Thursday, July 20, 2017

Bikepacking: The Poop Loop

Bikepacking: The Poop Loop
Sometimes adventure is flying by the seat of your pants, stretching time, letting the wind rip the sail of expectation to shreds, and clearing your spectrum of all blur and clutter. So, when I started bikepacking, the Poop Loop sat in the recesses of my mind. I knew if everything clicked there was a potential for something bigger and longer, like I knew something would have to satiate my drive and wanderlust. 
After 2016's 6.5 months and 6000 miles of hiking----the Sky Islands Traverse, the PCT, and the CDT----a nagging injury attributed to overuse developed over the Winter. My left foot developed plantar fasciitis in two separate places and the pain that blossomed was severe enough to cancel my hiking plans for the Spring and Summer of 2017. Emotionally, after hiking last year, I was drained. The culmination of the physicality of such an endeavor that resulted in the overuse injury, as well as many intestinal issues, simply wore my brain down. After a seemingly careening emotional Winter, eventually I understood that only I have control over my emotions and my situation. So, I decided to experience the outdoors differently, to adventure and enjoy life a different way. 

So, on April 4th, I went down to Aloha Mountain Cyclery in Carbondale and bought a bike. Well, I ordered a bike, and with conversations with the staff, as well as fellow long distance hiker and bikepacker Charlie Day Hiker, I ordered a bike to my specs and a simplicity that would suffice the terrain I would encounter and the knowledge base I had, which was limited. Two weeks later my bike was ready. I quite literally rode the bike twice before even embarking on the AZT. 
I started from the AZT on 5/1 not knowing what to expect. I had dreadful fears of what I would do during maintenance failures or occurrences, like a shredded side wall on a tire, a broken chain, among others. Heck, I didn't even know if I would enjoy bikepacking. However, deep down inside I have a strong belief in my will power and my instincts for long distance human powered travel, so I knew I had a fighter's chance. My experience backpacking and exploring routes in faraway places, and spending countless hours outside are an advantage I have even over the most experienced bikepackers. My gear is very light, I have simple needs, and I have a motor that seemingly doesn't want to stop. All that being said, my goals were one to two days out, keeping them close at hand to not to overstep any boundary until I could confidently assess the adventure, as well as my injured foot. Basically, I had a blank slate. And I could start over at any time----and that time then was now.

Below are stats from the trip, details, as well as gear and tips info, goals and mental transition from backpacking to bikepacking.
  • Route: The Poop Loop

  • Timeframe: 
    • 5/1-7/9
    • 70 days total
    • 9 zero mileage days
    • 61 riding days
  • Mileage:
    • Total: ~5190.5m 
    • ~2688.5m North
    • ~2502m South
    • 74mpd at 70 total days
    • 85mpd at 61 riding days
  • States:
    • AZ: ~869m
    • UT: ~474m
    • NV: ~583m
    • ID: ~745m
    • MT: ~886m
    • WY: ~438.5m
    • CO: ~537.5m
    • NM: ~657.5m
  • Route Details:
    • Using the AZT mountain bike north from the Mexico terminus including a 25m hike across the Grand Canyon; parts of Aquarius Trail, Comstock Epic, Pony Express Trail, my Great Basin Traverse, ICT, Idaho Hot Springs Mtn. Bike Route; plus my own route design going north to Canada border at Roosville MT.
    • Using the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route south while having diversions at a few points to go in and out of towns to visit friends; then depart GDMBR from Silver City NM to cross the Chihuahua Desert and back to the AZT terminus at the Mexico border.

  • Maps and Navigation:
    • Guthook App for the AZT, the mountain bike beta and version.
    • Benchmark Atlas books of each state, excluding the southbound route.
    • Gaia GPS app for uploading GDMBR southbound.
  • Comments on Route creating and Navigation:
    • Benchmark Atlases gave a very good perspective on potential recreation areas and public lands with a surprisingly good scope on little used dirt roads. Couple that with a very familiar and intimate knowledge of the intermountain-desert-basin region I felt confident in finding ways and a route that was little traveled.
    • Because of my extensive experience backpacking and creating new routes I wanted the northbound route to, in a way, be just as wild on a bike as with hiking. This, however, is nigh impossible with the well-thought out wilderness regulations from the Wilderness Act of 1964. So, I couldn't go to the most wild places on a bike, which, I believe is certainly fair with the overall impact on the land and wildlife. I digress, and maybe I'll speak on that topic later on down the line. 
    • I wanted loneliness in a vast region, empty, away from the typical culture of whatever I thought bikepacking was and is, which is to say is the same as my backpacking motivations. So, in essence, my northbound route turned out to be much more difficult than the southbound route consisting of the GDMBR. I won't sugar coat: the GDMBR is hyped up as something way more wild and rough than it actually is. I admit I have a bias, especially after hiking the rugged CDT 2x, as well as not doing the route in a racing fashion, which I am certain would make the route way tougher, but I was surprised at the amount of pavement and the crowds. I think I also didn't like being within a documented route. I wanted my own creativity and instincts to dictate where I went, which I believe creates a more organic experience. To me, I just felt too conforming to actually be on a route that others were on. Maybe it was my state of mind, or because what I had established ethically and personally going northbound, or my experience on other popular and crowded long distance hiking trails where I typically stay away from the herd. Most likely all three influenced my route going both directions.
  • Mountain Bike:
    • Surly Karate Monkey
    • Revelate Design bag systems, including the Sweet Roll Handle Bar Bag, Viscacha Seat Bag, Tangle Frame Bag, Gas Tank Cock Pit Bag, (2x) Mountain Feed Bags
    • DaKine Hydration Pack

