Sunday, December 18, 2016

Big Bend National Park South Rim Backpacking

Big Bend is a park I still haven't grown tired of visiting.  At the end of the Fall 2016 semester, I guided what is most likely my last UT RecSports trip to Big Bend National Park.  It was a great long weekend, with a wonderful group of participants as well as two excellent co-guides (Cade and Sara).

Thursday: Left Austin at 5am.  Had an early lunch at Mi Casita in Fort Stockton. Obtained permits at Panther Junction ranger station.  Set up camp at La Noria 4.9 miles down primitive Old Ore Road. Went to Hot Springs.  Back to La Noria to cook dinner.

Welcome to Big Bend!
My 1-person tent at La Noria
Trail to the hot springs
The hot springs were popular!
Friday: Short hike in nearby Ernst Tinaja. Drive to Chisos Basin. Divide group gear and load packs.  Eat lunch.  Backpack to Laguna Meadow 2.  Sunset hike before couscous and pita dinner.

View back towards La Noria at breakfast
View away from La Noria at breakfast
Walking towards Ernst Tinaja
George pretending to slide down Ernst Tinaja
Ernst Tinaja
We met the guy behind Hotel Prius
We saw three men crossing illegally at the Boquillas Overlook
Watching sunset near Laguna Meadow
Looking towards the south rim from Laguna Meadow
Saturday: Backpack from Laguna Meadow 2 to Southwest Rim 3 via the South Rim and Southeast Rim. Set-up camp, watch sunset over southeast rim.

3-person tent at Laguna Meadow 2
The South Rim views never get old
I could enjoy these views forever
Justin at sunset
Sunday: Split into two groups: Emory Peak & sunrise.  I stayed with two participants to watch the sunrise over the Southwest Rim and causally hike out. Lunch at cars.  Drive back to Austin. Pretty epic day - starting out with an awesome sunrise right by Southwest Rim 3 and ending with the temperature getting consistently colder throughout the day.

Sun rise near Southwest Rim 3 - first shot
Sun rise near Southwest Rim 3 - second shot
Sun rise near Southwest Rim 3 - final shot
Hiking out with the 'sunrise' group

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Longhorn Cavern + Inks Lake SUP

Saturday I led a day-trip with first-time-guide Sean.  There was supposed to be a third guide on the trip, but he unfortunately decided not to come on the trip.

Having guided this trip twice before, I felt well prepared.  We held the pre-trip on Thursday night and took about 1.5 hours to load all of the gear into a suburban and the old canoe trailer.  Day trips are easier than weekend trips because no food buy is needed.

We opted to meet the participants in front of Gregory Gym at 7:45am on Saturday.  I arrived a bit earlier in order to drive the second Suburban over from its home parking spot and put some ice in the coolers.

Our group (photo from Alexandra Müller's camera)
I met Sean and the 9 participants on the steps in front of Gregory.  After getting signed waivers from everyone, we hit the road.

I drove the suburban towing the trailer.  My car had five participants, three of which were foreign exchange students from Europe.  Everyone in my car chatted happily for the 80 minute drive to Longhorn Cavern State Park.

Once at Longhorn Cavern State Park, we went over to see the old water/observation tower.  Despite only climbing up two stories, we were all surprised when we reached the top and were treated with a nice view over the rolling Hill Country.

Enjoying hill country views from the tower.
We headed to the main building in order to exchange our ticket voucher for tickets on the 10am cave tour ($16/adult, $13 with Texas State Park Pass).

Our guide on this tour was much less eclectic than previous guides, but he also provided some different information.  I thought he tried to sell the other tours at the park a bit too hard - and he also rushed us through the cave at points - but everyone seemed to enjoy the tour overall.  Compared to my previous tours, we saw many more eastern pipistrelle bats today (supposedly due to aftershocks from an earthquake last month in Oklahoma).

Longhorn Cavern present-day entrance.
Inside Longhorn Cavern.
A tiny eastern pipistrelle bat.
Inside Longhorn Cavern.
Longhorn Cavern's Hall of Gems.
The tour ended at 11:50am (20 minutes late according to our guide).  We found a shaded picnic table and sat down for lunch as a group.  We all chatted and shared interesting facts about ourselves - mine was that I'm leaving Austin on June 17, 2017 to become location independent.

After lunch, we drove a short 8 miles to Inks Lake State Park.  I was lucky enough to find space to park the trailer that did not require backing up.  We quickly unloaded the trailer, life jackets, and paddles.  We struggled to figure out how to put the fins on the SUPs until we realized the screwdrivers in the fin bag were indeed critical.

