Wednesday Apr 13th 2022, 0600-1900
Chaves trail to Fivemile Pass Tank #2, EABO mm 101.5, Segment 2 mm 51.6.
It was a cold one overnight. It got to 36 degrees inside my tent but outside, the temperature plummeted to 27 as we started walking. It’s amazing how much heat a tent can trap…even one as well ventilated as mine. I stayed just warm enough and didn’t even have to break a chemical handwarmer (which I picked up in Sedona for extra peace of mind).
We followed the Chaves trail for several miles, finding it very distinct in some spots and barely discernible in others…typical of many other trails so far. The intermittent cairns were mostly all that helped to guide us. It’s a wonder that so many of these wire cage cairns were built in the first place. They seemed very durable and appropriate for this harsh landscape. God knows there were plenty of rocks to fill the cages. The path was quite overgrown in places, which only served to hide all the big rocks underneath. It was like the Pennsylvania section of the AT, but not visible through the overgrowth. We had to kind of feel our way along. I was lucky not to stub my toes. Still, it was a really cool experience traveling this ancient wagon road (how on earth did wagons ever navigate these rocks???). It also offered a nice parting view up Woods Canyon and the red rock valley to the south.
We were eventually dumped alongside HWY 17 (the highway between Phoenix and Flagstaff), crossing it at an underpass, then onto a series of jeep trails for the rest of the morning. Some were no longer in service and very rocky while others were smooth and pleasant, an easy roll. We gained some elevation, then dropped into a small gully that had clear pools of water in its wash. I had to break ice to scoop this beautiful water. What a treat. It wasn’t even listed as a source on our map (Rarick Canyon).
We emerged from the canyon to wind through open grasslands that almost reminded me of high alpine meadows in Colorado, or at the very least New Mexico. There were some vibrant patches of green and I think I even found clumps of alfalfa growing in the roads. It smelled and tasted like alfalfa. The abundance of elk tracks and severed stalks also pointed to this being a favored edible plant. Is there such a thing as wild alfalfa?
We passed by many tanks through this section, most of which were filled to the brim. I was so used to seeing tanks nearly dry, it was a nice change. We came to Mullican tank, which was more like a huge natural lake. It seemed to be a great place to look for wildlife. We spotted a great blue heron. Earlier I spotted a coyote too. Shortly after, we passed a herd of black Angus cattle. They circled up and I could just make out a tiny black figure in the grass. It appeared a new calf had just dropped.
We began a big decent into Wet Beaver Canyon. A footpath appeared and began switch-backing down the canyon walls. The temperature immediately went up and it felt downright hot all of a sudden. The trail, named Apache Maid, was immaculate, allowing us to take our eyes off our feet to admire the canyon. But watch out! Tom slid right past a snake on the trail while I came to a halt just in time. Did he step on it? It was coiled, ready to strike, it’s tail shaking. But it’s vibrant colors gave it away…just a beautiful and harmless bull snake. This one was so alarmed that it deformed its head to look like a pit viper. It even let out a hiss, which sounded all the world like a rattler. Their adeptness at mimicry is astounding. But such a fantastic acting role can also get them in trouble by those that don’t see the charade as such. We admired the snake’s acting efforts and left it alone.
As soon as we got to the bottom, we started running into day hikers. We must have passed about 15, all heading back to the carpark. I suspect they were part of a tour group. The wide and groomed trail suggested that many groups visit this canyon. It traversed along some more spectacular red rocks for about mile, dead-ending at some glorious swimming holes. After passing so many people on the trail, we were surprised to find the pools empty. Well, save for the buzz of a rattlesnake wedged somewhere between the rocks. We heard it briefly in the vicinity of where we were going to stash our packs but never did lay eyes on it. I hoped it wouldn’t crawl inside my pack while I went swimming.
If you’d asked me in the freezing morning if I’d be taking a swim later in the afternoon, I’d have laughed and declared “hell no!” But that’s exactly what I did after lunch. The water was so cold but it felt good to rinse off all the dust. 925 arrived just as I was putting my clothes back on, getting to see me stripped down to my underwear. I apologized to him for having to run off yet again, just as he caught up. I really would like to hike with him more but I was so cold, I had to resume hiking while he stopped to filter water. We hoped we’d see him again at the top.
We started up an old cattle trail that was ingeniously built by one Mr. Bell…hence the name Bell Trail. There was stone masonry etched into the cliffs to fashion perfect switchbacks and traverses. Even though I was going up, carrying a heavy load of water, I loved this trail. It took me the whole ascent just to stop my teeth from chattering and even still I was feeling a chill. This would remain with me the rest of the afternoon and evening.
Back on the rim, a sign warned that the trail was difficult to follow. I found it on par with previous sections. Presently we came to a jeep trail, following it to a tank and old cabin. I love checking out old cabins and this one was pretty cool. It would have been nice to camp there but we decided we still had time to press on 2.5 miles to another tank. We continued a steady climb through mixed juniper, while the wind continued to gain strength. Once again I wondered why I was pushing on from such a nice, warm spot where we’d been inside the canyon. The timing just wasn’t right.
The last 2 miles took forever and it got so cold as the sun set. I wondered if the mileage might be off. Approaching the tank, I saw a stand of pine trees and yelled for joy. If only there was a flat spot beneath them. We had to hop a fence but sure enough, I found a perfect site under a huge ponderosa, its duff providing a luxurious pillow for my tent. Have I said a thousand times how much I love camping under ponderosas? I settled in for what promised to be a very cold night. And oh yeah, we passed the 100 mile mark for the trip. Only 400 miles left.