  • Gear:
    • See my Gear List for Adventures. I definitely tried to keep my gear simple and use what I already had in place. The idea I had was to keep the mountain bike as simple as possible, to let the bike do all the work while letting this newbie the role to just pedal and hold on. So, with that in mind, my complete set up with the bike, frame bags, and gear, everything weighed between 40-45lbs. Going southbound on the GDMBR I noticed other mountain bikes and riders with huge set-ups, like bags everywhere and tons of non-necessary gear. So, I typically saw set-ups of over 60lbs. At first while going southbound I kept wondering why most were walking their bikes up climbs on decent roads. Then it dawned on me that it was their weight that inhibited them from being efficient, and maybe their overall experience level within the light weight gear culture. I don't know, it actually is whatever floats your boat and I wasn't judging. I really was simply enjoying mashing up the uphills and flying down the downhills while keeping on my bike the whole day. 
    • This, and my light weight, philosophy, in particular from backpacking, translated really well into bikepacking and eased my fears and stress levels when it came to maintenance on the bike. I constantly looked for ways to be more efficient, find multiple uses for gear to limit gear, relied on my efficiency of resupply and self-reliance of going into strange towns to look for items.

  • Tips:
    • When setting up my YAMA Mountain Gear Cirriform 1P tarp I used the handlebars to be the prop-up for the pinnacled lower end of the tarp. I laid down the bike and angled it to be under the apex of the lower end of the tarp. Rather than the usual staking out the two sides first, I staked out one side, then staked out the middle crux. This left the open side adjustable and became easier to roll over the handlebars. I also brought along Gossamer Gear's LT5 trekking pole, which at 5.3oz. double as a functional tool for hiking across the Grand Canyon where bikes aren't allowed, as well as pitching up the higher pinnacle of my tarp. The LT5 fit snugly and out of the way with a Gossamer Gear ThinLight 1/8 inch foam pad on the outside of the Sweet Roll.
    • Quilts make sense on a bikepacking adventure. Katabatic Gear's Palisade 30 worked perfectly and fit ideally into the Sweet Roll. In fact, I had all my camping gear in the Sweet Roll: quilt, tarp, sleeping pad, Montbell Superior Down Jacket, tights, and socks.
    • Unlike in hiking when you think you've got enough food for a stretch of trail, bikepacking is somewhat opposite. I immediately realized this and discarded about a dozen bars and a couple dinners. In actuality, you can hit a restaurant at least once a day, let alone a convenience store of some sort. A few times I even had breakfast, lunch and dinner at restaurants all in one day and still hit the 120m mark.
    • I used a pair of Altra Olympus rather than using a clipless pedal system. Mainly, this was because of my injured foot which couldn't handle the inflexibility within the limited foot movement of the system. However, in the end, I was glad to have a very cushioned shoe to hike-a-bike in during difficult or snow-clad sections of trail, as well as to have something around camp to loaf around in as well as for town to walk around in. Plus, this meant I didn't have to carry or find additional storage space for a pair of shoes. Like in ultralight backpacking I wanted gear that performed two functions.
    • Having a worn experience and comfort level in regards to water really helped me in finding and drinking water. Having hiked in very remote places I have been accustomed to drinking water others would scoff at, as well as having a very sensitive nose for finding water sources and how to use rural tanks. This meant I frequently had less water on my person. In fact, the most I carried was between 4 liters. Depending on temperature and terrain I could attain between 50-60 miles between sources.
    • Keep your gear simple and know your limits and comfort level before going out. A bikepacking set-up has a ton of pockets and moving parts. So, develop a routine for packing to keep things organized and efficient. This saved me headaches when it was cold in the mornings, or wet, or hot in the afternoons, or even in town when I needed items, like a wallet, immediately. Although bikepacking can seem easier than backpacking, the packing of gear and organization of gear is much more simpler while backpacking.
    • Ok, here it goes, 2 nagging questions:
      • What do you like more, bikepacking or backpacking?
        • Ultimately, my heart is in backpacking, however, bikpacking is in my future with ideas of mixed adventures brewing. Certain environments and landscapes lend itself naturally to bikepacking. So, I envision places like Central Asia, South Africa, or Australia to name a few. In the broad scope of both endeavors, I can go farther into places with backpacking. Additionally, I will assess myself emotionally before tackling adventures in the future to see what I need at that time to fulfill me emotionally and physically.
      • Which is harder, bikepacking or backpacking?
        • By far, backpacking is way harder. Now, excluding the 5% when bikpacking can be excruciating slow and hard, bikepacking is just easier. If you get a good bike and set-up the bike does alot of the work for you. Momentum is your very best friend out there on the bike. Indeed, I definitely felt less strain on the body while biking than hiking. There just seems to be less pounding on the body. The bike itself carries more of the weight with gear, food, and water, as well as parts designed to absorb impact such as wheels which lessen overall body impairment. Additionally, my hunger wasn't as ravenous while biking as with hiking, which leads me to believe I burn way more calories on foot than on the saddle. Hiking is constantly moving and putting strain on the body, while bikepacking there are instances where you can rest while the bike is still attaining 10-15mph, like on a long coast of a downhill. Funny observation: the need for showers is greater while biking than hiking, mainly to rid the taint and nether regions of salt and other slimy liquids.

  • Goals and Mindset between Backpacking and Bikepacking:
    • A wonderful complement to bikepacking is the mental shift from drifting in thought at 3mph while backpacking to focusing 30ft in front of you. It's like this: I needed something to get my mind of my nagging foot injury. With riding a big bike, not only did my foot not hurt, but I couldn't drown in my emotional thought process that had been plaguing me over the Winter. If I drifted in my mind too far while riding the consequences of crashing became really real. I had to maintain a focus that was present in the fleeting and changing moment. 
    • Bikepacking seemed less poetic than backpacking. I felt like I was able to work really hard all day, like a long workout, and pedal things and emotions into the ground. The more I kept pedaling the more freer I felt from the emotional strain of the injury that had been nagging me. At times, I felt like a warrior flying on a strong magical horse across an open landscape with the roaring wind and going into some invisible battle.
    • Timing. This took some adjustment in comprehending. So much so, I am still constantly amazed at how far you can travel, how quickly, on a mountain bike. At times, especially in the beginning of this adventure, I became exhausted and 60m seemed a world away. But because you had to keep that 30ft vision along with the aid of wind or a downhill, 60m would come in a flash. I remember this astonishing feeling bringing a smile to my face. Sometimes while backpacking you can get bombarded or bogged down by mileage of what's ahead or what you are averaging. With bikepacking things flow quicker and a 100m goes in a snap as opposed to a lingering 3-6 days backpacking. I mean, I basically did the same mileage of the PCT and CDT, 173 days combined in one year, in half the time on a mountain bike, 71 days. Still unfathomable to me as I write this.
    • As when backpacking is tediously slow with involved and challenging terrain, bikepacking can be even more so. Hike-a-biking may be one of the most excruciating and exhausting exercises out there, especially in hot temperatures and very rugged and hilly terrain. So, at times when bikepacking lent a powerful and quick way of travel, the opposite would occur. Most of the times with hiking you can float between a 2-4mph range, even in very challenging terrain. With bikepacking the range is huge, maybe even going from 5-6mph to 30mph. I saw with some instances of hike-a-biking I averaged and toiled 2mph.
    • I struggled with my senses not being as sensitive or heightened while bikepacking as is common while hiking. The roar of the wind and the speed of travel dims and filters out the smaller noises: the rustlings and rufflings, the birdcalls, a trickle of water, a scurry in a leafy pile and thicket. Eventually, I just accepted the newer way with bikepacking and, as with everything after some practice, everything slowed down. I heard the smaller noises, maybe not with as much volume and clarity, but I still did and my brain began to comprehend what I was hearing.
    • The bikepacking scene is very similar to the backpacking scene, especially within the herd. However, I did notice a more social presence and forced interaction with non-bikepacking people. I think for a couple reasons: riding a bike is more relate-able to people than backpacking, and the ability to hit towns, even multiple towns, every day. Now, when I venture out on a personal mission having alone time, isolation, and solitude is very important for me. I saw some attitudinal traits within me come out differently while bikepacking. Frankly, the amount of people interaction was a bit too much for me in those shorter gaps between towns. Usually while backpacking I relish the 3-6 days of being out while the excitement for social interactions and town days only grow. With bikepacking I didn't have time to process one town visit before I was even in another town. To say I was grumpy or even more elusive and aloof on some town visits while bikpacking is an understatement. My favorite times were the alone times, just me and my bike in an enormous landscape with no one around.

