Monday, March 17, 2014

Skull Mesa/Cottonwood Loop

Skull Mesa
 There I was, back in action in a familiar place. The 4th time I've backpacked into the Cave Creek region of Tonto National Forest. I planned a route that would take me to the most remote sections, on trails completely unfamiliar to me. A good way to keep things fresh when you consistently return to the same place. All in all I connected 5 trails for a 27 mile long loop. This plan was a little ambitious for me, but I wanted to challenge myself. Plus I wanted to see what kind of difference my newly lightened load would make. In fact, my pack only had a 10-pound base-weight. At 16 pounds with food and water it was by far the lightest load I've ever carried backpacking.

 Friday was mostly spent on Cottonwood Trail #247 as it wound east along Cottonwood Creek then north on Bronco Creek going the long way around Skull Mesa. This trail is aptly listed as a "primitive trail" by the forest service, and I had a tough time following it, especially when it dropped down onto the creek-bed itself, where I kept losing it minus any trail markers or obvious trail. That's one of the challenges of desert hiking is that the dirt trail you're following doesn't contrast well with more dirt, so trail finding can be tricky. Multiple times I found myself erroneously hiking up a wash, or seeking out a high point to look down and spot the trail. Needless to say, I did a lot of backtracking. 

At one point while walking along a creek-bed I wandered into a narrow canyon that I suspected was not the route I should be following, but the natural beauty of the place drew me on. Amid high granite walls I ran into a huge bee swarm. Now, if there is any desert critter that I am nervous about running into it's bees, mainly because Arizona is home to Africanized Honey Bees (aka Killer Bees), and I for one can't tell the difference between a regular honey bee and a killer bee. I passed within a foot of that swarm. The buzzing of so many bees was so powerful I could almost feel it in my body. I moved as quickly and as passively as I possibly could by them, and luckily wasn't stung despite the close proximity. I would be lying if I told you I wasn't nervous walking by that swarm. Especially being in such a narrow canyon, I would have had literally nowhere to run if they would have attacked me.

Cottonwood Creek narrows, right before I encounter bee swarm.
 Eventually I made it out of the canyon and back on some high-ground. I was relieved to see some dark clouds creeping over the desert foothills toward me. Any reprieve from the heat is welcome in the desert, and believe it or not, it actually rained! I busted out my new Outdoor Research Helium hard-shell, and actually wore it for a half-an-hour while I got dumped on. It was refreshing to say the least. After nearly 14 miles of hiking (not counting the backtracking) it was getting late and I was exhausted. I pitched my shelter relatively near Cave Creek about 20 feet from the fence-line of a private ranch. It was the only flat spot I could find that was both elevated and relatively separated from the creek itself, which I didn't want to camp by because of all the animal sign I saw. In fact I was awoken multiple times in the night by snorting javelina coming from the direction of the creek. I knew I had made a smart choice by staying away. When they got too close I would loudly clear my throat or yawn, just to let them know I was there. Of course they left me alone. 

Rain is coming
After a restless night of sleep I broke camp at 7am and hit Skunk Tank Trail #246 headed west. It was pleasant hiking in the cool morning air under a still rising sun. Eventually though it got hot, and by the time I connected with Quien Sabe Trail #250 the heat was bothering me, and my feet were getting brutalized on the especially rough trail. By the time I made the ascent of Skull Mesa my feet were killing me, but a heavy wind had appeared and the 20 mph gusts were keeping me cool. It's the nature of the desert, and hiking in general. You have to take the good with the bad. Even when you're tired and hurting and miserable, you have to hang on to the positive. I had no luck finding the Hohokam ruins I had heard were on top of Skull Mesa, but the view of the surrounding desert made the hard climb worth it. 

