Thursday, May 30, 2013

Bagging the Peak, or Ending the Battle of Rincon (Part 1)

There's this peak in Southern known for beauty, epic vistas and a challenging approach.  It's near the top (pardon the pun) of the "prominent" peaks list, along with Mica, Lemmon, Baldy, Wasson and Carr.  You can see it from nearly anywhere in Tucson, and if you're a real Tucson hiker, it will call to you.

If you're like me, a hiker who has attempted but never conquered the summit, it will mock you.  'You call yourself a hiker, woman?', it teases, 'Ha!  You still haven't been up here!'

This year was the year it was going to happen, I told myself.  Never mind that you said the same thing in 2010 and 2012.  Forget that you've tried twice and both times barely made it past the saddle.  That peak is going to be mine, and I will NEVER again be mocked by it's prominence!

'Oh, yes', I swore.  'It will be mine.'

Sirena (who was in a similar state of not-bagged-Rincon-ness) and I watched the conditions, weighed our heavy calendars and debated routes and options.  Most folks hit Rincon on a very long and strenuous day-hike, 16.2 miles round trip and 4,000' of elevation gain long and strenuous.  Sirena and I knew that at this pace, we would make it, but we'd feel rushed the whole way and robbed of the magic that is an overnight in this most beautiful of Sky Islands.  We wanted to make it a backpack, and I really wanted to try to make it a through-hike of the range - using a trail that we had almost no information on (in terms of condition) because it's rarely (if ever) used by members of our hiking societies.  In other words, we made it harder on ourselves because that's pretty much what we do.  We call it 'doing it with style'.  Other people just call it 'crazy'.

Finally, the conditions seemed perfect (before the heat, after the snow, no big wind storms expected), and we set the plan into motion.  It began with a long car shuttle, provided by a good friend of Sirena's, which left us standing at the Miller Creek Trailhead around 2pm with our car at the far side of the mountain range.  There was nothing to do at this point but walk.  And walk.  And walk.

About 2 miles into the hike, you come across the boundary for the park and the trail register.  I suppose they don't want you to stumble into the park without being thankful to your friendly-neighborhood managing agency...
In the past, I've hiked up the Miller Creek trail early in the morning in an effort to avoid the relatively steep climb in the heat.  What I learned over the years is that it's impossible to hit that trail early enough to stay cool - it gets direct morning sun thanks to its unprotected eastern exposure.  This time, we deliberately attempted the trail later in the afternoon, when the sun would be headed behind the massive mountain we were climbing.  I think the strategy is a strong one - we didn't get too hot on our climb and we had amazing photo ops looking east, where the best views are.  We were planning to camp at the saddle campground, so this meant a relatively short 4 mile hike up with plenty of time remaining for dinner and water-hunting (always a challenge in these hills).

Across Happy Valley to Eagle Peak

The trail ducks into a high drainage before reaching the saddle
Saguaro National Park is known for its prolific if confusing trail signage.  This one at Happy Valley Saddle still indicates that the Miller Creek Trail is a part of the AZT, which it is not.  

