Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Community Meeting with Forest Service

Just a quick update: I don't have time right now to do justice to the subject.

Kevin Warner, the Douglas District Ranger, told a gathering (which filled the Portal Fire Station classroom) that walkers and cyclists can now enter Cave Creek Canyon. Most cars are not allowed in at this time.

Crews working on the Cave Creek Canyon Road, FR 42, have repaired a number of washed-out places already, but the entire job will take a long time. Kevin mentioned his hope that repairs will be finished in time for the 2015 birding season, beginning in March.

At this time, the Forest Service has begun to send a pilot car up the canyon twice a day, to guide workers to and from the Southwest Research Station, so that they don't have to make the long trip around through Paradise. Dawn is trying to get more flexibility in that arrangement.

Although Howard couldn't be present, we volunteered him to be the person who will collect updates from the Forest Service as repairs are made and roads are reopened, and post them to the Portal-Rodeo website. That website address is given here in my sidebar under "Links".

Portal after Odile: Bob Rodrigues' Story

Bob Rodgrigues (who owns the property still familiar to some of you as "Jasper's feeders"), sent this account of the changes to the flow of Cave Creek where it crosses his land, below the mouth of Cave Creek Canyon. In Bob's words:

"I could not have imagined our flood scenario if I had not seen it. Water has receded, probably about 5 ft, and I took a walk up the creek yesterday (19 Sept.). The original channel had very little flow and was mostly dry higher up. I reached a point up channel where the creek had jumped the bank and changed course, moving south of the existing or original channel.

Figure 1 (Photos by Bob Rodrigues)

"In Fig. 1, I am standing in the original channel shooting upstream at the breach. I think that the huge volume of water quickly wore away the old bank and that the land below was a bit lower resulting in the new creek course to the south. The old creek channel resembles an oxbow.

Figure 2

"Fig. 2 was taken above the point at which the creek breached the old channel. At the peak of flooding a huge volume of water, perhaps a foot or two deep, was flowing over land both to the left and right of the breach.

Figure 3

Figure 4

"The new channel widened below this point (Figs. 3 and 4).

Figure 5

"The flooding resulted in significant bank erosion on the north bank of the creek on my property (Fig. 5). The three sycamores in Fig. 5 had been attached to land at or very near the creek bank. The telephone line along Foothills Road is visible in the photo.

Figure 6

"Figure 6 was taken from Foothills Road on the (more or less) north side of the creek. All of the rock and debris on the far side was under water and not visible 2 days ago.

Figure 7

"Water rose to the top of the bank in the bird-feeder area but did not quite flow to the picnic table (Fig. 7).

"So that's my story and I'm sticking to it."


Monday, September 22, 2014

SWRS Survives the Flood, But Can It Survive the Road Closure?

The Southwest Research Station finds itself in a difficult position, caught between the financial demands of its parent company, the American Museum of Natural History, and the US Forest Service, which is enforcing a road closure that will likely exclude the station's workers and guests from access into Cave Creek Canyon via the damaged road.

I should wait until after Wednesday's meeting to report on the USFS closure policy: it should be clarified then. Right now I'm getting conflicting information about who will be allowed to travel on the main canyon road.

Dining room at the Southwest Research Station yesterday, completely intact after the flood (Photos by Narca)

The research station's big problem is loss of revenue. They are having to cancel some groups, and are trying to maintain others due to come through October. The big fire hit in 2011, and now the big flood. Their fear is that the American Museum of Natural History will decide that the research station isn't worth the trouble, particularly if the station fails to break even financially.

