Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Day 2: Fire on the Trail!

The first sunrise on the trail!
April 14: I had no illegal aliens intruding on my camp on the during the night, and as the sky brightened, I woke up and started preparing breakfast. My first surprise was that a small bit of ice had formed in my water bottle. I knew it was nippy overnight, but it hadn't felt cold enough to freeze water.

My second surprise was more of a puzzle... while eating breakfast, I sniffed the scent of a campfire. As far as I knew, nobody was camped anywhere near me--I wasn't even at a campsite. The last campsite I saw was so far back, it seemed unlikely I'd smell a campfire from there. Anyhow, there was nobody there when I passed by late yesterday afternoon. And I had that nagging feeling... maybe a wildfire was burning nearby. The scent was faint and didn't last long. I could smell it for only a minute or so before it drifted away.

I cleaned up my dishes, brushed my teeth, changed back into my hiking clothes and continued my march to Utah. The wind had died down during the night, but the trail continued to climb relentlessly higher and higher into the Miller Peak Wilderness.

Which is when I noticed it--a small, low-flying plane that passed overhead. It seemed like a strange place to find a plane. It wasn't on the way to anywhere. During the next hour, it passed by a couple of more times. At least it looked like the same plane, and it seemed strange for a plane to just be circling around overhead and my gnawing suspicions of a forest fire continued to grow. Throughout the morning, I'd continue getting the occasional whiff of what smelled like a campfire.

I needed water--I hadn't passed any water on the trail so far and by now was beginning to run low. I wasn't terribly concerned about water, though--according to my data sheet, Bathtub Spring shouldn't be far ahead. As I neared its expected location, I saw three backpackers on a trail on the other side of a dry creekbed. They waved out to me and we yelled across to each other. The Arizona Trail snaked up the left side of the canyon while the trail they followed went down the right side, and I assumed the AZT made a U-turn up ahead across the dry creek. But it was weird... why didn't the trail just go down right here then back up? It wasn't exactly a huge obstacle.

But I followed the trail and figured I'd catch up with the three other backpackers soon enough to get their story. Were they section hiking the trail? Were any of them thru-hikers? I didn't know, but I really wanted to find out!

Then the trail made the U-turn I expected, right at Bathtub Spring. Well, at least one of my questions was answered--why the trail went all the way out here before U-turning back around. It also answered a question I hadn't thought to ask--why the spring was called Bathtub Spring. Because somebody had hauled a full-sized, cast-iron bathtub up here to catch the water from the spring! I could actually take a bath!

But I wasn't going to take a bath. First, the water was cold. Second, that's drinking water. Not just for other hikers, but for animals as well. I wasn't going to dirty it up with soap. I stopped to rest and fill up with water knowing those other hikers were getting further ahead with each passing minute, but I had all day to catch up with them again. And I, by myself, could probably catch a group of 3 people hiking together.

With my bottles now bulging with water, I hefted my pack back on and continued the hike. I didn't walk for more than 2 minutes before I realized that I'd never catch up with the 3 backpackers ahead of me. I had little doubt that I could catch up with them, but the Arizona Trail veered off to the left while another unknown trail continued forward in the direction of the other hikers. I veered off to the left. I never did get their stories, but I now realized that they weren't even on the Arizona Trail when I saw them. And I certainly wasn't going to chase them down the trail if they weren't on the Arizona Trail!

As I pushed on throughout the morning, the occasional whiffs of campfire grew stronger and became a constant smell permeating the air, and I noticed a couple of other aircraft circling overhead. It occurred to me that this remote area near the Mexican border currently had some of the busiest airspace in the state right now.

The climb up the trail was steep and relentless as
this series of switchbacks show!
Then I reached Bear Saddle where, for the first time, I saw a clearly defined column of smoke rising into the air. A lot of smoke. Either from the world's largest campfire, or--more likely--a forest fire. And it didn't appear to be very far away. Probably not more than a few miles away. I could only continue onwards, though, hoping the wildfire wasn't on the trail.

At another viewpoint, I could see the column of billowing smoke even better. It looked like it was coming from just behind a ridge that couldn't have been more than a mile away and I saw a streak of red cut through the air just above it--one of the planes had just dropped a load of fire retardant on the fire. It's really quite a sight to see it when they drop fire retardant on a fire! But I was more than a little disturbed that it appeared to be happening maybe a mile away from my current location. Fortunately, the fire appeared to be north of my location while the trail was heading largely to the west. I hoped the trail would skirt around it.

Not even a half hour later, I was climbing up a ridgeline and just as it crested, I found four firefighters standing on the trail. Oh, crap....

I dropped my backpack--I knew I'd be here for at least a few minutes. I looked up at them and told them, honestly, that I was really not happy to see them--firefighters on the trail I'm hiking is never a good sign!

"Does this mean the fire is on the Arizona Trail up ahead?" I asked them. "I don't really have a Plan B for getting around it...."

They told me that they weren't actually sure where the fire was located. I didn't say it out loud, but I thought, "But you're firefighters! How can you not know where the fire is?!" They also weren't familiar with the Arizona Trail or where it was in relation to the fire, but they kindly used their radios to call in to someone who would know.

"We have a hiker here doing the Arizona Trail," one of them said into the radio. "Is it safe for him to go on?"

A voice from the radio immediately answered, "Yes, the Arizona Trail is clear." Relief swept through me. "Or you can put him to work."

You can't really see it well, but there's a lot of civilization in the
flat areas behind that ridge. That's the town of Sierra Vista.
The four firefighters laughed at that--I did too. "Sorry, but I can't help," I told them. I pointed to my head--"No hard hat!"

