Sunday, April 24, 2011

snow, weather, water conditions dictate what to do and where to go

Conditions for choosing between lowland forest hiking, canoeing or snowshoeing and cross country skiing have been challenging for the last few weeks.  Overall, weather in northwest Washington has been cool and wet this spring.  In reality, it's not quite spring but not still winter either.  The sun's rays are too strong to be winter and days too long.  As the Northwest Avalanche Center jokingly put it,

 "...Snowpack Analysis

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Continued cool to cold temperatures with periodic showers has been the weather pattern over the past four days, well a lot longer actually, but we'll focus on this week for now. Last weekend a frontal passage was accompanied by moderate warming and precipitation that caused a fairly extensive avalanche cycle of new storm snow slab avalanches and many wet loose slides..."

Weather guru Cliff Mass's blog entry for 4/15/2011 says

"2011 is clearly the worst year on record with the fewest number of days above 55F!!!...You would have to go back to the 1950s to find the runner up..."

Last weekend, I went up to Racehorse Mountain near Deming to try out a new pair of snowshoes.  Normally, I hate snowshoeing but they're good for crappy snow and on steep, timbered slopes that are un-skiable.  Snow blocked the road at 2300 feet elevation which is unusual for mid-April.  However, all the snow was relatively new not more that a month old in my estimation.  You could probably drive higher last winter when the snowline was higher.  The winter weather was almost-mild until late February or early March and it's been wet and cool ever since.  This is not good for access to the higher mountains.  

When it's topping out at 35 degrees F at Heather Meadows on Mt Baker with a few inches of snow almost daily, that means wet, heavy sticky snow in the afternoon that is difficult to ski and increased avalanche hazard.  Snowlines have been dropping down too.  This is kind of a good thing because it means snow at higher elevations will be lighter and fluffier so better for skiing.  However, that also means low elevation snow (defined as 2-3000 feet) blocks gravel roads that access touring areas.    So, we have not been doing much backcountry skiing or snowshoeing even though there is a lot of snow.

Every year, like most people, I look forward to spring .  In the Cascade mountains, there can be excellent spring ski touring once several freeze-thaw cycles occur and "corn snow" forms. says, 

     "Here in the Pacific Northwest, we are blessed with deep winter snows and long cool springs which help preserve the mountain snowpack, making possible year-round skiing. Summer skiing in the Cascades can provide some of the nicest backcountry conditions of the year: a fast, consolidated, and consistent snowpack; warm, sunny weather; and long hours of daylight...".   

Snowpack stabilizes in spring so avalanche hazard drops.  But, this year the North Cascades are currently stuck in between winter and spring.

There's not much freezing and thawing of the snowpack so almost no corn snow so far this April of 2011. Yesterday's forecast says it'll alternate between regular winter snow at night with wet, sticky snow mixed in with rain during the day.

There's a huge snowpack at Mt Baker since it's been snowing almost every day up there.  The snowpack is about 150% of the 30 year average! That's an incredible number when you consider than even an average/100% snowpack is very deep and doesn't melt off until late July.  High elevation trails like Ptarmigan Ridge may not melt off and be hikable for average folk until mid-August.  Whether we get warm, sunny weather this spring and early summer will cause how fast snow melts.

So...for the last few weeks we've been doing low-elevation forest hikes and canoe trips in the partial rain shadow around Anacortes and Bellingham during narrow windows of nice weather.  The edge of the Olympic Mountains rain shadow clips the lowlands around Bellingham.  But you don't have to go very far from Bellingham to reach soggy rainforest.  I consider the forests along the North Fork Nooksack east of Glacier as temperate rainforest. 

Canoeing and kayaking is an option when snow and/or weather conditions in the Cascades are not good.  Besides river rating difficulty (Class 1, etc.) the big issues with canoeing Pacific Northwest rivers are:

1.) tides

2.) river flow and volume.

