The Bosque del Apache in Winter — a refuge from phone and fax

Marsh Trail overlook. Photo by Leonard Padilla.
Marsh Trail overlook.

It is late winter, a Monday afternoon, in New Mexico’s Middle Rio Grande Valley. The temperature outside hovers at sixty degrees. For one person, the temptation to remove his coat and tie and play hooky from work is too compelling to resist. From Socorro, our adventurer drives south on New Mexico Highway 1 toward the entrancing and renowned Bosque Del Apache Wildlife Refuge. He must, for obvious reasons, remain anonymous.

South of town, through and along desert hills, Highway 1 parallels Interstate 25 for five miles, then turns sharply over the interstate and winds down to the valley. The village of Luis Lopez is at the bottom of the hill. Another five miles further south is the more well-known village of San Antonio.

A short time later, eighteen miles from Socorro and just inside the Refuge boundary, an American kestrel perches on an overhead wire and surveys the scene. Just up the road, slicing through the air at about eye level, glides a red-tailed hawk. The Refuge headquarters and visitor center soon appear and, after paying $3.00 at an entrance station, the visitor takes the Marsh Road Loop. In the canal which parallels the road, a great blue heron preens itself. In the marshes, Canada geese, northern shovelers and buffleheads paddle lazily in small groups, some tipping over sporadically in search of food, scarcely taking notice. Down the road, snow geese line the top of a canal, providing contrasting foreground for the Chupadera Mountains.

Near the southern end of the loop, the entranced visitor’s vehicle stops at the parking area for the Marsh Overlook Trail. A blazing winter sun, on a downward arc in the bright blue sky, casts intriguing shadows of the hills and plants, beckoning the visitor to linger. Armed with an informational brochure available at the trailhead, he walks a circle around a marsh over a trail wide, level and smooth for most of its 1.5 mile length. One can easily imagine this a dance through mosquito alley during the warmer months, but today offers no problems. At the corner of the marsh, a trail spur climbs a small hill overlooking the Refuge. This refugee from work, armed with a camera and binoculars, is rewarded with outstanding views of the marshes and of the bosque beyond.

Marsh Trail overlook. Photo by Leonard Padilla.
Marsh Trail overlook. Photo by Leonard Padilla.

At the bottom of the overlook, the trail around the marsh is blanketed in pleasing cool shadows. Suddenly the visitor stops in his tracks, halted by the familiar yet spooky sounds of a pack of yapping coyotes coming from an area of the trail just recently trod. The sound is so close he waits with wonder to see if the coyotes will emerge from the brush with an early dinner, but they are too wily to reveal themselves. The hiker continues, circling the marsh. SPLASH! The visitor’s intrusion startles a marsh resident. The visitor creeps closer to the marsh’s edge. Now visible is a muskrat that entered the water in self-defense. By now, it is time to return to the vehicle for a short drive to the fly-in.

The Marsh Loop Road intersects the Farm Loop Road and turns north. In a race with lengthening shadows now, the visitor still notes the colorful presence of a ring-necked pheasant. Sandhill cranes dominate the birdlife in this part of the Refuge in their numbers and size. The effects of a devastating fire that roared through the Refuge in 1996 are plainly visible, as are the restoration efforts by Refuge managers. At the north end of the loop road, the senses are assaulted by the sight and sound of thousands of snow geese, a blanket of white that covers an otherwise ordinary farm field.

Overhead, the fly-in is under way. More geese, some in a classic V formation, others in unruly flocks, make their way in from distant farm fields. Lesser in number, but quite distinctive, are sandhill cranes, with their pleasing warble adding to the cacophony of the geese.

Moments later, it happens. In unison, the geese lift off with a roar of flapping wings and loud honks, on their way to safety in their nightly marsh roosts. The sun is gone, but there is light enough for the snow-capped Magdalena Mountains to lend a dramatic flourish to the end of the day. Too soon, the fly-in is over. The Refuge is last seen through failing light and the dissipating fog of dust raised by passing vehicles.

The erstwhile visitor arrives back at his office, only to discover there are no messages on the answering machine, no faxes, no e-mail. He has not been missed. He hasn’t made up his mind whether that’s a good or a bad discovery.