Birthday Canyon

12 o’clock, time to get out of work! Not that I was watching the clock or anything… just as I was about to head out the door I thought I’d check my flight status. Delayed by 2 hours! Ugh. Whatever, my head wasn’t at work anymore anyway, I rode out. After lunch on the train I rode to SFO, hiking bag not sitting too precariously on my back. I was going American Airlines this time since United couldn’t beat their prices and it was also the first time checking a bag on such a short flight. The tent poles made that a necessity unfortunately. I rode around the domestic garage and took a spin on at least two elevators until I finally remembered where the bike parking was. Right by the valet parking, I went into the kiosk to register my bike (all free of charge of course). it’s a perfect set up because there is someone Manning the valet parking 24/7 and if I found it hard to find no one is going to be able to attempt theft! While waiting, I listened to a disgruntled man pay $225 for his parking bill (e-gad!) and happily found out that Brett Kavanuagh’s confirmation hearing was being streamed live online, which meant I had something to keep me entertained for the next few hours!! Bike secured, I found my way to the terminal. No hassle checking my bag and of course since I wasn’t in a rush there was no line at security. Straight after security, my “what-to-do” radar went “beep-beep-BEEEEP”, I saw a sign for a yoga room! I’d gotten so used to the United terminal that this was like exploring a totally new place!

The yoga room was quiet as you’d expect and while there was another lady in there about to leave, I ignored the signs that asked for electronic devices to be turned off so I could listen/watch the BK hearing while stretching. Recently I’ve been trying to strengthen my back every day and so this was a perfect opportunity to fit in my daily. With a mat and roller I got to work, stretching my body and laughing at the ridiculousness of a Senate hearing that combined madness, stupidity and incomprehensible logic. I managed to waste an hour in the room before moving on. For the remaining hours I had to wait, I bought a book, perused every shop and talked to my good mate Lizzy back home. I even managed a quick chat with Mummy just as I was boarding. My hopes weren’t high, I’d just spoken to a lady in a big long queue who’d been on a plane that got into the sky then turned around after 20 minutes. Fingers crossed!

The plane landed a short 1.5 hours later but we spent half an hour on the tarmac waiting for traffic to clear, the whole while entertained by the flagger at our gate waving his bright red torches around in all sorts of dance fashion. Clearly he was impatient too! Finally out, I was amazed to see my bag out as soon as the carousel started turnjng. I grabbed it and ran. The reason I’d travelled was waiting for me outside. Hi Dan!!

No Cleo yet, one of the first things Dan asked as we drove away was whether I was hungry. Absolutely! He was taking me to the only rooftop pool bar in Phoenix. On the way I opened my birthday present that Dan had brought with him. Op-shop clothes!! so thoughtful and perfect but! Nearing the bar, we soon found out that I’d actually been there before with Kevin on his visit! The bar is gorgeous, with a beautifully lit pool that overlooks the stadiums of downtown Phoenix. Problem is that their drinks are expensive and their menu underwhelming. Same as we did on Kevin’s visit, we went downstairs to the Tilted Kilt, a sports bar serving beers for $2 and big old fashioned burgers. Boom! We sat at the bar, talked the whole time with a cool bartender and ate some fucking delicious food. By 10:30 we were ready to head out. No traffic or action on a Thursday night in Phoenix, we were pulling into the familiar mountain road in no time.

The house was quiet but Cleo (and more birthday presents) was waiting for me in Dan’s room. I couldn’t handle more birthday excitement that evening so we were soon in bed.

Friday morning and we woke up slow. I must have dozed in and out five times. When we emerged to the rest of the house we found that it remained quiet, we still had the place to ourselves. Breakfast! I made a smoothie while Dan brewed coffee and fried up some eggs. We we’re halfway done when Debbie walked in. Yay! Great to see Dan’s Mum as always, we caught up while the dogs played. Dan, impatient and wanting to see my reaction, brought out the two big birthday presents for me to open. Feeling like a 12 year old kid, I started with the smaller one. A trick skateboard!!! He’d already sourced me a mini-longboard for cruising, but now I had something to wield at a skate park! Cool! I was standing on it in no time playing around, I think I’ll get myself some knee and elbow pads before doing anything too ambitious. How exciting!

Now for the big one, I tore at the wrapping and peered down the long box. I saw a long row of black and white…. It was an electric piano!! Whaaaat? We’d talked about this, thinking it would be cool for me to play again and for Dan to learn and he’d gone and done it! It was a full-sized deal and even had the capability to hook up to a laptop and record! All found on OfferUp and Craigslist obviously, best birthday gifts ever!