  • Highlights:
    • The Great Basin, from western Utah to Nevada. Epic, vast, and lonesome landscape great for bikepacking. I also rode with Snot, a fellow long distance hiker and maniac, in Nevada for some 250m. In a lot of ways I wish he kept riding with me. I truly enjoyed his company.
    • Friends: Li Brannfors at the Grand Canyon, Steve Roberts in Escalante UT, Cliff and then Ory in Montana, Disco and POD in Salida CO, Roger for an awesome encounter in Cuba NM, and Sirena in and around the Tucson AZ area including the Poop Loop southern terminus.
    • Wildlife: the large wild horse herds in the Great Basin, the dodging of elk at dusk in the high plains in NM, the grizzly bear I spooked in the Swan River Range in MT, the 2 mountain lions laying in the dirt road directly in front of me 45m south of Steamboat Springs CO.
    • Elk River ID. I spent my 40th birthday here. The locals treated me kindly with cold beer, elk steak, root beer moonshine, and riding ATVs under a full moon. Then, a day later I unexpectedly rode from Idaho into Montana under the Bitteroot Divide through an old railroad tunnel about 2m long.
    • The flow of the ride, all of it.
  • Thanks:
    • Gossamer Gear, Katabatic Gear, YAMA Mountain Gear
    • Bike shops along the way for all the knowledge they lent me: Bristlecone Bikes in Elko, The Garage in Helena, SubCulture Cyclery in Salida, and Aloha Mountain Cyclery in Carbondale for the dope build.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Sky Islands Traverse

Sky Islands Traverse:


The Madrean Archipelago is a vast and vital ecosystem around southeast Arizona, southwest New Mexico, and northern Mexico. The Chihuahua and Sonora Deserts sprawl this remote region like an ocean of sand, of rock, of grasslands, of pokey and spiny desert fauna. Within this ocean lie mountain ranges that span thousands of feet skyward from the desert floor to the mountain tops. These ranges draw in rain and snow clouds which provide crucial water to the surrounding ecosystem. This region is where the temperate and tropical zones meet providing ample water in the form of monsoons. Abundant diversity in wildlife and fauna adapt and thrive within a few thousand steep feet above. However, the virtual sea of the desert can pose a major obstacle to a landlocked organism from one mountain range to another. From atop one of these ranges one can visualize the mountain ranges resembling an archipelago, or the Sky Islands. I set out this Spring to connect 10 of the Sky Islands in one of the most important ecosystems in North America, all within southeast Arizona.

The Route:

Credit to pioneering such a challenging route and conceptualizing the Sky Island Traverse (SkIT) goes to Brett Tucker, who is widely known for the Grand Enchantment Trail, a 750m route from Albuquerque to Phoenix. His website gives an in depth summary of the SkIT. Here's a link for a more thorough background.

The 520m corkscrew route starts at the Cochise Stronghold in the Dragoon Mountains, then follows the San Pedro River Corridor lined with giant cottonwoods, birds galore, and running water all within a desert valley. The Huachucas near and from the valley floor you climb up to some 9,000ft to the crest only to plummet some 4,000ft below to the Canelo Hills. The SkIT coincides with the Arizona Trail at this point and heads for the Santa Rita Mountains. Then a pretty desert jaunt filled with saguaro and ocotillo to the broad Rincons, steeply up and down and across another high valley and into the Santa Catalinas. The SkIT diverts from the AZT at Summerhaven, at this point. From here the route gets more remote, more rugged, and less defined. The Galiuros and the Santa Teresa highlight the ruggedness and the spirit of this isolated and chiseled country, including a scramble up into Redfield Canyon. After your overgrown thrashing you ascend very high into the alpine country of the Pinalenos, which may have lingering snow. After an undulating traverse of the eastern flanks of the Pinalenos the SkIT takes a more cross country approach through more desert mountain ranges. The Dos Cabezas Range promote grit and toughness. The cattle I saw in this range are the most athletic cattle I have seen anywhere, jumping up boulder strewn ravines and canyon walls. After the Dos Cabezas spits you out the Chiricahua await. Rough and tumble, fire ravaged and remote, you walk under the splendor of Cochise's Head in the north, then hit the high country at Rustlers Park. The route sticks to the crest where one can see all 10 Sky Island mountain ranges you have just traversed, some 500m. A true splendor indeed. Down birdsong Cave Creek and up to the Silver Peak Lookout near Portal, AZ for the finish.


I hike for a connection---with the environment, with a themed route, with the culture of an area, and most importantly nature. After hiking the Arizona and Grand Enchantment Trails as part of the Vagabond Loop in 2013, I felt the presence of a larger landscape, an immense ecosystem, something bigger that I needed to explore in Sky Island country. The AZT and GET explore some part of the Sky Islands, but I needed more, something to tie it all together, the deserts and the mountains. I found the Sky Island Traverse on Tucker's website. From there I simply waited for the right time to attempt this route.

There's something else too. A theme, a route I can delve into history, that I can connect with the past. The SkIT seemed to fit the bill. It did. The route is a very historical and educable featuring Native American culture, the Cochise and the Apache Wars, the Old West, mining, and, most interestingly enough, biological diversity in wildlife and fauna. The SkIT fulfilled my thirst of knowledge within a long distance hike.

