Labor Day weekend...it's one of those weekends when Verley adventures happen...
In the tradition of Labor Day weekends past, we decided to brave the crowds and embark on a backcountry adventure. Several months earlier, Mary had suggested doing a family backpacking trip, one that would involve Bill and Erika and the Guckenburg family - in other words, a replay of Mary's first backpacking trip, which also took place on Labor Day weekend, in 2000, when she was just 26 days old. The idea went over well when it was first mentioned, but as time went on, the plan fell through and it became just the three of us.
So, John reached out to the parents of Mary's best friend, Zoey, to see if she could join us on our backpacking trip. Although Zoey had camped before with her family and had no problem sleeping in a tent, she had never backpacked before. That wouldn't be a problem, though, because we wouldn't be doing anything too difficult. In fact, our plan was to backpack the Fred Haught Trail #141 - an easy trail, but one that has a history with us. Zoey's parents said yes, and both girls were ecstatic!
Packing for our expedition was a bit challenging. Now, we've packed for multiple-day treks before - in fact, we did two, two-night backpacking trips while we were in Canada - but we have never had to pack for more than three people. This meant that John and I would have to carry much more weight than normal; I had to carry more food, and he had to carry two, two-person tents, rather than a one-person and a two-person. However, it was going to be an easy trail and we were only going in two miles; we would be fine.
During the week leading up to our trip, we kept our eye on the weather. There was a hurricane, brewing in the Pacific, and it was tracking towards Baja California. According to NOAA's website, Hurricane Jimena was due to hit Rocky Point on Friday, and it would be sending rain - and lots of it - into Arizona. This was not the first time that we would have hurricane rains in Arizona, and it certainly wouldn't be the first time that we would experience a Labor Day weekend with them. During Labor Day weekend 2006, we were hammered by Hurricane John while backpacking on the Bonanza Bill Trail in the White Mountains. Despite the threat of rain, we were still determined to go backpacking; at least we no longer had that leaky tent to deal with any longer! Both of our two-person tents were new and nearly leak-proof.
On the morning of our departure - Saturday, September 5 - Zoey arrived at our house at 7:00 a.m., her backpack and sleeping bag in hand. While the girls played in Mary's bedroom, John and I worked to repack her backpack, to try to fit her sleeping bag inside. John crammed her sleeping bag into a stuff sack, and I packed her clothes into another. Unfortunately, we weren't able to fit the whole lot into the backpack that Zoey had brought with her, but we were able to make it all fit into one of Mary's old school backpacks (good thing we never throw those things away at the end of the school year!). It would be a bit heavy, but since it was only two, mostly-flat miles, we were certain that Zoey would be just fine.
At 7:30, we started out on our long drive to the General Springs Trailhead, on the Mogollon Rim. The journey started out normal enough; but as we made our way through Scottsale, towards the Beeline Highway, the skies opened up, and the rain came pouring down. It rained so hard that the streets in Fountain Hills were completely flooded; and, based on the cloud cover over the mountains, it wasn't any drier in the high country either. We quickly had to come up with a Plan B, in case it was raining too hard for us to hike.
"Well, that's simple enough," John said. "We'll just go to the Gaard-Chak and spend the weekend with my parents. The girls can have a slumber party in the living room, near the fireplace."
That sounded like a good plan to me!
It was still pouring hard as we turned north onto the Beeline Highway, but once we were past the Fort McDowell Casino, it suddenly stopped. Surprisingly, the rest of our drive was rain-free; unfortunately, that meant that the girls were allowed to watch the DVD player, so we had to suffer through back-to-back episodes of Hannah Montana...
Driving to the Mogollon Rim that morning was like taking a walk down the Labor Day weekend memory lane. As we drove through Pine, we remembered our first Labor Day weekend together, when we had camped with John's parents on the Rim...and it rained all weekend. It rained so hard that we had to bring our sleeping bags into Pine to dry them out, when the inside of our tent flooded.
