Monday, April 25, 2016

Sky Island Traverse

Sky Island Traverse:


The Madrean Archipelago is a vast and vital ecosystem around southeast Arizona, southwest New Mexico, and northern Mexico. The Chihuahua and Sonora Deserts sprawl this remote region like an ocean of sand, of rock, of grasslands, of pokey and spiny desert fauna. Within this ocean lie mountain ranges that span thousands of feet skyward from the desert floor to the mountain tops. These ranges draw in rain and snow clouds which provide crucial water to the surrounding ecosystem. This region is where the temperate and tropical zones meet providing ample water in the form of monsoons. Abundant diversity in wildlife and fauna adapt and thrive within a few thousand steep feet above. However, the virtual sea of the desert can pose a major obstacle to a landlocked organism from one mountain range to another. From atop one of these ranges one can visualize the mountain ranges resembling an archipelago, or the Sky Islands. I set out this Spring to connect 10 of the Sky Islands in one of the most important ecosystems in North America, all within southeast Arizona.

The Route:

Credit to pioneering such a challenging route and conceptualizing the Sky Island Traverse (SkIT) goes to Brett Tucker, who is widely known for the Grand Enchantment Trail, a 750m route from Albuquerque to Phoenix. His website gives an in depth summary of the SkIT. Here's a link for a more thorough background.

The 520m corkscrew route starts at the Cochise Stronghold in the Dragoon Mountains, then follows the San Pedro River Corridor lined with giant cottonwoods, birds galore, and running water all within a desert valley. The Huachucas near and from the valley floor you climb up to some 9,000ft to the crest only to plummet some 4,000ft below to the Canelo Hills. The SkIT coincides with the Arizona Trail at this point and heads for the Santa Rita Mountains. Then a pretty desert jaunt filled with saguaro and ocotillo to the broad Rincons, steeply up and down and across another high valley and into the Santa Catalinas. The SkIT diverts from the AZT at Summerhaven, at this point. From here the route gets more remote, more rugged, and less defined. The Galiuros and the Santa Teresa highlight the ruggedness and the spirit of this isolated and chiseled country, including a scramble up into Redfield Canyon. After your overgrown thrashing you ascend very high into the alpine country of the Pinalenos, which may have lingering snow. After an undulating traverse of the eastern flanks of the Pinalenos the SkIT takes a more cross country approach through more desert mountain ranges. The Dos Cabezas Range promote grit and toughness. The cattle I saw in this range are the most athletic cattle I have seen anywhere, jumping up boulder strewn ravines and canyon walls. After the Dos Cabezas spits you out the Chiricahua await. Rough and tumble, fire ravaged and remote, you walk under the splendor of Cochise's Head in the north, then hit the high country at Rustlers Park. The route sticks to the crest where one can see all 10 Sky Island mountain ranges you have just traversed, some 500m. A true splendor indeed. Down birdsong Cave Creek and up to the Silver Peak Lookout near Portal, AZ for the finish.


I hike for a connection---with the environment, with a themed route, with the culture of an area, and most importantly nature. After hiking the Arizona and Grand Enchantment Trails as part of the Vagabond Loop in 2013, I felt the presence of a larger landscape, an immense ecosystem, something bigger that I needed to explore in Sky Island country. The AZT and GET explore some part of the Sky Islands, but I needed more, something to tie it all together, the deserts and the mountains. I found the Sky Island Traverse on Tucker's website. From there I simply waited for the right time to attempt this route.

There's something else too. A theme, a route I can delve into history, that I can connect with the past. The SkIT seemed to fit the bill. It did. The route is a very historical and educable featuring Native American culture, the Cochise and the Apache Wars, the Old West, mining, and, most interestingly enough, biological diversity in wildlife and fauna. The SkIT fulfilled my thirst of knowledge within a long distance hike.

