My Sonoran Desert Adventure! (Week 17)

Sometimes things just pan out differently as planned. Decision-making is one of the things i love about travelling, or rather backpacking (not much decision-making involved in your run-of-the-mill holiday package where everything's laid out for you). Sometimes you decide to change your plans, and just follow your heart instead of your head (Bikram Choudhury, at Teacher Training, told us always to follow our hearts, and not our brains - "the brain's a bad neighbourhood", he'd say).

That's exactly what happened during my stay in Tucson, Arizona. Originally, i had planned to visit the Sonora Desert Museum in the western district of Saguaro National Park, and maybe take a little dayhike while i'm there. I thought it would be too hot for extensive hiking anyway. But after my little REI shopping tour with Dutch traveller Aniek at the Tucson Mall earlier this week (see previous posting) i felt like i was ready for something bigger... maybe even for a "full-fledged desert adventure"! That's how Lonely Planet describes the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail, the most challenging trail in Saguaro National Park. It climbs to the summit of Mica Mountain (8.666 ft) through 18 miles of backcountry, taking you from desert scrub through desert grassland to oak/pine woodland and rewarding you with 360° panorama views off Tanque Verde Peak en route. There are a couple of rather primitive backcountry campgrounds spread throughout the park, but only one of them has a permanent water source, so hiking in the summertime can become a challenge, when the creeks are dried out. It means you have to bring your own water. And although the BYOW idea didn't really sound like fun (who wants to haul 1-2 gallons of water up a mountain in desert heat??) i was intrigued. It sounded like a real challenge.

Just a few days ago in Phoenix, i had watched James Franco drink his own urine & mutilate himself in 127 hours, simply because he had been careless. To arrogant to let anybody know about his hiking plans for the weekend, he ended up in a worst-case situation, between a rock and a hard place. I had learned that lesson, and would certainly inform the NPS (and my loved ones) about my plans, but that still left some question marks - an ankle sprain or even just a pulled muscle (like the one i suffered last August in Austria during an approach to a climb!) can get you in a lot of trouble, if you have neither a partner nor a cell-phone signal to call for help. Since you can only carry a certain amount of water with you, there's always a risk of dehydration if you run out of it. And then, of course, there's the possibility of encountering rattlesnakes, black bears & mountain lions out there, just like in most of the 10 National Parks i've visited so far, but those had never really been a concern so far. What really got me worried, however, was the addition of Killer Bees to that list. Wait a minute, wasn't that just a horribly trashy B-movie from my teenage days?!

It was, but there's more than just an ounce of truth in every movie screenplay, because as the biologist Aniek and her Croatian colleague Anna informed me during a dinner near UA Campus on Wednesday night, the Africanized Honey Bee is the prevalent bee in Arizona these days, and it is quite different from the European Honey Bee in many ways. I'm quoting Wikipedia here: The sting of the Africanized Honey Bee is no more potent than a garden variety honey bee and they look pretty much the same, but what makes Africanized bees more dangerous is that they are more easily provoked, quick to swarm, attack in greater numbers, and pursue their victims for greater distances. An Africanized bee colony can remain agitated longer and may attack up to a quarter of a mile away from the hive.

Having a longterm hate-relationship with flying, stinging insects and being known amongst friends & family for getting really uneasy in their presence, this was quite unsettling to me. And out of all those, the Honey Bee should be the most fearsome?? I've always hated wasps & hornets and had somehow considered the bees the good guys (i mean, they make honey at least), so this challenged my whole belief system! Add to that the fact that there had been recent angry/killer bee incidents in the area and you can imagine that i was really horrified of a bee encounter up there. Dave from San Diego, who gave me a ride to Saguaro East on Thursday morning, tried to play it down, saying that you can outrun bees, but can you really outrun them for 1-2 miles (apparently that's how long they will sometimes chase you if you've gotten too close to the hive), on an inclined trail, with a 20-kilo backpack on your back? Maybe Chuck Norris could pull it off, but i doubt that i could.

