Deep blue water snaked up from Canyon Lake into lower La Barge, pushed back against its natural flow by an unnatural dam on the Salt River. Katie and I looked down at the cool waters, at the people swimming and splashing and kayaking, and wondered why we were doing it wrong. Instead of being near that water we were high up on a rising trail, a half-mile along Boulder Canyon #103, sweating under our backpacks on the way to lower La Barge Box.
Let's back up a bit. Katie and I were heading out on our first backpacking trip - really, our first camping trip together in years. Our eventual goal is to do something like Havasupai together, though before we attempt a trip in the Grand Canyon we wanted to try some more local outings. I picked a nearby and relatively short adventure in the Superstitions that had guaranteed water and great scenery with only one harsh disadvantage. We had to climb up a 700' hill in the blazing desert sun with a clear view of that pleasant water so close by.
We left the boys behind with Katie's mom and picked up a Tonto pass (required for parking at this trailhead, apparently) and then started up the trail. Both of our packs were light, in the fifteen-to-twenty pound range, though we did have some heavier pieces of gear on us. Katie was carrying my old four-pound-plus tent from my Michigan days and we both had ponchos. There was a decent chance of rain this weekend. Our packs felt heavy in the exposed desert air, though, the hot sun beating down as we slogged up the trail. When we finally reached the first vista Katie wasted no time shrugging off her pack for a quick break from it's weight.
Battleship's prow pointed straight at us, the canyon opening up just enough for it to show up. That formation actually splits a creek straight in two. If you take La Barge south from Canyon Lake, past the deep blue waters below us, it winds and twists a bit in a deep canyon before splitting into half below Battleship's prow. La Barge proper continues to the east, entering a lower box before running past Charlebois and Trap Canyons and stretching all the way to Brad's Canyon, while the western fork (called Boulder Canyon) heads up past Black Mesa and to the flanks of the Ridgeline itself. Between these two forks much of the western Superstitions is drained, with only little canyons and washes around the outer fringes to siphon small chunks in different directions.
We didn't pause for long at the view, just enough time for sweat to dry, and then we continued up the trail. It swung left up a ridge before pushing back south, up and up to the top of a little mountain. We got some views north to Four Peaks and west to the highlands around Tortilla Flat, but for the most part we just trudged up the trail. This was Katie's first adventure this deep in the Superstitions, and her first time tackling a climb like this, so we kept it slow and easy and reached the top of the hill in due time.
I mentioned before that the hot sun was beating down on us. Well, it was more of a partly cloudy day, and the temps weren't that bad (in the mid eighties). Sure, the brief glimpses of sun were torturous, but overall it wasn't that bad. There was even a stiff wind coming out of the southeast that had both of us pulling our hats tight on our heads on the exposed peak. A scary-looking tarantula hawk was trying to land on the only Palo Verde tree near the top, struggling against the wind, and when he finally landed I snapped a photo as close as I dared to the overlarge insect.
Canyon Lake and its marina was a long ways down, each boat a small speck in the winding lake, and we looked down with some relief. Our main climb was over, and soon this view and the sound of engines would be blocked by the hills. The first hour on the trail hadn't really felt like a wilderness at all, not with the road and lake and motors, but soon we'd be away from all that. Soon we'd only see desert and desert-covered mountains around us.
We headed down off the little hill, along a rocky descent of trail and back up a small climb. On the other side of the climb we found a spot for lunch. Our late morning start had left us hungry for a good lunch, and peanut butter and crackers paired well with lukewarm water. Our lunch break was in a good location, too. The rocks were semi-comfortable to sit on and the views of rolling dark clouds over the Ridgeline was fantastic. As foreboding as those clouds looked, at least the blazing sun seemed to be out for the rest of the afternoon.
As an aside: being out here with Katie was pretty amazing. I enjoy hiking with Chris, and have been doing it for over a year now, but Katie and I don't get a lot of time alone together. The kids are always around. So this time, even if it was in a hot desert sitting on rocks, was awesome. We chatted about the Superstitions and general life stuff, all without the noise of screaming kids or barking dogs to interrupt. With any luck this backpacking thing will stick and we'll get to spend even more time to ourselves in the years to come.
