The Last Outpost

The-Last-Outpost-04

I’d been walking in the zone, watching my footing on the slippery residual trail, when I heard a twig snap and a rustle of last year’s oak leaves somewhere off to my right in the dense thicket. I stopped and looked around, straining my senses for the source.

Nothing.

I started walking again, but stopped short when the trail – what little of it there was – abruptly ended. It didn’t take a GPS receiver or a map compiled by cartographers to realize that my hike was over for the day. The increasingly frequent tangles of deadfall trees that I’d carefully negotiated and the correspondingly diminishing evidence of human foot traffic made that pretty obvious. It’d been hours since I saw the last hikers (a young couple with heavy backpacks scurrying out ahead of the coming storm) and there were no recent human footprints at any of the stream crossings. I noted several faint trails leading off through the gambel oak thickets, but they lacked design and by their random, chaotic nature it was evident that they were not made by human feet nor ever intended for human use.

I took a seat on a log dragged into position next to an old campfire ring. A few sticks of old firewood lay readily at hand, waiting patiently for the next visitor. Others had camped there, perhaps toasted marshmallows over flickering orange flames, laughed, drank beer, made love in tents pitched nearby. But those visions seemed dim and far away, and the wet slurry of ashes in the rock circle at my feet were many months cold; only a week ago this place had been under a foot of snow. It’d been a long time since anyone slept there.

The-Last-Outpost-02

As I ate my sandwich, prepared many hours before in the migraine glare of fluorescent lights, I realized that this lonely place was an outpost of sorts. Like the Roman frontier forts of two thousand years ago it was the last bastion of civilized presence, a kind of equilibrium point built where what is known balances precisely with the unknown wilderness beyond. Past this point lay terra incognita: the exclusive domain of wild animals, impossible terrain, and strange, brooding trees unaccustomed to human eyes. On the map it was a small place compressed between tightly crowded contour lines. But there on the ground, reached only after much effort and sweat, it felt very large indeed.

The single mountain lion track pressed into the mud along the stream crossing just yards from where I sat spoke volumes of the wildness of my temporary stopover. This is not a human place, I thought, and the track was a deliberate sign left for those that might wish to enter.

I am not alone here.

A primordial chill crept its way slowly up my spine and I reveled in the momentary alarm klaxon of danger. It was a welcome visitor to my altogether too safe and sanitized modern existence. For a second a part of me considered retreating away from that place and the silent cat lurking there. But, no, I would stay. This was part of what I’d come to experience. If the lion had really wanted to harm me it had already had ample opportunity to do so. It was probably lounging atop some rock ledge, regarding me with lazy half-closed eyes, hoping I’d just finish my lunch and leave it to its business of waiting for deer.

I stared into the dimness beyond the edge of the clearing. I could hear the rush of a waterfall off to my left, the living water gurgling and splashing its way down the stream bed towards the desert below. Ponderosa and douglas fir trees sighed softly overhead, the gray sky looming darkly beyond towering rock walls. The rustling of last Fall’s gambel oak leaves hinted at the invisible presence of wind spirits dancing and pirouetting amongst the forest detritous. Somewhere to my right I heard the staccato knocking of a Hairy Woodpecker pecking for insects in a fir snag. I smelled damp earth and last year’s moldy pine needles recently escaped from the clutches of Winter snows.

The-Last-Outpost-01

In a way it was a disconcerting and even frightening place, and not just because of the big cat lurking sight unseen in the forest nearby. It was the place where Civilization stopped and wilderness began. There were no tourists there, no old men herding noisy grandchildren, no women pampering chihuahua dogs, no bikes or ebullient college students sporting iPhones and carrying too much (or too little) water. Cell phones didn’t work there (thank God!) and even if they did, turning one on and texting out Hey, dude guess where I am would be tantamount to sacrilege.

I briefly entertained the thought of continuing on past that final outpost, wriggling my way through the slimy remnants of bracken ferns and thickets of locust and gambel oak to peer into deep, dark pools hidden between boulders as big as houses. But I’d already gone too far – much farther than was prudent for someone traveling alone that time of year – and there was a strong winter storm on the way. In six hours time the place would be under half a foot of late season snow.

I’ve intruded enough, I thought. Time to go and leave this place to its winter slumber.

Reluctantly I finished my sandwich, packed away my gear, and started back towards my truck miles below. Looking back over my shoulder I silently thanked the unseen cat for allowing me a glimpse, however fleeting, into that other, older world from which we have insulated ourselves and almost entirely forgotten.


Note: This post was originally posted on an earlier iteration of Delirious Ramblings back in March of 2011. I’m slowly going back through the older archives, updating a few of the best posts, and re-posting them to the new blog. Hopefully those of you long-time readers won’t mind the repetition.

Sinkhole Ramble on the Kaibab Plateau

Kaibab-Plateau-Sinkhole

During last month’s trip to the Kaibab Plateau one of my camps was located near a quartet of limestone sinkholes and I spent one of my hike days walking a big oval through the mixed conifer forest to each one. The above sinkhole was actually a double sinkhole, with one up high and a second deeper one immediately next to it, the two separated by a little rim of grass.

Sinkholes are easy to find if you have access to a USGS topographic map as they have a very distinctive look:

Sinkhole-topographic-map

Note the little tick marks pointing inwards from the contour lines in the three sinkholes above. Simply look for those tight coils of contour lines and the tick marks. The closer the contour lines the steeper and deeper the sinkhole will be.

I walked over to the edge of the second, bigger sinkhole and this is what I saw:

Kaibab-Plateau-Sinkhole-2

This one was about 150 feet deep. Way down at the bottom there were some gophers digging in the grass. I spent about twenty minutes watching them through binoculars as I ate my lunch. (Yes, I am easily amused.)

About a quarter mile away was a third sinkhole. This one was smaller but had much steeper sides and was more forested:

Kaibab-Plateau-Sinkhole-3

The objects at the bottom turned out to be large log rounds cut by firefighters and rolled by someone down into the hole.

Kaibab-Plateau-Sinkhole-4

Kind of interesting that they were piled all together like that. Maybe someone had a camp down there.

Check out the blue spruce. It’s always a treat for me to see blue spruce on these rambles as we don’t have many of them near Flagstaff. Mostly you have to go down by the Mogollon Rim or drive to the east into the White Mountains to find them.

Some of the sinkholes on the plateau are really big and have small ponds in the bottom, like Frank’s Lake, which was a couple of miles from my campsite:

Kaibab-Plateau-Sinkhole-5

Kaibab-Plateau-Sinkhole-7

I didn’t stay long at Frank’s Lake as there were too many mosquitos and too many miles still needing to be hiked.

I’ve loaded my handheld Garmin GPS with the free Arizona topographic mapset from GPSFileDepot.com, which is mostly excellent and what I usually navigate with. But sometimes the tiny screen on the GPS is confusing or the map will be wrong and I’ll miss interesting stuff. Late in this hike I walked right past the edge of an even deeper sinkhole and didn’t even know it because it appeared like a small round knoll on the screen. I was tired and not in the mood for much more climbing that day so I walked on by. After I got home and looked at my GPS tracklog on the computer I realized my mistake.

The forest near the “hidden” sinkhole I missed looked like this:

Kaibab-Plateau-Sinkhole-8

Imagine thrashing around through that and then abruptly coming upon a 200-feet deep hole in the ground. Maybe a little dangerous, but I bet it would’ve made for a helluva picture. One day if I’m ever in the vicinity again I might go back and look for it.

Sinkholes are formed when limestone bedrock is slowly dissolved away by rainfall. Cavities form underground which eventually collapse, causing a big hole to slump down on the surface. Much of the Kaibab Plateau is built from limestone (called the Kaibab Limestone) so sinkholes are pretty common there.

Sinkhole Development

As I mentioned in my previous Kaibab Plateau post, I think my next long ramble afield will be up into Utah onto the big plateau above Bryce Canyon National Park. But that presents a bit of a challenge: The air conditioning in the red SUV is busted. It quit unexpectedly during the hot part of the drive up to Jacob Lake and the sun beating down through the windshield immediately pushed the temperature in the cab up over 110°, which was pretty damned miserable. It’s an old truck with high-ish mileage and worth almost nothing on a trade-in so I’m considering not fixing it, just letting this repair go and putting the money towards a newer replacement vehicle or just buying gasoline and camping gear for more rambling. But that means staying out of the hot areas until the weather cools down.

Kaibab-Plateau-Sinkhole-9

Of course, the trick to driving in hot places without A/C is to do all your traveling at night or early in the morning before the Fahrenheit starts to sizzle. So if I head up to southern Utah I’ll probably break the drive into two days, using the high elevation oases of the Kaibab and  Paunsaugunt Plateaus to escape the afternoon desert heat, doing the low-elevation stretches only in the early mornings. That’s the plan, anyway.