Attempting to put the fins on the SUPs
With this small matter handled, we did a quick introduction talk before hitting the lake.  Sean led the group and I followed the group, helping anyone who seemed to be struggling.

Beautiful day on the lake
We paddled over to Devil's Water Hole, where there were plenty of people relaxing and cliff jumping.  We pulled our SUPs into the woods and swam in the water hole.

Almost to Devil's Water Hole
I ventured to the end of the water hole with four participants.  We wandered up a stream feeding the lake.  We were enjoying the upstream hike and lounging in a small pond until some nearby people told us that they had seen 'a few' water moccasins earlier in that pond.  We quickly exited the pond, and were much more careful walking back down stream.  I'd expect that there are many water moccasins (and other snakes) in the lake and stream, but I don't like hearing that I was swimming where some were seen shortly before.

We paddled back across the lake once the participants were ready to return.  Some participants became tired paddling into the wind, but we eventually all reached the shore.

I handled organizing and securing the paddle boards as the participants carried them to the trailer.  I quickly changed and bought some snacks from the very reasonably priced general store by the lake before we started the drive back to Austin.

I was somewhat surprised that my car stayed awake on the return trip - happily chatting about the day and making plans to do future things together.  We unloaded the trailer when were reached Gregory Gym before saying thanks and good-bye to all of the participants.

Sean and I then dealt with moving the vehicles and trailer back to their weekend parking spots.  I struggled with the trailer mightily.  Once we finally got the trailer parked successfully, we went to the Outdoor Center to return the trip binder, review participant surveys, and fill out our post-trip survey.

All in all, it was an extremely smooth trip.  All of the participants seemed pumped to get out of Austin and have a day outdoors.  Sean was a great person to guide with, and I'm sure he's going to develop into a solid, experienced guide quickly.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Backpacking Colorado Bend State Park

This weekend I led what was marketed as a backpacking trip to Colorado Bend State Park with Ellie and Sara.  I had attended Guide School with both Ellie and Sara, so it was relaxing and nice to guide with two other experienced guides.

RecSports had reserved camp sites in the walk-in camping area, which was different than the backpacking area.  As such, since the backpacking area was fully booked, we were unable to change our reservation and had to turn the trip into a car camping + day hikes trip.

Somewhat surprisingly, most of the participants seemed to be okay with this change.  In fact, the group on this trip was one of the best I've had on a trip.  Almost everyone got along well, and the group gelled similarly to how a group might on a 9-day trip. Despite the rain that plagued our group much of the weekend, it still was a great trip!

RecSports Suburbans parked near the campsites.

One of the overlooks on our long Saturday hike.

I took a bad fall on our Saturday hike and it continued bleeding the rest of the day.  Thanks to Ellie for handling the first aid!

One of the participants spotted an armadillo skeleton!

The last part of Saturday's hike was flat and along the river.

 Our campsites.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Longhorn Cavern State Park & SUP at Inks Lake State Park

Today I guided a day-trip to Longhorn Cavern and Inks Lake state parks with Sara B and Cade.  I was not originally scheduled to guide this trip, but Katie B wanted to find a replacement so I offered to guide the trip in her place.  This trip was similar to a trip I guided in Spring 2014, but this time I came away from Longhorn Caverns with a more positive view.

Our 11 participants were easy-going and fun - about half of the group was freshmen, but we also had some upperclassmen and graduate students.  Most seemed to just be excited to get outdoors and away from campus.

We left Gregory Gym around 8:15am, and reached Longhorn Caverns at 9:45am.  I went in to buy tickets for the 10am cavern walking tour, which were $13/person with my state parks pass (instead of $16/person).  We wandered around the gift shop for about 5 minutes before heading outside to wait for our tour guide.  Our tour started right at 10am as scheduled.

The actual tour covered the same route as it did in Spring 2014, but this time the guide gave better insight into the history of the cavern.  One particular fact I learned this time was that the individual who sold the cavern's land to the state during the Great Depression  required that the cavern never be operated by the state.  Hence, this explains why Longhorn Cavern is the only Texas State park operated by a concessionaire.

Our cavern tour had 32 people on it this time, so 18 people outside of our group were also on the tour.  Our tour ended around 11:40am, so we announced to the participants that we would stay at the caverns until 12:45pm in order for people to eat lunch, sunscreen, and generally explore if they wished.

Our group in the Cavern (photo from Sara's camera)

Then we drove over to Inks Lake State Park, which was rather crowded and party-like on this Labor Day Weekend Saturday.  We struggled to find a place to park the trailer, but a spot opened up just as we finished unloading the stand-up paddle boards and kayak.  Sara gave a short safety and skills talk, and then everyone easily got out onto the lake.