Eventually we had to get back up and hit the trail. From our rest area it made a swoop to the east, avoiding a deep valley that sunk out of sight into La Barge below, with a few little dips and rises to keep things interesting. When we made it around the swoop and over the final climb the yellow wall of Geronimo Head reared high up, a scarily tall and sudden thing that I had a hard time comprehending. A few months ago I had been playing around on the top of that thing, walking within yards of the edge and peering down. Ridiculous.
Our trail made a sharp dip down, dropping over switchbacks and loose gravel, and before too long we were in La Barge wash. It was a bumpy thing, all ankle-rolling boulders and rocks, and it was completely dry. Not a drop of water to be seen in either direction. This wasn't a great sign, though I suspected that we'd find water upstream. We crossed the wash, ventured a bit further on the trail, ducked and weaved around the bee-filled flowering trees that obscured the route, and then Katie was done. We had hiked over five miles through the hottest part of the day along an exposed and tiring trail and she was burned out.
Across the wash there was a pleasant little campsite, complete with a fire ring and bench, so we headed over there and started setting up. Yet there was no water. Once the tent was set up I grabbed all of our empty water containers and packed up for a water run. Katie would stay behind at camp and finish setting up things, maybe even take a short nap, while I fetched water. It was a strangely domestic split of chores.
We had felt a few few sprinkles throughout the last hour, and the clouds above us were quite obviously laden with water, so I felt a bit uncertain heading out. I had a poncho and Katie had the tent, I just didn't feel like getting stuck in a downpour. Or a lightening storm. It probably wasn't going to rain enough for this dry wash to run (the forecast only had a 30% chance of rain or so) so I convinced myself to head out. We did need water.
I headed up the rocky wash, hopping from boulder to boulder with the occasional climb over some larger rocks, and was soon under the prow of Battleship itself. That thing is huge. I've been up there too, once with Chris and once without, and was surprised by how massive the thing looked from down here. I wonder what camping up there would be like. Exposed, sure, and maybe a bit windy, but it'd be pretty cool too.
La Barge wash circled around the east side of Battleship, giving way to the giant mound of rock, and soon narrowed. Not only was it squeezed between the tall cliffs of Geronimo Head and Battleship, huge boulders had fallen down from both rocky formations over the years and made the wash a tight passage. It didn't take long for water to show up as well, probably welling up from underground flows from Geronimo. The pools were deep and clear and more than enough to pull from. I didn't stop here, though. I was getting close to the lower box and didn't want to stop until I made it all the way.
Soon the water dried up, even if the huge boulders clogging up the creek stuck around. I was forced to sidle around and clamber up a few spots. This route was getting tougher than I expected - perhaps Katie staying back wasn't such a bad idea. To add rock-hopping and low-level climbing on top of a long day would have been a major detriment for future adventures. I tried to distract myself from the tough going by eying up the ridge of Battleship Mountain to the right. I've wondered about approaching this thing from this side multiple times, about skipping the climb up the stern and coming up this way, but it didn't look promising from here. I couldn't see any low spots or talus heaps to take advantage of.
As I neared the lower box the sound of playing children began to filter towards me. That's right - a group of three men and four boys had left the parking lot before Katie and me and had been heading in this direction. They had a great site set up, with a gravity filter and bratwursts over an open fire, and we chatted for a good twenty minutes before I finally broke away and headed up the box. I had water to filter and a wife to return to, and the sky wasn't getting any lighter above me.
The lower box was beautiful. Rock walls swooped down smoothly into deep, bottomless pools of clear water, pools that trickled smoothly and promised cold swimming for anyone willing to make the jump in. The four boys followed me up the canyon, splashing each other and catching tadpoles and showing me where the best water was, as talkative and loud as you can imagine a group of pre-teens could be. Once I started filtering water they retreated back down a short distance before launching into a full-scale booger war. Not exactly how I pictured a weekend in the wilderness, yet fun nonetheless.
