Cliff Dwellings — Not!

Mike and I take Three-Niner-Lima to explore some cliff dwellings and get less than we bargained for.

If you’ve been reading this bLog, you may recall that on a trip to the Wayside Inn, I passed what looked like a cliff dwelling along the Date Creek wash. It was a cut out in the cliff face that looked like a cave. I’ve seen plenty of cliff dwellings around the southwest and although this wasn’t big, it looked like the real thing.

I told Mike about it and on Sunday, after doing a quick photo shoot in Forepaugh, we decided to check it out.

I used my GPS to head straight out toward the Wayside Inn, then dropped into the wide Date Creek wash when I was still at least ten miles out. The cave had been on the left, near the top of the cliff. We flew at a good pace, but not too fast to see where we were going. It was a very clear day, but windy. We’d had a tailwind most of the way out, but when we dropped into the wash, much of the wind was blocked. It was a smooth flight.

I saw the cave and pointed it out to Mike. He looked though some binoculars he’d brought along and made a noncommittal noise. I told him I’d pass by again, lower and slower. I made a tight turn, then flew back up the canyon. I turned again, then dropped altitude until I was about 200 feet AGL, cruising at about 70 knots. Mike looked; I watched where I was going. He agreed that it could be a cliff dwelling.

PhotoI looked for a place to land and found a large, clear area in the middle of the wash. It had rained several days before and had snowed up in the mountains. Areas of the was were still wet. I set down on a high, sandy area where the sand looked packed. I lowered the collective slowly once I’d touched down, watching my skid sink into the sand. It sunk in about an inch. Mike said there was no sink on his side. Satisfied, I shut down.

We took our picnic lunch, my new Canon G5 camera (which we’d used for the photo shoot), and a flashlight out of the helicopter and packed them in a canvas bag. Then we started walking. The cave was about 1/4 mile away. The walk to the base of the cliff was easy — gently sloping desert terrain with creosote, palo verde, cholla, and joshua trees. The slopes were cut with shallow washes — hundreds of them — that drained water into the wash. The ground was damp and relatively soft. There were no animal tracks and no signs of people.

PhotoAt the base of the cliff, I stopped to take a photo of the cave. It looked very promising. In fact, I was sure I could see signs of a manmade wall inside the cave.

We started climbing up the side of the hill. It was easier than it looked. The soft soil made it easy to step up on. It only took us about 10 minutes to make the climb.

But when we reached the cave, we were disappointed. The cave was only a fraction of the size we thought it was. In fact, it couldn’t have been more than 20 inches high in its highest spot. The cave roof was stained by leeched water containing some kind of chemical. It made an interesting pattern in one area. The cave floor was littered with cholla spines. It was obvious that the cave had been used as a home by some kind of rodent — probably a pack rat.

PhotoDisappointed, we made our way back down the hill. We stopped on a sunny spot and ate lunch, admiring the view across the wash, where years of erosion had eaten away the cliffs.

We walked back to the helicopter, climbed on board, and took off. We continued down the wash to the point where it joined the upper end of Alamo Lake. Then I turned east, flying up the Santa Maria River. I’d seen another cave the last time I’d been through and thought about visiting it, too. But I was kind of turned off to the cave thing after our disappointment. In any case, I didn’t see the one along the Santa Maria.

PhotoWe followed the river east to route 93 and explored some of the rock formations there. Some people on ATVs looked up at us as we flew over. Then we headed up the road to Burro Creek. Mike wanted to see the campground from the air; we were thinking about spending a few days there at the end of the month. He shot these two excellent photos. The bridge over Burro Creek. (Yes, it is possible to fly under the bridge, but we didn’t do it that day. The bridge isn’t the problem; the power lines, which hang lower than the bridge, are what’s scary.)

By this time, I was getting alarmed about our fuel situation. We’d left with about 22 gallons on board and had been flying for more than an hour. We decided to go straight home. I punched Wickenburg’s designator into the GPS and set a course. Unfortunately, the tailwind we’d had while flying toward Alamo Lake had become a headwind — about a 15-knot headwind. I dropped down to about 400 AGL, hoping to stay out of the wind. It didn’t help much. I watched the fuel gauges drop steadily. I pitched for my best range speed of 85 knots. We were still about 20 miles out when the Aux tank gauge got to E. I knew we had at least 15 minutes left on the main tank, but the GPS said it would take 17 minutes to reach Wickenburg. Route 93 was within sight. I decided that if the main tank gauge approached E while I was still 5 or more miles out, I’d fly over the road. Then, if the Low Fuel (read that “Land Now”) light went on, I could land close to the road and not have to walk far for a ride.

Fortunately, we made it to Wickenburg and I landed without seeing the light. But both fuel gauges were on E. I took this shot as I cooled down the engine; note the oil pressure; the engine really is running for this shot.

The trip had been fun, although a bit stressful. It was good to get out and fly with Mike; I’d been doing so much solo flying. But next time, I won’t let the fuel get so low.

What do you think?