"Do you remember where we were ten years ago on Labor Day weekend?" I asked John, to check his memory. The answer: Aravaipa Canyon, again with John's parents. That was the weekend that we got the van stuck for the second time on a Labor Day weekend, and we were beginning to think that it was going to be a tradition.
We soon arrived at Forest Road 300, which was extremely busy that morning. As usual, we got caught behind slow-moving traffic that turned off onto FR 300, so we kept going straight on FR 218, to avoid them. Along the way, we looked for a geocache, located in the same general area as the place where John asked me to marry him. (We think we may have found the exact place this time, but we couldn't tell for sure because someone was camped there.)
The Rim Road was packed with campers that morning; everywhere we looked, there was a tent or a pop-up or an RV parked in the woods. I don't think we have ever seen it this packed during Labor Day weekend before; but I supposed it is a sign of the times. With the economy being so bad, many people are unable to go on vacation, so they go camping instead, as it's their only opportunity to get out of town and away from it all.
When we arrived at the General Springs Trailhead - which, typically, has always been quiet and devoid of other people - we came upon a zoo! There must have been a family reunion going on there; there were about ten RV's and lots of ATV's...and lots of children running around, too. We could barely find a place to park!
We did manage to find a place to park, near the trailhead. As we started unloading our gear, two of the campers - a lady and her three year-old - walked by and noticed what we were doing. "Oh, that looks like so much fun!" she said. "It's so hard to do something like that with the little ones, though."
We could certainly relate to that; in fact, we told her that backpacking with children at that age is very difficult, because they're too heavy to carry but too young to walk very far on their own. How we ever went anywhere, when Mary was that age, I'll never know...
Once we were geared up, we locked up the 4Runner and started hiking the Fred Haught Trail #141. Having hiked this trail three times before, we were already familiar with the terrain; we were surprised, however, to see that the landscape had changed quite a bit since we were last there. Right away, during the first quarter-mile of the hike, we could see that there had been a fire along the trail. We weren't sure if it had been a prescribed burn or if it had been a wildfire. We knew that there had been a prescribed burn in the area during the month of June, while we were backpacking to Dane Canyon on the U-Bar Trail, during Father's Day weekend; perhaps this was the result of that burn. Nonetheless, whatever the cause of the damage, it had happened within the last year, because it wasn't like that the last time we were there.
As we hiked, we pointed out to Zoey many of the points of interest from some of our previous expeditions on the trail. Like I said, we had hiked Fred Haught - as a family - three times before. John had also hiked it once by himself, in an attempt to backpack the entire Cabin Loop while Mary and I were in Baltimore, last June. That was an ill-fated trip; he had to abort the trip after the first night, when he ended up with painful blisters hiking out of Barbershop Canyon.
Our first backpacking trip on the Fred Haught Trail was in July 2008, during the weekend of our nine year wedding anniversary. We took both Joshua and Erika with us on what was supposed to be a luxury backpacking trip, complete with wine. Unfortunately, we were rained out; both the kids' tent and Erika's tent flooded during a torrential downpour, so we were forced to abort that trip just before dinnertime.
Several weeks later, we returned to the Fred Haught Trail, for a short day hike. Despite the bad juju from our previous trips, we managed to hike all the way to the junction with the Arizona Trail and back without incident. We even found two geocaches along the way. Apparently our luck was changing, so we made one more attempt at a backpacking trip on that trail, during the second weekend in September 2008 (no, not Labor Day weekend, but it was nearly one year earlier, almost to the date). That trip was the best one yet; not only did we spend the night, but we also found a cool, manmade waterfall along the trail!
Naturally, we pointed out all of these campsites and all of the things that we had seen before to Zoey; since this was her first trip to that area, we wanted to make sure that she got the whole nickel tour. Not that the girls were really interested in our crazy stories; they were giggling about the Jonas Brothers and that cute boy in their classroom most of the time. (Imagine what they're going to be line when they're teenagers...in four years...)