I was exhausted and feeling like hell by the time I returned to my Jeep after a near 14 mile day with tons of ups and downs and elevation changes. Honestly, it wouldn't have been as bad if it wasn't so damn hot, and the terrain so rocky. It made me miss the Pacific Northwest. Overall, I can confidently say that this route is by far the best in this area. Sure it's challenging, but its remote ( I saw zero people on Friday, and 1 group on Saturday), there are plenty of views, and a good smattering of high-and-low desert ecosystems. The only drawbacks are that water is very scarce, trails generally suck and are hard to follow, and there isn't any good place to camp when you reach Cave Creek near Seven Springs on day 1. Other than that, I had a blast.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Honey Hole

Verde River
Verde River
 Fishing in the desert has been somewhat of a challenge for me. In fact, I've been skunked in every desert locale I've been too. I used to believe I was a semi-decent angler. Now I'm not so sure. So I was excited when I got an invite to fish a secret spot on the Verde River that always produces for a couple of Cave Creek locals I know. It was a beautiful sunny day, and despite the huge rains we had last week, the water was very low. The Honey Hole is a tributary of the Verde River that becomes landlocked when the water is low, trapping an untold number of fish inside. My friend Mike said the water at the Honey Hole was the lowest he'd ever seen, and I for one was dubious of fish even being in there because the water was just so shallow. Because of that mistaken belief, Jim and I started fishing on the river itself, with no success. Eventually we moved on to the Honey Hole after Mike started hollering about the fish he was catching. "I got one!", and "I got another one!" he would shout.

Jim at the Honey Hole
 The water at The Honey Hole was shallow, stagnate, and covered in a purple algae that made fishing difficult. Mike caught 2 bass and a bluegill in an hour, so we knew there were fish in there, but when Jim and I arrived all was quiet. We fished The Honey Hole for maybe 2 or 3 hours without even getting a bite. Finally Jim trekked back to the river, and after after a few more minutes I followed. Literally 5 minutes after I left the Honey Hole, I hear Mike shout, "I got one!" I couldn't believe it. Back at the river nothing was biting, while Mike continued hootin' and hollerin' about all the fish he was catching.

The Honey Hole king
Reluctantly Jim and I trudged back to The Honey Hole to try and catch something before dark. We had been fishing all day with zero luck and our morale was in the toilet, especially with Mike catching so much. In fact Mike caught 11 fish in all. A smattering of bass and bluegill. Jim landed one large-mouth right at the end of the day, and I was skunked yet again. Damn. One of these days I swear I will post a fishing report where I actually catch something! It was still a great day of fishing though. Just being out there in the breeze listening to the buzzing bees and chirping birds made it all worth it.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Gear Review: GoLite Imogene UL2

GoLite Imogene UL2 pitched with rainfly
 After lugging around a 5 pound 2-man tent for the better part of half a decade, I decided it was time for an upgrade. Really, I probably could have held out for another half decade with my REI Quarter Dome T2. I loved that dang tent. But when I saw the new GoLite Imogene UL2 my jaw dropped... 2.6 pounds... $250.0... Freestanding... Was I dreaming?

Let's backtrack for a minute. When I purchased the Quarter Dome T2 back in 2009 it was one of the lightest 2-man tents on the market. In fact, it seemed as if back then the big gear makers were just jumping on board the ultralight bandwagon, and most of the 2-man freestanding offerings hovered around 5 pounds. The Quarter Dome T2 was one of the few below 5 pounds, and that's why I bought it. But I paid big time for that listed 4 lb 8 oz weight (actual weight was higher). With the footprint, I think I paid around $360.0, which was actually a pretty good deal at the time compared with other sub-5-pound 2-man tents. Thinking I got the best freestanding tent (and certainly lightest) for my budget, I was content to ride the Quarter Dome T2 into the sunset.

Ultralight gear has come a long way since '09. I always keep my eye on the newest gear and what's always kept me away from "the latest and greatest" was the price. I don't have the budget to upgrade my gear every time something better comes along, and even though a lot of really lightweight freestanding tents have hit the market since then, I've kept my distance... Until the GoLite Imogene UL2 came around.

