Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Wrong Way

by Greg

I don't always do things the proper way. Or even choose to do the proper things. Hot springs in slot canyons on the Colorado River below Hoover Dam in February? That had a nice sound to it. And an 11 mile canyon float? Even better.

Here's how it's done: Pay a livery service to a) Perform a background check on you and b) take you and your canoe/sea kayak/power boat to the base of Hoover Dam. Expect crowds. Float a short way to the slot canyon, hike up and soak. Get back in your boat and float to another slot canyon with a hot spring. Hike up and soak. Expect crowds. Maybe camp on the beach with a crowd. Then paddle/motor on down the canyon to the take out. Yay!

And here's how I did it: Convince Trina that I have a good plan and that it will be fun, even though I really have no idea what I'm doing. Drop Trina and the dogs and packs off at the top of a slot canyon near Hoover Dam. Drive to the take out and spend a long, long time trying to hitch the shuttle with fearful RV retirees, ritzy Vegas day-trippers, and foreign travelers who aren't headed back toward the dam, then finally a (foolish?) high school girl with a plastic kayak picks you up. Think about lecturing her about the dangers of picking up hitchhikers, but don't say anything because you really need the ride.

Start hiking down the slot canyon with big packs, rafts, paddles and two dogs. It's a popular hike and people wonder what you're doing, but by this time it's late afternoon and everyone else is leaving. Realize that the slot canyon is somewhat more technical than expected, with ladder steps cut into the rock and sketchy rope descents that require lowering down packs and dogs.

Find water flowing in a slot canyon, which is always wonderful, but especially wonderful if the water is warm. Find that there is more and more water and warmer and warmer water as you descend. Find that the day is over and it is twilight. Reach the river and a small stony beach that's not quite level enough to camp on. Do not leave your packs here. Instead, leave them on a small rocky promontory that reaches out into the river, while you wade across the shallow stream and back up the canyon to soak in the pools. Sigh with gratitude and relief at the comfort of the warm water and the fact that these natural pools are heavily sand-bagged to make them deeper and that there is no one else here to share them with you.

Filled with contentment, stroll back down toward the beach and find that the river has risen by a couple feet and the shallow stream you waded across is now a bay that requires more than wading. The beach is gone. Now that you think about it, you recall hearing something about the dam releasing more water at night when it's generating more electricity for the lights of the nearby city.

The packs are still above the water, but for how long? Do you camp on the high point of the rocky promontory, or on a shelf on the cliff-side, or go back up the canyon and try to find a flat and dry spot in a wet slot canyon where you can sleep? Try the shelf. But keep everything unnecessary packed while you cook and then prepare to sleep, in case you have to grab it all and scramble up the rocks where there isn't anywhere to lay down, but at least you wouldn't get all wet and maybe drown.

Sleep a nervous sleep above the possibly rising water in this wild place below the dam and below the noisy and streaming traffic on the bridge high above you.

In the morning prepare the coffee, or nothing else will matter (to Trina). The water is down. The beach is back. Inflate a packraft, throw a dog on the bow and push out into the current. Enjoy the dark canyon walls and the clear, green water. Enjoy the colorful kayaks and friendly kayakers who are sharing the river with you. Enjoy the convulsing canyon air as the first helicopter tour of the day flies overhead toward the dam. Enjoy the cactus-covered walls, the convoluted geology, the steady current (enjoy this more than you think you need to) and keep enjoying the helicopters, because they'll be with you most of the day. The current will not.

Paddle past secret palm tree oases. Watch coyotes hunting on the banks of the river. Pull up on a beach with a dozen or more kayaks. Hike a narrow canyon. Scramble up a rocky slot over a stream of warm water. Climb a tall steel ladder with a dog under your arm.

Quietly greet the nice people sitting in the sandbagged pools. Couples. Families with children. A desert rat or two. Try not to stare or glare though some of the people seem to be taking semi-raunchy bikini photos amid the small crowd. Enjoy the neck-deep warmth of the water and keep nodding occasionally as the man near you keeps talking and talking, making sure you understand the immense size of his fiscal "wickerbill" while his (probably much, much smaller) actual "wickerbill" remains thankfully inside his swimsuit. Nod, close your eyes and dream that you are a Native American who has discovered these wild pools and that you are here all alone with just your fine, strong woman and two trusty dogs and no helicopters.