As lunchtime approached, we began to notice that the skies were clouding over again; soon, we could hear the low rumbling of thunder. That was our cue to find camp as quickly as possible. Looking ahead on the trail, John spied a large bench across the creek, about five minutes away; he pointed it out to us and announced that we were camping there. It wasn't exactly where he was hoping to camp, but since rain was imminent, it would do in a pinch.
After we crossed the creek and climbed up on the bench, we immediately dropped our packs and started pitching our tents, so that we would be ready when it started raining. While John and I worked to accomplish that, the girls sat down on a tarp and ate their sandwiches. As soon as their tent was done and their sleeping bags and pads were set up, they dove inside and started "organizing" their stuff.
Of course, now that we had the tents set up, we didn't get any rain...at least, not right away. The thunder eventually silenced, and sunshine broke through the gray clouds. With the threat of rain gone, the girl decided to go play down by the creek, while John and I remained in our tent, resting.
A few minutes later, we heard hysterical laughter; then, we could hear Mary calling out, "Mom! Dad! Zoey fell in the creek!" Now, the first thing we thought was that Zoey had only fallen, knee deep, into the creek - I mean, it wasn't that deep, but oh, were we wrong. She had fallen in, face first, and was now completely soaked. What was worse was that she was wearing her warmest clothes, the ones that she was supposed to wear to bed; and they were sweats, too, which just don't dry that easily. We made her go into the tent and change clothes and then we hung everything in a tree to dry.
Later that afternoon, while we were all in our tents, resting or trying to nap, the rain finally came. It wasn't the heavy rain that we were expecting - the same torrential rains that had flooded the kids' tent and driven us from our campsite last July. Instead, we had a nice rain shower that only lasted a half an hour and cooled down the air considerably. And, no, it didn't force us to abort our trip either...
After the rains abated, we emerged from our tents and enjoyed the fresh, cool air; it was such a welcome relief from the heat that we had endured during the day. While it was still cool, John decided to take the girls on a little explore into the next canyon, which was easily accessible from our campsite.
John had discovered this canyon - called Box Canyon, according to the topographical maps - during our last backpacking trip on Fred Haught (the successful one). His intention was that we would actually camp there this time, but, of course, it didn't quite work out that way. As it turned out, though, we weren't too far from the site where John had intended to put us; it was just over the low ridge, about three hundred feet from camp!
John and Mary and Zoey were only gone about thirty minutes. While they were gone, they climbed over the low ridge and hiked down the creek until it took them back to General Springs Canyon again. From there, they hiked the trail back to camp.
As soon as they returned to camp, John and I put the girls to work, collecting firewood for our campfire; I helped. Between the three of us, we collected a pile large enough to keep us warm for both nights...and we kept the girls busy, too. Once they were done, though, they retreated into their tent, where they listened to their iPods and sang...loudly. One thing was for sure: we weren't going to see any animals!
Dinnertime soon rolled around, and we all gathered around the campfire to eat. After dinner came dessert: trail-proof cookies, which John had baked prior to our trip. He had found the recipe in The Well-Fed Backpacker, a book he had purchased in Jasper National Park, during our Canadian adventure. They consisted of whole wheat flour, granola, chunky peanut butter, brown sugar, eggs and margarine - packed with protein and fiber. They gave us quite the energy boost. The girls loved them, but they were so big that they just couldn't finish them!
Once dinner was over and the dishes were done and put away, the four of us sat by the campfire and waited for the first star, which signaled bedtime. We had to explain to Zoey that our camping philosophy is "go to bed at first star, wake up at first light." That said, all four of us began to examine the skies in hopes of finding that first star; after all, we were all very tired. When we finally found it, we declared bedtime and retired to our tents for the night.
John and I fell asleep almost immediately; but at 9:30, I was awakened again but the sound of arguing and crying.
