Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Tao of Chickens

Hapless hipsters that we are, apparently we're aboard yet another weird little micro trend: urban chickens. Last April, AM & I lined up in front of the local Olsen's Grain an hour before they opened, as we'd heard rumors of a new shipment of day-old chicks; the previous month we'd sauntered in at 10:00 a.m. expecting to come home with a clutch of baby cluckers and were out of luck. The slightly shell-shocked salespeople told stories of a line 50 people long when the doors opened and the paid departure of the last little fuzzball just 20 minutes after the doors opened. A month later, there we were, feeling a bit like over-eager fans at a Grateful Dead show, swapping stories with our fellow line-sitters and hoping we might score some of the precious tix, er... chicks. We walked out with a two ISA Browns and two Silver-Tipped Wyandottes, not entirely sure what any of those words actually meant.

A day old when we got them, they were just as fuzzy and goofy as anyone could have hoped, and pooped and cheeped pretty much nonstop. They spent the first month or so in a high-topped cardboard box with a 100 watt bulb
for warmth. Once they'd lost the fuzz & fledged, they moved out to the backyard chicken run (formerly chainlink dog run) and an A-Frame coop lovingly constructed for about $10 out of scrap lumber and cast-off roofing from the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. After a suitably awkward adolescence with half fuzz and half feathers, they started to look positively matronly and -- about a month and a half back -- gave us our first egg. The Browns -- which turn out to be a cross between Rhode Island Reds & Rhode Island Whites -- were a good month earlier with the egg production than the Wyandottes, but as of this week, we're seeing a consistent three eggs a day, and four a day more often than not.

And the fresh eggs are yummy.

One other benefit of chickens in the backyard that I'd heard about but had to experience to believe is that they're really, really entertaining and relaxing to watch. Put a bowl
of a favorite treat in front of them -- popcorn, over-ripe cantaloupes, cottage cheese -- and whichever grabs the first bite gets chased by the other three, who immediately ignore the full bowl to chase the sister with a mouthful. Let them out to scratch around the yard, and they rush back and forth to their favorite spots, run/flapping to keep up with each other.

But it's most surprising just how relaxing it is to just watch them be chickens. Our neighbor, who daily brings them greens and melon rinds that they devour, has become a big fan. We were standing out by the coop one afternoon talking about the chickens and general events around the neighborhood, when we simultaneously realized we'd both been silent for a
good five minutes. Just standing there, watching the chickens scratch and peck. Just being, in the spirit of a good zen master. Think about it -- Chicken egg? Cross the road? All of our best western zen koans seem to come from chickens. For a few bucks worth of feed, it seems we're getting more out of this than just eggs.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Marvelous Night for a Moondance

There's a beauty in moving water that draws me back again and again, but here in central Arizona -- where the monsoon rains have passed by our parched little Prescott from July 4th until this very day -- it's a tough commodity to come by. So I've tried to make my peace with the water we do have, pooled in a handful of small lakes around the region, some natural, most not.

Of course, if you saw Watson Lake, which twists and turns through granite reefs and monoliths like someone flooded the valley floor of Joshua Tree National Park, you'd swat me for my bellyaching. It's a stunning place to hike, climb, or sprawl as naked as you dare across a sun-warmed rock and get a pretty good idea of the high point of a lizard's life. It's a beautiful place, and one that's earned a well-justified spot front page & above the fold on pretty much all of Prescott's tourist literature. But the best way to enjoy it is afloat, in a canoe or kayak, poking in and out of the coves and crannies formed by the granite passages.

I'm going to let you in on a secret (both of you -- I know full well just how vast my readership really is): the real time to paddle Watson is at night, a couple of days before the full moon. By going three or so days early, you get an earlier moonrise that gives you plenty of time to explore in the lunar glow without worrying about Jim or one of the other hard-working Parks & Rec folks locking the front gate with you on the other side at closing time.

Usually at sundown the wind disappears, painting the sky above and below your boat, as another one of Arizona's monotonously spectacular sunsets splashes across both the skyline and the reflected ripples at your bow. It's a night for kayak tag, hide & seek among the outcrops, or just drifting aimlessly sprawled across your back deck, watching the stars spin through time and space.

The moon is waxing & next week ought to be another for the photo album; care to dance?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Rescue Me

Yet another post from the Verde River, one that even includes some of the same cast of characters. Just before I left the Mid-Atlantic, I took advantage of the strong whitewater paddling community thereabouts to earn my certification from the American Canoe Association as a Swiftwater Rescue Instructor. Not a whole lot of things one can teach have the potential for direct, cosmic payback quite like first aid or rescue skills -- if I'm lucky, someone I've taught will be close at hand the next time I stumble once again into the gap that yawns wide between questionable judgment and mediocre skills. And if it comes to that, I sure hope I was a good teacher.

