Thursday, February 21, 2013

Grand Tammie Whackin' Adventure - Part I - What Are You Whackin' About?

Tamarix ramosissima, Tamarisk, Tamarix, Salt Cedar, Tammie... No matter which name you use, just about every botanist or naturalist in western North America will give you a cringe or a knowing nod. They'll count down the river miles lost to tamarisk invasion, the acres of riparian habitat lost, the sheer volume of species being pushed out by these resource grabbing, soil destroying, river killing monster plants.

And, like most things which are slowly destroying our natural environment, they owe their presence and their power to us, to the short-sighted, thirsty and energy hungry humans who claim to have 'conquered' the arid lands of North America.

Sound over dramatized? Do you think that once again, Wendy's standing on her ecological soap box and spouting melodramatic nonsense just to make a silly point?

Okay, maybe. But if you knew tammies like I knew tammies - you might just nod right alongside those nutty botanists.

Tamarix growing in the arid lands of it's native environment in China

So - in short, it's a bush/tree brought to the Americas from Eurasia (for ornament and to control soil erosion) that loves sandy wetland environments such as the banks of our western rivers. By doing SUCH a good job of controlling flooding along these rivers with our system of massive dams, we've given tammies the perfect breeding grounds to spread. And spread.  And spread.  

With a regular flood regime or in their natural, sandy and devastatingly dry habitat, disturbance would be too frequent for tamarisk to completely take over.  However, without such natural controls, it develops quickly into dense, impenetrable clumps on every available patch of soil.  Native species, such as the Gooding Willow, which could provide excellent shade and wildlife habitat in these areas, just can't compete. Native bird and wildlife species don't get the same habitat value from the non-native plants, including (as we learned) the beaver, which really dislikes chewing on the plentiful tammies and prefers tender young willows (more on that in part 2).  The tamarisk drink unheard of quantities of water from the soil, soak up the excess salts that have been washed into the system through agriculture, and then release those salts onto their minuscule  scaly leaves.  Those leaves fall to the ground and cause the salinity of the soil to rise - further ruining the chances for native species to thrive.  

So, they're mean, over controlling, and aggressive foreigners - everything that American's just can't stand.  Yet, their dominance along the Colorado River, in particular through the Grand Canyon, has been nearly unchallenged since the floodgates closed on the Glen Canyon Dam in 1966. Ecologists and NPS scientists have made attempts to rein in their takeover of many of the tributary canyons and streams, but the sheer scale of the task on the beaches along the river was overwhelming.  Then there's the generations of recreational and commercial boaters that have come to depend upon what little verdant cover they provided in that hotbox.  They certainly didn't want a wholesale slaughter of the only shade left down there.  

It looked like tamarisk in the Inner Gorge would be king for a long time to come. That is, until the beetle came.

The Tamarisk Beetle doin' its thing
The tamarisk beetle (Diorhabda carinulata)
was introduced in Utah in the early part of the 21st century, as an experiment to control tamarisk invasion. The beetle defoliates tamarisk and only tamarisk repeatedly over several growing seasons until the exhausted plant dies, providing a natural control in it's native environment. It seemed to some biologists and land managers a natural solution to a complex man-made problem. Just import a new non-native species to eliminate the one you imported 200 years ago.

I knew an old lady who swallowed a fly...

In any case, the fight over the release of the beetle hinged in part on the assumption that the beetles would not be able to reproduce at the lower latitudes of the Grand Canyon and Arizona because of a particular quirk in their development cycle.

'Don't worry, Grand Canyon' I was told the Utah scientists claimed, 'it can't come your way'. 

Well, it seems evolution trumped us again, and the beetle has continued to spread south and is not only in the canyon, but rapidly moving past it. While this has some desired effects - potentially to reduce the dominance of the tamarisk on the beaches in the canyon - it also creates some problems. What do we do with all of these once vegetated stretches of land on which tens of thousands of people vacation and explore each year? Where wildlife species such as the endangered southwestern Willow Flycatcher have taken up residence, and where - without the tamarisk to hold the soil in place, the unrelenting and unchanging flow of water from Glen Canyon dam will simply erase any trace of usable land? 

Melissa McMaster and her team at the NPS worked with Fred Phillips consulting in Flagstaff and came up with an innovative and daring pilot project to explore exactly that question - and they launched it at my personal favorite campsite in the whole Grand Canyon: Monument Creek/Granite Beach. 

