Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Winter Ascent of Mt Baldy via Maker Creek Route

"Hours slide by like minutes. The accumulated clutter of day-to-day existence — the lapses of conscience, the unpaid bills, the bungled opportunities, the dust under the couch, the inescapable prison of your genes — all of it is temporarily forgotten, crowded from your thoughts by an overpowering clarity of purpose by the seriousness of the task at hand." - Jon Krakaur, Into the Wild, on Mountaineering
Winter on the Devil's Backbone of Mt Baldy
One of the few major advantages to working in EMS (Emergency Medical Services) in America is that you work only 10 times a month. For crazy fools like me, that means that 20-21 days of a month can be allotted towards ridiculous pursuits such as climbing and mountaineering. So, on Monday evening I decided to check the weather and conditions up in the San Gabriels. We had recently received good snowfall at surprisingly low altitudes meaning there could be enough to do some decent mountaineering. Sure enough, as quickly as the thought occurred to me, I was packing my crampons, ice axe, snowshoes and other heavy shit into my backpack to set off for Mt. Baldy!

Background on Mt. Baldy
Mt. San Antonio, colloquially known as "Mt. Baldy" is the tallest mountain of Los Angeles County. Los Angeles County is an interesting mix of three distinctly different environments. Of course, there's the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles. As you move north, away from the city's epicenter, you pass through towns like Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and Pasadena. If ever a city less than 150 years old could have an "old town", Pasadena would fulfill that title. However, just north of Pasadena is the San Gabriel Mountains which is a rugged, wild, east-west range. Mt Baldy is the highest mountain of the range at 10,068ft. What's most interesting is that while Pasadena can be experiencing a dreary rainy day, Mt Baldy will be shrouded in a fierce blizzard that can dip to arctic temperatures. This mountain range creates a rain shadow for north LA county which is part of the Mojave Desert. All of this is within one single county!

Los Angeles viewed from Mt Baldy area

Winter Ascent of Mt Baldy

This was a real spur the moment climb. I literally looked up the conditions the night before I left. Mt. Baldy is very close to everything in Los Angeles in Orange County which is nice. It took me an hour to drive up and before the sun rose I was already on the route. There are several established routes up the mountain and a whole host of others made up by cross country skiers. This was my first winter ascent up Baldy, but I've climbed it twice before in the fall. My goal was to hit the scenic and precarious "Devil's Backbone" and follow that spur up to the summit. Normally there is a simple class 1 trail to the backbone, but I wanted to a real climb.

I parked over at Manker Flats and put up my US Forest pass. If you plan on doing Mt Baldy, make sure you buy a pass; its all national forest land. I set off upon the snow covered Falls/Baldy Road which is a road maintained by the Ski resort east of the actual mountain. This passes by scenic San Antonio Falls. You can follow the road all the way to the ski resort, but I elected to hike off at Manker Creek. By the looks of it, a handful of other mountaineers had the same idea.
The serene Manker Creek
Manker Creek had a graceful winter appearance to it. The trees had that natural blanket of snow that people try to vain to recreate on Christmas trees. The combination of the pleasant "babbling brook" sound and fresh pine tree smell made it therapeutic. Of course, it was still only 28 degrees F outside, but I was bundled up in full gear and gliding across the styrofoam snow that mountaineers are so fond of. The conditions were almost perfect!

An unusual phenomenon

As the sun rose, I was hitting some class 3 terrain that would lead to the Devils Backbone. The snow was still great for crampons and an ice axe but I started hearing a low rumbling noise not quite loud enough to be an avalanche. As I crested upon the rim of a gully, I looked down at a fast moving river... of SNOW! In the gully was several thousand fist-sized balls of ice and snow tumbling down the mountain at high speeds! This wasn't an avalanche, it was a constant stream of ice and snow that was falling off trees. Some of these ice balls were bowling ball sized and about as heavy so I navigated away from patches of trees. Crossing across a heavily forested part of the route would be like a deadly game of Mountaineer's Frogger.

