Encounters in the Wilderness; Real or Imagined?
I want to describe some of the encounters that I had in my early years of trail running that would illuminate some of the mysteries in the mountains. As usual, I have a hard time giving a quick synopsis of the story so I present my findings here in this short story.
I have been running trails in Southeast Arizona since 1995. After I moved to Tucson in 1994 I spent a season running road races and getting to know the community of pavement pounders. By the following winter and spring I got a hankering to explore some of the trails that meandered off of common road routes like Sabino Canyon and Saguaro Monument East Loop. During my runs I would occasionally witness a haggard looking, sun-baked runner coming off of a trail and wonder where they came from and where did they go? My first such run-in was with a guy named Rob Gagliardo. I had run to the top of Sabino Canyon Road from the Visitor's Center in July. As I turned around to head back down the road I spotted a sweaty, grey haired man barreling down the end of the trail carrying a water bottle in his clenched fist. As he got nearer to me I could not help but notice the streamlets of blood coming from the side of one thigh and flowing down the knee of the other leg. Since he was now heading my direction I sidled up next to him and struck up a conversation.
"Where did you come from and where did you go?" He proceeded to explain to me about this loop that starts at the SCVC parking lot and goes around into Bear Canyon and loops back to the road and finishes in the parking lot, something like 17 miles. I tried to process this but couldn't quite grasp the concept of doing this by myself in the heat of summer with one water bottle. And trust me; he looked like he had paid for it. He said he was training for the San Francisco Marathon a month from now. Interesting...
A month later I left the road on Saguaro Loop and ventured across some of the zig-zagging trails of Cactus Forest finding dirt for the first time. I always found a variety of people out here hiking and running and even mountain biking. It wasn't long before I also discovered the rattlesnake. Early encounters would cause me to turn back to the parking lot and cut my run short. Eventually I would give the devil a wide berth and make sure I didn't come back the same way. This worked well until the morning I skirted one snake and then a mile later came upon another. I was trapped. I had no choice now but to go back the way I came and keep my eyes peeled for the first snake. Finally, one day after running through a narrow spot on the trail, a squirming twisting mass came rolling down the slope next to me making all kinds of ugly noises. I jumped the obligatory three feet in the air and three feet to the side in one motion and screamed. This rattler had a green tint to it and it really didn't appear happy to share the trail with me. I ran back the way I came and found my wife Trish coming up the same trail. I took her back to the snake and I showed her. That was the end of our running day.
As the weather cooled off into October and November I made a plan to check out the Bear Canyon Loop. I followed Rob's instructions and left the eastside of the parking lot and ran toward Seven Falls. After I hit the trail for about a half-mile the trail dumped into the creek. It never occurred to me that it picked up on the other side. I bouldered my way up the creek for another two miles and finally tired and turned around. I'm not sure what trail Rob was talking about but this thing seemed broken and I couldn't figure it out. I figured I would wait until I'd seen Rick Fenno and Benito Gonzales and ask them what they knew of the trail and get them to go with me.
So, I figured if I couldn't find the trail from this end then I would run up Sabino Canyon Road and go up the trail at the other end. This worked and was easy to follow. I had planned on a turnaround in an hour so I didn't have to carry water. I made it to a junction called East and West Fork. I decided to go left and turn around in 15 minutes heading toward Hutches Pool. After about 10 minutes I rounded a bend and just above eye level about 50 feet away I saw a deer with horns on its head (buck) standing still. He looked at me sideways and stood eerily motionless. Something told me this was a good spot to turn around and head back. I thought about this encounter all the way home. It was amazing to me that there were animals out here so unused to seeing humans that they didn't run away.
We were running a double loop at Saguaro Monument one morning when I brought the up the subject of Bear Canyon right after the discussion about the deliciousness of blueberry pancakes after a long run. Everyone agreed to go the following weekend. Just then, Benito joined us off of a side trail and asked us if we had seen the giant hairless jackalopes that were running through the park. Now that he mentioned it I had found it strange that these jackalopes were extremely tall and skinny but also looked like they had bald spots on their hides. I must admit that when a jackalope that sits waist high is giving you the eye, it is very creepy.
Tanque Verde Ridge in background
We finally set our sights on the Bear Canyon route in January of 1995. It hadn't rained for a day or two so we went out on a cold Sunday morning and ran to the same point that I had previously gotten confused. I don't remember now if Greg Wenneborg or Randy Acetta had done the trail before but between the five of us we found the connection on the other side of the creek seven times through initially knee-high ice cold water. The last two crossings were waist high and the current was strong. By the time we finished the last crossing I was wet and cold up to my elbows only 20 minutes into the run. We began the initial ascent running all the way to the "grinder." The grinder, I was slow to learn, was a relentless climb with 6 distinct switchbacks before finally ending at an overlook rock with a view of everywhere we had been. It seemed like the rest of the run was downhill as we flew down into Sabino Basin pushing each other with banter and jokes. I was thankful that these guys came with me for this run as I would never had figured it out for myself and didn't want to deal with the spookiness of the lonely trail down by the Palisades and Box Camp junctions.
Another one of our excursions took place a month later when we ran to Cowhead Saddle from the east end of Speedway. There was a train of us about 8 runners long on another freezing cold Sunday morning at 6am in February heading up the Douglas Springs Trail. At first I thought the hill climb would never end. My thighs were burning but no one would slow to a walk. The climb finally relented once we went by a big rock outcropping where we took a quick breather to enjoy the view of the valley below. From here to Doug Springs the trail was very runnable. After crossing Doug and scooping water from the stream to quench our thirst we began another relentless climb. Everything looked so burned out through this area. Blackened trees stood like lonely sentinels on the surface of a grey planet waiting to warn their family members further up the mountain of approaching trespassers.
I learned later that a fire had swept through this area two summers earlier. After about a mile and a half the trail crested and dropped down into some kind of gulch. There were many trees and thorny plants along the trail which ran beside a creek on the right and a steep slope on the left. I'm glad I was with the others through here, I felt a little claustrophobic. After a short while we began to climb again in a non-stop fashion with switchbacks and a steep grade. I had to take intermittent walk breaks as my heart felt as if it would burst out of my chest. Finally I looked up and saw Randy and Rick standing by a trail sign signaling our turnaround. While standing on the saddle we looked around. Randy ran to the left up the trail for a few minutes to check things out. I looked down the other side of the saddle through the trees to what looked like the "Land of the Lost."
If Sleestaks still exist then they probably have a home down there. Randy came back after about 10 minutes and reported more hill climbing and moonscape to what eventually led to Mica Mountain five miles further up. How in the hell could anyone ever go that far and make it back in one day especially with only two water bottles, one for each hand of course.
On the return trip we stretched out our legs heading back towards Douglas Springs. Shortly after the springs crossing we encountered several other runners on their way up. After some quick hellos and general inquiries of where they were all headed, we discovered that these were the Tucson Trail Runners (TTRs) and this was their annual excursion to Cowhead Saddle. Hmmm...I thought... I'll have to look into that.
The following January of 1996 Benito, Rick and I planned to run from Javalina Picnic Ground in the Saguaro East Monument up to Juniper Basin and back. This was Super Bowl Sunday so it seemed like a good idea to put some calorie burn in the bank before a hefty day of football watching and beer drinking. Once we crested over most of the ridge we were high enough to reach the low lying clouds. We ran the last mile to Juniper in a sort of fog.
We investigated the campground on our way through and decided to keep going to Tanque Verde Peak since it was only 2.5 miles away. We continually lost the trail through here but finally found our way to the peak. The mist and fog were heavy so there was no view to be had and since Cowhead was only another 2.3 miles away we thought it would be interesting to get there from this direction.
Again, after about a half mile we lost the trail and split up trying to range the area for any signs. This is when I caught my first glimpse of a Triangalope. I know it was misty and I was probably a little exhausted and lightheaded but I sensed movement in my peripheral vision and my adrenaline spiked. Rick yelled out that he found trail and I bushwhacked over to his voice. I asked those guys if they had seen what I saw and they both had their own sightings. The Triangalope is described as a long, thin-legged tripod type creature usually black in color and has anywhere from two to seven shorter arms near the shoulder area.
Now I know that most of you think I'm exaggerating or making a joke about burnt trees and I'm just being stupid. Well that's what I thought too until I saw their face and head. Trees don't have faces and heads. These had an inverted triangle shape for a head with two golf-ball sized circular eyes with pupils that whirled around inside the eyeball. I confirmed this with Rick and Benito as we kept moving to Cowhead Saddle. We agreed that we should just keep going at this point since we were already halfway around the entire loop and we didn't want to chance another encounter with anomalies in the mist.
Although no one was attacked or chased it was too much of an unknown to risk it.
Like I said, our adrenaline was up and even though now it started to rain, I led the way down and we ran our fastest time ever from Cowhead to the East end of Speedway; 1 hour. Some say it was because I was going to be late to hare the first ever Super Bowl Hash with the Hash House Harriers but I distinctly recall the three of us charged up and giddy running downhill over slippery wet rocks like our feet were hardly touching the ground. At the end we all agreed to not mention the Triangalope sightings to anyone until we had further evidence or confirmation from other runners.
Another season passed and in the fall of 1997 I located the Tucson Trail Runners and joined them for the fall Bear Canyon Loop. There were some speedsters there that day that maintained sight of each other all the way around the loop. Randy Acetta ran 2:11 while Rick, Benito and I were close behind in 2:12 and 2:14. I enjoyed the company of the TTR members and came back often. I showed up for Mt. Lemmon Ascent in November and for the first time I found out what it was like to run that far into the wilderness by myself. It was a strange feeling because mentally I wasn't by myself because I knew everyone else was out there too, just behind me. I became physically alone though the further up the trail I went. This loneliness did not occur to me until I rounded a bend coming up to the Cathedral Rock junction when I came face-to-face with another buck. The deer was grazing against a steep slope and when I came into view he lifted his antlers, jerked his body and froze. I was literally five feet from him. What seemed like a minute was probably only 5 seconds. I could see his moist black nose and the steam from his nostrils. I said something like, "Nice deer," and skirted off the trail facing him until I got by to a safe distance from his hooves. Further up the trail after the Romero Pass turnoff but before Wilderness of Rocks I began to have a sense of being watched. Running by rock ledges and tall pines reminded me of the Walt Disney movie specials on Sunday evenings in the 70s where some cowboy was riding a horse along a Ponderosa filled trail and a cougar would be crouched on a ledge waiting to jump on his back. This is one run to bring a friend along and don't forget extra water.
Several times I ran the trails with TTR I would get halfway or two-thirds around Esperero Loop or up Mount Lemmon and would run into the back of a large man with an overgrown brown beard carrying a stick. Once I realized this was not Bigfoot because he had trail shoes on I found out it was Duane Arter. He typically started his adventure at 10pm the night before in order to finish with everyone else. I could not imagine going out in these mountains all night long in the dark by myself. I saw him do it though many times with a smile on his face.
It was late 1997 that I had my first experience on Heartbreak Ridge and the Charcoal Bears. This is a little travelled trail that connects Happy Valley Saddle below Rincon Peak, to Devil's Bathtub below Manning Camp near Mica Mountain. The first time I traversed this trail was during the Three Peaks Run that Scott Devlin had arranged for the daring few TTRs that had the gumption to run 37 miles and carry all of their own supplies. A few of us including the run director, Scott, camped out the night before at the Miller Creek Trailhead located about 15 miles up Mescal Road off of I-10. The route is up Miller Creek Trail to the Happy Valley Saddle intersection and turns left up to Rincon Peak and comes back to the saddle; one peak down. Then continue north on Heartbreak Ridge across to the Four Corners Junction 4.2 miles away. It was along this ridge that I discovered a harmless but frightening specter known as a Charcoal Bear.
Charcoal Bear licking a Beehive
Charcoal Grizzly in the Huachucas
I believe that these poor bears were probably trapped on the mountain during the 1994 Rincon Fire and there they remain today as a memory. To some they resemble the trunk of a tree burned to a charcoally crisp. If you pay close attention, you can see that most of these bears were living normal lives as they were swept up by an inferno much like the Mt Vesuvius eruption in A.D. 79. The biggest danger I found with Charcoal Bears is the unexpected bump-in with one of them in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, Charcoal Bears have become a common sighting in most of our mountain ranges and sky islands over the past 10 years. The 3-peaks Run then ascends Mica Mountain, the second peak; and descends to Cowhead Saddle then over to Tanque Verde Peak, the third and final peak; and ends at Javalina Picnic Ground.
Over the next few years whenever I ran trails in the Rincons by myself or even at a TTR event I tended to move quickly in order to not become a target of a mysterious monster. Particularly, Cowhead Saddle and beyond posed a special threat of attack by a Triangalope. Although I don't think a lone Triangalope would ever make an aggressive move; a herd may become defensive of their territory. I have determined that this species has a level of intelligence that allows them to communicate with signaling devices. Take for example, the small stacks of stones and rocks that are found frequently on the sides of trails throughout all of the trail systems in Tucson.
They use the so called cairns as messages to identify their nesting areas, food stashes, and previous movements and routes travelled. In some cases they have had success in tricking hikers and runners into following the cairns into a preset trap or oftentimes a dead end off of a cliff.
I used to try and warn other runners and especially those new to the sport of the potential danger of Triangalopes by describing where they usually were to be found and what they looked like.
Triangalope: Latin - Chaser Fastimious
It seems that since 2002 or 2003 the species has migrated or diminished due to wildfires or drought. The only reminder that still exists is the occasional petrified exoskeletons that are visible to even the untrained eye. To this day I will not plan a solo trip above Douglas Springs especially at night. Bruce Gungle, Chris Fall and I recently spent all night on an ascent to Spewed Rock high in the Rincons near Mica Mountain. It had rained earlier that particular evening so it appeared that all movements had ceased and the Triangalopes were happily slumbering away.
Probably an Egg
More recently, my wife Trish and I travelled to the San Juan Mountains of Southwest Colorado and hiked and ran many of the high altitude trails associated with the Hardrock 100 mile course. I had heard stories from Bob Bachani and others of his ilk about the Killer Marmot. Lucky for Bob that he was armed with a .38 pistol one day on a training run, he was able to fend off a Killer Marmot before it chewed off one of his shoes leaving him stranded with no cell phone service. Fortunately Bob escaped with only a chewed through water tube on his camelback. Bob told us this story and I determined that it was probably the ricochet of bullets off of the surrounding rocks that drove the marmot off rather than a direct hit.
We planned an ascent of 14,400 foot Handies Peak the following day. Lucky we were that Bob supplied us with the ammunition of small linen baggies filled with moth balls. Apparently we were supposed to tie these to the brake lines of our truck while we were out hunting the marmot. I'm not sure whether these worked as an attractor or a deterrent as we quickly crossed the path of another Killer Marmot only a few feet away from the vehicle.
Preparing to Assault
We were able to trap the marmot with a rain jacket then bring it back to Bob to confirm its identity. Unfortunately Bob had already started his race at Hardrock so I gave it to him after he finished. It turned out that the Killer Marmot wasn't actually as dangerous as first thought. It was just looking for attention amongst the lonely vastness of mountain spaces.
Now I must end my discussion on "real or imagined" wildlife encounters with one final tale. I never actually spotted the Chupacabra but heard them around sunset and sunrise on trail runs in the Santa Rita Mountain range south of Tucson. Here is the best description I have found:
The most common description of Chupacabra is a reptile-like being, appearing to have leathery or scaly greenish-gray skin and sharp spines or quills running down its back. This form stands approximately 3 to 4 feet (1 to 1.2 m) high, and stands and hops in a similar fashion to a kangaroo. In at least one sighting, the creature hopped 20 feet (6 m). This variety is said to have a dog or panther-like nose and face, a forked tongue, and large fangs. It is said to hiss and screech when alarmed, as well as leave a sulfuric stench behind. When it screeches, some reports note that the chupacabra's eyes glow an unusual red that gives the witnesses nausea. Some witnesses have reported seeing bat-like wings.
This comes from Wikipedia so I know it is accurate. The nausea often encountered on long trails now makes sense to me. Tucson is known for one of the first Chupacabra attacks on record but more frequent sightings have been made in Texas, Alabama, and Florida. I have discovered that the weather ball on the north side of the Whetstone Mountain range serves a dual purpose. There is a high-frequency transmitter that emits a tone inaudible to human ears which drives the Chupacabra away from the surrounding area for a 25 miles circumference. This explains why they can still be heard in Madera Canyon.
If after reading this historical account of my findings, you find or witness any further evidence of the unknown species Triangalope, latin: chaser fastimious, please contact me as soon as possible. Recently, I have been taking a camera on runs (this explains why my times are slower than they used to be) in order to capture photos of markings, eggs, feeding sites, and bones. Any help is appreciated and appropriate credit given to their discoverers.