When I first pulled this tent out of the box I was surprised how light and how small the package was. The 20 denier ripstop nylon floor felt a little too light, and too thin, as did the fly. I had my doubts about it's durability, but pitch after pitch, night after night, it's held up fine. The first thing I did after I received this tent was weigh it. I know from experience that a manufacturers listed weight can be very generous. In the case of the Imogene UL2, the 2 lb 6 oz listed weight is right on the money.

The pitch on this tent is entirely different than what I'm used too. The pole system consists of one long main pole that runs along the spine, a shorter pole in the front that forms the shape of the door, and a small one for the back that creates a foot box. The smaller poles are attached to the main pole via two hubs, which makes things very simple for both pitching and stuffing into the sack. While this is a freestanding tent, to create the full box shape in the back of the tent (where your feet go) the tent needs to be staked in the back. Certainly this hybrid design is one reason why this tent is so light. Instead of another bowed pole in the back to form a tube like shape, it relies on a small horizontal pole that's probably around a foot-and-a-half in length that instead stretches the tent into the desired shape with the help of two adjustable guy lines on the corners. There just isn't a lot of pole in this tent, and in fact poles only touch the ground in 3 places: twice at the door, and one in the center of the back. It's actually much more simple then I'm describing, and the entire pitching process took me less than 5 minutes on my first try.

Pitch without fly
 Attaching the fly is elementary, as long as you have experience pitching double-walled freestanding tents. The only caveat is that in order to get a completely taut pitch, and create space between the fly and the tent in the back at the foot box, you have to guy the center line high, say at least a foot off the ground. In the desert this isn't always practical, but in the conditions I've encountered it hasn't made much of a difference. Speaking of conditions, living in the Sonoran Desert they are mostly dry. Usually the only adverse weather I encounter is wind, which for the Imogene UL2 hasn't been a problem. On one trip further north I managed to get rained on for a few hours, and the tent performed brilliantly. No leaks. No condensation. No problems.

One of the ways GoLite managed to cut weight on this thing was through a very narrow design. At 78 inches long on either side, and 30 inches wide at the door, there is just room enough for two. Sarah and I find the space perfect, but we don't mind getting cozy. I haven't shared it yet with someone else my size, but when I do, it'll be tight no doubt. The beauty of this tent is that for two people it's ultralight, and for one it's just as light. I've camped and backpacked with this tent solo plenty of times, and I have to say for one person this could be exactly the space you're looking for. You'll have plenty of room to maneuver and store your gear without feeling claustrophobic, and at 4 x 19 inches packed, you won't feel guilty taking it. For two people, gear storage is tight. Normally we don't keep our gear in the tent so it's not a problem for us, but between the tight quarters and the 5.7 sq. ft vestibule space, it's not made for storage. Yes, the vestibule is small, but it should work for you as long as you and your hiking partner don't normally store your backpacks their.

Lots of space as a solo shelter
 Perhaps the best thing about this tent is the price. I paid $250.00 about 7 months ago. That price can be half of what you would pay for a similar size/weight tent from other manufactures, and it's as functional as it is light. Everything works exactly the way it should, and so far it's held up great for me. If you want top-of-the-line quality and ultralight weight, and don't want to pay out the wazoo, I would highly recommend GoLite Imogene UL2 either as a 2-man, a 1-man, or both. My only real beef is the hunter's orange color of the rainfly. Not a big fan of bright colors in the backcountry, but that's just nitpicking.

Imogene UL2 in the rain

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Pinetop Getaway

Finally a trip up north. A getaway from the heat, the cacti, and the punishing sun. It's nice to hike in trees... Really nice. We rented a log cabin for 3 days in Pinetop. A cozy little place with a wood stove and horseshoe pits in the backyard. The best part was that the property borders national forest land, so we could literally walk outside the backdoor into miles and miles of woods. Pretty cool.

