A bare winter in Flagstaff can be a blessing to the avid hiker. Higher elevation trails like the Kachina, Humphreys and the Arizona that only hardy backcountry skiers can access most winters are accessible by foot right off the Snowbowl parking lots this year. The Forest Service still requires a backcountry parking pass, but it is a small inconvenience for the stillness and deep shadows of a bare winter mountain hike.

Our annual Christmas Day family outing is usually on cross country skis, but this year we combined a scouting trip to the site of the New Year’s Day Polar Plunge in Upper Lake Mary with a hike across the dam to Babbitt Spring. Most winters the footing on the dam would be too slippery to risk and the trail in the deep drainage leading to the spring too icy.

But this year all was dry and unseasonably warm. Seven years ago, we encountered a trio of noisy nesting ospreys on a summer hike to the spring, but this time of year the birds had migrated south, although the nest was still visible high atop a dead ponderosa. In fact the trees along the opposite bank are among the tallest I’ve seen around Lake Mary, offering great views of the lake for birds of all types.

The trail hugs the side of the drainage for about a half-mile before coming to a fork. We took the left one and soon encountered frozen water at the base of steep limestone cliffs – and a dead coyote. At first I thought the trickster was just playing dead and would leap up at any moment and run away. Then I recalled the recent rabid fox sightings in Oak Creek Canyon, so I held back for an extra minute just to be sure.

But it remained peacefully inert, with no obvious signs of foul play. I later notified Game and Fish and perhaps they will retrieve the carcass, test it and issue a report.

In another 200 yards upstream, the ice turns to running water where the spring water comes out of a pipe in the hillside. The remains of a cabin are just above it beneath a huge ponderosa on a flat meadow – there’s a sign identifying it as an historic site.

In an email after my first hike in 2010, Jim Babbitt, a descendant of the five Babbitt brothers, said the spring was an important part of C.J. and Billy Babbitt's early cattle operation in what was known as Clark's Valley before the dam forming Upper Lake Mary was built. They purchased the valley in 1887 and built a cabin at Babbitt Spring in 1888 -- I saw the 129-year-old remains on my hike.

Jim also said the flat land where the spring drainage empties into Lake Mary contained a sawmill operated by the Greenlaw family, and in low water, some of the old mill machinery and steel rails going up to the spring are still visible. I actually saw a rail down in the drainage this time – next time I’ll explore the shoreline more closely unless the osprey have returned to distract me.

As for the Polar Plunge, better bring your sunscreen. We'll be heading in from the beach instead of the boat ramp -- no ice to worry about this year.

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