pictures, but thought it would have been risky to fumble through my pack, leaving myself exposed in the process. I wanted to be in a position where I could leave at a moment's notice and not worry about getting my stuff together.

At this point, I decided that the trip was a lost cause. I couldn't afford to keep myself in a potentially risky position, as bears are great climbers and can very easily make it to where I was after charging me. I came back the way I came and hiked back out to the car, very disappointed and surprised at the same time. My total hike out and back was about 7 miles.

In one sense, I consider myself lucky for have experienced Black Bears up close, as many hikers and even hunters will go out of their way to try to have this experience (or to at least see one from a distance) and here I hike for the first time in the White Mountains, make my way about 3.5 miles in and see 2 bears! On the other hand, I lost all of the other experiences I could have had on this trail: the rest of the trail system, the other topography, Baldy Peak, the overnight experience in the Baldy Mountain Wilderness, etc.

When I did make it back to my car, it was the only one there. The other car must have belonged to the family I had met earlier. Thus, I was the only one in the Baldy Mountain Wilderness at that time, as there are no other routes leading into it from here!

Next time, I will plan to go with others and/or I will have Bear spray on hand. Mountain Lions are another story altogether...

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