Monday, November 30, 2020

Overstaying My Welcome on the Tinaja Trail?


Last week when we were out here I cut the narrative short when I reached the northern end of the River Trail, but that wasn't the end of my hike.

From the end of the River Trail it was still a couple of tenths uphill (of course everything is uphill from the river) to the real objective of today's hike.

The Tinaja Trail, up there in purple, (I have no idea why they print the trail in purple yet blaze it with orange. Maybe it's a test to make sure you're paying attention - but I suspect it's more likely they aren't paying attention.) is one of those trails that begins and ends well away from a drive-up trailhead.

The northern end of the trail may look like it is on a road, and you're right, it is, but that's not a public road, so it's still about a mile and a half from the nearest parking.

The southern end of this trail terminates at the Cedar Chopper Loop at a point just under a mile from the nearest parking.

Which might explain why the Tinaja Trail appears to be lightly used.

And that's exactly my kind of trail so, even though it took me about 4 miles of hiking just to get to the start of it, off I went as the trail tracked along the ridge on the northwest side of the Gorman River watershed.

                        Oh Crap!


Wait - Nope - Just a stump - - -

It's amazing how many times that happens when you're a lone hiker on a lonely trail. I'll suddenly be aware of how isolated I am, then I start getting a creepy vibe and the wind makes some weird noise off in the distance and suddenly a stump, or bush, or branch turns itself into a potentially dangerous critter. At least for a moment.

But that doesn't mean the next time won't be for real!

As you would expect, the key feature of the Tinaja Trail is a tinaja.

A depression in the rock where water tends to collect.

I've visited a lot of tinajas around the west. Most are, at best, modest little pools. Some are tiny little mud-holes. And others are dry depressions where the only sign of water is from the mineralized marks of evaporation.

By comparison, this tinaja is a friggin lake!

I've been here before, but I honestly don't remember it being this big.

There's a whole aquatic environmental thing going on here with water-plants, fish, turtles, the whole shebang.

And over there along the sheltered southern bank - yep, right there -

I see my lunch spot!

And with a view like this I was in no rush to - well - rush my lunch.

Though a moving human is pretty dang disruptive to the natural world around him/her, I've found that it doesn't take much sitting still, and by that I don't mean frozen, barely daring to breath and moving nothing but your eyes, but rather just being quiet and non-threatening, for nature to begin to resume her natural activities.

At this time of the year (early November) one of those activities was dragonfly mating.

There were these small, dusty-red ones, linked up like military jets planes performing a mid-air refueling as the female, in the rear, dips her ovipostor to the surface of the water time and time again, depositing a single egg with each lunging dip.

By the way, the male isn't hanging around in order to guard her, not in the sense of protecting her anyway. He's clasped onto her and won't let go until he's sure that she has laid all the eggs he went to all the trouble of fertilizing before another male, of which there are plenty buzzing around and harassing, can get to her.

There were smaller blue ones, like these females hoping, often unsuccessfully, that they can hide out here for a few minutes before getting targeted by some horny male, grabbed by the head, and drug off for some high-speed mating - and you thought only human singles-bars were that tough!

Overhead are great big, bright red dragonflies buzzing and darting and disrupting the proceedings seemingly just because they can, but in reality they are just trying to protect their own small stretch of nesting ground where anything that moves can be perceived as a threat.

All the while this is going on, under the surface, given away only by the V-shaped wakes they leave behind, aquatic predators are cruising around, snacking on single dragonfly eggs one after the other like a six-beer drunk on a sticky brown leatherette couch scarfing down cheese-doodles straight from the bag.

On a more gentile note, over on the far side butterflies lap up the minerals left just above the waterline by evaporation.

But danger is always lurking somewhere in the natural world.

Such as various birds hanging around waiting for just the right moment, the right motivation,

to swoop down and snatch up their own lunch.

