Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Redemption Trail: Mount Baldy Loop


mount baldy wilderness

When most people think of Arizona, they picture sand, and cacti, and rattlesnakes. They picture desert. I was the same way. When I was told of lush pine forests in Arizona, much like the Pacific Northwest, I didn't believe it. Looking around Phoenix, it's hard to believe. Yet it is true. The White Mountains in eastern Arizona is such a place.

After my last Arizona backpacking experience (see “Hell and Back”) I was understandably leery. To say things didn't go as planned is an understatement. It seemed that I still hadn't learned a very important lesson: Before backpacking, call the Forest Ranger and ask about the conditions (road and trail conditions, availability of water, etc.). One simple phone call could have saved me a ton of misery last time out. Well this time I called, and the very helpful Ranger on the phone told me exactly what I wanted to hear. “The East and West fork of the Little Colorado River running strong.” Music to my ears, since we would be following this river (which is really more like a stream) for almost the entire length of our 15 (or so) mile loop. Another thing I did differently is I bought myself a can of bear spray. Now, up north I only carry bear spray in Grizzly country. I'm usually not too worried about their smaller, less aggressive cousins, the black bear. But down here in Arizona, there have been 3 black bear attacks on humans this summer alone, one of which resulted in a fatality, and I don't want to be caught with my pants down, if you catch my meaning. It's better to be safe than sorry (as the old saying goes) especially when I have a girlfriend to protect. Not that Sarah can't protect herself. She is a very capable woman. But I figured that in case a bear ever attacked I would be the one to fight it off, since she is a nurse and can treat my wounds if I get mauled. Besides, I am a man, and that's my job.

It wouldn't be just me and Sarah this time either. James and Maggie were coming too. Now, I love introducing people to backpacking because I love it so much, and want to share my passion with others. It's awesome to have friends that are interested in it. Back home in Spokane, I could barely get any of my friends to go. Mostly they just flat-out aren't interested in the outdoors unless it involves car camping or boating, because let's face it, backpacking takes work. But James, he's like the best friend I never had. Totally up for exploring the outdoors beyond packed campgrounds and speedboats. In fact, they both are.


My favorite thing about this hike in the Mount Baldy Wilderness was the meadows. We started at the West Fork trailhead and almost immediately the trail wound through some of the most scenic meadows I've ever seen. I can just imagine what they might look like in Spring, when everything is in bloom and fresh and new. In one of these meadows, where we stopped to take our first break, we ran into a flock of turkeys. Of course by the time I got my camera out they escaped into the treeline, but it was still really cool seeing them. That is how the first day mostly went. Climbing up hills in deep pine forest and dropping into huge flower covered meadows. A lot of up-and-downs. It was all very picturesque, and I captured some really cool shots with my camera.

mount baldy wilderness
By the time we made our connecting trail at the East fork of the river, all of us were ready to set up camp. James had a brand new pack and was carrying a heavy load, and he was feeling it. Sarah shoulders were killing her. My shoulders were hurting too. I was using a cheap pack because I lent Maggie my good one, and I could not keep the damn things on my hips. As a result most of the weight rested on my shoulders, and the shoulder straps were digging in hard. Poor Maggie was using my pack, which I could tell by looking at her didn't fit at all. Of course it didn't help that she is 5 months pregnant either, but she was trooper and didn't complain.

Turkey Vulture 
We had planned on camping on the east fork of the Little Colorado on the first night, but I couldn't find any established spots where I thought they should be based off my research. Then we ran into a fork in the trail that wasn't marked on the map, and that I couldn't recall reading about in the guidebook. My instincts told me to go “right” at the fork, but just to be sure I dropped my pack and scouted ahead on the left while everyone waited. I crested a hill and saw a huge bird flying overhead that I initially thought was a hawk. I watched him circle overhead a couple times, and then perch in a tree by the trail. When I got closer I saw it wasn't a hawk but a Turkey Vulture. In fact there were about 20 of them perched in several dead trees near the trail. Now, I don't know how many of you have ever seen a turkey vulture, but let me tall you, they are huge ugly-ass birds. They are covered in black feathers, and have a red featherless head, like the Skeksis in “The Dark Crystal”. They can have a wingspan up to 6 feet. I've never been scared of birds (even though I was attacked by a chicken as a small child) but let me tell you, it was unsettling being surrounded by those big ass birds, with their beady little eyes on me, waiting for me to drop from exhaustion so they can peck out my eyes, and tear out my entrails. Of course, I had left my camera back with my pack, and didn't get a photo.