Cade went out near the middle of the group, and Sara and I went last after helping everyone get out on the water.  However, when we got onto the water, we noticed our group had become very split up.  Sara paddled over to one group, and I went to join another group that seemed to be heading towards Devil's Waterhole.

Once at Devil's Waterhole, some of the participants wanted to jump off the rocks (like we saw many other people doing).  I told them I did not recommend it, and it would be at their own risk, but that I would not stop them (which seems to also be the park's stance).  A few people did indeed jump from the rocks, and we had a few cuts and scrapes as a result (nothing serious though).  However, as a program we should probably re-evaluate how this trip is ran - should we not visit Devil's Waterhole and instead just paddle along other parts of the shoreline?  The trip description on the information sheet for the trip listed Devil's Waterhole as a place we would visit - and it seem poor to not let people jump if they want to - so perhaps we should re-work the information sheet for future trips.

Everyone seemed to have a great time on this trip.  We got many positive comments on the evaluation forms - cool guides, good safety, fun trip - and the only negative comments we got were a couple people suggesting that we should provide lunch.  Overall, it was a fun day trip!

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Big Bend South Rim Backpacking

After returning from my Turkey/Greece trip on Sunday, it was immediately time to prepare to lead guide a trip to Big Bend National Park!  Brad, Cade and I went on a food buy, repackaged food, and prepared gear on Tuesday.

On Wednesday morning, I met my 9 participants for the first time as they arrived at 6am (since I had missed the pre-trip since it was while I was at AAMAS in Istanbul).  They quickly packed all of our backpacking gear into their packs and then we loaded up the cars.

Brad, Cade, and I had agreed to work on a 3 hour driving schedule.  Hence, I drove to Sonora, and then got a break until Fort Stockton where I switched cars and drove the remainder of the way to the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park.  We stopped at the Walmart in Fort Stockton for everyone to get last-minute items - I picked up some $19 hiking poles since I had stupidly forgotten mine in Austin and I knew I would want them.

I woke everyone up to stop at the sign.  I think they were eventually happy about it.

Once in the Chisos Basin, I went to obtain our back-country permits around 3:20pm.  However, the ranger suggested that we obtain a camp site first since they were in very short supply.  He suggested we talk to the camp host about obtaining a group site.  Hence, we loaded back into the cars and drove over to the camp-ground.  We found the camp host, and he did indeed have just one group site left - site P.  Site P was pretty much just a pavilion with tables on a hill - there was not a flat site to be found.  But it would do for a night.  As everyone else was setting up camp, I hurried back to the ranger station to obtain our back-country permits before they closed at 4pm.  I made it just in time, but found that our original plan to camp in Boot Canyon one night and Pinnacles the other night would not work as too many site had already been taken in each.  Trying to get back-country permits in Big Bend for a group of 12 is difficult!  However, I was eventually able to get our backup plan of staying in Colima 1 both nights.  In hind site, this was certainly the best plan for our group.

Sloped site P

My back-country permit

Once back at the camp with my back-country permit in hand, we presented the various hiking options to the group.  Despite an oncoming storm, they decided on the Lost Mine trail.  We drove to the trailhead, and I opted to put on rain gear before starting since I was certain it would begin raining soon.  As we climbed up the trail, the visibility got worse and worse.  When we hit the one mile point and a ridge, we found we had very little visibility.  We waited for a bit, and then the group decided they wanted to continue on the to summit and hope it cleared.  I figured there was little to no chance we would see anything from the summit.  However, as we kept climbing, the visibility did get better and better.  From the top, we could see very well - even the valley had cleared.  Lost Mine is certainly the best 'half-day hike' I've experienced in Big Bend so far, and there are plenty of places at the end of the trail to sit and just enjoy the views.

The rain got a bit worse on the hike back down, but we made it down with no issues.  Once back at camp, we cooked our chicken noodle and tomato soups and grilled cheeses.  It was a popular meal, and everyone seemed satisfied. We were treated to a nice view of the sunset through the window from our camp-site as well.

Thursday morning I awoke feeling miserably hot.  I was sharing a tent with two of the participants - Monica and Stephanie - and quietly packed up and got out.  The tent was so much hotter than the outside air!  I got ready and then just sat and enjoyed the early morning.  People slowly began waking up around 7:30am, and once about half of the participants were awake I woke up Cade and Brad and started our bagels and yoghurt breakfast.

