I am embarrassed to admit that, after several years of living in Utah, dozens of weeks spent in the western desert, and many nights dreaming away under a shelter slung between two juniper trees, I somehow managed to avoid reading Edward Abbey’s classic work, Desert Solitaire. That is, until a few weeks ago when, upon learning this fact, a friend demanded that I correct this travesty and made sure a copy found its way into my hands. As I lay in bed one February night in Montana, I began to read:
Off in the east an isolated storm is boiling over the desert, a mass of lavender clouds bombarding the earth with lightning and trailing curtains of rain. The distance is so great that I cannot hear the thunder. Between here and there and me and the mountains it’s the canyon wilderness, the hoodoo land of spire and pillar and pinnacle where no man lives, and where the river flows, unseen, through the blue-black trenches in the rock.
Reading our buddy Ed’s words stirred up thoughts of the desert that had been lying dormant ever since I left Utah four years ago. Like Goldie Wilson, the young busboy in Back to the Future who suddenly realizes that someday he is going to become mayor of Hill Valley, a smile came to my face as I said to myself, "River trip in a desert canyon. I like the sound of that."
For years I’ve heard stories about the eighty-mile stretch of the Escalante River above Lake Powell. Friends of mine who have spent their entire lives in Utah have remarked that of all the spectacular backcountry Utah has to offer (and there is plenty) this length of the Escalante ranks among the most enticing.
Andy Heath, a close friend and packraft owner, agreed that Escalante was an alluring destination. We immediately began poring over maps at the library in Bozeman and formulating an itinerary. Andy and I could only find a brief window this spring when our schedules would coincide. Late March was it, and we were confident that we could cover the roughly forty river miles between Fence Canyon and Coyote Gulch in four days.
Despite our optimism, there was one glaring problem with our plan – low water. As a matter of fact, when preparing for the trip, many of the people with whom we spoke cautioned us that what were planning could not be done. For starters, spring runoff would not be for another couple of weeks, if at all due to the disappointing winter snow pack. We were warned that to run it in March would mean having to walk (aka ‘raft-pack’) much of the canyon. Also, those not familiar with the Alpacka’s tough-as-nails reputation were skeptical as to whether our inflatable boats could survive the maze of sharp stones and thorny Russian olive thickets that higher water levels would normally cover. Upon requesting permits, the rangers looked at us with a certain degree of paternal concern, then explained that the river was only running at 1.6 cfs (no, 1.6 is not a typo). To their knowledge, no one had successfully run the river at that level.
At this point, the only information we had that contradicted the negative feedback we were receiving was a forum posting written by Sheri Tingey, inventor of the Alpacka raft. She claimed that contrary to conventional wisdom, 2 cfs was not only enough water to packraft the Escalante, it was actually ideal. Putting our faith and trust in Sheri’s experience above all else and hoping for a bit of rain, Andy and I thanked the rangers for their advice and asked for permits anyway. After showing us our three bailout options above Coyote Gulch, a semi-sarcastic "Have a nice walk," was the last thing we heard before heading out the door.
I find desert travel particularly conducive to generate rolling, rambling, and what some might even call philosophic thoughts, amateur though they may be. Like a flux capacitor surging at 1.21 gigawatts, I noticed the desert transporting my brain to the place where time moves at geological pace, thus altering (and lessening) my brain’s insistence on its own significance and notions of permanence. Reading Desert Solitaire, it is obvious that our buddy Ed had similar thoughts,
Alone in the silence, I understand for a moment the dread which many feel in the presence of primeval desert, the unconscious fear which compels them to tame, alter, or destroy what they cannot understand, to reduce the wild and prehuman to human dimensions. Anything rather than confront directly the antehuman, that other world which frightens not through danger or hostility but in something far worse – its implacable indifference.
Upon entering the canyon and seeing the first series of bends unfold before me, the thought came to my mind that our contemporary attitude towards wilderness conservation and preservation are narrow at best when applied to a land that is so jagged and unfinished. Encountering a place such as the Escalante River – a landscape constantly creating, destroying and re-creating itself – I realized how futile efforts would be to preserve it as it is at this moment in time. Rather, what is worth preserving are the natural, unimpeded processes by which the earth shapes itself free of unnecessary human intervention. Or, to put it into terms Back to the Future aficionados will understand, it is not the Hill Valley clock tower that is worth saving, as the crazy lady would have us believe, but rather the chance for lightning to strike it.
As we made the transition from foot to packraft, the thoughts continued, although subtler and more serene as the energy of the river began to move our bodies and gear. Floating next to the towering walls and meandering twists, this canyon and my packraft collaborated to remind me that change is necessary, inevitable, and utterly fascinating when I sit back and watch it do its thing.
Those who have explored this area before warned Andy and I to watch out for quicksand. Our buddy Ed is among those offering cautionary advice:
Ordinarily it is possible for a man to walk across quicksand, if he keeps moving. But if he stops, funny things begin to happen. The surface of the quicksand, which may look as firm as the wet sand on an ocean beach, begins to liquefy beneath his feet. He finds himself sinking slowly into a jelly-like substance, soft and quivering, which clasps itself around his ankles with the suction power of any viscous fluid. Pulling out one foot, the other foot necessarily goes down deeper, and if a man waits too long, or cannot reach something solid beyond the quicksand, he may soon find himself trapped.
