Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Animas River Whitewater Park at Low Flow

A view upstream along the Animas River in Durango. This is at the foot of the takeout ramp below the whitewater park. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, the setting looks like we are in a desert, but actually it is a microclimate that just affects this side of town. Durango actually has plenty of trees and the mountains on the other side of the valley are forested.

I went to Durango, Colorado in 2015 but the Animas River was on the brink of flood stage after a snowy winter and unseasonably warm temperatures. As a result, I just ran a class II section upstream on the verge of flood level and didn’t bother with the whitewater park. The water levels were so high that commercial rafting shut down, and the difficulty goes up in the park with a constricted channel and increased gradient. This time I wanted to actually paddle it, even though conditions were lower than optimal. Someday I hope to get it at a moderate flow but fluctuating levels are part of the sport of whitewater paddling and we ignore these details when we are on the river having fun.

The level was pretty low, around 240 cubic feet per second, but still adequate. I scouted some other sections of the river and it looked too low for a long float. I really was interested in the City of Durango’s Whitewater Park anyway, since it offered convenience and greater likelihood of getting help if something went wrong. It also has a nice concentration of rapids in a short distance.

The entrance to Smelter Rapid flows over these wing dams that raise the water level upstream to provide a reliable inlet for the public water supply for Durango.
Unfortunately the top rapid, and the most well know, Smelter, is formed by “wing” dams on either side of the river, originally installed to provide a reliable water intake for the city, and at the low water level and it definitely was not something I was interested in running, nor did I see anyone else running it. The only clear line was on river left and featured a very dangerous looking pour over into an obviously retentive hole. I can’t approve of modifying a river bed to put in a feature that will create such a dangerous recirculation.
A view down Smelter at September low flow. This rapid looks completely different at snowmelt levels. It was a bit bony looking though runnable and I had to resist the urge to launch into it below the wing dams after I had time to knock off the rust. It didn't seem wise to try it. As always, everything looks a little smaller, and the current looks slower in the photos.

Anyway, the drops below were good to go, and ranged from pushy class II to class I riffles. A rock-garden rapid below the park had just enough water to navigate to get to the conveniently situated takeout ramp. I did 3 full laps, although I admit I was afraid to play in the larger holes, since I haven’t done an eskimo roll in 3 years. But it was fun to run down the rapids and practice fundamentals like ferrying, eddy turns, j-turns, and edging drills. I discovered that I was little bit tippy, having lost some of my edge awareness of the playboat, but was pleased that having lost over 20 pounds this year, and nearly 40 pounds over the last three years meant that my Wavesport Project 52 “spud” playboat handled much better than the last couple of times I paddled it. I’m very happy with myself for having lost the weight.

The first drop below Smelter.
The second drop below Smelter. This one looked like a good play hole, despite being a bit frowny, but I skipped it since I couldn't be sure I could hit a roll.

The next two drops were good, splashy fun, and good places to rebuild my fundamentals. I spent quite a bit of time doing ferries, peel outs, s-turns, and practicing edging. It all came back eventually and I started surfing.

I took plenty of time front surfing on one of the nice constructed waves and found I was soon front surfing automatically on the smaller waves, controlling the boat with my edges and the occasional rudder with the paddle, and staring off into the distance at the Rockies. It felt really good to be back on the water. It felt so good that I didn’t want to go back. On the fourth lap, I didn’t bother running all the way to the bottom and just took out after the last of the artificial drops. I was getting a little tired, probably mostly from carrying the boat back up, and needed to hit the 5 hour drive back to Flagstaff to be ready for work the next day, so I reluctantly left the park.

Here is a GoPro video I made of one of the lower, "easier" drops in the park in June 2015, when the snowmelt had the river at a higher level.