The new Happy Valley Saddle Campground I found to be nice - spacious, shady, and hosting lots of beautiful pondorosa and old junipers. It's further from the more dependable water sources on the saddle (not that any of these sources are truly 'dependable' in the strictest sense).  Most of the pools were nearer to the old campground, and they were already getting a bit stale and cloudy (in April!).  Thankfully, there were enough that we weren't worried about water - though the quality was questionable so we filtered it carefully (love the gravity filter).  Wandering about looking for fresher water pockets, I chanced upon the outhouse which is VERY well camouflaged and tucked far north of the campground. It's so well hidden, that previous visitors ended up leaving toilet paper (and presumably more) all over the campground rather than using the facility.  A sign would likely solve that problem, but for once the park lacked the sign it needed.  
At Happy Valley Saddle she greets us...Rincon Peak!
Playing the game of "find the outhouse"...Not one I recommend.
Ah - there it is!
Since the campground is new, there was still plenty of readily available firewood, and we had a small fire that was just about for our needs. I had my hammock, and I was a little worried about the temps getting a little lower than I'd planned on, so I placed some hot rocks from the fire underneath it to get a little boost.  Yeah.
Well, here is an important note for those of you who use hot rocks to warm your campsite: keep the synthetic fabric of your sleeping bag off of the hot rocks. It can melt. When it melts, it lets feathers out. Lots of feathers. All over the place.  In the dark, this can be quite confusing and troubling. Then, it takes a lot of duct tape to seal a hole of that size in your very nice, rather expensive sleeping bag. Trust me. Not fun. Hand stitching ensues upon your return to town - exactly my favorite activity...
The next morning, with my sleeping bag well taped and my breakfast in my belly, we began our ascent to Rincon Peak.  Happy Valley Saddle Campground is at approx. 6130', and Rincon Peak is a lofty 8500' - so we had a bit of climbing to do in the 4.25 miles to the top.  As is our general method of attack, Sirena and I enjoyed the climb, stopping often for photos, water and snacks.  The water from the pools we'd found the night before turned out to be pleasant tasting, which was an unexpected surprise, and the day was bright, sunny and dotted with puffy white clouds.  There was a slight breeze that kept us from getting too hot.  Really, it was the perfect day for a climb!
Looking back at the Happy Valley Saddle and the Lookout peak as we begin climbing...
Getting higher and Mica Mountain appears from behind the Happy Valley Lookout...
Tanque Verde Peak becomes prominent to the southwest, and the Catalinas begin to appear behind it (Cathedral Peak)
Sirena contemplates the view as the last of the snow melts and runs off the mountain
The theory is that we're getting why does it still feel so far away?!
The descriptions we'd read of the hike to the peak talked about the final push up being extremely steep - so we kept steeling ourselves for it.  Even as we passed the sign that told us that the remainder of the trail was not suited for livestock, we kept waiting.  As we're climbing this set of forested switchbacks (which, mind you weren't even close to being flat) - we even said to one another "when is it going to get steep?".  I suppose it's a clear indication that your off-trail adventures have become habit when you don't recognize the steep part of a trail when you're standing right on it!
Sirena on the steep switchbacks near the summit - where it was still just a bit snowy.  Snow/ice on steep slopes can be dangerous - but because we were still waiting for the worst, we just flew past it.
Even when we got to the steps right at the summit, we kept fearing that there would be a scramble or steeper climb around the corner.  Thank goodness we were wrong!
So, we made the peak after all.  Years of longing and planning, of feeling inadequate and small all were erased by the magnificent views from this majestic mountain.  We spent more than an hour and a half enjoying perfect weather at the summit before clouds and wind blew in to cool us down and drive us off.  Anyone who tells you that Rincon Peak isn't worth every effort is just plain lying.  This place is AWESOME!
Sirena and I celebrate making the top...each with our own flair.  The massive cairn is a legendary piece of Tucson 'architecture'...
Can you believe my camera took this panorama?  I was impressed!
Labeled Pano 1
Labeled Pano 2
Labeled Pano 3
As we hiked down (now laughing at our own need for steeper routes and scrambling), we felt euphoric and well worn.  We made it back to camp in time to enjoy a beautiful sunset and a delicious (and well deserved) dinner by the campfire.  We knew that the biggest day of the trip would be tomorrow - on the Rincon Creek Trail back down the mountain toward Tucson.  But for now, we could languish in our feelings of success and take in all the glory of the Rincon Mountains.
Heading back to Happy Valley Saddle in the warm afternoon light
Don't go on...ooooohhhh...don't go....
Sunset through the trees
Scary campfire photo with my hiking bestie!

Friday, May 10, 2013

Take Me to the River...

