Monday, November 28, 2016

#OptOutside Cougar Hot Springs Debacle


Cougar Reservoir

Another holiday season upon us, another chance to escape the madness by opting outside on Black Friday... Or so I thought. This year our family decided to laze the day away in Cougar Hot Springs. A popular destination nestled high in the cascades off the bank of Cougar Reservoir. The views during the two hour drive up from Bend were amazing, and by the time we pulled off the highway we were all antsy to be out of the car and exploring. But it wasn't meant to be. At the hot springs at least.



Cougar Hot Springs parking lot
 The parking lot was overflowing with vehicles. They were packed so tight that several cars were in the road. The people that arrived early, and were parked in actual parking spots, were completely blocked in by the latecomers who just parked behind them. It was a total disaster. I found a spot near the parking lot on the shoulder of the road, but a forest service employee threatened me with a ticket if I stayed there. I drove up the road looking for alternative parking but found nothing. I circled back and waited patiently for someone to leave. Impatiently, my kids begged me to double-park next to someone, but I refused. After a half hour of waiting, there were now three vehicles just sitting on the side of the road waiting for people to leave the parking lot. Meanwhile the forest service employee perused the parking lot writing tickets. Finally, a man came sauntering up the trail toward the parking lot. He saw that his car was blocked in and threw a fit. He began yelling at the forest service employee. At this point we were all restless and irritable in the car, so I decided to abandon the hot springs despite the fact that we drove two hours to get there. It was totally demoralizing, especially for my kids.

Delta Camp nature trail
Determined to make the best of such a disappointing turn of events, we pulled into a closed campground we passed just to get out of the car and explore. Delta Campground was an awesome campsite surrounded by old growth rainforest and towering western red cedars. Here is the kind of forest that just looks ancient. The trees like sentinels. Something out of Lord of the Rings. We explored the campsite and short nature trail nearby. The dog went nuts. The kids ran and laughed and soaked their clothes in the dense foliage. It was fun, and the frustration of earlier in the day was forgotten.




Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Oregon Badlands Wilderness: Larry Chitwood Trail

Do you know what I love about Bend the most? I can drive 20 minutes out of town in nearly any direction, and be in the woods. Today I forsook the mighty Cascades and went east. East toward the desert, into the Badlands. The Oregon Badlands got mixed reviews from my coworkers at REI. Descriptions ranged from "beautiful" to "boring".  Being a self-proclaimed "desert rat" I had to check it out. 

Historical artifacts?
The Larry Chitwood Trail offers the closest access to any trail in the Badlands Wilderness, and my Silverado was the only vehicle at the trailhead. After hitting the trail, I was immediately impressed. The old Juniper scrubland baked in a golden glow from the rising sun really reminded me of the Mazaztal Wilderness in Arizona, and it was absolutely awesome. The only problem? Piles of rusted cans and broken glass. Apparently, Bureau of Land Management considers the trash some type of historical artifact. Some of it may even be remnants of The Oregon Trail (as in, "Go west young man"). 

High desert Juniper scrub lands.
Looking at the map, the Larry Chitwood Trail is kind of a lollypop figure-eight loop, and that's exactly how I intended to hike it. I started with the west loop. I was surprised almost immediately by the amount of deer tracks I saw. In fact, I spent about 5 hours jacking around in that little stretch of wilderness, and I saw more deer sign than I've ever seen in one place in my life. The ground is really soft sand, so literally everything leaves a print. Deer, coyote, cat, I saw it all. I realized pretty quickly that the Oregon Badlands Wilderness is crawling with critters. 

The west loop was kind of a bust. Most of its length it skirts private property, and at times the trail just inched a little too close for my taste. In fact, at one point a mangy old farm dog howled at me as I strolled by. It wasn't the dog that worried me. It was its owner. Luckily I was out of sight before anyone popped out of the doublewide gung-ho with a double-barrel.


