Water! (PCT Days 40-42)

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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).

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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!

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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!!!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Windmills (PCT Days 38-40)

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Noisy… That’s what I think about windmills… They’re noisy! The wind whipping through the desert or whipping through the trees over my head is noisy enough, but when you add turbines to the equation the noise levels get even higher.

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Mile after mile, day after day, windmills stretched as far as the eye could see. For the first couple of days I thought it was kind of cool hiking through the fields of giant windmills. They made me feel like I was in a Miyazaki movie.

After a while I started paying attention to the different sizes and designs of the windmills and was fascinated by the way they rotated as the direction of the winds changed. I also learned that when the windmills stopped, that’s when I was really in trouble.

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When the windmills stop it means that the wind speeds are high, very high. So high that hiking in them starts to be a real challenge. After hiking through the unusually high Santa Ana winds a couple of weeks ago (clocked at around 85mph in the area I was in), I thought that I’d been through the worst winds that I was going to have to face. I was wrong.

With the Santa Ana winds it had been the crazy gusts at 85 mph that forced me to stop hiking, take a break, and wait for the gusts to end. Sometimes I had no choice but to sit down in the middle of the trail and watch the petals get ripped off of the flowers by the wind as I waited for the gusts to die down, but they did die down, which allowed me to keep making forward progress up the trail… The only thing required was the patience to sit and wait them out.

The winds I was facing as I walked through the fields of turbines were between 45 and 55 mph constantly blowing in the background, with gusts up to 65 mph. Hiking for hours with those winds as headwinds was a real challenge. It felt a little bit like riding my motorcycle, I had to lean strongly into the turns to make any progress.

I rounded the bend at one point to find one of my friends hiking south down the trail towards me. I was very confused since I knew that she was a northbound thru-hiker like me. When I asked her what was going she said that she had tried hiking north, but the headwinds at the next switchback were so strong that she couldn’t make it around the corner.

It had been really hard for me to make forward progress as well, and I wasn’t sure if I would do much better against the wind than she did, but I told her she should try to draft behind me and I’d see if I could get us through.

As we rounded the corner I was hit by a blast of wind with tiny ice particles in it. It felt like each little ice fragment was a dagger whipping into my face. I pulled up my neck guard to protect my face, bent my head down, and ever so slowly forced my way against the massive, unrelenting headwind with my friend following close behind.

Drafting behind me seemed to be working, and we were both making forward progress. Every once in a while we would get a break on the lee side of the mountain and marvel at the snow falling on us in the middle of the Mojave desert. It seemed almost comical, but then we’d round the bend and go back to fighting the headwinds and crosswinds and occasionally trying to stay on the trail as the tailwinds tried to direct us to new trails.

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After fighting to hike in the winds all day, we then had to fight the winds to pitch our tents. So far the only people I know that haven’t had their tents blow down on them in the middle of the night are people with free standing tents like my Big Agnes Flycreek UL2. Even with my tent staked with the tail into the primary direction of the wind, I had to weight the inside of my tent and use heavy rocks (or make rock cairns) placed on top of each stake to prevent them from pulling out. I’m not sure how much wind my tent can take, but it was getting slammed with 65mph crosswinds, which certainly torqued it (and made a lot of noise) but it bounced back!

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Snug in my tent I tried to ignore the wind and stop worrying about whether or not my tent could handle it. It would be fine. What I was worried about was all the dust blowing up and into my tent. I’ve had bad luck with dust and asthma in the past!

Cowboy Camping (PCT Days 35-37)

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“Mreh,” I mumbled and swatted at whatever had just landed on my face. I was all curled up and cozily sleeping in my beloved zero degree sleeping bag under the stars. Even though I wasn’t quite awake yet my brain was turning its gears as another thing landed on my face. This time when I swatted at it my hand came back wet. I knew what this was! It was rain! Barely half awake, I rolled over and quickly stuffed everything into my backpack and three my pack cover over it.

Considering I was in Southern California, in the Mojave desert, and the weather forecast said that there was a 0% chance of rain for each of the 10 days in the forecast I figured it was probably just one little cloud misting on me and would blow by quickly. I didn’t mind getting a little damp as long as all of my stuff (especially my electronics) was going to be safe, secure, and dry.

As I lay back down I looked up at the sky, the moon and some stars were still visible, but clouds were definitely moving in. Some bigger droplets fell on my face. I checked my watch, it was 2 am, and I was definitely starting to get rained on. Setting up my tent still seemed like a lot of work, so I just pulled out my tent fly and rolled myself up in it figuring that it would keep both me and my down sleeping bag plenty dry.

At that point I still didn’t believe that it was really going to rain. I’d started trusting southern California’s weather forecasts, had started to trust that the low humidity over the desert was a cloud killer. I had come to terms with the fact that a 20% chance of rain meant that I was going to get soaked, but 0% chance, that should mean that I’d stay dry!