Stratospheric

Stratospheric-01

It’s been a long while since I put together a cloud post, so here are a few recent highly-enhanced shots of monsoon clouds above Flagstaff. The best shots come in the mid-afternoon when the San Francisco Peaks have had a few hours to bubble the clouds up really high into the stratosphere and the light is streaming in from the southwest, giving the camera lots of contrast and shadow to work with.

Stratospheric-02

To bring out the detail I used Photoshop to do multiple passes over the raw images. The trick is to enhance the contrast between the dark grey shadow and the brightly lit areas with the dodge and burn tools. Of course clouds don’t actually have this level of drama when viewed with the naked eye because our eyes reduce their “exposure” to avoid damage from the very bright light. That’s why clouds normally look puffy and kind of flat white to us. However, if you have dark polarized sunglasses you do actually see something akin to this. My prescription sunglasses are polarized and clouds are infinitely complex, wonderfully intricate objects to look at for me now, much more so than they used to be before I got the polarized lenses.

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Clouds are essentially huge mountain-sized reflectors hovering around in the sky and in addition to the visible spectrum they bounce a lot of UV light around too. This is why dermatologists say we should always wear sunglasses and sunscreen when we’re outside, even on cloudy days. Apparently the only time it’s really safe to be outside without sunscreen is when it’s completely overcast and there are no shadows evident at all. If there is a break in the clouds and you can see puffy white cloud tops then UV is being reflected back at you and you’re at risk.

This one is probably my favorite from this session:

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I don’t know what the filmy layer of cloud the thunderhead is breaking through is called, but it’s pretty amazing.

It’s looking like July rainfall is going to come in below average for Flagstaff. There was a blip of moisture right at the beginning of the month, then sixteen days of hot, hot, and hot, then mixed weather. The past couple of days have been quite wet but I think we’ll still probably finish the month a tad low.

By the way, did anyone catch the climate weirdness in the graph I made of Flagstaff’s 10-year precipitation a couple of posts back?

Flagstaff-10-year-precipitation

Back in July of 2011 NOAA updated the 30-year average precipitation numbers and you can see a tiny shift in the climate in that red line. On average, our summer monsoon got a little wetter, which is good. But the winters got a little drier too, as did the spring and fall dry seasons. So that’s bad. Maybe fluctuations like this are completely normal, but to me it looks like on average our climate here is now about 1″ drier per year than it used to be, with more of the moisture coming down as rain during the summer than as snowfall in winter.

Interesting, huh?**

Stratospheric-05

This shift in precipitation patterns is probably why ponderosa pine are starting to have problems getting reestablished following wildfires around here. Mature ponderosa like lots of winter snow because moisture from the snowpack soaks deep into the ground where their roots can draw upon it during the dry seasons. And young ponderosa need a string of wet springs so they can make it through their first couple of dry seasons until their roots reach down to the deeper moisture reserves. Less winter snowpack and dry springs work against this, making life very tough for them.

** Before anyone starts getting a long face I should probably state that you should not in any way confuse me with a real climate scientist or even a TV weatherman. I’m just an interested guy who reads a lot of depressing climate change stuff online and can plug numbers produced by people who do know about such things into a spreadsheet and make nifty charts.

On the Melting of Old Snow

Kachina-Peaks-Wilderness-Camp

As I mentioned in a previous post, back in May I did a couple of backpack rambles up in the Kachina Peaks Wilderness, near Flagstaff. The first outing got aborted after only one night by high winds that roared through the mixed conifer forest like a freight train, making the big spruce and fir trees twist and groan in alarming ways that made me wonder if it was safe to be there at that time. No trees came down near my camp because I was in a somewhat sheltered spot, but I also didn’t sleep very well due to the wind noise. The following morning I decided to pack it in and try again at a future date. This turned out to be a good call because the next night the winds grew even stronger.

My second attempt was a week later after the low pressure system had passed and while still a little windy the forest was much calmer than before. I slept well and was able to stay for two full nights and I got in a couple of high quality woods rambles into the rarified air of the San Francisco Peaks. I don’t regret the aborted first attempt, though, because it’s extremely important to learn the full personality of these places. That means going out in poor weather (within reason) and experiencing the darker moods and tantrums that wild, dynamic environs often throw. If one only goes when the weather is perfect then you won’t get out much and you’ll build a skewed picture of how the land works. And that’s really bad.

