Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Ashurst Lake Family Camp

San Francisco Peaks
Ashurst Lake with the San Francisco Peaks in the background
 Another successful camping trip in the books. After my last camping debacle, I really wanted to go somewhere a little more off the grid, away from RV's and camp hosts. Ashurst Lake fit the bill. The last time I was there, Jim and I had the place practically all to ourselves. The only concern I had was that the weather report called for heavy rain and scattered thunderstorms. Not that I don't like rain, I do, but our current family tent is a giant piece of crap, and I just knew that if I brought it we would all end up soaked. So I borrowed an REI Kingdom 6 from work. Sure enough, an hour after we arrived the clouds burst and and we got totally dumped on. The hard rain lasted maybe two hours, but I was happy to see the tent was completely dry. That is the benefit of having a nice rainfly that covers the entire tent and stakes into the ground. It's a feature lacking on a lot of family tents out there, especially for the budget minded shopper. I've seen a lot of leaky tents and busted tentpoles in my day.

REI Kingdom 6 in the wind
 The rain was great. It's been too long since I've been in a proper downpour. I actually dusted off my rain paints for the first time in probably 3 or 4 years. Fire starting proved a bit tricky, as I had to resort to using a lighter to get it going. But it was all good. That's what I love about rain. It adds an extra level of excitement to everything. In the end everyone had fun. The kids were great, including Maggie and Jim's little ones, and the lake was beautiful. The only drawback with Ashurst is that there isn't really any good beaches for a family outing. But that seems to be a common theme in Arizona. Down here a good lake is a dime a dozen, and a good beach is ever more rare.

Ashurst Lake

Friday, July 25, 2014

Lava River Cave

Entrance to the lava tubes

Thursday we took the scenic drive north up to Flagstaff to check out one of my many Arizona "bucket list" items, the Lava River Cave. The area around Flagstaff is just so dang beautiful, and since the temps in Phoenix have been over 110 all week, I welcomed the pouring rain and thunder storms that engulfed the Flagstaff area. We drove out to a fairly remote spot in the Coconino National Forest and I was really surprised when I saw how many cars were parked at the trailhead to the cave. There were probably 20 to 30 cars out there on an early Thursday afternoon. I couldn't believe it. With the time of day and the storms overhead, I actually thought we might have the place to ourselves. Wishful thinking I guess. The family and I made the short hike to the cave entrance, which was essentially just a hole in the ground. Again I was surprised by the narrow opening and how much scrambling we had to do just to get into the cave. I actually wondered if I had gotten the kids in over their heads. 

Lava River Cave was formed from a lava flow about 700,000 years ago, and the place is pretty dang cool. After the scramble to get inside it opens up into a huge cavernous tunnel. Foot placement was somewhat of a challenge as the ground in places was littered with boulders and my stepson Jonah had a hard time making his way through. Even with the cold temps down there (about 42 degrees) I was still shedding layers. The coolest thing about it though was just how dark it was. At one point, when we reached the end, we switched all of the lights off and just stared into the darkness. It's definitely a place that feeds your imagination. The hike is under two miles in and out, but it took us about two hours because of the footing and just the fact that it's so damn dark. Even with headlamps it wasn't always easy to determine the best way forward, and in some places the ceiling got so low that I had to bear crawl through. 

We had a good time despite the short trip. It's not often that I get the chance to hike in a giant cave, so just the uniqueness of it was enough to satisfy me. I didn't really get any good photos though, because I just don't have the equipment to shoot in that level of dark. At the end of the tunnel I shone my headlamp at the cave wall and did a little shadow puppet show. I'll bet early man did the same thing.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

National Lampoon's Independence Day Vacation

Have you ever tried to fit 3 adults, 2 kids, a 100 pound dog, and 4 days worth of camping gear in a Subaru Outback? I did last week, and let me tell you, it was an experience. Even with the Thule on the roof, the car was packed. Of course, some sacrifices had to be made to fit everything inside. In this case it was food. I know, sounds crazy right? But on paper it made sense. Our planned destination at Fool Hollow Lake had a grocery store less than 30 minutes away. We figured we could get to the lake, make camp, and then run into town for supplies. Unfortunately it did't quite work out that way.