Route Difficulty:

The SkIT is a legit long distance hike. In some respects, for the 520m hiked seemed tougher than the whole 750m hiked on the GET. There may be various reasons for that but the sheer ruggedness, elevation profile, and a high bushwhacking propensity all compacted in a shorter mileage seem to etch a firm reason. In particular, the last 6 mountain ranges---the Santa Catalina, Santa Teresa, Galiuros, the Pinalenos, Dos Cabezas, and the Chiracahua, all strung together in the last 250m or so pose a huge and rewarding challenge. Excellent navigation skills are a must and a need to be a little bit of a glutton for punishment is a must. After the well-groomed AZT, the SkIT's route follows very overgrown paths full of catclaw, mesquite, and other prickly plants, and bushwhacks up remote canyons, ridges and saddles without a trail in burned country, let alone overgrown.


Tucker's website has a great set for the route, as well as a Data Book, which I highly recommend using.


The SkIT took me a hard 20 days, with 2 consecutive zero days due to an illness midway through the hike. Expect to take up to a month to complete this very challenging route. Averaging 25mpd in this environment is equivalent to mid-30s on the PCT. Please do not take this rugged route lightly. 

I recommend a mid to late March tramp. Early April is sufficient if you are an efficient and in-shape hiker. Any earlier than the timeframe mentioned you can expect snow above 9,000ft, especially the Pinalenos, while on the other hand, if you start later than mentioned you can expect the sweltering heat of the desert stretches.


While there are options, few exist, and amenities in each stop are rare save for Patagonia. The first 250m has better cell coverage and is closer to civilization. The last 250m are 'out there.' Here's what I did:

•Patagonia, mile 0-119. Groceries, restaurants, and a place to stay.

•Summerhaven, mile 119-246. Post Office and a restaurant. Small general store too.

•Klondyke, mile 246-322. Very specific package delivery instructions. No services. See Tucker's website for explicit details!

•Bowie, mile 322-436. Post Office, a mini mart, 2 gas stations. That's it. 9m hike or hitch. I did both.

•Portal, mile 436-520. Lodge and cafe. Not much else. Good food though!


Brett Tucker is known to me as the 'Water Whisperer.' He seems to create routes with readily sources of flowing or other forms of accessible water. I treated my water while filling up in the San Pedro River and a few other earthen cow tanks in the desert south of I10 on the AZT. Almost every other source I drank untreated. I was surprised at the actual amount of flowing water on the SkIT. Twice I carried 3 gallons, the most I carried at any given time. That being said, I am a relative dromedary and even though water sources are plentiful along the SkIT, taking proper precaution and planning ahead may serve a hiker well in still a 'desert' region. 

Also, water resources are vital to the Sky Island Ecosystem. Please take care of the sources and try not to pollute the sensitive watering holes. You're not the only one out in this area who needs this precious resource.


•Lonesomeness. Spending time alone in such a vast and isolated country was exactly what I needed. Open skies, my thoughts, reflection, rough and challenging country--that's it. 

•Social encounters. I hardly saw anyone out there. But I enjoyed chatting up a few AZT hikers. On my first day on trail I met a family in the Dragoons, pretty far out there in the country under some huge rock formations. I had wished I had only met them in the evening. Then, I could've camped with them. Fast forward two weeks later and I randomly meet Joe in the Santa Catalinas on the crest. He was working at the observatory on Mt. Bigelow. Such a random coincidence!