Scheduling a two day class around here turned out to be a bit trickier than I'd expected. While we can get glorious warm weather here any month of the year, it'd be nice to have a little bit firmer guarantee of that than January or February tends to offer. A substantial portion of both days is spent in the water -- being rescued, learning to swim in moving water, or even pretending to be a luckless/clueless/drunk boater pinned under a stuck boat -- and I wanted the class' discussions of hypothermia to stay theoretical. But as the warmer weather moves in, the flow in the Verde shrinks inexorably with each passing day, and at some point the swiftwater part of the equation just sorta peters out.

The end of March was on the low end for springtime river flow -- about 160 cubic feet per second, WAY down from the 3,000 plus a few weeks before -- but that was the weekend that all the troops could rally, so we'd do what we could with what we had at hand.

It turned out to be a great weekend -- a small but talented crew that included four full-time or seasonal pro river guides and more than enough enthusiasm to go around. We threw rescue ropes to our chums washing past, used some extraction Aikido moves to pull out boats pinned under tons of moving water, and unlearned collective decades of wisdom about what to do when the river sweeps you into a midwater tree. See, every Boy Scout who's ever plopped his khaki-clad butt into a canoe knows that you swim feet-first & belly up in whitewater, bobbing along with your toes pointed downstream and your hands sculling you toward safety. Mostly, that's good advice. But when our soggy tenderfoot encounters a submerged log strainer or boulder sieve, that approach can prove fatal. That's me above, demonstrating the wrong way to do it on a nice, benign piece of PVC pipe just before getting flushed forcibly underneath, down where tree branches and other nasty, grabby things can lurk in real life. Instead, we practiced flipping onto our bellies and swimming aggressively, ATTACKING the "log" and getting up and over it, no matter what.

As a teacher, it's rewarding to see your students incorporating new knowledge into their approaches to complex and sometimes dangerous situations. It also is humbling when you realize that something you've taught is sending them off on a bad, even life-threatening tangent. That's how it played out in one of the surprise rescue scenarios they encountered -- that would be me, bobbing face-down in slow current when they rounded the corner. My ears were above water and could hear these experienced, river-saavy paddlers make a methodical exit from their carefully-beached boats and then proceed to circle around me for a discussion the finer points of the incident command system and spinal stabilization. All the while, their "victim" lay face-down in front of them and unable to breathe, his life ebbing fast away. I'm glad they learned something about urgency from that botched exercise; I know their teacher certainly did.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Crocuses and Lizards

When I was living back east in the DC area, the crocuses were the sure sign that spring was right around the corner. No guarantee that there wouldn't be anymore 12" or bigger snowstorms before winter was done, but a pretty sure sign that I'd soon be able to put away the cold weather trappings -- the long-sleeve bike jerseys, the winter motorcycle gloves, and the kayaking drysuit -- until fall and start being dangerously distracted by sundresses as I dodged traffic pedaling home through Georgetown. Though I never did it, I was long tempted to copy one of my Virginia suburb neighbors who planted crocus bulbs to spell out, in letters four feet high, the word "SPRING" across the front lawn.

Since it's only my second spring here in Prescott, I'm still a little vague on the signs of the changing seasons, but it has to be a harbinger of things to come that we were out bouldering at Groom Creek earlier this week, just a quarter mile or so from the spot where we were playing in two feet or more of snow less than a month ago. My co-conspirators included our 14-year old (clearly the best boulderer of our trio) and a friend of hers from middle school.

Never a great climber to begin with, I wasn't helped a bit by the winter layoff. Stuff that had been easy just a few months ago left me off balance, out of sync, and at least once bouncing gracelessly off the crashpad, reminding the chatting, distracted teenagers that we'd agreed to spot one another, which is kind of hard to do when you've wandered away to talk about the latest drama & gossip.

Feeling a bit beat-up, I didn't object a bit when the fun shifted from boulder problems to a friendly competition to find the most sun-dappled, most comfortable, most scenic bit of granite to stretch across for a mid-morning siesta. With the teens having commandeered the crash pad, I tried a few options (including a nicely weathered, horizontal pine trunk that was almost wide enough to lie along without teetering from side to side) before settling on a boulder that did the trick. About 20 feet high (with chalk smudges on the handholds marking the way a REAL climber would have gotten up; I shinnied up the easy back side), there were indentations at the top that seemed custom made for my head, shoulder blades & butt. The sun washed the whole top, but a friendly ponderosa pine offered just a little filtered shade to my face, so I could survey my domain without squinting or lifting my head.