It’s a good whitewater park, although not quite as good as the nice park on the Arkansas River at Buena Vista, Colorado. But it is much better than the unforgiving Olympic Section of the Ocoee River in Tennessee. It also features easier access to the river bank than other parks I have seen, and I have never had parking issues. I will be back for sure, hopefully next spring when the levels are up again. My intermediate plan is to get some winter runs in on the Verde River in Arizona, about 45 minutes from Flagstaff. If I can stay sharp enough, I should be ready for the higher levels with the spring snowmelt season.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

In the Valley of the Sun

Pinnacle Peak beneath the burning sun of the Sonoran Desert.

I never entertained much interest in living in the desert, but a trip to Arizona when I was a small child created a mythical view of it in my head that has persisted. Of course I eventually landed in Flagstaff in 2015, but the climate in Flag is alpine and cool compared to the famous and somewhat notorious deserts of southern Arizona, and defies preconceived notions about the extreme heat of the state. It's actually much snowier in Flagstaff than anywhere I have lived, and I lived in north central Indiana for many years. The summers are cooler than most people could imagine, but the winters can get long after a while. Relief is achieved by a visit to the hot part of Arizona, the valley of the Salt River, containing greater Phoenix and the various suburbs, and the beautiful Sonoran Desert. The area is famously too hot for outdoor activities during about a 4 month period through the summer, but is actually very nice most of the year, and the desert greens up and blooms with wildflowers. The valley of the Salt River is also known poetically as the Valley of the Sun.

For the second winter in a row, I almost waited too long to go visit the Sonoran Desert. The first year I moved in only at the tail end of winter and got pre-occupied with the Grand Canyon and Sedona. This year I got preoccupied with winter sports, but the snow started fading by mid-March (a characteristic of snow in the desert southwest due to the low humidity and direct sunlight of the latitude), and I didn't want to miss the opportunity to visit the Valley of the Sun before temperatures soared above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I originally intended to hike the famous Camelback Mountain trail, but I failed to get up at the 6:00 am alarm, and the park is notorious for being closed when the parking lot fills up on weekends, so I chose one of the numerous alternative hikes in the greater Phoenix area, the Pinnacle Peak trail in Scottsdale.

A sign and golden flowers welcomed me to the park.

There is only a single trail at Pinnacle Peak, an out-and-back that ascends from the parking lot around the side of the pinnacle, then across a saddle and around a second part of the mountain with a separate summit. The vegetation is classic Sonoran Desert with saguaro cacti, palo verde trees, and an abundance of green brush, blooming with wildflowers in the spring sun. The temperature was around a relatively moderate 80 degrees when I arrived but soon I was sweating my way up the side of the mountain, which is taller than it looks from the parking lot. The temps seem to have topped out in the upper 80s.

Typical trail for the Sonoran Desert. Yep, it's sandy!

The McDowell Mountains beyond one of the outer neighborhoods of Scottsdale, a suburb of Phoenix.

There were numerous signs labeling the various desert plants that were present. I was pleased that the heat had not yet burned off the flowers. On previous occasions it has seemed that my photography failed to capture the color of the non-summer desert, but I got several nice shots this time, mostly with my iPhone 5S. Although desert is usually represented as a dead place, the Sonoran Desert actually brims with life and is green and colorful most of the year. It is only during the four and half months or so from May to September that it becomes brown and scorched by the extreme temperatures that climb to over 100 Fahrenheit every day. Last year points in the Salt River Valley reached as high as 119 degrees. That type of heat is lethal and it is amazing that so much life can thrive.

Strawberry hedgehog cactus, proving that the scorching heat has not yet arrived in the Sonoran Desert.
Brittlebush blooms.
Creosote bush with the McDowell Mountains in the background.

The slopes were covered with the amazing saguaro cactus, icon of the Desert Southwest. The elevation of Pinnacle Peak reaches to the upper half of the saguaro's tolerance, but they seemed perfectly healthy. I was interested to see a small juniper growing up in some rocks. There was a sign labeling it as a relic of a previous, cooler climate. It's the only juniper in the area.