The plan proposed in the project includes establishing riparian species to replace the tamarisk as they become defoliated or die off, improving camping facilities for boaters and backpackers and creating improved habitat for wildlife species along the river.  It's all in hopes of finding effective techniques that can be used to restore other treasured beaches in the canyon.  

This, as it goes, is where I come in.  I learned about the project when I was on the North Rim this last fall, or at least I saw a call for volunteers then.  I might have had zero concept of what was going on, but I saw 'Granite Beach' and 'restoration' and I was sold.  I've been hiking down to that camping area for more than 10 years, and it's been too long since I've visited.  Not only would volunteering for this group get me some primo time in a favorite spot with someone else hauling in the good eats, but I'd get to scratch that 'do good' itch that I get from time to time. 

I called and signed up that week.  What I never knew was that shortly after, many, many more people called to sign up as well.  I got on a very long list very close to the top, and that meant I was lucky!  Moa ha ha ha!

And so it was that I arrived in Flagstaff on the evening of February 6th, ready once again to dive into my favorite ditch.

Me and fellow volunteer Mark at the trailhead
You know - it doesn't seem to matter how many times I step into the Grand Canyon, I always get butterflies just before...

Friday, February 1, 2013

High Adventure on the Arizona Trail

Dale's Butte on Passage 16

As many of you already are sick of hearing, I've become a Arizona Trail steward through my position as organizer of the Arizona Backpacking Club.  What this means is pretty basic... I've got a 4.5 mile stretch of trail through the desert outside of Superior that I'm supposed to be an expert on.  So far, I've hiked it twice from north to south and once from south to north - and I've done one 'work project' with my club where we went out and got sweet revenge on that most heinous of hiker's enemy: catsclaw bushes

This month, it was time to hike it through again with the club, just for fun and to continue to increase my 'expertise' on the area.  My hike a little over a week before to The Spine gave me practice in the cooler temps found in these deserts during the winter - this hike would show how quickly and dangerously those conditions can change.

Ten hikers set out from the Picketpost Trailhead on Friday morning.  Of the ten, I'd only hiked with 2 of them before, but they were all very experienced, capable hikers.  Mature, experienced, capable hikers.  Confident, mature, experienced, capable hikers.  Anyone who's tried to 'lead' a group like this knows what it's like to herd cats through a rainstorm.  With 3 days and 37 miles ahead, I tightened my waist belt and set my resolve. We would have fun or I would die trying.  

If only I'd known then what was heading my way, I might have carried an extra bottle of gumption to pass out along the trail.

Morning light on saguaros

ABCers on the AZT
I call this feature Stripey's about half-way through our adopted passage, and is a great landmark for many miles. 

Our first day of hiking went fantastically.  The weather, as you can see from the pictures, was amazing.  In fact, it was really quite incredible from the 'hard to believe' standpoint: a week before, the high temps had been hovering around the mid 50's with sub-freezing nights.  This week, we were getting closer to 80 during the days, with balmy nights barely dropping below 45!
So many things to say about this shot... Remnants of snow at 3200' (in the shade), Cindy's infamous butterfly pants, her two-toned convertible pants worn with only one leg, her butterfly gaiters.  So many classics!
The group spread out over the trail, but with such experienced hikers, we were able to gather back together several times until we reached "the end".  The Southern end of passage 17, the end of our first 13 mile day and the end of the easy, drama free portion of the hike.  But wait, I'm getting ahead of myself ;)

Doug (LtWalker) kicks it back at the campsite for day one, with Stripey Butte in the background.  
Our camp the first night was basically a wide spot in an old jeep road just off the trail junction.  It wasn't very conducive to a large group - but it was homey enough to get us off our feet.  We gathered a bit into smaller groups for dinner, and I felt like I'd still not really had much chance to connect with some of our hikers.  We watched the stars for a while, then I fell asleep.  I was so far away from some of the group, that I didn't even know that Carrie spent the night vomiting.  Or that some time before dawn, Peter and Carrie decided to hike back to the starting point rather than continue on with her being so ill (an excellent if difficult choice).  Or that Corwin had decided that they shouldn't go alone, and that he would also hike out.  

When I learned it all in the morning, I felt terrible that I'd been unable to help more.  I knew Carrie was in good hands, but I felt strange about continuing on with so much of the group dropping out.  Usually, I try to keep the group together no matter what - but in this case it just didn't seem to be the right thing to do. 