Go back to the rafts and get back in the river before realizing that the river is gone and has been replaced by a long narrow lake that is backing up behind the next dam downstream. Begin to paddle along the flat water in the lovely canyon. Explore a small cave at water level. Continue paddling the flat water in the canyon. Paddle some more. Watch canoes pass you by. Keep paddling the flat water in the stupid canyon as midday turns to afternoon and begins to become evening. Wonder why you are in a dumpy little raft instead of a sleek sea kayak or canoe or powerboat or even a damn helicopter.

Thank your lucky stars that there is no wind trying to push you back up the canyon. Stretch your aching arms and paddle some more. Then, finally, beach the raft and flop exhausted onto the wet sand of the take out.

Heap everything into the truck and drive away just before the sun dips behind the canyon walls.

The wrong way? Maybe. But we got to see a cool area, even if we prefer our adventures to be more solitary. And we also got to remind ourselves that packrafts are good for many things, but flat water isn't really one of them. And this probably isn't the last time we'll do things the wrong way. And enjoy it anyway.

The Urge

Hmm... Maybe this is what happened to the LAST bike rider to have this urge...

by Greg

I’m not sure I know anyone who would have liked this ride. It consisted of climbing thousands of feet in-and-out of gravel washes and over track littered with babyhead rocks, through spine-infested, less-than-spectacular scenery, with a chance of running out of water or getting lost in an obscure, rarely visited area. But I seem to have an urge to try these sorts of things.

I drove an hour on gradually worsening dirt roads in a wild corner of Arizona to get to the starting point. Maps showed a jeep track that split two lobes of a wilderness area. I had no idea how much ground I could cover, so I was ready for either an out-and-back, or a maybe-50-mile loop. The starting point looked promising: The otherwise small creek had pooled — maybe from flooding that re-arranged rocks into a rough dam — and was blocking the end of the old track. The pond was 35 yards across and too deep to wade, certainly too deep for ATVs or the average Jeep. Excellent. It looked like I wouldn’t have much company on the other side.

I loaded my bike and threw it on the bow of my packraft and paddled across. Leafy trees were turning to autumn colors along the shore. But after I deflated and stashed my raft in a tree and started riding upward, away from the water, it was pure desert. Creosote brush and spiny stuff, acacia, catclaw, cholla, ocotillo, and the occasional saguaro, holding its thorny arms in the air. I had to re-tune myself to know which bushes and plants I could brush past, which would stab me, and which would grab my skin and clothes and not want me to keep riding. And had to keep a sharp eye on the ground to minimize rolling over anything that would compromise my tires.

Just me and the tracks of feral burros and wild javelinas on the eroding trail. I was covering good ground on my bike, floating over loose gravel in the washes. Tractoring over rubble and rock. Getting further and further into that space where the urge is satisfied, into wild land, where questions become stacked up in my mind. How far have I come? How far to the next landmark? Is that the correct landmark? Am I making the right connection between my vague map and the actual route? How quickly am I using water and how soon might I find more? The weather seems to be getting cooler and cloudier; do I have enough gear to stay warm? And dry? What if rain turns clay roads to wheel-clogging mud?

I crossed a thin line of vile brown water called Salt Creek. An ATV track showed that I was not the only person to have been there for, what? Days? Still, it was a long way onward to where they must have come in from. Possibly a rancher, as there was a closed gate and cattle tracks here, too.

Beyond the creek, the track climbed steeply, switching back and forth across the slope of what I dubbed Babyhead Mountain. The bike and broad tires remained willing, but my strength was diminished by this time, and I had to walk a few sections. Then through another gate at the rim and I was at the top, a couple thousand feet higher than the pool where I’d started. I paused for a rest, food, and the view. Surprised to find lilies blooming between the rocks. But the chill breeze at the edge kept me from relaxing for long.