I kinda zoned out and have no idea how long I had been sitting there taking in the show when these two whooshed in over my head and settled down in a tree across the tinaja,

but after some preening and a little ray-soaking, one of them dropped down to a nearby rock and seemed to be taking a special interest in me.

I took that to mean it was time for me to move on,

so I gathered up my gear and was soon climbing up and away from the tinaja along the decidedly more rugged southern leg of the trail,

which eventually spit me out on the Cedar Chopper Loop.

I hung a left, but instead of taking the Old Gorman Road back down towards the river

I continued on around the Chopper Loop until it intersected with the Dogleg Canyon Trail.

Predictably, this trail took me around the upper end of the short but rugged Dogleg Canyon and,

with a rather anticlimactic final switchback, dumped me back out on the River Trail only three miles from The Van. (It's another half mile from the trailhead to where The Van is parked) 

Monday, November 23, 2020

Wild Kingdom on the River Trail

Note that this post deals heavily with critter encounters, most of which were very quick, and as such, since my digital camera is pretty dang slow (I'd need to buy a camera that costs as much as a car to get a critter-speed worthy digital camera - and that's not going to happen!) this post, despite the title, is long on description and short on actual critter-photos.

Colorado Bend State Park's River Trail tracks along the bank of the Colorado River (Well duh!) and connects the main camping area at the south end with a number of trails further north.

At 7 miles out and back it's a hike all by itself, but if you want to wander some of the trails up there at the north end without moving The Van, or your version of The Van, to one of the closer trailheads, it's the necessary first, and last, leg of a longer hike.

And since I didn't want to move The Van, as the sun was coming up over there on the other side of the river, I was geared up and ready to hike.

I had hardly been on the trail long enough for my pack to get settled when I caught a glimpse of raccoon butt, fat raccoon butt, scurrying up this old tree.

Apparently there was a hollow up there, as well as at least one more raccoon. Not that I could see them up there as they kept the tree between me and them, but I could hear as they had a less-than-whispered discussion about who was going to nip into the hollow and hide first. And it wasn't a polite 'You go dear. No you first, I insist' kind of discussion either. It was a raucous, nasty 'Get the hell out of my way because I'm going first! No! I'm first!' kind of exchange.

Like the night before, which I spent in a tent, last night was a little nippy as well

and it was a special treat to be out on the trail early enough to be witness to this the delicate frost driven from the very plants themselves by the unusual physics of water which expands just as it freezes.

These ephemeral formations are quick to dissipate in the light of day so there's a small window in which to marvel at them.

Eventually I'd had enough marveling and moved on. (Either that or my legs protested against all that squatting with a pack on my back for a closer look.)

But apparently, in doing so, moving on, I interrupted this guy's morning routine and he wasn't shy about letting me know he wasn't happy about that.

In fact, at several points during his persistent harassment he climbed out on limbs - actually twigs - no bigger around than his own toes, all wobbly and twitchy like a tight-rope walker about to lose it, right over my head, and I was thinking he intended to drop down on me and kick my ass. Until I figured out that he simply wanted whatever goodies were hidden out there at the very end of those flimsy little perches. Isn't that always the way? The best stuff is juuust out of reach.

Again, I moved on and left him to his breakfast, but that didn't stop him from hollering and screeching at me until I was out of sight.

This is a photo of an armadillo that I encountered near the end of my day's hiking, many hours from now. I first spotted him running and skipping down the middle of the trail right towards me looking for all the world like a happy puppy without a single care.

Now armadillos are pretty clueless animals, and mostly blind, but it was still a bit unusual to have one run right up to within nose-touch of my left boot. At which point he stiffly turned his little head and gave me a beady eye before making an abrupt dash for the side of the trail.

But armadillos also have the attention span of an ADD gnat, and he was almost immediately distracted by the possibilities of bugs hiding under the leaf-litter and forgot that he was supposed to be running away.

But, back to current time, my first armadillo encounter of the day was just as strange. Usually armadillos are pretty chill, but for some reason I scared the holly hell out of this one and he ran off as fast as he could, screaming and wailing the whole way. "Oh God he's going to get me! Somebody help! I'm too young to die!"