It's well past time for me to play catch-up and get some of my spring adventures written up.  At first I planned to cover them all in one shot: a sort of blog equivalent of the training montage from boxing films.  But it just wouldn't do justice to the amazing things I've seen and done this spring, so I'll just have to concentrate on hammering them out one at a time.  It's a great way to avoid grading the papers that always come in this time of the semester.

Earlier this year, I decided to re-create a trip I'd done back in 2009 taking canoes down the Colorado river below Hoover Dam.  It's a pretty amazing trip, and because it involves boats I was able to convince my Dear Husband (the DH) to come along.  I selected dates that were a little later in the season than my first trip (which was in February), because it was so frigid during that first adventure that I was too cold to take my layers off and get in the hot springs, which is sort of what the whole trip is about.  Unfortunately, it was also spring break and...

Wait a  minute, go back - you say - did you mention hot springs?  

Ah yes, my good friends, there are hot springs in the side canyons below the dam.  Many hot, beautiful pools in narrow, twisting canyons just waiting for a little explore-and-soak action!

Boy Scout Canyon Hot Springs in 2009
Maybe I must go back just a little further to really give this entry a proper start.  Way, way back...around 1920.  It was about this time that the Bureau of Reclamation decided to begin attacking the 'problem' of the annual floods along the Colorado River by building the tallest dam the world had ever seen.  The need was dictated by new farming communities that were popping up in the desert like poppies after a rainstorm.  Though they depended almost entirely upon the river for water for their crops, they also lived in fear of it's tremendous floods, which carried so much silt from the mountains and canyons to the north that it was famously called "too thin to farm, too thick to drink".  To make the lowlands of the Imperial Valley in California and Yuma, Arizona productive for agriculture, the floods had to be controlled.  Further, all the power of those massive floods could be harnessed to provide electricity for the growing cities of the West.  And certainly not least, the water impounded by a dam could be sent into planned canals and aqueducts to become irrigation and drinking water to supply a hungry population.  After much deliberation, Black Canyon was an ideal location - far enough down river to control all of the flood volume before it reached the farmlands, and with ideal geological conditions.  

The massive Colorado River watershed
Construction of Hoover Dam began in 1931 and was completed ahead of schedule and under budget in February of 1935.  (For more of the fascinating story of the building of the dam, visit the NPS history here.)  The waters of the wild and muddy Colorado began to back up behind the dam quickly, dropping their silt and turning to the deep blue-green that we see in Lake Mead today.  As anticipated by politicians and engineers, it meant an end to the drought-and-flood pattern of life for Imperial Valley farmers, a boon for recreation in an arid desert and a (by some standards) cheap source of energy for the new cities of the West.   I will save a diatribe on the harmful effects of the damming of the Colorado for another time (though if you're a glutton, you can visit my post on the Tamarisk invasion here).

Found on the internet as an iphone wallpaper.  Not a bad example of the new color of the Colorado River.
There were, however, smaller and un-anticipated consequences, and it was one these miniature miracles that we were enjoying along out trip: hot springs.   The millions of tons of pressure created by the impounded lake water forces water through even the most minute cracks in the rocks lining the lake.  Pushed through these fissures, the water wanders through the unseen world of the rocks, coming into contact with some of the geologic hot-spots that still exist deep in the volcanic layers.  Eventually it makes its way out to the surface - often in small canyons or caves.  These steaming pools can be anywhere from 130deg f to a more managable 100 depending on how close the water is to the hot spot and how much cooler water is mixed with it below and above the surface.  

It makes for a human playground like no other, and because of the relative difficulty of reaching the spot, it's one you can usually enjoy with little distraction.  Usually.