Route Difficulty:

The SkIT is a legit long distance hike. In some respects, for the 520m hiked seemed tougher than the whole 750m hiked on the GET. There may be various reasons for that but the sheer ruggedness, elevation profile, and a high bushwhacking propensity all compacted in a shorter mileage seem to etch a firm reason. In particular, the last 6 mountain ranges---the Santa Catalina, Santa Teresa, Galiuros, the Pinalenos, Dos Cabezas, and the Chiracahua, all strung together in the last 250m or so pose a huge and rewarding challenge. Excellent navigation skills are a must and a need to be a little bit of a glutton for punishment is a must. After the well-groomed AZT, the SkIT's route follows very overgrown paths full of catclaw, mesquite, and other prickly plants, and bushwhacks up remote canyons, ridges and saddles without a trail in burned country, let alone overgrown.


Tucker's website has a great set for the route, as well as a Data Book, which I highly recommend using.


The SkIT took me a hard 20 days, with 2 consecutive zero days due to an illness midway through the hike. Expect to take up to a month to complete this very challenging route. Averaging 25mpd in this environment is equivalent to mid-30s on the PCT. Please do not take this rugged route lightly. 

I recommend a mid to late March tramp. Early April is sufficient if you are an efficient and in-shape hiker. Any earlier than the timeframe mentioned you can expect snow above 9,000ft, especially the Pinalenos, while on the other hand, if you start later than mentioned you can expect the sweltering heat of the desert stretches.


While there are options, few exist, and amenities in each stop are rare save for Patagonia. The first 250m has better cell coverage and is closer to civilization. The last 250m are 'out there.' Here's what I did:

•Patagonia, mile 0-119. Groceries, restaurants, and a place to stay.

•Summerhaven, mile 119-246. Post Office and a restaurant. Small general store too.

•Klondyke, mile 246-322. Very specific package delivery instructions. No services. See Tucker's website for explicit details!

•Bowie, mile 322-436. Post Office, a mini mart, 2 gas stations. That's it. 9m hike or hitch. I did both.

•Portal, mile 436-520. Lodge and cafe. Not much else. Good food though!


Brett Tucker is known to me as the 'Water Whisperer.' He seems to create routes with readily sources of flowing or other forms of accessible water. I treated my water while filling up in the San Pedro River and a few other earthen cow tanks in the desert south of I10 on the AZT. Almost every other source I drank untreated. I was surprised at the actual amount of flowing water on the SkIT. Twice I carried 3 gallons, the most I carried at any given time. That being said, I am a relative dromedary and even though water sources are plentiful along the SkIT, taking proper precaution and planning ahead may serve a hiker well in still a 'desert' region.

Also, water resources are vital to the Sky Island Ecosystem. Please take care of the sources and try not to pollute the sensitive watering holes. You're not the only one out in this area who needs this precious resource.


•Lonesomeness. Spending time alone in such a vast and isolated country was exactly what I needed. Open skies, my thoughts, reflection, rough and challenging country--that's it.

•Social encounters. I hardly saw anyone out there. But I enjoyed chatting up a few AZT hikers. On my first day on trail I met a family in the Dragoons, pretty far out there in the country under some huge rock formations. I had wished I had only met them in the evening. Then, I could've camped with them. Fast forward two weeks later and I randomly meet Joe in the Santa Catalinas on the crest. He was working at the observatory on Mt. Bigelow. Such a random coincidence!

One last social experience I loved, which was totally comical. Upon arriving in Portal I sat down to meal, the first sit-down meal in 12 days. I inquired about a place to stay in town but the lodge was all booked up. Further down the road the town of Rodeo, NM had vacancy. Most of the information was from a gal named Karen. She was super helpful and seemed to be interested in what I had just done. Anyways, a hitch later and I was in Rodeo at a motel finally washing my clothes after 3 weeks. After getting all cleaned up I strolled to a cafe only to find all places to eat were closed on Sundays. Dejectedly I walked back to the motel. Waiting 15 hours in a motel room and a town with nothing to eat in the middle of nowhere would pose a greater endurance challenge for a long distance hiker than the Sky Island Traverse! Eventually, I explained the situation to the motel clerk and I hoped to buy some farm fresh eggs. He came out with leftovers from a BBQ and some eggs. I microwaved the 3 eggs, mixed them up with a red rice and beans mixture, threw in some BBQ sauce, and grubbed down. The next morning I stumbled into the cafe, now open, for breakfast. After eating I went to pay and 'Bill from the church' took care of my meal. I guess news had traveled fast in a small town of a weary and hungry hiker. Anyways, I now had to hitch 175m to Tucson. Walking down a lonely and isolated highway I finally thumbed a ride. Karen, the gal from Portal from the night before, was cruising on by and headed to Tucson. She spoke of the area as an historian and knew of the Sky Island area so in depth I gained a bigger understanding of what I had just accomplished and why I felt so tied to this area. These random and fortunate events I feel so grateful for. Never would I have expected such occurrences.