The Devil's Backbone and Summit

I reached the Devil's Backbone around 10:00 and had great views of both Los Angeles and the Mojave Desert. From here, I could also see Mt San Gorgonio and Mt San Jacinto, two other formidable Southern Californian mountains. The backbone is a knife's edge of snow and rock requiring the climber to be conscientious of every step. Its not particularly technical, it just necessitates painstakingly slow movement and some backtracking. I finished this part with my ice axe and crampons.
The summit, hiding behind some clouds
After the backbone, it was a simple walk-up to the summit. At 10,000ft walking uphill feels like sprinting and this last half a mile took about an hour. The summit was a complete ice field but calm otherwise. I had time to snap some pictures and explore a while, but it was already 2:00PM and I needed to get back down. I did have a rather jarring experience when I foolishly slipped and slid down the ice field a good 100ft before self arresting. I was bruised up and rather embarrassed, but fine otherwise.

The climb down was incredible; it was late afternoon and the sun and clouds caused gave the landscape and ethereal look. I had to take the Backbone as slowly as I did on the way up but I had the pleasure of watching the sun set. Finally, I reached the last section of the route which brought me up and walked back to my car in the dark.
Sunset on the San Gabriel Mountains
This was my first winter ascent of the season and it was great to do somewhat of a gear shakeout. I'm planning on bagging several peaks in the forthcoming season, so stay posted for further guides and updates on mountain conditions!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Hiking the Slot Canyon of Anza Borrego State Park

"100ft deep and 3 feet wide"

Entering Slot Canyon, Anza Borrego Desert State Park
Slot Canyons are a particular type of desert phenomenon that occur in the Southwestern United States and only a few other places on earth. These types of canyons are very different from "Grand Canyon" type canyons. They form in "softer" types of rock such as sandstone. A slot canyon is exactly what it sounds like; these canyons can be hundreds of feet deep and only a couple of feet wide at the bottom. In my travels through Utah, which has the largest concentration of slot canyons in the world, I've repelled down canyons that are 500-600 feet (150-180 meters). Fortunantly for those living in southern California, there exists a spectacular slot canyon in Anza Borrego State Park. This canyon is simply known as "The Slot"
The bottom of the canyon
Getting There

This hike is located within Anza Borrego Desert State Park, directly east of San Diego. Highway 78, which goes through the southern and central parts of the park, will take you to the turn off. From the ranger station at Tamarisk Grove, head eastwards on highway 78. You will pass Borrego Springs Rd, a road which leads to the town of Borrego Springs. Keep traveling past this turnoff until you see a dirt road on the right which is Buttes Pass Road. This is a dirt road and 90% of it can be traveled comfortably in a sedan. After about 10 minutes of driving this road, you'll come to a fork and stay to the left. After a couple more minutes of driving, you will come to a large and abrupt downhill section. DO NOT ATTEMPT this section in anything but an all wheel drive vehicle with HIGH CLEARANCE. If you're in a sedan, just park it here and walk the rest of the way to the trailhead-- its only about .2 miles away. Park at the trailhead.
Looking down into the Slot Canyon

The Hike

Obviously, its hard to get lost in a slot canyon; there's only two ways to go. However, you should leave a conspicuous mark where you enter and will exit the canyon. Even though there are usually several hikers at the canyon, I've completely overshot the exit before. So, take a couple of rocks and make an obvious arrow or cairn to mark you exit.

If there is any threat of rain, do not hike this canyon as flash floods could be imminent  (how do you think it was formed?)

The canyon seems to get deeper and deeper as you continue down. Its actually a rather short hike, but very interesting. At some points, you will be so deep into the canyon that it will be markedly colder than the surface. The canyon is maybe a mile long round trip, but its worth it to hike further. Past the slot the canyon widdens to form a more natural looking canyon and you can explore the several smaller canyons that are formed into these badlands. Fonts Point can be viewed from about a mile outside the slot canyon which is also pictureque. Whenever you feel like turning around, head back through the canyon and find your exit point!
Sunset on the Anza Borrego Badlands
So there you have it- A nicely formed slot canyon located relatively close to Southern California! Happy Canyoning!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Anza Borrego Desert State Park, Calfornia

"I'd had no particular interest in the Southwest at all as a young girl, and I was completely surprised that the desert stole my heart to the extent it did." ~Terri Windling, artist

Red wave over Anza Borrego State Park
Anza Borrego Desert State Park is yet another massive preserve of the wild Sonoran Desert of the most southern part of California. This park preserves the unique flora and fauna of the the desert which extends as far south as Cabo San Lucas and well into Arizona. It is a desert that is similar to the Mojave Desert but with some important subtle differences. Ocotillos are the hallmark of this land; tall and slender, these cactus bloom with crimson flowers in the spring. It is a color display that can cover entire hillsides and many people travel to Anza Borrego just to see the desert bloom. Best of all? Its located only about 2.5 hours from the Los Angeles/OC areas and about an hour from San Diego!
Proud Ocotillo
California's Largest State Park

Anza Borrego is a national park sized state park. In fact, its larger than 42 of our 58 national parks! This is to say, there is much to explore within its regions. There is also a great deal of variation in elevation and environment. The western portion of the park flanks the mountains east of San Diego and create the rainshadow. The northern end of the park lies close to the 8,716ft Toro Peak which is high enough to receive snow. East of here lies the Salton Sink which contains the Salton Sea. This "accidental" sea is over twice the size of Lake Tahoe and is essentially a giant basin. The central and southern portions of the park contain a great deal of Native American history along with hundreds of off road and hiking trails.

A very visual display of the rainshadow effect
Activities of Anza Borrego Desert State Park

Anza Borrego is a hiker's paradise. The trails are generally unique and designed to give the hiker good views of the Colorado Desert. In the winter, these trails can be downright pleasant and its cool enough to comfortably cover some good distance. The Pictograph Trail, in the south-central part of the park, takes the hiker to some ancient Native American pictographs which have somehow survived hundreds of years of heat, cold, and flash floods. The Marshal Homestead can also be reached from this area. The ruins are somewhat derelict but the story behind them is very humorous! Lastly, my favorite hike of Anza Borrego State Park is The Slot which is a true slot canyon that is 100ft deep at some points.

Ancient Native American Pictographs
This park is also off roader's paradise. 4x4'ing is probably the most popular activity and the website reports that over 500 miles of off road trails permeate the park. Some trails are easily bypassed by sedans while others require technical driving and know-how.
Wildflowers in bloom at Anza Borrego State Park
I don't know if this is one of those "locals-only" secrets, but the wildflowers of the desert are a rare sight and timing is everything. Wildflower viewing is spectacular in the park but the season can be very short: two weeks some years. Therefore, if you are serious about seeing the wildflowers of the park, contact the ranger station and give them your address. They will send you a postcard two weeks before the wildflowers bloom and you won't even have to risk being let down!

Next up, I'll tell you how to hike The Slot!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Cape Alava, Washington, America's Last Sunset

"Westernmost spot in contiguous America"
Last sunset in America, Cape Alava Washington
It only makes sense that after posting about America's first sunset that I should inform you about its last! Cape Alava is the westernmost spot of mainland in the contiguous United States. The sunset here is gorgeous as it sets upon the Olympic Coast of Washington. This place actually requires a longer hike through the temperate rain forest of the peninsula. So, if you have seen America's first sunrise, head out here and see its last!

Where is the westernmost point in America?

It is much more difficult to pinpoint the exact westernmost point on the Pacific coast. The coasts of northern California, southern Oregon and northern Washington are at essentially the same longitudes. While Oregon and Washington are said to have the "westernmost point" in the lower 48, the westernmost city in America is Eureka, California. So, its actually somewhat of a debate amongst geographers as to what' the true westernmost point.

Panorama of Cape Alava
Cape Alava is generally accepted as the westernmost point in America however at high tide it is at the same longitude as Cape Flattery. Cape Flattery, the northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula is the most northwesterly point of the lower 48 states. Cape Blanco comes very close to being westernmost, but this is not accepted by most geographers or the US Geological Survey.

Sunset on Cape Alava
Hiking Cape Alava

Cape Alava can be reached by traveling to Ozette, Washington on the Olympic Peninsula. This seashore is managed by Olympic National Park and there is a visitor center at the trail head. The trail itself is very straightforward and is 3.3 miles to the sea. From the ranger station, you cross a small bridge over the river and turn right at the nearby fork. This is the Cape Alava trail and it is almost entirely on wooden boardwalk planks. The hike itself gives you a very good impression of the vast and lush forests that cover the peninsula. By the scientific definition, this is a true temperate rain forest.
The coastline of Cape Alava
After 3.3 miles, you pop right out on the coast and can see several campsites. A small trail goes to the right to take you to the campsites and Cape Alava. As you pass the campsites you will come across a sign marking the entrance to Ozette Indian Village Archaeological Site and the Indian reservation. From here, its pretty obvious, simply go to the water and you are west! There are several large stony points that make the scene very picturesque.
Only a month earlier, I was at the easternmost point in America!
My Extreme Point Adventures

If you've read my last blog post on West Quoddy Head (, you might have picked up on my most recent adventure goal. I'm now trying to travel to all the "extreme points" of America. This includes the northernmost and southernmost points in the lower 48 as well. I hope to someday travel to the Northwest Angle of Minnesota and Key West, Florida which would make my adventure complete. Also, in case you were interested, Point Loma, California, is the most southwesterly point in America. Of course, if you include Alaska, Hawaii and outlying territories then this becomes a much more challenging affair. Onward!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

West Quoddy Head, Maine: America's First Sunrise

"We prop up the sun every day" ~Maine expression I once heard
Sunrise West Quoddy Head Maine
Watching the sunrise is a unique experience for a variety of reasons. There's a brilliant color display and crescendo of light that finally brings warmth. I've seen many a glorious sunrise on many different horizons but none compares to the sunrise on West Quoddy Head, Maine. The setting itself is intrinsically beautiful but this point happens to be the eastern-most spot in the continental United States. This is to say, when you stand here, you are standing on America's closest point to the continents of Europe and Africa. So, if you are one who enjoys sunrises, I highly recommend you make it to West Quoddy Head, Maine. (Quddy is pronounced as you would pronounce the fish "cod" with a "y")

How I ended up on the Easternmost Spot in America

I first heard of this location in junior high school from a history teacher. I was surprised to find out that the easternmost spot in America is in Maine; most people believe its in Florida or Cape Cod. Fast forward about 10 years and I'm working in Maine as a ropes course director. I got a day off and borrowed a friends car and set off to see the first sunrise! Leaving southern Maine at around 11:00PM, I had to drive nearly 6 hours to get to this point. Maine is actually a pretty large state for one on the eastern seaboard! 
Looking eastwards towards Sail Rock, the true easternmost spot of land in America
Finally, I arrived as dawn was breaking. The lighthouse on this point is the West Quoddy Head lighthouse and it looks like a giant, conspicuous peppermint. Believe it or not, I was completely alone at that lighthouse which surprised me. Its not exactly a secret and in the middle of the summer there can be several other crazy people wanting to catch the sunrise. The lighthouse was pretty, but I was endeavoring to travel to the exact spot of land that was dubbed "easternmost". This required a little bit of down-climbing the cliffy Maine coast to the pebbly beach. From here, I simply watched and waited.
Lobster boat in the distance!
This location is both gorgeous and quintessentially Maine-ish. The coast is very cliffy and green with pines inhabiting everything up to the very line of high tide. The water is icy cold but brilliantly blue and full of cold-water kelp. Off in the distance I could hear the gentle rumble of several lobst-ah (lobster) boats going out for their morning runs. All of this complimented the fact that I was the only person watching America's first sunrise.
The West Quoddy Head Lighthouse
I couldn't have asked for a more poetic sunrise. There were clouds on the horizon which curiously didn't obscure the sunrise while reflecting the rays. Simply put, it was a "light" symphony and sat there for a full two hours to enjoy it all. The main event, the sunrise, was not the end, but the middle. The colors seemed to change even an hour after the sun finally rose. The only thing that could have made it more Maine-y is if I was eating blueberries and lobster right then and there!

