Sue Ochs

Sue Ochs, hike leader for Temple Emanuel of Tempe’s hiking club, shows off her fanny pack and first aid/survival kit.

A crowd of more than 30 people milled about under an awning at the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in Gilbert last Saturday afternoon. Volunteers with Temple Emanuel of Tempe’s hiking club carefully laid out a veritable cornucopia of snacks and drinks as kids ran around.

Trip leader Sue Ochs, decked out in hiking gear — including a fanny pack with two large water bottles, a first aid/survival kit and a cellphone — got her bearings while examining a map. It might have seemed like overkill since today’s hike was only going to be a mile long with negligible elevation gain, but Ochs, a retired librarian and veteran of the outdoors who used to lead hikes for the Sierra Club, likes to be prepared.

Ochs folded her map and raised her hiking stick above her head, calling the crowd to attention. She then reviewed the basic rules of the hike.

“We don’t normally have quite so many people,” Ochs said, as the group began the trek down the dirt path next to the lake. “The biggest problem I have in Arizona is making sure people know about hiking on the gravelly soils.”

The group hugged the side of the trail to allow three horses to pass by as Ochs detailed other essentials for desert hiking, such as bringing plenty of water, always having a hat and remembering to apply sunscreen even on cloudy days.

Ochs has been leading hikes for Temple Emanuel since 2009. It all started when she asked the synagogue’s then-rabbi, Andrew Strauss, if she should start a hiking club. He responded with an enthusiastic yes, and even suggested a few books, such as “God in the Wilderness” by Rabbi Jamie S. Korngold, to help Ochs integrate elements of Judaism into the trips.

At one point on the hike, Ochs stopped the group to point out three large wooden posts topped with square plywood platforms — nesting spots for osprey. Ochs noted that the riparian preserve was an excellent spot for bird-watching, and even with a large, boisterous group, a skein of Canada geese could be seen descending onto the lake while cranes and egrets scanned the shallows along the lake’s edge.

Normally, the hikes take place on Sunday mornings and run 3 to 8 miles — considerably more strenuous then this evening’s leisurely jaunt. The standard Sunday-morning crowd is smaller with fewer children, since the synagogue’s kids are generally in Hebrew school at that time.

But each February for the past three years, Ochs has gathered a group for a short hike around the lake followed by a Havdalah service. Rabbi Dean Shapiro, the synagogue’s senior rabbi, joined the group for the hike and service.

Another attendee was Arizona State University professor Ariel Anbar, of the School of Earth and Space Exploration, whose appreciation of the natural world, he suggested, ties into his career choice.

“What it is that leads somebody to become a scientist?” Anbar asked. “It’s not about facts and figures and all that sort of stuff. It’s much more about wonder and amazement.”

Though the club’s summer hiatus is just around the corner, Ochs is confident the club will keep on trekking, and growing, for many years to come.

“I am passionate about creating community and bringing people together,” Ochs said. “I thought that this was one thing I knew about that I could contribute. There are new members to the temple, people who rejoin and people who are recently retired, and this has been a great way for them to gather and get to know each other.” JN