Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Thursday, June 28, 2012

We are on fire

All of a sudden, the mountains and the medians are yellow again, just like all of a sudden earlier this year then were green. I guess spring is over. No doubt Colorado's been in the news a lot because of all the wildfires (I don't read or watch the news, so I will have to assume), but all of them are far enough from me that I can't even smell them. I did see some smoke from the one outside Boulder last night.

Last week I joined Kris & friends for a backpacking trip in Rocky Mountain National Park, which turned out to be good timing as it hit over 100 degrees in Denver while we were away. Kris had planned the whole thing, and as we rode up to the park I was unaware that we were supposed to be rock climbing the first day.

We climbed into the mountains on the edge of the park to reach these crags, on which several folks were already climbing.

Find the climber's hand above.

I didn't have any climbing gear, so I went to take a nap and read in my hammock. When I came back a few hours later my friends were still climbing, and they convinced me to borrow a harness and try to scale the wall in my gigantic backpacking boots.

I got pretty far up, but not all the way.

After the rock climbing, we drove into the park, where we were car camping for the first night, and where we found they'd instituted a fire ban a couple hours before we arrived. How were we going to cook our hot dogs now? We set up one of our backpacking stoves, and as it was so windy--it'd been blowing like heck all day, maybe 50-mph gusts--made a makeshift windscreen for it out of aluminum foil that wrapped all the way around both stove and canister. Everyone set up tents. I didn't feel like getting up so I sat at the table pretending to watch the hot dogs, occasionally trying to flip one over with a miniature spatula.

At some point I noticed the flame had gone out.

"Did you turn this off?" I asked Kris. (I really wasn't paying very much attention.)

Kris hadn't turned it off. We tried for a while to get it to start up again, with no luck. We unscrewed the burner mechanism from the fuel cartridge and shook it vigorously, with no luck. We attached my burner to the cartridge. Still no luck. Fuel was still sloshing inside it, so it clearly wasn't empty. It seemed that nothing was coming out.

"We can use my stove," I said.

"No," said Cori, "Look at your cute little canister. We should save that for backpacking. It's lighter than the others."

So we set up Kris's stove on a new canister, and set up the windscreen around it.

A minute later, it was ON FIRE.

It is difficult to know what to do when one's explosive canister of compressed butane is on fire. Kris risked her fingers and managed to turn the stove off. We debated what to do. We decided to try again.

Within seconds, the stove was ON FIRE AGAIN. There was some freaking out. One of us got the stove turned off again, and once it was cool-ish someone unscrewed it from the canister.

The canister was hissing. Gas was coming out of it. This wasn't supposed to happen. You were supposed to have to screw on a Snow Peak Giga Power burner element, its plunger delicately depressing the valve on the canister and its O-ring sealing securely, and turn the stove on, before any gas would come out. But there was the canister hissing like a snake. The whole campsite suddenly smelled like butane.

Someone picked up the canister and threw it about 15 feet away, where it stopped hissing unless one of us walked over and kicked it.

We sat and talked. Every once in a while, we got another whiff of butane. Not all of the hot dogs were cooked yet. A couple people were frightened to start another stove when we could smell butane in the air. I did not think we could possibly light the ambient butane on fire and eventually set up my own, with its cute little canister. I did not use the makeshift foil windscreen. I had an Official Snow Peak Giga Power Titanium Windscreen that enclosed only the burner, and I have a feeling that was why my stove lasted the rest of the night and through breakfast the next morning without puttering out, catching on fire, or any other thing.

The next morning, we had another problem. When we went to get our backpacking permit, the ranger told us there had been a bear sighting at our second campsite, and that bears had been pulling down bear bags--the only thing that would do was putting all food and toiletries into bear canisters at night. We had bear canisters, but we weren't sure we had enough room for everything. So we took the only logical course, which was to strew our stuff all over the parking lot as we practiced stuffing the canisters.

It didn't fit. We ended up driving out of the park and into town, where we rented a third canister. (The makers of the Bear Vault Solo advertise that it will hold 1 person's stuff for 4 days, or 2 people's stuff for 2 days, but it's a challenge to get even half of that inside of it. Just sayin'.)