Eventually after a bit of backtracking we found a good campsite in a grove of trees near the water, nestled at the edge of a large meadow. That night we sat around the fire watching the Perseid meteor shower. It was pretty amazing. Out there in the wilderness, away from city lights and traffic and tv. Enjoying a warm fire, good food, and good company. For thousands of years people have entertained themselves that way. That's one of the coolest things about backpacking. It takes you back to a simpler time...

The next morning saw the separation of our party. Poor Maggie was having some feet issues. Apparently they can grow when you're pregnant, and in this case her feet outgrew her boots, and they weren't very happy. I'm actually surprised she made it as far as she did. She's never backpacked in her life, she was carrying 30 pounds in an oversized pack, and she is 5 months pregnant. Most people wouldn't even have attempted it, especially considering we were at high altitude the entire time. The woman's got moxy for sure.

The second day was an uphill slog to Mount Baldy, which is the highest peak in the White's at 11,400 feet. The first day we stayed around 9500 feet, and even then you could feel the difference in altitude. I'm used to eastern Washington and norther Idaho where even the highest mountains barely reach 7000 feet. The White Mountains in Arizona lie on the Colorado Plateau, so it's not that the mountains are bigger, they just sit at a much higher elevation. You could really feel it on the uphills too, when your heart is pounding, and your breathing like you just sprinted a mile. Even in camp the night before, just standing up from a squatting position caused dizziness.

One of the craziest things we saw on that second day was huge swaths of dead trees. We were standing on a rock formation probably somewhere around 11,000 feet, looking out over a huge area of some of the prettiest country you can imagine, and there were large portions of standing dead trees, especially on the eastern flank of Baldy. There was an older couple standing there with us, and they told us that they hike the Mount Baldy loop every year, and every year there are more and more dead trees. They also told us that the cause of all the dead trees is a bark beetle. Apparently these beetles can attack and kill mature pine trees, and their handy work is very apparent in the Mount Baldy Wilderness. We had to hike through a large chunk of wilderness full of dead trees. It was like a graveyard. Even more so than hiking through burn areas. There were dead-falls everywhere, and the trees still standing croaked and groaned in the wind like they would topple over any minute. It was actually quite eerie.

mount baldy wilderness
See the dead trees in the background?
That night we found one of best campsites I've ever seen. It was in a grove of trees in the middle of a big meadow, and the river ran right through it. It was so calm and peaceful and relaxing. We were both so tired we skipped the meteor show, and were in bed at 9 o'clock. Except the sound of running water the night was quiet, and we both slept as good as can be expected. It's funny how difficult it is to sleep in the backcountry. Statistically it's very safe, but you always have some worry in the back of your mind that prevents you from getting a good nights sleep. I expect it has something to do with being alone in the middle of the woods, in the black of night. Knowing that If something did happen you couldn't jump in your car or pick up your cell phone. In the backcountry you truly are on your own. I think that's why I like it so much.

I woke up at dawn, and jumped out of my tent with my camera hoping to catch some elk in the meadow. We had seen scat during our walk in, and I knew this area was popular for elk hunting so I thought I could get lucky, but it wasn't to be. Instead I saw two coyotes sniffing around. I guess the river drowned out my footfalls because they didn't notice me, and I was able to photograph them for about 15 minutes before they disappeared in the timber line. Unfortunately I just don't have the right lens to capture good photos at a distance, so they didn't turn out that great, but it was still a really cool experience sitting in the grass watching them.


 Off at 9am we had about a 4.5 mile hike out over level ground, which we did in about an hour-and-a-half. It's always nice on the last day because your food is mostly gone, and your pack is lighter. Sarah's feet were killing her so she made the entire hike in flip-flops. I called her “crazy” but apparently it was rather comfortable, and now she is looking at wearing sandals permanently on future backpacking trips. I was pleasantly surprised how beautiful the White Mountains are, and I can't wait to go back. The only problem is that it's a 4 hour drive, through bad traffic, because so many people escape to there from Phoenix in the summer time, on account of it being 20 degrees cooler. A far cry from the days when I could just drive 20 minutes east from Spokane, and be in the same type of lush green environment as the Whites. Mostly I was happy that the hike turned out so well since the first time I took Sarah was nearly a disaster. I definitely felt redeemed from the first fiasco.