I did have to share my spot -- with one of the first lizards I've seen in 2009. Like me, she (he?) was soaking up the sunshine and the warmth of the stone that seemed to chase away the memories of when this very spot was wrapped in a snowy blanket. The lizard probably didn't know that we've got a chance of snow in the forecast for early next week, but one thing we both felt in our bones was that the cold can't last, and that spring is upon us, crocuses or not.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Verde Falls, Round 2

A second trip down Verde Falls this past Sunday went slightly (only slightly) higher on the style meter, with about 3X as much water going over the lip as had been there during my previous, elegantly-inverted escapade. This time around, I managed a good line to the left side (not an option at lower water) and thought I put in a good boof stroke at the lip that would shoot me over the top of the fall's backwash. Not so much. I submarined in good and deep, then attempted two or three rolls without really knowing which direction was up.Thankfully, it's a pretty forgiving hole and spat me free at river left after a few seconds of the rag doll shake, and my last roll did the trick.

The bigger news was West's hard-man finish of most of the run when a broken paddle in the Pre-Falls rapid left us looking at Verde Falls with three kayakers and just five paddle blades among us. We did some radical surgery on the remnants of the broken paddle (this after taking stock and realizing that not one of us had brought the "don't leave home without it" duct tape -- Doh!) and he put his C1 slalom racing skills to the test. Though Verde Falls that day probably won't be among his favorite memories, the rest of the trip was one he should be proud of, pushing a stubborn little playboat along with half a paddle.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Inversion Therapy

I have one strong attribute that keeps me going in the adventure play arena, and it sure as heck isn't competence. Mostly, it's that I'm not smart enough to be embarrassed. Heck, I'm the guy who kicked his ice axe into a crevasse right in front of Yvon Chouinard during an ice climbing class on Mt. Hood (I wonder; between global warming & nearly three decades of glacial movement, I bet I could get it back now!). You know, the guy who started Patagonia and possibly the most influential climber of the whole golden age of Yosemite big-wall first ascents? Let's just say I got off on the wrong foot with one of my heros, and stayed there the rest of the day.

So we should probably get this out of the way right up front: the highlight of my first trip down the whitewater section of the Verde River was the descent of the Class IV Verde Falls.

Upside down.

Yeah, I managed a raggedy roll in the hole at the bottom of the Falls and paddled myself out without needing any rescue. But I can hardly claim that was my first choice.

I woke up that morning expecting to do chores around the house all day, despite a hearty scramble all week trying to put together a paddling trip. I'd met Ben (he's the one pictured at the left, while we were scouting the falls) several months back and wound up talking kayaking, ending with a general agreement to look each other up when the water got back up in the local rivers & creeks. We'd reconnected last week with plans to run the Salt, Tonto Creek, or something, but I didn't know much beyond that. I passed on plans with my friend Bill to run an easier section of the Salt River, and heard half an hour too late on Saturday about an early morning meetup to go run the Class III-IV section of the Verde from Beasley Flats to Gap Creek. Without any contact info for Ben or word from him, I figured it was a good day to work on getting the garden ready for spring. But with a late morning phone call & a gracious green light from the love of my life, I was scrambling to remember just what all I needed to pack for honest-to-goodness whitewater.

Half an hour later, I was headed for Beasley Flats & setting up a shuttle with Ben and his housemate West; it'll be interesting to see how long we know one another before it becomes necessary for us to know last names. The river was on the low side for that run -- around 350-400 cfs -- and that contributed to my first mistakes. At that level, the first named rapid, Off The Wall, seemed pretty inconsequential. I allowed myself a bit of hubris, which got me in trouble the very next riffle, which I ended up running backwards after catching a rock right at the top. See, while it's not that pushy at 350, at that level the Verde has plenty of rock gardens that lurk just under the surface, waiting to trip up the inattentive, the arrogant, and the just plain clueless. A year and a half out of whitewater boating, and I had a bit of all three going for me.