Dave dropped me at Saguaro East's Visitor Center, where i obtained my backcountry permit (see photo above) and a map of the park (thanks again for helping me out there, Dave!) The rangers were nice & helpful, and told me they "would have an eye on me out there". However, the only campground with rangers on staff was Camp Manning, 18 miles away on Mica Mountain, the last of 3 campgrounds i would possibly come across, and i didn't even know if I would make it that far. Since i wanted to avoid the midday heat on the hottest (=bottom) part of the climb, i decided to delay my start until late afternoon and hung around the Visitor Center for a few hours, learning about the park's wildlife & constantly drinking from the water fountain to get well-hydrated, a strange flashback to Bikram Yoga Teacher Training. Further, i packed two 3-litre-barrels of water into my backpack (about 1.5 gallons) - based on the ground rule of 1 gallon per person per day (not including strenuous hiking though) i assumed that those 6 litres should last me for the hike to Juniper Basin & back at least. My plan was to spend the first night at Juniper Basin (7 miles away), then move on to Grass Shack (11 miles away) for lunch the next day, and hike up to Camp Manning (18 miles away) in the afternoon to spend the 2nd night there (did i seriously think i could hike the entire 18 miles back out on the last day?? Hm, i guess i did). Camp Manning has water all year round, but the Rangers were not so sure about Juniper Basin & Grass Shack, as those creeks are often dried out in the summer. They even gave me a water level report card to fill out, since there hadn't been a ranger up there for several days.

a map of Saguaro National Park

An older Swiss couple gave me a lift to the trailhead (after i had pointed out the Chicago Music Store to them on a Tucson Map; the guy was an avid guitar collector) and at 4:30 i finally hit the trail, quickly gaining elevation and marvelling at the fascinating cacti around me. The trademark plant of Saguaro NP is of course the cactus of the same name - the giant Saguaro Cactus, often called the Sentinel of the Sonora Desert because of its looming and manlike appearance. But the other plants were just as interesting: the familiar prickly-pear cactus, the spidery ocotillo or the chain-fruit Cholla, to name just a few.

As the ranger had predicted, the 7-mile-hike to Juniper Basin felt a lot longer, and i actually didn't even make it to Juniper Basin that night. After turning off the ridge, leaving Tucson's city lights behind, and walking for about 30 minutes with my head lamp on, i was pretty sure i had already passed the campground. When i kept losing the trail in the dark, i decided it was time to pitch my tent and call it a day. I only put up the inner tent, and woke up the next morning when raindrops kept falling on my head, which - similar to the song - was mildly annoying. After ignoring it for a while, i finally got out to throw the outer tent on top, just in time before it really started pouring down for 30 minutes, in one of the area's monsoon rains (the Sonora Desert actually gets quite a lot of rain in late July/early August which also had me worry about possible thunderstorms). And while i waited for my tent to dry, enjoying the scenery which was so different from the day before, i suddenly noticed a bee flying around!

I quickly got alarmed, and recalled all the instructions from the Saguaro Backcountry Planner which i had read the night before: don't swat at the bees, and never ever kill one, since it'll release a chemical that will attract its bee-buddies, possibly the whole rest of the hive! Unfortunately, even without swatting or killing there were suddenly 4 or 5 bees hovering around, being particularly interested in my backpack, tent, socks & sandals... at one point i even had to endure one of them crawling over my foot for about a minute, which is an almost zen-like task for me! Somehow it felt stupid to be scared of a few bees, but since i had never met Africanized Honey Bees before, i didn't know whether the situation was to be taken serious or not; but i certainly didn't want to provoke them. Thus, it took me quite a long time to pack my stuff and continue my hike towards Tanque Verde Peak, which i finally stood upon on Saturday, at exactly 1:00 pm, enjoying the 360° panorama views:

After the bee encounter came the snake encounters. On my way down from Tanque Verde Peak to Juniper Basin Campground i almost stepped on one, when i rushed down the trail a little bit too fast. I think it was the relatively harmless, diurnal Gopher Snake, and i probably scared it just as much as it scared me. However, this can't be said about my 2nd snake encounter, which came just 15 minutes later. As i was strolling through Juniper Campground, trying to decide which of the 3 campsites i should choose, i spotted a rattlesnake in the middle of Campsite #2 ! It didn't move, it didn't rattle its tail, but it was clearly a rattlesnake, and not only that - it was a HUGE one. I had learned at the visitor center that rattlesnakes can grow "up to 6 feet" but this one seemed even larger, clearly a full-grown and potentially dangerous exemplar:

Comparing my photo with pictures on the web, i'm still not entirely sure if i saw the famous Diamondback Rattlesnake (the largest of them all) or a Mojave Rattlesnake (the most venomous of them all), maybe one of you can tell? Either way, i would've been in serious trouble if i had got bitten. Given the remoteness of my location and the lack of a cell-phone signal, it's pretty safe to say a bite would have been fatal, especially by a snake of this size. It feels awkward to say that, because before these snake encounters i had almost stopped worrying about them. The ranger at the visitors center had said that my chances to see a snake were pretty slim, and after hiking in a few parks without ever even seeing one, i trusted him on this. Finding that huge snake in the middle of the campground put things back into perspective, and left me going back to my campsite #1 with shaky knees! When i went back later (armed with a shovel) to check if it was still there, the snake was gone.

After that, there were no more venomous animal spottings, but i got eaten alive by the mosquitos. I'm not sure what i prefer. I still lighted a campfire and cooked myself a filling dinner, but at 8:30 pm i had to retreat into my tent, where i could finally uncover and just lay flat on my back, while the mosquitos were swarming around me, unable to get to my skin. Aaah, sweet revenge! The next morning, i got up early (at 5 a.m.), packed quickly, and left the campground at 6 a.m., thus avoiding another feeding frenzy. The hike back out went smoothly, but i was careful and focused, carrying a stick and always looking out for possible snakes on the trail. I only took a few short breaks and clocked in at the Saguaro East Visitors Center at exactly 11 am.

As i said before, the biggest challenge of a summer hike in the Sonoran Desert is the water supply, and I couldn't have spent 2 nights up there hadn't i found a little creek close to my campground, which served as my water reservoir. After coming down from Tanque Verde Peak (and spotting the rattlesnake) I filled up one of one my 3-litre barrels, giving me enough water for Friday night and during the hike out on Saturday i stopped there again for another 3 litres. Since the water didn't look (and probably wasn't) drinkable i had to treat it with Iodine tablets which were given to me by a guy at the hostel. I'm grateful for that, since it enabled me to go the distance (and it didn't even taste that bad), but i probably won't do it again. After coming back from my trip i found out that these tablets are not 100% reliable, and might not kill certain bacteria, such as Giardia. I had never even heard of the damn thing before, but now i've actually talked to people who carry it, and let's say it's not something i'm keen on having myself! One guy picked it up while hiking in the backcountry of Olympic National Park, and since that's going to be my next trekking adventure in early September, i will have to look for a good portable water filter in Seattle...

the first of my 2 Iodine-treated water barrels

Even though it might have been a bit risky to hike out into Saguaro on my own, i think that for the most part i knew what i was doing, and i certainly returned with a great sense of accomplishment afterwards. I'm not really a thrill-seeker, but i would call myself adventurous and some of those risks you take definitely enhance the whole adventure experience, just as the Pepsi at my favourite Tucson hangout (the Shot in the Dark Café) tasted all the better afterwards. Even just standing at that trailhead, not knowing exactly when i would return, gave me the goosebumps. I've only really started to get into backcountry hiking, but there's a lot more to learn!


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