Not only the flood, but also the road closure, will most definitely impact the station's bottom line. It appears that the Forest Service will insist that the station's workers and guests travel an alternative route through Paradise and up East Turkey Creek, then back into Cave Creek Canyon from the top. Not only does this route add an extra 45 minutes of travel in each direction, but the small cars of a number of the station's workers can't ford the stream crossings along that route. Today and tomorrow, the SWRS van is meeting its workers in Portal, and ferrying them to work via the Turkey Creek route. However, this is not a viable solution. It imposes too great a hardship. In addition, East Turkey Creek itself is prone to wash-outs, and people staying at the research station could easily become stranded by the closure. In an emergency, that would be disastrous. The proposed alternative could be more dangerous than the damaged road. And then there are the station's guests to consider....

SWRS is vital to Portal's well-being. The station is also important to researchers and students from around the world. It may be time to tell our representative, Ron Barber, and the Arizona Senators that we need help here. After Wednesday's meeting, we'll be in a better position to know exactly what help to request from them!

Cabins at the Southwest Research Station

How does SWRS look after the flood? Fantastic.

The main  problems have been lack of electricity, which Columbus Electric handled as soon as they could, and the continuing lack of phone and fiber optic cable for communications.

Boiled water from the swimming pool was used for drinking.

When the flood happened, 35 people were staying at SWRS. Electricity went out, and the supply of bottled water for drinking only lasted a day and a half. After that, the station boiled water taken from the swimming pool for drinking. Very soon, Dawn Wilson, the station's director, was able to traverse the road with Ray Mendez, and she brought back the needed generator and most essential supplies. The station's guests were evacuated as soon as it was possible to do so safely.

The footbridge from the dining area looks unaffected.

The buildings and grounds are in great shape. Indeed the only small bit of damage that I saw was to the lower footbridge, where a portion of the planking is gone, but which is mostly intact.

The lower footbridge across Cave Creek

And the endangered Chiricahua Leopard Frogs? They are still here, as they are in the ponds at Paul and Linda's house and Cave Creek Ranch.

Leopard Frog (Pen-and-ink drawing by Narca)

The State of the Canyon Address on Wednesday

Kevin Warner, the District Ranger for our district, plans to meet with the Portal community on Wednesday at 12:15 PM at the Portal Fire Station classroom. He has a short Powerpoint presentation, and then will answer questions from the community about the road closures and other flood-related issues on the Forest. The session will be moderated to help maintain graciousness and civility.

His presentation begins right after the 11 AM lunch for the Sew-what Club, inaugurating a new year's programs.

Sew-what members will be receiving a more polished announcement, but in the meanwhile, I'm just trying to get the word out.

See you there!

Last Day in Cave Creek Canyon

Cave Creek Canyon above the South Fork confluence
(Photos by Narca)

Yesterday Alan and I hiked into Cave Creek Canyon before the closure was due to go into effect. He went a couple of miles up, as far as Diana's house, while I also hiked to Vista Point, to South Fork as far as the cabins and displaced creekbed, and to the Southwest Research Station. Everyone is concerned about conditions in the canyon we love, and I hope that these photos will answer some of your questions.

As we entered the canyon on Sunday morning, very quickly we found water from side canyons still flowing across the road, though much more sedately than three days earlier, by all reports.

Information pull off just above the Visitor Center, inundated

Damage to the canyon road between the Visitor Information Center and the South Fork confluence is extensive. Above the confluence, the road looks pretty much normal.

Here in particular, the road is severely undermined.

Extensive damage to the creekside pavement

Water flowing across the road above Idlewilde Campground

A large amount of debris is piled against the Stewart Bridge (the bridge at Stewart Campground), and one of the first orders of business is removing that stress to the bridge.

Still clinging to the bridge sign, about six feet up, are some possibly nervous invertebrates.

The next photo needs some explanation: I was standing toward the upstream end of the upper island of trees that the road used to go around on either side. Here the right hand side next to the creek has simply been carried off in the flood. From this point to the distant bend, the road is gone on this side of the island. The lefthand road remains intact.

Here this side of the road vanishes.

I took a side trip to Vista Point, curious whether it might be possible to see anything of the flood's aftermath, but only the usual canopy of green rises serenely above the flood.

