Sprint Sprinting, A Dispatch from the Arizona Trail
|By Bruce Grubbs, N7CEE
The ARS Sojourner
|Here in Arizona, a wet winter has caused the desert wildflowers to bloom in profusion this spring. In addition, the moisture means that many of the normally dry washes and creeks are running - a rare desert treat.
One advantage of being (mostly) self-employed is that I can get out into the backcountry when conditions are at their best. In mid-March, I'd done a backpack trip in central Arizona's Mazatzal Mountains - a trip that was a continuous walk through flowers for three days.
I was planning another three day hike when I realized that if I added one day to the trip I could operate the April Spartan Sprint from the trip. This would be a great chance to test my newly-built 10-cell NiMH AA battery pack, as well as a 2 watt solar panel. I planned to carry the panel on the top lid of my pack to keep the batteries topped up.
The original purpose of the trip was to hike the South Fork of Deer Creek, one of the few trails in the Mazatzal Wilderness I had yet to walk. This trail climbs a deep, rugged canyon on the east side of the range, then meets a dirt road. By walking a short distance west on this road, I could reach the southern trailhead for the Mazatzal Divide Trail, which runs the length of the Mazatzal Wilderness. This scenic trail is a segment of the Arizona Trail, an 800 mile route from Utah to Mexico.
To the north, near Mazatzal Peak, I could turn east on the Y Bar Trail. The only problem was that the Y Bar Trail would bring me out at another trailhead, which would require a car shuttle. Originally, a friend from Phoenix and I were going to meet and use our two vehicles to do the shuttle. When he backed out, I had another look at the topo maps. I dislike car shuttles anyway, and try to plan loop trips as much as possible.
Studying the map closely, I noticed a ridge that might offer a reasonable cross-country route from the Y Bar Trail into the main fork of Deer Creek, where I could pick up a good trail back to my starting point. Now, cross-country travel in the Mazatzal Mountains can be rough and slow, because of heavy brush, cliffs, and deep, narrow canyons.
I've spent hours going just a few miles. However, the map showed that I could get a good look at the ridge from the trailhead, to make certain it wasn't too brushy before committing myself to the loop hike.
Another critical aspect of planning this trip was water. Even in a wet year, springs and creeks can be far apart, so desert backpack trips must be planned around water sources. Water would be no problem in the South Fork, because I expected that the creek would be running for its entire length, and there was a spring near the head of the canyon.
Once I was on the Divide Trail, water would become scarce, because the trail stays on high ridges. I was hoping for some snow melt water or at least some patches of remnant snow on north-facing slopes. Otherwise, there were three dependable springs along my route, and several more seasonal springs.
The weather forecast was interesting, as it usually is during the spring. Arizona was in a period of high pressure and above normal temperatures.
My hike would start from the Deer Creek Trailhead at 3,000 feet, and climb to just over 7,000 feet. Daily high temperatures at the lower elevations were in the high eighties - a little too warm for enjoyable hiking with a big pack. However, that was forecasted to change on the third day of my hike, as cool, windy weather was to move in ahead of a spring snowstorm.
The snow was forecasted to hold off until after the trip, but I carried enough warm clothing for wind and snow, just in case. Since the trailhead was a three-hour drive from my home in Flagstaff, I decided to leave around noon and start the hike in late afternoon. That way, I would only have about an hour of hiking in the hot sun before I entered the deep canyon of the South Fork. The rest of the walk to camp would be cool and shady, next to a running creek.
The sun did indeed beat down as I hiked into the mouth of the south fork, but the fields of flowers more than made up for the heat. Soon I was deep in the canyon, shaded by the high canyon walls and enjoying the musical sound of the stream.
For a while, finding a camp spot looked like a problem, but then the trail climbed to a beautiful, perfectly flat bench on the south side of the canyon. Tall Douglas fir and ponderosa pine graced the slopes, which told me I was entering the upper part of the canyon.
I set up my 80 foot wire, counterpoise and the Elecraft K1 to keep a schedule with a friend, but signals were very weak on 20 meters. Either the sun had zapped the earth with a big flare once again, or the canyon walls were blocking most signals.
On Sunday, as I climbed around the slopes of Mount Peeley and started along the Divide Trail, water proved to be scarce. Although I could continue to the first of the springs, that would mean missing my planned camp on a scenic 7,000 foot ridge, as well as having to press on longer than I wanted.