After I’d made a trail mix out of the nuts and chocolates I found in the cupboards, we started thinking about getting ready. I’d brought most of the camping stuff we needed, but it all had to fit in a backpack and a sweet dry bag Dan had bought. By the time we had everything sorted, it was about lunchtime. We said goodbye to Debbie, loaded Scoot onto the back of the recently raised van and we were off, heading north.

The drive up the ever familiar hill was long, even with working AC. After stopping in at Walmart and REI for a few things and snagging a couple of dirty hotdogs and a frozen coke from a servo, we drive non-stop into Sedona. Not what it used to be, Sedona was buzzing with tourists sporting shopping bags and visor hats and so we drove on through, trying to see only the beautiful red rocks through the wash of tourism. By accident, we drove past the West Fork Oak Creek day use area and so parked a little ways up the road. It ended up being a good mistake since we weren’t gonna pay the $10 entrance fee anyway. We sussed out a good parking spot for the scooter then walked down to the day use for a quick look. Being late in the afternoon there weren’t many people around so we had the place to ourselves. A quick loop and a drink in the water for Cleo and we were out again. We manhandled the scooter off the back of the van and Dan did a quick check to make sure she started ok before we positioned it next to a tree pretty well out of view from passers by.

We used three different locking devices to dissuade thieves and even put a note on the dash explaining Scoot was a shuttle vehicle and would be picked up in a day or two. All tied up, we continued our drive north.

After getting over the switchbacks halfway to Flag, we turned into the forest. Trusty Google maps navigated us through the maze of dirt roads and network of campers, no two campsites the same. We’d probably camped near here before but never in the section we passed through. The meadows were vast and beautiful, the grass looking softer than clouds.

The setting sun also made the pink/red bushes glow. About halfway in, we’d decided we’d be spending the night in the van. At 5pm, it was much too late to start hiking and we couldn’t not van camp in such a gorgeous spot. 45 minutes after leaving the scoot, we were at the trailhead but we carried on in search of camp. Dan nailed it, turning down a rocky road that took us into a wide open field away for anything and everyone. We were home.

While I collected firewood, Dan cleaned out the van in order to find his shovel then proceeded to dig a fire pit. I didn’t have to walk more than twenty meters to gather enough dry logs to sustain us In warmth for the night and we soon had a roaring fire.

With the bed made, the sun setting and a big ball of flame, Cleo was quick to retreat to the van. Not quite hungry for dinner, we sat by the fire and played a round of cards, going slowly so we could remember the rules of Queen’s Chair. Dinner was a dehydrated meal (since we’d planned on hiking food) that was surprisingly decent, especially when we toasted some tortillas to dip in our chilli bean soup. With no beer (poor planning), we had a sober night by the fire, catching up on lost time. Cleo was happy when we doused the fire and joined her in the van.

All of us had the best sleep we’d experienced in a while. In a van in a forest is where we are meant to be. Cleo went out for her usual morning scout for squirrels while we dozed in bed until it was warm enough to go outside.

Dehydrated eggs, sausage and hash browns for brekkie, wrapped into a burrito, not bad! About 10am we thought it was probably time to get serious, so we started packing. I managed to fit all our camping gear into the 55L dry bag and everything else into Dan’s tiny camelbak bag. We were filled to the brim and ready to rock. Sad to leave camp, we drove out and down to the trailhead.

There were a couple of cars parked there which I was happy to see, meant we weren’t the only ones doing this. We got our shit together, packs on, shoes on, Dan’s super-Dad hat on, double and triple checked we had the keys for the Scoot and the locks down the bottom, and set off, leaving the van behind.

A route I’d found on Hiking Project, the West Fork of Oak Creek is a 15.5 mike canyon that we were trekking into, going from top to bottom. There is no set trail but the project rightly suggests there is no way to get lost, you just follow the water. I’d considered bringing wetsuits, thinking of the cold canyoning I’d done in Zion National Park, but Dan talked me out of it and he was right to do so because we soon realised there was no water to be seen at the entrance to the waterway. 

We assumed we would hit some soon, there had to be water right? We saw it flowing down the bottom yesterday! We started on a well worn trail, surprised to actually see a sign warning off noobs and threatening death and serious bodily injury. Within a mile, we were off any trail and navigating through rocks, fallen trees and other debris, following the obvious wash.

Cleo was happier than a pig in shit, chasing rustles in the bushes and jumping over rocks and trees to keep pace with us. I was happy we could do this with her, it wouldn’t have been the same otherwise.

After an hour or so, we started to doubt whether we’d see water at all and laughed at how silly we’d feel carrying wetsuits. The lack of water didn’t blind us of the beautiful forest we were trekking through and being around noon, the sun was high and shining light off the yellow leaves of the early fall colours.