The east loop was more my style. Deeper into the wilderness. Away from roads and farms and loud-ass power tools. All I heard was birds. A concerto of birds in fact. Celebrating an unseasonably warm November no doubt. The deer tracks became more frequent. I started to see scat. I even saw bear scat, which if the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is to be believed, bears are ... "absent from arid regions of central and southeastern Oregon." I've seen a lot of bear poop in my day, and I'm pretty sure this is it (see below).

Bear poo?
Overall it was a fun trip. I didn't see a single person other than myself. Just a lot of birds and animal tracks. If you're looking for solitude, the Oregon Badlands Wilderness is the ticket. If you're looking for views, go elsewhere (west young man). I will return for sure, but probably in the winter months when it's a bit colder. Maybe a backpacking trip is in the cards for me as well. The Badlands has no water that I know of, which surely assists in keeping the masses away, but coming from Phoenix that's something I'm used to.

A final note. There are dozens of unmarked trails in this area that aren't on the BLM map. Route finding can be challenging, especially if you take a wrong turn. It's best if you study the area from above beforehand to get an idea of the layout (google earth), and don't forget your map and compass!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Budget Gear Review: Buck Selkirk Knife


Buck Selkirk
 The Dirt:

Buck Selkirk Knife

What is it? Fixed blade Survival/Bushcraft knife

Comes with: Sheath and ferrocerium rod with attached whistle

Size: Blade length 4.625". Overall length 9.5". Thickness 0.135"

Weight: 7.6 oz.

Materials: 420 HC Stainless Steel. Micarta handle. 

Price: $43.78 at Amazon.com

The Selkirk is a mid-duty fixed-blade survival knife named after one of my favorite places in the world, the Selkirk mountains of the Idaho panhandle. Not coincidentally, north Idaho is also home to the famous Buck Knife factory, where most of Buck's beloved knives are made. The Selkirk is not one of those knives. In fact, the name "China" is stamped on the blade. Some people won't consider the Selkirk for this reason alone. Despite its country of origin, the Selkirk is a solid knife that should warrant consideration when shopping for a bushcraft style knife under fifty dollars.

The knife's weight is the first thing I noticed. Previously I was almost exclusively using a Mora Companion. The Selkirk is heavy, and not particularly well balanced, owing to the steel-filled handle. The hammer on the pommel takes some of the blame for all that weight. It looks cool, but I found it not as practical for hammering as say a rock or heavy bit of wood. Though it certainly adds to the overall robust nature of the knife.

Hammer time.
Speaking of the handle, the textured Micarta has a nice wood-grain look, but feels a little too slick for my liking. Despite this, the grip is mostly comfortable. I say "mostly" because although the shape is fine, the spine isn't quite flush with the micarta. The result is an uncomfortable contact of skin and steel when I'm using certain grips or performing certain tasks. You can see in the photo below (and above) that the spine is raised just slightly above the micarta along the handle. It doesn't affect how I handle the knife. It's simply an annoyance. Call it nitpicking, but to me it shows a lack of attention to detail on the part of the manufacturer. 

Spine not flush.
Enough about the handle. Let's talk about the blade. That's where this knife really shines. Out of the box the Selkirk was shaving sharp. The edge retention is great and so is the ease of sharpening. In fact, the Selkirk is one of the easiest knives I have ever sharpened. It doesn't take much with a fine stone to hone the blade back to bad-assery. Credit the flat grind and 420 high carbon stainless steel. A lot of people knock Buck for using 420, but I have been continually impressed by the razor's edge of this knife. That said, I did roll the edge near the tip several months ago. I'm not sure what I was doing when it happened because I didn't notice it until I was cleaning my knife at the end of the day.

Feather stick
Deformed

Let's not forget that the Selkirk is billed as a bushcraft knife. As far as carving, chopping, batoning and food prep, the knife performs exceptionally. The problem comes with the fire starting capabilities. The accompanied ferro rod is small, but it has to be. The rod is designed to be used in the choil of the knife, rather than the spine. To me, this is a total design flaw. For starters, the space to work with is tiny. Worse, you have to work your hand under the business end of the blade, which just increases the likelihood of an accident. Finally, if you prefer a larger rod, chances are it won't fit the tight opening of the choil. Now, the spine of the knife is not 90 degrees, but the angle is such that you can produce a small amount of sparks. Of course, you could always grind it flat on your own, but why Buck wouldn't do that in the first place is just silly.

