Sunday, December 3, 2017

Rockin' It on the Trail

The scouting team headed out this week to check on a trail scheduled for an upcoming hike.  The Shannon/Arcadia Trail was recently opened after the 2017 Frye Fire. The fire drastically changed the landscape and a couple of sections of the trail have completely disappeared.  One lone cairn--a stack of rocks--helped guide us through a particularly rough spot.  So, we added a few cairns to help the next hikers through the area.

On a recent hike, we had an opportunity to educate some novice hikers about the piles of rocks cutting through a large meadow.  Being from Arizona, one individual shared that she had seen these stone piles marking energy vortexes in Sedona.   Yes, after the Harmonic Convergence in 1987 and the end of the Millennium many of the new stone stacks appeared around the world.  They are people’s way of saying “I was here” or mark a spot of spiritual significance. But historically stone stacks denote the next point along a trail so you know which direction to go. 
Real cairns appear all around the world. The word comes from Gaelic for “heap of stones.”  Many cultures used stones as before there were lighthouses to help them navigate along the shorelines.  Stone piles also mark trails in the Tibetan Plateau, the Mongolian steppe and in the Andes. Many still standing today are ancient.  Rock cairn have been used for millennia for guidance.  But in recent years, we have begun seeing cairns go from tools for guidance to art, or a fad. Yes, they make for great Facebook selfies. They are popping up everywhere!  So what's rockin' with these stacked stones?  A big debate. Here are some things we might consider before stacking rocks.

Moving rocks alters the landscape.  In the West, we know the effects water can have on barren land.  Rocks hold down soil and moving even a couple of rocks can cause erosion.  Every time a rock is disturbed, an animal loses a potential home, since many insects and mammals burrow under rocks for protection and reproduction.

Moving rocks not only is bad for the environment, but you run the risk of misdirecting hikers. 
If you make your own cairn, it can lead people in the wrong direction, and it could get people in trouble. Knock down a cairn along a trail and there can be similar results.  Properly built cairns help mark trails to help hikers and can endure for decades.  As trail markers, cairns keep hikers on a single path, so they don't wander about damaging fragile soil and vegetation.  In foggy or stormy weather or at night, they can be lifesavers, helping keep hikers safely on the trail.  Cairns have an important purpose, protecting the environment and the hiker.

But on the other side of the debate--I've seen stacked stones that are works of art.  I've marveled at the builders' abilities to balance one stone upon another. 

But when we think of the out-of doors, we need to think and act responsibly.  In both cases, context and quantity should be considered rather than the idea of our right to stack a few stones.  It's not just one or two's dozens and hundreds in some areas.  If an individual is truly moved by the environment visually, physically, or spiritually, we have a responsibility to protect the area.  We should all embrace the leave-no-trace approach in our activities.  Those who stack stones, take some photos, and then dismantle.  Hikers, place true cairns along a trail only when needed.  Cairns can be great when done right.

Let's all do our part.  Leave nothing but footprints; take nothing but pictures; kill nothing but time.


Friday, July 21, 2017

After the Frye Fire...

We have lost the opportunity this last month to get out and enjoy the cool mountain temperatures and beauty of the forest along with the social interactions we share while hiking due to the Frye Fire.  The total impact of the fire on hiking in the Pinalenos is still unknown.  We can assume that many trails will be closed for at least the next year just as they were following the Nuttal Complex Fire in 2004.  But we also know we will get access to portions of the mountain once the fire is 100% contained and ADOT and the USFS have cleaned up monsoon and fire debris on Swift Tail (Highway 366) and in recreation areas.

In the upcoming year as hikers and recreationists return to the mountains, we must take special care while visiting areas affected by wildfires.  Burned areas present a number of hazards that either did not exist prior to the fire or are increased by the effects of the fire.  These hazardous conditions may be present for several years after a fire.  Be very aware of your surroundings and pay attention to possible safety hazards. 

In severely burned areas, dead plant roots will decompose over the years.  As they do, they will cease to hold the soil in place allowing the soil and rock to shift and move under foot. 

Animals that live in the burn area are often displaced and may appear confused or act odd as they come back into their habitat.  Be cautious when encountering any animal.

