Cows, Chocolate, & Cats in the Sierra Madre
Photos by Roseann & Jonathan Hanson, except where noted
Expedition members: Brian DeArmon (GoodTimes), Marisa Rice, Chris Marzonie (the legendary BajaTaco), Brian Jones, Roseann Hanson (DesertRose), and Jonathan Hanson
Cow . . . cow . . . cow . . . two cows . . . cow nose . . . cow tail . . . mountain lion . . . cow . . .
What? Go back.
That’s what happens when you try to scroll through 700 trail camera images too quickly.
The six of us were crowded around a little Canon G10, reviewing images from the Bushell Trail Pro affixed to an oak tree nearby. We were deep in Mexico’s Sierra Madre to check on a pair of trail cameras we installed two months prior as part of a study to catalog the biology of the area. (We were working as volunteers under the auspices of ConserVentures.org, the charity that Overland Expo supports in-part, and Sky Island Alliance's Madrean Archipelago Biodiversity Assessment program.)
It was a shakedown cruise for Brian and Marisa in their Four Wheel Camper, bought cheaply, restored superbly, and commisioned barely minutes before we left for the border. We had presented them with a bottle of bacanora for the christening, which would occur at some point during the trip.
Brian hadn’t even modified the suspension on his Dodge pickup, aside from an expensive set of Bilstein shocks (which he pronounced less effective than the old ones he rashly threw away), so it was sagging in the rear a bit—a concern given some deep cross-axle washouts we needed to cross in the mountains, and the unprotected rear of the FWC, a long-bed model that hung out a foot past the bumper of the short-bed truck. But the interior was ready to go, redesigned by Brian and Marisa to suit their tastes, and striking in dark wood cabinetry.
Brian DeArmon photo
Chris’s Tacoma was of course ready for anything, on furlow in between extended tours elsewhere in Mexico. We only gave him minor grief about the Home Depot steel fence gate he had converted to a roof rack base. If he hadn't clued us in we never would have guessed; now it was difficult not to suggest a donation every time we had to stop to open a barbed-wire and mesquite ranch gate.
Only a day into the trip and our laugh muscles were tired; it was so great to be with all these guys again, like Old Times. It felt wonderful.
We took 2 days to travel the 200 miles to the study site, staying overnight in the 1600s mission town of Granados, on the banks of the Río Bavispe. On the way through the walled village of Bacadéhuachi the next morning, we stumbled upon a Día de Independencia parade of children—the boys dressed as Pancho Villa and the girls as dancers or revolucionarias. They were adorable, shouting "Viva la revolución!" with gusto.
Chris Marzonie photo
The 14 km drive from Bacadehuachi up to the study site, which is owned by the Catholic Church and has 75-year-old adobe bunkhouses and kitchen/dining hall, took 4 hours in low-four. Three washouts along the creek bed make for fun driving, most of us (except Chris) opting for help from spotters to avoid dinged side panels. We climbed from low river bottom desert to high (nearly 6000 feet) Madrean pine-oak woodland at the western edge of the base Sierra Madre Occidental.
Chris Marzonie photo
I'm still super pleased at the performance of our diesel FJ60, once we got all the glitches ironed out; it just goes anywhere (thanks in part also to the front and rear lockers and Old Man Emu suspension from ARB, a sponsor of ConserVentures). (See the build thread here.)
On any serious scientific endeavor such as this—particularly one to as remote an area as we were tackling—pre-trip planning must stress above all those things without which the expedition could fail. Therefore the week prior to departure we had a flurry of emails: Who was bringing the bacanora, and who had tequila? Was Jonathan stocked up on Bass Ale? Would three pounds of meat be sufficient for Brian and Marisa’s group dinner menu of sautéd pork and squash (recipe courtesy BeemerChef, Ara Gureghian's One Pan Recipe from The Oasis of My Soul), and would two dozen eggs be enough to scramble with the leftovers for breakfast the next morning?
Cookies? Chocolate of at least 72-percent purity? We’d be burning a lot of calories; no one wanted to hold back the group just because dessert had been a little skimpy.
At the camp, we unpacked and set up in the common kitchen, the food, and the bar, which took up a whole table, unsurprisingly. It was cold (and dark early), so those of us who were Four-Wheel-Camperless installed ourselves with fat down sleeping bags in the rainproof but drafty dormitories, while Brian and Marisa made sure all the windows were half-open in the camper so their propane radiant heater wouldn’t make the interior too ghastly to endure.
* * * *
Next morning we loaded up day packs and headed east along a ridge trail that rapidly faded to nothing, then bushwhacked down the steep slope to the creek and located the camera, still safe in its mount.
We knew there’d be a lot of cow shots on the Bushnell, but given roughly 4,000 exposures possible on the 8-gig card, we hoped there’d be room for wilder species. And we weren’t disappointed.
First to show was a gray fox, who in subsequent images proved to have a remarkably consistent schedule on his nightly patrols (11 pm to 1 am). Then as we scanned through frame after frame of cow and squirrel, suddenly there was that unmistakable lanky shape of a mountain lion, strolling upstream through two successive frames of infrared-flash-lit nighttime shots.
As an apex predator, few animals prove the essential health of an ecosystem as definitively as a cougar. The initial MABA survey had already shown the Rincón de Guadalupe property to be a rich sanctuary for an abundance of wildlife; this was the exclamation point on that catalog.
But we weren’t finished. Between the two cameras we also caught clear images of bobcat, javelina, white-tailed deer, ringtail, coati, hooded skunk, and turkey. The latter was as good news in terms of ornithology as the cougar had been for mammalogy. Wild turkeys were once widespread in the southwestern sky islands but have lost much of their range.
Coati (relative of the raccoon)
Coues white-tailed deer
Oh, and, one more: A tiny smidgen of a puppy, barely a month or two old, one of the passel of dogs resident at the lodge. Apparently exploring out on his own, the photo caught him striding along, ears up, as if he owned the world. Brian DeArmon immediately dubbed him Ernesto, after Shackleton.
Ernesto Shackleton the Explorer Puppy
Evenings were spent eating vast amounts of excellent food, testing various tequilas and bacanoras (including regional bacanora from the town of Bacadéhuachi). For our money, we gave a big thumbs-up to the inexpensive 100 Años tequila, and although the local bacanora was very good, the Cielo Rojo is superb, and available now in the US in liquor stores.
Jonathan had a winning streak at poker (claiming he had never played), but we all decided he cheats. And gloats. We used plastic knives as poker chips, having forgotten the real ones.
Chris Marzonie photos
Monday we hiked the beautiful canyons in company of various puppies that populate the camp. Most of us got fleas from cuddling them, but it was worth it they were so cute.
Brian DeArmon photo
Chris Marzonie photo
Tuesday we headed back home early, with an obligatory stop for carne asada at a taquería in Moctezuma. Chris demonstrates the proper technique below.
It was a fantastic trip, and we look forward to more (returning about every 3 months), with the hope of securing images of ocelots or even jaguars are possible (though not probable). You can find out more on ConserVentures.org
Thanks for reading our trip report!