An isolated pocket of classic Sonoran Desert, revealing the greenery of the desert in the spring.

Relic redberry juniper, a native to cooler climates and higher elevations, with a saguaro peaking over boulders.
Ocotillo with a view.
Close up of the ocotillo flowers.

There were too many people on the trail but as usual the crowds thin out the farther you get from the parking lot and soon I was enjoying the hike, harried only by a couple of horse flies and a few people who talked too loudly. It got pretty hot eventually but I couldn't resist following the trail all the way down to the point where it ended in a wealthy neighborhood of Scottsdale, on the far end of the second part of the mountain. This meant that I had to hike back uphill to get back over the mountain to my car. Fortunately I was well prepared with a preposterous amount of water and Mountain Dew. I stopped in a small pocket of shade to eat some protein before climbing over the second mountain of the park. I carried too much fluid and ended up packing out a few pounds of water. I needed the workout anyway.

The second part of the mountain, and unnamed peak connected by the saddle to the left. The trail can be seen winding along the near flank of the mountain, ending just beyond the end of the golf course.
The high point of the trail.
Saguaros on the reverse side of the pinnacle. The small bundles of cacti in the foreground are cholla.

By the afternoon the smog and haze had obscured much of the valley. There really are too many people in the Valley of the Sun, driving too many cars, and using too much water. Fortunately there are numerous areas that are preserved, like the Pinnacle Peak Park in Scottsdale. It's an amazing place to hike, if a little suburban, but it's like going on a safari after living for decades east of the Mississippi River and then skiing and snowboarding through a snowy winter in the high country of northern Arizona.

Photo Dump

A view from the saddle: the Phoenix Mountains and the Sierra Estrella are in the distance, including Camelback Mountain, and I think the far mountains lost in the haze and smog are the South Mountains.
A palo verde tree. The branches are green indicating that they have chlorophyl and therefore can perform photosynthesis. Palo verde means "green stick" in Spanish.
Desert vegetation on the slopes of Pinnacle Peak.

A view of the saddle with one of the near peaks of the McDowell Mountains in the background.
Serious wealth down at the base of the mountain. There were huge homes backing on the park and the golf course with artificial waterfalls and luxurious green lawns with palm trees. It's no wonder the west is facing a water crisis.

Baby saguaro on the right. I would not want to fall into that thing on the left.

Strava GPS Track

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Further Adventures in Air Travel - Rebooting the Airplane

Due to some difficulties at work I did not buy airline tickets much in advance of the Christmas season (as I was not sure I would have a job at that point). I originally had in mind making two separate visits to my parents in Tennessee and Indiana but the delay in buying tickets resulted in me having to plan for a single, very lengthy stay away from Flagstaff. The logistics of such an endeavor are enough to bring down even the most optimistic person to a very low place, and I am not known for optimism (except in the sense of overcommitting to project timelines, but that is subject for another blog post).

The Phoenix skyline from Sky Harbor International Airport.

My cats had to be kenneled. Therefore the cats required a feline leukemia vaccine, which required an unscheduled visit to the veterinarian, which I did not have a vet in Flagstaff yet, etc. I also had to figure out a way to get gifts shipped across country without checking extra bags into the airline. At least we now have the world of online shopping. Before the advent of the online store this problem was three times worse and required more advanced planning. I also had to arrange for somehow getting from Tennessee to Indiana and back to Nashville to catch my flight home, and so on and so forth. Travel, in general, is usually not that bad, but the logistics and planning of Christmas family visits will kill you.

This led up to the morning of my flight. Due to acquiring the airline tickets rather closer to Christmas than was a good idea, I was not able to get a flight from Flagstaffs very small, convenient airport, which has free parking, and had to drive to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport down in the Valley of the Sun (a.k.a. the Salt River Valley, a.k.a. the Sonoran Desert). I arrived 3 hours early at the airport, as planned, checked in and made it through security in roughly less than 1 hour. This gave me plenty of time to stop into the Four Peaks Brewing Company restaurant and bar next to my gate. They have an excellent Oatmeal Stout and I had a Spinach Salad with added grilled chicken. It was good but I followed up with a White Ale, which was overwhelmingly orange tasting. It was not very good in my opinion.

I boarded fairly normally and assumed my seat near the back of the plane, which was an American Airlines Airbus A321. The seats were wide and comfortable for economy class and I had no trouble fitting my light backpack and winter coat under the seat in front of me. I also got lucky in that there was a no-show for the middle seat (the A321 has two rows of three seats each). This was truly fortuitous considering the delays that were to follow.

After everyone had boarded, things seemed to be proceeding normally until the pilot announced that there was a problem with the fuel indicator. He then said that they would follow the recommended procedure of rebooting the computer to see if that resolved the issue. That’s right, they rebooted the airplane! I found this hilarious even as my mind wandered to worst case scenarios, like, what if they have to reboot mid-flight? Better to not even think about that.

The reboot was predicted to take “several minutes.” This quickly ballooned to about 30 or more minutes before the pilot announced that the reboot was successful but they now had to complete the mandatory FAA paperwork. This led to approximately another 30 or more minutes delay before the aircraft finally showed signs of departure. At the last possible second I got a voice mail from American Airlines that was a little confusing but seemed to provide an alternate flight number and new and later departure and arrival times from Dallas. There was also a confusing email from Orbitz that indicated the same except erroneously showed arrival at Phoenix rather than Nashville. I decided that the voice mail from American made more sense so I ignored the email from Orbitz. I’m not super impressed with that mistake on the part of Orbitz.

The White Mountains? They look a little too rugged so perhaps are the southernmost spurs of the rockies.

Unfortunately I made the mistake of shutting off my iPhone upon departure rather than just putting it in airplane mode, which would have allowed me to take photographs of the fairly spectacular desert mountains around Phoenix that were visible in the afternoon light. At least I got the phone going to take some very nice photos from cruising altitude before sunset.

This is almost certainly a portion of New Mexico.

Below I saw a labyrinth of mountains and occasional volcano fields while the aircraft was, I assume, over New Mexico. One of the facts about the American west that I have become aware of since I moved to Arizona if that it is dotted and pocked with volcanic craters all over the place. There are many, many more volcanoes in the United States than I original was aware of. Many of these are not huge and have not erupted recently, but they are a testament to widespread volcanic activity in the U.S. Many of these locations have erupted within the last few thousand years and therefore we can conclude that there will be more eruptions around the west in the future. If we are lucky, we may see such eruptions within our lifetime, without being turned into lava toast.

Agriculture in West Texas.

Moon over my wingy.
The passenger cabin of the A321 in evening lighting. My seat was near the back of the plane, my preferred location, except for the smell from the lavatories.

As the A321 crossed over into Texas I got nice views of the circular patterns of irrigated fields juxtaposed with oil operations, and finally, as the sunlight faded, the glowing cities of mega-populated central Texas. I’m sure I could see much of their 27 million people out the left window alone. My flight landed smoothly at Dallas - Ft. Worth International Airport (DFW) and I concluded that the A321 is not bad to fly on as long as the computer is rebooted regularly. I realized in the air that I would definitely miss my connection and wondered what should occur next but I found my new flight number on one of the boards and started looking for my gate.

In the airport I realized with consternation that I had to go from one terminal building to another. It quickly became clear that the best solution was to ride the “train.” This is an elevated contraption that runs on a hot monorail but also on a concrete paved surface with conventional wheels. The trains are two car pilotless automata that basically feel like a subway, only they are elevated to a ridiculous height. I failed to take a picture but the ride is very bumpy and you get the feeling the train is simply going to tumble over the retaining wall of its concrete slot and you will plunge a hundred feet or more onto the highway below. Fortunately that did not happen, even though it felt like it might.

I arrived at my gate with 17 minutes to spare, checked in and got my new boarding pass. I still had 14 minutes or so to get food. Fortunately there was a snack bar near the gate. Unfortunately it was about to close so I grabbed a sandwich and Mountain Dew from the grab-and-go shelf and ate the sandwich so fast it hurt my esophagus. I made the boarding onto my 737 for the ride from Dallas-Ft. Worth to Nashville and we departed on time.

The Boeing 737 at this point is an old design, although it continues to be produced in variants  [strangely enough, I couldn’t find a good manufacturer website for this aircraft. They only have promotional pages for the next generation 737]. It was immediately noticeable to me that there was much less seat width. Fortunately the man seated next to me was thin and I was on the aisle so it was not much of an issue, except when people were walking past, which is to say shoving their way through the aircraft. I usually prefer window seats but none were available due to my relatively late booking.

Passenger cabin of a 737. The walls ahead separate first class from us proletarians in economy class. Due to darkness, and seating assignment, this is the only photo I took from the 737.

The 737 is a proven, reliable aircraft, but I thought it was apparent this particular aircraft was pretty old. The ride was predictable though, and we avoided some thunderstorms that could be seen outside the window and we experienced some minor turbulence before the ride smoothed out and we landed in Nashville safely. I believe the pilot came in too fast because he seemed to brake unusually hard and locked up the wheel brakes and throttled the thrust-reversed engines to maximum trying to make his assigned ramp. It was the cause of some humor among the passengers. I was watching and he landed so close to the beginning of the runway that I thought he was going to clip the light posts so I’m pretty sure his airspeed was unusually high for some reason.

These two “short haul” airliners, the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A321 represent two different eras of the aircraft design. The 737 is a 1960s era design and is noticeably narrower than the A320 series, which emerged in the late 1980s. The A321 was introduced in 1994 as a stretch version of the A320. Both the 737 and the A321 are still in production. The progress of the A321 seems obvious but there still was the issue of the computer needing to be rebooted. Either way I arrived at my destination safely, if a little late, and I would say I was satisfied with the service from American Airlines.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Mountain Biking the Zuni Mountains

From October 3, 2015

Although there are a lot of things to do and see around Flagstaff, I make a point of doing road trips from time to time to hit up some points more distant around the region. It's the type of thing I have always done but I think the variety available is probably even greater in northern Arizona than where I was living before in Chattanooga. New Mexico is not that far away and one of the differences between driving in the east and driving in the west is that there are fewer exits on the interstate, fewer towns to drive through, and higher speed limits, so New Mexico seems relatively near. Generally it is fairly easy to travel by car in the wide open landscapes of the American West (when the weather is good).1 I waited for a weekend when I was not on call and executed a plan to visit the Zuni Mountains, just outside Gallup, New Mexico, for mountain biking.

Typical terrain atop the Zuni Mountains. These hills are nearly the largest peaks available.

The drive was one of the most enjoyable parts of the trip, crossing over a broad swath of the Colorado Plateau.2 Combined with a recent trip to the Kingman, Arizona area, I have crossed over most of the plateau in the last month on the east to west axis. The directions were practically as simple as possible, involving only four roads, since the mountain bike trail head was on the same road as the exit. This was a good thing since I wasted quite a bit of time in the morning and got a late start, leaving me only just enough time to ride a decent distance. If you follow this blog then you may noticed that getting a late start on the weekend is one of my habits (faults?). As it was I got a little nervous after I got deep into the forest and the signage was not clear, and daylight was getting short. I hate it when I put pressure on myself like that, but I still managed to enjoy the ride and had some remaining time to drive around looking at the scenery before nightfall.

Lonely, quiet trail in New Mexico. The Zunis feel truly remote.

