Putting Down Roots

Putting Down Roots

My first impression after hiking with saguaros was of redwoods. Of massive lifeforms with an outsized impact on their environment. Of warriors, long-lived giants, their struggles written on their skin. Yet for all of that a surprisingly shallow root system. Saguaros have a central tap root that grows down but the rest of their roots radiate outward a handful of inches below the surface, soaking up every bit of rainwater they can. Sometimes erosion exposes these shallow roots, as on this old saguaro at sunrise on the Vaquero Trail, Brown’s Mountain rising in the background.

Shallow Roots

The Guide’s Pack

A tall saguaro leans over and appears to be asking for a hug from another saguaro, as my Tom Bihn Guide's Pack sits underneath

I bought my backpack, the Tom Bihn Guide’s Pack, four years ago and put it to use right away on a trip to Mount Rainier National Park and Olympic National Park in Washington. We spent our first years together hiking around the Pacific Northwest, not only Rainier and the Olympics but the Columbia River Gorge, the redwoods in California, the Oregon coast, and of course at Ridgefield. Designed and manufactured in nearby Seattle, it was right at home in its home.

Then we moved to the desert.

The Tom Bihn Guide's Pack at Sunrise Peak in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve

My first thought after moving here, unsure how I would handle hiking in the hotter weather, was to take a lighter pack on some short hikes, so for the first couple of hikes I took an old REI daypack I’ve had for over twenty years. I quickly switched to the Guide’s Pack as I realized it was better suited to carry the water I’d need on longer hikes courtesy of its internal frame and hip belt.

Since some of the trails are narrow my first thought was to take off the two removable pockets on the sides and store them in the bag. One of the pockets has an organizer for little things but the other is open, and it turns out it is perfectly sized to carry two 27oz Klean Kanteen water bottles. I carry one 27oz bottle attached to my camera bag, two in the side pocket, and a spare in the bottom of the backpack. But I quickly realized my mistake once I started putting my telephoto lens and camera into the bag when the light started getting harsh, as to get to the water bottles I had to pull out the camera and lens. You have to constantly drink water while hiking here, so easy access to water is critical. I put the pockets back on the sides where they have stayed ever since, and after looking in the mirror I realized they weren’t sticking out as I had imagined anyway.

A dusty Tom Bihn Guide's pack at Brown's Ranch in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve

The bag is getting more and more dusty and that’s a good thing because it means I’ve been hiking more and more. I’ve been out almost 20 times in the two months we’ve been here and can’t wait for the next hike. One of the things I’ve loved about this pack is its looks, the navy parapack material is both durable and gorgeous and is well-matched against the coyote brown bottom and straps. It’s a rucksack design, the top compartment is where I keep my snacks, you can open the zipper and get inside without opening up the pack. Pull back the top and there’s a cavernous compartment inside where I store my hiking poles, my fourth water bottle, a first aid kit, and extra clothing (if needed), and various other things. There are some o-rings inside for attaching stuff sacks, adding some nice organizational capability to the large space.

The Tom Bihn Guide's Pack next to one of the many rock formations in Brown's Ranch in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve

My last adaptation in the desert was to start putting the big lens and camera away when the sunlight starts to get harsh, swapping the lens for trekking poles which make hiking in the desert more enjoyable. How I wish I had four arms so I could carry my tripod and trekking poles too! The tripod I cinch under the bag with some lash straps, that has worked a treat. This is the configuration in the picture below, with the backpack and attached tripod holding up Balanced Rock.

There are lots of nice touches in the bag, such as the loop handle that makes it easier to load the bag into the car or move it about the house. There’s a nice mesh on the back – your back does get sweaty in the desert, for summer hiking I might look for a back with a gap between your back and the backpack. Or maybe a lightweight pack if it proves too hot in the summer for any hike over an hour or two.