Vista Point, looking up South Fork to the left of the prominence, and the main Cave Creek Canyon to the right.

Where South Fork meets the main canyon, the creek has demurely entered its channel again.

And now, come with me into South Fork.

Overall, the South Fork Road is in much better shape than the road through the main canyon, at least until a point above the two cabins, nearly a mile upstream from the gate. Geoff Bender made a pass through with a grader and improved the worst places.

The South Fork Road, showing evidence of the creek's rampage.

Both photos show the South Fork Road, a bit roughed up, but still in place.

This spot, to my untrained eye, looked to be the worst-damaged place on the South Fork Road.

A number of trees, like this Arizona Cypress, show scarring from the battering by debris carried in the floodwaters.

As in the main canyon, side canyons are still flowing. This one has been somewhat contained by the grader.

The South Fork Bridge appears to be in excellent shape, as do the cabins, from a quick glance.

Above the cabins, it's a different story. Here the creek jumped its channel to such a degree that the road now looks like a creekbed. I didn't go any further, but I'm told that the rocks continue for the next half-mile, to the old trailhead, where surprisingly the picnic ground and restroom are unscathed!

South Fork's new creek channel

I'll write a separate post on the Southwest Research Station. You'll be glad to see how fine it looks!

The cliff that I think of as the Easter Island Cliff towers tranquilly above the havoc.

Life in the Borderlands

Yesterday while Alan and I walked one last time in the canyon before the Forest Service closes it indefinitely, illegals hit our home. I suspect that the door, swollen from the rains and hard to close, didn't latch properly when we left, but at least that allowed the intruders to break in without damaging the house.

Some of what they took was amusing (to me) –– all of Alan's stash of sweets, from ice cream to ginger cookies. The list was considerable. Some of the theft was not so amusing –– spoons that my grandparents gave me 45 years ago, and Alan's cell phone. We feel that we were very lucky in what was stolen. However, a frequent pattern is for illegals to break in for food, case the place, then return on their way back to Mexico for small valuables that they can carry with them. So we are understandably on edge.

We suspect very strongly that these illegals, probably drug runners, are holed up above us on the mountain, as has happened so many times over the years. They watch to see when someone leaves home, and then prey on that home. So a message to all our neighbors: at least one group is here, now, yet again. The sheriff and Border Patrol know, and will try to catch them. We were able to give the deputy a couple of items that can be used for fingerprinting.

Tomorrow was supposed to be a town day for us. Now I will go alone, and Alan will stay here to watch the house. I told him that I could look up some choice words for him to say to them, if the illegals show up again when they see me driving away. He said, "That's okay. I'll just say 'Vaya #@#&*!'" I hadn't realized that his command of Spanish was so extensive.

After talking to neighbors and checking homes of people who are away, we find that there have been at least 6 other break-ins close to Portal in the last few days. Border Patrol is here today with a horse patrol.

Make that 8 more break-ins: two cabins at Cave Creek Ranch were also hit. Border Patrol and the sheriff both reacted with "You're getting hammered out there!" and promised a concerted effort to bring the rampage under control.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

'Hard' Closure Coming to Cave Creek Canyon

On Monday, the Forest Service plans to institute a 'hard' closure of Cave Creek Canyon, meaning no entry by any means, including foot, except to canyon residents. The closure will most likely last for months. Thus, tomorrow is the last day when people can enter the canyon on foot.

I've learned a few other details: the Herb Martyr Road above the research station is washed out at Crystal Wash.

Columbus Electric laid a ground wire up the canyon, so that the research station now has electricity, but no fiber optics cable for Internet.

The South Fork Road is okay to the bridge and cabins (though in need of cleanup), but above the cabins it is gone. South Fork reclaimed it. Interestingly, the picnic area and bathroom at the trailhead are intact.

The water system to the FS campgrounds is broken.