One of the big tricks with Verde Falls is the Pre-Falls rapid just above it -- an abrupt 3-4 foot drop over a rocky, toothy shelf that is pretty bony at low levels. Mess up at Pre-Falls, and you've got very little room to recover before the Falls proper. Still feeling tentative & shaky in the boat, I was doing the baby-duckling thing with West, following his stern where ever it went. Right up until the moment when he zipped into a little eddy and I went sailing past (my East Coast friends Helene & Scott will know how this story ends) and into a rock-bashing solo read & run of Pre-Falls, along one of the uglier, barely-passable lines through the rapid. Chastened, I got my butt into the first available eddy and waited for my betters to catch up.

Verde Falls at 350 looked straightforward enough, with just two things I had to get right. First, don't screw up in the little slot to the right of the cleaver rock that splits the current and creates a couple of funky curlers right above the falls. Second, get in a good boof stroke at the lip of the falls & catch a little air there, because: a) it's a hell of a lot of fun, and b) it'll carry you clear of the recirculating hole that will suck you back into the bottom of the falls. Failing the first, I brushed the cleaver rock and capsized in the slot. Uh-oh.

West tells me I actually managed an upside down boof that carried me & my boat clear of the falls; best I can guess, that must have been the big whack (as distinct from all the smaller rock smacks) I felt on my shoulder and helmeted head somewhere between flipping and rolling back up in the frothy jumble at the bottom. Fortune, it seems, once again favoring the fool.

Though rehashing my pratfalls is fun a few days later (lord only knows how much mileage I've gotten out of the Chouinard story), it doesn't do a bit of good when I still have miles of whitewater between me and the takeout.

I probably looked pretty goofy with my grim little game face on, but a conscious focus on the fundamentals -- aggressive posture, paddle in the water, seeing the whole line ahead rather than fixating on the immediate obstacle -- seemed to pay off. I started to feel my hips loosen up and let the boat react to waves & random thumps. My paddle strokes actually started to have a purpose again, instead of random, reactive flailing. By the last significant rapid before the takeout at Gap Creek, a fun Class III called Punk Rock, I was finally starting to feel the old flow, putting the boat where I wanted when I wanted. More or less.

Pushing on through bouts of the stupids has generally served me well. If I'd stayed rattled after the embarassment of Verde Falls, it's even money or better that I'd have slam danced with Punk Rock an hour or so later. Now that I think back, the most vivid memory of that ice climbing class isn't the mortifying one I've told a hundred times, but late that afternoon front-pointing up this translucent, overhung serac about 30 or 40 feet high, with an ice axe I'd borrowed from Yvon Chouinard.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

No Gear

I'm a gear nut. I'd admit to being a gear slut, but since I've never had sex in exchange for some blingy piece of outdoor swag, that'd be evocative, but not all that accurate. But it's pretty clear that rational seldom enters into my calculations when it comes to gear, unless it's part of the word rationalization.

I've got three kayaks, one canoe, a half dozen (or so) paddles, five bicycles, two motorcycles, four operational pairs of skis (plus probably 10-15 pairs of obsolete ones rusting out back that are going to become part of the fence) and proportionate amounts of all the associated accessories. It's embarrassing, no two ways about it. Yet just today, I caught myself looking at a catalog with pretty mediocre deals on last year's Alpine Touring & telemark skis and thinking of the money I could "save" by buying left over stuff. Pathetic.

While not a full cure, one way to reduce the symptoms of gear nuttery (not to mention all kinds of other maladies) is to spend time playing outside with kids.

This past weekend, AM's sister & sister's best friend were in town from Southern California. Adding our one into the mix, there were eight kids pinballing around the house (blessedly, not our tiny little place) off one another, the walls, the furniture and occasionally off nothing visible to adult eyes. It was loud and it was fun.

We spent an afternoon up past Groom Creek sledding, making snowmen & randomly hammering each other with snowballs and snow boulders. It was glorious and the only piece of "gear" in sight was a red plastic toboggan, though toward the end of the day most of the kids dispensed with even that and slid down the slope (probably a total vertical drop of 10 feet -- somebody alert OUTSIDE Magazine!) with just their snow pants or nylon jackets. Their smiles and excited screams were contagious, and easily infected the adults.

I will admit to one bit of backsliding; I brought along my little blue backcountry avalanche shovel (it's Carbon! Fiber! Reinforced!) and busied myself building & shaping the sled run, including boosting the launch pad by about a foot and adding an extra jump. I could pretend I was doing it for the kids, but really it was mostly just me playing in the snow with my toy.

It's not like one afternoon could cure me of gear addiction -- actually, a radical reduction in income since I moved from DC is doing a decent job of that -- but it did remind me that winter fun doesn't have to come with a high price tag or a first-name relationship with the FedEx delivery guy.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Falling & Getting Up

Seems somehow appropriate to my scattered, disorganized interests that the first real post on this blog wouldn't actually be from the Sierra Prieta, but from our other mountain range, the Bradshaws.

