One moment you're driving, surrounded by nothing but bald, craggy desert mountains and open sky. Then, the road dips between two hills and there it is: an oasis tucked beneath a dense canopy of sycamore and juniper trees shading a gurgling creek. Just 20 minutes northeast of Carefree, it's at least 10 degrees cooler than it is in the Valley. On a Saturday afternoon in early fall, a dragonfly buzzes by to rest on a fluffy brown cattail growing along the creek bed. Other than a few birds and burbling water, that's the only sound.
For Larry Wade, there's just one way to describe such a scene: perfection.
Wade is one of several dozen people who own cabins on this 873-acre tract of the Tonto National Forest. The Forest Service issues special-use permits for the land, where people build the cabins themselves — they own their homes but not the land they sit on. It can get tricky, as cabin owners have recently learned.
For the past three years, a struggle between a district ranger and several cabin owners has turned the charming oasis into a war zone. Cabin owners claim that the new ranger is arbitrarily changing the rules in an attempt to drive them out. The ranger says she's just enforcing rules that her predecessor let slip.
Now the battle has come to a head. Two cabin owners — Wade and Treva Henderson — have seen their permits revoked, which means they must demolish their cabins by November 4. Other cabin owners fear they're next.
Many cabin owners here divide Camp Creek history into two parts — before and after ranger Colleen Madrid became the head of the Tonto National Forest's Camp Creek District in 2006.
"We call her 'the witch,'" says Ken Beckner, 82, a former cabin owner who started visiting Camp Creek when he was 6 years old.
Beckner's grandmother also had a cabin here, and he says many of his best memories are of fishing along the river as a child and, later, taking his own children and grandchildren to Camp Creek.
Earlier this year, he sold his cabin. Beckner says he left because he was fed up with dealing with Madrid.
"Camp Creek just wasn't fun anymore," he says.
Another cabin owner, Tara Jones, complains that Madrid runs the cabins like a military camp. Madrid has required cabin owners to rid the property around their cabins of personal items, including bird feeders, picnic tables, lawn chairs, hammocks, no-smoking signs, wind chimes — even window thermometers. Another cabin owner, Tom Sell, was forced to get rid of a fire pump that saved several of the cabins from burning in a 2005 fire.
"She wants them all to look exactly the same," complains Jones, who loves the cabins' unique characteristics.
There are 33 in total — each quirky and lovingly built. There's a small, hobbit-like abode built entirely from river rocks. A larger cabin is guarded by a giant sycamore tree with tentacle-like branches, each as thick as a man's torso. Still another can be reached only by crossing a narrow wood-and-rope bridge that sways with each step.
Inside the cabin guarded by the octopus-tree, brightly painted walls are embellished with Africa-inspired spirals and triangular patterns. Plaster dinosaurs lurk on the eaves, eyeing a plush sitting room below. It's one of two cabins owned by the Jan Sanders and Shelby Wilson, a couple in their 60s. The second is a sweet, 400-square-foot cabin made entirely of creek rocks and warmed by a wood-burning stove. They've owned them both for 24 years but will soon have to sell one. Because they are married, the Forest Service says they can have only one permit.
Then there's the cabin owned by Wilson Jones, an architect. It's a quaint one-room studio with plenty of light, a double bed, and a small country kitchenette. A perfect getaway for one person — except that there's no sink. Because the cabin has no toilet and, therefore, no septic system, Madrid insisted Jones remove the sink, he says.
And there's also the cabin belonging to Wade. The rustic two-story building sits somewhat apart from the rest, a few hundred yards above the creek bed. Wade built it himself in 1995. He installed the oak cabinets. He put in the floorboards on the second story, picked out the Mexican Saltillo tile that lines ground floor.
Now he's going to have to tear the whole thing down. The Forest Service has ordered him to bulldoze the cabin — all because of a disagreement over how to repair a retaining wall a few hundred yards away.
For Wade, the trouble started in 2005. He noticed that the retaining wall had been damaged after a flood — water seeped in through cracks in the wall, soaking the fill dirt behind it, causing the wall to slump and crumble. He'd already worked with the Forest Service to repair the wall once before in 1993, without incident, he says. Once again, Wade contacted the Forest Service to get permission to fix it.