But I did thank them for letting me know the trail was clear of fire--for now, at least, and chatted with them for a few minutes, getting my photo with three of them (the fourth one was taking the photo), and finally picked up my pack to continue onwards.

The trail finally peaked near Sunnyside Canyon, which pretty much marked the closest point I'd get to what I would later learn was called the Brown Fire. The rest of the day, the trail went downhill and away from the fire.

The smoke from the fire was blowing away from me now so I couldn't smell it anymore, but the aircraft fighting the fire circled overhead even more fiercely than before.

Late in the day, I made it out of the mountains and into a flat, dry area largely devoid of trees and a helicopter or two kept flying almost directly over me. I'm not exactly sure how many helicopters there were--maybe it was just 1, but maybe it was 2 (or 3?) that all looked the same. The airplane(s) with fire retardant didn't fly out over me here, but the helicopter(s) did, and I thought I knew why.

Shortly ahead was Parker Canyon Lake, and I saw a giant hose dangling out of the bottom of the helicopter. I was all but certain they were loading up with water from the lake to fight the fire.

My theory was confirmed less than an hour later when I neared Parker Canyon Lake and saw one of the helicopters hovering over the water and doing exactly what I thought it would do. It was quite a visual spectacle! If you ever get a chance to watch a helicopter hovering over water, check it out as it churns up the water below it!

Then the helicopter took off and flew back in the direction of the fire to the east.

Bathtub Spring--no mystery how this spring got its name!
I stopped for dinner at Parker Canyon--it had a small creek running through it with clear water and would be the last water for several miles. I didn't camp at the creek, though--it was in Parker Canyon, after all, and I wanted an unobstructed view of the night sky. I continued about a mile past the creek and eventually set up camp in a dry creekbed. This too was a canyon, but it was a much wider one with fewer trees and other brush to obstruct the views.

I've always liked camping under the stars. Waking up in the middle of the night, opening my eyes, and seeing the Milky Way splashed across the sky. Or seeing a grain of sand hurtling through the atmosphere in a blaze of glory. Mars was near opposition making it particularly bright--the brightest it's been for about 2 years now, a ruby red glow. But tonight was going to be more special than most nights because tonight there was going to be a total lunar eclipse. Total. Lunar. Eclipse. Those don't happen all that often, and I was lucky enough to be located right in the middle of where it would be visible. I wanted to wake up in the middle of the night, open my eyes, and see a moon that's been totally eclipsed by the earth's shadow.

So that's what I did, and that's exactly what happened. I tried taking a few photos with my camera which required the use of a small tripod I carried (the exposure time was over a second--I definitely needed a tripod for steady photos!), but it was hard to manipulate because my fingers were so cold. The night before seemed chilly, but tonight really did feel like freezing temperatures and my fingers were positively numb. I got a few photos, then my camera stopped working.

I wasn't sure if it was actually broken or if the intense cold was a contributing factor (do batteries work in extremely cold weather?), but there wasn't much I could do about that. I put my camera away. In the morning, when the sun came out and started warming things up again, I'd check out the camera again.

For the rest of the night, though, I just laid on my back, toasty and warm in my sleeping bag, as the blood red moon crossed the sky before I drifted back to sleep again.

Those aren't clouds in the sky--it's smoke drifting up into the air from
the canyon just behind these trees.

The Miller Peak Wilderness is in what's called a "Sky Island"--tall mountains that
exceed 9,000 feet above sea level and therefore are cool enough to support
thick forests. Arizona isn't all desert!

Lots of deer on the trail!

More plumes of smoke rising into the sky! It's getting closer!

One of the planes that are part of the firefighting efforts.

One of these people is not not like the rest. Can you figure out which one? =)

Another one of the planes circling the Brown Fire.

I really like the alligator scales on this bark. (I think it's an alligator juniper tree.)

This kind of looks like a well that wasn't drilled deep enough....
Don't fall in!

Cattle trough!

What the heck are those bugs in the water, though?!

This windmill used to pump water into the tank, but it's dry now
and no water is available here.

Lots of cattle in this area, and they want you to keep the gates
closed so they stay where they're supposed to be.

Thank goodness that's settled....

I like the footbridge. I was really dreading getting my feet wet!

Ant hill

Here the fire is well behind us, but we can clearly see all of the smoke
it's creating!

This helicopter flew right over me, probably no more than 100 feet above ground.

A helicopter flying towards Parker Canyon Lake.

It's really cool watching a helicopter suck up water from a lake!

Cooking dinner in Parker Canyon.

A total lunar eclipse! The "star" to the right is actually Mars not far
from opposition (when it's brighter than at any other time). My camera
couldn't pick up any of the actual stars in this field of view.


Anonymous said...

Whirligig beetles.

BOOTY said...

Yes, that is an alligator juniper.

westmetromommy said...

Despite your camera equipment and cold fingers, you did get a good picture of the eclipse! What kind of camera are you using?

Ryan said...

I used a Nikon Cookpix. I started writing an article about why I chose it at but never really got around to finishing it.

Unknown said...

Wow! This was a pretty exciting day for you. Really enjoyed the journey - thanks. Living near the ocean and a Naval Base seeing helicopters hovering just over the water is quite common for us. But it's always fun to watch especially when they're practicing rescue missions.

Anonymous said...

I'm obviously late reading this, but it is so interesting and I love the pictures. Esp. the helicopter with the hose and the red moon. It's always cloudy when it happens here & I've never seen it in person.