A short walk out the backdoor. 
This trip was a family affair. Nights spent sitting around the dining room table playing Scrabble and Sorry. Mornings lounging on the back patio reading, sipping hot coffee, and listening to the birds in the forest wake-up for the day. There is something about waking up in a cabin in the woods that's pretty magical. I could do it everyday...  After coffee and a breakfast of biscuits & gravy James and I went for a hike out back. Cross-country through charred ponderosa to no particular destination. Jordy mimicking the birds as he rode high on James's back. After a couple miles we came to a trail. In an area with a dense mountain lion population we were excited to find some nice tracks still frozen in the mud. I couldn't tell if the tracks were cat or canine, knowing the two could be so similar. Absent any claw marks we decided on cat, but after some research at home, I had to change my mind. New conclusion: Large, well manicured domestic dog. In case you're wondering how I reached this conclusion, check out this website. If you think I'm wrong, let me know.

Cat or dog?
 After some more cross-country hiking, and hopping a couple barbed-wire fences, we caught another trail climbing Pat Mullen mountain where we ran into some pretty gnarly Alligator Junipers. After an easy ascent we caught some limited views of the White Mountains. The trees stretched in all directions and covered the distant peaks. It reminded me of home. 

Alligator Juniper
 We also managed to get in a little fishing at a place called Silver Creek, one of the premier fishing destinations for Apache Trout. The narrow creek proved a tough spot to fish for the kids, as casts often sailed long into the tall grass on the other side. But even though we were skunked, fun was had by all. It was a fun, but short 3 days, and for me at least, tough to leave the cabin. One thing I know for sure, nothing beats family bonding time in the woods. 

Fishing on Silver Creek

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Return to Cave Creek

This is my 3rd time backpacking into the Cave Creek area of Tonto National Forest. What I like about this spot is that the trailhead is a short 20 minute drive from my house, so it provides easy access to a pretty decent desert locale. Within a couple miles I left the day-hikers behind and seemingly had the entire backcountry to myself. In fact, I've never seen another backpacker (other than the ones in my group) in this area before. On this trip I left my Nikon at home and just took an older point-and-shoot Kodak. Honestly it felt quite liberating leaving the Nikon behind even though my photos didn't turn out as well. It's actually quite nice not feeling obligated to constantly capture good photographs (not that I'm much of a photographer anyways). Instead I just took a shot when the mood struck me.

Cave Creek
Cave Creek
 In the interest of variety, I took a slightly different route than previous trips, and consequently missed the Hohokam petroglyphs, which is certainly one of the highlights of this trip. There was however still plenty to see. The landscape was gorgeous and the desert was a flurry of animal activity. I saw lots of birds including two cardinals and a red-tailed hawk. I also ran across the corpse of a grey fox who lie dead in the middle of the trail. It was a strange sight to see, as the recently dead fox looked very alive, like a taxidermied trophy one might see at Cabela's. I've seen a few large dead animals in the woods over the years. A drowned horse snagged on a dead-fall in the Rapid River in Idaho. A mutilated sea-lion on the Olympic Coast. Fresh deer remains from a mountain lion kill near Hawk Creek Falls in Washington. I've never seen an animal so freshly dead, without any apparent cause to its death. If you look at the photo it looks like its body is configured as if running. The head and ears are up, and the eyes were wide open. I saw no wounds or signs of trauma anywhere. It's as if the poor fox just dropped dead while running down the trail. Maybe its ticker just gave out. 

Gray fox
Gray fox
 I camped at a picturesque little spot on Cave Creek. I collected enough wood that I decided to just cowboy camp on the ground near the fire. It was a peaceful night's sleep under the stars, but with a cool breeze and zero cloud cover, it got a little chilly. I awoke cold a few times during the night. I've had the same 20 degree sleeping bag for nearly 5 years, and I've been noticing a marked decrease in performance in the last year or so. It seems I always sleep cold in the backcountry anymore with this bag. I think it's time to finally invest in a new one. At 3am I piled on some big logs, which bought me about 3 hours of uninterrupted sleep.

Cave Creek camp.
At one point during the night I heard the calls of coyote's carried through the dark by the midnight breeze. I thought for sure they had found the fox, but on the way out the next day, the fox was still untouched.