Things to do before I die- watch the sunrise on the coast of Maine- CHECK!

Getting There
West Quoddy Head Maine is located near the town of Lubec, Maine. Getting there requires somewhat of a complex route down several State road. You would be best advised to use Google Maps to get there, but here's a general description.
Lubec, Maine
From just about anywhere, head north on I-95 to the town of Bangor, Maine (pronounced Baang-ah). From here, you head about 40 miles east on State Route 9. Then you will head south on State Route 193 for about 20 miles until you come to US Route 1. Route 1 will take you eastward for 44 miles and though the town of Manchias until you come to State Route 189 with signs for Lubec and West Quoddy Head. Drive 10 miles east on 189 until you see Lubec Road. Take a right and continue for 2.7 miles until you hit a slight left to get on Quoddy Head Road. Drive until you hit water!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Wild and Rugged, 6 of America's Least Crowded National Parks

"I grow very fond of this place, and it certainly has a desolate, grim beauty of its own, that has a curious fascination for me." -- Theodore Roosevelt, founder of the American National Parks System (originally written about North Dakota)
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Tired of National Park traffic jams? Try these parks... 
So there your are... you've saved up money for this trip, planned it out, gotten time off from work, and driven 9 hours to get to that national park.... and when you get there, you realize that 100 million other people have the same idea as you. Wilderness experience ruined! There's no problem with crowed national parks, but it can be disappointing when you have to share a gorgeous view of a waterfall with a human traffic jam. So if you want to REALLY get away from it all, here are five of the wildest, most open, and least crowded national parks of the contiguous United States.
Wandering the Utah desert
Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Annual Visitors: 604,811

Capitol Reef National Park is located in the dead center of Utah. Ironically enough, its located near two of the most visited national parks in the country; Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park. The park was established to preserve a unique geological formation called a "waterpocket fold". Essentially, its somewhat of a canyon that has been warped by water over the millennia. Imagine what warped wood looks like and make it 100 miles long; that's Capitol Reef. In addition, you can follow in the footsteps of the real "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" by hiking to Cassidy Arch. The Zion Narrows are often crowded and its difficult to get a permit, why not have the same thing to yourself and hike The Narrows of Capitol Reef? This park has everything that Utah is known for with a quarter of the visitors.

Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Annual Visitors; 438,715

Canyonlands National Park marks the major confluence between two of America's wildest rivers; the Green River and the Colorado River. Essentially, it is America's other Grand Canyon. In many ways, I think this park is just as beautiful. First of all, it is completely rugged and out there. The southern districts of the park "The Maze" district and "The Needles" district are areas that are not easily accessed but contain a great amount of archaeological finds and ancient petroglyphs. The Island in the Sky District is easily reached from nearby Moab, and provides sweeping views of the canyons created by the Green and Colorado rivers. Mesa Arch is also in this district. In my opinion, pictures of Mesa Arch tend to be the most photo shopped pictures of any national park feature, which I suppose speaks to its allure.