High-Meadow-Sunset

Anyway, one of the problems with doing overnight trips in this Wilderness is that there’s very little surface water available. There are a handful of stock tanks below the mountain and a few ephemeral springs way up high, but unless you know where they are and have scouted them out beforehand you can’t rely on them for a backpack. There isn’t much worse than schlepping a heavy pack up the mountain and then discovering that your water source is bone dry and you have to turn around. So the usual solution is to pack all your water in with you, which means humping a couple of gallons of water over steep, rough terrain and that’s hard work and detracts from the enjoyment of being in the Wilderness. That’s what I usually do (carrying all my water), but for these two spring trips I tried something else: melting residual snow.

Humphreys-Peak-West-Side

On a previous day hike to the same general area I’d noted that while the snow had retreated very high up the mountain there were still some fading snowbanks persisting in the shady spots as low as 9,000 feet. I figured that if I brought my canister stove and my trusty water filter along I could melt all the drinking water I’d need and avoid having to pack more than a couple of liters at any one time. Sometimes these nutty ideas fail spectacularly, but this one worked great, with only a couple of minor glitches.

Here’s a shot of the residual snowbank that I used:

Residual-Snowbank

And here’s a shot of my snow melting operation:

Snow-Melting-Operation

The parts are:

  • Stove for melting the snow. I have a JetBoil canister stove, but any kind of heat source will work. Even a traditional campfire will do the job, but I don’t recommend that; campfires are dangerous and stupid, especially on a dry mountain like this one where there isn’t water available to put one out properly.
  • Water filter. I use an older MSR pump model, but the ultra-light Sawyers or equivalent will work fine, too.
  • The bottom of a plastic water jug cut down to act as a container to hold snow and the melt water. (Also works as a nice wash basin for cleaning up, doing dishes, etc.)
  • Bandana to pre-filter some of the junk out of the melted water, which helps prevent the MSR filter’s element from clogging so quickly.
  • Couple of water bottles to hold the clean, filtered drinking water.

JetBoil-Stove-Melting-Snow

Basically, my snow melting operation worked like this:

  1. Feed clumps of dirty snow from the residual snowbank into the canister stove’s pot to be melted. No need to bring it to a boil because I knew I’d be using the MSR filter to actually purify it. Just get it to a liquid state a few degrees above freezing.
  2. When the stove’s pot was full of slushy water I’d pour it back into the plastic “basin” through the red bandana to filter out some of the larger debris. I did this three or four times to get as much of the gunk out as I could.
  3. Put the intake of the MSR filter into the basin and pump clean, pure water into the Nalgene bottles.
  4. While I was pumping the water filter, I started a second batch of snow melting on the canister stove. This way when I finished filtering the first batch I could start in immediately on the second.
  5. I then repeated this process until I had all the water I needed.

This is not a difficult operation, but it’s kinda slow and you can use up a lot of stove fuel if you’re not careful. That’s why you want to keep the stove busy at all times melting snow and only heat the snow just enough to bring it to a liquid state. Otherwise you’ll waste fuel and time. The trick is to let the bandana and your water filter do the actual purification for you, not the stove.

One of the big problems you have to solve is that these residual snowbanks are very dirty and the meltwater is of similar quality to glacier fed creeks where there’s a lot of suspended solids. In most cases the snowbanks have been sitting around on the mountainside for many months, probably since the first snows back in the late fall. Over that time they collect a lot of dust, dirt, spruce needles, bugs, elk poop, and other forest debris. This is why you have to pre-filter the melted water through the bandana, otherwise your main water filter’s element will clog really fast.

Bandana-with-melted-snow-grit

The bandana doesn’t get it all, but it sure helps. Depending on how much melted snow you’ll be filtering and your model of water filter you may have to clean the element a couple times. My MSR filter seemed to clog after about 3-4 liters, which is about normal for it and poor quality water.

After I returned to camp in the late afternoons from my woods rambles the first thing I’d do is melt and filter about five liters of water for dinner that night and the next day’s breakfast and hike. I was camped a couple hundred yards from the residual snowbank so it was relatively convenient to make runs for drinking water. I could’ve camped right next to it, actually, but that would’ve been uncool as birds were using the snowbank too and my presence would’ve disrupted their activities. So I settled for a slightly less ideal site back in the trees.