As I lay curled up in my rain fly shroud the winds began gusting and moisture continued to drip from the sky. With temperatures in the low 40s or upper 30s I couldn’t afford to let my sleeping bag get wet. *sigh* This was not just one poor misguided cloud weeping at its desert fate, this was an actual storm!

Until that moment I’d been able to make all of my rain preparations without ever really waking up or getting out of my sleeping bag, but as soon as I came to the conclusion it was a storm and not a tiny misguided cloud I was out of my sleeping bag and setting up my tent.

As the winds whipped around me I quickly scooted my sleeping pad and sleeping bag into the tent before staking it out, erecting it, and throwing the rain fly up. It was so windy at that point that I put rocks over the stakes/bottom corners of the tent to help anchor it before quickly scooting into my tent to ensure that it wasn’t going to become a giant kite.

As I crawled back into my tent I could hear the wind howling around it and the rain slamming against it. I threw a bunch of heavy stuff into the bottom my tent to help anchor it down and put the rest of my stuff on the windward side to help buffer against the winds even more.

It had been less than five minutes between when the first drop of water hit my face and when I crawled back into my sleeping bag after getting my tent set up. I was impressed with my half asleep self, and I wondered if the tent was overkill… It was Southern California after all, And I was sure it wasn’t going to rain… At least not much.

The other person cowboy camping nearby heard the commotion I made, realized it was raining and set up their tent as well, so our little camping area was full of excitement at 2 am! As the night progressed the excitement didn’t end. Temperatures dropped, wind speeds increased, ice started mixing in with the rain, and people’s tents started blowing over.

Though my tent was getting whipped around by the wind and making lots of noise, it held it’s ground, and didn’t collapse or lose any stakes. Throughout the night, however, there was intermittent swearing as other people’s tents lost the battle against the wind and collapsed on top of their occupants.

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It seems like a lot of people on the PCT cowboy camp (just sleeping out under the stars without a tent) most of the time since we are in the desert and the chance of precipitation is so low. As I started to get used to the desert I started to join the people cowboy camping.

For me the real appeal of cowboy camping is the night sky in the desert, which is absolutely phenomenal! Since the best time to view the stars seems to be well after hiker midnight (sunset), when I pitch my tent the only time I get to see the full night sky is when I get up in the middle of the night and inevitably have to make a bathroom run. When I cowboy camp every time I wake up I can just look up and stare at the stars. Since I often have insomnia this means that I get to look at the stars a lot, which I absolutely love…

Though getting rained on in the middle of the night is not awesome, I expect that the joy of star-gazing from my sleeping bag will eventually tempt me to continue cowboy camping! If I ever wake up with a rattlesnake curled up on my sleeping bag, however, I expect I will be permanently cured of my cowboy camping habits!

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The Devil’s In The Details (PCT Days 34-36)

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Some days are so full of bizarre occurrences that I have trouble wrapping my head around it all. This was one of those days…

I woke up in the enchanted forest (a camping area/maze of manzanita trees in the backyard of a trail angel’s house) and started my hike early hoping to finish my hike before heat of the day set in. Most of the time the PCT follows trails in the wilderness, but because of the 2013 powerhouse fire the trail ahead was closed and I was going to do at least 17 miles of road walking before the PCT resumed.

As I waved goodbye to the people just waking up at Hippie Day Care (as advertised on the sign above the garage) I felt a twinge of sadness. I was going to miss the amazing trail angels there and the fun times that I had shared with my fellow thru-hikers (~17 of them!) as we waited out the last heat wave.

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Road walks are not my favorite part of the trail, but it was a nice cool morning and I was walking with another thru-hiker, which helped to pass the time. It was also kind of novel to be walking through civilization since we’ve spent so much time in the desert.

As we walked through the village near Lake Elizabeth a guy started talking to us through his upstairs window. We chatted with him for a little while as we walked by.

A few miles later a pickup truck pulled off the road in front of us, the driver got out, and started striding purposefully towards us. At that moment I was very glad that I was hiking with another person and not alone!

As he approached he announced that he was the man that had been talking to us from the window earlier. Though I think he meant to put us at ease with that statement I was definitely feeling unnerved. Perhaps picking up on that he followed up by asking if we knew and/or were interested in the history of the lake we’d just walked by, Lake Elizabeth.

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I am always interested in the history and stories of the places that I hike through, especially when it comes from somebody that lives in and knows the area, so I was definitely curious about what he had to say. As we nodded in the affirmative he launched into his tale…

According to town lore, when the Spaniards first arrived at Lake Elizabeth they experienced a number of disasters and bizarre occurrences, including fires and the disappearance of livestock. They blamed these occurrences on the devil and thought that lake Elizabeth was the devil’s portal to the underworld and thus named the lake, “La Laguna de Diablo.” They also thought that the devil had left a favorite pet, a beast of some sort, to guard the portal. It was that beast that was responsible for the weird disappearances around the lake and became known as the monster of Lake Elizabeth. Finally, sometime in the 1800s one of the ranchers got fed up with the livestock disappearances and he and the villagers gathered near the edge of the lake (with guns loaded) to lure the monster out of the lake. Accounts vary, but a winged creature, some say a Phoenix, rose from the lake and was shot at by the villagers. The creature took flight, eventually ending up in Arizona, and never again plagued the people of Elizabeth Lake.

