A very wet hike in Arizona

I’m in the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona, during summer.  All around me is nothing but sand dunes and shimmering waves of heat, right?

Well, no.  Actually we are blessed with beautiful “sky islands” in southern Arizona, which are tall peaks that rise from the desert and provide blissful cool forests and completely different ecosystems to explore.  Just north of home base are the Santa Catalina mountains, probably the more accessible range because of the excellent road that winds to the top, and the multiple hiking trails.

I’ve talked about this range before. From our home base, it is the first thing we see every day through the window, a stunning range of brown (down low) and green (up high) frosted with white peaks in the winter.  Everyone who I’ve talked to, even the residents who have lived here for their entire lives, says they never get tired of the Catalina view.

My friend Brent from the Phoenix area invited me to do some tent camping last weekend.  Like us, he owns an Airstream Safari 30 “bunkhouse,” and like us, he sometimes wants to get back to the basics once in a while.  There’s something about tenting that makes you really feel the experience. Just you, a thin shield of nylon, and an outdoor fire.

During the preceding few days the summer monsoon had finally kicked in, and I had been watching huge thunderstorms sitting atop the Catalinas, so it was a pretty fair bet that we’d get rained on up there, but what the heck.  Tucson averages just 12 inches of rain per year, so a little rain would be a somewhat novel experience. Besides, for a New England camper like myself it would just be an average camping trip.  Or so I thought.

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There are several campgrounds located along the Catalina Highway.  In the summer, most people avoid the two National Forest campgrounds that are below 5,000 feet (because they are too warm), and head for the three that are located at 6,000 feet or above:  General Hitchcock,  Rose Canyon, and Spencer Canyon.  On weekends, that means you’d better show up early if you want to snag a spot.

When we arrived on Saturday morning, the camp host told us that terrifying thunderstorms had plagued the campground the night before.  Some people bailed out and drove back down to Tucson, apparently leaving their gear to fend for itself.  One camper told us he slept in his car, probably to avoid getting fried by the frequent lightning strikes.  We figured we were in for more of that on Saturday night, so we quickly set up our camp and anchored the tents as best we could.

The minute we left the campground, the rain started. At the trailhead, just five minutes later, it was a steady drizzle.  Being tough hikers, we decided to plow through.  “A little rain won’t hurt us!”

mt-bigelow-mushrooms-2010-07.jpgFor a while, the rain was intermittent and I captured a few shots during the drier moments, but that was not to last.  The rain poured down, so much that our conversation turned to rain forests we’d visited in Washington state and Puerto Rico.  There were no views except dripping plants, the occasional mushroom, and fog.

Soon our “water proof” gear began to surrender to the relentless rain.  My hiking boots soaked through and flooded, leaving me “squinching” with every step.  The sleeves and edges of my Gore Tex rain jacket became soaked, and the water migrated by capillary action up the sleeves and onto my forearms. My exposed hands became chilly from being constantly wet, and the rain was growing colder.

The cotton shorts I’d worn for the hike turned out to be a particularly big mistake. As hikers up north say, “cotton kills,” because once it gets wet it starts to leech your body heat.  Normally this isn’t a problem in the southwest, but in these mountains the temperature was only in the upper 60’s, and the humidity was 100%.  We were in the hypothermia zone, and those soaked cotton shorts were chilling my body rapidly.

By this time we’d turned around and were climbing up a steep hill, so my concern was minimal, but it was still a sobering revelation that, if something went badly wrong, one of us could die in these conditions.  People die in the summertime from hypothermia. Imagine having a serious sprain that left you unable to hike out.  In these conditions, you could easily suffer severe hypothermia while lying on the trail, waiting for help to arrive.  The cold ground would steal your body heat, while the constant rain would ensure no chance to warm up.

Imagine the irony of dying of the cold just a few miles from Tucson in August.  I told this to Brent to cheer him up — it didn’t work.  He said, “I’ve never been this wet before in my life.”

Rather than head back to camp, we drove further up the mountain to the village of Summerhaven, where there is a little pizza and cookie restaurant in a log cabin.  Looking like two people who had jumped into a swimming pool fully clothed, we recovered from our adventure while eating pizza and dripping water all over the floor.

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Of course, the rain stopped completely once we got back to camp, and the skies were clear all afternoon and night.  The cumulative rain total for the preceding 24 hours was 4.5 inches.

You know how good it feels to get out of cold wet clothes and into dry ones?  Well, it feels even better when you’re camping in a tent.  Those little pleasures are amplified by the starkness of your resources.

So we set up the fire and ate leftover pizza for dinner, told stories, and let the world revolve without any help from us at all, until late at night.  There’s no exciting ending to this story.  We just hung out, slept in our tents, and got up the next morning for some hot cocoa.  It wasn’t long before we were talking about how we’d like to do it again soon.  That’s good camping.

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Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine