On a cloudy day in April we headed east. Clear sailing until five hours out and a pronghorn played chicken with the truck so I had to cross into the opposite lane and take my foot off the gas so it could pass on the right and run in front of the truck at 60 mph. I hate it when they do that but no one was coming in the opposite direction for miles so it was okay. This one was younger than last year’s buck and you could see his mouth open sucking wind. Still, he was keeping pace and even beating us.
In the afternoon we arrived at Skull Camp and there was no one there. We set up our dispersed campsite camp and it was dusk when our friends arrived and we circled the wagons. That night we soaked in the hot spring and listened to the coyotes. It was cold.
A few days later when I got a chance (we get so busy in the desert) I took three hours and scouted the creek to see if it was doable. There were some iffy spots where beavers had created little pourovers, some of them cushioned by reeds and grass which would allow us to slide over. The beavers had culled the willow thickets along the creek making wide meadows of thick coarse grass where we could hop out and line the boats if necessary. There were only two or three places where we would have to portage ten or twenty feet. Startled waterfowl flushed with a clatter: a black-crowned night heron, mallards, canvasbacks, geese. It would be a bushwhack but it would be fun and there were long stretches of unobstructed current running through deep gullies and meadows. It was sunny and warm which boded well for the next day.
That night the rain blew in with gusto. The highs that week were in the fifties, lows in the twenties and the morning was dark, wet and cold. We spent the morning soaking in the hot spring discussing the weather. When you’re living out of doors weather is a big deal. We decided it was not a good day to go bushwhacking down a creek. Plus the road to the launch site could be compromised. Roads in the desert rain can turn slick and miry. So we went to Plan B. For me, that meant a hike up a sweeping mountainside to check out a field of yellow flowers.
I started out gingerly on the slick, muddy road. Off the road it was better: the desert pavement provides firm footing even in foul weather. I climbed up to the flowers and discovered they were tumbleweed mustard. Since I was well up on the ridge’s shoulder it seemed reasonable to continue up to the first big rock outcrop at the top of the rise. The higher up the more lush the flora: there were wildflowers everywhere, although few were actually blooming yet. The plants looked really healthy and in six weeks or so the display would be spectacular. There were many different grasses too and up here they were more luxuriant than lower down. There seems to be a critical point at which the steep grade prevents cattle from going there (no cow pies or hoofprints) and that’s where the plants really flourish.
At the outcrop another long slope revealed itself and another rock formation further on. The bracing northwest wind spat rain and hail like grains of sand but it wasn’t cold. The whole vast desert and a multitude of mountain ranges were falling away beneath me and the views were spectacular so I decided to keep walking.
On the way I found small worked obsidian chips and a pronghorn antler, spongy with age. Guessing there was a story behind the antler and the chips I played desert detective and searched the ground till I found the arrowhead I suspected would be there.
In the rocks there were lichens, wildflowers, a species of currant, and many burrows, some containing bones and some containing culled grasses still green. I’m sure the residents were nearby but they didn’t come out to greet me. So much desert life is underground. The views were amazing: far away mountains obscured by rain and mist and clouds rolling across the landscape. After looking around a bit I headed back to camp and a hot soak in the spring.
The weather wasn’t improving so we loaded up the truck, left Skull Camp and headed out on a quest for another hot spot. We found it in a creek flowing down into a large pond from a source up the slope.
The water temperature was 114F (we had our trusty swimming pool thermometer), and it was too hot for us but we hiked downstream until we found a place where the water was cooler, about 99F.
I grabbed the X-O and put in, paddling upstream toward the source. The shallow water steamed around me. There were yellow flowers that looked like a type of mimulus on the banks. I kayaked up till the water got too shallow.
Almost to the source, I pulled over to the bank to check out the flowers and saw a dust devil whirling along the high bank. The swirling wind buffeted the kayak and I was concerned about tipping over into the scalding water but after biffing me around a bit the whirlwind passed and danced away.
That evening we soaked for hours watching the stars come out among piles of clouds. A squall slammed us with wind and rain in the night, rocking the truck, but the next morning the playa was dry as a bone.
Another hot soak before breakfast and we packed up and split. On the way home we had the usual assortment of spring desert weather: rain, snow, hail, sun, and wind, alternately and all together.
On this desert adventure we raced the annual pronghorn, found sun stones, hiked, soaked, met our friends, scouted a cold creek and paddled a hot creek. Mission accomplished! Maybe we’ll hit that cold creek next year…
What quests have you been on lately? Go ahead and share your adventure!