Thursday, December 20, 2012

Off The Beaten Path

Whether you lose it, or just step off it, sometimes you find yourself off the beaten path.

Tumwater Mountain

In this case we lost the trail near the top of the mountain. At first we pressed on navigating with map & compass, but it was just too hard. We postholled in waist deep snow for an hour before we decided to turn back. By the time we found a dry spot to make camp we were totally exhausted. We had to melt snow for water, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't start a fire.

Upper Priest River

When you see huge trees in the backcountry, sometimes you feel compelled to stand next to them. These are giant Western Red Cedars and my Uncle Steve and I both jumped off the trail to check them out.

Olympic National Park

Some of you might recognize this picture as the old header to my blog. When you hike on the beach there is no trail, but getting lost is not much of a concern. In this case we were travelling north. As long as we kept the Pacific to our left we knew we were heading in the right direction.

Bloody Basin

Its a lot easier to travel cross country in the desert because there isn't much blocking your view. On this hike we were almost always within line of sight to our jeep parked just off a dirt road, and when we couldn't see the jeep, we could still see the road.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Ode to Campfires

Nothing beats a good campfire, especially when you're worn out after a long day on the trail. My Uncle Steve is a master fire builder, and is the person who taught me the tricks of the trade. One of those tricks is to start small. People have a tendency to start too big, but you need tinder in the beginning. Tiny twigs, old man's beard, pine needles, and even wood shavings all make good tinder. Once the tinder is nice and hot and burning good, you can start adding the kindling. But remember, if you throw in the bigger stuff too fast, your fire will die.

My Uncle Steve tending the fire.

This lesson is especially true in wet conditions. On the Olympic Coast I day-dreamed of the campfire. It was always wet and windy and cold. I remember our second night, all of us were soaked to the bone by the time we reached our camp, and all the wood available was soaking wet. The principles of starting a fire in the rain is the same, but it takes more time, and a heavy dose of patience. Start small, but keep it small longer than usual. Keep feeding it tiny twigs until you have a small ball of burning red coals, and then slowly start adding bigger stuff (still feed small stuff as well). If the fire is dying, get on your hands and knees and blow into the coals. Build a wall around your small fire with your kindling and larger wood. The fire will dry it out over time, and it will also help shield the fire from wind and rain. It can take a lot of time to start a fire in wet conditions, but it's definitely doable. My cousin Luke and I spent hours once trying to start a fire in the backcountry after days of rain. But our efforts paid off, and eventually the fire was so hot, anything we put in it, no matter how wet, caught flame. You'll have to constantly tend it, constantly blow on it, and constantly feed it, but it will be worth it in the end.

Steve starting small in the rain.

Building a good fire is sometimes challenging, but for me it's a lot of fun. If you arrive in camp early, building and maintaining a good fire is a fun way to just pass the time. It can also be a big morale booster, especially at the end of a long, cold, hard day. Just don't forget your lighter or waterproof matches, or at the very least Swedish Fire Steel. When I backpack I bring two 2 sources of flame, usually a small lighter and a box of waterproof matches (as a back-up) in my first aid/survival kit. Lately I've ditched the lighter in favor of Swedish Fire Steel, which when combined with good tinder will produce flame. I always bring tinder as well. Something that will easily catch a flame and burn long enough to ignite the organic tinder I add. You can find all kinds of fire starting materials at REI or any other outfitter. I just take a few cotton balls dipped in petroleum jelly. You can make them easily at home, and they are cheap and lightweight, and will immediately ignite from a spark.

Chillin' by the fire.

I leave you with my favorite campfire ever. I think Its my favorite mainly for the location, on Gem Lake in the Seven Devils. We had the lake to ourselves. It was so clear and still, and beautiful. We sat on that log and cooked trout for dinner that we caught from the same lake earlier. It was an amazing evening in the backcountry.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Happy Birthday Sarah

Today is my sweet Sarah's 29th (wink wink) birthday, and I dedicate this blog to her. She is not only an amazing girlfriend, she is also my partner-in-adventuring. It's so awesome having a significant other who shares a passion for the outdoors.

The first thing you'll notice about this picture is how beautiful she is. Having a beautiful woman along really adds an exciting extra-dimension to hiking. I really have to be on my toes when preforming various outdoor related skills, otherwise I might make myself look like an idiot, and shatter my mountain-man image.

I really like this shot because she reminds me of a really hot Indiana Jones or Francisco de Coronado. She's an adventurer, an explorer, a conquistador. She's holding a set of binoculars in her hands, looking up at the mountain, and thinking, "nothing will stand in my way".

She has great outdoor instincts. In this shot she waits for the first group to reach the other side before she steps into the swamp. That way she would be warned if there were any unseen hazards in the swamp like quicksand or venomous snakes. 

You'll notice that she has a little bit of swagger in this shot. That's because this was the end of a 3 day backpacking trip; her longest ever. Three days with the bugs and critters and things that go bump in the night. We also climbed the 2nd highest mountain in Arizona. Right now she is thinking, "I came, I saw, I conquered". She's feeling like a bad ass, and already thinking about the next adventure.

I feel pretty lucky to have her. Happy Birthday Sarah, I love you.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Sonoran Sky

The Superstitions
Cloudy day in The Superstitions
Phoenix Mountains Preserve
Phoenix Mountains Preserve
The sky above this park is usually crisscrossed by vapor trails from all the air traffic coming in and out of Phoenix.

Lost Dutchman State Park
From Lost Dutchman State Park

Saguaros -
What passes for trees in the desert. Some of these can get pretty big.

Friday, December 7, 2012

A Friend In Need

Dear friends. Recently a friend of mines wife was diagnosed with stage 3 colorectal cancer. Right now they are basically selling all their belongings just to make it through Christmas. I know many of you know what its like when a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, and are familiar with the financial hardships it can cause. Well, we can help my friends Josh and Wanda and their little girl Gracie. I am asking as your friend, to click on this link and donate whatever you can...

  Donate Here


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Trail Days 3

Sarah and the Superstitions

Sarah in Mount Baldy Wilderness

Steve in the Seven Devils

"Are we there yet?" Kelly on Tumwater Mountain.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Bloody Basin

Someone told me last weekend that Arizona had more public lands (percentage wise) than all the states in the lower 48. Although that isn't true (Nevada takes the #1 spot), Arizona does rank in the top 10. Seeing the urban sprawl stretching to the horizons while flying over Phoenix, I never would have guessed there would be so much to explore out here, but there is.

 One of those places is called Bloody Basin, in the Tonto National Forest. I don't know if its called Bloody Basin because the Indian wars that were fought here, or the red tinged soil, but it is a really cool place to explore. One could probably spend a lifetime exploring here. But the catch is that water is really scarce.

Bloody Basin
My friend and long time Arizonian James (aka Jimbo) took me out there for a day trip on Saturday. He is an outdoor lover like me, and has introduced me to a lot of cool places since I moved down to the desert.

Bloody Basin

We decided on an off trail excursion. Doesn't look too bad from this view, but let me tell you, when you get down there a midst all those prickly plants, it can be poke city. There is a bush of some kind that grows here that had barbed hooks on it which embed in your clothes and skin when you get too close.

Bloody Basin

As remote as this place is, the roads back here are remarkably well maintained. But even with the nice roads, we only saw perhaps 5 other people all day.

Turret Peak
Turret Peak

That peak in the center is called Turret Peak. In 1873, US Army scouts sneaked up on some Apaches that were hiding there, killed 57 of them, and captured the rest. The ambush basically broke the back of the Apache resistance. I love how rich in history Arizona is, despite how sad it can be. It really adds a new dimension to my outdoor experiences.


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Funky Flora


I looked for an hour trying to identify this one. Any takers?

Century Plant
This plant is actually an agave, and can grow up to 26' tall. They are pretty neat.

Definitely don't eat this one.

Arizona Cyprus

Monday, November 26, 2012

Scorched Earth: Cave Creek to Seven Springs

Scorched earth... That's what the desert can feel like sometimes. I've been in Phoenix since June and my body still hates the heat. When the relentless sun beats down on me and the sweat pours from my brow in buckets, I long for the shade of some pine trees. All I get instead is a sharp headache and a bout of nausea. So, I was a little worried about my upcoming backpacking trip in the Sonoran Desert. This would be my first outing with the Arizona Backpacking Club, and my first all-desert hike. Luckily my personal nurse and wonderful girlfriend Sarah came with me. It's a comforting feeling having a genuine life saver on hand, just in case I pass out from heat exhaustion.

Giant Saguaro
Sarah standing next to a gnarly Giant Saguaro.

The first day of the hike was all in open desert. The shade was virtually non-existent as we hiked along dry creek beds and across broad mesas. Despite the heat I mostly felt pretty good. Except for a couple short but steep climbs, the trail was mostly flat. But it was so damn hot! I was soaked in sweat in an hour. One particularly brutal climb I felt my stomach rumbling and a twinge of pain in the back of my head. "Here we go again" I thought. I just put my head down and kept moving. Luckily it only lasted about 15 minutes before I felt good again. The mountains were gorgeous, but I didn't take as many pictures as I normally would. I kept feeling like I was holding the group up when I stopped. It's the one thing I hate about hiking in groups. 

Shade? I think not.

  Even though the trail was relatively flat, the hiking wasn't always easy. I swear every desert plant has thorns, barbs, spikes, or some other cruel implement intent on causing bodily harm if you get too close. The trail wasn't well maintained, and mesquite and prickly pear cactus were always scratching at my arms and poking at my clothes. My Therma-Rest Z Lite strapped to the top of my pack was constantly getting snagged too... I don't think I'll bring it on a desert hike again.

Cactus land.

But the going was relatively smooth. We saw some Hohokam petroglyphs that were over 700 years old. It looked to me like they were depicting hunting scenes, but it was hard to tell. I would have liked to spend more time studying them. I took tons of photos, but unfortunately none came out that great. 


Our camp at Cave Creek was nothing like the desert we hiked through. It's crazy how much the environment  in the desert can change around the waterways. Instead of Saguaros and sagebrush we were camped under sycamores and cottonwoods. I used my Solo Stove for the first time, and while it performed really well boiling water, I still haven't formed an overall opinion about it, so I think I'll use it a few more times before I write a review.

