Monday, October 17, 2016

Visiting the Northern Jaguar Reserve

Back in 2007, I think it was, I attended an awesome presentation at the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center, about a local organization called the Northern Jaguar Project. They were talking about buying up a bunch of property in northern Mexico and setting it aside as habitat for jaguars and many other animals. I still remember the photos that they showed, of 4WD vehicles getting stuck in muddy arroyos, of beautiful wild expanses and of an ambitious plan for a small organization to go out and make a big difference in conservation of wild lands.

So after attending some NJP presentations at REI, I got an invite from Turtle, the presenter and NJP coordinator, to go visit the Reserve for a week and I jumped at the chance. I packed up my camping stuff, charged the battery in the camera and showed up at Diana's house at the base of A mountain on Sunday morning to meet Jeff, Geoff, Priscilla, Linda, McNair and Randy and Turtle, and we set off for Sonora.  We were accompanied by Avery, Farmer and Cholo, our 4 legged guides.

Turtle and Avery, lunch stop Agua Prieta

The Reserve is located about 120 miles south of Douglas, AZ, bordering the Rio Aros on it's northeastern side and containing about 55,000 acres of land ( about 85 square miles ).  We would drive to Douglas, AZ and then cross into Agua Prieta, Sonora. A short stop in AP to get our travel visa for Sahuaripa, and a quick lunch of yummy sandwiches, and then we were southbound.

We drove and drove, down Highway 17, through little places like Esqueda and Turiacachi, passing through Moctezuma where we picked up Highway 117 to Sahuaripa. We climbed into the mountains and the road got narrower, partly due to rockfall that hadn't been cleaned up yet and overgrowth of the Sonoran thorn scrub vegetation on the roadsides. A few miles north of Sahuaripa, we stopped on a bridge that crossed the confluence of the Sahuaripa and Yaqui rivers, and saw an eagle in a tree on a distant hillside and black hawks on rocks down in the river. ( wished I would have brought my longer lens )
Yaqui and Sahuaripa Rivers
Yaqui River

We arrived in Sahuaripa about 3 pm or so, making for a 7 hour trip from Tucson. We got ourselves checked into the hotel Alameda which was pretty nice ( and inexpensive, spending 600 pesos for a room shared by two, about $30 US. )  Out that evening for dinner, we found that some of the small restaurants had closed early ( it was Sunday evening after all ) and so we stopped at a little taco stand and I had some great carne asada tacos and a Dos Equis.
Sahuaripa house
Sahuaripa wall

Diego's courtyard where we had breakfast

Sahuaripa River with vultures
The next morning ( Monday ) we loaded the trucks up and went to meet Diego, who is one of the local ranchers that NJP has been working with. He treated us to a great breakfast at his home. I tried to listen to the conversation, being just about the only person there who spoke almost no Spanish. We looked at his courtyard, filled with trees and water fountains, birds  and small statues. His home was on a narrow street with a narrow sidewalk and had some cool jaguar footprints in the steps. The homes have very few outside windows to the street, instead opening to inside courtyards for the most part. After breakfast we stopped at the town square to meet Carlos, the city planner. One of the things that NJP is trying hard to do is to work with the local people, so that the Reserve is not some gringo only operation but has a lot of local buy in. I sorta stood around like an idiot, trying again to figure out what was going on ( one rancher coming up and asking about how they were going to get paid for cows that had been killed -- apparently there is a Mexican government program to do exactly that, but no one seemed to know how to file the paperwork ), and then I decided I could best help by taking Avery out for a walk and a pee.  Then we loaded up and headed for Babaco.
Yaqui River in the distance

On the way out of town we stopped for a bit and photographed a group of vultures on the small river outside of Sahuaripa, then headed into the mountains. The road is like some southern AZ roads, dusty with cattle guards, climbing into the foothills. We stopped a lot, for leg stretching and so that McNair, our resident photographer, could get shots for the magazine article that he was sent to shoot for. A lunch stop at a pretty little stream later in the afternoon and we loved the butterflies, wasps, a little turtle, small frog and various birds. More climbing afterwards, driving  on some sections that had been covered in concrete, past kapok trees, elephant trees, and other things you don't see in southern AZ. Saw lots of road runners, and lots of rabbits, and then we were at Babaco.
Concrete on a hilly section
The road goes on and up

Lunch stop, a small pool with a turtle in it, butterflies, just pretty

Randy getting supper ready at Babaco
Carmina and Priscilla at Babaco
Babaco had a ranch house with running water and an outdoor covered patio to setup the kitchen. We met Miguel and Carmina the NJP biologists and Laqui, the field assistant and vaquero. These folks do the day to day monitoring of wildlife cameras and are responsible for the science on the Reserve. Carmina is getting her PhD this year based on the research she has done on the Reserve and the neighboring ranches.