After that we drove for approximately 2 hours through construction zones in the park to get to the trailhead. A large chunk of this time was due to a construction worker who apparently didn't know he was supposed to let those with backpacking permits through, and kept yelling at us and waving us back to the line of cars creeping back toward where we came from. So we got back in line, waited for the pilot car to lead us to the edge of the construction, then turned around and got in another line, and waited for the pilot car to lead us back to the construction worker, who insisted we turn right and wait in another line of cars until the pilot car came back, when we were led forward far enough to explain ourselves more thoroughly to him.

He wouldn't let us through.

We detoured up the hill to a visitor's center and found a ranger, who walked all the way down the hill to talk to the construction worker, who eventually let us through. So here we are at the trailhead.

Lunch. We all had tuna. What can I say? Foil tuna packets are lightweight and nutritious!

Most of the snow on the trail had melted, but there were still some sections to cross.

We came to a planned "day hike," a little trip up to an alpine lake that didn't have much of a trail (certainly not an official one), but did have more snowfields. I was not the first to try to slide down one...

...but I will claim to be the most stylish, going down on my belly like a penguin. (I managed to turn around before I hit the rocks at the bottom with my face.)

A few of us climbed all the way up to a pair of alpine lakes at about 11,000 feet. Here, marmots wandered back and forth, without much apparent fear of us. (Photo below courtesy of Nancy.)

The lakes were so clear and beautiful, we had to go swimming. For about 3 seconds, until the 32 degree water drove us out. But it was refreshing, and after getting out we put our boots back on and took some photos. As I wandered around the edge of the lake I spotted a marmot investigating my clothing, and I chased it away.

I had wandered round to this side of the lake, opposite my clothes, to get a shot looking back, when I heard a commotion. The marmot had taken my shirt in its mouth and was scampering away with it. My friends, still in nothing but their boots, were chasing the marmot down the mountain, yelling.

Life had not prepared me for this situation. In lieu of an appropriate response I began trying to document the incident photographically (I didn't get any good shots). My friends got my shirt back when the marmot eventually dropped it. I felt eerily like I'd been transplanted into a Chevy Chase movie.

We hiked onward toward our campsite.

All through the trip we were comparing gear. Three of my friends had those plastic "origami" folding plates that are all the rage right now. We discussed the pros and cons. I don't know what to think about a brand of plasticware that is best cleaned by tongue.

The next morning, I was down at the river filtering water. I was down there quite a while. (We had two water filters, but the one that pumped faster than agonizingly slow kept getting a tiny rock stuck in it.) When I came back to camp I was told that a chipmunk had gotten into my pack, eaten part of my trail mix, and refused to get out even when the pack was picked up and shaken vigorously. I was not allowed to eat any more trail mix. The entire bag was placed into our trash, and I mooched food off everyone else for the rest of the trip.

We took another little side-hike up to Odessa Lake, where Kris attempted to fish with a bit of line and a lure...

And beyond, into the trailless woods where we came across a large bull elk grazing and mostly ignoring us.

When I turned back, I could see a billow of smoke from the High Park fire outside Fort Collins, CO.

When we returned after an hour or so of exploring, Kris and Mary were still sitting on their boulder on the lakeshore without having so much as seen a fish. But as we headed back to the trail, where the lake emptied into a stream we saw many trout. This incited a kind of creative frenzy in Kris, who tied her lure onto a hiking pole and proceeded to fish for a bit with the same total lack of success as before.

Mary and Kris use the hiking poles for "trail pictionary."

Some overexposed columbines by a waterfall.

On our last evening we camped at the meadow where a bear had been seen the previous week. At the time I was told that the copious scratches on the aspen trees all around us were made by bear, but further research shows them to be from elk eating the bark. However, bears do claw aspen to mark their territory.

A bird!

Yoga on our final morning. For some reason the entire meadow was overrun by ants, but where else are you going to do yoga when you're camping? So we did yoga, stopping constantly to brush ants off our bodies. But I really was trying to pay attention to the lesson, which is probably why at one point I felt ants biting me simultaneously on my lip and just below my eye. I'm afraid I killed one of them in trying to get them to stop. If you kill animals while doing yoga, does the good & bad karma cancel out?

