Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Day 14: Saguaro National Park

Sunrise was beautiful, but those clouds looked ominous....
April 26: It didn't rain overnight, but the last weather forecast I looked at showed a 40% chance of rain today--especially in the afternoon--so I packed my gear as if it was going to rain. The two main pieces of equipment that I really needed to keep dry (my sleeping bag and camp clothes) went into trash bags. My journal, star charts, and other small incidentals that I wanted to keep dry went into fresh gallon-sized ZipLocks. The old ones were getting worn and had developed small holes.

By 6:00 AM, I was on the trail and hiking--my earliest start time yet. I was hoping to get in as many miles as possible before the rain started. I didn't think it was realistic to finish before the rain started, but I could at least get as much done as possible before it started.

By 7:00, I had crossed the southern boundary of Saguaro National Park. The boundary, to me, represented two things.

First, the trail was going to start climbing dramatically. It would climb over 5,000 feet upwards--a mile into the sky.

And second, until I hiked beyond the north boundary, everywhere on the trail would be illegal for me to camp since I had no permit. No permit, no camping. And it was, according to my databook, 17.6 miles from the south boundary to the north boundary. I needed to hike at least that far by sunset. I thought I could do that distance, but I wasn't going to lose sleep if I couldn't. If it was getting dark and I hadn't made it out of the park yet, I'd set up camp anyhow. What else could I do?

But I prefer to do things legally when I can, which meant I needed to hike over 5,000 feet over a mountain range and cover 17.6 miles. It was going to be one of my longest days on the trail, but I felt up to the challenge. Too bad one of my longest days on the trail was also my first day out of town and meant my pack was at its heaviest too.

As the trail climbed higher and higher, the views behind me got better and better. I could see way back, far beyond Colossal Cave and Interstate 10.

I took my first snack break about eight miles after I started, at the junction with Manning Camp Trail, and I wasn't there long before three southbound backpackers met up with me. (A fourth, they would tell me, wasn't far behind.) And we started chitchatting which is how I learned they had seen not one but two gila monsters on the trail a day or two before. They seemed pretty confident that I would see them too, and I hoped they were right. I didn't share their confidence, but I certainly hoped they were right!

I was a little disappointed that they were headed in the opposite direction as me because I knew that meant I wouldn't be seeing them again later. I was able to give them the most recent weather forecast--they apparently didn't have one but they weren't blind and saw the clouds building in the sky. They knew something was up! So I told them about the 40% chance of rain, which meant that it was definitely going to rain. For 40% of the day. Probably in the afternoon. =)

They asked where I would be camping for the night, and I told them somewhere north of the north boundary of the park. Probably the first decent place I could find to camp after the boundary, but I didn't have a permit so I had to shoot for the boundary. They told me a really nice campsite existed almost immediately north of the boundary--not more than a minute or two away. This cheered me immensely! My databook doesn't really describe every possible place to camp so I couldn't be certain how far past the boundary I would have to go to find an adequate spot. It was nice knowing about a useable place to camp so close to the boundary (and on the correct side of it).

Just as I was about to move on, the fourth person of their party arrived and we barely made introductions before I waved goodbye and continued north on the trail.

For the rest of the day, I saw absolutely nobody. Not a single soul. I thought maybe around Manning Camp I might see a hiker or camper or two, but there was nobody.

After Manning Camp, I had some trouble following the Arizona Trail because the blizzard of intersections weren't labeled with the AZT. They had other names like Manning Camp Trail, Mica Mountain Trail, Spud Rock Trail, North Slope Trail and Bonita Trail. I only had my notes, maps and an innate sense of direction to guess at which direction to turn most of the time.

Confirmation whether I chose correctly or not usually arrived at the next trail intersection when I intersected another trail with the next name on my list. If I intersected a trail with a name that wasn't in my notes, I might have gone astray.

There ought to be a few saguaros in Saguaro National Park!

Near the top, by Mica Mountain where the trail tops out at about 8,600 feet above sea level, the weather had turned downright cold. The park, named after the mighty saguaro, had absolutely no saguaros in this part of the park. The elevation was just too high and too cold for them to survive. It struck me as somewhat ironic that a huge swath of this park had absolutely no saguaros at all! At these elevations, the vegetation consisted mostly of tall pine trees. Quite a bit different than the cacti community 5,000 feet below.

It was also near the top when I could smell the rain. You know that scent you can sometimes smell just before it starts raining? I've been told that scent is ozone, but I don't really know if that's true or not. I thought ozone was a lot higher in the atmosphere, but it has a distinct odor and I could smell it. Rain was in the air, and it could start at any minute.

But at this point, I was only about 3 miles away from the north border of the national park. If the rain would hold off for just another hour or so, I might be able to get into camp before it started! I didn't think that was possible when I woke up in the morning, but I didn't expect to make it this far without being rained on either. I was so close.... Please, let me get into camp before it started raining! Now that I had reached the top, it was all downhill the rest of the way. I could make really good time heading downhill!

Almost immediately, the vegetation on the trail changed again. The thick forest of pine trees turned into a drier habitat. Still not much cactus, but the trees seemed more stunted and dispersed. They didn't thrive as much here as they did on the other side of the slope.

During the next hour, I'd feel dots of water in the air--like walking through thick fog. Almost thick enough to be considered a sprinkle, but it wasn't. Not really. The particles of water in the air hung suspended, floating as mist. I was sure the rain would start any second, but remarkably, it continued holding off as I counted down the miles to the border.