Around here, melting snow like I’ve described is really only an option for parts of middle and late spring and is highly dependent on the winter snowpack and the temperatures. If it’s been cold with lots of clean, recent snow available then you might not even have to post-filter the snowmelt. Just melt it on the stove and drink directly from the pot – although if I could spare the fuel I’d probably bring it to a boil anyway because I’m paranoid about getting sick in the backcountry.

One thing you have to keep in mind if you want to try this is stove fuel. Melting frozen water is energy intensive and you’ll burn a whole lot more fuel than you normally would. Some kinds of backpacking stoves are better than others at this. The old-school liquid fuel stoves that burn white gas or kerosene, etc are hotter and if you’re going to do this a lot then that’s the way to go. I’ve been watching the outdoor websites and local thrift stores for a deal on an MSR WhisperLite or equivalent and may switch from the canister-fed JetBoil if I can find one.

With that said, my JetBoil canister stove proved to be very competent at melting the snow and I wouldn’t hesitate to use it again for this. Its only real drawback is that the isobutane canisters it uses are kind of expensive and it’s difficult to accurately judge how much fuel is remaining in a canister after a long melt session. For example, after the first aborted trip to the Wilderness I wasn’t sure if there was enough fuel left in the partially used canister for the next trip, so I had to purchase and carry a second one. Turns out I didn’t need it, so I carried it up the mountain for nothing. A liquid fuel stove wouldn’t have had that problem. (Neither would an alcohol stove, but I have no experience with those.)

Humphreys-Peak-Forest

A few more tips I can offer are:

Put a half cup or so of water in your stove pot to get the snow melting primed. If you don’t then there’ll be no medium for the heat to transfer from the metal pot to the snow and you can damage the pot.

If your water filter is field serviceable (my MSR is) then clean it before you pack things away. That way it’ll be ready to go tomorrow when you need to use it again. If for some reason you drink all your clean water during the day’s ramble then at least the filter will be ready so you can make more drinking water. If it’s dirty or clogged (because you were lazy and didn’t clean it) then you won’t have the fresh water to clean/flush it and you’ll need to hike out or else drink boiled grit. This would suck.

After you’re done, rinse and wipe out the cook pot you’ve been melting the dirty (and possibly contaminated) snow in before you use it for cooking. To avoid problems I’ll usually bring some water to a good rolling boil in the pot and then use it to make a mug of hot chocolate or coffee. The heat from the boiling should kill any critters that may still be lurking in the pot.

If the nighttime temperatures are expected to drop below freezing be really careful about your water filter. Most will be damaged if ice crystals form in their filter elements. To prevent this, put the water filter element (or the whole filter assembly) into a zip-lock bag and sleep with it at the foot of your sleeping bag. That way it won’t freeze.

Water-Basin

(Melted residual snow that’s been passed through the bandana five times. It’s still cloudy but definitely drinkable if chemically treated or boiled.)

It’s possible to use the sun to melt some of the snow so you won’t need to use quite as much stove fuel. Before you leave camp in the morning put some snow in your little “basin” and leave it where the sun will find it. When you get back in the afternoon and it’s time to make drinking water you’ll already have one basin melted, free of charge by the sun. Just don’t be too surprised if birds find it and use it as a birdbath or help themselves to a drink. 🙂

And finally, as I’ve been hinting at, boiling or chemical treatment of the melted snow is always an option if your water filter breaks or you don’t want to carry one. You’ll just need to figure out how to get the dirt and junk out of it. Passing the silty water through a folded bandana a bunch of times helps a lot, but won’t get everything out. It’ll still be pretty cloudy. But maybe you could use your plastic basin or some big one-gallon zip-lock bags to settle some of the solids out overnight. Or maybe just drink it. What the hell. Some really serious hikers do that, but they also get sick sometimes, too. So I dunno about that.


Before I close, I’ll share something that happened the last night of this Wilderness outing.

Arizona Asteroid

Sometime after I’d fallen asleep, very early in the morning, the darkness of the northern Arizona night split apart and the inside of the tent lit up like broad daylight. I opened my eyes, blinking, and watched as intense golden light filtered through the tent’s yellow rainfly. For a few seconds it pulsed and flickered like something alive and then snuffed out, leaving behind the crazy afterimages of the inside of the tent and the shadows of tree limbs imprinted onto my retinas. I waited an eternity for the low rumble of a far away impact, but it never came, just the apprehensive silence of the mountain. Finally, from way down the mountainside below the forested bench I heard a lone coyote call out as if to ask What the hell was that? to anyone who might be listening.

The next day after I’d packed up my little Wilderness camp and gone back to town I read that a small asteroid had broken up above central Arizona and the fragments had gone down somewhere north of Tucson. I wondered if that’s what the end of the world would be like, the night sky flashing bright like the noonday sun, then an impact more felt than heard somewhere beyond the horizon and then everything changed forever. Kind of a helpless, frightening thought, that. It’s happened before; I suppose there’s nothing that says it couldn’t happen again.

North of the North Rim

Rambling-Road-Show-North-Rim

I spent most of last week rambling around the Kaibab Plateau in the forest north of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, checking out the differences between the land on either side of the Park boundary. That’s the red rambler and my minimalist car-camping setup at my first campsite above a place called Sourdough Well, which is near the Arizona Trail where I did the meadow ramble last year. I didn’t hike the AZT this time, but rather just bushwhacked down into the Park and thrashed around in the trees for about ten hours. I didn’t get down to the North Rim itself this trip; there are too many people down that way this time of year.

That was a pretty nice campsite at about 9,000 feet not far from the Park boundary. The Kaibab National Forest’s MVUM map guided me down a long, rarely used road right to it. There was a steep, gnarly spot in the middle but the truck crawled through it using 4WD/LOW and I slipped into the neatest little campsite you ever saw. No one with a larger rig could’ve ever made it up there as the road was too rocky and narrow and rutted, with logs and windfall trees jutting out into the road. That’s the benefit of going small and light – you can edge into places that others with bigger, more comfortable rigs can’t. The downside is that you don’t have a lot of room and all you can take with you is maybe a portable table and chair and two or three Rubbermaid totes. But that’s okay if you’re going it alone and have a minimalist mindset like I do. With more than one person this setup would never work.

Here’s my second campsite, this time kind of in the middle of the Kaibab Plateau, over on the west side about a mile from the Warm Fire burn scar:

Red-Rambling-Mobile-Kaibab-Plateau

This site was much shadier so it was cooler than the first, but had more flies and mosquitos. I use a cheap 21W solar panel made by a company called Anker to keep my Android tablet charged and the deep shade at camp didn’t help with that. I ended up taking the panel across the nearby forest road where all the big trees had been logged away and setting it up there where it had direct sunlight to do its magic. The tablet is hidden behind the panel where it wouldn’t overheat in the hot sun.

Solar-Panel-in-the-Field

It takes about ninety minutes of good sunlight to charge the tablet’s battery enough so I can watch movies and listen to podcasts each night. Usually there is an hour or two of good light after I return from my woods rambles on these trips so it works. I don’t know if this would be sustainable on a longer term basis, especially if I were using the tablet more or if I were traveling in places where there wasn’t as much sun available, like the Pacific Northwest. Probably not. But there’s always the 12V cigarette adaptor in the truck and I do tend to move camp every day or two so I see more country.

I stayed at this campsite for two nights while I hiked around in the surrounding forest. The elevation of the two sites (the first down in the National Park and the second in the Kaibab National Forest) was about the same, but the forest growing on them was night and day different because of differences between agency management policies.

Here is what it looked like down in the National Park in the trail-less backcountry:

Grand-Canyon-National-Park-Backcountry-North-Rim

Note the fir and spruce understory, lots of aspen of various ages and sizes, and the mature trees in the background. A fire had been through there at some point and this forest was responding to it in a natural way. It was very much like what you’d find in a large Wilderness area. Actually, I’m kind of surprised that it wasn’t designated Wilderness as it was quite large and had no roads or trails in it. After I’d been back there a while thrashing around I started to get that strange and somewhat spooky feeling that only woods that’ve been managing their own affairs free of the hairless apes can give. You don’t get that feeling often, so when you do it’s a special thing.

Here’s another shot from inside the National Park, this time of a section of forest with more ponderosa pine growing in it:

Grand-Canyon-National-Park-Backcountry-North-Rim-2

You gotta love the sight of yellow-belly ponderosa pine on flat terrain with young aspen growing in below. Outside of an elk exclosure fence you don’t see that happening much around the Flagstaff area. On the Kaibab Plateau it was so common that it kind of lost its uniqueness after a while. The reason is because there are no elk there. The Kaibab Plateau is kind of like an island, surrounded by harsh desert lands on three sides and the Grand Canyon on the fourth, so the elk never made it there. There are mule deer, but they are smaller and less damaging to the aspen.