Ferro rod is designed to go through the choil.

Finally the sheath. On other sites I've seen people knock the injection-molded sheath, but I think it's one of the stronger features of the Selkirk. It looks good, can be configured for a variety of carries, and holds both the knife and the ferro rod securely. Plus, like the knife itself, it can really take a beating. 




Overall, the Selkirk is worth considering for casual knife users, or buyers on a budget, especially if you're willing to modify the spine. Although rough around the edges, the blade is excellent, and you can count on the durability. Design flaws and sloppy manufacturing may deter some. If money isn't a concern, look elsewhere.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Three Sisters Wilderness: Doris Lake

Fishing didn't go so well.
I finally got out for my first Oregon backpacking adventure. Since Bend is still so new to me, I didn't quite know where to go. In the Three Sisters Wilderness, everyone says Green Lakes is the place to be. Since I did Green Lakes as a dayhike, I wasn't really interested in going back. Mainly I wanted to avoid the crowds that I knew would be clogging up the trails. After studying a map, I settled on Doris Lake instead. It's an easy hike, and the fishing was supposed to be decent. 

The hike in was as easy as advertised, and mostly in the shade of the big evergreens. After recreating  in the desert for so long I almost felt claustrophobic among so many trees. Line of sight is a fraction of what I usually had in the desert, We passed a few groups hiking out, either complaining about mosquitoes or wearing headnets. I knew we were in for a treat.



After making camp near the lake I tried my luck fishing. I love fishing, but I've decided that I'm not very good at it. I threw out an orange Panther Martin (recommended to me by the fishing guy in Sportsman's Warehouse) and spent the next couple of hours reeling in... an orange Panther Martin. The beach nearest my tent was infested by big red ants which literally bit the hell out of my feet every chance they got. Literally, every time I stepped down, all ants within a foot radius would immediately charge my foot like a platoon of gung-ho marines. If I moved my foot they would chase it. Those little bastards were aggressive as hell. But the scenery was nice and the water was perfect, so I gave up fishing and went for a swim instead. The ants didn't follow me in.


Video: Starting a fire with Old Man's Beard

Late afternoon the mosquitos were swarming. I was covered head-to-toe in protection, but they were chewing up my dog Rocco. I started a fire early, deciding to turn-in when the sun set, I sat by the fire sipping some Irish whiskey and watching. The trees were covered in Old Man's Beard and the setting sun turned everything green. As far as I knew, Rocco and I had the lake to ourselves. I didn't see or hear another soul.

Doris Lake camp

Monday, August 1, 2016

Three Sisters Wilderness: Green Lakes

Fall Creek
 Oregon. That is where I now reside. I've traded in saguaros and century plants for pine and spruce and fur. I'll miss the desert, but Oregon is a homecoming for me of sorts. If you've followed my blog long enough, you know that Spokane, Washington was where I began this journey. Now, I'm in Bend. The final destination... Hopefully. 

The boundary for Three Sisters Wilderness is literally a 20 minute drive from Bend, and the road is paved. With such easy access you can guess that Three Sisters is one busy wilderness. Green Lakes is supposed to be a primo locale in the wilderness, and late June is supposed to be the best time to go... Before the snow melts and the hiking hordes arrive. We were on the trail by 9 am, and the humongous parking lot was mostly empty. I had been warned about the crowds, but it didn't look too bad. 

Three Sisters Wilderness


Green Lakes is roughly a ten mile round trip hike over nicely maintained trail. Early in the year however, the trail is easy to lose in the snow. It's been awhile since I've hiked over hard packed snow, and almost immediately I wished I would have brought some microspikes. As a result, I was slipping and sliding all over the place, but at least I wasn't postholing. Shade from the trees, and the constant sound of running water from Fall Creek were a welcome change from the desert. Another key item I didn't bring was a pair of sunglasses. I remember walking out the door thinking, "I don't need my sunglasses, I'm not in the desert anymore," Boy was that a mistake. Walking over snowfields on the approach, my eyes ached from the glare of the sun off the snow. My eyes hurt so bad that I was worried about going snowblind. To eliminate the glare I had to walk with my hands cupped around my eyes, which drastically reduced my peripheral vision and caused me to constantly lose my footing. I felt like a complete rookie up there.

