Friday, June 20, 2014

Day 3: My Kingdom For a Drop of Water!

The day started off well enough. Cold, but no worse than I expected. My biggest concern upon waking was my camera which had stopped working overnight. I hoped as the temperature warmed up, it would start working again and--I'm happy to report--that's exactly what happened.

The Arizona Trail climbed up an down a series of small but exhausting mountains. As the morning progressed, it grew uncomfortably warm, but it was the loose rocks and steep terrain that contributed most to my feelings of exhaustion. It's tough climbing up trails when rocks constantly slide out from under your feet, and it's positively dangerous going down such trails with the risk of sprained ankles.

After several hours of tough hiking, the trail took a breather and dumped me out on a small, gravel road which I found a lot easier to walk on. Three mountain bikers swept past me at a high rate of speed--the first bicyclists I saw on the trail.

And late in the morning, I reached Pauline Canyon. My notes showed a dirt stock tank where I could fill up with water, even if the water was usually muddy--but a cursory glance around didn't show any water and I pushed onward. There was another chance of finding water 0.9 miles ahead at Middle Canyon anyhow.

Between the two, however, was a herd of cattle. Large beasts, many of which had some mean-looking horns on them. I saw a couple of calves too, and some of the larger beasts eyed me wearily. I figured it would be safe to give them a wide berth and went off trail to go around them. I picked up a trail leading away from them on the other side, but only followed it for about five minutes before I sensed something was wrong. The trail didn't feel right. It was too overgrown and small, and I wondered if this was the Arizona Trail at all. Maybe it was just a game trail that the cattle created by walking along so often.

So I backtracked back to the cattle, then continued looping around them counter-clockwise until I found another path--a gravel road--headed down the other side of the hilltop which I figured must be the real trail.

I made it the rest of the way to Middle Canyon without any trouble, but that's where my real problems started--the canyon was completely and totally dry. No water.

The next water source, according to my information, was located 7.5 miles ahead. Assuming, of course, that water source wasn't dry as well. But I only had about 1.5 liters of water left, and it had grown quite hot out. I could have downed the entire liter right then and there--it certainly wasn't sufficient to hike another 7.5 miles.

So I did the sensible thing--I decided to hike back to Pauline Canyon and look for that stock tank. There were worse fates than having to backtrack 0.9 miles, and getting around that herd of cattle was one of them!

It took me the better part of a half hour to retrace my steps back and I made a more thorough search for the stock tank. The water report I had printed had said someone had used it less than 2 weeks earlier--I knew there was water around there somewhere, but it wasn't readily obvious. I figured it had to be right alongside the trail since my notes said nothing about having to hike off trail for the water.

Every trail has its particularly quirks, and the whole concept of stock tanks was new to me. What, exactly, was I looking for anyhow? It was described in my notes as a "dirt stock tank," but how large and obvious would that be? There was a campsite near there, by a dry riverbed, and I figured that surely the campsite was situated near the water, but all I found was another cow and I asked her where the water was. I knew she was holding out on me, but I couldn't make her talk.

I finally sat down and studied my topo maps carefully, looking for the slightest hint of where the water might be. Anything to the slope of the land that might suggest which side of the trail the stock tank was located, or maybe a bit off trail and out of view, but I couldn't glean any hints from it and I grew increasingly agitated. I needed water, and in a bad way.

And since I had backtracked to look for this water, I was now 8.4 miles from the next possible water source ahead. Assuming I could even find it! The previous water source at Parker Canyon was  7.1 miles away. That was guaranteed water--I got water from there before and knew it wouldn't have dried up in less than a day. There was also Trap Tank behind me. It was located 0.1 miles off trail and I hadn't even tried looking for it since I had just filled up with water at Parker Canyon, but there was a possibility that I could find water there 5.8 miles behind me.

None of those options seemed very good for someone with barely 1 liter of water on an increasingly hot day over rugged terrain. The water ahead was marginally further away than the water behind me, but the water behind me was guaranteed to be there and I knew I could find. I'd really be in trouble if I went forward then couldn't find that water either. But at least I'd be moving forward!

I stopped for an early lunch break to think about my situation. I sat down in the shade of a tree for about a half hour, wishing another hiker or biker came along to help me out. Maybe they knew where the stock tank was hiding or could point me in the right direction. But nobody came along. I was alone.