Soaking in the warmer eddies where a hot waterfall enters the cold river water
But I get ahead of myself yet again.  First, we had to get on the river.  In order to put in below the dam, you need a special permit.  This is due to the fact that you are, indeed, right below one of the most iconic structures in the United States.  On the list of facilities that have been identified as potential terror targets, Hoover is near the top, and though most experts agree that compromising the structure of the dam would be nearly impossible for a conventional attack, every precaution is taken to avoid the risk.  This includes only letting a relatively small number of screened individuals down to the launch site at a time and only with the help of specially licenced concessioners.  What that means for us: we hired a company (in this case Desert Adventures) to not only rent us canoes and gear, but also to get us into the river just below the dam.  Key to this: no paddling upstream necessary (unless we really, really wanted to).  The perfect lazy-mans vacation!  Too bad my lazy-man (the DH) ended up having to work and missed the whole trip.  Always sad, but such is the life of a theater widow.

Day 1:
We started over an hour and a half behind schedule because of a mixup with the group ahead of us, and an overlap with the day-trip-tours that launch from the same spot.  It was chaos, but who doesn't love a little chaos on their isolated wilderness adventure?  (um, this girl here <----->

Waiting for the guide service in the parking lot.  Accommodations could have been better here...

Putting in just below the dam and it's spillways.

When we visited in 2009, the bridge was still in construction, so it was pretty darned cool to see it finished from below.  If you haven't been on the bridge yet, don't worry - you really aren't missing much.  It's such a safe bridge that you never even feel that you're on one.  Concrete barriers prevent most passenger vehicles from seeing more than the roadway right in front of you, and there is no arching slope like you find on longer bridges such as the Golden Gate in San Francisco to give you a sense of your height.  Don't worry, though, there's also a pull-out with an over designed visitor center which leads you to a pedestrian walkway along the lake side of the bridge (from which, if you're less than 6' tall, you can still pretty much see only concrete barriers).  

The best view is DEFINITELY from down here!

2009 view of bridge in hubby was on this first trip

2013 View of the bridge complete with my new boating partner Lil

Bridge walkway from my trip in 2011 - an excellent view of concrete if you ask me.
Our boats finally loaded to bear and in the water (who wants to be frugal when you've got a vessel that will carry 3000lbs?), we started downstream.  The heat of the day must've meant a higher electricity demand, because water was just tearing out of the dam.  Maneuvers that I'd made easily on our first trip were unthinkable on this flow.  We rocketed past a couple of the places I'd wanted to stop.  Luckily, we all managed to pull into Sauna Cave - where the hottest water of the trip, often close to 132deg f!  That's hot enough to burn yourself if you're not careful...

Lil in steamy Sauna Cave (photo by Angela Romain)
The next stop was Gold Strike Canyon Hot Springs, which I really enjoyed the previous visit.  It's a narrow canyon, twisting and turning through the volcanic rock, with hot water flowing just inches deep along the sandy bottom.  Unfortunately, Lil and I blew past it, and the current was far to fast for us to paddle back up it.  I'm sure we made quite an amusing site, paddling with all we had in the eddy only to stay in exactly the same place for several minutes.  It felt like a treadmill in the water!  We gave up and crossed the river to Lone Palm Canyon along with the other boats that missed Gold Strike.  At Lone Palm, there's a warm waterfall straight into the river, it's in the shade that time of day, and there are excellent views of the bridge.  It was an ideal spot to sit, wait and enjoy the day.  

The bridge from Lone Palm Canyon

A loaded canoe and a waterfall - ingredients for a good day!
The rest of the crew managed to skillfully paddle across the current to meet up with us, but as there wasn't a dry anchorage, we decided to head down canyon just a bit further to Boy Scout Canyon to enjoy our lunches.  Another fun slot canyon with scrambling, warm water and great fun to be had.  

Navigating slick waterfalls in Boyscout Canyon (photo by Angela Romain)

Left behind below the falls - for now (photo by Angela Romain)
From the put-in to Boy Scout Canyon is only about 2-3 miles of the 6 mile we planned to paddle that day, and it was already well past 2pm when we were pulling out.  I knew, though, that the big drama of day 1 was over - from here it was a good paddle through some beautiful wide canyon scenery to our prospective campsite at Arizona Hot Springs Beach.  Though I figured it would be the most crowded spot on the River (since it has hot springs, a trail to the road and a toilet), I hoped that the amenities would be worth the competition.  