And so it was that day 2 began with 2 hiking groups: 3 heading back to the cars at Picketpost, and 7 more venturing further into the wilderness hoping to get to other cars at Kelvin.  Our goal for the day was another 13 miles, which would get us to the 'Gila Corner', where the AZT turns east to follow the Gila River.  

An excellent photo for demonstrating proper trail construction: the line contouring the hillside with proper upslope and downslope.

Trail in Passage 16 coming down from the pass
It was quite a warm day.  We'd filled up our water stores on day 1, about 5 miles before our camp.  That meant that we were being cautious with our consumption for the first part of the day - knowing we'd have to wait until the river until we could top off again - at least 9 miles of walking uphill and downhill in the desert.  It'll make you thirsty... thirsty in fact that you might take 2 gallons of water out of a stash that wasn't yours (evidently) even though that stash was within sight of water in the river.  And perhaps the heat of January was so extreme that you didn't even have the strength to carry out the empty water bottles.  

But at least you had the presence of mind to be thankful.  And a pencil, to write your gratitude on the lid of the empty water jug. 

Or, that's what I imagined happened to whoever it was who stole most of my stashed water.  True, I hadn't done much to 'hide' it - but I figured it was only a few days, it was off the hiker's trail and there was water in the river right there.  Sigh.  

Now I not only had to filter the water I needed from the river (which wasn't the tastiest source ever), but I had to pack out empty water bottles.  Sigh.

Toting our empties along the river banks
I suspect now that some of us probably pushed a little to hard on day 2, not getting quite enough water or taking quite enough of a break in the heat of the day.  76 deg may not be roasting, but when you're working hard in the sun, it'll make you sweat for sure.  Eric and Cindy, who were just getting back into hiking shape from a 2 month break, seemed to have a tough afternoon of it - so I was eager to find us a nice, wet place  to make camp.  

After a few missed communications with the forward group, we finally managed to locate  some prime beach property along the river and made a sweet little camp.  I even got to soak my feet for a little while.  It was Eric's 68th birthday, and Ivanka gathered together some ingredients to make him a most excellent birthday cake - if only he'd been feeling well enough to eat it. 

Happy Birthday to you!

River camp just after dawn

Sunday morning was beautiful.  The sky was dotted with wispy clouds and the trail through the saguaros was magical.  The first half of the day, I spent learning all about the very interesting adventures of Cindy and Eric... The man who'd been shot in the foot (or shot himself in the foot, depending on who tells the story), suffered a major head injury after a motorcycle accident, been hospitalized and nearly died for a ruptured appendix - just for starters!  Heck, if I'd have known all this, maybe I wouldn't have let them come along on the hike, the man is like a ticking time bomb!

But, then, if you really know me, you know I can't resist a good story  ;)

Morning on the trail

The Mineral Mountains spread out ahead of us

Just a note here to explain a pattern I find to be true on nearly every hike I've done - be it 2 days or 10.  The last day, there's always one or two people who just can't get to the end fast enough.  It doesn't matter if it's the most beautiful hike in the world, or if the weather's perfect or if the only thing they have to rush back to is paying bills and bleaching their underwear.  Something about being within sight of that finish line puts spurs to them and off they go.  This trip was no exception.

Part of the group was traveling quite far ahead.  We didn't catch up with them until nearly noon, and it was getting warm.  I think that Eric was unconsciously pushing a little harder than he might have otherwise because he didn't want to hold the others back.  Afterall, it was his car at the exit trailhead, so no one was going anywhere until he got to the end.  

Cindy and I tried to slow him down, but (as I'm sure you can imagine from a highly experienced 68 year old man who's survived what he has already) his stubbornness won out over even his own better judgement.  By lunchtime, he was starting to feel more tired than he wanted to, and there were still many more miles to go.  

Then the trail started to head around the base of "The Spine".  The terrain got rocky and the route started to move up and down, in and out of drainages.  Temperatures were near 80, and there wasn't a stitch of shade in sight.  In other words, the going got tougher, and as the tough, we had an obligation to get going.

Above the river, looking back on the hills we'd come through the day before. 

The base of 'The Spine'...getting rocky!
Jump ahead to 4pm.  Why?  Just do it - the story reads better this way. 