You see, we were running late. By the time we reached Fool Hollow Recreation Area it was nearly 5:00 at night. It was a long morning of packing, and an even longer drive in the cramped car with a farting dog and yelling kids. But when we arrived at our spot that we had reserved for four days, we were shocked by how tiny it was. Literally the size of my living room. With two tents and the picnic table, we would have had no room. On top of that, the neighbors were directly next us. As in ten feet away directly next to us. We had absolutely no privacy. To make matters worse, our tiny campsite ended with a 20 foot cliff that plunged down to the rocky beach at the waters edge. Not exactly safe for kids. We didn't want to camp there. It was the worst camping spot I've ever seen. Luckily the ranger refunded our money, and we hightailed it out of there. My "plan B" was to drive an hour-and-a-half back toward Phoenix and camp somewhere on the Mogollon Rim. 

On the way we stopped at the condo Maggie and James had rented near the lake. We had planned to spend our 4 day trip hanging out with them and their wonderful children. After looking over a map of the area with James, I decided to check out a different spot close by. A place called Scott Reservoir. As we neared the reservoir we encountered a herd of free range cows. Not a big deal. We might have to dodge some landmines was all. A short distance later we spotted vultures circling overhead near the road. As we slowly drove past I could see them feasting on something dead. Probably a cow, I thought. It set an ominous tone for that location. The camping area was a dump. Discarded furniture. Trash. Even a rusted out propane grill. Not the camping kind mind you, but the full size ones you keep on the back patio. There were some other campers. Men mostly, drinking beer and lounging around on couches and recliners... You know, the kind that you normally see in a living room. I wasn't feeling very good about the spot. It resembled more of a homeless camp than a wilderness camp. As I was looking for a spot Sarah finally blurts out "Turn around. I am not staying here!" So, it was back to "plan B" and around 6:30pm we turned back toward Phoenix, and our new destination near Woods Canyon Lake. 

This camping trip was supposed to be special for two reasons. First, Sarah's oldest daughter Bianca was in town visiting from Oregon. Second, Jonah turned 6 years old on July 3. We had planned to have dinner that night with Maggie and James at the their condo,  and let Jonah open a present, but seeing how we had yet to find ourselves a home for the week, we decided to press on. The kids were tired and hungry. We all were. Since I had just hurt my back at work the week before, I was feeling really sore from sitting all day. Sarah gave Jonah a present that he opened in the back of the car squeezed between his sisters with the dog drooling on his head. He couldn't eat his new monster truck though, and with dark approaching fast we needed to get some food still, since we hadn't brought any with us. We stopped at some roadside grocery and picked up a few cans a soup and a couple boxes of cereal. Just enough to get us over.

Finally, a camp spot!
We rolled into the Mogollon Rim Lakes area as the sun was setting. After dodging a few elk in the road we found a really sweet spot to camp amongst some tall ponderosa pines. We made camp, cooked up some soup, put the kids to bed, and hit the sack. Even though my back was killing me I was feeling good about the spot we ended up at. There was nobody around us. We had tons of room, tons of privacy, and it was absolutely beautiful. Around 4am I was awaken by the sound of a low growl coming from our dog Rocco. Since I didn't put the rainfly on the tent, I was able to sit up and look around our camp. There, not ten feet away was Rocco having some kind of primal standoff with a huge cow elk, who had somehow wandered right into our camp. For those of you who have never seen elk up close, let me tell you, there are enormous animals. Even the females are huge. Rocco was growling, and that elk was just stood there staring at him. Just as I was about to crawl out of the tent and chase the big animal away, Rocco lets out a thunderous bark and the elk bolts into the woods.

That morning, as we sat around eating Lucky Charms and drinking coffee, an off-road vehicle rolls up into our camp and a woman steps out. Her presumptuous demeanor immediately put me on the defensive. I was surprised to learn she was the camp host. She clearly was not a "people person". She started by giving us a list of what we couldn't do in camp, and threatening us with all manner of fines if we didn't comply. She followed that up with this gem, "I don't like to categorize people, but if you look like the partying type, I wont let you camp here." Then she goes on about how she likes to establish a "presence" with campers by patrolling the area on her ATV and periodically checking on the individual campsites. I couldn't believe it. The last thing I wanted was a damn babysitter. 

After she left, the girls drove into town for much needed supplies. Jonah and I spent the day shooting the sling shot, playing with his new remote control car, and lounging on the hammock. I managed to use my new knife some as well. It was my third attempt at a figure-four deadfall trap, and I managed to make it properly this time. The only problem I had was actually setting the trap, which turned out to be so difficult that I gave up on it. I wanted to get some fishing in, but I was so tired from the day before and lack of sleep, I just felt like lounging. Besides, the hammock was just so darn comfortable. 

