Monday, October 1, 2012

Javelina Hoedown: Fossil Creek Overnighter

*Note: The title for this blog sounds cooler if you know that Javelina is pronounced with an "H", and sounds like Havelina.

Top of the canyon
Ever since I moved to Arizona, Sarah has been talking about Fossil Creek. She would talk about the splendor of it's falls, and the beauty of it's banks. She would tell me how perfect the water was for swimming. Unfortunately we never had a chance to go because the Forest Service closed it, on account of all the trash and overcrowding. You see, although the Fossil Creek area is a designated "Wilderness" and the creek itself is a designated "Wild and Scenic River" there are roads leading down to the creek at the canyon bottom. This makes it easy for people to access the creek with minimal effort. As a result the area has seen an epidemic of litter, trampled vegetation, and general misuse. They finally opened it back up in September, and since we had a free weekend, Sarah and I decided to hike in for an overnighter, and we brought her dog Rocco.

The hike got off to a bad start before we even made it to the trailhead. Driving through Payson I suddenly had this sinking feeling that I forgot my hiking shoes. I pulled over and searched the car. Sure enough, my Merrell's were nowhere to be found. For the first time in my life I actually forgot my damn boots! I couldn't believe it. Sarah suggested we swing by Walmart and pick up a pair of cheap shoes, which is what I did. Fifteen dollars later I was the proud owner of a pair of Starter tennis shoes that were a half-size too big. They looked like they were made from plastic, and the tread on the soles were non-existent. I wasn't looking forward to hiking in them.

The trail was all down hill. We passed several signs warning hikers to be prepared. Apparently every year people hike down to the canyon with flip-flops and no water. I read online that Fossil Creek can draw up to 4,000 people on the weekends. The evidence of overuse was plain to see. We saw beer cans, water bottles, toilet paper, food cans, clothing, and just a lot of garbage on and near the trail. It was pretty pathetic. The worst I've ever seen. The trail itself was a gradual descent, dropping 1500 feet over 4 miles. The parts of the trail made of soft red sand was really comfortable. The parts that were rocky and boulder strewn - not so much - but my new shoes held up, and we made it to the bottom relatively easy. We found a perfect little campsite near the water and set up shop, and from what I could tell we had the entire place to ourselves. We didn't see anyone down at the creek that first day. 

Fossil Creek
Fossil Creek
That afternoon Sarah and I were lounging around on some big boulders down the trail from our camp. I caught movement out of the corner of my eye, and when I looked up I saw a huge javelina coming down the hill. For those of you unfamiliar with a javelina (also called a peccary) they look like a big wild pig, except they aren't pigs, they're peccaries. They are shaped like a pig, covered in hair, and (this is the fun part) have huge sharp canines that stick out on top and bottom. So here I am watching this javelina gallivant down the hill and it looks like a big boy to me. I guessed it was at least 100 pounds. It looked that big. Definitely the alpha male of it's peccary pack. Sarah and I are watching this javelina (who is oblivious to us) and I see that it's headed in the same direction I saw Rocco go just a couple minutes before. Then I see Rocco walking up the trail toward us, near the javelina. At this point I blew my cover (I was sneaking around trying to get a clear shot with the camera) and called out to Rocco because I didn't want him to attract the javelina's attention and get gored. I swear they passed within 20 feet of each other and neither of them even knew it. I guess the rushing water sound of the creek drowned out the noise. 

Boiling water for dinner that night I noticed a white powder in my water, that resembled salt. It worried me because earlier in the month biologists poisoned the creek to kill non-native bass. Even though the Ranger had told me the water was safe, I was still a little bit apprehensive. Sarah thought the sediment was just a mineral in the water, and she was right. After researching for this blog, I found that Fossil Creek is "super saturated with calcium carbonate", which explains the milky water. The interesting thing is that the water in the creek is crystal clear, and doesn't become milky until heated. 

Collared Peccary (Not my pic)
The full moon lit up the valley so well that I could see clearly in the dark. We were camped with the rainfly off and the moon was directly above us. It was pretty awesome. Rocco was sleeping outside the tent at our heads. Sarah was sound asleep too. All was quiet. Then I heard squealing. Pig squealing. Peccary squealing. Loud squealing, like screaming. It was coming from the spot near our camp where we saw the javelina earlier. It sounded like some javelina hoedown or peccary pit fight. It went on for 5 to 10 minutes, and then just as sudden as it began, it stopped. Rocco was freaked. He started whimpering and pacing around the camp. I was freaked too. I kept thinking of an episode of Survivorman that I watched last week. Les was in the Sonoran Desert, and he mentioned several times how aggressive and dangerous javelinas could be... Sarah slept through the whole thing.

About an hour later, I was still awake. I heard screaming in the dark. I thought the javelinas came back. I sat up in the tent and listened, and then I heard voices. In a couple minutes a large group of teenagers came walking through our camp. About 10 in all, being loud and obnoxious. Two were even carrying a cooler. How they carried a cooler all the way down from the trailhead, in the dark, I don't know. I suspect they knew of another way in. I thought I heard the sound of car doors shutting. It was weird. They set up camp in the spot next to us, where I had heard the javelinas. Then they proceeded to party all night. It was pretty lame. I wasn't very happy. In fact I spent the next hour laying in the tent thinking about the letter I would write the forest service. Personally, if they want to keep Fossil Creek clean and pristine, they are going to need to make the hard decisions. Like closing all roads leading to it for starters. Make people hike to it. It will weed out the undesirables, like those who would fill the place with garbage. 

I was awoke by voices the next morning. Apparently the portion of the creek we had camped by was a popular swimming hole. There was a large group of people in there swimming at 7:30 am. We spent the day hiking and swimming ourselves. Saw some beautiful scenery, and an awesome waterfall. Found some interesting litter, like a pair of shoes, a couple sleeping bags, and a tent, among other things. 

The hike out was tough in the blazing sun. Rocco needed lots of brakes. By the time we made it to the car I had a blister the size of a dime on my left big toe. All things considered, an excellent trip. The truth is, that even with all the people and all the trash, Fossil Creek is a beautiful place, and very much worth a weekend backpacking trip.


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