Long time readers of LP will remember that this was once a hiking blog.
After a great many years of doing exceedingly stupid things outside, I decided it was time to start sharing it with you kind folks. This went well for for a while, until sometime in the middle of 2016 I started having real problems with my lower back. Being a Wilson, I promptly ignored all my bodies warning signs, powered straight ahead until after the Great Deer Hunt of 2016, when I collapsed with back spasms while putting Jack in the car. A quick drive to the hospital showed that I had herniated a couple of discs and had terrible arthritis, both of which contributed to crippling spasms that did not stop for more than a month. And so, as soon as I was walking without a cane, our little hiking blog moved to the slightly less arduous task of fly fishing.
A great many fish were caught over the proceeding year, and I loved every moment of it. To be frank, though I have fly fished my whole life, I truly fell in love with the sport over the past year and it will continue to be a big, if not the biggest, part of what I do outside. I was having a great deal of fun, but in the back of my mind there was always a lingering doubt that I would never be able to backpack again. I put out a couple of test balloons, one in the form of a day hike into Aravaipa Canyon, another with a no-frills overnight deer hunt, and finally around January I decided it was time. I was going to go backpacking.
I wanted to do something fun, different, a little brag worthy, but not necessarily killer. A great deal of time looking at a great many maps suggested a few good options, my favorite of which was a north to south bisection of the Superstition Wilderness from the Boulder Canyon to the Peralta Trailhead, with a stop off at Charlebois Spring. This would give us a 10ish mile first day through a reasonably rugged canyon and a 6-14ish mile second day, depending on route, and the bragging rights that come with bisecting a huge, rugged wilderness in a weekend. Padre decided to come along for the ride.
The Boulder Canyon Trail starts off as a climber, immediately working it’s way up from Canyon Lake, until reaching a ridgeline that begins what I call “The Superstitions Highlight Reel.”
With views of all the big western supes standbys, from Weavers Needle to Battleship Mountain, and reasonably easy going, the Highlight Reel is the quintessential desert hike. It is very pretty.
Padre, because he is Padre, had brought every piece of gear ever invented. His pack looked heavy as we descended into the valley that we would consume the rest of our day.
As I always do before big trips, I had spent the night before studying our route. My Supersitions Map is a beloved old friend who has been on many adventures. Because it is old and has been on many adventures I love this map very much, and have used it far longer than I should have. This is dumb, and worst of all the area seen in the distance of the photo above is very hard to read from all the years of use. However, things seemed easy enough– we were going to get in the valley, stay in the valley, and follow it to either the end, where it meets the Dutchman Trail, or if we saw it a connector called the Cavalry Trail. This was both wrong and dumb.
Things went fine until at the bottom of the valley we reached an carin intersection, one with the trail going off and uphill to the west, and another, fainter one which stayed in the creek. Because I had memorized what I thought was the route the night before, we took a cursory look at the worn out map and stayed in the creek.
The path started out easy enough, with just some annoying creek walking. We were expecting to do about 1.4 miles in the creek, hopefully catching the Cavalry Trail along the way. Being in a canyon, sigthlines were poor and we were having trouble figuring out distance as our pace was slowed as we climbed over increasingly large boulders. The further we got in the worse things got, causing us to take off our packs and haul them up one at a time so we could scramble up the rock falls that were sometimes 10-15 feet high. However, at what I figured was around the 1.4 mile mark, I saw a large set of carins on the East side of the trail, which I assumed was the Cavalry trail. If this was the case we would have returned to a legible section of the map, so I pulled it out a took a look. I couldn’t see much since we were in a deep canyon, but things looked roughly correct. A bit of exploring revealed a worn, nearly imperceptible path, which is not uncommon for connector trails in this part of the world. Doubting our ability to overland should we get turned around, and still convinced we knew roughly where we were, Padre and I decided to stick out the canyon.
You are probably wondering why there are no pictures of this part of the trip. It is simple: we were miserable. The nice parts of the path were boulder hopping, and the bad parts were full on scrambling. Because I am a little bit better of a route finder than Padre is, I was on point, which meant constantly boulder hopping from one side of the creek to the other and back to try to find scramble which was within our (very limited) technical abilities. Eventually we ran into another set of hikers, a young couple who turn out to be the heros of this story. We asked where they were going, and they said the Cavalry Trail. I told them that I thought I had found it a way back, but that it didn’t look very reliable or passable. They looked confused, and I could tell The Navigator in the group thought I was wrong. We all decided to plunge forward.
Eventually we ran into a beautiful campsite with a nice water supply. We weren’t hiking together yet, but both of our groups joked about camping here, but said it wouldn’t be worth having to climb back through the canyon the next day. Ahead, we finally found some smooth walking.
But it was ephemeral. Just ahead we found a deep pool that had to be waded. Padre and I discussed our options. We could wade through or quit and camp at the Calypso’s island of a campsite behind us, a place we could have stayed and been happy, but in doing so would have failed. We thought hard before pulling off our boots and plunging in.
In the pool the water was cold and the bottom was covered in slippery moss. I was barefoot, and I took up the strategy of sliding one foot forward until I found a crack in the rock which would stop the slide. I repeated this one excruciatingly slow step at a time, careful to be sure my weight never got ahead of me. Padre came behind in sandals, which didn’t even come close to countering the instability caused by his heavier pack. Soon we were across, shared a nervous laugh, put our packs on and kept scrambling.
The good news was that we had apparently passed the spring which was feeding the water in the canyon below, so we were done wading for a while. The bad news, as we would realize in a couple of hours, was that all the pumpable water was now behind us. With our water supplies beginning to dwindle, we were now fully committed. There would be no going back.