Playing with knives is fun.
That night we watched the sunset from the very edge of the Mogollon Rim. When you're up there, it feels like you're in a whole different world from the dry desert heat of Phoenix.  As we ate dinner in camp a truck towing a trailer showed up in the campsite across the road from us. At about 200 yards away, he was our closest neighbor.

Jonah whacking Riley. This pic cracks me up.
The very next morning Rocco followed Jonah down to the road. As Jonah was playing around with his new remote control monster truck, Rocco wandered into the guy's camp with the trailer who just pulled in the night before. He yelled at the dog then confronted Sarah about the dog being off the leash. Sarah replied that we were camping, and that she would not put the dog on a leash. The guy immediately gets in his truck and reports us to the camp host. About 30 minutes later the camp host rolls up in her ATV. She threatens to call the cops on us if we have another complaint about the dog. We decided to leave the dog off the leash but keep a close eye on him. Afterall, no one was around us, and even the camp host had been in our camp and seen the dog off the leash and not said a word. Apparently Joyce (the camp host) decided not to wait for another complaint, and call the cops anyway, as an hour later a Coconino County Sheriff rolled into our camp. He proceeded to tell me that in Coconino County, a dog off its leash is an arrestable offense. I couldn't believe it! I was being threatened with jail for having my dog off his leash in the middle of the woods with no one around. It was totally ridiculous and Sarah and I were both so pissed off we decided to pack up and leave a day early. Before we left I actually photographed our entire campsite because Joyce had threatened to fine us if we left a mess, and I just didn't trust her to be honest about it. She seemed like the type of person who would burn us just because. 

Sarah and Bianca at Willow Springs Lake
We decided to stop at Willow Springs Lake on the way out to do some fishing and swimming. I was eager to catch some fish to make up for the stressful time I had been having. Don't get me wrong, I still enjoyed my camping experience, but I felt like like catching some fish would make up for some of the negativity we had experienced with the some of the uptight people we dealt with. Instead of going to the marina, I decided we could avoid the crowds by parking away from the main body of the lake and hiking in. It worked great too because we had an entire section of the lake to ourselves. Despite the thunderclaps and lightning overhead we spent the afternoon swimming, fishing, and having a good time. The fishing didn't go so well. Even though I've always caught fish at this spot, I didn't even get a bite. The water was just too dang shallow. So shallow in fact that I could walk out to the middle of the lake (in the area we were) and still touch. Arizona has been in a 5 year long drought and the evidence of that is everywhere. This is the second time I visited a lake that was visibly suffering a lack of water.

All in all, I still had fun. But the experience definitely left me feeling resentful of this nanny state we live in. I mean, I get making sure that people clean up after themselves and don't start fires while its so dry, but the babysitting business is just out of control. If camping has come to this, then I don't even want to camp... at least not in the busy season when the forest service feels the need to employ camp hosts. Frankly it made me feel like I have no freedom at all. I would have camped dispersed if I knew of an area where I could do that. I've lived here two years now, but I'm still not really familiar with all these forest roads and backroads, and just don't know the good places for dispersed camping. And the tiny campsite at Fool Hollow Lake just makes me angry. Do they need money so desperately they have to pack people in like sardines? Doesn't it just defeat the purpose of camping? The entire experience just makes me want to move to Alaska... Thanks for listening to my rant, and thanks for reading.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Ashurst Lake

Another fantastic trip in the books. We were supposed to go to Lower Lake Mary outside of Flagstaff, but when we arrived the "lake" more closely resembled a pond. I guess that's what 5 years of drought will do to a body of water. A shopkeeper at a general store near the lake recommended Ashurst. He told us that someone had recently caught a giant Northern Pike on powerbait there. Jim and I were pretty pumped about the prospect of catching pike, as neither of us had ever caught one before. Ashurst Lake we found out, was a total gem. Beautifully located on top of Anderson Mesa, the lake is surrounded by trees and offers great view of the San Francisco Mountains. The best part about Ashurst Lake is that there wasn't anyone else there. We camped all alone, and except for the sound of someone's generator off in the distance, didn't hear another human being.

I see you.

