In the summer of 1963, my dad planned a fishing trip to Hell’s Gate located at the confluence of Tonto and Haigler Creeks. Both of these creeks cut through steep canyon walls and form pools that are ideal habitat for trout. It is a tough hike but made more difficult carrying camping and fishing gear on your back.
Joining the party was his business partner, Bud Burnett, his long time employee, hunting & fishing partner, Joe Savatone, and me, a young high school kid looking for adventure. We planned that trip weeks before departure. Back packing equipment was not readily available so we improvised the best we could with what we had. Much of it was army surplus and our standard camping gear including a two burner Coleman stove, lantern, and our combination camp kit with four complete table settings, two pans, one skillet, coffee pot and all of the interchangeable handles. We had visquene plastic for ground cover or protection if we had inclement weather. One backpack was dedicated to food and kept cold by the frozen steaks reserved for the last night’s meal. Other foods were your standard canned foods like beans. corn, peas, spam, soups, coffee, hot chocolate, soda pop and beer. Breakfast foods were breads, rolls, carefully packed eggs, frozen bacon and fresh fruits like apples and oranges. Fritos and Oreo cookies were in plentiful supply because of their tight mass and pack ability. A lot of taste in such a small morsel. Our noon meal staple, lunch meat wasn’t frozen but would be kept cold by the steaks and bacon. Dad found two simple back pack frames for us at the Yates Army Navy Surplus store. We attached some old army packs on them and then lashed everything else with nylon cord. On top of the pack we secured our sleeping bags. We would wear our heavy jackets to help cushion the bumps and ridges of the gear and besides, there was no other place to put them. We all were loaded to the hilt.
Bud drove his own car and brought his Bassett Hound along. He was going to head back to town a day early. Joe came along with us in dad’s sport utility vehicle, a 1962 Chevy station wagon. Since 1954 his cars were always station wagons.
We met at 7:00 AM at the Knotty Pine Restaurant in Payson were we all had pancake short stacks, egg over medium and bacon. They all had coffee, but I was still a growing kid, so I had milk. The milk must have been powdered because it didn’t have that good whole milk taste, but it was still good enough to wash down those syrup soaked cakes. Hmmm! After breakfast we convoyed to the end of the Hells Gate Jeep Trails that ran on top of Apache Ridge at about 5665 feet above sea level according to the bench mark on our map. We strapped on our packs and headed out of the foot trail toward Hells Gate. Buds dog took off in the opposite direction and didn’t come back to join us. Bud wasn’t concerned. So down we go, not knowing what to expect, looking forward to a great adventure. A short distance down the trail it veered to the east and lead us across Hells Gate Ridge and then sharply down into the canyon. I not sure the name of the canyon but the surrounding canyons were Salt Lick, Bull Tank and Leo Canyon. It wasn’t name on our map, but I’m pretty sure it is called Hells Gate Canyon.
One interesting note about Leo Canyon is how it got its name. In 1927, Metro Golden Mayor was transporting it mascot and logo, Leo the Lion, to New York, on a campaign junket or promotional event. The plane carrying Leo crashed in this rugged area. Miraculously the pilot and Leo survived. With Leo still in its cage, the pilot walked out for help. On his trip out, the pilot stopped to refresh himself at a small, natural spring, now called Lion Springs. The plane and cage remained at the crash site for years until it was finally accessible by vehicles that could haul it out. It was sent to Las Vegas where it somewhat restored and put on display. Back on the trail, we were traversing a rocky, steep grade where we could see the Tonto creek about fifty feet below. If a person would slip, it would be a long, bumpy slide t the cold water churning below. With the heavy backpacks shifting at almost every step, one had to be most deliberate where to place ones foot. Just at the most precariously place in the trail, a small, scraggly manzanita bush approximately two feet tall, split the middle of the pathway. To get around it, we would have to place our right hand on an outcropping popping out of the upward slope, hold our left hand that was clutching our fishing rod straight out for balance and then swing our left leg over the bush. Dad was leading the way, followed by Joe, then Bud and I brought up the rear. As Bud swung his leg he yelled out “Ouch” or some four letter word, I can’t remember for sure which one it was. “That didn’t feel good” he said as he shook his head. He paused for just a minute to shift the weight of his pack, and then carried on. My legs were a little shorter which made clearing the bush a little harder. but I managed. So we continued down until we were at creek side. Our path lead up, around and down and back up again as we negotiated our way toward the actual Hells Gate which was 1,681 feet lower than where we left the cars. The hike actually only was about three miles but it felt like ten.