I absolutely adore the Guide’s Pack. I love that its beautiful, I love that its well-made and made well, and I love that it’s a great backpack too. It broke my heart to leave the Northwest but getting to know the Sonoran Desert has been an absolute joy. My thanks to the folks at Tom Bihn for making the backpack that let me explore my home in the Northwest, and my new home in the Southwest.

The Tom Bihn Guide's Pack sits underneath Balanced Rock in McDowell Sonoran Preserve

Brown’s Ranch

A scenic view of large rocks in the desert in the Brown's Ranch section of McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

The Brown’s Ranch section of McDowell Sonoran Preserve has quickly become one of my favorite local places to hike. It’s far too soon to say if it will become my Ridgefield – the default place I go when I want to go out – but it has been a great place to explore and learn about the desert in the spring. I’m assuming it was named after someone named Brown and not because everything is brown, though both would be apt.

Chasing Waterfalls

Bird waste flows down the rock face of Tom's Thumb in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I loved the many waterfalls of the Northwest and knew I was leaving them behind when we moved from Oregon to Arizona, but as I stood under Tom’s Thumb I realized I had found a waterfall of sorts. I didn’t need a slow shutter speed to turn the waterfall into a flow of white. I’m not sure what kind of birds are making their home up there but further around the rock formation prairie falcons were nesting, as the rock climbing route was closed while the falcons were nesting. You can see one of the routes on the right side of the picture, it’s the thin grey line ascending the rock face.

A view of Tom's Thumb in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona


A foothill palo verde tree with the moon above it at first light on the Sunrise Trail at McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

First light falls upon a foothills palo verde tree as the moon hangs above, taken yesterday morning on my first hike of the Sunrise Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve. Life has been full of a lot of firsts lately and hiking has been no exception. This morning was the first time I hiked in shorts since arriving here, as I’m testing out when I want to wear short sleeves and shorts based on temperature, and unfortunately it was also the first time I slipped on the trails here. Nothing serious, just skinned up one of my shins, but I don’t think in two decades of hiking in the Northwest I ever drew blood (to be fair I rarely lose my footing).

But mostly the firsts have been positive. First time seeing animals, first time seeing plants, first time visiting parks, first time hiking trails. The new Columbia sun hat and new Merrell hiking shoes are both working well, Friday morning I wore the shoes for the first time on a flat hike and by Saturday morning I was confident enough to wear them on this hike of the Sunrise Trail, which is mostly constant elevation change. It was also quite windy so fortunately I had the chinstrap on my hat cinched tight or my new hat would be soaring above the desert even now.

McDowell Sonoran Preserve

A view west of Pinnacle Peak and other mountains from the Tom's Thumb Trail in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

When I first started thinking about looking for work outside of Portland, I immediately added Albuquerque to the list of cities I was interested in. Thinking about the high desert got me thinking about the regular desert but I had the misconception that the desert near Tucson and Phoenix was flat as far as the eye could see, with the occasional cactus sticking up to break up the monotony. Fortunately I did some research and discovered the hills and mountains around each city.

Once we decided to move here and started looking for a house to rent, one of the things I was interested in was distance to local hiking trails. I saw McDowell Sonoran Preserve on a map and thought it looked interesting from afar, it’s a massive preserve owned by the city of Scottsdale with a variety of trailheads leading out to a network of trails. Most trailheads are a 15 to 25 drive from our house and I’m pleased to say that the preserve has turned out to be a great place to hike, so far 6 of my 8 hiking trips have been to different parts of the preserve.

These pictures are from Tom’s Thumb Trail, the furthest trailhead I’ve visited so far but a lovely hike and one I will return to. You can see Pinnacle Peak in both pictures, the nearby trail was the one I visited briefly during my interview trip and the first trail I hiked after we moved here. Pinnacle Peak Park is also owned by the city of Scottsdale but is not a part of the preserve.

A view of a saguaro, rock formations, and mountains in the distance from the Tom's Thumb Trail in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona