March 31, 2012
A Trojan Horse had been accepted into my father’s computer in Oklahoma City, one which resisted the typical means of expulsion. Friday evening I drove down to the battlefield and vanquished the foe, providing me with the opportunity the following day to follow the H.E. Bailey Turnpike 1.5 hours southwest of the metropolis for another day hike in one of my favorite Oklahoma playgrounds, the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. I hiked in Charon’s Garden in November 2010 and February 2011, explored West Cache Creek in December 2010, and explored the Ison and Quanah Parker lake areas in December 2011. This visit, like the most recent one, was inspired by Edward Charles Ellenbrook’s Outdoor and Trail Guide to the Wichita Mountains, which described the refuge’s unusual parallel forest.
The Parallel Forest
The refuge was once a national forest and game preserve and the parallel forest is a remnant of that era. It is a large grove of cedar trees planted in formation precisely 100 years ago this spring, one of several reforestation plantings and by far the best known. The forest reserve was established in 1901 on a former Kiowa-Comanche-Apache reservation and overgrazing by cattle had caused deforestation. Supervisor Frank Rush instituted the Panther Creek, Pleasant Valley, Elm Spring, Headquarters, Reck, Post Oak, Baker Peak, and Cedar Creek tree plantings. Most of the surviving plantings are in the northern Special Use Area, inaccessible to the public, and there were tree project failures, including ponderosa pines at Cache Creek and silver maples at Lost Lake. But the Elm Springs plantings of Osage orange trees can still be found south of the Treasure Lake Job Corps Center, and the eastern red cedar plantings near Cedar Creek is today’s parallel forest.
The “deep hole method” was used to plant wildlings of Juniperus virginiana in a rectangular plot of 1,200 by 600 feet. It is speculated that they were intended to be harvested for fence poles with the trees planted in single rows spaced six feet apart. This close spacing has stunted their growth and kept the lower branches at bay, making for a lovely walking area. The forest runs northeast along highway 115 and stands out in a satellite view with Mount Roosevelt to the west and Mount Wall to the east.
I drove down the turnpike in the fog, passing cloud-topped Mount Scott as I entered the refuge along highway 49 and drove over to Highway 115, which leads north to Meers. About a mile after turning north off highway 49 I parked at the unmarked lot beside the parallel forest, where a vanload of people from Lawton’s Cameron University were just heading out down a dirt road to the north, admonished by their guide that if they entered the parallel forest to keep in sight of the road. I plunged down the trail leading southeastward into the forest, determined to lose sight of the road as quickly as possible. The trail led straight through the cedars to a clearing and then forked. I exited near the northeast corner and followed an animal trail across Cedar Creek, ascending the open western slope of Mount Wall, with tiny flowers of one type or another growing amidst the protruding granite stones.
Unprepared for a Hike to the Summit of Mount Wall
I had only planned to explore the small forest for a brief while on this foggy morning and wore no sunscreen, had no trekking poles, and only had a single Fanta orange drink in my tiny waist pack. But the rising slope of Mount Wall beckoned and I decided to walk to the summit, which would prove to be an arduous trek. I would spend almost four hours hiking 4.75 miles up and down and along Mount Wall, which projects 600 feet above the parallel forest. Along the way I’d encounter an angry rattlesnake, max out my heart rate, and sunburn my arms and legs, but I’m glad I went.
The animal trail threaded through a overgrown belt of trees and then I reached a barrier shelf of rock. A turkey vulture landed above me and eyed me suspiciously. I wound my way around the stone barrier until an animal trail led up to the ridge of the mountain. I climbed to what appeared to be the summit, the first of several “false summits” where you strive for what appears to be the top of the mountain, only to find upon arriving that the ridge runs onward to a higher ridge beyond. There were pretty flowers to brighten the overcast climb.
I posed by a dead tree near the second false summit, with granite peaks popping out all around the landscape. Brief glints of sunlight finally began to break through the low clouds. I admired more tiny flowers and then disaster nearly struck. Thankfully I wasn’t wearing ear buds, since I was bushwhacking along. I startled a flock of birds from tree cover and had my head turned, watching them and reaching for my camera, when I heard a hiss and a continuous rattle. A glance downward showed a slithering shape coming toward me and I emitted a shriek and leaped backward from an angry rattlesnake signaling, “Don’t tread on me!” It continue to rattle as I bounded away, not anxious whatsoever to capture it in my camera. It was a valuable lesson to always watch where you walk in these parts and to never hike without a first aid kit.
Somewhat rattled, I reached the true summit and cursed the low clouds obscuring my view. I descended the eastern face of Mount Wall, hoping to descend and circle about its north slope, but a dense overgrown tree barrier blocked my way. Turkey vultures glided overhead and I shot a brief video of one.
I could see fog-bedecked Mount Scott to the east and more flowers at my feet as I threaded my way along the southern face of Mount Wall, being especially wary as I passed by the former location of the rattlesnake. Instead of returning along the ridge line, I followed scat trails along a lower and far more strenuous path, with my heart rate climbing as the day warmed.
I passed below a distinctive tree I recalled from one of the false summits and then ascended toward several big slabs of granite, knowing I needed to climb back over the ridge. My heart was really pounding, so I sat down and took my pulse. At 180 beats per minute it was well above my usual aerobic workout level of 144 and approaching the maximum safe level. So I rested until it eased back, shooting a panorama of the southeast view. The clouds were about to lift from Mount Scott.
Then I ascended to the main ridge and took a last look down the southern valley of Mount Wall before crossing over for a splendid northwest panorama of Mount Roosevelt, with the parallel forest below it, and Mount Sheridan and Meers. I found a stone throne and shot a self-portrait with the parallel forest and Mount Roosevelt in the background. A flock of snowgeese flew past and I then threaded my way down the mountain, following narrow animal trails through the timber to a ford of Cedar Creek about 300 feet north of my prior crossing. This trail led north through a copse of trees directly to an arrastra.
The Arrastras of the Wichitas
An arrastra is a circular drag mill where a donkey is used to haul a drag stone around a circular basin to crush mined ore into fine particles. Water is then added to form a paste and mercury used to disjoin gold and silver from the remaining bits of ore. A central log had a long horizontal boom suspended from it with the drag stone suspended from the boom and the donkey tugging at the end of the boom. Three Spanish-style arrastras have been found in the Wichita Mountains, including one near Panther Creek, 1.5 miles southwest of Osage Lake.
The arrastra I viewed was a few feet south of Cedar Creek. It was first described in the Chronicles of Oklahoma in 1955 and a 1973 issue of Oklahoma Today asserts it was built in 1901 by the prospector “Ol’ Dutch Bill”, actually William Larve, who helped found Meers. That mining town peaked at 300 miners in the Wichitas gold rush of the early 1900s and only a lone store survives, now home to the famous Meersburger. My folks and I ate there once, but we were less than impressed by the huge crumbly burger we received.
I followed a trail south through the trees and encountered the first hikers I’d seen on the trails. I mentioned they were almost to the arrastra, but they had never heard of it. The trail exited the copse of trees and re-entered the parallel forest. More hikers were heading down the main path as I wandered about the forest for a bit, enjoying the cool shade since the skies had cleared and the sun was beating down, lifting the temperature into the low 80s. I reached the car, having hiked 4.75 miles, and gulped down water and stripped off my shirt and washed up. I slathered on some sunscreen, donned a wicking T-shirt, and noted that it was approaching 2:30 p.m. I didn’t feel like driving into Medicine Park for a late lunch and instead decided to pursue my second goal of the day: the tower at nearby Lake Jed Johnson.
The Tower at Lake Jed Johnson
I drove south down highway 115 and then a short ways west on highway 49 to the Holy City turnoff. The annual Easter pageant would be held there that night and the following week, so there were a number of vehicles plying to and from it, but I continued westward to turn off to Lake Jed Johnson, named after a former Oklahoma congressman.
Lake Jed Johnson was built in 1940 and it is said there was so much extra material left over that in 1941 they built the 60-foot observation tower as an afterthought. It is a concrete structure sheathed in native stone and would provide a nice view of the lake were it still open to the public. Two trails lead from the parking lot, one of which leads south to the lake and the other leads west to the tower.
I followed the first trail a couple of hundred feet south to the northern end of the lake as it widens out from Blue Beaver Creek. As I reached the lake, there were a series of loud plops as turtles on the far shore jumped into the water. But a few stayed out on the rocks for my camera.
I then turned west to see the tower rising above the lake with the burned-over Central Peak looming above it. The Ferguson Fire burned over 46% of the refuge back in September 2011 and left Central Peak denuded. I liked the view of the tower from the lake shore, but the stony path with its burned-over trees made the trek over to it seem like a trip through a haunted forest. The tower loomed above the trail, looking forbidding with some windows rocked in, others covered by steel plates, and its upper projections making it look like an Okie version of Orthanc from The Two Towers.
The tower’s doorway was sealed, but high windows gaped, showing graffiti on the interior. Someone took photos from a September 2010 infiltration of the tower, so we can peek inside. There is a grant under development which includes restoration of the tower. I hope they can re-open it one day.
Sooty Central Peak
The trail ended at a creek where the fire had stopped, so I bushwhacked up among the sooty remains of trees, happy to see that nature was slowly reasserting itself with tiny flowers peeking out from the ashes. The lake was spread out below me while turkey vultures glided overhead. I walked around the base of the high bluff of the summit, not tempted to climb the sooty remains of trees fallen against its side. The north side of the summit provided a panoramic view of Lake Rush, which recently underwent modifications and is slowly refilling.
I slowly descended the northeast side of the peak, relieved when greenery appeared amidst the charred mountainside. The tower came back into view and I was struck by how the charred bark had fallen from some trees to reveal golden wood beneath. One burned tree reminded me of a broken ship ventilator and I peered through its opening. As I returned to the tower’s level, I noticed my hands were sooty from my trek.
I passed a fisherman and the scene made it seem like he should speak Scottish. Then I reached the car, having added 2.2 miles of hiking to the day, and drove over to the dam. I descended to the creek for a final shot for the day and then called it quits. I had hiked only about seven miles, but the rough terrain, heat, and humidity had drained me. I treated myself to a Fudgsicle on the way back to Oklahoma City, tired but happy from a long day of bushwhacking.