When hiking long distance trails your relationship with water changes. This has been especially true for me as I’ve hiked through the first 700 miles of the PCT, which spends a lot of time in the desert. Water is something that I can’t afford to take for granted so before I leave the water source I’m at, I sit down and figure out where my next water is going to come from.
One of the best resources for figuring out water on the PCT is Halfmile’s water report (a list of the water sources along the route, directions for how to get to the water, as well as comments recent hikers have left about how well the water is flowing or if the source has dried up for the year/drought).
The northern part of the desert was where I ended up having to go for the longest stretches of time without water. Leaving the town of Mojave it was going to be 30-35 miles before the next reliable water source and 144 miles before I was going to be able to get my next food resupply. If I assumed that I was going to hike 15-20 miles a day that meant I needed to carry enough water for 2 or 3 days and enough food for seven or eight days. Yikes, that’s a lot of food and water! And very heavy! 2 days of water is five or six liters (carefully monitoring water use) and 10-12 pounds and 8 days of food is another 15 pounds… So 25+ pounds of food and water. Definitely a very heavy pack, the heaviest pack I’ve had to carry so far!
The first water source we encountered after leaving Mojave (golden oaks spring) looked rather….green. The water trough was covered with algae and didn’t really look like anything anyone would ever want to drink, though there was a tiny pipe feeding into it at one end that was dribbling into the trough. Theoretically we could refill our water bottles from that drip (if we were very very patient… Not my strong suit)!
Luckily I’d met a Southbound hiker earlier that had told me the secret to this water source… If you followed the barbed wire fence uphill you’d come to a spot where you could duck under the wire, crawl over a bunch of bushes (and a brick/stone wall), and then draw your water directly from the cistern. After seeing the other two options the search for the cistern seemed like a good idea.
I picked up the cover of the cistern and looked inside… There was definitely water in there. It didn’t look good, but it looked much much better than the water from the trough down below. I looked down into the cistern, it was going to be a reach to draw the water out, but I was pretty sure I could do it.
I sat down on the ground beside the cistern (falling into a well/cistern is definitely on my NO list) and reached about 2 and a half feet down to the water and slowly refilled my water bottles. Though the water seemed nicer than that from the trough I definitely wasn’t feeling confident about it so I both filtered it (with my sawyer squeeze filter) and chemically treated it (with aquamira).
Since I was 25-30 miles from the last water source, and many miles away from the next water source I couldn’t afford to be too picky. Even still, Having had giardia once, and not wanting to think about what had leached into the water from the eroding cistern, I was definitely motivated to treat my water very carefully.
The place I got water from the next day was a trough, but it looked much much nicer and cleaner (and was also a lot easier to access!) than the last one. Even though the water looked clean, I still treated it (I always do) because giardia spores etc don’t necessarily make the water look dirty. It was nice not to have to filter out all the little green, orange, and black floaty bits though.
Sometimes finding the water sources, even when you theoretically know where they are, is like being on a treasure hunt… you follow notes and signs and scratch marks on the ground and hopefully at the end you find one of the most valuable treasures of all… Water!!!
And sometimes, just sometimes, you run into trail angels on birding expeditions in the California mountains that offer you water and save you from having to go on yet another wild goose chase!
Most of the time the water sources are appealing enough that you don’t worry too much about the actual water you’re drinking as long as you’ve filtered it and/or treated it. Sometimes, however, you can’t help but wonder about the extras that you’re getting with your water. The first time that happened to me on the PCTwas at deep creek hot springs where there were rumors of lithium in the water. My filter and my chemicals weren’t going to filter that out, but I was generally more interested in its potential effects than concerned about them.
Looking ahead about 40 miles to the next reliable water source listed in the halfmile water report I read, “BLM website and others report Uranium at Joshua Tree Spring.” Hmmm… Uranium in the water…. That definitely conjured up very different images in my mind than lithium in the water.
Well, how far was is from there to the next water source? How much did I actually *need* that Uranium water anyway? Hmmm… Looked to be about another 20 miles to the next really reliable water source, though there might be some other options since I was pretty early in the season… Then again, it’s the third year of drought in the Californian desert.
Reading the fine print in the water report was vaguely reassuring? It said that uranium was in most of the of the water in the Sierras, it’s just that Joshua Tree spring was the one of the only ones that had been tested.
Hmmm… Drink the water with Uranium in it, be thirsty, or carry lots of extra water with me and pretend that ignorance is bliss for the rest of the Sierra. Since the temperatures were in the 90s I figured I’d go with the uranium water. Chances were pretty good that the small dosings during the period of time I was going to be in the Sierras were ok, right? Also, dehydration, heat stroke, joint injuries or the combination of all of the above seemed likely to be both more immediate and graver threats.
Despite my decisicion, when I got to Walker Pass and found a spring with cattails growing out of it I decided to fill up with water (carried 4L out and drank 1L), no need to drink excessive amounts of Uranium water when there was cattail water to be found.
The next day dawned and the temperatures climbed as I climbed what felt like mountain after mountain. I was going through a lot of water. When I got to Joshua Tree spring I consulted my water report. Therewas probably water at Spanish Needle Creek 7 or 8 miles ahead, but it sounded a bit confusing… I decided I didn’t need to get a lot of water, but the addition of one Liter of water would make my life a whole lot better… It was time to try out the uranium water.
When I got down to the spring there were two signs. One which said that the water wasn’t fit for drinking and one that had the standard list of backcountry water caveats essentially telling you to filter and treat your water. I looked at the stuff growing in the water of the trough… It looked like all the usual floaty buggy things. Since there weren’t any three eyed fish mixed in I figured it must be fine (please note appropriately level of sarcasm here). Besides, uranium water is probably good for fighting off precancerous cells if you have any, right?
As the day progressed it got hotter and hotter and I was glad to have my uranium water on hand. The next water source, Spanish needle creek, was pitiful at best (I’d be surprised if there is any water left there in a couple of weeks), and looked more like the runoff water from a recent storm than a creek. I filled up with another liter of water there (which took about five minutes) and figured that that combined with the water I had left would cover me for the 10 miles or so to the next water source.
As I hiked north and got to the places where the more reliable branches of the creek were supposed to be and found them dry I started getting a little bit nervous… It was really hot out, and it was really exposed, and what if the upcoming water sources were all dry? After having hiked 20+ miles that day, hiking more than the 24 mile total I’d planned on was a truly daunting thought.
As I crossed the dry bed of chimney creek (mile 24 if the day where is been hoping to find water) my heart sank. It was at least 2 miles uphill to the next spring and what if it was dry too? I still had water left (my emergency half liter) and was still pretty well hydrated, but it wasn’t going to be fun. By the time I got there it would be almost dark and probably cooler out… That would be a plus.
As I turned the corner and looked at the mountain in front of me with grim determination I heard voices. Huddled in the shade of a nearby bush/tree were at least half a dozen thru-hikers. “Water, the most amazing water is here!” They called out to me.
I dropped my pack and joined them in the shade. Water, glorious water… it felt like the best news I’d ever heard. It seemed funny in a way, the places where I thought that I needed to be really careful about water I hadn’t had any trouble, but when the section where there was supposed to be easy water (water every ten miles or so) is when I was happiest to find water. Though the desert has been awesome, I’m looking forward to some of the upcoming sections of the trail where I won’t have to worry about water nearly as much!
P.S. I apologize for the images, I installed a WordPress update and ever since then I’ve been having trouble with my image uploads. I’m working with wordpress now and hope to have the issue resolved soon!
P.P.S. Check out this USGS fact sheet about where the Uranium is near Joshua Tree Spring (the southern sierra), or this report for the central sierrras.