Linda and Turtle watching the sunset
We ate another great vegan meal, and I wished I had made better notes at the time. I was a little dubious about eating vegan for a week, but you know, it was pretty darn good. We took a walk up a hillside and sat as the sun went down. It was pretty cool knowing you were the only people for 15 miles or so in any direction and just to sit and wait for the cool of the night to come. Drank a couple of beers and then off to bed, awakened in the middle of the night by a coyote chorus right outside the fence near the ranch house.

On Tuesday morning we got up, breakfasted and then Randy and Turtle packed camp while the rest of us headed out with Carmina, Miguel and Laqui to check out some cameras. Priscilla found some badger tracks as we got out of the vehicles, and then we headed up a small canyon to a camera, where Carmina found a jaguar picture from July ( I think ), along with a mountain lion and javelinas. I followed Laqui up the slope, taking a few pictures and watching his machete technique as he cleared the trail for the rest of us. There was still a little bit of water in the canyon. We went and looked at two other cameras, think there was a fox on one.  Back to Babaco, packed up the rest of the stuff and we were off driving to Babisal.
Jaguar habitat
Linda making her way through the thorn scrub

Beautiful view
Jaguar habitat !

Another drive, up 4WD roads with a stop at La Ventana, the entrance to the Reserve. There we met Laco and Lupe his wife. They were very hospitable to us, living in a small house with a few solar panels to provide a little power to some car batteries. Lupe cooks outside on a wood fire that is kept burning all day. Her outdoor kitchen has a dirt floor and everything looked spotless and well organized. She gave Jeff some of her homemade white cheese. After leaving La Ventana, we had a two hour drive to finish getting to Babisal. More climbing, more beautiful views of wild spaces with no one and no hint of man other than the dirt road we were driving on.
Miguel and Laqui
Lupe in her kitchen

Laco and Laqui at La Ventana
Climbing out of La Ventana

Turtle and Avery on the way to Babisal

Babisal was pretty amazing. Randy and Turtle and NJP had built a center with a couple of bunkhouses, a shower, a kitchen area with a storeroom that had a running 12 volt solar powered refrigerator, and an outhouse, and running water. We were set, and the camping was going to be a whole lot less primitive than I had thought !  Randy and Turtle fixed up another great vegan meal for us, and then several of us went for a walk up a little arroyo, enjoying the coolness as night fell.

Old corrals up arroyo from Babisal
Rockfall near the pool

Linda, Geoff, Turtle and McNair at the pool

Wednesday morning we were up and going, to take a trip to see the banana tree and the waterfall near Alejandro's house. He was one of the ranchers that the property had been bought from. I rode in the back of the truck with Farmer, Avery and Cholo. We then walked though a grove of sycamores, with lots of leaves on the ground crunching underfoot.  Across some scree and more woods and then we were at a beautiful pool of water with a bit rockfall behind it. It was time to take off the shoes and wade across, so I did, got to the other side and was joined by Priscilla, then Randy and McNeil. We climbed over the rockfall, and got to the waterfall. I could see the banana tree and didn't feel that sure footed about climbing on wet slippery rocks, so stayed and just checked it all out while the other three went ahead. Kinda wished I had gone up to the tree, but I could see it. The rest of the folks stayed behind with Turtle. As I was coming back, I waded and Turtle then told me there were leaches in the water and I could see them crawling around. They didn't bother me. Avery, Turtle's dog, had a great time swimming in the water of the pool, she was one happy pup !