My other hikes on this section of the Divide Trail have been pressured by the need to get to the springs, and I not only wanted to camp in a special spot, but also be able to take my time along the trail. Luckily, I found a patch of snow. Although I did set up the K1 at camp, I was too tired to do more than listen for a while. Besides, I had to save my energy for the Spartan Sprint!
Monday worked out just as planned. I was able to enjoy the scenic trail and do some photography as well. In this view, I'm standing near the highest point of the Divide Trail, and looking north toward 7,903 foot Mazatzal Peak, the highest in the range. This photo also shows my planned operating site for the contest, the sunlit ridge below the mountain and level with my shoulders. From this point, the trail drops into Fisher Saddle, named for nearby Fisher Spring. Well, sort of nearby - the spring is 500 feet below the saddle to the north.
Bear Spring is south of the saddle and close, but not as reliable. Since it was a wet year I took a chance and walked the spur trail to Bear spring, water bottles in hand. The pool was full and I quickly filled my collapsible water bottles with enough water for the rest of the day and my Spartan Sprint camp.
From the saddle, the trail climbs onto the ridge to the north, then contours toward another saddle. I left the trail and climbed cross-country though the pine-oak forest toward the ridge crest. I found a perfect camp and antenna site in a small clearing on the ridge. The wind was really starting to blow, but my camp was screened by some brush and the tent hardly rippled.
Though it was still early, I threw the wire into the trees and laid out the counterpoise, then got out the stove and started dinner so I could eat before the contest. Afterward, warm and comfortable in my down jacket and with a cup of hot chocolate in hand, I set up the K1 inside my tent. In this photo, the rig is resting on the Paddlette case, which I use to carry the ear buds and a BNC to alligator clip adapter, as well as the paddles. The Paddlette BP is mounted on a magnetic pad at the left rear corner of the top cover. You can also see the end of the 80 foot antenna wire and the 33 foot counterpoise.
Both are made from No. 26 Teflon-coated wire. The counterpoise is attached to an alligator clip I installed under one of the screws near the BNC antenna jack, and the antenna itself goes to the alligator clip-BNC adapter. The automatic tuner in the K1 matched the wire to 1.2:1 on both 40 and 20 meters. The automatic tuner not only saves weight over a manual tuner, but also saves batteries because of it's fast tuning action. Between the ATU's in the K1 and K2, I've been completely won over to QRP auto tuners.
When I turned the rig on, I used the built-in voltmeter to check the battery pack, and was gratified to see that it appeared to be fully charged. Still. I decided to run 3 watts instead of a full QRP gallon in order to go easy on the batteries. By this time the wind was really roaring, hitting the cliff below camp, then rushing over the tops of the pines. I had to use headphones to hear anyone. The famous Elecraft mojo came through for me, despite the weak signals, and I worked just about everyone I heard, ending up with 17 contacts in the log.
At first light on the fourth day, it looked as if the storm was striking early. Clouds were draped over the ridge, and few sprinkles of rain fell as I ate breakfast. However, true to the forecast, the day remained dry, although cloudy and windy. I dropped down the slope to the trail, and then continued north to the junction with the Y Bar Trail. This trail passes a couple of seasonal springs, which were overflowing with water. In dry years, both go dry.
As I lost elevation, the desert flowers once more dominated the foreground. It's hard to believe that in a dry (normal?) year, the ground between the brushy plants would be nearly barren, and that there would be thousands of tiny seeds waiting patiently for just the right combination of moisture and warmth to burst forth into a riot of color.
Except for a bit of thick brush right below the trail, my cross-country ridge turned out to be a very pleasant walk through yet more flowers. The windy, cool weather was a welcome change from the hot, still conditions of the first afternoon of the trip.
Just a few hours from camp I found myself crossing the main fork of Deer Creek, which was running cheerfully through stands of budding Arizona sycamores. On the far side of the creek, I picked up the Deer Creek Trail and enjoyed an easy stroll back to the trailhead.
I know the Spartan Sprints are intended as a home test of field-ready gear - but trust me, they make fine field contests as well!
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Bruce Grubbs, N7CEE, a veteran QRPer, builder, outdoorsman and writer, is a a contributing editor to The ARS Sojourner. He lives in Flagstaff, AZ.