But I suppose I forgot.  It was, afterall, Spring Break.  (shakes head slowly and the rocks rattle...)

Nothing like a little Colorado River action to put things in perspective

After we arrived at the beach, we made room for our own boats among the crowd and set to some serious snacking, drinking and sheep-watching (they were on the far canyon wall)
Big Horn Sheep families (zoom photo by Angela Romain)
A few of us decided to go up and check out these famous hot springs that everyone raves about.  I'd missed them on my first trip due to the cold (as I mentioned) and because I was with the DH, who is a famous killjoy on any sort of fun activities involving being IN water.  I must admit, they aren't quite as magical as the springs I visit in New Mexico, but they're pretty nice.  The rock walls hold in heat well, and the effect is more of a hot bath in a sauna then just your usual outside hot spring.  I must admit, it helps if you bring your own iced cocktail.

Hiking back to the soaking tub is an adventure all itself...

I believe the BLM installed this impressive ladder to keep folks safe reaching the upper pool.  Thank goodness, because that's a very slippery fall!

Soaking in the AZ Hot Springs slightly cooler middle pool (I'd estimate 102deg).  Around the corner is the much hotter one - closer I'd say to 105 or 106.  Definitely not for the faint of heart!
We settled in for the night, with a nice campfire (we'd brought our own wood) and yummy grub.  We had quite a few neighbors, some of whom evidently make it a tradition to spend St. Patties' day in this particular spot.  They had planned a talent show/karaoke jamboree for the evening.  They even brought amplifiers and microphones (because you need those in narrow canyons in the silent desert).  We waited until after 10pm to ask them to be be quiet, then just tried our best to sleep through the rest.  

I'd have been more upset about it...but what was the point.  When the older gentleman camped near me decided to leave the show behind and begin playing his bad 80's remake mix tape and cry about his deceased wife I gave up.  Can't be mad at people for being people.  Well - not the first night, anyhow.

Day 2: 
The next morning was beautiful - bright sun and a glassy river.  We knew the current was still strong, though, and we changed our plans from paddling upstream ('cause that went so well on day 1) to hiking up the White Rock Canyon trail to the highway.  We hoped to come down the Petroglyph Canyon trail, but none of our maps were very clear as to exactly what that might look like.  A few of the more hardy river-types hit the river to paddle upstream, a few stayed behind to enjoy the beach, and six of us headed up the trail.  

Looking upstream in the morning - one of the sightseeing boats heading up to pick up its passengers

The water was very beautiful that morning - though still moving quick!

Hiking up in the narrow White Rock Canyon

The hike turned out to be a delight.  The hot day was tempered by the fact that the narrow canyon provided constant shade, and by the easy grade.  It was just so fun, we sort of forgot to get tired!  It wasn't until we reached the top of White Rock Canyon that we started to think that we were working hard enough to think about water and food.  So, when we couldn't easily locate the Petroglyph trail heading back down, we made the call to retrace our steps through White Rock.  We hadn't brought a ton of water or food, so wandering about aimlessly in the hot desert was just not as appealing as it might have been had we been loaded down...or, maybe we were just looking for a fun easy day.  

I'll let you decide which ;)

Near the top of White Rock Canyon the interesting geology continues

Close up of the cool conglomerate rocks

I think Lil and Jamie are glad this fell before they came by!