Be on the lookout for trees that appear dead.  Fire can burn and weaken the root systems of trees.  Even in a light wind, trees may fall.  When they do, they can impact an area up to 2x the tree's height.  Without needles, these trees provide no warning because they make little or no sound.  Everyone in a hiking party should keep an eye on the trees above.  Give yourself some extra room when choosing a route and especially where you choose to rest.  Be extra careful of trees after rain.  Burned tree stumps can create obvious large holes.  In many cases, the hole may actually be bigger than you think.  Fire may have burned roots leaving tunnels where solid wood used to be.  Your body or vehicle weight may cause a tunnel to collapse under you.  And again, especially after rain.

Rain is a welcomed thing in the Southwest, but problems can arise because of this wonderful resource, water.  The wild fires have left burn areas devoid of vegetation and ground cover.  This makes these areas more susceptible to flooding and mudslides with even the slightest bit of precipitation.  Rainfall of even 1/4 inch can cause flash flooding and mudslides.  Conditions can quickly change, wiping out a trail and trapping a hiker.
In the event of a storm, hikers should avoid any natural drainages, such as creeks or stream beds.  Seek higher ground to avoid potential flooding.  If you should become trapped, stay put and use a signaling device to attract attention.

We are looking forward to exploring the new conditions we will find when we return to the mountain, but we will always put hikers' safety at the forefront of our activities.

Saturday, May 20, 2017


No one plans on getting lost, but if you hike long enough, chances are you will find yourself off course, wondering where you went wrong.  Hopefully it is only a few yard off the intended path when you discover you are heading off in the wrong directions and can correct your ways.  But sometimes it is not discovered until later and you wonder where you went wrong.

It often starts out the same way. a hiker, having escaped into the forest to enjoy the day, is late returning home.  Their car waits at the trailhead, empty.  A search and rescue team is called in, and the hiker is found--tired, cold, hungry, and embarrassed.  Luckily this ending was a happy one.  Perhaps they were a beginner hiker unfamiliar with the area, or maybe they were experience and just missed a crucial trail marker.  Sometimes they have just thrown caution and preparation to the wind. 

The first step in avoiding a tragedy is your preparation.  Research your hike.  Study a map and read trail descriptions before you go on your hike.  In today's world, using a GPS on a hike can really help you avoid getting lost, and if you do get lost, it can help you find our way back to safety.  (Be sure you know how to use it before you hike.)

Make sure you are prepared for the off chance you do get lost.  Carry these essentials:  nutrition, hydration, sun protection, additional clothing for insulation, illumination, first-aid,waterproof matches, and emergency signalling (old cd and whistle.)

It is never a good idea to hike alone.  There is safety in numbers.  If you do hike alone, and in fact any time you hike, leave a hike itinerary with someone.  Let them know where you are going and when you plan to return.  This can make the difference between life and death, as it gives search and rescue a general location for where to start looking.  Make sure you notify your contact if you change plans during your hike.

Taking a detour to waterfalls, venturing off-trail to see wildlife and other adventurous exploration are why we hike.  (And there are thoe side trips to heed the call of mother nature.)  They are also what get us lost.  Make sure you watch for landmarks--interesting rocks, trees, topography.  That way you can navigate back to your trail.  Don't consider taking a short cut or going off trail.  Remaining on the trail reduces your chances of getting lost. 

Remember, weather changes quickly in the mountains.  Fatigue and unexpected conditions can affect your hike.  Know your limitations and when to postpone ahike or turn back.  The mountains will be there another day.

If you find yourself clueless in the forest, here are a few things to keep in mind:
  • Don't panic.  Sop, take a deep breath and look around.
  • Never run when you get lost.  Not only could you hurt yourself, but you can take yourself farther and farther away from your point of origin and become further disoriented.  Good advice for a lost child is "hug a tree" meaning stay put.  That's good advice for all of us.  Don't move until you have a specific reason to do so. The only time you might want to leave your spot when lost is if you know you haven't gone too far afield and can retrace your steps until you are back on familiar ground.  You also want to eave a location that is unsafe, severe weather is approaching and you need shelter, if no one will know you are missing to search for you, your rescue signal will probably not be seen, or you do not have enough food or water to survive.  These exception make the situation pretty complicated.
Spend enough time exploring the outdoors and chances are you're going to get lost sometime.  All in all, you can't ever prevent getting lost with 100% certainty.  But plan and follow the tips above, and chances are you won't be lost for long.