That afternoon we took a scenic drive before leaving the park. My final picture, below: I do not look starved, ant-bitten, or marmot-harassed. You might think I enjoyed myself.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Jess and Jo go backpacking

Hello again. Here we go.

Jess and I wanted to go backpacking, and I was very keen on visiting canyon country again, and since spring (before it gets 100 degrees out there) is a good time to do this, I forced Jess to accompany me across the state to Dominguez Canyons National Conservation Area, south of Grand Junction. I had never heard of this place before I found it on the internet and didn't really know what it would be like... the few pictures I saw didn't give me a complete idea.

What we found was a natural area of rust, green and pewter colors; the red rock canyon walls were blooming with spring growth, and in the inner canyon, igneous and metamorphic rocks had been exposed that stood out in a silvery contrast to the red.

We had determined to hike up one of the creeks, cross over the high ground between them, and hike back down the other. Some things we saw:

There were many pools with small waterfalls, and we stopped to swim. The water had warmed up just enough for this to be enjoyable, though it was still pretty cold.

Petroglyphs along the trail.

 At some point we realized that we'd been hiking all afternoon and still had not reached the junction of the two trails, one heading up Big Dominguez Canyon and one up Little Dominguez, marked on our maps. This did not make any sense. It was only a couple miles from the trailhead and we'd been walking for hours. Slowly the idea crept upon us that perhaps there had been no sign for the junction, and we had walked up one trail without seeing the other. And without knowing which trail we'd taken.

Well, we were headed southwest. Hm. Both of the trails pushed generally southwest after the junction, the creeks paralleling each other. We were surrounded by high, steep cliffs... both trails were surrounded by high, steep cliffs. We could be on either one.

This was something of a dilemma, as we'd planned to cross up over the cliffs from one trail and across to the other. If we were in Little Dominguez Canyon as planned, we'd need to go over the cliffs on the north side of the trail. If we were instead in Big Dominguez Canyon, we'd need to cross south. If we chose the wrong direction, we'd end up in middle-of-nowhere wasteland somewhere between Delta, Grand Junction and Utah.

There was one hint that might help us: if we happened to be in Big Dominguez Canyon, we'd hit a junction with the Cactus Park trail at some point. And it damn well better have a sign to mark it.

We walked until Jess's feet were beginning to fall off. And I said, "Just ten more minutes." And we saw it: the sign. And then we knew where we were, and moments later found a campsite with a firepit and some flat ground for the tent, and set up to cook supper on a rock by the creek.

I had brought frozen hamburgers, and by the time we reached camp they were thawed and ready to be cooked. We continued with our habit of documenting our meals, as if the ability to create a meal in the backcountry was a more impressive accomplishment than getting out there in the first place.

With pickles and french fries.

Jess breaks a stick for the fire. She was having trouble until I told her she had to yell "Hii-yah" when she broke it, like a karate master.

The morning.

Before we went to bed last night, Jess had dropped the valve of her water bladder in the creek, and we boiled it to kill any parasites. She turned off the stove and, later, I picked it up and set it in the grass away from the creek, because there were too many signs of flash flooding closer to the creek and I didn't want it swept away if we had a storm during the night.

In the morning, I came down and noticed that the pot of water that'd been sitting on the stove (for no reason; I just hadn't dumped it out) was empty. My mind was still trying to comprehend this as I picked up the pot and immediately dropped it when it scalded my hands. It was hot. The stove was hot. The stove was hot and the gas canister was empty.

I fussed with the piece of wire that works as a switch for the stove, noting that it could be turned a bit to the right. It had never been turned all the way off. Neither Jess nor I had noticed that it was still burning with a tiny flame when we put it away. When I put it away in the grass. I could have burnt down the entire park. I would be making this blog post from jail. As it was, the worst that happened were some deposits at the bottom of my pot, and an empty fuel canister when we still had three days remaining in the backcountry.

We had power bars instead of oatmeal for breakfast.