After breakfast we put the items we would not need backpacking back into the cars and packed the items we would (as well as the refrigerated items).  We moved our cars to the visitor's center parking lot and hit the trail slightly before 10am.

Brad led our way up the Laguna Meadow Trail.  Once we finished the climb and could see the meadows, we found a nice viewpoint off trail to have lunch at.  I was pleasantly surprised how little I struggled on the climb as long as I went slowly.  Since some participants were struggling with the weight of their backpacks and/or their muscles, this was not an issue.  After lunch, and resting for about 45 minutes, we hiked onward to camp.  My pack got really heavy near the end of this hike, but I was still pleasantly surprised that I was not miserable like I was during the 2014 Thanksgiving trip to Guadalupe Mountains despite almost certainly carrying more weight on this trip.

Plenty of flowers in May

Flowering cacti

My group relaxing after lunch

 The hardest part of the backpacking trip is over!

We finally reached our home for the next two nights - Colima 1.  Colima 1 was a group site that could hold up to 15 people in 5 tents, so 12 people in 4 tents fit nicely.  It was equipped with two large bear boxes, 1 medium bear box, and three smaller, older bear boxes.  It began raining as we reached camp.  In hind sight, we should have waited for the rain to stop before setting up camp - but we attempted to set up our tents in the rain.  This lead to the bottom of our tent being wet.  Of course, by the time camp was set up, it had stopped raining.  We took the rain fly off our tent in hopes that it would dry.  I also organized all of our group food and cooking items in one bear box.  We used the other large bear box for personal items and food, and the medium bear box for water.  We used the smaller three bear boxes to store trash.

We took a group trip to the nearby composting toilet after everyone relaxed for an hour, and then we sat around and played games until it was time to cook dinner.  Dinner was quinoa with brown sugar salmon - it was actually the best quinoa dinner I have had.  I'm not usually a fan of quinoa, so this is a big statement.  It started getting cool during dinner, so most people hurried to bed after dinner.

Friday morning I awoke first again, and got out of my tent.  I got ready for the day, and then enjoyed sitting on a log and just listening to the birds.  Cade's head stuck out of his tent shortly after his 7:45am alarm and we started our hashbrown breakfast shortly after.  The participants woke up as we started cooking, and breakfast was served soon after.  However, even after all of the participants had gotten food, Brad had still not gotten out of his tent.  I went to check on him, and he claimed he was being slow because he was cold.  Getting up and ready before the participants was drilled into me during guide school, but it seems that since the latest group of guides did not go through part 2 of guide school, they missed this part of the curriculum.

We eventually took off on our day hike to the South Rim.  Multiple people had some nasty bruises and blisters on their hips from carrying heavy packs the previous day.  We did not have much mileage, so we could hike slow and enjoy the day.  We did just this, stopping for a long time at three different view points.  The first view point, seen after climbing out the the meadow, makes a real impression.  Multiple people in our group actually said 'man, this makes it all worth it'.  We chilled at the South Rim until the participants decided they wanted to head back to camp around 3pm.  We got back to camp around 4:30pm, and played cards until dinner time.  Dinner was supposed to be mango, mandarin orange, and bean tacos - but I had spaced out when repackaging food and did not remember to put tortillas with this meal.  The meal was still great though - I do not think anyone really missed the tortillas.  After dinner it started to rain, so we all retreated to our tents.  I was amused by the international group (a UK guy, an Australian guy, and a French girl) playing American country music in their tent.

Views from the South Rim never get old

 South Rim

South Rim

The next morning we tried to get moving early.  Breakfast was instant oatmeal with toppings, so it was easy to prepare.  We took down camp, packed our now substantially lighter backpacks, and headed for the Pinnacles trail.  We stopped about a mile in at the Emory Peak turn-off.  Most of the group wanted to hike to the peak, but two participants did not want to go so I stayed with them.  We decided to stay with everyone else's bags at the turn-off, but in hind sight we should have made the rest of the group carry they packs and we should have headed down to the cars.  Waiting at the turn-off in the rain was by far the most miserable part of the trip, as we were all very cold due to the combination of rain, wind, and inactivity.

The boot in Boot Canyon

Me, on the trail

The rest of the group returned 1.5-2 hours later, and we broke into a faster and slower group for our descent.  I trailed the slower group, but I literally saw the faster group running down the trail!  Once at the bottom we gave everyone 30 minutes to visit the Visitor's Center and store.  In the meantime, we went to the Visitor's Center to try and get a primitive site by Rio Grande Village for our final night.  However, since it was Memorial Day weekend, all of the sites easily reachable were already filled up - and especially considering our group size, there was nothing available for us except a few sites about an hour down a rough 4x4 high clearance road.  With all the rain, and one vehicle without four wheel drive, we decided that would be a bad idea.  All of the group sites at both Rio Grande Village and in the Chisos Basin were fully reserved online.  We started to have serious concerns about finding a place to camp.  We eventually found phone numbers of Big Bend Ranch State Park, and convinced the ranger at the visitor's center to let us use their phone to call.  The state park claimed they had plenty of space, but it would be a 1.5 hour drive west from the basin to reach the campsites and we could not reserve over the phone.  We opted to go with this plan, and went to serve lunch.

After lunch, the participants really wanted to go to the hot springs down by Rio Grande Village.  We knew this might make it difficult to get a camp spot at Big Bend Ranch State Park, but we decided to just go with it.  I dropped my car off at the hot springs and went to double check that there was indeed no space at the Rio Grande Village group site.  The sites were all empty, but all reserved, so we could not take any of them.  They looked nice and grassy though.  When I returned to the hot springs, everyone except Brad and one participant were waiting in the parking lot.  Apparently they had not seen Brad and the participant since they left the hot springs!  After waiting in the parking lot for 15 minutes, I began to worry and sent Cade and another participant to look for them.  About 30 minutes later, I finally saw Brad and the participant climbing down a hill!  I was relived but angry - it was selfish and irresponsible for Brad to leave the group and disappear for 45 minutes.

Once we were all in the Suburbans and ready to go, we drove the two hours to Lajitas and self-registered at Big Bend Ranch State Park since they closed at 4pm.  Then we drove onward to the Grassy Banks primitive camp.  There was one area where water was running across the road at a depth of 6 inches (according to the pole by the road).  I hesitated, but having seen two other vehicles just cross safely, I went for it and crossed without issue.  Once at the camp, we were relieved to find many open spots.  We claimed spots 5 and 6, and set up camp.  As we were cooking quesadillas for dinner, we were treated to yet another great sunset.  After dinner many of us stayed up playing cards and enjoying the stars.  Staying at Big Bend Ranch State Park for the last night ended up working out perfectly!

The next morning we awoke at 7am and cooked pancakes for breakfast.  Everyone got as many as they wanted, but there were none left at the end.  The strawberry jam worked surprisingly well on the pancakes.  Cade had fun manning the grill, and ended up making cute Mickey Mouse pancakes at the end.  We left our site at 9:30am and reached the Big Bend Ranch visitor center in Lajitas to pay just before 10am.  After paying, we were off towards Austin!

The drive home was uneventful.  We ended up arriving back in Austin at 6:30pm.  Brad, Cade and I dealt with some of the gear, and agreed to meet on Tuesday to finish repacking, cleaning, and putting everything away.

The evaluations for our trip were good.  Lots of positive comments, and no real negative comments - the only ones were (1) serve more pasta and (2) reserve campsites.

As a guide, I feel like although I did a lot of things right.  Some specifics are:
  • The participants really felt the trip was theirs and seemed very happy with how it turned out.
  • Keeping the participants informed about our schedule.
  • Meals were adequately sized (except for the last dinner, which was a feast).
  • Going over the plan for the next day during dinner works well, since everyone is naturally together during that time.  Likewise, reviewing the plan for the day at breakfast also works.

However, I do have some things to improve on as well as some things I would do differently in the future:
  • Reserve campsites early if going on a holiday weekend.  If state park or national park group sites, reserve online.  If primitive, reserve all of them ASAP upon arrival.
  • Do a better job critiquing new / less experience guides.  I dislike confrontation, so I had trouble talking to Brad about his actions / lack of actions that I had an issue with.  Being a good lead guide is not just about how you plan a trip and interact with the participants, it is also about how you mentor the other guides, and I need to improve in that aspect.
  • Implement interviews at the pre-trip to determine ability, and then assign particular gear piles to particular people based on ability.
  • Make an active effort to learn names ASAP.  On this trip I really struggled with names, and when this was discovered on day 3, a few people got rather upset that I did not know their names.
Overall, this trip was really enjoyable for me.  In many ways, it was a walk down memory lane through parts of my guide school experience.  I was also happy with how I was able to carry so much weight without it really killing me like it did during the Thanksgiving 2014 trip to Guadalupe Mountains.  The trip was executed well, and the problems we did have ended up being minor in the full scheme of the trip.  I look forward to leading more trips, and to getting back to Big Bend at some point to do more backpacking (either on the Outer Mountain Loop or in the Mesa de Anguila).