I've never heard an armadillo vocalize before and I felt bad that I traumatized him like that.   

OK, the trauma has already been imparted and I can't do anything about that, so back to normal hiking.

Except you see that bit of empty trail out there in front of me?

Well it wasn't empty when I pressed the shutter, honest!

A couple hundred yards or so after leaving that traumatized armadillo behind, the morning-trail quiet was again interrupted, this time by the weirdest deer-bark I've ever heard.

Normally when startled or angry a deer has a high-pitched bark that's a mashup of a spit and a wheeze. This bark was low, really low, and gravely, and I'm standing there, wrapped in my armor of flimsy skin, all soft and mushy and defenseless, thinking 'Whoa! big deer! Really big deer!'

Except deer don't usually crash and thrash through the undergrowth making such an impressive racket as this one did!

Then, just as that intimidating racket has almost reached the shit-my-pants stage two jet-black feral hogs, market sized hogs, you know, about 130 pounds with really nice, tender hams and lean bacon, burst out of the trees on the right, the river side, and soared across the trail without touching it.

Just like a cartoon, their front legs were stretched out horizontally under their chins and their rear legs in the other direction, tucked up under their tails, as they flew, yep, flew, as in pigs fly, right across the gap and disappeared, but not silently, into the trees on the left.

In the lull that followed I had a feeling - either that or I just had to pee real bad - and raised my camera before calling out 'Hey! I'm still here!'. Sure enough, after a noisy running start one more hog flew across the gap all stretched out exactly like the first two, levitated like some carnival ride minus the garish colors flying by.

Of course my camera was too damn slow, so all I've got is this rather nondescript and boring photo of an empty trail.  Buuutt, I'm proud to say, that when the crashing and thrashing faded away to nothing, I did NOT have to detour down to the river and rinse out my underwear!

Usually when moving down a trail, close-up encounters like the several this morning are few and far between because, even when trying to be quiet, us humans are clumsy and noisy.

But I wasn't done yet!

Yep. That's the trail he's standing in. The trail I'm trying to hike.

This is an Aoudad, otherwise known as a Barbary Sheep, though they are in fact a goat and not a sheep.

Looks kinda sleepy and laid back doesn't he? In fact I suspect that's exactly what he hoped I would think so he could lure me in closer, but I wasn't fooled!

You see, these aren't your petting-zoo, farm-yard goats! In fact, as he stands, the curl of those horns come up to about my nose-level and he probably weighs somewhere in the 200 pound plus range. (They generally top out at 300 pounds)

Then in the dappled morning light I realized that there were more of them down over the bank between the trail and the river.

Lots more.

By the time they finished dribbling and dabbling across the trail in front of me, casually but nervously meandering from the river side

to the bluff side, I figured there had to be about a dozen of them in this group. The largest group I've ever seen before.

And that first guy?

Well he stood guard there on the trail until all the others had made it across, then, gave me one last 'Yeah? What a ya gona do about it?' look before following them into the rocks.

There was a diagonal ledge of sorts, as long as you're a goat anyway, along the bluff there off my left shoulder, and the entire band, all gathered together now, picked their way quickly up that ledge and out of sight. I had the time for one more photo of this but didn't even bother since I knew the camera would just focus on the branches right in front of me and leave the ledge as an indecipherable smear in the background.

Not all the wildlife I encountered that morning was of the fauna type either.

This thing is growing in a few places along the river and those leaves are big enough to serve as umbrellas!

 The ping-pong-ball sized fruits are a contrast of nasty looking spikes and incredibly delicate flowers.

I'm pretty sure this is a Castor plant of some sort and these specimens are actually an invasive since it is not native to here.

Fun fact - or maybe just a sad commentary on our gullibility: Because castor, particularly castor oil, has a slightly negative vibe to us Americans, marketing departments have taken to using the Brazilian word for the fruit, graviola, when selling various health-related concoctions derived from the bean. 


