It had been over 12 years since I'd last camped out in the Secret Mountain Wilderness. The last time had been unintentional. It was my first year at NAU, and my camping experience to date was limited to a few trips with friends. I had been planning to do a day hike, and packed accordingly. My sidekick Riley dog was keeping me company.
I had been shooting deep inside of Secret Canyon long into the day, wanting to capture the evening light, probably staying longer than I should have. By the time I had packed up to head back, darkness was quickly approaching. The trail became hard to follow. After an hour or two of trekking, I ran into something that filled me with fear - a patch of snow alongside the trail. I would have remembered passing something like that on the way in. Where was I? I must have taken a wrong turn down a side canyon. With the cold setting in and my body becoming hungry and weak, I decided to build a fire to rest through the night. The trail back would be easier to find again in the light of day.
Even with the fire it was a long night. Every hour or two I was awoken by uncontrolled shivering, reminding me to add more fuel to the fire. Sounds of creatures foraging throughout the night could be heard beyond my fire's light. Then I remember the full moon rising above the canyon walls, pouring its blue light into the valley, my dog curled up in a ball next to me.
With the new day came a sense of relief. I was ok. Before long I was back on the trail home, resolute in the decision that I wouldn't find myself that unprepared in the wilderness again. Essentials like thermals, iodine capsules, and extra batteries for the flash light don't leave my backpack. I now make a habit of bringing more food than I think I'll need, and try to always bring some kind of map (although sometimes just a screenshot or photo on my camera will do the trick). But more than the preparedness, this experience changed my relationship with nature. It was a reminder that humans evolved living close with nature, without all the modern conveniences we've become accustomed to, and it gave me a greater sense of self-reliance. I'm appreciative for those lessons the mishap taught me.
Secret Canyon Gulch
Now coming back here ten years later I'm a bit more prepared. It feels good to return here after all these years. It's a beautiful area. Dry Creek Road leading out to the trailhead had deteriorated pretty badly since last time, largely due to the increase in off-roading tours out this way. A 4x4 is definitely required now, but the upside of that is the road limits the number of other hikers in the area. My jeep was the only vehicle parked at the trail head when I arrived.
My plan this time was to camp in Secret Canyon, then to backtrack in the morning, before hooking left up Dan Miller trail, then back down Bear Sign Canyon. After coming upon a fresh pile of bear poop marking the trail I decided to back track further down the canyon to set up camp. Having smoked salmon in my bag and no pepper spray made me a bit wary. The bear could have that upper part of the canyon. Being late October I expected the canyon to get pretty cold again. As night fell a cold wind began as cool air from above the plateau started flowing down the canyon. By 8pm I was curled up in my down bag, grateful for its warmth.