"Zoey, move over, you're in my space."
"No, I'm not, Mary! You're in my space."
I put on my headlamp and went over to their tent to try to figure out what was going on. Apparently, in the darkness, Mary had been sleeping restlessly and was now at the bottom of the tent. She couldn't see too well and thought for sure that Zoey had ended up on her side. Once I shed some light on the situation, I was able to show her that she was wrong. I helped her back onto her sleeping pad, on her side of the tent, and soon, peace was restored to the night. After that, all four of us went back to sleep...
The next morning, we all slept in a little bit. John and I slept until 6:30; the girls slept until 7:00. But that was okay, because we really didn't have anyplace in particular that we needed to be. We weren't packing up camp quite yet, and the only thing we had on the agenda was a short day hike to Fred Haught Cabin.
Fred Haught Cabin is one of the many cabins to be found along the Cabin Loop Trail, of which the Fred Haught Trail is part. These cabins were old Forest Service cabins, established in the early part of the twentieth century; they were used by forest rangers, who lived in them during the fire season, so that they could watch out for forest fires. Most of the cabins - General Springs, Buck Springs, and Pinchot - are still intact; according to John, Fred Haught is not. He had hiked there with his mother last July (during our unsuccessful backpacking trip) and found that there wasn't much left of the cabin. It would, however, make a good destination for the day, because there was a geocache to be found there.
Getting to Fred Haught Cabin was very easy, so John decided to change things up a bit. Instead of just hiking the trail, John suggested that we hike through Box Canyon, just as he had done with the girls the day before. That would give me a chance to see the canyon and to see the campsite that John had intended for us.
From our campsite, we hiked up and over the low ridge into Box Canyon - a small, pretty, grassy canyon that runs parallel to General Springs Canyon, where the Fred Haught Trail runs. In the midst of the grassy meadows along the canyon floor, there as a small trickle of a creek; we followed that creek downstream, towards its confluence with General Springs. At that point, we crossed over General Springs Creek and rejoined the trail on the other side.
The hike to the junction with the Arizona Trail was very flat and, therefore, very easy. It wasn't until we reached the last creek crossing - about 500 feet after the junction - that we had any elevation change at all. At that point, the trail climbed about 100 feet to crest a ridge; then, it dropped into another canyon and flattened out again.
Once we were in the next canyon, John indicated that we needed to leave the trail and hike cross-country for two-tenths of a mile. This was due to the fact that the Fred Haught Cabin is not actually located on the trail but about seven hundred feet or so off of the trail, in a clearing above the creek.
As we approached the cabin, we were surprised to find that there were two other people - and their three dogs - on the hill above the canyon. In fact, according to the GPS, they were sitting near the place where the geocache was hidden. This was disappointing, because it meant that we would have to wait for them to leave before we could zone in on the treasure - after all, we didn't want the cache to fall victim to a "muggle".
That said, we sat down next to the cabin and enjoyed a snack while we waited. The girls marveled at what was left of the cabin; all that remained were a few logs and the stone fireplace, which was still completely intact. Seeing it like that, it was hard for them to believe that someone once lived there for several months out of the year. I promised them that, once we were back at the trailhead, I would take them into General Springs Cabin for a look around; that cabin was still intact and well-preserved, so that would give them a better idea of what it was like to live there.
We waited for a long time - more than ten minutes - but the other people were still there...and that was when it dawn on us that they weren't "muggles" at all; they were geocaching, too! Laughing, we walked up the hill and joined them, GPS in hand, and together, we all looked for the treasure. John eventually found it, buried deep under a rock. As we all signed the log, we traded stories about geocaching and how we came to be there that morning. We explained that we were camped about a mile from there, along the Fred Haught Trail; they were car-camping off of FR 95 and had hiked in from the Pinchot Cabin Trailhead. They were also fairly new to the sport, too, and were having fun caching.