Cave Creek Camp
Cave Creek Camp

The hike out on Sunday followed Cave Creek to the trail head at Seven Springs. It was nice because there was a lot of shade, and the trail was soft dirt instead of hard-pan desert and rock. Overall it was an enjoyable yet uneventful hike. The only wildlife I saw was a crayfish that darted from underneath a rock as I bent down to filter water. Other than that I saw nothing. Not a single bird or even a lizard, which I normally see everywhere hiking in the desert. But it was still an awesome time. Just being out there was enough

A streak of fall color in the desert

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Mountain Gear

Recently I mentioned that I had several writing projects in the works. Well I'm pleased to announce that one of those projects is finished, and I wanted to post a link so my blog readers here could check it out. This piece Is a "guest blog" I wrote for It's a funny story about what happens when you let your imagination get the best of you in the backcountry. Hopefully this is the start of a long and fruitful relationship with Mountain Gear. Enjoy.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Sea to Desert Wildlife

Sea Anemone
Sea Anemone
You'll have to venture out at low tide to find these colorful little guys.
Short Horned Lizard
Short Horned Lizard
He thought he was totally camouflaged. Funny thing is, the dog walked over it, and around it, and couldn't even see it.

Purple Shore Crab
Purple Shore Crab
Feisty little buggers.  He did not like my camera in his face.
Desert Tarantula
Desert Tarantula
Found this guy on the trail last week. Took lots of photos. This is one of my favorites. It almost looks like an old man.

Southwestern Fence Lizard
Southwestern Fence Lizard
The desert has canyons, and in some of the canyons exist lush green riparian areas full of wildlife.

Herring Gull
Herring Gull (I think)
The Olympic coast is a bird watchers paradise.

One of my favorite birds. You'll see the Osprey just about everywhere. I took this shot on the Mogollon Rim in Arizona.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Backcountry Fishing

 I love fishing, especially in the backcountry, where most of the time you have an entire lake to yourself. I'm the type of guy who appreciates solitude. I would prefer a day of catching pan-fries alone in the backcountry to a packed lake choked full of boats.

Fly-fishing on No Name Lake in Glacier National Park

Steve fishing on Heart Lake (I know I've shared this before, but it's one of my favorites).

In the backcountry most of the fish you catch are pretty small...

... but every once in awhile you land a lunker, and yes we ate this for dinner that night.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Lost Dutchman

So much for backpacking this weekend. We had planned a trip into what is supposed to be one of the most beautiful destinations in all of Arizona, the Sycamore Canyon Wilderness. But it was not to to be. The weather turned foul. In Phoenix we had wind and rain, and when I checked the forecast for Sedona and Flagstaff (the nearest towns to Sycamore Canyon) I saw rain and snow, and temps down into the 20's. Normally that wouldn't have been a deal breaker, but Sarah just does not have the gear for that kind of weather. She's a desert rat. She gets cold when the temps drop below 90. I've been meaning to buy her rain gear and a better sleeping bag, but so far she just hasn't needed it. The weather down here is always so nice and warm and predictable.

Lost Dutchman State Park
Lost Dutchman State Park

We needed a "plan B". I've wanted to check out Lost Dutchman State Park since I arrived in Arizona. I think it's the name that intrigued me, and the legend behind the name. Supposedly, back in the old west, some guy discovered a gold mine in this section of the aptly named Superstition Mountains, but before he could reveal the location of the mine he was murdered. So actually its not the Dutchman who is lost, its his gold mine. Or at least that is one popular version of the legend. Apparently there are many versions of the lost goldmine legend.

The Superstitions
The Superstitions

 Ever since the late 1800's, people have been coming to this area looking for the lost goldmine. Of course no one ever finds it, and some even get lost and die in the desert. It's easy to see how someone could die in the Superstitions. It's rough, rugged, dry, and totally unforgiving. How early settlers survived here I have no idea.

Sarah breaking the rules

Sarah was in a very ornery mood. I was having a great time, but she called the trail "stupid" and complained that she felt like a mule following it. She wanted to trek cross country, and I couldn't dissuade her. Nothing I said changed her mind, and neither did the signs that read "Hikers Do Not Leave The Trail".  I gave her an impassioned speech on Leave No Trace ethics, and when I finished she looked at me like I was a complete sissy. "Rules are meant to be broken" she said, as she jumped off the trail. I reluctantly followed. I kept thinking about those people that died from exposure looking for the lost goldmine.

Desert Tarantula
Desert Tarantula

I was totally ecstatic when I spotted a big Desert Tarantula. The first tarantula I've ever seen in the wild. Even though I've seen them in captivity a lot, and am perfectly aware of just how big they get, I was still taken aback by it's size. It looked straight out of a horror movie. I took probably 50 photos of it. Funny thing is, in 4 months of desert living and hiking, I have yet to see a rattlesnake. 

Overall it was a really great desert day hike, but I feel like I really need to get out for a weekend. Hell, I need to get out for a month, or maybe six. I've got the backpacking bug, and I cant shake it.