Then, up-and-over. We happen to have camped next to a spot where debris had slid down the canyon walls, over the vertical cliffs of red rock, allowing us to scramble up without climbing gear and without danger. We were lucky; though I hadn't been paying precise attention during the whole hike the day before, this was the only place I'd seen where such a climb was possible.

We went up and up and up through trailless scree and brush. It was exhilarating to me; I love trailless areas, wilderness exploration, feeling like I'm stepping where maybe no human being has been before. It was extremely steep and took a lot of energy but I liked that too.

Jess finds some ripple marks, made in an ancient sea that once covered the continent.

We finally got up to the top and found ourselves on a tree-denuded prairie with wildflowers and signs of grazing. We had crossed out of the NCA boundary and onto regular BLM land. As we began the hike across the (relatively) flat grass, clouds began to build. Dark clouds. And there we were on the highest land around, trees few and far between.

There had already been a problem with our crossing between the canyons, that being that we didn't know exactly how we were going to get down into Little Dominguez. There seemed to be a trail that came up through the cliffs onto the plateau, but the map wasn't entirely clear. We had a day's worth of water, but there was none on the plateau. If we couldn't find a way down into Little Dominguez we'd be pretty thirsty by the time we backtracked to Big Dominguez. I'd been confident enough of getting down that I'd been willing to take the risk, but the appearance of the storm clouds was a concern.

If the storm came overhead, we might have to hunker in a ditch while it passed. For how long? One, two, three hours? That would take away time that we'd need to be sure of finding a way down into the other canyon before dark. Suddenly the risk level passed some invisible tick mark in some invisible meter of personal comfort that I carry inside me, and I was no longer willing to keep crossing the plateau. We turned around and went back down into the sunlight, towards certain water.

Jess found an antler on the way down.

Pizza documentation at our previous night's campsite.

Cooking pizza over a fire was pretty easy. But the next morning, oh my God. I never never tried to boil water over a fire before. It might not have been so bad except that I hadn't brought any tools to pick up the pot with, figuring I'd use natural implements from the wilderness. Well, the sticks and rocks I tried to lift the heavy pot with were not especially well-crafted for the occasion, and twice I dumped out all of the (painstakingly hand-pumped, filtered) water onto the fire, putting out the fire and necessitating both more pumping and a fresh round of fire-building. After that I decided I wasn't allowed to try to pick up the pot anymore and left it to Jess.

After breakfast we decided to hike back, try to find the initial trail junction, and continue out into the other canyon that way, and so began hiking out on the trail we'd followed in the day before.

Someone had placed rocks like teeth in the "mouth" formed by a couple of boulders.

More petroglyphs. We never made it to the other canyon, as Jess's feet were bothering her too much. Time for new boots!

Here we came upon a lovely waterfall and spent the rest of the afternoon swimming in the pool, reading, and taking photos. In the evening, we built another fire to try to boil water for soup. We put it in a natural cleft in some rocks, which seemed like a very pat and clever way of having a firepit, but mostly I think they just kept oxygen from getting to the fire. Still, we did manage to cook the soup after about an hour of rearranging sticks and blowing on them.

We have a better photo showing the soup too, but I'm so amused by the expression on my face I thought I'd post this one.

Sunset on the cliffs.

A time-lapse photo of our tent under the stars. We had crossed the creek and gone up a side canyon, coming on evidence of old trails, past cattle grazing, rusted metal. That night, Jess slept in the tent (in which she is reading a book in the above picture) but I slept outdoors, feeling fairly confident it wouldn't rain. I watched and watched for a shooting star but I don't think I saw one. I tried to remember if there were in fact more stars than this at Dinosaur, or in the Petrified Forest. I did not wake up during the night.

Jess poses with camera cocked in a cleft in the rock.

A final "group portrait." This had been my first backpacking trip of longer than a weekend, and while unique in that respect, it continued my fine tradition of having Things Go Wrong on just about every trip I take, which always leads to the best stories, and so I can't complain. And we had fun.

Coming soon will be the report of the trip I just took to Rocky Mountain National Park, in which we manage to render useless not one but two fuel canisters. Good stuff!