Someone had way too much time on their hands...and this time it wasn't me!
We got back into camp at about 1pm, and promptly either found some shade to hide in or sat ourselves down in the river to cool off.  At about 3pm, a troop of boy scouts pulled in.  And by a troop, I think I mean at least 4 dens worth - about 60 scouts of all ages, sizes and dispositions.  It felt more than a little like an invasion party as they paddled up to the beach and began descending upon the already crowded camping area.  One of our group, Karen, decided that not even hordes of boy scouts were going to ruin her relaxation on the shore, and she steadfastly remained in her spot - despite being nearly run over several times by boats full of boys!

Karen holds her ground amid the Boy Scout Landing Party (Photo by Ed Peregaux)

The invasion fleet - later the boats would get stacked into very tidy, tall bundles.  Of course, the bundles had to be re-stacked when the "tide" came up in the evening... Sigh.

So, what was already a crowded beach became a over-crowded one.  The scouts were determined to camp as a single unit, and in their efforts to do so, nearly knocked over some of our tents and pushed a few of our campers out of their sites.  I'd like to say that they were at least polite about it, but I was shocked at just how inconsiderate the scouts themselves as well as their adult leaders really were.  It was not a good day for my opinion of the organization. 

We made another trip up to the hot springs before it got invaded by the boys (at least the troop leaders exerted some control there and only let the scouts go up in groups of 10).  The we settled in for another loud evening of karaoke, scouts walking back and forth to the bathroom (noisy in deep gravel) and the bustle of people who aren't used to being outside.  Sigh.   This time, I was angry at people for being people - but even more powerless to do anything about it.  Next time, I promised myself, I'm camping somewhere else - hot springs or no!

Cocktail hour at Hot Springs beach means hiding from the scouts in the shade...

Jamie and Sean hit the water Sunday morning
Sunday morning we hit the water later than expected in order to get well behind the scouts (who's leaders evidently talked them into a pretty early departure).  It turned out to be a good choice, as we had the river to ourselves for the most part.  It was also St.Patrick's day, and we did no miss the chance to celebrate by holding our boats together in what became known as the "Irish Flotilla", passing about flasks of Jamesons and Bailey's and toasting the fact that we may have had the most unusual Patties' day party afloat!
The Irish Flotilla basks in the shade of the cliff walls (Photo by Ed Peregaux)
Breaking at a nice beach for lunch.  Nothing like a kick-back day!

My boat had the COOLEST name...
The last two noted sites noted on the map are the Emerald Cave and the Catwalk to the old Gauging Station.  I was excited to visit these again, as last time I didn't have a camera (or lighting conditions) that could do the cave itself justice.  It's been on the cover of just about every outdoors magazine there is, mostly because it's so photogenic.  It's pretty in person, too, of course - but when you're just looking at a good picture of it,  you can imagine being just about anywhere except in the middle of one of the most arid regions in North America!

Taking turns boating into the cave felt a bit like being in the Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland... 

The shot I'd been waiting for !!!  Booyah!
The sunny conditions, while perfect for the cave itself, were less ideal for catching photos of people on the I'll just put one in from my previous trip to give you an idea of what that looks like (just as last time, I didn't venture out onto the rickety old walkway...I'm just not that over my fear of heights). 
2009 Trip - Brave souls on the catwalk.  The cave at river level is Emerald Cave.

The year from the wood planks...I believe that's me in the boat below.  (Photo by Angela Romain)
Finally, it was time to paddle up the now completely calm lake water to Willow Beach for our take out.  This is always the tough part, as there is so much less to look at, and you're generally tired of rowing anyhow.  But, we made it just fine and the outfitters were already there loading up another group.  Unfortunately, this meant that they didn't have enough room for our gear on their trailers.  Again, not impressed by this outfitter.

We ended up leaving 1/2 of our group behind with the gear while the drivers went back up to the casino to fetch our cars.  A few of us stopped for dinner on the way home in Kingman at a fantastic joint called the  "Dambar" (the play on words was played out throughout their dam menu).  

When we arrived back in Phoenix late that night we were tired and a bit sun-fried, but completely in love with this part of the mighty Colorado River.  And just a little bit wiser about planning trips during spring break...