Harris Halk

The Warm Desert

Our first Arizona morning as we hopped out of our tents, the Catalina Mountains loomed 7,000 feet above.  The North West side of the range that we were nestled up to is heavily decorated with big granite walls and long meandering ridge lines that spread out like an octopus guarding deep mysterious ravines.  The morning was very cold, unlike the mid 40s that Tucson was promised, we were 400 feet higher in elevation and it was more like low 20s.  The camp ground we were in was in the middle of a cold air sink that drained all night from the high mountains.  Hands were cold as I prepared coffee for Michelle which we enjoyed in the tent as we did in the Chihuahua.  But we were no longer in the windy desert and we knew that once the sun popped up above the mountain it would be warm.  We were now in the Sonoran Desert, the warm desert.

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If anyone has spent quality time in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert they know that it’s not just the warm winters, or the endless panorama of mountain landscapes or the stellar sunsets that make it so alluring, granted, those are big selling points, but one of the most interesting details lie with the crazy flora and fauna.  The biggest and coolest is the Saguaro.  You’ve seen Saguaros in cartoons or in pop culture featured typically in Monument Valley landscapes (which is in the Great Basin Desert and not where they actually exist).  Usually they are portrayed with only a few Saguaros standing around with a couple of arms sticking up.  They’re not like that though, they are much crazier and a lot of the time bigger with anywhere from no arms to lots of arms sticking out in every which way.  Unlike a tree they seem to have drastically different characters from one another.  Actually all cactus are a bit like that.  The Sonoran Desert has a literal forest of different types of cactus.  Prickly Pear are everywhere of course but then there are Barrel Cactus, Hedge Hog Cactus, Organ Pipe Cactus and then Cholla.

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Cholla (pronounced choy-a) and what Ila calls “Cholla O-boya” after a few unfortunate run-ins, are constructed with a main trunk that comes up out of the ground and then branches out; each individual subspecies takes on a different way of branching out to survive in the extreme heat and lack of water.  There are the Chollas that look like a tinker toy project gone crazy, such as the Staghorn and the Buckhorn Cholla,  there are the Cholla that resemble the structure of trees a little bit more such as Chain Fruit Cholla, then there’s the skinny links and sparse needles of the Pencil Cholla, the Teddy Bear Cholla with so many needles it looks soft and fuzzy.  But the craziest Cholla of all is the Jumping Cholla.  Jacob, Elias and Ila decided to test the rumor that the links actually jump off of the main body.  At one point in camp I heard Jacob yell, “Dad help.”  And there they were, all three of them looking dumbfounded with Cholla links stuck all over them after an unfortunate soccer ball rescue.  It was almost funny but pulling it out of Ila’s foot was nasty as they are definitely barbed.  They seemed to have learned their lesson as I have not seen anyone get stuck by a cactus again.

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The desert is not just choked full of cool variations in Cactus, the plants that have adapted here to cope with the extremes are fascinating.  Agaves, Yuccas and Ocotillos are like nothing you see anywhere else.  The Yuccas and Agaves are both in the Agave family with the Yuccas usually possessing softer flexible leaves, although they still cut your skin if you don’t watch yourself.  Most Yuccas are on the ground but there’s the Soap Tree Yucca which grows tall with it’s sprout of spiky Yucca leaves at the top and a strange single branch coming out of the top.  It would look like a palm tree except for the fact it looks nothing like a palm tree.  More like a Truffula tree from the Lorax.

The Agave, with its sphere of spikes that protrude from the ground provide the desert visitor with one of the most lethal pointy sharp things out there.  Actually, not much isn’t spiked here in the warm desert including many of the trees, and there are quite a few trees.  They average 10 to 15 feet tall and they’re spread out usually just enough to remind the visitor that, yes they are in the desert.  There is the Cat Claw Acacia with its nasty spikes and the Arizona Mesquite, which makes for some great carving wood and fire wood for that matter.  Then there’s Iron Wood,  which is illegal to harvest on any scale because it is so coveted for it’s “iron” like wood.  You actually need diamond tipped blades to carve it and is suppose to last forever.  All of these trees have sharp spikes but my favorite tree of all does not.

The Palo Verde is a beautiful tree.  It grows tiny leaves so that it does not have to use water for the costly leaf building process.  Instead the branches all the way down through the trunk are a beautiful shiny green.  This green is due to a layer of chlorophyll throughout the entire tree.  This allows it to photosynthesis without traditional leaves.  On these very green trees there are curious bushes of another plant that you see occasionally growing out from its branches called Mistletoe.  I don’t know the story of how mistletoe become the fabled kissing plant but I do know that it is planted by a bird’s behind.  The Phainopepla, a smallish black perching bird with a crest above it’s head, eats the plant’s fruit.  When the bird has to poop the digested seeds cause the birds butt to itch so it lands on the branches of the Palo Verde for a much needed scratch and presto, it plants and fertilizes the seed.

