We park our vehicles a short distance off the Forest Road 300, a few miles west of the turnoff to Woods Canyon Lake. As usual, this Payson Packer group will often forego hiking trails to reach an objective seldom visited by the average Rim Country hiker.
It’s 8:30 on this late August morning and the air is cool and moist from yesterday’s monsoon storm. The humidity cloaks us in a damp shroud. Above, cottony clouds drift by in the open spaces between towering Douglas firs and ponderosa pines, a portent of the afternoon’s thundering stratocumulus behemoths.
We begin our hike through the wooded terrain and soon enter a small grove of aspens, some 50 feet high and 6 feet around. This is probably not old-growth forest, but it’s as close as one is likely to see in Rim Country. The debris of the aging trees litters the ground and an earthy whiff of decay rises all around.
Our group is evenly split between men and women, all experienced hikers well-conditioned for the eight-mile jaunt. Alas, I have been absent for a while: This is my first hike in over two months. I remind myself of this as we begin to crawl over several downed trees and down into steep ravines. I tell myself that it’s not too late to return to the cars, but I know that’s not going to happen.
After four miles of bushwhacking, with short intervals on fire trails and roads, we begin our descent to the shores of Bear Canyon Lake. I’m overwhelmed with how much it reminds me of high country lakes I often visited in Colorado. The water is dark green, even near the shore; indicative of its depth. Trout surface and slap the water with their tails. Otherwise, the silence is soothing.
Eventually, we round the south end of the lake and approach a rocky point where we will stop for some rest and a snack. Several boulders provide us with forest chairs and tables for our rest stop. After a few minutes enjoying our break, our reverie is suddenly broken by a clap of thunder from a flash of lightning that crashes to the ground across the inlet. It is time to move on as dark, broiling clouds develop along the ridges to the east, with several miles to go before we loop back to our vehicles.
Our luck holds as the storm front slides away from us, save for a few, fat raindrops. We eventually regain the cars, with help from the GPS devices carried by our leaders. I am tired and sore, but I know I’ve done my body a world of good today.
Hiking with the Z group is not for everyone — especially, if you’re used to well-marked trails and easy routes. However, if you want to have an opportunity to set foot on a piece of forest that feels like it’s never experienced the sole of hiking boot before; it’s more likely to happen on a Z hike. For me, that’s what it’s all about.