Finally, I decided to go back. The idea of backtracking was agony, but you always read about those stories of people who keep going forward not because it was the smart thing to do, but because they couldn't face backtracking. It happens so often while climbing mountain tops they even have a term for it: Summit Fever. Then they end up dead or with amputated limbs and other horrible stuff. Just because they couldn't convince themselves to turn back with the turning was good. I didn't want that to happen to me. I didn't want to be a column in a newspaper titled: Hiker that wouldn't turn back, found dead from dehydration.

So as much as I hated it, I decided the smart thing to do was the safe thing to do, and the safe thing to do was to turn back. The known water was closer in that direction, and a possible unfamiliar water source might be even closer.

If I had to hike back all the way to Parker Canyon, I'd have backtracked 8.0 miles. That was my worse-case scenario. If I could find water at Trap Tank, I'll still have backtracked 6.7 miles. Ironically, had I not backtracked to Pauline Canyon already, the closer water would be ahead of me rather than behind me and my decision would have likely been the opposite. I had backtracked only 0.9 miles, but that was enough to swing my decision.

I picked up my pack and started hiking south on the trail, grumbling the entire way. I'd be losing nearly an entire day of hiking with this setback, but food wasn't a problem--I always liked to carry an extra day of food just in case. I still had plenty of food.

A couple of hours later, I was down to less than half a liter of water when I saw two hikers standing on the trail. Hikers! But as I got closer to them, I could hear the chatter of radios. Not the musical radio variety, but the kind people talk to each other with. And as I got even closer, I noticed they were both wearing guns that were prominently displayed. These weren't hikers, but I wasn't entirely sure what they were. Border patrol, perhaps? If so, they didn't have any markings that identified them as such. No jackets with Border Patrol written across the back or badges that were visible.

I talked to them for a few minutes and told them about my thru-hiking the Arizona Trail--even if I was currently headed in the wrong direction because of water. They told me that Pauline Canyon should have had water, and I told them I couldn't find it. They suggested maybe knocking on doors in some houses nearby, but I didn't know about any houses nearby. I never saw any houses, and my maps didn't show any civilization anywhere near the trail. But not to worry, I knew there was water at Parker Canyon, and I might be thirsty when I got there, but I'd definitely make it there.

The one guy offered to give me some of his water which I was more than happy to accept, so I scored an extra half-liter of water from him. And it was cold too! That water was awesome!

Then I continued onwards leaving the two suspected border patrol agents behind. They never did identify themselves so I can only guess what they were doing out there with radios and guns.

An hour later, I was coming down a ridge when I saw a large body of water in the distance. It looked muddy, but undoubtedly it was Trap Tank. YES! I didn't see it while hiking northbound since it would have been behind me from this viewpoint, but it was plain as day while hiking southbound and I could be absolutely certain of where the stock tank was located off the trail. I was worried that even if Trap Tank had water, I might not be able to find it since it was located 0.1 miles off trail and I didn't remember seeing any trail junction that might have led off to it. Now I could see it and not only knew that there was water in, but I knew exactly where to find it!

The relief swept over me like a wave, and I drank a little more of my dwindling water to celebrate. There would be more where that came from!

Plumes of smoke from the Brown Fire were still clearly visible
from parts of the trail looking backwards.
There was no defined trail that split off to the stock tank. In fact, I doubt few people ever stop there since it's both off trail and so close to Parker Canyon and almost everybody just gets water from the canyon. It's better water anyhow. But for me, the stock tank was closer and I followed a faint game path off trail and towards the water.

Even though I knew where the water was, it was still remarkably hard to see until I was right on top of it. Had I not seen the water before from the top of the ridge, I'm not sure I would have found it. But I did find it, and my backtracking was over.

I threw myself down into the shady trees in an old, unused corral nearby to rest and to eat lunch. The water in the stock tank was muddy--very muddy, and for the first time on this hike, I figured it should be treated. I normally don't treat my water, but anything this muddy and stagnant that cattle drink from.... I'd make an exception for. I knew there were a lot of unsavory water sources along the Arizona Trail and came prepared with a Sawyer filter. It took over an hour to filter enough water to carry me 14.2 miles to the next likely water source or 17.7 miles to the next "guaranteed" water source. That's a lot water for a hot day like this!

