Winter 2010-2011 was a particularly difficult one in the Verley family. It started with the passing of John's grandfather, John Chakowski ("Opa"), who died after a short illness on December 6. He was 96 years old at the time of his passing; he still lived in his own home, and his mind was still as sharp as a tack. He lived a long, blessed life and he will be missed by all of us.
Bill and Erika were in South Carolina when Opa died; Erika - along with Lotte and Omi - were at his bedside when he took his last breath. A week later, they left South Carolina to return to Arizona, so that they could be home in time for Christmas. They arrived in time to see Bill's sister Karen Frazier, before she passed away, four days before Christmas. Karen's husband Jim had passed away the year before.
Nearly three months later, there was another death in the family; Bill's other sister, Joanie, lost her husband, Stan Fasci. Stan was 90 years old and had been ill for some time. I did not know Uncle Stan very well, but I will never forget the first time I ever met him, when he asked me, "So, doll, where ya from?" That just makes me smile...
A couple of weeks after Stan's passing, Aunt Joanie made arrangements to do an "ass-scattering" (no, that is not a typo) for Karen, Jim, and Stan, at Canyon Lake on Saturday, March 26. She rented the large ramada in the campground and a boat from which they would scatter the ashes into the lake. We, of course, said that we would be there for it. Coincidentally, Omi was also going to be in town during that week and would be at the memorial, although we were not going to be scattering Opa's ashes at Canyon Lake. John referred to it as a "quadruple funeral".
Since we didn't need to be there until the afternoon, John suggested that we go for a hike in the morning - maybe one of the trails from the First Water Trailhead. He even went as far as to suggest the Upper First Water Trail (route) again, but I laughed; I wasn't going that one again. In the end, we chose to do the Garden Valley Loop, which is another route that can be found in the Hiker's Guide to the Superstition Mountains, by Jack Carlson. We have hiked this particular route before, in April 2005, and we knew that it was an easy, five-mile loop - one that we could easily finish before lunch.
There was just one little problem. It was already late March, which meant that the rattlesnakes were coming out of hibernation. And the last time we hiked the Garden Valley Loop, I had an encounter with a rattler who was just inches from my ankle. After my last rattlesnake encounter (in the Chiricahuas), I was a little gun-shy about hiking in Rattlesnake-land. Naturally, John thought I was crazy - he has never let me live down the injury I received in the Chiricahuas - so to avoid more mocking, I conceded to the hike...on one condition. "I will not be the line leader," I said. "If there are rattlesnakes on the trail, I do not want to be the first one to find it."
On Saturday, March 26, we got up early to get everything ready for the day. There were Camelbaks to fill and lunches to make for the hike; and we also had to pack an ice chest with beer and sodas and juice boxes for the afternoon at Canyon Lake. Then, we had to put the canoe onto the top of the 4Runner and load up the paddles and life jackets. With all of those tasks to complete, we weren't able to leave the house until nearly 8:00 a.m.
When we arrived at the First Water Trailhead, around 8:45 that morning, we were not surprised to find that the parking lot was almost entirely full; we were lucky to find a place to park. We were also not surprised to find that there was a forest ranger at the trailhead, making his rounds and talking to the hikers who were getting ready to set off into the wilderness area. Naturally, when he saw the canoe atop our vehicle, he had to come over and comment on it.
"You know, you're a long way from water," he said jokingly. "I hope you're not planning to carry that thing!"
We laughed. "No, we're heading to Canyon Lake after we're done."
Since we had his attention, I asked him about the rattlesnake situation, curious to know if there had been many sightings since the weather turned warm. He assured me that there had been several reports of rattlesnake sightings on the trail. It gave me the willies just to think about it.
Yet, despite the possibility of venomous critters, we geared up and started our hike of the Garden Valley Loop.
Our hike began on the Dutchman Trail #104, which we followed for the first half-mile until we reached the junction with the Second Water Trail #236. If we took the right fork, we would stay on the Dutchman Trail, and that would take us to Upper First Water Creek; the left fork - Second Water - would take us to Garden Valley.
We followed the Second Water Trail for 1.5 miles, during which time we had the trail mostly to ourselves. It seems that most of the foot traffic had turned off onto the Dutchman Trail - which seems to be the more popular of the two - so that gave us some much needed peace and quiet.
We made excellent time hiking to the junction with the Black Mesa Trail #241; we managed to complete those first two miles in only fifty minutes. At that pace, we were likely to be done with our hike by lunchtime. It just goes to show how far Mary has come in the six years since we had last hiked that trail, when her best pace was one mile an hour and it took us nearly two hours to reach that point!
Just opposite the junction with the Black Mesa Trail, we found the unmarked trail that would take us through Garden Valley; and for the next half of a mile, we followed that trail across Hackberry Mesa. This is one of my favorite sections of the trail. The route takes you through a large meadow of tall grasses that ripple in the breeze and a forest of jumping cholla cactus. The last time we hiked through Garden Valley, the whole scene was alive with color: the grass and the surrounding buttes were all a vibrant green, and there were wildflowers aplenty. This time, there was a distinct lack of wildflowers; but Garden Valley was still just vibrant as it had been before. In the distance, we could see the Flatiron on Superstition Mountain; and we could also see Weaver's Needle poking out above Black Mesa.
Our hike across Garden Valley was anything but quiet, though. While we had the Second Water Trail mostly to ourselves, we didn't have the same luck with Garden Valley. In fact, the trail suddenly became insanely busy. We were passed by a large group of tourists who insisted on speaking to each other loudly. Then, as we started into the ravine, we encountered several more people, hiking in the opposite direction. And then we were passed by even more people hiking in the same direction as us! For a moment, I thought we were back on Pass Mountain because it was so busy!
"I don't think you have to worry about rattlesnakes anymore," John said to me as we hiked into the ravine. "There are enough people on this trail that there isn't going to be a rattlesnake within fifty miles of this place!"
And he was right. It was in the ravine where I had had my close encounter with the angry rattler. This time, we passed through the ravine without incident. After that, I started to feel more relaxed about hiking...though I still had my guard up...
At the bottom of the ravine, we followed a dry creek for another half-mile, until we reached Hackberry Spring, at 3.4 miles. It was there that we encountered about thirty boy scouts, out on a day hike. The trail had reached the point where it was "ridiculously crowded"; considering that Garden Valley was an unmarked route and not an official trail, we found the amount of traffic surprising, to say the least.
As we left Hackberry Spring, we began to make our way down First Water Creek by boulder-hopping. Six years earlier, this had been the most difficult part of our hike; it took Mary over an hour to navigate through the canyon. This time, Mary hiked through the creek with no difficulty whatsoever, and we made it out of the canyon in only twenty minutes.
At that point, the end was in sight. Just before 11:30, we found ourselves at the old ranch, at which there is an old windmill as well as a ramada. We chose not to stop there as we had done the last time; but instead, we decided to keep going. Ahead of us was the last quarter-mile of the trail, which was a steep climb up an old Jeep road. At the end of the road, we passed through a gate at the wilderness boundary and arrived at Forest Road 78, four-tenths of a mile from the First Water Trailhead.
It didn't take us long to hike the road back to the trailhead; we arrived at 11:45, less than three hours after we started our hiking adventure. As we reached the 4Runner, we told Mary that we were extremely proud of her for hiking as well as she had that morning. That hike could have easily been a five-hour death march; instead, it had been an enjoyable walk through the desert.
And the fact that we didn't find any rattlesnakes just made it that much more enjoyable!
With our day hike over, we all climbed into the 4Runner and left the trailhead, to drive to Canyon Lake, for the "ass-scattering".
By the time we arrived at Canyon Lake, most of the relatives were already there, including Bill and Erika, Omi, and the Guckenburgs. There were cousins we hadn't seen in years, cousins we see often, and cousins we only see on Facebook. There must have been fifty or sixty people there to pay their last respects to Stan, Karen, and Jim.
We spent the afternoon getting caught up with the family and canoeing out on the lake. For John and me, it was the first time we had canoed since Mother's Day 2010, when we camped at Bartlett Lake with the Silvestros. After that trip, we let Bill and Erika use our canoe while they traveled across the country to South Carolina; they didn't return it to us until December. It was nice for us to be back on the water again, paddling out onto the lake; we really missed our little green boat.
Late in the afternoon, a few select family members went out onto the pontoon boat to scatter the ashes. The first trip out was to scatter Karen and Jim's ashes. Karen's ashes were scattered first, off one side of the boat; Jim's ashes went next, off the opposite side. What happened next was incredible: Karen's ashes were caught by the ripples on the lake and crept under the boat, to merge with Jim's ashes on the other side. It was perfectly romantic.
On the second trip out, Stan's ashes were scattered; and, from what we understand, his ashes were stubborn, just as Stan had been in life. It was a fitting end, I suppose.
Once the ashes had been scattered, John and Mary and I decided to start packing up to head home. It had been a busy day, and we were beginning to feel it. With that, we said our good-byes to the family and to the lake and started our long drive home...
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