I got two of the three liters filtered before the sky opened up. The boys and I scurried back down the rocky box canyon, they retreating to the fire and protection of the Palo Verde trees and I starting the long trek back to Katie. Before I left I took one last picture of the now-dampened rock walls of the box canyon, wished the parents good luck for their coming night, and then began scrambling down the huge boulders. Man, I really didn't want to be stuck out here in a thunderstorm.
Raindrops sputtered here and there, big fat things that smacked loudly and splashed up from the dry rocks, before a short respite that coincided with my arrival back at those lower pools, the first ones I had bumped into on my walk up to the box. I stopped, drank a full liter, and then filtered back up to capacity. Katie and I had brought four liters between the two of us, enough for a hike in or out, though probably not enough to last us through the night. I'd be back here first thing in the morning.
Thunder began to boom as I continued my backtrack to camp, and then a few flashes of lightening heralded the beginning of the next downpour. I ran the last few hundred yards, recklessly leaping from rock to rock, and then huffed my way into camp. I truly hate thunderstorms. Katie had the tent all nice and setup, so I quickly pulled off my damp outerwear and tumbled inside. And so began the long evening of stop-and-go rainstorms.
During one of the longer lulls we managed to cook and eat dinner outside, even got dessert in, and during another break I used some of my extra gear to strengthen up the tent. See, I had planned on sleeping under a tarp tonight and was going to let Katie have the tent to herself. Except I hate thunderstorms. Instead of splitting up we used my extra stakes and cordage to bolster down the rainfly and then curled up in a single shelter. It would have been more romantic if I didn't smell like a high school jock after the hurried hike back from La Barge box.
The antics of some nearby coatis gave us some entertainment during the early evening, and then the rest of the night passed by quickly. Before we knew it the sun was beginning to rise and it was time to get moving. We made breakfast together, and then I hiked back to the lower pools to water up while Katie packed up camp, and then it was time to go. The temperatures were just starting to warm up when we got back to the trail and started the long climb out.
We took the trail slow, meandering up the steep climb and getting distracted by the views and blooming cactus. There was yesterday's soreness to work through and Katie just wasn't that used to this type of hiking. After a slow start I volunteered to carry her pack in addition to mine which helped us out. It wasn't easy to haul her pack on front and mine on my back, though she was able to move a lot easier and I was slowed down some, so things evened out for the rest of the climb.
There was a lot of traffic on the way out, much more than there had been yesterday. Two ambitious trail runners from First Water passed us early on, an activity that I was wildly jealous of them about. Then one large group, and another, came in from the Canyon Lake trailhead on the way to Battleship. The cloudy sky did not look promising to support an attempt on Battleship today. Above us things were fluffy enough, with dark gray clouds hanging low over the Ridgeline and Phoenix slowly bubbling over into the Superstitions. On the exposed ridgeline of Battleship was one of the last places I'd want to be when a storm hit.
We made it up the climb and followed the easy swoop around to our lunch spot. As we stopped here for a quick bite a large family overtook us on their way out, all laden down from a night at Charlebois. The parents were handling two girls and three boys, some of them probably cousins, and I couldn't help but look forward to doing an outing like this with the boys. If Katie and I can start getting into this, there would be little stopping us from hauling first Noah, then Thomas out with us.
Those storm clouds overtook us during lunch. Well, they skipped right over us. We looked down on Canyon Lake being poured on and over at Four Peaks, which was completely shrouded by dark clouds. For a thirty-percent chance of rain we saw an awful lot of storms and barely got rained on. A few bursts last night, a bit of thunder and lightening, while other areas looked to be getting a good drenching. Pretty lucky overall.
Too soon we came upon our last descent, still damp from the rain that we had just seen, and we tumbled down the climb and returned to the car. It was time to head back to responsibility and our children. As we drove on the busy Apache Trail we talked about our next planned outing, a partial loop on the Mogollon Rim, which should be much more scenic and enjoyable then these desert outings. Whether or not Katie could handle a full backpack was still questionable, but at least we knew that I could (uncomfortably) carry both our loads if need be.