The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 81: Sheephole Valley Wilderness

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

Primitive and unconfined types of recreation; that's one thing a wilderness is supposed to provide, and this desert area can give you more of it than just about anywhere. This week on The WildeBeat; Sheephole Valley Wilderness.

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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number eighty one.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE TABOR: ...It's a hundred seventy four thousand acres. It comprises two valleys, and two mountain ranges. And the central part of the valley... Sheephole Valley, is just this vast, forty mile long valley.

STEVE: That's Steve Tabor. He's the president of the Berkeley, California-based group, The Desert Survivors. The Sheephole Valley Wilderness is in California's Mojave Desert. It's immediately north of Joshua Tree National Park. We reported on my visit to this wilderness in our editions thirty five and thirty six, Surviving the Desert. Dan Abbe is the wilderness specialist in the Needles Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management.

DAN ABBE: The Sheephole Valley Wilderness area... was created in nineteen ninety four, under the California Desert Protection Act. It's a relatively large wilderness area for the California Desert District. It's approximately a hundred and ninety thousand acres. It encompasses two different mountain ranges; the Sheephole Mountains as well as the Calumet Mountains, and then there's a valley in between them. And therefore that's where it gets it's name, the Sheephole Valley wilderness area. It's typical Mojave Desert type environment. The mountains themselves are pretty barren. There's not much in the way of vegetation on the top. They're pretty much a granite mountain range that is sort of picturesque in the fact that there are large rock outcrops... And then the valley that goes between is pretty expansive valley.

STEVE TABOR: ...It's just a huge, big, open space with no roads, no houses. It's very rare to find any human tracks out there of any kind.

STEVE: In fact, very little is known about the human history and pre-history of the area. People might never have spent much of any time there. Even now, Dan Abbe, thinks fewer than a hundred people a year visit the wilderness interior.

DAN ABBE: ...We don't know, because there are no known permanent water sources within the Sheephole Mountains in particular, we don't have a lot of human history from that area. There was some mining. The mining that was done in that area never proved to be of a very profitable commercial value, so most of the mining activity just sort of centered around prospects, and then people scratchin' around looking for places. So relatively speaking, the history of the area, at least my knowledge of it, is pretty limited.

STEVE: So it could be possible that you could wander off somewhere in this expanse and get to a place that may not have been visited in hundreds of years by any human.

DAN ABBE: That is correct. It's entirely possible. There are areas in the wilderness that for all intents and purposes probably haven't seen much human use, or human activity for decades if not hundreds of years. The BLM does not maintain any active trail system within the Sheephole Valley Wilderness. ...And one of the reasons, is again the sense that wilderness area are to be left, predominantly, to the forces of nature. ...It is entirely possible that you would come across a prehistoric trail that maybe the Native Americans or prehistoric indigenous peoples utilized to go from point A to point B. Again that would sort of enhance one's sense of discovery if they were in the area.

STEVE: There's a perception that a desert wilderness is an oxymoron. That desert is just uninteresting wasteland. But Steve Tabor says people who think that just haven't looked.

STEVE TABOR: To me... there's an awful lot of variety in the desert. What you saw was the open valley, which to some of us means limitless possibilities. I can go in any direction. ...standing at the base of Sheephole Mountain on the east side, I can go in any number of three directions and see a whole bunch of interesting things. If you study the country, and especially if you just open your eyes and look, it also helps to have some book knowledge of course; knowledge about the plants, knowledge about the animals. Or if you're out with a guide, a guide can point things out to you. For example, the guide can explain to you the the creosote bush, that scraggly-looking thing there that's only about a foot high, can sometimes get to be four feet high in different conditions. It has a shiny leaf. The leaves are in twins, and when the leaf wants to get some sunshine it actually has capability of opening up like this and getting the sun. If the wind starts blowing it'll close up, so that it's surfaces are not exposed to the wind. This is because it lives in very harsh conditions... Not only that, but this plant has a shiny oil on the leaf, which dissuades grazing animals from eating it. And then when it drops its leaves, this oil goes into the ground and prevents other plants from sprouting. It thereby can reserve the moisture in the area for itself. That's also pretty amazing. And then, when I look at the creosote bush, I see a bunch of branches that are turning brown all the way around and I say, "what's that?" ...It looks like they've been sheared off. Well, one day after being out there off and on for ten years I finally saw a rabbit, actually chewing these branches off at a certain level, the rabbit stands up about a foot above the ground, and is actually shearing these off and just leaves it there like hay. And when the essential oils, that are toxic, to other plants and animals, are all evaporated off, the rabbit will come around and eat the branches. There's nothing else to eat around there. The creosote bush, it's a monoculture.