It was here, probably, that I finally decided that I’d be riding the loop. I’d been going for over three hours and had gained most of the elevation and had probably ridden the roughest terrain. And even though I’d only ridden about 1/6th of the distance, going forward, into new terrain and into more unknowable questions just seemed easier.

I’d emerged onto the top of a mesa, the track stretching out across a gently rolling plain of short brown brush, brown grass, and low cactus. The cool breeze was behind me and I rode fast to the first “tank” listed on my map. The tank was a stock pond of grubby, muddy water. But also an empty metal tank and trough. And some rounded boulders nearby with scrappy trees growing between them. I went to take a quick nap amid the rocks and found a worn groove in one of the rocks. Then looked further and found more grooves - metates - where native people had once ground food. The manos, the stones used for the grinding, had apparently all been carried off.

Questions came to my mind. Perhaps unanswerable questions. Was this land, which seemed so dry and desolate to me, more productive in the past? Or was it more a question of expectations and knowledge. Am I, standing in the relative luxury of the 21st Century, unable to see with the kind of eyes that would allow me to survive or even thrive in such a place? Am I to remain only a traveler who will pass though, well supplied, and return to my chosen environmental niche, which contains watered gardens, grocery stores and restaurants? Or has the world changed too much since the time when those grooves were worn in hard rock? Could the people with the proper knowledge be placed back here and be able to survive? Or has time and plant succession and climate moved too far beyond where that is even possible?

I flew down the ruts of the track, wind pushing me along, bouncing off the rocks that pushed up from the dirt. I began to pass small herds of rangy cattle as the mesa track climbed gently to the high point of the day. Then it dipped off the edge toward a sycamore creek, drawn in orange and yellow colors of autumn amid the darker green of the drier hills. After a few more switchbacks, I was on good gravel road, zooming down (and grinding up) in twilight and then moonlight and headlight.

On this faster road, I was chewing up most of the loop. More than I really needed to. I was plenty tired and ready to quit, but there was the minor detail of finding a suitable spot to stop. I didn’t need much. Just a flat, non-thorny spot. But such spots can be a little tough to find in the prickly Arizona desert without camping in the road. The light of the western horizon was gone and the full moon had taken over by the time I found an appropriate camp. I’d already made my last big turn and was maybe 10 miles from my car. Easy to polish off in the morning after food and a good rest.

I ate a simple dinner. Drank water. Scrawled in my journal. Contemplated the simple joys of life. Set up my tarp and threw down my bag beneath brooding clouds, worried again about the chance of muddy roads. Things had gone splendidly up to this point.

Then I laid down to sleep and almost immediately got back up to vomit. Flu? Something I’d eaten? Maybe I’d ridden too hard? I’d definitely ridden hard, and needed to rest, refuel and re-hydrate. None of which I was able to do while feeling nauseous. And my water reserves were low, so wasting it by vomiting was disappointing.

I spent a long night of feeling sick, trying to sip water, and trying to sleep. Plus, despite the apparent desert all around me, there were mosquitoes. And I had neglected to bring along a head net. So I also had to wake up every few minutes to slap myself in the face. My eyes opened occasionally to track the moon’s slow course across the sky. Finally, finally, finally there was light in the eastern sky. I packed up and rode slowly, not much fuel in the tank.

I dragged myself over rough roads and slow miles back to my car. Plenty of water and food there, but I could only drink a little and still couldn't eat. And I couldn’t drive out until I’d retrieved my raft from the other side of the pond. A seemingly long quarter mile downstream through the prickly desert scrub there was a place where I could rock-hop the creek. On the other side, I followed very nice trails trough the riparian vegetation, which, though nice, were only about 2 feet high. Then a saw the trail makers, a pack of javelina, just doing their thing, snuffing and grubbing about. Until they caught wind of me. Then they huffed and pranced and dashed and finally scampered away.

My rolled-up boat was where I left it. Unmolested by any humans, though I doubt any came anywhere near it. And un-chewed by wild animals, which had been a greater worry. I’d forgotten to bring the inflation bag, so it took a long, weary time to blow enough air into it and get it inflated. Then I paddled across.

