by Carol Crooker | 2005-06-21 03:00:00-06
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Lightweight newbie, Andrew, along with Backpacking Light staffers Jay, and Will, in Navajo Canyon, Arizona.
Ahh, spring backpacking in beautiful, southwest canyon country, what could be better? Taking the trip with a bunch of fellow gear freaks and BPL staffers, that’s what! Add to that a newbie lightweight backpacker to regal with tales of underweight packs and words of ultralight wisdom – pure bliss!
Backpacking Light's Pack Editor, Will Rietveld, Make Your Own Gear Editor, Jay Ham, Jay's co-worker, Andrew, the aforementioned newbie, and I, spent five days in April hiking in and near Navajo Canyon, a drainage southeast of Lake Powell. The official purpose of the trip was to collect soil samples as part of Jay (and Andrew's) work as soil scientists. Jay manages a 2.5 million acre soil survey project for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Will and I were along as official volunteers. Jay had special permission to enter the area, which is on Navajo land, for his project. Navajo Canyon is a special place as non-English speaking Navajo still live there, and ancient and modern Native American ruins and artifacts sprinkle the canyons.
The trip got off to a great start. I drove a couple of hours to Flagstaff, Arizona from my home in Phoenix to arrive in time to share a home cooked meal with Jay, his wife, two daughters, and Andrew. Backpacking Light staffers are located around the United States and in New Zealand, and we haven't all met each other in person. This trip into Navajo Canyon was a great opportunity for me to really get to know Jay and Will better.
Andrew is an experienced backpacker and Jay had been advising him on becoming a lightweight backpacker. Early on as we talked gear over dinner, it became clear that Andrew would be the perfect foil for comic relief throughout the trip. This was to be Andrew's first lightweight trip and he was obsessing over each item, and making last minute decisions on what, and what not to, bring. After some detailed and long-winded discussion throughout dinner, the show-and-tell began. (Luckily Joy and the girls are experienced backpackers and didn't get too bored by all the gear talk.) Andrew showed us huge rolls of plastic drop cloths he had just purchased. One was 2 mil, the other was 4 mil. Jay and I were unanimous - both were too heavy. Andrew decided to bring the 2 mil.
The discussion then turned to sleeping pads. Andrew insisted he needed a good night's sleep and had decided on a heavy-by-lightweight-standards, Exped Airmat air mattress. When Joy, who also prizes a good night's sleep, brought out her synthetic fill Big Agnes Insulated Air Core, Andrew began to over-analyze his mattress choice - a not uncommon state for Andrew as I was to discover over the course of the week. At one point Andrew offered to buy Joy's mattress on the spot, but later changed his mind. Watching Andrew hold a lengthy back-and-forth discussion on mattress merits, mostly with himself, was amusing - because I've been there! The evening discussions continued with topics ranging from which tent stakes to use to underarm odor.
We finally sent Andrew home so we could all get some sleep.
The next morning, we met at Jay and Andrew's office, picked up a company vehicle and driver, and began the three-hour drive north to Page, Arizona where we'd rendezvous with Will who was driving from Durango, Colorado. Three more hours of near continuous gear talk ensued, with a short break for soil scientist talk amongst Jay, Andrew, and our driver, Carl, and a long break to talk more about underarm odor.
Over dinner the previous night, Andrew, out of concern for us, insisted that he needed to use deodorant on the trip. Jay and I mentioned that we don't take deodorant on backpacking trips (turns out Will doesn't either - we're dedicated ultralighters). Andrew was not deterred, he continued to debate whether he should pack along a very small container of stick deodorant, or maybe one of those crystal mineral salt balls. He also wondered about the issue of underarm hair and how much that interferes with a deodorant's effectiveness. We found out on the drive to Page that Andrew decided to bring a fragment of a crystal deodorant ball and that he had shaved all the hair from his left armpit. He said he started to shave his right armpit, but about three-quarters of the way into the job, he decided that being hairless might cause him to chaff, and stopped. So, he'd decided to run an experiment to see which pit smelled better after a few days of hiking in warm weather. We volunteered Carl to be the judge when he picked us up at the end of the week. For some reason, Carl didn't want this honor. I started to see that although Andrew was still holding on to some heavy weight thinking, he definitely had the potential to be a fanatical, uh I mean dedicated, ultralightweight backpacker.