As we worked our way up the canyon, we ran into our accidental hiking partners a few times. They were in great shape and had light packs, but were still struggling. Padre had lost a sandal along the way and they had climbed down a small ravine to bring it to him. I decided I liked these people very much (Editor’s Note: A rare thing.) and our two groups did our best Only Revolutions impression for the rest of the day, yo-yoing back and forth across the canyon and helping each other with route finding and passing packs along the way.
Soon the canyon took an abrupt turn, and I finally realized something had gone terribly wrong. My map wasn’t great, but it clearly showed no turns like this. Padre and I stared at the map for quite a while, before our hiking partners caught up to us. The Navigator pulled out his phone, and showed us the route. We were going the right way, but still had a long way to go before we hit the trail. Looking at the map I just couldn’t believe it, so I walked back a ways looking for a spot where we might have missed the trail. There was none and the canyon walls were sheer. Right or wrong, there was nothing to do stick to the canyon.
As we pushed forward, the canyon became a marsh, with shallow, scummy pools on one side and large boulder falls on the other. Both our groups had no desire to walk in the swamp, so we made do with the hardest scrambling of the day, this time made worse by copious vegetation. In the summer, when all these trees are leaved I sure it is very beautiful and peaceful, but in the winter, while we pushed through about an hour of swamp, boulders, and lifeless trees, it had neither of these qualities. Instead it was humid and still, causing the sweat to pour from our bodies and fog our glasses. As the canyon opened up and the swamp disappeared under ground, we were beat.
Both our groups kept moving forward, each walking a couple of hundred yards before between breaks. The Navigator’s phone said we were close and as Weaver’s needle came in to view, far more westerly than I had expected, I finally began admitting to myself that I must have really screwed something up. Padre and I were sitting down for a break, when our hiking partners came up and pointed to a couple of carins.
“There it is, the Cavalry Trail!” they exlaimed.
“Wait, you mean Dutchman?” I replied.
“No, Cavalry. Where, exactly, do you think we are?”
What we had done was excruciatingly stupid and simple at the same time: we had missed our intended route by exactly one watershed. The reason we had made this mistake was even stupider and more simple: I had memorized the route incorrectly and in the confines of the deep canyon, with no sightlines to prove otherwise, I convinced myself that everything was alright. Instead of hiking up Boulder Canyon, which in the words of our hiking partners, “Is actually a trail,” we had hiked/scrambled/suffered up La Barge Canyon, which met the Cavalry Trail closer to our intended destination. Unready for a trip of this magnitude, and with packs weighted for a different kind of trip, our bodies were just about broken. I don’t defend any of this, but what happened happened.
Looking back on it, there were many clues. The Navigator and I had confusion all day when describing where we were, but we were both too polite to clear it up. The sudden turn in the trail should have been, and was, a dead give away that something had gone awry, but at that point we were pretty committed to the cause. To the eternal credit of our hiking partners, they were very nice about what was a deeply embarrassing situation for me, cheering me up with a “At least you did a way cooler hike.” Again, I liked them very much.
Despite years of travel in the most remote parts of this state, this is the first time I have ever made this kind of mistake. There is a lesson here, I’m sure, about the dangers of being convinced of something, about how when you are sure something is true you can ignore warning signs that are obvious and apparent. This is probably a particularly timely lesson for this day and age. But as we sat on the trail intersection completely out of gas and still miles from the nearest water source it didn’t matter. We parted ways, us heading for water and them still trying to decide what the best course of action was. I never got their names, but I wish I had.
After a couple of miles walking along the Cavalry Trail, we finally came to a literal sign of civilization.
We had 1.5ish miles to go before we hit camp, but we were moving slow. Padre and I shared the last of our water, and took of toward Charlebois. We stumbled along, deeply thirsty and very tired, having finally hit the phase in the day where you can no longer really think, no longer really talk, but you can keep walking. When we finally hit the spring, our motor functions were so far gone that both of us dropped a Camlebak into it’s murky waters. We pumped and chugged from our other bottles as fast as we could, immediately making our selves sick, before filling up for the night. Despite the fact that there were several other groups near by we camped not far from the spring.
Expecting another kind of trip, Padre and I had lugged in chairs, vodka, and tonic. As the sun set, we enjoyed these vestiges, tried and failed to eat, and hoped our hiking partners would walk by so we could invite them in for a celebration. They never did.
In the morning we packed up and made our way back towards the car. We didn’t feel great.
All night we had managed to only hold down some cheese, crackers, and a tiny bit of vodka. In the morning we hadn’t done any better. It was a fairly easy 6ish miles from Charlebois back to the car, but in our state in took an embarrassing three hours.
But we’d survived. And that was good.
“Car camping isn’t.” That phrase, made semi-famous by one of the best blog follows on the internet, Dave at Bedrock and Paradox, was the mantra and moral of the weekend. With everything we needed (Editor’s Note: and a lot more) on our backs, stuck in a canyon we had never intended to be in, with makeshift friends we had stumbled into by chance, and no feasible choice but to keep moving forward, our bodies ached, our mouths were dry, and our fingers bled. I try very hard to avoid the “Why do I hike” question that plagues outdoors writing here on LP, but as we lay in bed the first night wasted, broken, and unable to eat one thing was impossibly clear: It’s good to be back.
As a personal note, I would love to thank the great couple we met in Upper La Barge Canyon in person. I’m pretty sure I owe them a nice dinner or at least a good bottle of booze. If you know anyone who might be that couple (male, slight build with short light hair and very short beard, female, slight build with long dark hair, both soft spoken and tough) that was in that canyon on 17th of February, 2018, feel free to send them my way.
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Max Wilson is a graduate student studying ecology at Arizona State University. He writes here at Lesser Places, has occasionally written for Backpacker Magazine, Backpacker.com, and even more occasionally written for scientific journals. You can follow him on twitter @maxomillions.