Everything we saw became a sign that we were approaching water. There seemed to be more bugs around and bugs meant water. There was more greenery among the rocks and more green meant more water. The wind in the trees sounded like water and wind meant water?! Ha ha, as the day grew hotter, we were willing nature to send us water.

We’d only brought 4L of water in our packs, thinking we’d be able to fill up and treat water on our way down, so it looked like rations were on the cards. Even so, we relieved the panting Cleo after a few miles and had a couple of sips ourselves.

We started seeing small puddles, with bees hanging around them (bees meant water?) and then we stumbled across pools of stagnant water.

Dan had a hard time convincing Cleo not to drink the poignant stuff while also explaining that it was ok for her to lie down in it to cool off, for her, the two went hand in hand and she just ended up confused.

We resorted to incentives at around mile 3, saying first person to get in some water “won”, though there was no mention of the prize.

And then, we saw a couple of trickles of water that lead to slightly less stagnant pools and all of a sudden, we dropped down over a couple of big boulders, rounded a corner and saw our first real canyon! Sooo much water! Maybe we should have brought the wetsuits?

The three of us stood at the head of this deep channel, part admiring the reflections the water made on the smooth vertical rock, part contemplating our crossing, especially after testing the water and finding it to be freezing!

I wanted to win, so I got in first. I couldn’t help but draw in sharp breaths and let out yells if fright at the temperature of the water, when it got up to my hips I really shrieked and held me hands up, as if in surrender. Dan laughed as I made my way over, finally walking out the other side and finding a patch of sun to stand in.

Cleo’s turn next, she seemed pretty keen and got in the water without too much encouragement. To our great pride, she paddled all the way to me by herself, not bad considering the depth of the water and her usual feelings about solo swimming.

Once Dan had made it across, also shrieking in shock from the cold, we remembered we’d brought Cleo’s life vest and so donned her with it before we carried on, making haste so we could warm up again. Just as we were getting back up to temperature, we came up on yet another deep canyon, this one much longer and deeper than the first. Wetsuits?!!?!?! Dan tested the waters first this time, but without much success. His claim is that the drybag was pulling him under, but I think it was the cold that made him turn around. Wanting to keep the other pack relatively dry and concerned about Cleo making this swim solo, we mounted the small bag to the top of the dry bag and I went across first, holding the bags on top of the water (they floated easily).

I don’t know that I’ve ever been in water so cold, I couldn’t help but yelling out with every breath. I couldn’t look back, but Dan was switching between laughing and shouting encouragement and I’m sure Cleo was shitting her pants. Once I lost my feet underneath me, I shouted “I’m swimming! I’m swimming!” full on submerged in the water. Dan kept asking if I could touch the bottom and three times I tried finding nothing but more water. Only a couple meters from the end of the channel did my feet touch ground and I pulled myself out of the water, waiting for warmth to come back to my extremities. Now it was their turn.

No amount of encouragement from either of us would get Cleo into the water. She’s not stupid, she’d already taken a cold dip and seen me do a second round and she wasn’t keen. Dan eventually guided her in with him and once she got going she didn’t stop. Dan swam behind her, hardly needing to push her in the right direction, she knew the fastest way out. They shook it out together once they got to me. Woo! We sure needed to warm up now! I was aprehensive that at only four miles in, we might be in a bit of trouble without wetsuits, but there was only one direction we were going to keep travelling in!

The scenery continued to change as we walked down and the pools of water became more frequent. We were avoiding the water now, taking side paths instead of the direct route so that our bodies could warm up a little. When Dan stumbled across a small campsite with a fire ring, he suggested a lunchtime fire, even just for twenty minutes to warm ourselves up. Why not? We had flames in minutes thanks to the plethora of firewood surrounding us. We placed our hands and feet over the fire, waiting for the warmth to travel into our limbs. Bloody brilliant idea. Even Cleo (who is scared of fire) sat close enough to warm up a little.

We were surviving on snacks today and so stuck to our twenty minutes for the fire. Continuing on down the canyon, the beauty continued, both below our feet and over our heads. Red, orange and white cliffs rose to our sides that we had to remember to look up from placing our feet to see just how small we were. It seemed like the scenery changed every turn of the canyon we took.

The water crossings became more frequent, but we’d done the deepest one and barely got in past our hips again, which was a welcome relief. We’d done just enough water navigation to warrant the purchase of the dry bag, but not enough to warrant the use of wetsuits – perfectly planned!