Upon the summit of Mt Lassen, looking eastwards
Lassen Volcanic National Park, California Annual Visitors: 377,361

This national park is perhaps the most accessible of the wild bunch. It's located only about 50 miles from Interstate 5 from North and South. Lassen Volcanic preserves California's most recently erupted volcano and all the thrills you could find in Yellowstone. You can challenge yourself in climbing the 10,457ft Mt Lassen for a great view of the southern Cascade Mountain Range. Cinder Cone which is much less of a challenge is a similar recent volcano. The alpine lakes of the park are picture perfect; clear, blue, and incredibly reflective. Lastly, Bumpass Hell is an area of active boilng mudpots and fumaroles. Best of all? Even on summer days, you could be completely alone in many of these areas. 
Sutil Island off the Coast of Santa Barbara Island
Channel Islands National Park, California
Annual Visitors: 322,177

The price of a boat trip will be completely beside the point when you set foot on one of California's rugged Channel Islands and experience a truly unique environment. The national park encompasses five of the eight Channel Islands of California and each has its own adventures. For example, Santa Cruz Island has the largest number of sea caves on an island in the world. Santa Barbara Island is a massive destination for sea lions and great for birding. Kayaking and diving opportunities abound on every island. What's best about the Channel Islands is that you will get a taste of a rich and unspoiled natural Californian ecosystem. Again, this national park can only be accessed by boat.

Wheeler Peak and Great Basin National Park in the Winter
Great Basin National Park, Nevada
Annual Visitors: 69,235

Ooooh boy, you know you are going somewhere wild when you're in eastern Nevada. Great Basin National Park is the most remote and least crowded national park you can reach by car in the country. A ranger made a humorous and very true comment when I visited; "First, I'd like to thank you for coming here. We're so far out here that you don't exactly wind up here by accident!" Yes, Great Basin NP is the wildest of the wild. A true adventure would be to climb Wheeler Peak (NV) which is 13,026ft tall and the tallest "true" mountain in Nevada. Also, you can see Nevada's only glacier which flanks the eastern slopes of Wheeler Peak. Caving is also possible by going on a guided trip through the famous Lehman Caves. This is a park for anyone who wants to have a real wilderness experience in a place that is absolutely devoid of crowds.
Wandering in the North Cascades National Park
North Cascades National Park, Washington
Annual Visitors: 18,725
This national park is by far, the wildest national park you can hike in the contiguous United States. Literally, you have to hike to it, there are no roads to the park. Despite this challenge, most trailheads are located only an hour and a half away from Seattle. There are hundreds of opportunities to see glaciers and a glacier carved landscape. This includes Diablo Lake which is an incredible emerald green. This park is basically the closest you can get to seeing Alaska without leaving the lower 48 states.

What about Isle Royal National Park?
Some of you read this may be national park buffs and therefore offended that I haven't mentioned Isle Royal National Park of Michigan. I try to refrain from writing about places I haven't been and unfortunately Isle Royal is still unvisited by me. I've heard nothing but good things about this island park and it receives the least number of visitors out off all non-Alaskan national parks. This is mainly due to its remoteness and the fact that its only accessible by boat or sea plane. Fear not! I will be headed towards this part of the country come early May and I will write about it afterwards!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Kayaking the Topock Gorge on the Colorado River, Lake Havasu

“We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls ride over the river, we know not. Ah, well! we may conjecture many things.”
- John Wesley Powell, from "The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons"
The spectacularly clear water of the Colorado River
The Mississippi River may be the longest and most well-known river of America, but the running the Colorado River is a far more daring affair. Seven National Parks and several other smaller monuments preserve this 1,450 mile (2,333km) long river. If national parks are any measure of grandeur, the Colorado River is the most grand natural feature in the country. Recently, I was able to kayak about 40 miles (64km) up and down a beautiful section of the river known as Topock Gorge. Its certainly not as massive as the Grand Canyon, but it is just as gorgeous.
Map of the Topock Gorge