Being completely unfamiliar with the area, a tale about the devil was definitely not what I had expected! Though the fact that Lake Elizabeth lies directly on the San Andreas fault may explain some of the rumors and strange occurrences.

His next story was far more heart warming, telling the tale of how his horses survived the 2013 powerhouse fire. The fires encroached on the ranch so fast and furious that they couldn’t evacuate the horses and instead had to turn them lose. His mare, however, took charge of the herd, led them to safety, and then led them home again 4 days later.

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Despite my initial misgivings, I really enjoyed getting to talk to him and to hear some of the local lore on my way through town. It made my road walk a much more interesting and worthwhile experience.

As the day heated up I arrived at HikerTown (run by trail angels) where I had a package of homemade chocolate chip cookies waiting for me :) As I walked up to the driveway to HikerTown I was in for another surprise, it was a completely fenced in area, with a weird mannequin guarding the front gate, roosters running around, and what looked like the movie set of a small western town.

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After having my head filled with stories of the devil earlier that day I wasn’t so sure I wanted to walk past the creepy thing to see what lay beyond, but visions of chocolate chip cookies dancing in my head motivated me to remain adventurous.

I stared at the oddities around me and headed towards what were obviously thru-hikers milling about inside the garage. There was a nice, cool shaded area to lounge in, where I immediately plopped down to relax for a while (and to enjoy that chocolate chip cookie).

Though I’d already had a long day of hiking and the kind folks at hiker town allow people to spend the night there, I anxious to move on. I just envisioned the dogs keeping me up all night and then the roosters waking me up at 3 or 4 in the morning. I really value my sleep!

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As I was sitting there contemplating moving on a section hiker walked up. He was sporting a very large external frame backpack that towered over his head and was topped of with a gigantic pillow. As he waddled up he greeted us over exuberantly and started asking us our names and if he could take pictures of each of us individually. I was already having a weird day and declined. As he continued talking he seemed more and more like a classic characature of an ill-prepared hiker. I was convinced that he must be an actor or a reporter trying to do some field research… It didn’t seem possible to me that he might really as clueless as he seemed.

At any rate, his constant chatter was a bit too much for me so I decided to head off into the desert to find a campsite away from all of the noise and excitement of town.

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As we headed towards the gate to leave, the dogs started barking and going nuts and the woman working there asked us to come over to help her find the source of a weird hissing sound. I used my hiking poles to investigate the bushes near the porch to see if I could figure out what was going on.

The hissing/rattling sound never wavered or paused, but just went on and on as I determined that whatever it was, it was coming from under the porch. While we watched the pets and kept them away from the source of the noise one of the other thru-hikers went to get the caretaker, who returned with a shovel to try to deal with the problem. Since the caretaker was dealing with it we headed out.

About 100 ft down the trail we almost stumbled over a Mojave green rattler that had curled up in the middle of the trail. Even though it got our adrenaline going, it never bothered to move or to rattle… It think it was way too comfortable to bother moving, hidden where it was amongst the California poppies and the grass.

After regaining our composure we headed back down the trail. We didn’t make it far before we got another startle, some gunshots off in the distance. We later found out that the shots had come from HikerTown as the caretaker shot the rattler (the cause of the noise under the porch) three times.

As we followed the aqua duct out of town I thought that the days adventures might have finally come to a close, until I spotted another Mojave green rattler crossing the trail in front of us. It looked like the snake that the prince from “the little prince” had drawn, though I expect that it had a kangaroo rat in its belly instead of an elephant. I watched it slowly pass in front of us in the fading light of the setting sun. It was beautiful and absolutely unconcerned about us.

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Eventually we left the last signs of civilization behind and set up camp in the desert amongst the Joshua trees. It was a gorgeous night so I decided to cowboy camp (just a sleeping bag under the stars, no tent). As I gazed into the Milky Way, I was reminded how much I love my life… The desert can be amazingly beautiful.

A roving pack of coyotes interrupted my moment of supreme serenity, and they were close… Closer than I’ve ever heard coyotes… And there were a lot of them. I listened to their cacophony with fascination tinged with a hint of fear. Do coyotes ever bother hikers?

It sounded like they were probably only fifty feet away from me, maybe closer. I doubted that they would find me or any of my stuff interesting, besides town was full of tasty meals for coyotes, like hens and roosters. Even as I reassured myself I made sure that my big knife was handy… If they came my way I would convince them that I wasn’t worth the effort.

Though the songs of the cayotes weren’t the lullabies I expected, they did seem a rather fitting end to my day. Before long the pack headed towards town and their chicken dinners and I returned to my star gazing. What a day!!!!