I finally made it to the end of the River Trail!

But wait! That's only about a third of today's planned hike.

I wonder what else is in store for me today - - -

Monday, November 16, 2020

And Now For Something a Little Different

I know, I know. You've seen me post photos like this before so what's different about that?

I freely admit to being one of those hated and despised morning people, so yes, usually these are sunrise photos as I set out on a hike. But this is actually a sunset photo - as I set out on a backpacking trip.

The difference between a hike and a backpacking trip?

A hike is a few hour walk, stroll, meander, or lollygag, (take your pick) usually between sunrise and sunset. A backpacking trip is deliberately carrying your shelter and sustenance on your back with the intent of spending one or more nights out on the trail.

You see - when I wasn't wallowing in depression and/or nursing a raging case of self-pity, over missing camping during the spring-summer-fall of Corona, I was contemplating ways to deal with the sudden rush of newbie campers overwhelming the limited resources of the park systems, along with the loss of the usual relief provided by the "good the kids are back in school and out of my way" season.

In these times, here in Texas where public lands are scarce, any camping trips have to be planned and reserved for at least a month ahead of time, and even then the pickins are pretty slim, even for someone like me that is happy, in fact would prefer, to use the hookup-less sites.

But many of the parks in the Texas State Park system also have backpack camping areas as well as the drive-up sites. Obviously these don't appeal to quite as wide a demographic so maybe they would offer additional opportunities for those who are willing?

While desperately trolling the reservation system I noticed that when all the other campsites were showing X (unavailable due to social distancing issues) or R, (already reserved) there were often A's (available) showing in these backpack areas.

The sign-board at the trailhead to the Windmill backpacking area shows all sites reserved, but since there is no "walk in and take your chances" allowed during these Corona times that's not surprising and several of these sites were in fact empty the night of November 1.

That's not to say that there's no interest in these campsites, but still, I wondered if maybe I could stitch together trips of more than a night or two (Which is important when the nearest "good" state parks are at least 4 hours away) by mixing backpack sites with campground sites.

Which is how, on this Sunday evening, the first day of November, I found myself setting out to hike into a back-country campsite, and spend the night on purpose, for the first time in a long while.

(Despite the fact that the very red governor and state attorney general of Texas did their damndest to disenfranchise the less economically blessed voters of Texas, or scare off that demographic that takes Covid exposure seriously, with a variety of tactics, including disallowing fear of Covid as a reason to mail-in your vote while at the same time allowing only a single ballot drop-off point per county, despite the fact that Texas has 9 counties larger in land-size than the states of Delaware or Rhode Island, and one county with a population greater than 27 of the US States, it turns out they could not disrupt the rights of those 65 and over to mail-in their vote, nice and early so that dude at the USPS couldn't screw it up as well, so I was free to camp during election day.)

OK, OK. I'll concede that it's (I'm back to the backpacking now) actually not as adventurous as it sounds. The majority of these backpacking sites are only one to two miles from the trailhead so it's hardly an epic journey and legging it back out to The Van for more supplies, or get out of the rain, or to cook up a more elaborate hot meal, is certainly doable.

And to make things a little more civilized, which, as someone old enough to be a Medicare recipient, I think I'm entitled to, rather than "rough it" with my tarp, I equipped myself with one of these for $50.

It's not nearly as sexy and elaborate as some backpacking tents, but is much more flexible than many costing significantly more and will do me just fine.

This tent doesn't come with poles. Instead it is designed to use your hiking sticks instead.

Or you can, as I did here when practicing before heading out for real, process a couple of sticks on site, lash them together at the top, and have a setup which leaves the entire front door unobstructed for easier access for those old bones that have just hiked in with a full backpack.

It was forecast to be very dry, otherwise I would have tucked the ground-cloth under the tent better.

Since I had never scouted this camping area - the Windmill Backpack Camping Area in Colorado Bend State Park - with actually camping there in mind before, it was pure luck that I had managed to reserve one of the two best campsites out of the eight and was able to pitch my tent in a secluded spot under a Live Oak using no poles of any kind.

By the way, in case you didn't know, "person sizes" of tents are about as accurate as waist sizes for pants.

A "two person" tent is NOT! Even for two very close people. But it will be comfortably adequate for one person and their gear.

Speaking of gear.

This is what I already carry on day-hikes.

Starting at 9 o'clock and working roughly around in a counterclockwise spiral I have: (See, I'm assuming you're interested. If not skip ahead a couple-three photos.)

  • GPS with two spare sets of batteries as well as the fresh set already in it.
  • A small bottle each of bug-juice, sun-screen, and hand-sanitizer (not because of Corona but because wash-sinks have always been hard to find out in the woods!)
  • A hand-held chain-saw (that thing with orange handles in the zip-lock) which is light but surprisingly efficient at processing material up to about 3 inches and can handle larger if needed and you have the time.
  • A heavy-duty rain-poncho with corner grommets so it can be strung up as a tarp or lean-too shelter if needed
  • An inflatable situpon cushion.
  • A bug-net that drapes over my hat. I'm very rarely driven to actually use this but it weighs less than air so why not have it available just in case?
  • A poop-kit consisting of a half-ounce shovel, toilet paper, individually packaged personal wipes, and several quart ziplock bags for hauling used paper and wipes back out. (carefully stack your paper and wipes as you use them, turn a bag inside out over your hand, pick up your trash with that hand, and re-turn the bag before sealing)
  • A microfiber towel.
  • 100 feet of 550 paracord and a half-dozen pre-made toggle-loops
  • A first-aid kit with a handful of bandages, a couple tabs of Ibprofin and Imodium (one cuts back on inflammation of any inadvertent injuries and the other - well there's nothing worse than diarrhea out on the trail!) a high-visibility survival blanket, a sawed-off (so it fits in the kit) toothbrush with a bunch of dental-floss wrapped around the handle, and a heavy needle in case I need to use the dental-floss to repair some gear.
  • A compass, small lighter, watertight container of matches with striker, watertight container of Vaseline soaked cotton ball fire-starters and, just barely visible at the top corner of the first-aid kit, a small, (2" blade) all stainless steel, folding knife because I've never felt the need to go all Rambo with something that weighs two pounds and hangs down to my knee.
  • A small headlamp with spare set of batteries. (Please people! Use the red light and stop night-blinding yourself, not to mention the rest of us!)
  • A 3 liter camel-back water bladder with a 0.7 liter bottle for emergency water, both of which tuck into the dedicated pouch inside the pack (with it buried in the pack there's often no warning that the camel-back is coming up on empty until you are sucking air!)
  • A filter-straw for real water emergencies
  • A spare gallon ziplock or two just in case.
  • Camera and spare battery (Not showing because I'm using it to take this photo!)
  • Also not showing but part of my hiking gear, proper trail-boots, long pants, long-sleeved shirt, hiking sticks, a wide-brimmed hat for sun protection, a paper map in my pocket and electronic map on my phone, clothing - either spare-in-the-pack or worn - appropriate to the season (I'm talking night-time temps because you never know) like hat, gloves, heavy socks, base-layer, and always, regardless of the season, an over-shirt, either worn or in the pack, because even in the summer it can get cold in the rain or at night and, again, you never know. 

That might seem like a lot of crap for day-hiking, but I hike alone and I am a strong proponent of being responsible for my own actions and that includes being prepared for self-rescue if necessary.

The pack and the usual stuff in it weighs in at 7 pounds. The 4.7 liters of water adds 8 pounds to that.