•Wildlife. The diversity on the SkIT is CRAZY! Supposedly more species of mammals, birds, reptiles, ants, and bees are found in this region than anywhere in the country. Birds come from the south so hearing a tropical squawk is not uncommon. The birds tantalized me while hiking. From the bright red Arizona cardinal to the funny squeal of the black hawk to the goofiness of the quail all kept me entertained. Coati, coyote, whitetail deer, tons of javelina--you name it, I saw it. But my best wildlife encounter was right after a coati growled, chomped its teeth at me, and refused to leave the trail. After going around this interesting critter, I stumbled upon a large black bear, some 100ft away from me, sitting on its hind end with its head and forefeet inside of a cow carcass. He was scraping off the last of the rancid meat. He fell back and looked up at me and lumbered away slowly until he took to a jog up a very steep hillside. I watched him for a few minutes until I had plenty of room to bolt on through. It was exhilarating! This was in Wood Canyon in the northern Chiricahua.

•Fauna. Wild sycamores appeal to me. I feel an urge to pet the beautiful white and smooth bark. The Sky Islands have canyons lined with these awesome trees. Next to the ponderosa, these trees are my favorite. Among other trees like the madrone, I have got to mention the spiny stuff---catclaw, ocotillo, various types of cactus, mesquite---all make me tougher, all empower me to have a stronger will to survive. Sounds weird, but I find inspiration in the oddest of places. Like overgrown paths.

•The Challenge, the Mountains. The Galiuros, the Santa Teresa, the Pinalenos, the Dos Cabezas, and the Chiracahua, all strung and traversed one after another really pushed my endurance and skill level. However, the beauty and rawness of those areas kept me so focused at the task at hand, in the moment, and so connected with the landscape around me. In particular, the Chiracahua really inspired me, really drilled a sense of spirituality in me that seemed mysterious yet palpable. The wildness, the spirit of Cochise, I'm not sure yet, but I can tell you I will be back in that area. As soon as I entered the Chiracahua I felt the draw of the that magical area.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

ICT: Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness


In Stanley, I found out how bad the fire situation in Idaho had become. I read that scientists were comparing this fire season's conditions to that of 1910, the year of the Big Burn. Immediately in front of me trail closures along the ICT in the Frank Church Wilderness caused me to find a creative way around the fires. The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness is huge, perhaps no such vast wildness may exist except for Alaska. Nearly 2.4 million acres of river canyons, thick forests, burnt land, and high peaks, the Frank is bordered by more massive wilderness areas of Gospel Hump and the Bitterroot-Selway. Imperative to my journey through this expanse of wilderness is my safety, paramount to even an actual enjoyable experience. So, I had to compile maps, fire information, bailout options, and trail information, then decide on how to go around large fires in an area with hardly a soul in it. I knew from this point I would need to take one day at a time. But I couldn't give in just yet. The route I had finally came up with seemed to give me a creatively intelligent way around the fire, some 200m through rugged and remote wilderness.

Nevertheless, with all this planning and rerouting, I could not help but think of the Ridgerunner, the infamous loner of the massive Idaho wilderness. From the early 30s to the mid 40s, the Ridgerunner roamed through the Sawtooths, the Frank Church and the Salmon River forks, as well as the upper Selway area. Most of his peregrinations included long treks in winter conditions in a terribly forbidden landscape. Mainly a misanthrope with delusions that someone was always after him, he went from mountain to mountain, canyon to canyon, river to river, until he finally began breaking in to Forest Service cabins. Eventually the FS took to try and capture the Ridgerunner. His myth grows from here in not only how he survived horrible environmental conditions but how he eluded the capture of the FS authorities.

He's an idol of sorts to me, even though he wasn't known to have a deepened love for the wild. His survival instincts inspire me, his willingness to roam like a coyote, and his defiance for conventional government. Maybe I don't hold him in high esteem as Muir, Leopold, Marshall, Abbey or Ruess, either way his myth intrigues me. I could not wait to tackle the Frank and move on instinct through difficult terrain and conditions and fathom the Ridgerunner moving swiftly through the same area.

Down Marsh Creek, beautiful singletrack wended in and out of the woods. I went through a recently burnt area from a few years back. So many thousands of acres are burned in the Frank. When a wildfire happens out in the faraway reaches of this incredibly vast reaches the fire management crews usually just let them burn out, depending on any historic structures nearby that they would then decide to protect. The Frank feels like the old West, of the time when the Forest Service was in its historical prime, like the eve of western expansion into the depths of mega-resources the far reaches of the West held. Marsh Creek smelled like a lush forest even within the burnt totem poles of pine trees. Verdant with grasses and wildflowers, the hazy sun and heavy smoke could not take the fresh redolence of a forest out of the air. I glided along the trail swiftly in a trance. I crossed a huge bridge spanning the Middle Fork of the Salmon where the water raged voluminous over a series of falls. On the other side lay the Boundary Creek Campground which is the main put in for rafts ready to float the Middle Fork. I found 2 middle-aged brothers from New Hampshire settled up over a campfire and wrapping up their dinner. One yelled at me as I quietly went pass. I waved back and the offered me a steak. I could not turn that down. I sat with them eating the steak with my hands and slurping up a PBR. Life was grand. A short distance later amid a fiery sunset reflection on the river I encountered river guides prepping for their last trip of the season. We struck up a conversation as night settled in on us. I showed them my gear, we swapped stories, and they offered me 3 slices of pizza and some microbrews. Life was grand! This experience combined with the reality of the fire situation and its impending adventure took my mind off troubling personal matters. Wilderness has a cure.