After replacing the cache in its hiding place, we all went our separate ways; the other cachers and their dogs began their return hike to Pinchot Cabin, and I led the girls back to camp. John, on the other hand, decided to explore up the canyon and indicated that he would meet us at camp.
Hiking back to camp was easy enough. Along the way, we encountered a pair of backpackers - a man and his twelve-year-old son - who were determined to hike the entire Cabin Loop; they were getting a late start, though, because of the rain during the day before. We also started to see a steady stream of day-hikers...more day hikers than we had ever seen on that trail before. In fact, the trail was becoming ridiculously crowded; we just couldn't believe how many people were flooding into the area that day!
It took us about a half an hour to return to camp; by that time, John was already there and waiting for us. I figured that he would be; when hiking alone, he can typically hike double Mary's pace. He explained that his hike had been more difficult than he had anticipated. To return to camp, he had to hike up and over several ridges; each time he climbed over one ridge, he thought that it was the last one...only to learn that he still had another ridge to climb! Eventually, he did find his way back to camp, arriving only five minutes before us.
As soon as we were settled at camp, we started cooking lunch: Top Ramen spaghetti with sausage, another recipe that John had discovered in The Well-Fed Backpacker. We had tried this recipe out while camped at Utopia Creek, in the Fiddle River Valley, and it was delicious. We could not, however, find sausage sticks that were as good as the ones that we had found at the grocery store in Jasper, but it was still a fantastic lunch.
After lunch, a lazy afternoon ensued. While the girls played by the creek, John and I rested in our tent until it became too hot in there to do so. We then emerged and laid out on the tarp, in the shade. It wasn't much better, but at least there was a breeze.
A bit later, John decided to take the girls exploring in Box Canyon again; this time, he took them upstream, to see what was there. They didn't go very far - it's hard to hike in camp shoes - but they did have fun seeing more of the canyon.
By the time they returned, I had finished cleaning out and organizing their tent. They had each lost items inside of it and couldn't find them, which told me two things: 1) they weren't looking hard enough, and 2) the inside of their tent was a mess. Indeed it was; it looked like a hurricane had blown through there! It took me a while, but soon, it was organized again, and all of the lost items had been found. The girls were grateful when they returned to see the work that I had done, and they made a pact to keep it clean for the rest of the weekend.
Around 5:00, John started cooking dinner, while the girls relaxed - and giggled - by the campfire. At the same time, the last of the day-hikers filed down the trail on their way back to the trailhead, meaning that we were alone in the backcountry once again. As soon as they were gone, it was peaceful and quiet once more.
We spent the rest of the evening sitting around the campfire. The girls eventually retreated to their tent, where they turned on their iPods and sang along to Hannah Montana, the Jonas Brothers and Zac Efron; John and I remained by the campfire to warm up as much as possible before bed. We also watched the lightning show that had started up in the distance. There was no thunder to go with it, and there wasn't a cloud in the sky; just bright flashes of lightning. Around 8:30, we told the girls "lights out"; then, we, too, retired for the night...
After a peaceful night's sleep, John and I awoke at 6:00 a.m. to a cold morning. We woke the girls about thirty minutes later, letting them know that the word for the day was "efficient". Our goal was to break camp by 8:30, so that we could be back at the trailhead by 10:00; therefore, we needed them to work quickly and help out as needed.
Following breakfast, we put the kids to work. First, they had to clean up and pack up the stuff in their tent - everything but their sleeping bags and sleeping pads. Next, while John and I packed the backpacks, we gave the girls a water bottle and the cooking pot and had them collect water from the creek to put out the fire; this task helped to warm them up. Finally, they had to check the campsite to make sure that we didn't leave any garbage behind. Once they had accomplished all of that, we all donned our backpacks and started our hike.
Our hike that morning started out simple enough; but only fifteen minutes after we started, we could tell that the girls were tired, as they were already asking for a break. We let them take a short break then hurried them on again.