Three Sisters Wilderness
South Sister
 We found the lakes still frozen over, but the mountain view was awesome. Craggy "Broken Top" and the solitary "South Sister" overlook Green Lake from the right and left. I thought that Green Lake would be an excellent basecamp if I ever felt the need to climb either of them. I had brought fishing gear, but the lake was still frozen over. 

Three Sisters Wilderness
Broken Top
 We didn't see barely anyone on the hike in, but the hike back we passed probably 50 people. One group of backpackers had lost the trail under the snow, and didn't seem to know where they were. Another group of mountaineers were heading for Green Lake to make a basecamp for a summit bid on South Sister the next morning. Most were day hikers like us.

Return trip along Fall Creek
 The giant parking lot was completely full when we returned to the trailhead. I was beginning to realize just how popular this area was. Since the trip I've learned that Three Sisters Wilderness is the most visited wilderness in Oregon, and Green Lakes is its most popular trail. I think I'll skip that trail for the rest of the summer and find something a little more out of the way.

Creek crossing with the puppies.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Grand Canyon: Corridor Trails - Phantom Ranch to Indian Gardens and Out.

Leaving Bright Angel Camp
Another world exists at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I've never felt so wild as I did in that place, despite the people. It's the place that does it too. The canyon itself. Its unfathomable enormity. Its abysmal depths. You recognize it from the top, but you don't feel it until you reach the bottom, and look back in wonderment at where you came from. The only way out is up. Way up. Nearly 5000 feet through some of the most rugged landscape on earth. Leaving Bright Angel camp on day four was bittersweet. The prospect of exploring new country is thrilling, but the planned climb to Indian Gardens meant that our trip was nearing an end.

Following the Colorado River
The Colorado River stokes my imagination more than an other river I've seen. Paralleling its banks, I imagined what it would have been like for the early river runners. Imagine running the Colorado through the canyon without any notion at all of what would be around the next bend. Talk about a heart pounder! Leaving the river we came to a seesaw of steep switchbacks as we climbed higher and higher. We passed a mule train of tourists bound for Phantom. We passed a group of foreigners attempting a rim-to-river-to-rim in one day. It's a feat that the park service highly discourages. They weren't wearing backpacks, and each carried a plastic water bottle in their hand. We warned them about the heat and lack of water. To us backpackers they seemed ill-prepared for such an undertaking. Of course, they didn't speak a lick of english and just looked at us with smiles on their faces as we warned them to turn back. "Ok" they said, nodding up and down and grinning foolishly. They kept going.

Sawteeth

Flattening out on the approach to Indian Gardens
The terrain flattened as we approached Indian Gardens. Cottonwood trees and shade appeared. So did the mule deer. We saw them everywhere. On the trail. Near the trail. Lots of does, but not a single buck. As a bow hunter, I was struck by the differences of this game animal's behavior within the boundaries of the park, and deer I encounter elsewhere. We passed within a couple feet from some feeding trailside, and they never spooked.

Indian Gardens
Mule deer at Indian Gardens
Indian Gardens turned out to be my favorite camp site. It certainly had the best views. We had the place to ourselves (more or less), and were treated to an amazing sunset. From Indian Gardens at night, you can see lights from the buildings on the south rim. The deer were everywhere at camp too. They fed all around us without a care in the world.

First snow
Next morning we got an early start and climbed out of the canyon. The snow and ice were still present near the top, so we again had to don microspikes. As we neared the rim the amount of day hikers increased dramatically. We saw tourists in dress shoes hiking across ice on narrow trails that, if you slipped, could result in falls of hundreds of feet. Their nonchalant attitudes made it appear as if they had no idea they were courting death. 

