10 Things I Learned from Spending 15 Nights in the Wilderness:
From April 22nd to May 8th I had the opportunity to go on an extended 17-day backpacking trip through the Aldo Leopold and Gila Wilderness, as part of a class that is a graduation requirement for my degree. No complaints from me about backpacking for class credit – and I learned a lot more out there besides the curriculum that was covered during those 2.5 weeks. So rather than write out a day-by-day log or even attempt to summarize those days into a blog post, I decided to write down some of the lessons I learned, and tell the stories that went along with them.
For anyone who may have read my prior blog post, “Trip Planning Never Goes as Planned,” you already know that I did about as much as I could get away with in the planning process at the last minute. While I did not suffer in the field because of my last minute tendencies, the night before I departed was a hectic rush. Oh, and you know how I said that I always have to forget at least one thing? This time I forgot my mini Nalgene – the perfect size water bottle for scooping water from shallow sources into a larger reservoir, or for sipping tea in the morning – we even used a mini Nalgene full of hot water to defrost frozen socks once.
- When in doubt, schwack it out.
We did a lot of bushwhacking on this trip – not all of it intentionally. We went on a search for a marked spring when we were in the high country through a large burn area and ended up crawling over fallen trees, pulling ourselves through prickly bushes, and sliding through mud so that we could fill up our water. When we came out of one of our bushwhacks I looked as though I had encountered an angry housecat, my arms were totally ripped up and bloody from thorny bushes and dead branches. Sometimes we bushwhacked because we had planned our route with some off-trail travel, other times it was because the trail disappeared, and one time it was for water. Every time made for a good story to tell when we got home.
- Don’t go down Gobbler Canyon.
Day 14 we ran into some trail finding problems when we discovered that our trail down from the high country was nowhere to be found due to the ridgeline suffering from severe burns in years past. There was a clear trail (with a signpost even! We didn’t see many of those) that said Mogollon Creek via Gobbler Canyon: 6.5 miles. A few of us remembered being warned against going down Gobbler Canyon, but could not remember why, and decided to take the chance and go down the clear trail. I won’t go into all the details, but by the end of the day, three out of four of us were covered in itchy red bumps, mostly on the backs of our hands, but also our feet, legs, and backs. We had soon discovered in our traverse down Gobbler Canyon that the canyon was full of poison oak, it covered the trail, there were forests of it off the trail, and most of the time it was impossible to avoid. One lucky person had no reaction, but the rest of us itched for days. Eventually we lost the trail due to the thick shrubbery and bushwhacked to find our way to Mogollon Creek, where we soaked our itchy hot hands in the cool water and sat down for lunch, grumpy and 100% fed up with poison oak. It got better though – about 20 minutes after sitting down to eat, we realized we were all sitting in a patch about 10 feet in diameter of immature poison oak. It’s now weeks late and I still have remnants of those little bumps on the backs of my hands. Remember the advice you’re given, and don’t go down Gobbler Canyon.
- Nalgenes don’t make good hammers.
This is the story of the cracked Nalgene. Day 7, I was staking down my tent and couldn’t get one stake in because the ground was a little harder, so I picked up my full 1.5 liter Nalgene, and happily hammered, unaware of my poor decision-making skills in that moment. About 10 hammers later, there was a loud crack, some sprayed water, and a lot of swearing as I realized I had just compromised ~1/3 of my water capacity. A little bit of UV activated aqua-seal and the Nalgene was…almost saved. For the rest of the trip I had a slow, drippy leak from the bottom of the bottle.
- Take down your tent in high winds.
On day 14 after coming out of the high country via Gobbler Canyon we pushed ahead down Mogollon Creek to our camp for the following day, thinking it would be nice to give ourselves a layover day following. Day 15 around noon we were all sitting by the creek and lounging happily in the sun. The wind had been blowing strongly all day, and we had heard trees falling up canyon, but weren’t worried yet, it was a pretty severe burn area up there and most of the trees looked ready to fall anyways. And then the wind picked up even more, and we could see trees right above us bending frighteningly close to ninety-degree angles. Soon we heard trees falling and moved away from the water and back to where we had hung our food and saw fully alive Ponderosa Pine trees were bending and cracking and snapping all around us. After a few nervous looks at one another, we began to talk about moving camp out of the canyon, which appeared to be acting as a sort of wind tunnel – the mesa above looked far less windy. As we spoke, two trees fell just feet from where we were standing, and we could see another snapped tree teetering above us. We scattered immediately, grabbed the hanging food, ran back to camp, and that’s when I saw my tent lying oddly flat against the ground. My heart sank a little when I looked down at my brand new ultra light tent and saw the snapped pole, but I barely had time to think about repairing it before shoving everything into my backpack in a heap and running up and out of the canyon. I was pretty grateful that it was day 15 and not day 3 that my tent pole snapped, I was perfectly happy sleeping out the next two nights, but the
- A little bit of chocolate goes a long way.
I’m not sure this lesson really needs an explanation – but a snickers bar that you save for day 16 lunch, or that last M&M you find at the bottom of your trail mix bag after you thought you’d eaten them all, those are the moments in the backcountry that can make all the difference when you’ve been eating the same mix of nuts and dried fruit for 2.5 weeks.
- Dice, a deck of cards, and a hacky-sack should always be on your packing list.
I don’t think we went a single day/night on this trip without utilizing at least one of these methods of entertainment, whether it was a heated game of Farkle (a dice game that I highly recommend for you to play with your overly competitive friends) while we gathered under a tarp to avoid high winds, or a game of gin at the end of a long day, or a post-lunch time hacky-sack sesh, these games kept us entertained for hours every day.
- Make stops for hot springs.
On both days 8 and 9 our camps in the Middle Fork of the Gila River were located close to hot springs. Lightfeather Hot Springs was the name of the first one (very hot, but a little shallow), and Jordan Hot Springs was the second (not as hot, but much deeper and absolutely gorgeous). And while actually bathing with soap in the hot spring is not advised in adhering to Leave No Trace principles, it comes close enough to a bath in the backcountry to be a highlight of the trip.
- Wake up for the sunrise.
On day 14, we camped at around 10,000 ft. near top of Mogollon Baldy Peak, the second highest point in the Gila Wilderness. We climbed to the very top for the sunset after setting up our camp the night prior, and decided that we should wake up early the next morning for the sunrise from our camp just down the ridgeline. The next morning at 4:30am all of our watch alarms went off, and with eyes half-open we pulled our sleeping pads and bags out of our tents and walked over to where we had set up our kitchen looking East. We boiled water for tea and oatmeal, and the four of us sat in line looking out together, watching the sun rise up over the mesas and canyons that we had traveled over and through in the days prior. If I had to pick a single highlight of the entire trip, that morning may have been it.
- I have a lot to learn.
Perhaps a little cliché, but it’s true. One of the reasons I’ve chosen to pursue outdoor education is because I really believe that the outdoors is the best classroom, and often does the educating for the educators. Every trip I’ve gone on that has had a structured curriculum with it, I’ve learned so much beyond the lessons, and on personal trips, there’s almost always a lesson to be learned as well. I’ve found that the lessons vary from humorous to gear-oriented to decision-making, and almost always make for good stories to tell later.