For my overnight experiment I added the following:

  • One liter water bottle, full of course, for cooking and tea, with a dozen or so wraps of duct-tape around the upper part of the bottle just in case I need to make any repairs to my gear, and a nearly weightless titanium cooking-cup with folding handles nested on the bottom.
  • A stove about half the size of a box of wooden kitchen matches and a fuel container.
  • A nesting fork-spoon-knife set.
  • A "camp-tool". This thing is small but has just enough weight to the hammer end for driving in stakes. Like a Swiss Army Knife, it also has a handful of tools of questionable value but there is a 2.5" knife-blade to supplement the 2" blade I already carry, and the tiny little ax opposite the hammer, if kept sharp, is amazingly efficient at stripping small branches off a pole and putting a point on short sticks for stakes. It does come with a hard-sided belt-holster but I don't use that, instead just tossing the tool into my pack with the little blade-guard on the ax.
  • A small gear-bag for hanging food and trash away from the tent.
I already had all this stuff in my inventory and it, including a liter of water, weighs a total of nine pounds.

And finally, my bed-roll which consists of:

  • Chunk of Tyvek cut to size from a left-over roll as a groundcloth. Technically the floor of this tent is designed to act as it's own groundcloth, but with all the pokey-stuff we have out here having a little extra protection between the pointy stuff and sleeping pads is worth the extra weight.
  • Tent (the only thing out of all this I didn't already have)
  • Sleeping pad
  • Sleeping bag

The sleeping bag and deflated sleeping pad and pillow, (to be added soon, see below) are left laid out in the tent. The tent is flattened down on top of it, the little bag of stakes is then tucked just inside the door, The tent and groundcloth is folded into thirds lengthwise and finally the whole thing rolled up.

Yes, I could get this to roll a little tighter if I worked at it, but it weighs the same either way.

This way, if the weather is not great the sleeping stuff never has to leave the protection of the tent.

I could do without that glaring white of the Tyvek, but it is very tough and durable for it's weight, and I already had it on the shelf. Maybe over time a little use and grunge will tone it down a bit.

Not being inclined to own two of anything if I can help it, my one and only pack is a compromise. It's little large for day-hiking but this also means it is adequate for a night or two on the trail.

Anyway, the "bedroll" also weighs in at 9 pounds, for an all-up total of around 34 pounds of gear, clothes, and boots. Then I have to add the food.

In my case the "food", instant noodles, dry soup, instant oatmeal, tea, and maybe a few cookies for a treat, (Yes, I could throw a proper freeze-dried meal or two in there but man, have you seen what that stuff costs?!) weighs pretty much nothing. (The food-weight is in the water bottle) I prefer instant stuff with it's own container. That way I can dump heated water in the container then turn right around and use my cup/pot for brewing up some tea.

This is not what some would classify as gourmet cuisine, but then again, if we didn't place so much emphasis on "cuisine" maybe we wouldn't be so fat.

And all this highly processed food is not exactly the healthiest, but it's not like I eat this stuff every day and in the short term convenience takes precedent.  

Anyway - as daylight faded to moonlight that evening, camp was set up, I was heating water for dinner and browsing the kindle app on my phone (In airplane mode since there's no cell service out here so no sense in wasting battery as it searches for a signal) pre-loaded with the maximum of 10 kindle-unlimited books.

I was a happy camper. Literally.

Lessons learned?

First off, yes, this backpack camping thing is going to work, so it opens up some additional camping opportunities for me.

But it did get down into the high 30's that night and I think I need to replace my 20 year old, cheepy sleeping bag regardless of its optimistic-when-new 20 degree rating. On cold nights in The Van it works fine as an extra blanket on top of the microfiber fleece I normally use, but it just wasn't quite up to the task in that tent.

The same goes for my sleeping pad. The inflatable pad I took with me would have been fine on a more temperate night, but I suspect that the foam in my other one, my slightly bulkier self-inflating sleeping pad, would have provided better heat insulation from the cold ground.

And my inflatable seat cushion propped on my pack functioned adequately as a pillow, but it was awkward so I think I might just look into adding a proper inflatable pillow to my inventory as well - as long as it isn't too pricey that is.

Now - where and when can I get booked in for my next trip??