Andy and I discovered within a few hours of putting in our boats that quicksand is indeed a sporadic reality in the canyon. Upon exiting the boats, our first steps on shore were often tentative ones, never fully sure if the ground would give way under our feet. On one occasion, Andy found his right leg buried up to his knee in goopy sand, with the left precariously balanced on his still-unanchored boat. Fortunately, an inflated packraft is excellent device to facilitate self rescue from quicksand (reason #19 why an Alpacka raft is way cooler than a Delorean), and we were soon laughing about the event.
Despite all the advanced warnings regarding getting stuck, the one warning we did not receive was to watch out for a different type of quicksand – the metaphorical kind that grabs your brain makes you not want to leave a place. During our float, Andy and I were so thoroughly captivated that we often talked about returning in a year or two to raft the entire eighty-mile stretch between the town of Escalante and Coyote Gulch. During that trip, we mused, we would take our time and explore as many side canyons and gulches along the way as we desired. Though exhilarating, the need to make good time in the shallow water prevented us from exploring beyond the main channel. As a result, the vast majority of the canyon’s secrets still remain a mystery to us, concealed behind the twisting labyrinth of walls, cracks, and bends… awaiting our inevitable return.
Hail to All Good Samaritans in Faded Silver Nissans
Its worth noting that there are definite advantages to reconfirming one’s shuttle plans when preparing for a rafting trip – especially in the desert. At the top of the list of advantages are avoiding the scenario whereupon one arrives at the end of the trail, out of food and short on water to find an empty parking lot. I can say for certain that there is a very distinct sinking feeling that takes place in the stomach upon arriving at said location and receiving a voicemail from your shuttler confirming your suspicions that he or she is indeed not coming to your rescue and that they are "sorry." Denial, anger, bargaining, and acceptance follow thereafter in short order.
I easily could explore the ways in which our predicament was like Marty McFly finding himself unexpectedly stuck in 1955 (November 5, to be exact) without a fully-operational time machine, but I can recognize a dead horse when I see one, so we’ll just move on. What I will say is that Andy and I found ourselves in the midst of quite the dilemma: stay put for who knows how long and hope someone offers us a ride back to our car or begin the long walk along a seldom-used desert road with unknown/doubtful access to drinking water.
While weighing the pros and cons of each decision, we were delighted to see an old, faded, silver Nissan truck approaching on the sandy road to the west. Tempering our excitement, we gingerly walked up to the man who exited, said hello, and asked him the predictable series of questions people in our situation would ask. As it turned out, the man was a former park ranger and understood our situation all too well. Not only did he offer us a ride back to our car, he actually handed us his keys and told us to drop it off when we were done retrieving our vehicle. I don’t recall his name, and I doubt he remembers ours, but two things are utterly clear to me after the event. Wow, were we incredibly lucky, and man, do I love Utah.
While Andy and I are proud to say that we successfully floated the river at 1.6 cfs with relatively few portages (two or three per day on average, of which a grand total of three were mandatory/unavoidable), Andy and I definitely found ourselves wishing for more water on multiple occasions. I will suggest that 1.6 cfs is the absolute bare minimum needed to navigate this river by packraft. Both a light load and a well-tempered boat are also essential under these conditions to maximize buoyancy. Our biggest obstacles faced while rafting were the barely submerged boulders and gravel bars. Each proved hard to spot and could halt progress entirely when encountered unexpectedly. We found that constant attention to river features and the picking of proper water channels were imperative to maintaining steady progress. In short, 1.6 cfs was barely do-able, 2.0 would have been nice, and above 2.5 luxurious.
As far as weather is concerned, March is definitely a shoulder season in southern Utah. As such, we encountered everything from snow to blazing sun. For those wishing to do a similar trip, this obviously means taking the necessary precautions and planning accordingly when preparing a gear list. Fires are both forbidden in and ill-suited for the Escalante River canyon due to the fragile ecosystem, so it is wise to consider a little extra insulation for night, especially if you are a cold sleeper. Fortunately, many items in a typical packrafting kit have multiple uses and can help lighten the load and offset the additional weight of the packraft itself. Some typical examples are as follows: First, an upside-down packraft makes for a luxurious sleeping pad for those of us six feet and under. As a result, a sleeping pad is unnecessary for many packrafting trips. Similarly, raft paddles break down easily and provide solid support for a tarp shelter. Andy and I brought a two person mid and supported it in this way. Finally, a quality dry top (an essential piece of gear at this time of year) negates the need for additional rain gear, so long as you don’t mind your legs being wet during the day.
Finally, though we are all conscious of the amount of weight we pack on our trips, I would encourage folks to consider bringing along some excerpts from Desert Solitaire to most any float in southern Utah. A pared-down paperback copy weighs only a couple of ounces, and there is something wonderful to be gained from hearing Abbey’s words read aloud at night, echoing off the same stone that inspired him to write.
After arriving at the trailhead and finding our shuttle curiously absent, Andy and Bill had to improvise and make friends with strangers. In the background is our Good Samaritan’s Nissan, which he generously let us use without a second thought. Thank you, thank you, thank you, good sir, wherever you are.