I'm sore but happy after a day spent climbing up & falling down in splendid, deep powder in the Prescott National Forest. Anyone familiar with the drought-starved winters around here will recognize that those words don't occur very often in the same sentence any more.

Some change is clearly afoot here in my backyard mountains -- in the previous century, deep snow was the norm around here. Aldo Leopold talks about the snow in the neighboring White Mountains as making them entirely impassible through the winter. It was fodder for a year's worth of bragging to be the first horseman to make it into the high country around here in spring. Now, winter storms typically come through as rain and run downstream immediately to the Hassayampa, the Verde and into the insatiable thirst of Phoenix and Southern California.

I was out with my friend & co-conspirator Will, who is on a mission (this from a guy who's current schedule barely gives him time to eat & sleep, and he's got spare minutes for a mission?) to learn & document the backcountry skiing in the Bradshaws. Lucky for me, I get to go along for the ride; not so lucky, snow around here can be a real hit or miss proposition. With 12-15 inches landing 2,000 feet lower in town earlier this week, though, our chances looked mighty good.

Once we hit about 7,000 feet, the snow banks alongside the icy gravel road had reached rather impressive proportions. We spotted an area where a telephone line cut made an open passage through the trees down into a deep creek gully and then way up the open slope on the other side. This was showing real promise.

For me, this was a first try with lots of brand new gear, namely my favorite telemark skis converted over to an alpine touring binding & boot. A telemark setup doesn't fix your heel on the ski -- which necessitates a lot of bumps and bruises before you learn the graceful, one-knee-down turns that chicks & dredlock dudes dig so much. An alpine touring binding, by contrast, lets the heel lift free while you're climbing up the slope, but then locks down just like a regular downhill ski for the schussy bits. After the move to Arizona, I decided that skiing oportunities would be limited enough that I'd be able to get back up to speed with a fixed heel faster than trying to re-learn telemark turning two or three times a year. Good theory, mixed results.

Will & I descended the slope into the gully, then started the stomp up the other side. Lots of work on the uphill, but I was pleasantly surprised that my year long campaign to get completely fat & out of shape hasn't been entirely successful. We stopped midway up to dig a pit to check out the snow & make sure we weren't on an avalanche-prone slope, and found at least a stunning four and a half or five feet of snow on the ground, and that's without hitting bottom. Not impressive by Tahoe or Mt. Baker standards, but remember that these hills spent much of the last few winters completely bare of snow. Good news all around -- there was lots of snow, and none of it showed any inclination to kill us.

After pulling off the climbing skins & (for me) figuring out how to lock down the heels of my bindings in deep snow instead of my living room, it was time to point 'em downhill. Will bobbled once, then carved a series of linked tele turns in the knee-deep fluff. I dropped in and had an immediate, unsettled sensation; for the first time in twenty years, my heels were fixed to the ski and all that internal dialog that had cluttered my brain for the past few months about how much easier it'd be to ski AT just kinda balled up into a little chunk of gravity and planted me face first in white.

While the skiing got prettier -- for both of us -- through the afternoon, I can't say I ever managed to make it look good. While my self-image fashions me a back-country, earn-your-turns skier, this mornings' aches and pains do tell me that I'd be well served by -- for at least one day -- biting the bullet, spending the money, riding the lift & getting a hundred or two turns in my legs before I let my aspirations run too far ahead of my meager skills.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Sierry Petes

It seems to me that a blog is a bit like a sourdough starter -- you've got to keep it fed on a regular basis or it just kinda gives up on you. My favorite ones are a bit pungent and more than a little gassy. Unlike a sourdough starter, very few of them ever feed anybody.

This one is built as much as anything to help me remember some of my rambles around my new home for the past year plus here in Prescott, Arizona. My intention is to keep focused on outdoor fun, whether on water, snow, two feet, or two wheels (both the gas-powered and oatmeal-powered bikes), but focus never was my strong suit, so it'll likely diverge into local politics, irrelevant observations, and general griping or rejoicing about things that really don't matter to anyone but me. Sorry.

The name of the blog, Sierry Petes, isn't my name or nickname, even though the latter would be kind of fun. "What'll ya have, there, Sierry Pete?" would make me happy to hear at a local bar, even better if followed by "It's on the house." It's Yavapai cowboy slang for one of the two mountain ranges that ring Prescott, the Sierra Prieta, the other being the Bradshaws.

Let's go out and play.