Shortly thereafter, as we passed through a drainage, we were suddenly pelted by falling pine cones. John thought at first that they were just falling from the trees; but as more and more of them fell, we realized that they weren't just dropping on their own. No, these pines cones were being thrown at us! Seconds later, we could hear the angry chatter of what John believe to be a bird.
"That's not a bird, that's a squirrel!" I told him. He asked me how I knew, and I said that I had heard the same angry chatter when we were in Canada, watching the squirrels at the Plain of the Six Glaciers Teahouse. Sure enough, the squirrel appeared from his hiding place and dashed across the high branches of the pine trees, still chattering angrily and throwing pine cones at us. Apparently, our presence there was not wanted!
Around 9:30 a.m., we reached the last creek crossing, at the point where the trail begins to climb over the ridge. John suggested that we avoid the climb this time and take the old trail, which follows the creek around the ridge. John had taken this route before, during our day-hike last year, and said that it was a pretty route that was easy to follow, except that there would be one area in which the girls would require some assistance.
We came upon that area about five minutes later. It involved a short climb up a boulder, in which each of the girls needed a boost to help them up to the top. John stood at the bottom and helped them up, one by one; then, he and I hoisted ourselves up and hurried them along.
It was there that we came to a waterfall. Since the creek was mostly dry, having not received enough monsoon rains to give it more volume, the waterfall was just a trickle. John indicated that the waterfall was gushing the last time he was there. Despite its lack of water, though, the falls were very impressive, set in a narrow part of the canyon and standing about fifty feet tall. Before we moved on, I took the girls over to the top of the falls, and we all stood on the slickrock and looked down on the creek below.
As we continued our hike, we soon discovered that we had lost the trail; the area at the top of the falls was so overgrown that the old trail was lost under the thick ferns and grass. We had to hop over a number of logs and cross the creek again in order to find the trail again. Once we were back on the trail, it was another, easy five minute walk back to the main trail.
The last quarter-mile of our hike passed without incident, and soon, we could see the trailhead again. We arrived at 10:00 a.m., to find that the campers who were there on Saturday morning were now packing up to leave. A couple of the women recognized us and came over to ask us how our trip had been; we could tell that they were very interested in giving backpacking a try sometime.
While John finished loading the backpacks into the 4Runner, I took Mary and Zoey over to General Springs Cabin, where they were able to go inside and get a better idea of how the forest rangers lived back in the day. They thought that the cabin was "neat".
Shortly after 10:00 a.m., we drove away from the General Springs Trailhead and started heading west again on FR 300, towards SR 87. Along the way, we made one stop, to retrieve a geocache near Baker Butte; this cache required us to hike up a hill - a feat that wasn't easy for the girls, after they had already hiked two miles that morning with heavy backpacks. Nonetheless, they made it, and they both found the cache together.
Once we were back on SR 87, we headed south into Pine, to eat lunch at our favorite place: Sidewinders. Sidewinders has become a part of our Mogollon Rim experience, ever since we had dinner there, following that one wet backpacking trip last summer. There is nothing like good bar food - and a cold beer - after a great Verley adventure.
The girls were absolutely exhausted by the time our lunch was served; and, once we were back on the road again, it wasn't long before both of them were fast asleep in the backseat. No Hannah Montana, no Jonas Brothers...just lots of ZZZ's. They slept all the way to Fountain Hills, and John and I enjoyed a nice, quiet, giggle-free hour.
As soon as we arrived at home, we immediately unloaded our gear and got all of Zoey's stuff together so that we could walk her home. She was greeted warmly by her parents, who had missed her a lot while she was gone. When Barb (her mother) hugged her, the first thing she noticed was that her hair smelled like campfire, and that brought her back to the last time that they had camped. (They will probably be going camping again soon. I think Zoey will insist on it.)
With Zoey back home, safe and sound, we, too, returned home and settled in for the night. Another great weekend adventure had come to an end...
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