The fishing wasn't bad either. We caught a ton of rainbows between us both, with Jim catching the lion's share. These Arizona trout sure love powerbait. It's funny how different trout fishing is down here versus up north in Eastern Washington. Up there, I always used lures. Down here, I cant catch squat on lures. Powerbait is king. Maybe it's because they're mostly farm raised down here. This trip they seemed to like the green powerbait, which we fished off the bottom. This seems to work best for catching trout both on Ashurst and the Mogollon Rim lakes. A little trick Jim learned from a guy working the outdoors counter at Walmart. Didn't catch any pike though, but we didn't care. I did see a snake. It was only the third snake I've seen in Arizona. I still haven't seen a rattlesnake (or a scorpion for that matter). We also saw an Elk driving back to camp from the water. I thought I saw a bear, but now I wonder if it was just a dog. I only caught it out of the corner of my eye running across the road.

The man on the silver mountain

Overall it was a fun but brief trip. Overnighters are just enough to tease me it seems like. I have a big trip coming up to Fool's Hollow Lake in another week, but I hurt my back at work so now I'm afraid I can't go. I'm really hoping this injury is not very serious. I hate getting hurt. Sorry about the short blog. Between school and work my blog time has taken a serious hit. I do have a couple reviews on the horizon though, and I might talk my friend Jimbo into reviewing some of his gear for me. So stay tuned.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Gear Review: Oboz Helium

Oboz Helium

If you’re looking for the ideal ultralight kicks to fly around the backcountry in, the new Oboz Helium may be the shoes for you. Designed for “going hard and packing light” these multitask shoes excel at everything from bagging a desert peak at lunchtime to the Friday night pub crawl, and they’re so light you’ll forget they’re even on your feet.

Read the rest of my article on The Mountain Blog.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Bartlett Lake Fishing

Verde River
Once upon a time I fancied myself a decent fisherman, usually catching a fair number of trout in one of the many lakes, rivers, and streams of the Pacific Northwest. If you've been following my blog at all you know that since I moved down to the desert I haven't fared well in my fishing endeavors. Mainly, I think, because the primary game fish in these desert lakes are bass and catfish, and my experience with these species is limited. My primary location is Bartlett Lake, being only about a 45 minute drive from home. Bartlet is located in Tonto National Forest, and is not a true lake, but a reservoir created by the damming of the Verde River. I've spent significant time fishing this lake and the river with its many tributaries and landlocked ponds created by the fluctuating water levels.

I started out using crankbaits after reading that they are the best bass lures around, but thus far I haven't caught a single fish with one. I don't really feel like I've quite got the retrieve down, and on top of that I keep losing them. I've reached a point now that I've practically given up on the crankbaits because not only do they not work for me, they are so damn expensive. In these waters, at least from shore, the plastic lures seem to work best; the slimy worms with the twirly tails, or the lizards or frogs. I'll drag one across the bottom slowly, jerking up every once in awhile to give an appearance of something alive. This method seems to work best for both the bass and bluegill, and my fishing buddies and I (well mainly my fishing buddies) have caught quite a few nice fish this way. My buddy Mike even caught a lunker largemouth at one of the ponds near the Verde that ended up on the Arizona Game and Fish website. Check out the photo HERE.

Snapped Cabela's rod
My bad luck seemed to extend to my fishing gear as well. My trusty Shimano reel I've had for a few years now began suffering from some grinding gears, so I sent it in to Shimano for repairs. In the meantime I had a cheapie Zebco reel that unfortunately quit working the second time out with it. WIth two reels out for repair I purchased a third that seems to be holding up so far. Then, two trips ago my rod snapped in half while trying to negotiate a snag. Talk about a buzzkill. Nothing can ruin a trip faster then a snapped rod. In the meantime I found an old Abu Garcia rod with a missing guide ring, that I repaired and took out last week. It's more of a trout pole than anything, but does the job well enough for now.

Jimbo at Rattlesnake Cove
With some help from my buddy Jimbo I've managed to try my hand fishing for catfish as well. I haven't caught one yet since I am currently borrowing equipment for the job, and am pretty new to it. Jimbo has caught a few using stink bait. I know there are some seriously big catfish in Bartlett Lake. In fact the biggest fish ever caught in the state of Arizona was a flathead catfish caught last year from Bartlett by a fella ironically called "Flathead Ed". It was nearly 77 pounds! Talk about a whopper! You can see Flathead Ed's monster catfish HERE. I've decided that once I get my bass fishing set-up back on track I'll start working toward some catfish gear. I would love to catch a fish that big. 

Although I haven't caught as many as my buddies, I still enjoy spending my days out in the desert. I feel like I'm on track to becoming a better angler, but just being outside is fun in itself. Hopefully I'll have some real success stories to write about in the future... Until next time.

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.