Monday, March 28, 2005

Snowballs, Amethyst, and a 17,000 acre Lake

Saturday we went boating on Saguaro Lake, which is the lowest of four lakes on the Salt River just east of the Phoenix metropolis. The big lake at the top (highest elevation, and farthest east) is Theodore Roosevelt Lake, and amazing man-made oasis in the desert mountains. Below TD Lake to the west are Apache, Canyon and Saguaro Lakes, respectively. Saguaro is most easily accessible from Phoenix, and (I assume) gets the most weekend boat traffic. Saguaro is several miles long, although the upper (eastern) reaches are narrow and mostly no-wake zones. The lower part of the lake features a roundish area, several miles in diameter, where one could tube or water-ski if one had the inclination. On this pre-Easter Saturday afternoon, the lake was quite busy... I wonder what it's like on hot summer days. Canyon Lake (the next one up) is accessible via the backroad that runs from Mesa to TD Lake. Much of this road is unpaved (although if I recall, you can get to Canyon Lake mostly on pavement). Apache Lake looks like the real treat. It is the biggest of the "lower three", but much less visited than TD Lake (which is by far the largest -- about 17,000 acres when full). If I had a motorboat, I think Apache would be my regular choice.

On board, we had a good time. The desert hillsides were covered with a decent blanket of yellow flowers. It was strange to glide by Saguaros and other cacti on a boat, floating on a huge body of water. Here, below our feet, was millions of gallons, but up on the nearby hillsides, the plants were still struggling to live on eight or ten inches of rain a year, just like everything else in the northern Sonoran Desert.

About two-thirds up the lake, we stopped at a gravelly delta formed by a stream coming down from the northeast. Sabkha was glad to get out of the boat, and happily frolicked in the water. The delta extended about fifty feet out into the lake, making a fun play area for Sabkha with water less than a foot deep out to the edge. Beyond the end, the bottom dropped off to 25 or 30 feet. Sab did some stick fetching, as we watched fellow boaters go up and down the lake. To my surprise, we saw some quite large houseboats and cabin cruisers -- ships that would look far more at home on Lake Michigan or Lake Mead than on a tiny lake near Phoenix. But you made do with what you have, I suppose. Eventually Jim, Erin, Sab and I began walking up the gravelly, clear-flowing stream that was coming down from the southern Mazatzal Mountains (Four Peaks). On the drive in, we clearly saw that Four Peaks was frosted with snow! I was quite surprised to see this, because Four Peaks tops out at 7700 feet, and there are no other high peaks around. The front range of the Catalinas, just north of Tucson, hadn't had snow for months. (To his credit, mineral collector Mark Candee predicted there would be snow up there, but I didn't believe him.) Back to the stream. We walked up that, musing at the new gravel and sand deposits from what must have been some major stream-flow events (see my pictures and comments from the Flagstaff trip in January 2005). Suddenly, Jim spotted a huge crayfish scuttling backward down the stream. I called Sab over to take a look, and she tried to take a bite (of the crayfish). It survived, and went on its merry downstream way.

We puttered around in the boat for a while more, and tooled back to Mesa (via pickup).

The real treat came on day number two of my Phoenician Easter Getaway. Erin and I looked around on my new National Geographic digital topo maps (mediocre but better than buying all 7.5' maps of the state), and decided to hit Four Peaks. We drove out the Bush Highway (I think), past Sugar Loaf, and turned right onto what turned out to be a very good dirt road. Erin's Ford Contour did a fine job of navigating the class I and II roads. The views of Four Peaks were quite nice. The trailhead is nearly at the top (and the road continues down to the east, so it could connect TD Lake to Mesa if you want). We hiked up the east side of the mountaintop, enjoying views of the broad blue Theodore Roosevelt Lake -- something of a hidden Arizona gem (I didn't discover it until last summer!). I kept my eyes to the north, hoping to see some of the Northern Arizona terrain. Much of the snow had melted off Four Peaks on Saturday, but it wasn't long until we saw our first icy patch of grainy snow. Then, to the north, I caught a glimpse of the towering San Francisco Peaks, just north of Flagstaff! The view was clear enough that I could clearly make out the shape of the peaks, and even see treeline and what looked like the ski runs (or at least the treeless areas). Later my GPS told me the straight-line distance to the SF Peaks was around 130 miles. One can see so far in the desert. To the northeast, the Mogollon Rim was absolutely stark white in the area east of Payson. What a sight. To the east, we could see mountains I couldn’t identify, which were probably the White Mountains along the AZ-NM border. I hope to explore over there this summer.

The gnats began to bite. A wet winter in Arizona means an above-average crop of bugs, bunnies, and snakes. We only saw the first. Finally we reached the ridge, with views of Saguaro Lake and the Superstition Mountains to the west. Phoenix lay beyond in the gathering afternoon haze. Not a puff of window moveth, so we suffered with the gnats and watched Sabkha striking majestic dog poses on a nearby rock (see photos). After snacking, we set out for a steep snow-filled gully that appeared to lead to the top of the northern of the Four Peaks. This required some minor rock scrambling -- easy for humans but not so easy for canines. Once we got on the actual snow, Sabkha did find, and I was the one slipping. We worked out way up the snow, kicking steps where needed. A steep rocky section stopped us about 150 feet from the summit. The gnats were building an ephemeral civilization on the snow surface.

Down we slid. Heading down the ridge on a different trail, we saw a variety of tree and rock creations. Four Peaks is home to a world-famous Amethyst mine, but we didn't get that far. Still, the geology is fascinating (well, ok, the geology is always fascinating to me, a geologist) with megacrysts of K-spar, and some mafic xenoliths in places. We saw some quartz crystals too, but not of the purple semi-precious variety.

View pictures of this trip.


Commentmaker said...

Hi, so where did the boat come from and what sort of boat were you using?
Sounds like a great trip, something one might read about, oh say, in a travel magazine.

Betsy said...

And to the E,
I have yet to read of your latest adventures. I will read them soon and make elaborate comments. Until then~
Be to the tsy

stratovolcano said...

the boat belongs to Erin's parents. It was a 18' ? powerboat.

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