As I reached the border, I felt the first few drops of actual rain. It was just the lightest of sprinkles, but I recognized it for what it was: rain was imminent. Perhaps seconds away. Argh! But I was so close now! I had actually reached the border with no rain! The campsite shouldn't be more than a few minutes away!

I all but ran down the trail at this point, hoping to beat the rain. The camp was a bit further away than I had hoped, but I made it within a few minutes, threw down my pack and pulled out my tarp.

Hope Camp, near the south boundary of Saguaro NP, appeared
long abandoned! That windmill wasn't catch much wind...

The sprinkling was still there, ever so slight but definitely there. Under the trees around the campsite I didn't feel it, but I knew it was there. I could hear it hitting the leaves. A soft pitter patter. And the air practically reeked of rain. The smell was overwhelming. And a strong wind picked up and blew through camp. It was going to rain soon!

I quickly strung up my tarp using a tree to prop up one end and my trekking pole and a bush to tie down the other end. I fumbled in my haste, quickly pushing small sticks through loops I made in the ropes at the corners to turn them into "deadman" anchors, cursing the lack of proper tent stakes. It seemed like a good idea at the time to send them home, but improvising this stuff to set up my tarp was taking too long!

Then I frantically disassembled the firepit using the heaviest rocks around it to weigh down the deadman anchors. I didn't bury the anchors--I didn't have time for that! I hoped the rocks would be heavy enough to hold them in place.

The wind was growing stronger, though, and I decided that I needed to weigh down the edges of the tarp as well as the corners, so I created more deadman anchors on which I piled on my increasingly smaller rocks since I had already used the larger ones for the tarp's corners.

As soon as the last anchor was placed, I dived under the tarp and spread out the groundsheet. Before I finished spreading out the groundsheet, the rain started in earnest--a pounding rain hitting the tarp trying to get in. The tarp strained in the wind, the sides flapping up and down for all it was worth in whatever slack they could get from my deadman anchors. I hoped those would hold! It was looking iffy....

But I was dry and under the tarp--and not a moment too soon! And my campsite was even legal! And I had covered 19.7 miles in total which was pretty darned good when you consider that it was only 3:00 in the afternoon making it my earliest stopping time so far on the trail.

However, I was absolutely exhausted. I changed into my warm camp clothes, put on my fleece jacket, and crawled into my sleeping bag. It was cold out there! Then I fell asleep. Despite the nose from the wind flapping my tarp and the rain beating down on it, I was too tired to do anything but fall asleep.

A couple of hours later, I woke up when the wind and rain let up. It was so eerily and suddenly quiet. And I was getting hungry. I hadn't even eaten a snack before falling asleep.

My tarp hung loosely, practically draped over me like a blanket rather than held up above my head, but its position held and all of my gear and myself stayed dry.

I got out of my sleeping bag and tightened up the ridgeline and reset my deadman anchors giving the tarp its proper A-frame shape again. Kind of like a facelift for tarps, I thought. Get all those wrinkles out! =)

I cooked dinner, wrote in my journal, then read The Poet by Michael Connelly until I flipped the very last page (or at least what counts as page flipping on a Kindle) around 10:00 PM when I went back to sleep again--this time, for the night.

Most saguaros looked majestic and amazing! This one...
This saguaro looked angry and lonely....

I've never seen one of these on the trail before, and I assume it's
some sort of camera. Perhaps to take photos/videos of wildlife
running across the trail. I'm absolutely certain that someone,
somewhere has a video of me taking photos of this camera. =)

Saguaro blooms
Those clouds kept looking worse and worse as the morning progressed!

The views looking back were amazing!

Saguaros are quite large, and they need a fairly sturdy "bone structure" to
support all that weight. This is the skeleton of a long-dead saguaro.
Despite its corpse-like look and broken arm, it seemed remarkably cheerful!

From left to right: Nathan, Jim, Ron and John. Jim did most of the talking. John was
the fourth guy who didn't arrive until just as I was about to leave (he hadn't
even sat down to rest yet!) I gave them the weather forecast. They gave me
a campsite to shoot for. =) And the hope I might see two gila monsters ahead!

Saguaro NP has some rather high areas--as Manning Camp at 8,000 feet
will attest to!

Yeah, I can do that....

Or maybe not! Where's the register?! (And no, I didn't take it!)
Which begs the question... what good is a water supply if you can't get to it? =)
(There was piped water to Manning Camp which, presumably, came from here.)

It wasn't raining yet, but moisture was thick in the air and, at times,
I could see rain in the distance.

I found this little friend under one of the large rocks that made up
the firepit. Despite the imminent threat of rain, I did take a few seconds
for this photo because when would I see something like this again?!
He didn't seem at all happy that I had disturbed his hiding place, though,
and quickly skittered away. (This guys skitter, they don't walk.)


Sue KuKu said...

That second photo of a saguro has two little arms that seem to be saying, "Come back!"

Baqash said...

The smell of rain in the desert is unique and memorable. you won't forget it. Great time of year to go through that part of the country.

Karolina said...

The smell of rain is indeed one of the greatest gifts nature gives to us!I read that one of the sources of this smell are bacteria which live in the soil. When the wetaher is dry they remain 'asleep' and get 'activated' again once humidity increases and when it starts to rain. They can be lifted into the iar by tiny droplets of water. Another part of the smell of rain comes from the minerals present in the soil - their aromas are released by the rain. Also fragrances from plants are distributed in the air by the rain - so this part of the smell of rain strongly depends on lattidure and type of vegetation in a given place.