Monday, September 27, 2010

Wizards, Slots, & Rattles

Here's the first report from El Viaje Fall 2010.

I didn't drive too far from Corvallis until I arrived at my first stop, Waldo Lake. Waldo Lake is located on the crest of the Oregon Cascades. It's about 2.5 hours drive from Corvallis. The plan was to meet the man previously known as FixItMan and the Nav Unit, then do an overnight kayak trip. I say "previously known as FixItMan" because somewhere in the course of this trip we decided to start calling him the Wizard. The Wizard and I spent the night at a parking lot next to the lake and the Nav Unit showed up the next morning. We loaded up the two kayaks with gear and headed out.

The weather was wet. It rained off an on during the whole trip. The lake was beautiful. It has some of the clearest water I've ever seen. When we kayaked over the deepest part the color was a deep purple that I don't think I've ever seen in water. No one seemed to mind the rain much. Eventually we found a campsite on an isolated bluff at the end of a peninsula. I think it was when we started setting up camp that the Nav Unit began referring to FixItMan as the Wizard. The Wizard kept producing objects which we were wisihing we had, which I think was why the Nav Unit started calling him the Wizard. It had started at the parking lot, where the Wizard produced some dry bags. The dry bags kept the critical stuff (clothing and bedding) perfectly dry. Next was a tarp, complete with stakes and cord to string it up. The Nav Unit and Wizard did a great job putting up the tarp, using kayak paddles as poles. The tarp was tall enough that I could stand up under it. It was angled against the wind, so the effective area it kept dry was larger than the floor plan. It kept the Nav Unit and I dry all night, despite sometimes heavy rain. I slept with only a sleeping bag covering me. Next was good fire starter, which proved critical to getting a fire going. The Wizard also constructed the fire pit, which was designed so that most of the heat was radiated towards the tarp. The fire really made the night much more comfortable. It was hot enough to keep us dry even though it was exposed to the rain. The Nav Unit and I at one point jumped into the lake and raced back up the bluff to the fire. I'm not sure we would have done that if we didn't have a fire.

The next morning we paddled back to our vehicles. I said goodbye to the Nav Unit and followed the Wizard east towards his dwelling in Central Oregon. It was nice to take a shower and relax a bit after being out in the cold rain for a couple days. The next morning I left.

The weather quickly turned much dryer as I crossed into the desert state of Nevada. I spent the next night at a trailhead about an hour east of Reno. I arrived there later in the day but I was so taken by the stark desert on clear day that I hiked off in a semi-random direction heading uphill. I lost track of time and returned in the dark, having left my headlamp in the Buffalo. The next day I went on a longer hike, still in a semi-random direction. I came across some aircraft components littered on the ground. I saw landing gear, some kind of tank, and what I believe was a compressor turbine from a turbojet engine. All of it was beat up and worn really bad, far beyond a repairable state. I figured it must be from a plane wreck. There was a military aircraft base nearby, maybe the plane had originated there? After taking some photos I headed back to the Buffalo, making a big loop. I continued driving eastwards, traveling along what was billed as "The Lonliest Highway". I didn't feel too lonely, but it was pretty empty. The highway ran perpendicular to long valleys separated by mountain ranges. The valleys were once filled with glaciers, which had moved south and scoured out the valleys. It was hard to believe that these valleys were once filled with ice. Now it was a hot, dry, bare desert with hardly any vegetation to be seen in any direction. After stopping to climb and run down a giant sand dune, I continued to Eastern Nevada. Near the Utah border I stopped at a park and hiked up one of the taller peaks, Wheeler Peak. Later I learned that Wheeler was Nevada's tallest peak, at 13k ft in elevation. It also housed what was purported to be Nevada's only glacier. The summit provided a great view on a clear day. It wasn't an especially difficult hike, but I definitely felt the altitude. As had occurred in the Andes, I felt a bit nauseous and had a headache. The trees had begun to reappear at higher elevations in Eastern Nevada. At the start of the Wheeler hike there were forests of Aspen and Bristlecone Pine. Examples of the latter are amongst the oldest living things found. The leaves were turning colors. Fall had arrived here. The golden hillsides reminded me of Upstate New York in the Fall. I also visited the glacier. For sure, there wasn't much left. It was maybe the size of a couple of city blocks. It did have a couple of crevasses. It looked like some interesting routes might form uphill from the glacier in the right season.

After the glacier hike I headed southeast into Utah, then east skirting the Utah / Arizona border. I stopped to check out some slot canyons. I ended up doing a 26 mile backpacking trip, almost entirely at the bottom of slot canyons. The bottom of a slot canyon is it's own little universe, and entering one is like being teleported. The bottoms are river beds. At times they were no wider than the width of a person, and had walls which could be several hundred feet high. In comparison to the top of the canyon the bottom is cool, moist, and dark. In some places the canyon widened into miniature oases where trees and plants grew. The canyons form an interlinked network. I estimated that the full network I was in extended for about 70 miles. When a thunderstorm comes the canyons are a bad place to be in. Any mechanical engineer could tell you why, but the sight of logs spanning the canyon walls 50 ft up in the air was all you needed to see. The slot canyons are funnels for huge, intermittent flows of water. In my entire slot canyon trip I found only one spot where I could climb out, and it was a good scramble. At nightfall, bats came out to hunt for insects, sometimes buzzing me. The canyon walls highly amplified all sounds. The swoosh of a bird flying by was startling. I could literally hear grains of sand falling. The water had left it's mark in all kinds of smoothed out, fluidic rock formations. The rock was colored in hues of red and pink by the different layers of sandstone. Parts of the canyon floor were wet from springs or from water which trickled down from a canyon wall.

After leaving the canyon I hiked along a nearby desert trail which started at the Utah / Arizona border. I soon discovered that the trail crossed all of Arizona from Mexico to Utah. I encountered a rattlesnake during this hike. I must have startled it because it quickly slithered off under a nearby bush. It was well hidden under the bush, but I knew it was there. It must have hoped I hadn't seen it or wasn't interested in it because it wasn't making any noise. I picked up some pebbles and threw them at the bush. The snake now knew that I knew where it was. Wasting no time putting it's new found knowledge to work, the snake initiated it's next defensive measure, which was to shake it's rattle. (Thereby also confirming that it was, in fact, a rattlesnake.) I briefly considered trying to fish it out somehow so I could get a better look at it. Some primitive part of my brain protested vehemently against the idea, however, convincing me that any critter which broadcasts it's location so loudly must be capable of hurting me pretty good. The rattle had worked. Upon my arrival at the trailhead I noticed a large "Caution: Rattlesnakes" sign which I had somehow missed. Later I found out afterwards that rattlesnake bites are extremely poisonous, and potentially fatal. One account I read on the web resulted in a 35 day hospital visit plus 13 surgeries. After the hike I headed to Lake Powell. A dip in the lake was very welcome on a hot desert day and was my first bath in almost a week.

That pretty brings me to my present day status. I'm writing this from Page, Arizona, near the shores of Lake Powell. I should arrive in Texas City in a week or so, depending what other places catch my fancy on the way there. The photo at the top is of a horny toad (which apparently is actually a lizard, not a toad) I saw during the rattlesnake hike. More photos are here.

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