Eric and I are sitting on the trail, literally.  Actually, if I'm being literal, Eric is laying on the trail.  The lead group was sent on ahead more than an hour ago - they couldn't be reigned back any longer.  I've just sent Cindy off to let them know that Eric was still having trouble, and that we were going to take it very, very slow for the last 2-3 miles.  I also sent Cindy off so that Eric would stop fretting about her.  I think he was more worried about not worrying her than he was about his own condition.  Men.

We'd taken about a 40 minute break in the shade when the trail dropped back to the river at the trestle bridge.  Eric, who was beginning to suffer from bouts of severe dizziness and general weakness, was lavished with wet cloths, tubes of electrolyte-rich goo, water and snacks.  The attention was clearly more than he could tolerate.  That's when I sent the lead group off.  I'd hoped that their disappearance would let Eric take things easier, and I think it helped.  

From the river, he, Cindy and I moved slowly through the remaining hills, stopping for several shorter breaks.  Then, Eric's dizziness got worse and we encouraged him to lay down in a tiny spot of shade along the trail.  Cindy and I agreed she should go ahead and she hiked up the hill and around the corner, reminding Eric that he couldn't die because he still needed to clean  out the garage.  

Eric, who I'd learned earlier, had in the last couple of years been given four arterial stents, had already popped 2 nitro tablets and was still suffering from dizziness and weakness, now accompanied by spots in front of his eyes.  

Once Cindy was out of sight, he told me that he thought we should try to call for help.  My relief was tremendous, particularly since I had already determined that I had good cell reception.  So, while Eric tried to avoid the cholla thorns on the trail, I got on the horn to the Pinal County Sheriff's department. 

The train trestle over the Gila 

Afternoon light and nothing to op!
Now, before you all get angry at me for being so flippant when this poor man was clearly very ill right before my eyes, remember that I can say these things lightly because I have the benefit of hindsight.  Eric was quite upset when I told him that Pinal County Search and Rescue was sending out a helicopter.  He felt it was excessive given his condition.  After a lengthy discussion with the deputy, however, it was decided that he would try very slowly to walk out while the helicopter was enroute.  That way, if things deteriorated further, help was already on the way. 

To make a very long story as short as possible (I know, too late), the chopper picked Eric up at approximately 6:15pm, about 2 miles from the cars at the trailhead.  We'd hiked about a mile from the spot where we'd initially called them into some more friendly territory.  It helped tremendously that the sun was low in the sky and the trail was moving down hill once again.  

The helicopter took Eric to the emergency crews in Kelvin where it was determined that he was not in fact experiencing heart failure, but was merely (?) badly dehydrated.  We all agreed that he'd been drinking what we thought would have been enough fluids, but clearly it wasn't enough.  They put him on IV fluids for about a half hour, then sent him on his way with a mild warning about staying hydrated and about a half-gallon of Gatorade.

Our friendly neighborhood SAR 
So, what happened with everyone else?  In the spirit of the summaries at the ends of movies where the director runs out of time before he runs out of ideas...

Peter, Carrie and Corwin (not pictured) hiked back to the cars safely and headed home Friday night.  They were kind enough to drop my car at the finish trailhead which saved everyone a lot of hassle on the last day.  You guys are heros ;)

 Ivanka, Mick, Doug and Sandy hiked out by about 4pm, took my car in to Superior to retrieve Mick's car and grab some food.  Ivanka reported that while she was hungrily eating her salad on the curb outside of Circle-K, a stranger came up to her (unprompted) and offered her a little money so she could buy a soda.  

Nothing like a tough 3-day hike to help you pull of the homeless-beggar look!

Eric got a free chopper ride and a lot of unwanted attention from the very kind folks in Kelvin.  Cindy had the misfortune to see the helicopter come and go without really knowing what was up, since my cell phone lost reception as I got closer to the car (go figure).  

Through it all, both of them kept smiling and were delightful in general.  If you're ever going to have a rescue situation on your hands - these are the kind of folks you want to be with!

And me?  I got to hike out the last 2 miles in the dark...again (I'd hiked it in the dark with Sirena a year before).  

Just as I was breaking into 'Swinging on a Star', Mick found me.  He'd driven up to the trail from the parking area to see if anyone was coming.  Reunited with the rest of the group, we found out where they'd taken Eric and split up for good.  Those ready to go home, went home.  

Me, I went for pizza ;)