The deeper we got, the narrower the canyon became and we were relentless with our “wows” and “this is insanes”. As the sun disappeared behind the high walls of the canyon, we took more and more “pussy” trails that took us around the deep water sections, even doing a tiny bit of rock climbing to avoid the chill. Cleo’s determination fluctuated and at a certain knee-deep section we discovered that encouragement wasn’t working and so Dan, ever the parent, suggested we just keep walking and leave her behind to see if that would motivate her.

Sure enough, as we crept out of sight, Cleo looked at every option to get through/around the obstacle before her, scrambling at the water’s edge. Once completely out of sight (but still peering around the corner), we saw her make a huge jump from a rock and into the water, quickly followed by frantic swimming towards us. That seemed to work! Tough love, but she was happy and all riled up once she got to us on the other side.

We were happy to get patches of sunlight as the canyon changed direction, but five-six miles in and nearing 5pm, we knew we were nearing the end of our day hiking. It was slow going, we hardly got to walk on flat ground, but we were all enjoying it.

We started getting into really serious flash-flood features like tunnels, huge shelves and spherical cut-outs caused by turbulent whirlpools. Wow would it be a great thing to see in motion, if only you could do it safely.

We’d come to a corner and find 3-4 foot wide tree trunks jammed into corners in an impossible puzzle, then clambered down and over giant boulders that had been lodged in place by the force of water.

For the last hour or so of our day, we were doing it tough, bashing through reeds and brush getting all sorts of scratches on our legs. It was here we discovered that Cleo is a pretty decent trailfinder. Letting her lead the way, she often found the best way through which worked great for our tired shoulders and feet.

We’d said that we would stop at the next campsite we saw and assumed we’d come across a few being at the halfway-ish point and so we kept a look out whenever we saw higher ground. During a particularly thick session of bush bashing, Dan spied a clearing to our left and up a few meters and suggested a recon. I followed him and Cleo up the small hill and whooped and hollered when I heard him say he’d found camp. There was a fire ring and everything! We were both happy to de-pack (though mine was hardly heavy compared to the dry bag) and Cleo was happy to get her vest off. High fives and hugs all round, we hadn’t seen a single person all day and now we had this whole place to ourselves!

FIRE. TENT. FOOD.

Soooo much firewood, we didn’t hold back. It was easy to get started and we burnt it big and strong. Once she’d had some food, her tiny little patch of sun was gone and we got the tent set up, Cleo wanted bed and so we set her up inside on a sleeping bag. That was her done for the night.

Not for us though, we hung our wet clothes in a tree and changed into our dry stuff. Sitting by the fire, we had a sunset and food to enjoy. We sprawled out on Dan’s sleeping bag by the fire and played cards (waterproof!) until the light faded and we were ready for dinner. Another dehydrated meal prepared by Chef Dan and half a tortilla each, this time it was chicken and rice of some kind. Whatever it was, it was hot and going into our bellies. Thoroughly warmed up (both inside and out), we sat by the fire, switching between staring into the coals and looking up at the stars. I got first satellite of the night (Dan had that honour last night) and just as we watched it disappear behind the trees, both of us witness a quick shooting star. Special.

Dan managed to break the head off my toothbrush (we were sharing since he forgot his) before we doused the fire and crept into the tent. It was a challenge finding room for the three of us, but it was mostly Dan who dealt with the all night since Cleo was on his side. The poor girl was too cold outside of the sleeping bag but there wasn’t enough room in it for her. I slept soundly while Dan woke in the night to attend to the pitbull, dressing her in his shirt only for her to get tangled, then getting her in the crux of his legs to stay warm. Amongst all that Dan was convinced he heard animals pawing through our camp.

Morning came slowly and we woke up in the same way, letting the sunlight creep into the tent slowly. We let Cleo out to do her usual morning explore and a while later whistled for her to come back. We soon found out she was sitting right next to the tent, shivering, with no exploring to her name. Back into the tent she came and we fit her into Dan’s sleeping bag where she assumed a mood of complete happiness. Poor Cleo.

The tent was covered in a good amount of dew and that meant the firewood was as well. We were already convinced we’d be having a morning fire, even if that meant we had to use my gas stove to get it going (a lighter wasn’t enough to get the wet kindling going). It wasn’t a burner like last night, but it put out enough warmth to encourage movement. I even managed to convince Cleo to sit in my lap to get warm.

Chef Dan in the kitchen again, we had noodles for brekkie and enjoyed them knowing we only had two muesli bars to survive on for the rest of the day. During pack up, Dan noticed a small pile of deer poop a few meters from the tent. He was excited that he hadn’t been imagining things in the night, there had been wildlife nearby!