Elias is the ultimate dude for noticing all of the little things the desert is up to.  In a home schooling assignment where we asked him to write about and research what he saw  in the desert near our camp site, he writes  “The Saguaro cactus had holes made by Gila Woodpeckers. Then Elf Owls and Cactus Wrens live in the holes.”  His skill has already helped keep him out of trouble in this land of prickly things.  One night as he was going to bed he called out to me nonchalantly and said “um dad, there’s a scorpion on my shoe and it’s now crawling up the side of the tent.  What should I do?”  Sure enough there was a scorpion right on the zipper.  He was the best of our 3 kids to have spotted it…he did not grab it or freak out (Ila may have grabbed it, Jacob may have freaked out). He and I shooed it away and he was off to sleep. He drew this picture and wrote a story about it to mail to his class in Bellingham.


After a few days of hiking and rock climbing in the Catalinas and at Mt Lemmon as well as taking advantage of the close proximity to Tucson for laundry and the things that are boring to talk about but feel so good when you finally get them done, we picked up camp and moved to another campground next to the Sonoran Desert Museum.  Here we could finally sooth our overwhelming curiosities over our new environment.  We were met with one of the most fun and enriching learning environments I’ve experienced from any museum.  We held pieces of rock from asteroids, watched Harris Hawks duke it out together and hunt for food and learned about the desert around us on a deeper level than we expected.  Jacob and Elias learned to identify the difference in skull structure between the Javalina, Coyote and Cougar and what identifies one as a carnivore or omnivore and not as an herbivore.  We learned how the world’s lushest desert, with only 10 inches of rain a year has developed so many fascinating plants that are able to make the most out of every drop of water that falls which in turn allows for life to flourish beyond what most deserts would allow.


Here in the Sonoran Desert the wildlife is abundant and especially well, wild.  The animals are rambunctious.  I know coyotes live everywhere but did you know that they will not attack people?   We need to remind ourselves of this when we hear them going crazy every night, all night, crazier than you think they can get.  A few nights ago a bunch of them traveled right through our camp.  You could hear them on either side of our tent. There are more than just coyotes roaming around. Big cats are at their best in the USA down here in this cactus jungle.  Bobcats for sure and Mountain Lions….the lion just may eat you by the way.  But the beautiful and shy Occilot lives here as well and the biggest secret of all is the Jaguar who lives in southern Arizona…..they’ll eat you for sure.

Every dusk the desert landscape hands the show over to a heaven full of stars.  Brilliant skies.  When we “learn” we think of storing information between our ears, here all the input easily and quickly travels down our spines and into our solar plexus allowing the world to be relevant on a more personal level.  The mixing of the desert and the stars, learning and living has made every day a constant flow of contextual and experiential learning. What we learn next just may blow our mind all over again.  Our neighbor and campground host invited us one night to watch the Universe through one of his powerful telescopes.  We saw Orion’s Nebula, the most heavily studied and scrutinized nebula in the sky which is an intense sea of celestial matter making up Orion’s Scabbard just below Orion’s Belt.  We saw Jupiter and it’s four moons:  Europa, Io, Ganymede and Callisto.  We looked at the moon and all of it’s craters for a long time. Even Ila got a peak. We walked back to our tent, all of us quiet and in wonder…

The following day in Saguaro National Park Jacob wrote a Saguaro inspired Haiku as part of his main lesson work:

In Blistering Heat

The Sonoran Sentinel

Desert Mastery

Categories: Adventure, adventure geology, Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum, Cactus, Camping, Car camping, Catalina Mountains, Family camping, Family Climbing, Harris Halk, Hiking, Homeschooling, Rock Climbing, Rock climbing kids, Saguaro National Park, Sonoran Desert, Tucson | 11 Comments

The N.O.C

On November 2nd Michelle and the kids dropped me off deep within the Appalachian mountains at the Nantahala Outdoor Center.  I was scheduled to take a 10 day Wilderness First Responder (WFR) course, a certification I am required to keep up with. There were several benefits to redoing the whole course rather than just doing a re-cert such as keeping up with the new updates to protocol, the introduction to cool new products readily available on the market and then of course learning little tidbits, new tricks and techniques and refreshing the skills forgotten.  Regardless of all of these technical skills there were three things that made this particular course and time in general a treat.

The first thing was the place.  The Nantahala Outdoor Center, which is usually referred to as the NOC is a mystical place in the Nantahala Gorge well within the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina.  The NOC runs programs for all age groups with it’s main focus on river rafting with subsequent programs focusing on zip lines and the Wilderness Emergency Care.