When canoeing a river, you must check the river flow as measured in cubic feet per second (cfs).  The US Geological Survey has a webpage with past, current and forecasted river flows

Canoeing bodies of water influenced by the tides can be fun.  You can ride the tide out then ride the tide back in.  Tides don't always coincide with when you'll be on the water.  The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration has a webpage that forecasts tides.  Below is the tide table for the station closest to the Skagit Delta.  Paddling the Skagit Delta from the wildlife area headquarters requires a put-in and take-out around high tide.  Since the tide is going out quickly starting around 9am and lowest at 5pm, paddling this area from 11am to 4pm is not a good idea so a day-hike would be a better choice.

Monday, April 4, 2011

short spring vacation in Arizona March 2011

Toward the end of every gray, cloudy, rainy western Washington winter, we're going crazy and depressed after months of dreary weather.  The one upside of all the rain is a lot of snow in the Cascade mountains which is good for skiing.  But, we get sick of snow by March and just need to get outside for awhile to enjoy warm weather in shorts and T-shirts.  For the last 10 years or so, I've gone down to the Southwest to hike and camp in the desert and to soak up sun during March or April.  A few weeks ago we flew into Las Vegas, got a rental car and drove east to Arizona which is our usual practice.

Rincon Mountains of Saguaro National Park

The first night we camped at the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) Burro Creek BLM campground north of Wickenburg, AZ.  A lot of "snowbirds" were camped here long-term in their large RVs.  Retired people are pretty quiet campers.  We were the rowdiest campers there.  We tried hiking up Burro Creek canyon but the creek was too high from recent rains.  The camp host said kayakers from Phoenix ran Burro Creek toward Signal a few days earlier.  I wish I would've had the Sevylor Trail Boat for fording Burro Creek.  That would be fun and I haven't used it yet.  (I wish I would've had the Sevylor Trail Boat in 2009 when I had to swim across a deep pool on the Bill Williams River just down from Alamo Dam).  So we wandered around downstream from the campground then up a desert ridge for a few hours.

Next day, it was cloudy and windy with a few showers in the area so we pushed on to Tucson chasing the sun.  Driving through Phoenix was unpleasant because of the disjointed beltway system.  It was very windy in Tucson but partly sunny.

We began our exploration of Tucson area deserts with an introductory trip to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.  It's a great museum with natural history displays and many live animals like red wolves, javelinas, cougars and much more.  Later in the day we dayhiked the west unit of Saguaro National Park for a few hours.  That night we camped in Tucson Mountain Park's Gilbert Ray Campground.  

Next day we drove back across Tucson to the east unit of Saguaro National Park.  We got a backcountry permit for a 2-night, 33+ mile backpacking trip at the visitor center.  A family of javelinas lives near the visitor center.  We lucked out when they came right up to the window and starting taking dust baths with their babies in their depressions.

            (about 2 miles east of Grass Shack in the juniper/chaparral zone)

I don't have the time to write up a full trip report but I will offer comments and advice from our experiences.

When I chose backcountry campsites at the visitor center, I underestimated the difficulty of huge elevation gains of hiking from basin at Tucson's edge (about 1000 feet elevation) all the way up to 8000 feet at Manning Camp.  That's of course a 7000 foot gain but I figured since it was strung out over so many miles it wouldn't be so bad.   Thank God there were snow patches above 7000 feet.  I smeared snow onto my face, neck and wrists to cool off.  Despite the snow, low humidity was harder on skin and breathing than what I remember from past trips to Arizona.  It was a damn tough hike up to Manning Camp.  I suppose I've grown more accustomed to humid air? Melting snow also provided water.  I recommend staying the first night at Juniper Spring, 2nd at Grass Shack and 3rd at Juniper Spring.  That would leave time for side trips at the Manning Camp area in the high ponderosa pine forests.

Water is heavy.  I carried about 3 quarts since I did not trust water availability at Grass Shack and elsewhere on the trail.  There was much more than expected due to recent snow at high elevations.  It would've been nice to ditch the tent and use a tarp since it was dry weather.  However, it was cold at night.  It dropped down to freezing at Juniper Spring and to about 40 at Grass Shack.  Manning Camp drops down to 22-25 at night this time of the year.  The tent keeps out scorpions, ants and insects and is warmer than a tarp.  Had I known, I would've brought a warmer sleeping bag, a tarp and carried less water.  "Oh well.  Live and learn".