Overall it was an enjoyable experience. Hopefully the first of many backpacking trips this year. I've got permits for 3 nights in Paria Canyon in southern Utah, which should be amazing, but I would like to get out as much as possible this year. It's just so hard for me to do with real life always keeping me home. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Leather Sheath for Mora Knives

Leather sheath for Mora Knives from Self Reliance Outfitters
A few months ago I purchased my first ever Mora knife. As some of you may know, Mora knives are extremely popular in the bushcraft/survival community mainly because they are razor sharp, hold an edge well, and are easy to sharpen in the field. These knives are also very inexpensive compared to what we (or at least I) normally think of as top shelf knives. For example, my 4.1 inch carbon steel fixed blade Mora Companion (shown below) was purchased on for around $14. My last knife purchase before then was a 3.25 inch stainless steel Benchmade 530 folding knife that I paid around $100 for. So the Mora knives are great quality knives, and super inexpensive compared to other brands, and that is undoubtedly another reason why people love them so much.

The problem with Mora knives is the sheath's they come with. I've purchased two so far, and both of them came with a real cheapo looking plastic injection molded sheath. Functionality wise, the plastic sheath's work just fine, but to me they just seem... well, cheap. My first thought when I unboxed the Mora Companion was, "I'll have to get a new sheath." And when I gave the Mora Classic Craftsman 612 as a gift to my stepdaughter I felt the need to apologize about the cheap sheath.

Last week I was browsing around the Pathfinder Store at Dave Canterbury's Self Reliance Outfitters (looking at knives of course) and I came across a leather sheath specifically made for Mora Knives which I promptly purchased for $12... And finally I've arrived at the whole purpose of this post. I know based off of user reviews and what I've read on discussion boards that as much as people love the Mora knives they hate the Mora sheaths, and so I wanted to make my readers aware that here is an option to significantly upgrade your sheath at what I would consider a very reasonable price. I've only had the sheath for about a week, so this is not a product review by any means, but it certainly appears robust, well made, and just really nice looking, and it holds my Mora Companion safely and securely. According to the website the sheath fits most Mora knives, so if you have one and hate the sheath, definitely give these a look (link below).

Mora Companion with leather Pathfinder sheath
Mora Companion with Mora plastic sheath

Monday, January 20, 2014

Four Peaks Camp-Out

After an insanely busy December in which I finished the year working my ass off instead of doing anything outdoors (other than cleaning up dog shit from the backyard), I finally got a chance for a short wilderness adventure. My buddy Jimbo and I took my stepson Jonah on a camp trip near Roosevelt Lake, sort of in the shadow of The Four Peaks Wilderness. This would be Jonah's very first "man-camp". He's been camping plenty of times before, just never like I camp when it's just me, which is much more minimalist compared to when I'm with my girlfriend Sarah or a big group. I was really worried Jonah would have a miserable time, especially with the overnight lows dipping into the mid-20's. One thing I've learned over the years is that first impressions are extremely important, and this trip could make or break Jonah's interest in the outdoors for the next year or two... Especially if he froze his ass off at night. 

Jonah with slingshot.

Luckily I bought him a slingshot before the trip. Wow, talk about a good investment. That slingshot never left his side. And with a nice sleeping bag (another good investment) and a wool blanket he slept soundly. So all was well with the kid.

The spot we camped in was sort of an oasis in the middle of high-desert foothills. From the outside it appeared all scrub oak (and there was a ton), but our little nook had plenty of cottonwoods and even a strong flowing stream that fed into a nice little pool that would have been a sweet swimming hole in the warmer months.

We had a fun time exploring the area, playing with the slingshot, and even got a little fishing in. I feel bad for Jonah as he has yet to catch any fish every time I take him out. I think I'll take him up to the rim this Spring for some trout fishing, which are much easier to catch than those bastard bass on Roosevelt. But Jonah had a really fun time despite getting skunked at the lake. He wants to go camping with me again. Maybe one of these days I'll take him backpacking.

Jimbo, Jonah, and I.