We found a fairly flat place to set up camp about twenty-five feet above the creek. It was flat for about twenty feet in each direction with a little down his slope toward the creek and had few rocks and a good dirt cover. Some surrounding areas were all rocks and no dirt. We were fortunate to have this spot for camp.
In the middle of our camp we set up a fire ring. There was plenty of wood around to keep a fire going all night. This would help keep the critters away, we hoped. Dad and Joe fished while I gathered fire wood and explored a little. Bud was sitting on a fallen log watching Dad and Joe maneuvered their way from pool to pool. We had a spectacular view of the surrounding, rugged canyons and forested mountains beyond. It was now about 2:00 PM. when we decided to take a lunch break.
After lunch we were all just kicking back and taking in the view. Bud was experiencing some pain below his right knee where he twisted it back on the trail. He said he thought it would be best if he would head out and back to Phoenix. Everybody agreed. I was volunteered to carry his pack out for him. I was more than happy to do it. He hadn’t unpacked his gear. so we left right away.
We took our time hiking out as we were in no hurry and we didn’t want to risk further injury to Bud’s leg. We made several rest stops up the steepest part of the grade which was actually all the way up. Just as we topped out we could hear Bud’s basset barking in the distance. It must have been chasing a squirrel or something. By the time we got to Bud’s car the dog showed up. He probably smelled up coming. Not because we stunk, but because of their tremendously acute sense of smell, it think. Maybe we did stink. But we did get Bud to his car, his dog made it back from it own adventure and I was headed back to camp. By the time I got back, Dad had a little fire going and our camping gear spread out. The black visquene plastic was set up as ground cover and folded over to cover our sleeping bags. He had strung a rope across the bags to create a low slung tent to help us keep warm. Joe was lying in the dirt, digging up the ground with his big hunting knife. He had removed a few sharp rocks that he added to our fire ring. His excavation was about six feet long, two feet wide, two inches deep and about four feet from the fire. Every once in awhile he would lie in this hole on his back and then squirm around a little. Then he would roll out of it and onto his knees to dig a little more. He finished his handy work just in time to help with dinner. The sun was setting over the canyon walls and its light was fading quickly. I could smell tonight’s entree, Dinty Moore Stew, which was served up with buttered rolls and peaches on the side. Do I need to mention Oreo Cookies for desert or is that a given when you know we had them in our grub bag.
After dinner, we all pitched in cleaning up the dishes in the creek. We only had enough drinking water for our consumption. The final rinse of the dishes was in boiled creek water. We were pretty efficient in our domestic duties. We did use some of our precious water supply for camp coffee and hot chocolate.
It was getting late in the wilderness which means about 8:30 PM. We were relaxing around the fire sharing hunting and fishing stories as we don’t sing or play the harmonica. Joe started raking hot embers from the fire ring into his excavation. He was making what he called a ·hot sack·. This was an old cowboy trick to keep warm on a cold night. He spread the embers over the entire hole. He then covered it with all the dirt he scooped out. He left out the rocks of course. His sleeping bag was not a bag at all. He had two wool blankets fashioned to make a bed roll just like they used on cattle drives. He placed the bed roll over his hot bed of coals and climbed in for the night. Dad and I slipped into our store bought Coleman sleeping bags situated between the fold of the visquene plastic sheet. We were all extremely tired and we right to sleep. When we got up the next morning we found that the fire was out and it was very cold. Dad poked me and pointed over at Joe who was still sleeping. He was as warm as toast and had frost on his black bangs of hair fluffed off of his forehead. The hot sack did its job. Dad got up and started a new fire. Joe got up and put on hot water to make camp coffee but not before he drained a cup on the hot chocolate powder in my cup to help entice me to get out of bed. It worked along with seeing Dad’s fire taking off. Dad started up the Coleman stove and then made his famous quote he used often •Now we are cooking with gas!” Must of come from his military days. My job was to make toast by threading bread on a fork and holding it over hot coals pulled away from the fire. On occasions where we didn’t have a fire, we would hold the bread over the stoves flame. Did never was interested in buying the Coleman toast rack that fit on top of their stove . Breakfast taste better in the out of doors.
The rest of the trip consisted of fishing, eating, sleeping and a lot of relaxing. It was another great adventure in Arizona’s wilderness.
Oh yea, Bud got back to town safely. He had an x-ray taken of his injured leg. His tibia (big bone) below the knee was split length wise. Here he walked out on a broken leg and didn’t really complain. His only complaint was that we all shared his steak on the last night camping.