While eating lunch, a brilliant idea hit me: I should stop hiking for the day. I was hot, tired and more than a little cranky having spent half of the day backtracking a section of trail I'd already hiked, and now I'd have to do this next section for a third time! I wasn't looking forward to it, but maybe it would be more pleasant to do at night. It would be cooler, and I might see some nocturnal creatures that I otherwise wouldn't see. I like night-hiking anyhow but usually can't do it because I needed to take photos for every single mile of the trail for Walking 4 Fun, but that wasn't an issue now because I already had the photos! I could totally hike this section of trail a third time in the dark!

The thought lifted my spirits a bit. I still wasn't happy about backtracking, but at least I could make the most of it and get a night hike out of the deal.

So I waited until dusk, then cooked dinner at the stock tank. Better to cook there and use as much water as I could possibly want than to carry the water for hours before using it to cook dinner!

And a little after sunset, I restarted my hike. The moon was only a day past full so it provided most of the light I needed.

Hiking at night can be creepy in one sense.... you'll see eyes watching you. Just the eyes, glinting in the moonlight or headlamp. The rest of the animal will be hidden in the shadows, but their eyes light up like nightlights. You see them watching you, and you can't even identify the animal that's looking at you. I found it exhilarating, though!

I kept seeing what looked like glitter flashing on the trail. They weren't eyes, but something among the bushes and plants kept sparkling in the night. Finally, I approached close to see exactly what it was I was seeing and figured out they were spiders. Something on the spider sparkled in the moonlight, and it felt good to solve that mystery. Then whenever I'd see that glitter, I'd shake my finger at it and tell it, "I know you're out there, little spider. You can't hide from me!"

The one-eyed animals that watched me invariably turned out to be birds. They had their heads kinked so only one eye was pointed towards me--at least until I got closer then they'd fly up and away. Even small birds, I noticed, had absolutely enormous-looking eyes. I couldn't identify the birds in the darkness, though--just that they were birds, and only because they would fly away whenever I neared them.

Even though it was now dark, I still sweat profusely. The heat of the day was still there. Maybe not as intense, but it was still considerably warmer than I expected for night. Especially since the last couple of nights had been cold enough to freeze water. I didn't exactly enjoy hiking this section of trail a third time, but it would have been far worse to do it in daylight for a third time.

I set up camp at Pauline Canyon, 0.9 miles short of where I turned back earlier in the afternoon. I remembered that herd of cattle just ahead and didn't want to try sneaking around them in the dark, and I knew there was a beautiful campsite right there at the canyon. Plus, it was getting late, I was getting tired, and the heat of the day was finally dissipating and I started shivering. I set up camp, changed clothes, and dived into my sleeping back--finally calling it a day at around 11:00 in the evening.

Can you guess what this is? I thought maybe it was a tank to hold water, but
no, when I got closer, I read the plaque on the end of it....

It's an aircraft engine shipping container! Which begs the question....
How the heck did this get out here, but I'd have never guessed
an aircraft engine shipping container. Not in a million years....

I couldn't figure out what this was. A concrete block with a metal (and sealed) shaft
coming out of it?

Holy cow! Look at the horns on that thing! Let's not get too close to that....

Walking back to Trap Tank I didn't take many photos--I didn't need them since
I took all of the photos I needed for Walking 4 Fun the first time I hiked the section!
But walking back on the trail gave me a lot of views of the Brown Fire,
and I managed to catch this photo of fire retardant being dropped on the fire.
You can't see the plane that dropped it (too small!), but the fuzzy patch of
red on the right is fire retardant being dropped. By the time my camera
turned on and I snapped the photo, most of it had already fallen to the ground. It
was visually much more impressive about 5 seconds before this photo was taken!

Water! Water at Trap Tank, thank goodness! Even it if is pretty darned muddy.

Frog at Trap Tank.


Sally said...

love reading of you adventures - thank you! May you always have the perfect amount of safe water!

Andrea Palma said...

That shaft thing in the ground in middle of nowhere is creepy. Like a bomb shelter or a dungeon... Or a grave. You know... the kind they used to dig with an air shaft, just in case you were buried alive.

Al Lemieux said...

Having worked around jet aircraft for a couple decades I instantly recognized that jet engine shipping container. But, what the heck was it doing in the middle of the desert. I can only guess!
Those cows/bulls looked real scary to me too.