An Afternoon Encounter With The Past And An Ouzel



It is autumn again, and summer has been put on the shelf for another year. These are the days I want to don my hiking boots and explore the historic nooks of the Rim country. I pack my lunch, and of course my little collapsible fishing pole just in case I encounter a likely pool for trout. My destination is an area where many events in our local history took place: the upper waters of the East Verde River.

After driving 18 miles north of Payson on the Houston Mesa Road, left on the Control Road and right on Forest Road 32, I park at the Washington Park trailhead and walk along the river. I am on the Moqui Trail, an ancient trading route used by native Americans from time immemorial. It is the route followed by renegade Apaches and pursued by the U.S. Cavalry in 1882, a chase that ended in the Battle of Big Dry Wash.

This also is the Colonel Devin trail. Devin's detachment from Fort Whipple came down here in June of 1868. The Tonto Apaches were too sly to be caught, but they did kill Devin's chief packer at the top of this canyon. His name was Baker, for whom Baker's Butte is named.

If you were with me, I would abandon my fishing and take you on up the river to see where, in 1883, investors in the Mineral Belt Railroad attempted to put a tunnel through the Rim to bring trains into the Tonto Basin. If it were the end of July, we would pick raspberries, then climb the old switchback wagon road to the top. Col. Devin first put it through, calling it "the jump off." Pioneers improved it, like Fred Haught, whose first Arizona cabin was built nearby.

Later, ranchers like the Chilsons drove their cattle to market in Winslow along this trail. Barbed wire traps to hold the cattle overnight can still be found on the sides of the canyon.

On top of the Rim, we would see the place where Tontos attacked General Crook and his party while they charted a route for the Crook Military Road in 1871. We would stand on the Crook Trail itself, which was built from 1872 to '74, and view the large monument placed there for the Battle of Big Dry Wash, fought a decade later.

Then we would walk 1/4 mile north to General Springs, and see where the army used to camp, and where a latter-day fire-watch cabin still stands. We might have our picnic there in the open meadow, if we haven't already eaten on the way.

On the way back down the canyon, I would show you the ruins of stone houses which were occupied by builders of the railroad tunnel. They still stand at the place where springs emerge to create the headwaters of the East Verde. Above that point the canyon is dry. A little farther down we will visit the old Pieper Fish Hatchery, which furnished fish to Phoenix and stocked surrounding streams during the Great Depression. We drink from two very large springs, which gush from the mountainside and send their waters through the abandoned trout ponds on their way to the nearby river.

But wait a minute! I came up here to fish, not to get carried away with history.

As I prepare my pole, my attention is suddenly diverted by the comic on this mountain stream. If you have ever seen a water ouzel you know what I mean. He just came past my nose at about 70 miles an hour, skimming over the rushing water. He landed on a rock in the middle of the stream, looking for aquatic worms. As he stands oblivious to my presence, he bobs up and down in what might be called a quick knee bend. His plump, wren-like body is gray, his stubby tail sticking up to accentuate the dipping. No wonder he is affectionately called "the dipper," and his dance makes us chuckle out loud. Then to my amazement, the dipper walks down the side of the rock, disappears under the water in spite of a rapid current, and forages for food on the bottom of the stream. Then up he pops, holding his own against the rushing water, and I laugh again.

The fish do not seem interested in my baited hook, but as I work my way downstream the ouzel stays with me. I breathe deeply of the pine forest. The world is so full of amazing things, like water ouzels and forested canyons and sparkling streams and human beings who leave their marks and their stories everywhere they go.

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