We hooked up with Will in Page, made a quick stop at a Subway for lunch - and dinner for some of us - and then hit the dirt roads to our drop off spot. After an hour of driving, we spend a half hour at the local Navajo Chapter house where we picked up an introductory letter we could present in case we ran into any Navajos in the canyons. After more driving we drove past a newly constructed five-sided Hogan (traditional Navajo dwelling) on a narrow, sandy road. No one was in sight so we drove on and turned down an even narrower path. After another half an hour of four-wheeling, we arrived at the drop off spot.
Carl had some soil work to do nearer to Page so he drove off with instructions (and a GPS waypoint) to pick us up at the exit point down canyon on Friday.
At the drop off spot. Jay (on the left) is ready to leave while Andrew, our newbie lightweighter, is still obsessively deciding what gear to pack. The rest of us were eager to leave since the temperature had dropped and we were being hit by a light fall of graupel snow.
Jay, Will, and Andrew heading up the trail from the drop off. Jay had made numerous trips into the area scouting for access points into and out of the canyons. He found an entrance point first, and later found an exit point so we wouldn't have to backtrack. Water was an unknown and a concern. We knew that we were probably going to need to dry camp at some point so all of us had about a gallon of water carrying capacity.
Will, the Backpacking Light Pack Section Editor is a retired research scientist. Even though it spit rain and snow throughout the afternoon, he always had a smile on his face. This pose pretty much reflects his demeanor throughout the trip.
Thanks to Jay's earlier scouting trips, we quickly found the trail Navajo shepherds use to take sheep into the canyon. Here Will and Carol followed the switchbacks down to the canyon floor where we'd spend our first night.
The square window of an ancient Native American granery catches the eye and helped us pick out this first, of several such graneries we saw.
Arizona experienced an unusually wet winter and spring this year (2005) and we were delighted to find water almost as soon as we reached the canyon floor.
Pictographs at ruins on a cliff side near our first night's camp. The ruins had a lot more potsherds and other artifacts than ruins we've seen in more traveled country.
Andrew and his battened down Tarptent after a windy night with a low just below freezing. Andrew had an uncomfortable night since his Raft (as we started calling his Exped air mattress), sprung a few leaks. Hmm, maybe the 2 mil ground cloth wasn't thick enough.
Andrew's Six Moon Designs Starlite, Jay's homemade design (he's not the Make Your Own Gear Editor for nothing), my Gossamer Gear Mariposa, and Will holding his Gossamer Gear G5. Everyone but Andrew had sub-10-pound base weights and we all still had room for a luxury or two. Note Andrew's flip flop camp shoes, and my Therm-a-Rest Ultralight chair kit. Jay carried fresh veggies. Andrew also had a two-person Tarptent and his raft, and I carried the 10-ounce Bozeman Mountain Works TorsoLite self-inflating sleeping pad. In fact, we all had inflatable pads, probably reflecting the relaxed nature of this trip. Jay had a cut down to sub-10 ounce, old style Therm-a-Rest UltraLight 3/4, and Will carried a ProLite 3. After discovering the added comfort of a hip hole dug in the soft sand, Jay said he'd switch to a lighter, closed cell foam pad for future trips in this type of terrain.
According to subscribers Dave Johnston and Paul Johnson, this is a Leopard lizard.
Jay, Carol, and Will looking for a route down into the next canyon. The shovel Jay carries for his soil testing work could be counted as a luxury item - it is one heck-of-a potty trowel!
After a morning spent trekking down canyon from our first campsite, we crossed over a low bench into an adjacent canyon with plans to make our way down it until we could catch another canyon that would lead us to Navajo Canyon. The maps weren't detailed enough to know for certain if the plan would work, but at least it looked feasible. We were prepared to backtrack if needed. Here Andrew and Will enjoyed the easy walking as we headed towards canyon number three - hopefully.
As we made our way down the second canyon, it narrowed and we arrived at a shallow pour off. We decided that as the canyon continued to narrow, it was likely to present us with a pour off too high to navigate without rope. Although we'd be leaving our water source, the slick rock rim looked to be easy walking, so we gambled that we'd be able to find a way back down when it intersected another canyon we could see on the map. Here, Jay is on the rim of the second canyon. The two sticks bungeed on the back of his pack are a hand drill and fireboard he made during a long break while the rest of us scouted for a ruins marked on the map. (Actually, that's just a nice way to say we had some miscommunication as to when and where to meet him.)
Low on water, and about to backtrack to where we left the second canyon, Jay found a way down the 250-foot canyon wall into the intersecting canyon. We were fortunate that water was flowing everywhere in streams that normally would have been dry in April. We never needed to haul a lot of water during the trip. Here Andrew, Jay, and Will begin the trek down canyon number three towards Navajo Canyon, which we would follow for the rest of the trip.