Below the canyon, John and Morgan's straw bale home was flooded inside, and up to the top of the first layer of bales. They may need a hand in cleaning up!

Farther away to the east, the Peloncillos were as hard hit as the Chiricahuas. The county road south of Animas into the Animas Valley and Diamond A (Gray) Ranch has been washed out in some places. At the southern end, along Geronimo Trail (accessed from 15th Street in Douglas), the old wooden bridge supporting the road has been completely swept away. This means that access to Guadalupe Canyon, the Slaughter Ranch, and Clanton Canyon has been severed.

One positive note: the Chiricahua Leopard Frogs in Reed's pond at Cave Creek Ranch have survived!

Portal after Hurricane Odile, Part 2

The Forest Service has closed the road into Cave Creek Canyon indefinitely. In places the road has been seriously undermined, even washed away. Anyone needing to access the Southwest Research Station will have to approach from Paradise via East Turkey Creek, then turn left and drop down into Cave Creek Canyon.

Bud and Deborah Johnson hiked into South Fork to the trailhead. They report that the road below the bridge is bad. The bridge and two cabins survive intact, with possibly a small amount of flooding in the cabins, but above the bridge, the road to the trailhead is simply gone. The rumor is that the Forest Service may not replace the road at all; I haven't been able to reach anyone who could confirm that.

(I often walk the South Fork road, and don't believe it's a big loss if in the future we have a trail rather than a road for that half-mile above the bridge. Beginning at the junction with the main canyon road, the South Fork road often hosts more species of birds than the trail up the canyon, although most birders don't realize that, and drive right past this excellent habitat in their hurry to get to the trailhead.)

Alan and I stopped by Cave Creek Ranch to ask Reed about the damage there, and to lend a hand. Floodwaters did enter several cabins; he's in the process of pulling up wet carpet and pads, and mucking out the dense silt that covers the flooded floors. Tony and Rene have very kindly been helping.

The propane tank was floating in the floodwaters, and Reed tied it to a tree with clothesline to prevent its voyage downstream. Another tank from someone's place across the creek probably had a broken valve; the smell of propane was strong.

Woodland Cottage, sans part of its former woodland, with the back porch seriously undermined and about a foot of silt on the front patio. 
(Photos by Narca)

In Woodland Cottage, the most impacted of the ranch's cabins, the floodline on the interior was about 18" high. Water overtopped the bathtub and floated the refrigerator, which fell over on its side, where it was found still running –– even with the electric sockets having been under water!

Silt piled against the front door had to be dug out to allow the door to open.

In a digression, another favorite birder destination is the Casa de San Pedro in Hereford, next to the San Pedro River. Patrick and Karl, the owners, tell me that they were prepared for the San Pedro River to rise 18' –– and it rose 21'. One of their main issues, like Reed's, is mud everywhere; their landscaping also needs major work. They do hope to be back in business soon.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Portal After Storm Odile

For friends of Portal everywhere, the bottom line is that everyone is okay, after the remnants of Hurricane Odile targeted the Chiricahua Mountains and the sister villages of Portal, Arizona, and Rodeo, New Mexico. At our home, we received 5.29" of rain over a four-day period, nearly all of it falling on Wednesday night. (Contrast that with 11" in an hour at Cabo San Lucas, where the hurricane made landfall!)

We woke yesterday morning to a roaring creek in our normally-dry arroyo, and found ourselves homebound, until the flash flood went down.

Flashing arroyo cuts across our road
(Photos by Narca)

This morning, we joined neighbors Mark and Kathy Luckadoo to move rocks from the road down at the crossing, rake it, and smooth it until we could again drive through.

Mark, Kathy, and Alan at work on the crossing

Test run over the crossing––yes!

Then Alan and I went on a fact-finding foray.

This video taken yesterday showed Cave Creek flowing over the Portal Bridge. By today, the water had dropped below the bridge.

Portal Bridge, with some damage

Water level on Friday at the Portal Bridge

We were relieved to learn that our friends and neighbors appear all accounted for. Yes, everyone, the three houses below the research station, but above the South Fork confluence, all survived. Water ran over portions of the property, but spared the houses.  Phone service and power lines are all down for much of the canyon, including parts of Portal.

The American Museum of Natural History's Southwest Research Station also survived, though I don't know the extent of the damage. Dawn Wilson, SWRS director, was able to come out today, in search of generators. All I've been told is that about 35 people are at the station, without drinking water. Included are about 20 students from Wales. The station has begun to evacuate their guests.

The major damage is to the area of the canyon below the confluence of South Fork and the main fork of Cave Creek, where the two vastly swollen streams converged. Flooding was definitely a problem above that confluence also, for these three homes and for the research station, but at least those places weren't swept away.

The bridges are intact, and today an engineer is evaluating their integrity for the US Forest Service.

Road closure into Cave Creek Canyon

Right now the road into Cave Creek Canyon is closed at the Visitor Information Center. Above the VIC, near the lower campgrounds where the road splits and goes on both sides of an island of trees, the righthand road has been completely washed away. The left is still passable. So repair to infrastructure, mainly to the road, will no doubt keep the canyon closed for a while, to all but the most essential traffic. Here is a link to photos of the damage above the road closure.

Folks have been concerned enough for Linda Jakse that I should say specifically––she's okay. We were told that the water rose above their patio to the back door, but no further. When it receded, the patio had even survived. The future gatherings that she and Paul will no doubt host on that patio are not in jeopardy.

A number of homes literally became islands in the storm, yet they all emerged intact, or mostly so. Peter and Mary Sue Waser have impressive video of the raging Cave Creek flowing around their entire home, but I'm not able to find it online. Here is a very similar video by Deborah Johnson. Amazingly, only a little water entered their utility room. Other creekside homes, including Gloria's, Howard and Carol's, Eskild and Susan's, Richard and Rose Ann's, Marge Fagan's, are all okay, although some outbuildings and wells are damaged. I haven't heard how Dinah's home fared, other than rumor that when last seen, it was high and dry.

Peter and Mary Sue's home became an island in the stream.

From the Wasers' home, the river flowed down the main street of Portal, in front of the library and post office, before channeling back into the main creek bed.

The main street in Portal, which became a river for awhile

Here is Laura Mullen's video of water flowing down the main street! (The same area is shown in Deborah Johnson's video above.) The people in the video are standing on the rock wall you see in the distance in this photo.

Cave Creek Ranch suffered damage to creekside cabins. This video taken at the lodge gives you some idea of the power of the raging creek.

In some places, Cave Creek now flows down a new primary watercourse.

Across from the visitor center, Cave Creek has a new channel

Let's correct some misinformation reported by the sheriff's office and by national television: Gloria, our elder friend––and Portal's Honorary Mayor!––who was rescued from her home after Howard checked on her, was not up to her knees in water inside her home! Her situation was similar to the Wasers'. Water flowed all around her house but only a tiny bit got inside. However, her rescuers had to carry her through knee-deep water to retrieve her. She's fine now.

The Cochise County sheriff checked on people around Portal, to make sure everyone was accounted for. We do appreciate all the help from the sheriff's deputies, the Forest Service, the Border Patrol, and the county road folks, in dealing with the storm and its aftermath. Thank you!!

My information for Rodeo and the San Simon Valley is much sketchier. It did appear for awhile, however, that the ancient Pleistocene lake might reestablish itself to the north of Rodeo. The sheriff's Facebook page has a photo from State Line Road, along the AZ-NM border. Next, our valley gets to remember that it is, actually, a semidesert grassland.

We all appreciate your concern and well-wishes. We're drying out now! And the butterflies are out in force. Hummingbirds are still swarming, Violet-green Swallows and Swainson's Hawks are still migrating.

Bordered Patch on sunflowers at the Visitor Information Center