The Zunis are not a dramatic mountain range with high, prominent peaks, although they rise to well over 9,000 feet above sea level. It is an old range and is highly eroded so that it resembles more of a rolling plateau. The Zunis are part of the ancestral Rocky Mountains although I do not think they are considered to be part of the current Rockies, nor do they have the character or feel of the Rockies. The Continental Divide runs through part of the range although I did not get particularly close to it. My GPS track indicates that I was riding roughly between 7,200 and 8,000 feet above sea level but unfortunately I did not enjoy any wide open views on the ride. What scenery exists is lovely though, with pine forest interspersed with unusually tall oaks for the southwest, a few aspens, and the occasional grassy meadow with views of low hills relative to your perspective.

A view near the beginning of the trail system.

I chose to ride from the Hilso Trailhead near the McGaffey Recreation Area, directly off New Mexico 400. It was extremely easy to find as there is an exit for 400 off I-40 and you just head south for 8 miles. The trail system is quite nice although it seems to be relatively lightly traveled compared to what I'm used to, which made riding solo a nervous business. I usually ride alone and one of these days it may not end well. I really can't allow myself to crash hard and I don't even like thinking about the mountain lions. I usually like to hike armed but it isn't convenient to do that on a mountain bike and anyway the lions are ambush predators and likely would just pounce me from concealment. Mountain bikers have been taken out that way in the past. I try to be wary but not let it stop me from getting out and enjoying the world.

A lot of the trail is closed in with oak underbrush and even some tall oaks as well as the usual pines that are found around the mountain west at 7000+ feet. It made me nervous of bears and mountain lions. It was an eerily quiet trail system.

I chose to ride the Quaking Aspen Trail, but due to daylight and fitness issues I ended up choosing a shorter loop that involved relatively few aspens. If I had arrived earlier I might have pushed harder to get to the high point of the trail system, where I'm sure there were more aspens. In the past it would have irritated me to not be able to tour the entire trail but I guess I'm getting old and complacent so mountain biking has become a much more casual endeavor for me. I checked my distance on Strava and noted that I'm probably behind for the year compared to 2014, although I certainly did not run for most of last year and this year I have 40 runs. To a certain extent running has replaced some of the bicycle time from 2014 to 2015. The problem was that I just didn't ride often enough and ended up gaining a lot of weight last year so I took up running again. Frequent running sometimes causes me injury but it really is the easiest and most convenient calorie burning exercise available. Contrary to intuition, being in shape for running does not mean you are in shape for bicycling.

The trail crosses over a dry stream bed several times, featuring long stretches of slick rock as seen here. It's not as smooth as Sedona sandstone but still adds a welcome change from dirt.

Anyway, back on topic, the Zunis were nice to visit and some of the scenery on the drive is spectacular and features classic western landscapes. The trail system was for the most part extremely smooth riding and I would probably ride it again but only if I had another reason to be in the area because I like trails with bigger views. All in all it was a nice diversion and I also checked off another state that I have mountain biked in. The count is currently at 8 (Indiana, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico).

Photo Dump

Smooth trial almost all afternoon.

New Mexico 400 looking northwards.

Classic New Mexico landscape in the country just east of Gallup.

The American West. Barbed wire, sagebrush, and the Zuni Mountains on the horizon.

Strava GPS Track and Statistics


1. Flagstaff got 15 inches of snow the day I arrived in town. The weather wasn't actually that bad crossing the eastern parts of the Colorado Plateau until I started to get close to Flagstaff, where I encountered freezing precipitation and eventually outright snow.

2. I enjoy driving, mostly for the landscape rather than the act of steering the auto. One of these days I'm going to publish a long running draft that I have of why I think this is justifiable for my environmentalist friends. Although I consider myself to be environmentally aware, I pretty much detest the slogan "Think globally, act locally." I think we should do the exact opposite. The problem isn't that I'm driving, the problem is that I can't buy a truly low emission vehicle for a reasonable price. Local action is useless if it is not implemented across the entire planet (and other states will take advantage of that). Leaders of environmentalism have thought themselves into a box on issues like this and at this point are mostly making enemies rather than progress.