I left camp early the next morning and took the river trail skirting the shores and banks of the Middle Fork. Easy hiking persisted and the lingering smoke did not seem to be causing me any health issues. The canyon and mountain slopes soared above the surface of the river. Chunky and crumbly rock characterized some of the walls of the canyon, large swaths of burnt areas situated surrounding hillsides, and the roar of the rapids boomed the quietness of the morning. The river held me mesmerized; the flow of whitewater, the movement of waves, the ripples and tide pools of eddies, and the meandering serpentine body of the river gripped my feet to the trail while my eyes cast a dreamy stare on the life of the water.

The raft guides and I had partially agreed, if the timing was right, to meet at the Indian Creek Guard Station where they had planned to camp and meet their guests, who were to fly in to the rural airstrip, some 25m away. Three of the guides floated past me and I hollered out to them. Overall, I out-hiked them to the guard station and as I arrived the guides we asleep under some trees. I knocked on the door of old building to speak with the ranger. She gave me up-to-date information on fire conditions and trail closures, as well as 2 IPA's. I slugged the pale ales down, chatted a friendly conversation, and vanished into the forest a little buzzed. 7m later I set up a cowboy camp at the Marble Creek Bar camp. Flat and padded with ponderosa needles, the setting was perfect for my last conversation with the Middle Fork. The river lulled me to sleep and calmed my anxiousness for the next adventurous day up Marble Creek.

Up early with the low water rush, I strutted up Marble Creek. The mouth became a narrow gorge and within the first 6m I saw 8 bears, 2 sets of cubs with a mother and 2 solo young adult males. I was astonished at how close I got to these bears and how they were climbing around like chimpanzees in the tall black berry bushes and shrubs. I had to get a little loud and assertive with one family as I entered a narrow part of the creek. I rounded an overgrown corner tentatively just in case momma bear held her ground. They had vanished and as I climbed up a scree-lined trail I spotted them above me on the steep bench of the cliff within the large branches of a ponderosa. Such an incredibly wild experience. I had never seen that much bear in that short of miles.

The trail went from well-maintained to a grudgingly, overgrown and tedious path that layered with endless down trees from the scarred burnt land. The wind had picked up and the random mast of a burnt tree would splinter and fall crashing to the ground. A few of them scared me enough to take cover as they fell that close to me. I lost the trail several times and occasionally just trudged right up the middle of the creek. In all, I crossed Marble Creek some 40 times in about 20m. You should know, how big the creeks are in the Frank. Marble Creek resembled a river in other parts of the country. Each crossing simply took patience. After Little Cottonwood Canyon the trail became discernible again, the creek crossings lessened, and slow-going became a thing of the near past.

After some mining ruins the trail switchbacked steeply up a forested hillside and topped out on a burnt ridge line. The wind howled and brought in cooler air. The burnt lodge poles rigidly swayed in the gusts and an eerie whistle hummed the air. Smoke settled in the canyons to the east beneath the gloomy mountains. A beautiful and morose blue painted the landscape. I hiked beneath the flat-scraped top of Lookout Mountain and found coverage alee wind-blown and gnarled pines. I bedded down for the night after a very exhausting day, surprised I hit the 30m mile in that terrain with so many creek crossings and overgrown trail.

Down Monumental Creek I went. I took a detour from the ICT as the Campbell Ferry fire had sections of trail closed I front of me, most notably the Chamberlain Basin area. In reality, I only had one option to take, as the other potential option another fire had portions of trail closed. That left me with only 1 bridge to cross that had hike-able trail. Smoke thickened and the early morning sun glared on the creek. A lovely yet intimidating sight, indeed. Frost stuck to the blades of grass in the meadow and the air nipped at my nose and fingertips. The trail down Monumental Creek was in great condition and the hiking flew on by. The creek careened down a steep and deep canyon through the omnipresent burned areas. After 16m or so I hit the confluence of the creek with historic Big Creek, where an epic battle of the Sheepeater War of 1879 took place. I had passed drainages bearing military names. Things were making sense to me but I couldn't for the life of me imagine a war battle taking place in this unforgiving terrain. The thought boggled my mind!

Aptly named, Big Creek oozed and sludged its way down a broad canyon. The trail eventually squeezed into a narrow section and the roar of cascading water grew. Once I popped out with the canyon less broader that before, I encountered huge swaths from mega-landslides. The slope side would be completely bare, utterly stripped of trees, and the creek would be choked with the trees that once plotted the slopes above. Hundreds of trees piled on top of each other violently stacked in an unreasonable mess. Seeing the aftermath of such destruction empowered me. The scene felt exceptionally wild.