Located on the VERY pretty Nantahala River they run guided raft, kayak and canoe trips on not only the Nantahala River and on the dozens of other rivers within Western North Carolina.  The very rustic and remote village like cluster of buildings that make up the main campus consist of a convenient store, retail outdoor store and restaurant right on the river.  Then there is the actual campus on the other side of the river that encompasses the main raft house and then conference buildings followed by the cabins further up-hill that hold tightly to the steep forested mountainside rising out of the valley.  Branching out of the NOC are a series of trails with the most famous being the Appalachian Trail or AT.  The AT runs the entire length of the Appalachian Mountains (Georgia to Maine).  Thousands of people attempt to hike the AT every year and most of them start a few hundred miles south of the NOC.  Even in November, the number of hikers arrived there overdo for a shower and roof over their heads was quite high.  The AT descends steeply into the Gorge for thousands of feet and then climbs back out again even further up into Smokey Mountains National Park which consist of many of the highest mountains east of the Mississippi.  The highest peak, Mt Mitchell at 6,680 feet is actually not far, located on the other side (east side) of Asheville.

The second treat was the experiential approach to teaching the material.  This was by far the most practical  WFR course I have taken.  There was not a single skill we learned in class that we did not take the time to practice in a scenario.  Practicing like this makes the more obvious and straight forward circumstances we face in actual emergencies much simpler.  In real life all the pieces are straight forward and easy to file and make decisions on.  The first example that comes to mind occurred towards the end of 2012 when I was climbing with two customers at Mt Erie in Washington state. There were two individuals climbing a route to our left on the Main Wall, a 300’ wall on the south face.  When the guy leading fell he flipped upside down smacking his head, (he wore a helmet thank goodness).  More than anything he impacted his leg before flipping upside down.  We quickly lowered him to the ledge and within two and a half hours a helicopter plucked him off the cliff side and carried him to the hospital.  On the initial assessment we found his ankle had the lower leg bone poking out with blood pooled thick around.  With any movement whatsoever blood began squirting quickly.  With no movement there was no increase in blood flow.  Our decision was obvious, don’t move the ankle and get him to a hospital.  All the pieces were there.  There were no what ifs?  There were just the real options that were on the table.

Stokes carry

During one of the  course scenarios that took place at night, we responded to a couple of young women who went out for some night climbing and one of them fell to the ground unconscious.  Her partner went to get help. Every step of the way I’m asking myself, “What should I be seeing here?”  “What am I not seeing that I should be seeing?”  It’s more like a game with set rules and parameters where there is always some sort of hidden injury or medical condition that you’ve gotta pull together.  This coaches you to use all of the tools the course provides you again and again.  As I approached the scene, the woman pulled a knife on me…..That’s step one – the scene was not safe so I stopped there – nothing could be done. The young woman in the scenario then fell apart emotionally.  What happened?  Did she hurt herself?  What happened?  Well it turns out she swam across the Nantahala River and back to call a rescue.  It’s getting towards freezing and it’s night time.  Should we really cut all of her clothes in order to get her dry and warm blankets on her?  We ended up warming her up without completely stripping her down but that may not be what I would have done in real life. The participants played their roles quite well.

In 2008 I was on my way out with two gals of an early June trip on Mt Baker.  Everything was covered in late season snow and we had one last sketchy creek crossing.  The only option to cross the raging Glacier Creek had one dubious log crossing.  This is of course where one of the gals fell in.  We pulled her out no problem but we still had a few miles of walking.  She wanted to just walk out and get it over with.  I demanded she completely change from head to toe including underwear.  That was the proper first aid.  All the pieces were there, it was easy.

The river was another tool that was used on the course to keep pushing and testing us.  One of the last days we put the entire group in two boats and floated down the Nantahala.  Back and forth we ran scenarios.  Back and forth, back and forth, we tested each other.  Rafting down the river gave us the opportunity for a new and dynamic environment to run scenarios – what a blast..

Lastly but by no means least the third biggest treat of the course were the people.  Halfway through the week I realized I was no longer counting the days.  Through evening meals and drinks, afternoon hikes, good conversations, entertaining study sessions I found myself amongst a great group of folks.

By the end of the week when Michelle and the kids came to pick me up, one of our class mates who is the head naturalist at a local nature center invited us as well as several other classmates to a falconry session.  Michael, our naturalist, took us to the Balsam Mountain Preserve where he works and introduced us to their Eagle and Kestrel as well as taught us the basics of falconry with their big and beautiful Harris Hawk.  I enjoyed having the bird fly to my arm and snag the piece of steak out of my glove but it was probably most fun for me to watch the hawk fly to Jacob and then Elias.

Categories: Appalachian Mountains, Appalachian Trail, Bald Eagle, Balsam Mountain Trust, Falcon, Harris Halk, Nantahala Outdoor Center, North Carolina, Wilderness First Responder | Leave a comment

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