Saturday, November 26, 2011

Water in the desert

I've been out of town for over a month and am now getting back in the swing of things.  Time to spin up the boating fly wheel again and do more boating and boat building.
But before I post more boating news, I thought I would make a brief detour into the desert where I spent a good part of the last month. 
So what does a boat guy know about deserts?  Not much really, but I thought I would make some comments on desert survival, a skill that has something in common with survival anywhere, namely, paying attention to what's going on around you.
To survive in the desert, you need the same three things that you need anywhere, namely, food, water and shelter. So here it goes, my take on desert survival, part 1, water. The observations are based on locations in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts.
A desert, by definition is a place where there is little rainfall. However, it doesn't mean that there is no water in the desert at all.  It does rain in the desert occasionally especially at higher altitudes and if you know where to look, you might be able to find water.

This is a lava flow, a common feature of Western deserts.  No water is in evidence.  Even if it does rain here, the water disappears into cracks and becomes inaccessible.

However, right at the border of the lava flow were these sandstone formations.  Still no water in evidence.

But there were depressions in the surface of the sandstone that collected water during a recent rain.  If you were desperate, this water could keep you alive.  If you are carrying a water purifier, even better, but then, who walks around the desert with a water purifier?   
A pervasive feature of deserts are dry water courses.  You can plainly see that water has run here at some point and will again next time it rains.  But it isn't raining right now and the bed of the sometime water course is dry.  But oftentimes, the water has simply gone underground, and oftentimes, the dry stream bed crosses a section of impermeable bedrock that brings the water close to the surface.  If there is water close to the surface on a more or less permanent basis, water loving plants such as sedges or willows will grow there.  So keeping your eyes open for these plants might lead you to water.  You might have to dig to get at the water, but you might not have to dig far.
Animals can also be an indicator of water.  If you see tracks converging, they might lead you to a water source. Birds will also know where water is and will congregate there.  

The white diagonal streak is a sometime water course.  It looked dry, but then I noticed birds flocking to a dark spot right near a cliff, and sure enough, there was some surface water there.

Deserts will sometimes have rivers and creeks, especially near mountains which capture the rain at higher elevations and then drain into the valleys.
Here is the desert landscape at the Burro Creek campground in Arizona.  No water is in evidence here.

But a little ways downhill into the canyon there are plenty of water loving cottonwoods and willows.

And a little walk leads us to enough water to swim in.
Of course, the easiest way to find water in the desert is to know ahead of time where it is.  Before the advent of civilization, horseback travelers had to plan their routes to take advantage of water holes.  Nowadays, you just need to drive to the nearest filling station to get your big gulp of soda water.