A couple of hundred yards north of the National Park boundary on the Kaibab National Forest side the overstory had been almost completely removed by loggers sometime in the 20th century. There the 2nd growth forest looked like this:

Kaibab-National-Forest-North-Rim

and this

Kaibab-National-Forest-North-Rim-2

I will leave it to you to decide which you prefer.

Much of the Kaibab Plateau outside of the National Park was aggressively logged following WWII. You can see the damage from the logging campaign from space and the border of the Park where logging never occurred is clearly demarcated. Here is a graph I made last year that shows the cutting rate from 1920 to the mid-1990s. The chart bluntly explains what all the clearings and stumps are doing up there on the Plateau.

Cutting-Rates-Kaibab-Plateau

The precipitous cliff on the right side of the graph is when the goshawk shut down the mills and the industrial machine ground to a halt. But you can tell that the unsustainable logging on the Kaibab Plateau was finished as early as the late 1980s as the the big trees suitable for making saw timber began to run out. It was the same story as what happened in the forests along the Mogollon Rim, except without the early first wave from the railroad grants so it took longer for the cutting to ramp up. All of the National Forests I’ve looked at in Arizona have graphs similar to this one. Some start earlier, some later, but the end game always looks the same.

My third campsite was on the northwest side of the Kaibab Plateau where the elevation was about a thousand feet lower and the forest type had changed to ponderosa pine, less aspen, and the gambel oak and locust had begun to make their presence known.

Kaibab-National-Forest-Campsite-3

Again, I used the Kaibab’s MVUM to guide me right to the site. I don’t know what the people who’re bitching about there not being anywhere to camp on these National Forests are talking about. Along one side of the Kaibab’s MVUM there was a huge multi-columned list of hundreds of short spur roads that you’re allowed to drive and camp on, most of them leading to long-used already impacted campsites complete with fire rings and nice flat ground. So I dunno. Maybe people are too dumb to understand the MVUM maps or something…

With that said, this wasn’t as nice of a campsite as the first two as there was very little shade, there were cows wandering around shitting all over the place, and the flies were pretty bad at times. But I didn’t mind it much as I spent most of my time there rambling in the shallow canyons and along the finger ridges of the drier northwestern side of the Plateau.

Kaibab-Plateau-Northwest-Forest

It’s taken a year but I’m starting to feel that I’ve built a pretty good base of camps and hikes on the Kaibab Plateau and that I have a sense for how things work up there now. The next big step for me will be to leap across the hot, dry lands to the north onto one of the high plateaus in southern Utah and start up doing the same. I’m thinking the Paunsaugunt Plateau above Bryce Canyon National Park will be next as it seems to be the next logical step outward from the Kaibab Plateau. From the point west of my camp I could see it rising up in the far distance beyond the colorful desert lands, its top darkly forested and shimmering in the dreamlike heat of the afternoon, kind of calling out to me.

Kaibab-Squirrel

And with that I guess I’ll leave you with this Kaibab Squirrel, one of the locals who came to greet me near my third campsite. Kaibab Squirrels are a unique variety of the Abert’s Squirrel us high country dwellers know and love. Kaibabs are darker and have a red stripe on their backs (not visible in the above photo) and their tails are all white. This one hung around in the ponderosa near my camp all day, scampering through the forest and jumping from tree to tree munching on pinecones. It seemed very tame, so I would imagine that it had grown accustomed to people camping there. That always worries me as not everyone is as benevolent and kind-hearted as I am towards the little ones.


The data I used to construct the Kaibab Plateau’s timber cutting chart was garnered from a 2006 research paper called Was Aldo Leopold Right about the Kaibab Deer Herd? by Dan Binkley, Margaret M. Moor, William H. Romme, and Peter M. Brown. This is a fascinating and heart breaking paper covering the mule deer irruption that occurred on the Kaibab Plateau in the early decades of the 20th century following the removal of the native predator populations by humans. If you want to read a good “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions” story then this one’s right up your alley. (You’ll have to Google around for the full text yourself as the paper seems to be behind a paywall now.)