Tag Archives: hiking

The Cactus Speared Cact-I

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Prickly pears are just one of many cactus species ready to spear you

There’s only one rule—besides carrying enough water—about hiking in the southwest American desert: Don’t fall.

The reason isn’t so much to avoid landing on unyielding rock as it is about impaling yourself on razor-sharp spines of the cacti that infest places like the Sonoran Desert near Tucson, Arizona.

Actually, forget about falling. You don’t even want to brush against or accidentally grab any of these thorny bastards, which are all too happy to abandon their desert homeland to hitchhike on your clothing or, all too often, your flesh.

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You don’t have to step off the trail to get attacked

Let me count the many species of cactus set to make your life miserable. There’s the majestic saguaro, whose multiple arms are not recommended for hugging. There’s the aptly named jumping cholla, whose stems easily break off and attach to the poor sucker who merely grazes them. There’s the ironically named teddy bear cholla, which is not so cuddly. There’s the barrel cactus, the hedgehog cactus, the fishhook cactus, the half dozen species of prickly pear.

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Not so cuddly teddy bear cactus

Have I forgotten any? The spindly ocotillo, with its gorgeous red flower tips, is technically not a cactus, but try telling that to anyone who accidentally embraces its many spines.

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Don’t reach too close to that ocotillo

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Hey, is that saguaro giving me the finger?

I was properly wary about colliding with any of the cacti that line the fine desert hiking trails around Tucson, and had successfully avoided any contact through most of two hiking-intensive visits to the southern Arizona city. But all it takes is a moment’s inattention to learn a severe lesson.

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Don’t get distracted by fruit or flower

I didn’t actually fall into a cactus. I was just descending a little rock step, focused on my footing, when I brushed against a prickly pear. There was no sharp pain, just a twinge not unlike a mild sliver. The problem was getting the barbs out, which you want to do  immediately, before they really start bothering you.

The thing about prickly pears is not the obvious long spines. It’s the tiny, fuzzy orange things called glochids that are the problem. As in the dozens of these little spears that launched themselves through my shirt, sticking me like a pincushion.

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It’s not the obvious long spines of the prickly pear you have to worry about

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It’s the little, fuzzy orange glochids that do the most damage

Luckily, I had a companion with sharp eyes and a nifty pair of of Uncle Bill’s tweezers. She spent a good five minutes plucking all the tiny spines out. And then, a short distance down the trail, another few minutes getting the ones she’d missed, the ones irritatingly still stuck to shirt and skin. We were still finding stray soldiers an hour later.

It wasn’t my only close encounter with glochids on our November trip. One day, I, found a few stuck mysteriously in the top of my head, despite wearing a hat and not falling on my noggin. Good thing I’m bald up there.

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The up-close saguaro spines have a lulling, geometric pattern to them

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Instant Backcountry Meals: Heresy or Simple Efficiency?

Boil, stir and serve: Instant backcountry dinner

Boil, stir and serve: Instant backcountry dinner

Over many years of backpacking and other mountain adventures, I’ve participated in a lot of group dinners where you take turns preparing supper. And these meals can get quite elaborate, to the point where you feel obliged to live up to the delicious organic chicken penne with homemade ragu sauce the person made the night before. Which means spending a lot of time preparing and dehydrating the meal at home, then rehydrating it in camp, stirring endlessly to keep things from burning to bottom of the stainless steel pot and timing everything to be hot at once.

There's no beating this homemade chile. But it's a lot of work, with two stoves going in camp

There’s no beating this homemade chile. But it’s a lot of work, with two stoves going in camp

But as I get older and wiser (lazier?), I’m increasingly tempted to go quick and easy. And if that means not living up to the competition, so be it.

So, you can spend your winters preparing and dehydrating meals for the summer’s backpacks and canoe trips or the spring’s ski traverses. Or you can let someone else do the work for you.

The secret is going instant, i.e. pouring boiling water over various ingredients, maybe simmering a bit and letting sit for a few minutes. Voila! Dinner in five minutes.

I know “instant” is heresy in some backcountry circles, perhaps stemming from the days of cup-of-soups and quick ramens laced with artificial ingredients and MSG. But now, with a wee bit of searching and ingenuity, you can concoct quick meals that are both healthy and quite tasty. And it’s a lot cheaper than buying packaged backcountry meals.

The other day, for example, I prepared a quick black bean dish based mainly on ingredients from my local health food store. I took a cup each of instant black beans and instant, organic brown rice flakes, added a handful of freeze-dried peas and a teaspoon of red chile powder for zip. In camp, I poured all this into about three cups of boiling water in a non-stick aluminum pot, stirred in a package of coconut milk power, let sit for a few minutes and served with grated parmesan cheese. The result was a flavourful meal for two hungry hikers, three with smaller appetites.

By contrast, here's my instant black bean supper ingredients, ready to be boiled and served

By contrast, here’s my instant black bean supper ingredients, ready to be boiled and served

Sure, the consistency kind of resembled porridge. But the good thing about working up a hearty appetite in the great outdoors is everything tastes a little better than at home. And if it saves me many hours of labour, I say sign me up.

And the hungry customer isn't complaining... at least not to my face

And this hungry customer isn’t complaining… at least not to my face