Day 17: Black Canyon


It was frigid in the depths of Aspen Canyon- I hit the snooze three times before even entertaining the idea of getting out of the sleeping bag. My leg ached like it hadn’t since the beginning, keeping me awake for most of the night; I suppose due to yesterday’s pack weight and dehydration. Only the fact there wasn’t a foolproof place to heat coffee right next to the tarp lured me out.

I hiked in extra layers, a first for this trail. When we stopped to spoon down cereal the sun was still out of reach, but finally the canyon widened and that bonnie star rose high enough to beam its warmth in.

The trail was adequate, you could say. It was obvious to follow, although the tread was uncompacted; so not fast travel, but steady. What was most remarkable about it was how much animal shit was on the trail, and how much of that was from bears. I lost count of the number of times there were three or four piles in less than 20 feet. I thought it was pretty cool, actually; what that says about me to prefer bear shit everywhere instead of cow shit everywhere, I’m not sure. Well, on second thought, I guess it sums up a few key points quite nicely.

Within a couple hours we reached the confluence of Aspen and Black Canyons, a gorgeous ponderosa savannah with a rushing, burbling stream tumbling down from Black. Wow! What a spot! We spread everything in the sun on the sweet gamma grass to dry, set out the solar charger, and drank as much water as we wanted- after all, we were still carrying almost a gallon each. “Oh well,” shrugged Prana, “good training.” Which is what we always say when we do something an unnecessarily difficult way. “Ha! Yeah, good training.”

We rinsed the salt and sand out of all our socks, and Prana enacted the meticulous search for the leak which had sprung in his Thermarest. I lay in the sun and worked on my journal, in which I was woefully -as always- behind, and often got sidetracked watching the wind in the trees and the sparkle of the creek.

If it was up to either of us, we would have stayed lounged the rest of the day, but alas. The massive drawback to packing the correct amount of food was now apparent: leftovers weren’t accumulating for spontaneous on-trail layover days, and the coming miles were unpredictable. This must be fixed, I mused. From now on I will carry an extra day’s rations, always and proudly.

We struck out up Black Canyon, after Prana fixed the felled signpost, the canyon wide and grassy, the creek tumbling along. A fair amount of deadfall lay about, but for the most part the trail skirted it, crossing the creek often. Large cairns marked the crossings, but otherwise the trail was a faint impression in the grass which grew fainter as we went. We learned its rhythms, though, and it rarely disappeared completely, so although travel was slow, we stayed on track.

Wild violets bloomed along the creek banks, and small trout flitted in larger pools. Massive ponderosa pines and some kind of gigantic fir loomed in the meadows; huge cottonwoods and long-reaching live oaks twisted and draped their arms. Large rocks were pried out of the ground regularly, and roughly cleared patches of grass and pine needles showed parallel claw marks in the sand beneath. Bears, I assumed. If they were all over the place, when would we get to see one?

The afternoon grew long, and we climbed steeply from the watercourse to circumvent something on the map labeled as the Box, spires and rock walls enclosing the creek. At the apex, we poked around between the spire-tops and boulders, trying to find a view down in, and why we’d gone around it instead of through.

The creek began disappearing more than it was present, the deadfall and locust sprouts tangled thicker, and we started counting the half-miles to our goal for the day, the presumably final water before regaining the tops. The puddle and a flat enough camp spot appeared at the base of more rock spires and a slope spread with aspen with more than an hour of light to spare. The best part of the camp was a big, friendly boulder, set at just the right angle to lean against for writing. Prana filtered 3 gallons for camp and tomorrow, and I set up the tarp and made dinner, a freeze-dried barley mushroom soup with extra veggies. The wind roared through the trees far up on the crest ridge, but down here all was still.

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