We got back to camp and basically took a siesta for the afternoon. Turtle had brought a camera from the trail that was giving a memory full error and wasn't recording and she and McNair cleared the chip on his computer and downloaded some pictures. To see if it was working, she went with a group of us to temporarily place it and four of us took the hike, placed the camera, and then hung out on a piece of rock looking at the near full moon in the night chill.
Priscilla at the arroyo at Babisal

Tracks !
A Deer
Thursday's trip was to the Rio Aros. We loaded up again, and set out after breakfast in a mostly north direction. Driving through an arroyo with palm trees, animal tracks,  and high grasses in the middle of the road. We stopped a few times and looked at tracks, then climbed more and more and more and then descended to an overlook where you could see the river in the distance. We would park the cars and walk the last mile or so. There were rocks in the river and a fairly quick current, making for some nice little rapids on the other side. The water felt cool and we hung out on a little beach for several hours, swimming, eating some lunch and taking a couple of short side hikes. I tried to climb up a thorn infested and very rocky slope with McNair but gave it up about 1/3 of the way up and went back to get in the water and cool off. As the sun went down and we began to leave, Turtle and I spied an indigo snake swimming in the river, crossing to the other side. It was the largest snake I have ever seen outside of a zoo, perhaps 8 or 9 feet long, fat and shiny black, as it crawled out on the far side of the river and lay on the rocks there. The Rio Aros is the last river without a dam or other water diversion project in Mexico and it was stunningly wild and beautiful. I think we all felt a little sad to leave it, such a special place.  The trip back was slower, with darkness falling and Turtle driving the car through a sea of grass that came up to windshield height and reflected the headlights back. Very tricky to figure out where the road was and that made for slow going. Finally we got back to Babisal and the others had a campfire going, so the last night was spent sitting near the fire and enjoying the company and a shot or two of whiskey.
Geoff above Rio Aros
Rio Aros overview point

Turtle & Randy - best guides ever !

Tracks all around on the banks of the Rio Aros

Looking down on the river from the thorn scrub
Rio Aros swimming beach

Lava rocks near the river

Friday morning, our last day, we got up and headed for an early hike before breakfast. We went back towards the waterfall, climbing along the rocks on the arroyo where McNair had seen coati's a couple of nights before. Water still flowed in a small creek over the lava and the going was pretty easy until one section. The dogs went up the hill and I followed them, they seemed to know exactly where to go and I found myself ahead of everyone else. Geoff and Turtle and I took the camera with the cleared memory card back to it's proper location and we turned around and headed back to camp. I walked ahead of the group for a while and then sat on some of the lava and tried to take it all it. It's a little hard to describe, but this is a truly magical place, just sitting there, enjoying the quiet, listening to the water flow, the dogs coming up and sitting with me for a while and watching the shadows change as the sun continued to rise. We got back to camp and had a great brunch of pancakes and then began to pack and were rolling back towards La Ventana at about 1 pm.
Hard to navigate sometimes !

Turtle, Avery and Farmer installing the camera

It turned out that Carmina and Miguel had trouble with the other truck they were driving and it was broken down back at La Ventana, so when we got there, we had coffee made by Lupe and the guys figured out their action plan. Camina ended up driving our vehicle and Miguel the other, and with 5 in each car we drove back to Sahuaripa. We stopped at the house of one of the other ranchers for a bit, talked with some Mexican forestry guys who had a broken down truck in the mountains and got back to Sahuaripa around 7:30 or so, about 6 hours of driving from Babisal. Stayed at the same hotel and ate supper there, bid farewell to Miguel and Carmina and off to bed.
Priscilla looking back

I woke up the next morning and walked through Sahuaripa a bit. I really liked this little town. Wished I spoke the language, loved the architecture and everyone seemed pretty friendly to an obviously out of place gringo. The drive back to the US went pretty quickly, I drove some and we had no problems with the border crossing, the CBP guy looking at Avery and commenting on her being a sweet dog. That evening after getting back to Tucson, we all met at La Cocina and had a good dinner and then said goodbye and with that, the week was over. 

I really enjoyed meeting and being with everyone on the trip, such a nice friendly, witty group of people, who all believe in nature and protecting it and loving it. And you couldn't ask for better hosts than Turtle and Randy, who saw to our every need to make us comfortable, and explain everything about the Reserve and the Project, and who have put in amazingly long hours of hard work getting the Reserve to the place it is today. Ready to go back someday.

Babisal Jaguar