End of the adventure. It was definitely something I probably needed. Despite the unfortunate nausea, it did satisfy the urge. But it is probably something that never needs to be done again. By anyone. Challenging riding at times, but not exactly fun. Not great scenery. An excellent sense of being way out there and of the possibility of making a mistake. But I’m not going to suggest that anyone else get out there and do it.

Friday, November 27, 2015


Our two dogs, the two little furry personalities that are so important to us, are fading. Sprocket is just fading in color. Zeek is fading in a more mortal way, a cancer eating away at him.

Sprocket's fade is merely a matter of his hair lightening from red to orange as a rather odd side effect of the medicine he's taking for Valley Fever, the fungal disease he caught in Arizona last winter. Recent blood tests showed that his antibody count is down by 75%. He still has at least another four months of treatment ahead of him, but the improvement is such great news.

Zeek's fade is that kind of fade. He's recovered from his surgeries, but the cancer is still there. He’s seeming more and more like a worn out old man. We’re squeezing as much fun and adventure as possible into his life, not that that’s very different from his usual fare, but now it has a bit of urgency about it. This needs to be his best… what? Few months? Six months? We can’t know, of course, beyond the vet's prognosis, which was three to six months.

This morning, both dogs woke me up barking at something at 4:30. I needed to be up early anyway so I took the opportunity to go ahead and start the morning routine a couple of hours early. Normally when I turn on the coffee machine, the boys know that it’s time to go out to pee. On this particular morning, however, Zeek was having nothing to do with the usual morning routine. He clearly had no intentions of getting out of bed. Sprocket, however, was right on cue, trotting outside to take care of morning business. When he was three steps out the door, though, that business quickly changed in nature. His nose jutted straight up into the air and he suddenly became very animated, nose to the ground, sniffing vigorously around the courtyard and yard in a way that let me know that he was detecting something out of the ordinary. I grabbed a flashlight and took a little amble through the yard with him to see what was so interesting.

The first thing I noticed was that my floating bog plants in the courtyard waterlily tub were relatively ravaged, tipped over and missing soil. There were muddy five-fingered smears and little scraps of leaf matter all over the edge of the bathtub, wet tracks on the little wooden table that (apparently) allows access to the tub, and I saw no sign of the big orange goldfish that lives (lived?) in that tub.

On to the patio: fresh wet tracks coming from the boys’ fish-hunting tub where there were a mere two surviving minnows, down from a dozen. When Sprocket sniffed at a tall plant stand (which, naturally, allows access to another waterlily pot,) I noticed that the waterlily had been tipped over. Around the base of the third and final waterlily tub, there was a scattering of ripped waterlily leaves, broken flower stems, and the cheesy plastic turtle that floats in that tub had been pulled out and its soft body pulled from the shell.

Further inspection of the non-aquatic parts of the yard revealed signs of a small hurricane having ripped through the raspberry patch, leaving canes smashed, bent and broken. Small branches were broken off my precious apple espaliers and unripe apples were scattered in the grass.

It was a disaster. My first thought can easily be imagined and needs not be spelled out here. My second thought was, “If anything can pull Zeek out of his funk, it's this.”

Back in the house where he was still nestled in a heap of blankets, I delivered, to no effect, a series of what would normally be instantly inspiring, exciting hunting summons. “Zeek, let’s go get it!” “Zeek, check it out!” “Zeek, what is it?” “Zeek, let’s go!” “ZEEK! THERE’S! A! RAC! COOOOON!”

Nothing. Not interested. This was a big change. A sad change. We know he’s fading, but to not respond at all to the very words he lives to hear? This was a first.

Dejected, I went back to making coffee. During the next few minutes, Zeek did rouse himself, oh so slowly, from his warm nest and wandered, disinterested, through the kitchen, finally, stiffly, making his way outside, and BAM! The second he stepped out the door and caught the scent of the garden invader, he lit up! His code exploded and he was on fire! Now he won’t eat breakfast, not because his mouth hurts or because he doesn’t feel good, or because he’s worn out and dying, but because he is way too busy hunting.

Suddenly, he is more alive than he's been in weeks. I have never been happier to have a raccoon ravaging my garden.