How I ended up in the Topock Gorge and Lake Havasu

I heard about the Topock Gorge through a Las Vegas old-timer that I met in Red Rock Canyon. I sensed that he knew a thing or two about some of the better adventures around this part of the country. We talked a while and found out that both of us had pretty much done all the things to be done in the area, but he did mention the Topock Gorge. Great birding and kayaking was what I heard! About a month later, I managed to scrape up two days of off time and headed east from Los Angeles.
A simpler way to travel
I found a guy in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, who rented me a touring kayak for 40$ (great price for two days on a good kayak) and he dropped me off at Castle Rock north of the city. From here, I cast off and headed upriver upon the Great Colorado!

This trip was my first time really on the Colorado river so there were many things that I did not anticipate or expect. Towards Lake Havasu, the river is much more like an estuary than a river. There are multitudes of reeded islands and temporary sandbars. It was actually quite difficult to navigate; there's little current and many islands which can cause confusion. As I paddled further up river, the banks became closer together.
From the bow
Through the Devil's Elbow
As the river narrowed, I pushed further and further into an area of complete wilderness. This gave me a great sense of serenity and joy. I was the only one out on this section of the river so I felt like an explorer. In a sense, I was; I could find no real maps of the area and was going off of a brochure! Obviously its difficult to get lost on a river, but the feeling of total solitude among a strange land of natural arches, building-sized sand dunes, and an epic river made the trip like a modern-day "Huckleberry Finn" story.

After about 10 miles of paddling upriver, I hit a section called "The Devil's Elbow". This section is most certainly one of the most beautiful sections of the Colorado. A "Grand" canyon is created here with walls that are hundreds of feet high. I hit this section right at sunset so the appenglow created a heavenly picture. The water was emerald-green and I could hear the sounds of hundreds of waterfowl who seemed to be enjoying the river as much as I was. It was almost saddening to leave this section.
Yes, it feels like that!
Camping and Onward to the I-40 Bridge

I pushed on for another 3 miles and the stronger current slowed my pace. Fortunately, a nice sandbar was formed on an island which made for a perfect campsite. So there I was, camped under a billion stars, cooking up dinner, drinking beer and listening to the distant howl of Arizona coyotes. I confess I howled back at them; "This is California Joe, all's well on this side of the river!" Who cares if it was silly? Nobody else will hear!

The next morning was just as glorious. I set off at sunrise as the river's current picked up. I was trying to make it up to the I-40 bridge which would make my paddle upriver 15 miles long. It was grueling to paddle that last 2 miles. The current was not rough, but it was fast. I navigated towards the shore where it was lighter and finally made it to the I-40 bridge.
The Interstate-40 bridge between California and Arizona
Riding the Current Down to Lake Havasu

I believe the current was strong due to water being released upriver and this current carried me all the way down to Lake Havasu. The  second day of kayaking was not much work at all! Half the time I was simply steering with the rudder without paddling. What was more notable was hitting the Devil's Elbow once again. It was noon-day when I entered this section and the water was a brilliant emerald green. I simply had to stop to take it all in.
I don't mean to wax poetic in a blog that's supposed to be a guide, but it was a supernatural experience to be kayaking on the Colorado River. The natural beauty of the desert and the river was breathtaking to say the least and I simply had to stop and enjoy this glorious creation. As I paddled down, I found myself doing quite a bit of praying and meditating. It wasn't necessarily on scripture, but I was just being thankful to God for such a gorgeous place and that I could make it down here for two days. (end waxing poetic!)

Eventually, the current dropped me off in a very windy Lake Havasu. The guy said he'd pick me up wherever I happened to be at 4:00PM. There was an extreme amount of wind on the Lake so I was able to make it down another 10 miles. Lake Havasu is very cosmopolitan and "touristy" compared to what I just paddled but pretty nevertheless. The famous "London Bridge" crosses part of the lake onto a man made island. This is the actual London Bridge that at one point crossed the River Thames! In the 1960's when the old bridge was replaced, the founder of Lake Havasu City literally bought the bridge and shipped it over from the U.K. piece by piece to a most unlikely location deep in the Mojave Desert. How strange!
Windy day on Lake Havasu
Thus, my epic trip on the Colorado river ended unceremoniously on a city beach full of old Midwestern retirees escaping the Feburary winter doldrums. It was a grand trip through a grand river and I will return soon. I drove off into the sunset to return to my humble abode in Orange County, happy that I'd taken my chances on the Colorado River!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Spelunking (Caving) the 6,900ft Lava Tube known as "The Catacombs"

"The Longest Lava Tube in California"

Deep in the back of "The Catacombs"
Deep in the heart of Lava Beds National Monument lies "The Catacombs" which by far the longest cave in the park and one of the longest lava tubes in the country. It is 6,903ft ONE WAY so its 2.5 mile (4km) long caving adventure. For those of you looking for an ultimate challenge, this is the true test of one's grit.

The map of this cave is copy written. This post provides information on the challenges you will encounter if you cave the Catacombs. This is not a strict guide; buy a map at Lava Beds National Monument

Caving is a dangerous sport. Get the training and experience you need before attempting this cave.

The Challenges of Caving the Catacombs

"The Catacombs" is a lava tube which needs no technical climbing gear but requires the utmost ability in navigation. This cave is a difficult cave for many reasons. First of all, it is a literal 3D maze. There are a large number of side chambers and passages which may or may not lead in the direction you would like to travel. This is why it is highly recommended that you study the cave map before exploring. I noticed that when I was caving this tube, I would literally stop every 20ft and re-assessed my location. Caving is a sport that teaches you to truly depend on a compass as a lifeline, so if you aren't comfortable with you skills, this isn't a beginner's cave.
An section with 8 inches of clearance (20cm)
The second thing to consider is the extremely tight clearance of the cave. This cave has sections that have only 8 inches (20cm) of ceiling height. There is a particularly difficult section has about 12 inches (30cm) of clearance for a full 100ft (33m). I remember this part taking an extreme amount of self control; if you don't mentally prepare for this challenge, you could find yourself losing it in a very difficult section. Also, wear a helmet and knee-pads!
Get your bearings at the entrance!
Lastly, before going on this adventure, consider the time you will be down in this cave. It took me a full 3 hours of painstakingly slow movement to get to the back and out of the cave. The rangers of the park may quote you even longer times than that. Caving takes patience and the ability to constantly monitor yourself for signs of fatigue. It is easy to get lost if you're not constantly checking your position on the map and making sure you still have the energy to get out! I was sweating profusely as I moved through this cave, even in the winter.
About 30ft from the back of the cave
 One final note, bring a backpack that can fit through tight spaces. I attempted to bring a full sized day pack through a similar cave and it was too challenging to bring even a midsized pack. Take what you need, but bring a small pack.

Surviving "The Catacombs"!
So Why Do It?

      Caving is unlike anything I had ever encountered before. It requires a different degree of self-reliance and control. What I remembered fondly of my experience in The Catacombs was learning how to really trust yourself to a compass. Surface navigation is done more easily and it easily makes a person complacent. Learning how to depend on a compass and map is a critical skill for a true outdoorsman; caving helps facilitate this trust.

      Another thing I appreciated about caving was how easily one can adapt to a different reality. On the surface (literally), we tend to rely fully on our eyesight. Caving is a completely different sport. I found myself forced to rely on touch, prediction, memory and most importantly, good judgement rather than simply what I could directly see. Again, these are all skills that greatly help the adventurer in becoming more well rounded and inevitably safer. In the short time that I spent in Lava Beds National Monument, I learned much about myself and how to become a better navigator.

      So, if you intend on venturing into The Catacombs, keep your eyes on your compass and don't be afraid to turn around if it gets too difficult.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!