Big Creek continued up valley as I exited the Frank for a brief 6m and climbed even further up Mosquito Ridge. I hiked on the ridge crest as the blood red sun eerily blared through the burnt totems of lodge pole. After a beautiful sunset promoted by the smoke from the wildfires the temperatures dipped to near freezing and I hunkered down spent from a long day.The cool of the morning kept the smoke settled low in the canyons around the ridge lines. Silhouettes of those ridges made the landscape endless in layers of terrain. I entered a broad, flat area named Horse Heaven. I pondered the name without any conclusions until I lumbered down the 5000ft drop of Devil's Steps to the South Fork of the Salmon River. The primitive and extremely steep trail fell precipitously down the grassy slopes. The smoke became worse, actually the thickest I had seen. I could feel the smoke constrict my throat with a grim clutch. Endlessly the Devil's Steps fell, like Purgatory's staircase. As I neared the South Fork I knew why that broad, flat area known as Horse Heaven was named as such: the 5000ft ascension of Devil's Steps.

The heat overwhelmed me for a bit and my quads and knees pulsed with the pain of descent. I sat under a large Ponderosa lingering in the shade and gulped down a few liters of water, for Mosquito Ridge, Chicken Peak, and Horse Heaven's water sources were all dried up. After my rest I followed the easy river trail to Mackay Bar Bridge. I saw 2 firefighters resting in a motor boat under the bridge. I asked them the fire conditions and they said they didn't have much as they were the last troops to arrive and they were the mop-up crew. I continued along the north side of the Main Fork of the Salmon. Old historic ranches and mines dotted the flat bottoms and benches of the wide river. At some of these ranches aged apple and pear trees still harbored fruit. I spotted 4 more black bears munching on the fruit. Two of them were up in the high branches of the fruit trees. As I passed them and they spotted me they plummeted down from the branches and boogied alarmingly into the rocky hillsides. At one point the trail climbed up the cliffs above the river. I spotted from my lofty perch 2 motor boats navigating the river and its rapids. The boats were loaded with firefighters heading upstream to position themselves to continue their noble and courageous fight against the wildfires, which by now I began to understand the sheer number and conditions of the fires around, for the smoke in the river corridor was immensely thick. I knew I was close to burning forests. The miles passed easily along the river and soon I encountered cabins wrapped in fire blankets like giant Christmas presents. The scene became spooky and deserted, like if there actually had been anyone there they had left a long time ago. The Ridgerunner entered my mind, his lonesomeness, his isolation, his desolation. The trail climbed gradually from the protected ranch and I spotted a few flames across the river. Some of the ponderosa held their green crowns while the ground was charred to a crisp and black with ashes. The sun poked through the haze of smoke and the sky appeared a deep purple. Shit was getting real. Night soon enveloped the deep curves and bends of the canyon. I found a beach to sleep on and listened to emptiness of the canyon as I contemplated a last good night's sleep.

At Campbell's Ferry multiple signs explained the trail closures. This meant that I couldn't even continue on the ICT if I wanted to as more fires had started to burn in other areas to the immediate north. At Whitewater Ranch I took a dirt road, a bailout point for me. I hiked up out of the canyon to the top of the range. My plan was to hike into Elk City, resupply, and reassess my new route around the complex of fires. As I hiked into Red River Guard Station, fire camps had been set up and hundreds of firefighters sat around resting. I could barely make out a clear scenery up to about a third of a mile because the smoke was so thick. I could feel the tension in the air. I hitched a ride from French Gulch Road, which is where I intersected the ICT West. I enjoyed the lift into town of Elk City which was now at a Stage 1 evacuation level. I read the fire signs at the General Store only to learn things were much worse than I had thought.

That night in my small motel room I could not sleep, not only because of personal issues going on but because of the complex of fires. I sat up in the bed and scoured over maps for alternates around the fires and websites with fire information. I kept hitting dead ends. Plus, there was no way I wanted to road walk around some magnificent country. Of the remaining 425m left of the ICT approximately 350 were closed due to wildfires. I felt blessed to have gotten as far as I did, considering my situation and finances. I flipped on the television and found my favorite movie of all time on, The Wild Bunch. Such a random occurrence, however, such a fitting occurrence. I found my answer in the western flick. The ending has a group of old outlaws who are faced with a fatal circumstance and situation.

'Unchanged men in a changing land. Out of step, out of place, and desperately out of time.' 

The movie slogan says it all. I knew because of the movie that I was going no further. I did not want the same fate as the Wild Bunch. And I sure as Hell was not going to be that asshole out in the woods ignoring the laws and putting the lives of firefighters in danger when they could be saving lives, houses, and historical structures. The next day I hitched out of town headed for Boise.