DAN ABBE: ...And it is a pretty intense landscape as you move up into the canyons. Most of the canyons or a number of the canyons are really just powerful landscapes as far as large boulders. You get the sense that occasional storms bring a large amount of water down some of those drainages and have quite a bit of power behind them, moving rocks and boulders around on an infrequent basis. And you do get the sense that... it's a harsh environment and it's hard to understand how life, whether it's plant life or animal life can really survive in such a harsh environment with intense heat, yet in the winter time occasional cold spells, and then prolonged areas or prolonged time frames where you don't have water. Where, you know, it's hot and dry.

STEVE TABOR: This is a place where the average annual rainfall is probably about three, four, five inches a year. Nearby is the old railroad stop of Bagdad, ...where from nineteen eleven to nineteen thirteen they had two consecutive years with no rainfall whatsoever. It's hard to get that even in Death Valley. It's a very arid place. And, never been farmed, never been grazed. Walking across the valley, our boots were sinking down into kangaroo rat tunnels. The whole valley is sand and it's underlain with these kangaroo rat tunnels. Kangaroo rat is this little rodent that lives in burrows down under the ground, and I betcha no one had walked across there for fifty years. So all the kangaroo rat tunnels for the last fifty years are just under the surface, you know, interlocking. The place is ruled by kangaroo rats. So when you go tromping across there, woop, your foot goes down, and you've got to be careful not to wrench your ankle when you pull it back out. That's the kind of place it is.

STEVE: If you're going to make a trip into this wilderness to see its rarely seen sites, you do have to be prepared.

DAN ABBE: The main thing is that the desert environment is a fairly harsh environment. And if you talked to Steve Tabor he could probably give you quite a few hints as far as safety and just being conscientious about not putting yourself harms way.

STEVE: In fact, Steve Tabor gave us a lot of great advice on desert backpacking in our edition number thirty four, titled "Desert Backpacking Tips".

DAN ABBE: The availability of water within the Sheephole valley wilderness, as I said, is extremely limited. That's also dependent on the time of year that you're visiting. But the sense of solitude that you could gain within that wilderness area if you're willing to work for it is pretty significant. I mean you can definitely get the sense that you're away from most if not all human activity. And get the sense and the reason why it was created as a wilderness; to give people an opportunity to go somewhere where nature is the dominant force. And the effects human activity are unnoticeable or not apparent. ...we encourage people to use the areas in a general sense, but we want them to understand that they're going into these areas and meeting them sort of on their own elements and on their own terms.

STEVE: Navigating a desert wilderness offers it's own unique challenges. It's important to check with the rangers and make sure you have accurate maps.

DAN ABBE: ...the B-L-M has what they call... "Desert Access Guides," and the Desert Access Guides are general maps that show B-L-M land as well as well as land ownership for other private as well as federal entities. And those maps are a general guide for people on how they may access their public lands... Those are available pretty much at any B-L-M field office throughout the California Desert District... And then of course, if you need a topographic map, here in the Needles field office, if we don't have a USGS map in stock, we can print it out, and if we do print it out using our G-I-S software, we can make sure that the wilderness boundaries are on there.

STEVE TABOR: So it was just really nice to be out there. Just the big old glorious sky, barren hills, all around you, and the distant Sheephole Peak, forty six hundred odd feet, off in the distance. Tremendous sense of space, and that's one of the reasons I grew to love that area.

STEVE: Have you been to the Sheephole Valley Wilderness? Perhaps you have another favorite desert wilderness you'd like to tell us about, or do you have comments on this edition of our show? You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373. You'll find links to information about the Sheephole Valley Wilderness, and an extended version of this show, on our web site.

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Next time -- Hero Practice.

Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Please click on the support link to make possible future editions of this free service. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a public service of Effable Communications.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number eighty one. Thank you for listening.

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