In an oft-repeated exercise, Carol vaulted flowing water. We were very grateful for the water and it was always possible to find some place to cross without getting too wet. We did need to watch out for the occasional "jello mud," where a thick layer of water-saturated-mud floated on top of water. We had a lot of fun "jiggling" the mud by stepping on it. The last person across jello mud had to be careful though, because the jello would lose its integrity and start to suck in feet.
Unusual for a lightweight trip, Carol was the only person with two trekking poles. Will had none, Andrew had one, and Jay carried his trusty soil shovel.
Andrew and Jay in front of a wickiup. We saw several abandoned Hogans, but this was the only wickiup.
Will checking out the inside of this Hogan, which was filled with decades old remnants including a 1950's style flashlight.
Wonderful water. Not quite deep enough to dive in though.
Jay nestled in the two-layer Gore-Tex bag cover by MontBell he was testing. Fine sand got on everything and Jay mentioned he might add an extra ground cloth for gear left outside his bivy sack at night to keep it from collecting grit.
Carol cozy in a MontBell Super Stretch Down Hugger #4 at our second campsite. About to start dinner, I'm plenty warm in a thin wool base layer (Icebreaker Superfine 190 crew), sun shirt (Raid Riders Adventure shirt), MontBell U.L. Down Inner jacket, and Patagonia Dragonfly windshirt.
The Gossamer Gear Spinnshelter has plenty of room and ventilation/storm protection options. I like to set up my tarp under a tree if I can. I've found that on clear, cold nights the tree changes the microclimate enough beneath it to reduce/prevent condensation.
A nice long break on an 85° day. We'd been hiking down this very wide canyon where shade was rare. We kept a leisurely pace with long breaks because we didn't have a lot of miles to cover between the entry and exit points Jay was able to scout. Jay often pulled out his drill and fireboard during our breaks to practice primitive fire making.
Jay enjoying the sunrise from the mesa high above our camp on the fourth morning.
Sunrise, day four.
Will, Andrew, and Jay heading back to camp and breakfast after observing a beautiful sunrise and doing a little exploring and soil mapping. On dry nights we had the pleasure of sleeping under the stars. The waning moon and complete lack of nearby settlements offered excellent star gazing opportunities.
Another hot day with little shade as we trek down Navajo Canyon towards our exit route. Andrew was late joining us at this rest stop. We all had digital cameras. Will, Jay, and I had smaller models: Canon Powershot S330 Digital Elph, Pentax Optio, and a Sony P-100. Andrew, predictably, had a larger model. After dropping his camera in the creek on the second day, we'd often look back to see Andrew trailing behind, staring intently at his camera. He'd removed the battery and memory card immediately to let them dry. He figured the best cure was to keep the camera in the sun and allow it to dry as well so he usually held it while he walked. The presence or absence of condensation behind the viewfinder was a frequent topic. Andrew vowed to carry his camera in a waterproof Aloksak (as Jay and I were doing) on future trips.
Jay conducted another field test of his first Make Your Own Gear project - an open jet alcohol stove that incorporates elements from the best alcohol stove designs we tested and reviewed in our Alcohol Stove series.
The moderate winds of our last night really challenged our tarp set up, and tolerance of fine grit. The estimated 30 mph gusts wouldn’t normally threaten a good tarp setup, but staking in soft sand required a bit of ingenuity. We placed rocks on top of guy lines just before the stake to keep them in the ground,.
The morning of Day five we explored a narrow and brush choked side canyon. The pools sure looked inviting, if it'd been a little warmer Andrew's armpit odor test might have been a wash.
Publicity photo of Carol, Jay, Will, and Andrew for the Soil Mapping monthly. What an awesome trip! Good country, good people, good conversation, and good gear testing weather - snow, heat, wind, sand, 27 °F to 85 °F.
We greeted Carl at the pick up point just as a Navajo couple drove by in a battered pickup. Andrew asked Carl to do a pit-sniffing test, but Carl declined. Andrew did a self-test and concluded that shaving improved his post-trip smell. Then we drove off to return to our normal lives...but not before we got in a couple more hours of talk about lightweight gear and techniques.
"PHOTO ESSAY: Navajo Canyon, Arizona," by Carol Crooker. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/navajo_canyon_arizona_photo_essay.html, 2005-06-21 03:00:00-06.