The rim in sight,

Almost out,
I'm afraid now that this will be my last Grand Canyon adventure ever. I have a four day backpack in Paria Canyon on the horizon, and after that I will be relocating to Bend, Oregon. I'm excited to have a new state to explore, but I'll sure miss the desert.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Grand Canyon: Corridor Trails - Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood Camp & Ribbon Falls

Phantom Ranch is a funny place. In the middle of seemingly nowhere, at the bottom of an inconceivably huge canyon lies this little slice of civilization. There are a smattering of buildings; lodges for the ecotourist, cabins for park rangers and other staff, and of course, Phantom Ranch itself, which is more or less a cantina. We awoke on day two to the thunder of power tools and earth movers shattering that tranquil sound of the awakening desert. I wondered how the small bulldozer got there, since the only way in is by foot, boat or beast of burden. I supposed it could have came by boat, or maybe lowered by helicopter. I hung my soaked sleeping bag on a bear hang pole (see previous post) and took care of my camp. We watched the masses depart during breakfast, leaving Phantom for destination's unknown. It didn't really feel like backpacking in that place. Too many people. Too many amenities. 

Grand Canyon National Park
Ellen in "The Box".
 After a late start we left Phantom enroute to Cottonwood Camp below the north rim. Soon after departure, we entered an area on the North Kaibab Trail called "The Box". The Box is a narrow canyon flanked by towering vertical cliffs. It is notorious for being an inferno in the summer months, although in winter it was chilly since the giant rock walls prevent the sun from reaching the bottom most of the day. To me it felt like a slot canyon. The danger of falling rocks weighed on my mind the entire way through. Especially after seeing rocks fall on the adjacent wall across the creek, and climbing over various rock piles that blocked the trail as we hiked through. 

On the North Kaibab Trail
 Eventually the Box opened up to sunshine and views of the snow-covered north rim. The experience was quite different than the day before because we barely saw anyone. I think we encountered only one other hiker in the Box. Between the Box and Cottonwood Camp we ran into a group of three researchers who were studying the health of native fish in Bright Angel Creek. They actually lived down there during the winter. What a sweet gig!

Climbing to Cottonwood Camp
 We made camp in a huge group site under some cottonwoods in an otherwise empty Cottonwood Camp. Luckily my sleeping bag was completely dry. Determined to stay dry and warm, I stuffed my pad inside the bivy, thinking that by sleeping on instead of in it, I could still benefit from the heat reflecting properties and not wake up drenched. I was soon lulled to sleep by the pleasing sound of the creek and a slight breeze.

Heading south on North Kaibab. 
 Day 3 began with the silence and solitude one would expect from a backcountry locale in an immense wilderness like the Grand Canyon. Our plan was to return to Phantom Ranch through the Box, with a detour at Ribbon Falls. Ribbon Falls reminded me a lot of Leona Falls in the Cascades, except that in the Cascades, I had Leona Falls to myself. There were probably 20 or more people milling about Ribbon Falls when we arrived, and more arriving by the minute. Again I marveled at the amount of people so deep in the backcountry. It's a sight I had never seen before. No doubt the mule trains from the south rim, and the guide services running the river bring people to this area that wouldn't normally be here. And it's cool. I'm not complaining. If I couldn't do it myself, I would probably ride a mule too. 

Grand Canyon National Park
From behind Ribbon Falls



We reached Phantom Ranch in time to see a large herd of mule deer milling about Bright Angel Creek. The sun was setting and I just stood and watched them as long as I could. Watching animals in the wild is always such an amazing experience. It's like a window to a new world and new relationships that few people really get to see. I wondered: Where did they come from? Where are they going? Who is the leader? How many have died this year so far? Are any pregnant? Did they get cold at night? No matter how tough we humans think we are, we ain't shit compared to a wild animal, who every night sleeps in the dirt and the mud. Who has to find food and water. Who has to walk everywhere they go. Who has to constantly be on alert for other animals that want to take what they have. As it turns out, this would not be our only encounter with mule-deer on this trip... to be continued.