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JT27, 7/22/2011

Date:  7/22/2011

Participants:  Paul Caraher, Pete Carlson, Patrick McCurdy, Tom Mahood

General search area:  Lower Covington Flat trailhead to southerly rim and slopes of  Smith Water Canyon

Rationale for searching this area:

Having exhausted most of the area in Lang Canyon and also that between Quail Mountain and the Juniper Flats trailhead, we turned our attention to the next logical area, between Quail Mountain and Smith Water Canyon.  Due to its remoteness it had only undergone limited searching during the initial search.  Another attraction was there were some sizable areas with Serin Drive cell tower coverage.  This was especially true for the southerly rim of Smith Water Canyon, which was high enough to be clearly seen by the cell tower.  Adding to that, the distance was around 11.5 miles from the cell tower, which in terms of accuracy, was fairly close to the recorded ping distance of 10.6 miles.  We didn’t have any theories at this point why Bill could have ended up in such a remote area, but the cell coverage and distance, as well as the previous ground coverage, made us think it would be a good idea.

Impressions of area and findings:

Wow, just wow!  The southerly slopes of Smith Water are just really nasty.  If it wasn’t covered with large fields of rock, it was covered with brush.  Very rugged terrain.  Once on top the southerly rim, there were reasonable open flat spots, but getting up there was a challenge.  Our route took us along the very rim, and in parts it was fairly sharp-edged, comprised of rock piles.  Superb and extensive views from there, however.

Coverage level:

Fairly low.  Even though we often split as four individuals to cover as much ground as possible, there were so many possible routes it was impossible to cover it all.  We did focus on the most obvious and attractive routes, however, those to which someone unfamiliar with the terrain would naturally gravitate to.


This search came to be known, not so fondly, as the “Smith Water Death March”.  To start, we were doing this at the end of July, which is pretty damn hot.  To counter that, we started fairly early and carried much more than our usual water supplies. (For a decidedly whining version of this simple trip, see Patrick’s account here. You’d think I was trying to kill them or something….).

We were just starting into the head of Smith Water Canyon when we noticed a set of large animal tracks in the sand in the wash, heading the same way we were.  Maybe a really big dog?  Uh, no.  These were feline.  Big feline.  Too big for a Bobcat.  These were Mountain Lion.  Wasn’t that just swell?  As if Rattlesnakes weren’t bad enough.  Then somebody mentioned the plan called for us to split up as we ascended and then descended the southerly slopes of Smith Water Canyon.  That was a happy thought.  We looked around at each other, try to figure out who was going to be the Cat chow.  I thought Paul looked the tastiest.

Despite the “interesting” wildlife, we kept to the plan and ascended separately, each probably thrashing about and making a lot more noise than was really necessary.  Rejoining at the top, we found a flat, clear area acres in size and saw Quail Mountain apparently just a short distance to the south.  It didn’t look like it would be a difficult route to get there (but we suspected otherwise).

Although the temperature had increased, running northeasterly along the rim of Smith Water kept Canyon us in the breeze and comfortable.  Somewhere along the way, Paul discovered his GPS was missing, having slipped off his pack strap.  Although he didn’t want us to waste time looking for it, we backtracked using our traveled path recorded on our other GPSs.  It was an expensive item which we didn’t want to leave behind, and it was about damn time we found something useful.  After  about 15 minutes there it was, lying in a flat sandy spot. This earned us a free lunch from Paul at Pappy and Harriet’s in Pioneertown.

As we reached our descent point, the area got incredibly rocky again.  We split up and went our separate ways, descending 1,000’+ into Smith Water Canyon below.  It was all various flavors of ugly, but we eventually made it down without mayhem.  We also discovered the bottom of the canyon was much hotter, with no wind.  Wonderful!

We knew it would be an uphill slog to get back to the head of the canyon where we first entered it.  We didn’t know just how special it would end up being.  I had previously researched Smith Water Canyon and knew about the dry waterfall we’d have to go up, so that was no big deal.  And I knew it was described as “lush”, as there are bits of water in the canyon bottom, year round.   But nobody mentioned the friggin’ brush (Acacia??) that lined the canyon bottom in a couple segments.  Brush, you ask?  After traveling through all that rough terrain why would a little brush be a concern?  Because this was the sort of brush that grabbed onto you and ripped the crap out of you!  I’m talkin’ chunks of flesh here!  There was a sort of use trail that worked its way through the brush, but at times it disappeared and left us to our own devices to push through.  And we were tired and hot.

As we reached a point about half way through the grove from hell, Paul came up from the rear.  He looked like he had been in a bar fight, and not on the winning side.  He was bleeding profusely from his forehead, having been attacked by the devil shrubbery.  While this was a disturbing sight to some of us, it absolutely delighted Patrick.  You see, in his normal life, Patrick is a Physician’s Assistant (“almost a Doctor” as I like to say).  This gave him an excuse to practice on Paul.  Out came the medical supplies and Patrick spent the next 10 minutes geeking out.  In fact, Paul’s wounds weren’t bad, forehead cuts just bleed a lot.  But hey, it gave us (me, actually) a chance to rest.

Pushing through the rest of the disenchanted forest, things improved to where we were merely hiking uphill in sand in 90+ temperatures.  By this time I had burned through the last of my 5 liters of water, and was hanging back with Paul, who was feeling like me.  Patrick and Pete, on the other hand, were having a fine old time, chatting and laughing just outside a good rock’s throw ahead of us.  Finally, just after 4 PM we reached the vehicles, having been on this death march since around 8:30 that morning.

Although was the toughest search we had done to date, we covered some very remote terrain and got into areas no others had been.  We also had a look toward the region between Smith Water Canyon and Quail Mountain, which had promise and had only been lightly searched.

GPS mileage submitted for this trip:  23.7 miles

Cumulative GPS mileage submitted to date:  402.2 miles

JT27 GPS tracks  (T. Mahood)

Hmmmm….I don’t think we’re alone…Here kitty, kitty, kitty….  (T. Mahood)

Paul, looking off toward vehicle in far distance  (T. Mahood)

Wanker lunch break at the ridge crest  (T. Mahood)

Pete at the very top with a 360 degree view of Joshua Tree  (T. Mahood)

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