One last social experience I loved, which was totally comical. Upon arriving in Portal I sat down to meal, the first sit-down meal in 12 days. I inquired about a place to stay in town but the lodge was all booked up. Further down the road the town of Rodeo, NM had vacancy. Most of the information was from a gal named Karen. She was super helpful and seemed to be interested in what I had just done. Anyways, a hitch later and I was in Rodeo at a motel finally washing my clothes after 3 weeks. After getting all cleaned up I strolled to a cafe only to find all places to eat were closed on Sundays. Dejectedly I walked back to the motel. Waiting 15 hours in a motel room and a town with nothing to eat in the middle of nowhere would pose a greater endurance challenge for a long distance hiker than the Sky Island Traverse! Eventually, I explained the situation to the motel clerk and I hoped to buy some farm fresh eggs. He came out with leftovers from a BBQ and some eggs. I microwaved the 3 eggs, mixed them up with a red rice and beans mixture, threw in some BBQ sauce, and grubbed down. The next morning I stumbled into the cafe, now open, for breakfast. After eating I went to pay and 'Bill from the church' took care of my meal. I guess news had traveled fast in a small town of a weary and hungry hiker. Anyways, I now had to hitch 175m to Tucson. Walking down a lonely and isolated highway I finally thumbed a ride. Karen, the gal from Portal from the night before, was cruising on by and headed to Tucson. She spoke of the area as an historian and knew of the Sky Island area so in depth I gained a bigger understanding of what I had just accomplished and why I felt so tied to this area. These random and fortunate events I feel so grateful for. Never would I have expected such occurrences.

•Wildlife. The diversity on the SkIT is CRAZY! Supposedly more species of mammals, birds, reptiles, ants, and bees are found in this region than anywhere in the country. Birds come from the south so hearing a tropical squawk is not uncommon. The birds tantalized me while hiking. From the bright red Arizona cardinal to the funny squeal of the black hawk to the goofiness of the quail all kept me entertained. Coati, coyote, whitetail deer, tons of javelina--you name it, I saw it. But my best wildlife encounter was right after a coati growled, chomped its teeth at me, and refused to leave the trail. After going around this interesting critter, I stumbled upon a large black bear, some 100ft away from me, sitting on its hind end with its head and forefeet inside of a cow carcass. He was scraping off the last of the rancid meat. He fell back and looked up at me and lumbered away slowly until he took to a jog up a very steep hillside. I watched him for a few minutes until I had plenty of room to bolt on through. It was exhilarating! This was in Wood Canyon in the northern Chiricahua.

•Fauna. Wild sycamores appeal to me. I feel an urge to pet the beautiful white and smooth bark. The Sky Islands have canyons lined with these awesome trees. Next to the ponderosa, these trees are my favorite. Among other trees like the madrone, I have got to mention the spiny stuff---catclaw, ocotillo, various types of cactus, mesquite---all make me tougher, all empower me to have a stronger will to survive. Sounds weird, but I find inspiration in the oddest of places. Like overgrown paths.

•The Challenge, the Mountains. The Galiuros, the Santa Teresa, the Pinalenos, the Dos Cabezas, and the Chiracahua, all strung and traversed one after another really pushed my endurance and skill level. However, the beauty and rawness of those areas kept me so focused at the task at hand, in the moment, and so connected with the landscape around me. In particular, the Chiracahua really inspired me, really drilled a sense of spirituality in me that seemed mysterious yet palpable. The wildness, the spirit of Cochise, I'm not sure yet, but I can tell you I will be back in that area. As soon as I entered the Chiracahua I felt the draw of the that magical area.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

ICT: Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness


In Stanley, I found out how bad the fire situation in Idaho had become. I read that scientists were comparing this fire season's conditions to that of 1910, the year of the Big Burn. Immediately in front of me trail closures along the ICT in the Frank Church Wilderness caused me to find a creative way around the fires. The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness is huge, perhaps no such vast wildness may exist except for Alaska. Nearly 2.4 million acres of river canyons, thick forests, burnt land, and high peaks, the Frank is bordered by more massive wilderness areas of Gospel Hump and the Bitterroot-Selway. Imperative to my journey through this expanse of wilderness is my safety, paramount to even an actual enjoyable experience. So, I had to compile maps, fire information, bailout options, and trail information, then decide on how to go around large fires in an area with hardly a soul in it. I knew from this point I would need to take one day at a time. But I couldn't give in just yet. The route I had finally came up with seemed to give me a creatively intelligent way around the fire, some 200m through rugged and remote wilderness.

Nevertheless, with all this planning and rerouting, I could not help but think of the Ridgerunner, the infamous loner of the massive Idaho wilderness. From the early 30s to the mid 40s, the Ridgerunner roamed through the Sawtooths, the Frank Church and the Salmon River forks, as well as the upper Selway area. Most of his peregrinations included long treks in winter conditions in a terribly forbidden landscape. Mainly a misanthrope with delusions that someone was always after him, he went from mountain to mountain, canyon to canyon, river to river, until he finally began breaking in to Forest Service cabins. Eventually the FS took to try and capture the Ridgerunner. His myth grows from here in not only how he survived horrible environmental conditions but how he eluded the capture of the FS authorities.

He's an idol of sorts to me, even though he wasn't known to have a deepened love for the wild. His survival instincts inspire me, his willingness to roam like a coyote, and his defiance for conventional government. Maybe I don't hold him in high esteem as Muir, Leopold, Marshall, Abbey or Ruess, either way his myth intrigues me. I could not wait to tackle the Frank and move on instinct through difficult terrain and conditions and fathom the Ridgerunner moving swiftly through the same area.

Down Marsh Creek, beautiful singletrack wended in and out of the woods. I went through a recently burnt area from a few years back. So many thousands of acres are burned in the Frank. When a wildfire happens out in the faraway reaches of this incredibly vast reaches the fire management crews usually just let them burn out, depending on any historic structures nearby that they would then decide to protect. The Frank feels like the old West, of the time when the Forest Service was in its historical prime, like the eve of western expansion into the depths of mega-resources the far reaches of the West held. Marsh Creek smelled like a lush forest even within the burnt totem poles of pine trees. Verdant with grasses and wildflowers, the hazy sun and heavy smoke could not take the fresh redolence of a forest out of the air. I glided along the trail swiftly in a trance. I crossed a huge bridge spanning the Middle Fork of the Salmon where the water raged voluminous over a series of falls. On the other side lay the Boundary Creek Campground which is the main put in for rafts ready to float the Middle Fork. I found 2 middle-aged brothers from New Hampshire settled up over a campfire and wrapping up their dinner. One yelled at me as I quietly went pass. I waved back and the offered me a steak. I could not turn that down. I sat with them eating the steak with my hands and slurping up a PBR. Life was grand. A short distance later amid a fiery sunset reflection on the river I encountered river guides prepping for their last trip of the season. We struck up a conversation as night settled in on us. I showed them my gear, we swapped stories, and they offered me 3 slices of pizza and some microbrews. Life was grand! This experience combined with the reality of the fire situation and its impending adventure took my mind off troubling personal matters. Wilderness has a cure.

I left camp early the next morning and took the river trail skirting the shores and banks of the Middle Fork. Easy hiking persisted and the lingering smoke did not seem to be causing me any health issues. The canyon and mountain slopes soared above the surface of the river. Chunky and crumbly rock characterized some of the walls of the canyon, large swaths of burnt areas situated surrounding hillsides, and the roar of the rapids boomed the quietness of the morning. The river held me mesmerized; the flow of whitewater, the movement of waves, the ripples and tide pools of eddies, and the meandering serpentine body of the river gripped my feet to the trail while my eyes cast a dreamy stare on the life of the water.

The raft guides and I had partially agreed, if the timing was right, to meet at the Indian Creek Guard Station where they had planned to camp and meet their guests, who were to fly in to the rural airstrip, some 25m away. Three of the guides floated past me and I hollered out to them. Overall, I out-hiked them to the guard station and as I arrived the guides we asleep under some trees. I knocked on the door of old building to speak with the ranger. She gave me up-to-date information on fire conditions and trail closures, as well as 2 IPA's. I slugged the pale ales down, chatted a friendly conversation, and vanished into the forest a little buzzed. 7m later I set up a cowboy camp at the Marble Creek Bar camp. Flat and padded with ponderosa needles, the setting was perfect for my last conversation with the Middle Fork. The river lulled me to sleep and calmed my anxiousness for the next adventurous day up Marble Creek.

Up early with the low water rush, I strutted up Marble Creek. The mouth became a narrow gorge and within the first 6m I saw 8 bears, 2 sets of cubs with a mother and 2 solo young adult males. I was astonished at how close I got to these bears and how they were climbing around like chimpanzees in the tall black berry bushes and shrubs. I had to get a little loud and assertive with one family as I entered a narrow part of the creek. I rounded an overgrown corner tentatively just in case momma bear held her ground. They had vanished and as I climbed up a scree-lined trail I spotted them above me on the steep bench of the cliff within the large branches of a ponderosa. Such an incredibly wild experience. I had never seen that much bear in that short of miles.

The trail went from well-maintained to a grudgingly, overgrown and tedious path that layered with endless down trees from the scarred burnt land. The wind had picked up and the random mast of a burnt tree would splinter and fall crashing to the ground. A few of them scared me enough to take cover as they fell that close to me. I lost the trail several times and occasionally just trudged right up the middle of the creek. In all, I crossed Marble Creek some 40 times in about 20m. You should know, how big the creeks are in the Frank. Marble Creek resembled a river in other parts of the country. Each crossing simply took patience. After Little Cottonwood Canyon the trail became discernible again, the creek crossings lessened, and slow-going became a thing of the near past.

After some mining ruins the trail switchbacked steeply up a forested hillside and topped out on a burnt ridge line. The wind howled and brought in cooler air. The burnt lodge poles rigidly swayed in the gusts and an eerie whistle hummed the air. Smoke settled in the canyons to the east beneath the gloomy mountains. A beautiful and morose blue painted the landscape. I hiked beneath the flat-scraped top of Lookout Mountain and found coverage alee wind-blown and gnarled pines. I bedded down for the night after a very exhausting day, surprised I hit the 30m mile in that terrain with so many creek crossings and overgrown trail.

Down Monumental Creek I went. I took a detour from the ICT as the Campbell Ferry fire had sections of trail closed I front of me, most notably the Chamberlain Basin area. In reality, I only had one option to take, as the other potential option another fire had portions of trail closed. That left me with only 1 bridge to cross that had hike-able trail. Smoke thickened and the early morning sun glared on the creek. A lovely yet intimidating sight, indeed. Frost stuck to the blades of grass in the meadow and the air nipped at my nose and fingertips. The trail down Monumental Creek was in great condition and the hiking flew on by. The creek careened down a steep and deep canyon through the omnipresent burned areas. After 16m or so I hit the confluence of the creek with historic Big Creek, where an epic battle of the Sheepeater War of 1879 took place. I had passed drainages bearing military names. Things were making sense to me but I couldn't for the life of me imagine a war battle taking place in this unforgiving terrain. The thought boggled my mind!

Aptly named, Big Creek oozed and sludged its way down a broad canyon. The trail eventually squeezed into a narrow section and the roar of cascading water grew. Once I popped out with the canyon less broader that before, I encountered huge swaths from mega-landslides. The slope side would be completely bare, utterly stripped of trees, and the creek would be choked with the trees that once plotted the slopes above. Hundreds of trees piled on top of each other violently stacked in an unreasonable mess. Seeing the aftermath of such destruction empowered me. The scene felt exceptionally wild.

Big Creek continued up valley as I exited the Frank for a brief 6m and climbed even further up Mosquito Ridge. I hiked on the ridge crest as the blood red sun eerily blared through the burnt totems of lodge pole. After a beautiful sunset promoted by the smoke from the wildfires the temperatures dipped to near freezing and I hunkered down spent from a long day.The cool of the morning kept the smoke settled low in the canyons around the ridge lines. Silhouettes of those ridges made the landscape endless in layers of terrain. I entered a broad, flat area named Horse Heaven. I pondered the name without any conclusions until I lumbered down the 5000ft drop of Devil's Steps to the South Fork of the Salmon River. The primitive and extremely steep trail fell precipitously down the grassy slopes. The smoke became worse, actually the thickest I had seen. I could feel the smoke constrict my throat with a grim clutch. Endlessly the Devil's Steps fell, like Purgatory's staircase. As I neared the South Fork I knew why that broad, flat area known as Horse Heaven was named as such: the 5000ft ascension of Devil's Steps.

The heat overwhelmed me for a bit and my quads and knees pulsed with the pain of descent. I sat under a large Ponderosa lingering in the shade and gulped down a few liters of water, for Mosquito Ridge, Chicken Peak, and Horse Heaven's water sources were all dried up. After my rest I followed the easy river trail to Mackay Bar Bridge. I saw 2 firefighters resting in a motor boat under the bridge. I asked them the fire conditions and they said they didn't have much as they were the last troops to arrive and they were the mop-up crew. I continued along the north side of the Main Fork of the Salmon. Old historic ranches and mines dotted the flat bottoms and benches of the wide river. At some of these ranches aged apple and pear trees still harbored fruit. I spotted 4 more black bears munching on the fruit. Two of them were up in the high branches of the fruit trees. As I passed them and they spotted me they plummeted down from the branches and boogied alarmingly into the rocky hillsides. At one point the trail climbed up the cliffs above the river. I spotted from my lofty perch 2 motor boats navigating the river and its rapids. The boats were loaded with firefighters heading upstream to position themselves to continue their noble and courageous fight against the wildfires, which by now I began to understand the sheer number and conditions of the fires around, for the smoke in the river corridor was immensely thick. I knew I was close to burning forests. The miles passed easily along the river and soon I encountered cabins wrapped in fire blankets like giant Christmas presents. The scene became spooky and deserted, like if there actually had been anyone there they had left a long time ago. The Ridgerunner entered my mind, his lonesomeness, his isolation, his desolation. The trail climbed gradually from the protected ranch and I spotted a few flames across the river. Some of the ponderosa held their green crowns while the ground was charred to a crisp and black with ashes. The sun poked through the haze of smoke and the sky appeared a deep purple. Shit was getting real. Night soon enveloped the deep curves and bends of the canyon. I found a beach to sleep on and listened to emptiness of the canyon as I contemplated a last good night's sleep.

At Campbell's Ferry multiple signs explained the trail closures. This meant that I couldn't even continue on the ICT if I wanted to as more fires had started to burn in other areas to the immediate north. At Whitewater Ranch I took a dirt road, a bailout point for me. I hiked up out of the canyon to the top of the range. My plan was to hike into Elk City, resupply, and reassess my new route around the complex of fires. As I hiked into Red River Guard Station, fire camps had been set up and hundreds of firefighters sat around resting. I could barely make out a clear scenery up to about a third of a mile because the smoke was so thick. I could feel the tension in the air. I hitched a ride from French Gulch Road, which is where I intersected the ICT West. I enjoyed the lift into town of Elk City which was now at a Stage 1 evacuation level. I read the fire signs at the General Store only to learn things were much worse than I had thought.

That night in my small motel room I could not sleep, not only because of personal issues going on but because of the complex of fires. I sat up in the bed and scoured over maps for alternates around the fires and websites with fire information. I kept hitting dead ends. Plus, there was no way I wanted to road walk around some magnificent country. Of the remaining 425m left of the ICT approximately 350 were closed due to wildfires. I felt blessed to have gotten as far as I did, considering my situation and finances. I flipped on the television and found my favorite movie of all time on, The Wild Bunch. Such a random occurrence, however, such a fitting occurrence. I found my answer in the western flick. The ending has a group of old outlaws who are faced with a fatal circumstance and situation.

'Unchanged men in a changing land. Out of step, out of place, and desperately out of time.' 

The movie slogan says it all. I knew because of the movie that I was going no further. I did not want the same fate as the Wild Bunch. And I sure as Hell was not going to be that asshole out in the woods ignoring the laws and putting the lives of firefighters in danger when they could be saving lives, houses, and historical structures. The next day I hitched out of town headed for Boise.