Unlike other March trips to Arizona, there were almost no desert wildflowers.  Locals say winter had a few dry spells followed by recent cold spells.  

My Big Agnes air mattress did not get punctured by a cactus thorn.  My wife's Thermarest developed a leak so she as forced to sleep on 2 cheap, crappy foam pads (1 of which I packed) from Big 5.  Most desert ground is almost as hard as pavement so foam pads aren't comfortable.  A hammock is great in the desert if you can find a place to hang it.  There were trees to hang a hammock at Juniper Basin, Manning Camp and Grass Shack backcountry camps unbeknown to me when packing for this trip. With so much variety in elevation/temperature and ground, comfortable bedding is a challenge. 

I thought I'd like to thru-hike the Arizona Trail.  After this trip, no way.  There's just not enough water and there's too much elevation gain from basin to range. It's not like the Pacific Crest Trail which maintains a mild grade and a lot of water.  Water shortages could foil an AZT thru-hike.  Section hiking the AZT seems doable, more practical and hence, would be more fun.

One problem in exploring Arizona's wild lands is that most hiking areas require a high clearance vehicle to access.  4WD may not be necessary but you do need a vehicle like a small truck or jeep with high clearance.  Most of the roads down there on BLM land were built for mining and ranching not uninsured, Las Vegas airport economy rental cars.  Many roads cross arroyos and washes that flash flood during the summer monsoon thunderstorm season.  Storms wash rocks across many roads and cause erosion. 

Photos of the trip are at Photos at .

Sunday, April 3, 2011

thoughts on canoe sailing

Last Sunday, clouds and rain showers cleared off around the rain shadowed lowlands around Anacortes and Bellingham.  Since I haven't spent much time paddling the Old Town Discovery 119 solo canoe, I took it down to Heart Lake on Anacortes Community Forest.  I also wanted to see if the sailing rig from ( ) would work on the solo canoe. 

I did a loop around the lake mostly for exercise.  It was a pleasant paddle.  I switched back and forth between a Mohawk double bladed paddle and a regular canoe paddle.  If the water is calm I can keep the canoe mostly straight using the canoe paddle with a J-stroke.  

Then I put the sail rig on.  The winds picked up.  Whidbey Air Base reported gusts up to 23 mph unbeknown to me.   With the winds gusting to the upper teens at the back of the canoe, I was able to get a few good runs in.  But, I don't really understand the mechanics of sailing so I don't know how to use the boom and oar to tack (zig-zag into the wind).  One gust that felt like it was over 20 mph hit the sail broadside and nearly caused a capsize.  

I forgot the oar and used one half of the Mohawk double blade paddle.  It fit into the socket but was loose.  Sailing puts a lot of pressure on the oar so control was not very good.  As the wind picked up, the makeshift oar broke loose about time a gust of wind blew the paddle out of my hand, all while blowing the boat into lakeshore brush.  It was very frustrating to have to fumble with the boom line, drop the sail, recover the paddle and reattach a limp oar.  

Canoe sailing is a lot of work and complexity with all the attachments for just a few short periods of downwind fun.  Winds need to be about 15 mph and consistently from one direction and even then, I can only sail with the winds at the stern.  

Canoe sailing doesn't really fit into how I use the canoes for lake touring and river running.  So, I hope to sell the canoe rig.   If I can't sell it, it works much better on the tandem 16 foot canoe.  The tandem canoe has more space for fumbling with all the lines and attachments and it tracks better in wind.  Someone may not buy the sail rig.  Stuff is usually easier to obtain than get rid of unless I want to take a huge loss.  If I can't sell it than maybe I'll stick with it? A sailing lesson would help too.

Since I'm mostly a hiker, I like canoeing that is flatwater and close to swamps and shore where there is more to see.  The sailing rig can't be used in those conditions.