Just as the sun hit camp we were packed and ready to set off, hoping that we’d finished the reed work the day before. A little while after we’d got back on the water, we were treated to the most stunning view of a jagged cliff and forest trees making a perfect reflection on the black water. And so the views continued as we got out of the bush and back into the creek.

We saw a few parties packing up camp on our morning trek, making us even happier about our camp choice, we seemed to have snagged the choice hidden spot. After passing by the various camps, we remained isolated in our canyon, enjoying the morning sun as we walked.

Dan had read the trail notes the night before and happily discovered that the last six miles are the easiest and so we enjoyed the stroll over flat rocks and trickling water.

It was impossible to stop being awed by this scenery and cracked up by Cleo’s antics. We even found a campfire that had a couch!

As we came within a few miles of the end, we lost our isolation, meeting a whole bunch of day hikers doing the half-day hike into the canyon up until the point where you absolutely have to get your feet wet. We were sorry and happy at the same time that our hike was coming to an end.

Having spent two days in this wilderness, it was hard to see people dressed in fluoro shoes and tights, we were very aware of our sore legs and had been thinking about a pub lunch for hours. Such mixed emotions, we carried on towards food and rest, enjoying the easy walking after all the disjointed hopping and clambering.

After a short detour up a hill to a random campsite and a never-ending stroll through the forest and then a field, we were at the crowded trailhead.

People were lining up to pay the $10 to park their car and see the end of the canyon! We were happy knowing that we’d seen the best parts of it that none of these people would get to experience without working for it like we did.

A short, weary walk up the tarmac and we saw our scooter stashed safely in the trees, right where we’d left her. Now we could really celebrate! We’d made it! Or had we…? Dan tried starting the scooter and she cranked and cranked but wouldn’t go. After five minutes of that, the battery died and so he carried on trying with the battery pack disconnected. Meanwhile, Cleo had passed out on the ground, dead to the world. Knowing my recent history, I was concerned, but Dan was not fussed. He knew it would start. After ten minutes of trying, he was right. Finally she chugged into life and he kept the throttle open to sustain her. I held the throttle open while he got his helmet on, then he was off, roaring north up the highway to collect the van. It was 1:30pm and so me and Cleo had two hours to kill before we’d see Dan and all our vehicles again.

We set ourselves up in a pull-out on the opposite of the road and I couldn’t even muster the energy to climb down the embankment to the water. Cleo wouldn’t relax with Dan gone and so I took the opportunity to check her over for ticks and other nasties, happy to find her clean. That killed about twenty minutes, so I lay down to relax and Cleo eventually joined me.

We were surprised to find a few specks of rain hitting us, I only hoped that it wasn’t raining on Dan up at elevation. With an hour to go, I started writing on Dan’s phone (he had mine for navigation) and was startled to hear Dan’s horn and the white van pull in after only 1hr 40min, he must have flown! Cleo was excited, I was excited, nothing had gone wrong! As soon as I saw Dan’s face, I knew he was running on fumes. As soon as his bum hit the driver’s seat of the van, the wave of tiredness had hit him. Thankfully it was only a short drive to the Olde Sedona Bar & Grille, my favourite local spot away from all the touristy bullshit. 

We got set up on a table out on the patio where Cleo promptly passed out and we downed two pitchers of beer and food while soaking up the NFL atmosphere. We were there maybe two hours and happily enjoyed the sit down.

It was around 5:30pm when we finally started heading south, me driving so Dan could pass out. Surprisingly, the both of us stayed awake, kept up by good music and a gorgeous sunset made dramatic by the rain falling around us and then on us.

We got back to Phoenix in the pouring rain just past 7:30pm but it might as well have been midnight for us. Debbie was waiting for us with a Tiramisu cake for my birthday. Dan had communicated my favourite cake and Deb had made it happen. We regailed our stories, fed Cleo a big bowl of food and ate our cake with ice cream. Debbie also surprised me with one last birthday present, the coolest pair of pants I’ve ever seen, she’d got me just right. I think we said our goodnights and goodbyes around 8:30pm and managed a quick shower and a quick pack before passing out into a deadly deep sleep.

I got up to my alarm at 5am, showered and finished packing. Dan was awake not long after and we were in his Dad’s car heading to the airport. Still raining, this was a different kind of Phoenix than what I was used to. All too quickly, we were saying goodbye, not sure when we’d see each other again, but knowing the next time would be an adventure as usual.

That Monday, a flash flood warning was issued for Phoenix to last until Wednesday. We’d literally gotten out with less than a day to spare.

September 30th, 2018. 35°01’47.0″N 111°51’18.2″W.

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