Saturday, May 18, 2024

By Boot and by Boat: The Lower Escalante

I've realized something: Lake Powell is my frenemy. 

In 1999, my uncle spearheaded a family reunion trip on Lake Powell. Through no fault of our own, we were somehow assigned a pair of truly ancient, decrepit houseboats. The air conditioning failed on both boats. Then the toilets stopped working, and an entire extended family ended up using the 'woods' for the better part of a week.

I put a fishhook through my cousin's eyelid. My dad tore a layer of skin off the bottom of his foot. A storm whipped up one night, and my uncle spent a frantic few minutes re-anchoring the houseboat, which was doing its best to escape its moorings. My sister and several cousins got badly sunburned on one side of their faces, a la Harvey Dent, from early morning sunshine while sleeping on the roof of the boat. 

In short, it was a terrific trip, total gong show, and a decades-long object of family lore and nostalgia. And it was my first exposure to the red rocks of southern Utah. I was transfixed. It arguably set the stage for my eventual move to the Beehive State.

Yet there's a darker side to Lake Powell. Glen Canyon Dam generates only a negligible amount of power. It loses boatloads of water to evaporation and sandstone leakage. It drowned some truly incredible landscapes - Glen Canyon, along with the lower reaches of the Escalante and San Juan rivers. And the lake is a pathetic vestige of its former self. Back in '99, the reservoir was nearly full, but it's been steadily dropping ever since. An ugly bathtub ring, some forty feet above the current water level, mars the slickrock that surrounds the reservoir. Unsightly silt benches clog the mouth of canyons. In short, Powell is a pathetic, stinking mess. Lake Foul, indeed.

Not all is lost though. As the water levels have dropped, the lower reaches of side canyons have begun to restore themselves. Flash floods clear out the silt and debris. Maidenhair ferns have begun to re-grow on shady canyon walls. Special spots, buried under the floodwaters for decades, have emerged afresh. The river will win eventually, and Glen Canyon Dam - a classic monolith to twentieth-century hubris - will lose. The only question is how long it will take.

Three Days of Wandering

I'd never been to the lowest canyons of the Escalante River, below where Lake Powell's floodwaters begin to back up. After all, a side-canyon that dead-ends into a lake is a one-way street... unless you have a packraft, of course! I looped three canyons into one loop-type substance over a three-day period in May. I was a bit worried about the heat (temperatures were forecast to hit 90 each day), but the canyons offered ample shade, and I was wet virtually the entire time - either splashing through canyons, or paddling on the lake itself. 

The hike begin with a an easy jaunt down a well-worn trail, past a spectacular arch. Evidently, the arch is everyone's turnaround point, because downstream became a mild bushwhack at points. I spent all morning heading downstream, encountering at one point a brief section of narrows with a mandatory swimmer. I suppose I could have blown up my packraft and paddled the fifty feet, but I opted to just swim it. Ninety degree heat for the win!

I passed a waterfall, well below Powell's high-water mark. I even found a few cottonwoods that have started to grow in the years since the lake dropped. Finally, I reached the lake and transitioned to packraft mode.

Thankfully, the afternoon was almost dead-calm, a welcome anomaly in a land of much slickrock and sparse vegetation. I paddled downstream, past my target canyon, to check out Cathedral in the Desert a few hours south. Inundated by floodwaters for almost all of the past fifty years, Cathedral in the Desert has re-emerged in the last couple years, due to falling lake levels. In the 50s, it was a magical place. Owing to its recent rebirth, it's still on the mend. To be honest, it smells like decaying gunk. Ferns are growing, but it'll take some time before it recaptures its former glory. Hopefully lake levels stay low enough to keep it from being re-drowned.

After fighting a bit of later-afternoon speedboat chop, I finally made it back to my target canyon, a seldom-visited gulch most notable for being the last confirmed location of disappeared 1930's vagabond Everett Ruess. The bottom of the canyon contained the single deepest alcove I've ever seen. Words cannot do it justice. It was enormous, and even partially flooded, still majestic.

Near where reservoir gave way to solid ground, I made camp for the night, after fourteen hours of hiking and paddling. It took me about five minutes to fall asleep.

The next morning started out auspiciously, with an easy hike up to a not-particularly-spectacular arch. That's where things got interesting. Two miles of thick brush lay between me and my exit from the canyon. The canyon is seldom-visited, but in reports I've collected over the years, I've noticed a trend of increasing complaints over the years. The brush is getting thicker.

Yeah, it wasn't fun. Not every step was a thrash, but much of it was, and occasionally it was horrific. The entire stretch is a continuous series of beaver dams. Combine deep water, stinking mud, and sometimes-impenetrable riparian vegetation, and you've got a recipe for a frustrating couple of miles.

By and by, I finally reached my exit, an old cattle trail near where Ruess had left his burros corralled before disappearing without a trace. The exit itself was surprisingly straightforward, a gem of a route in an otherwise-hostile environment. I followed my compass for a couple miles overland, through Navajo sandstone domes, before dropping into my third and final canyon via an enormous sand dune. I was certainly glad to be descending, rather than ascending it! 

This canyon doesn't even have a proper name - just a number, as if it were a Swiss account. And like a Swiss account, its secrets are deep indeed. Incredibly, the entire thing was passable, and its amazing narrows stretched on for miles. Deep-red sandstone walls soared hundreds of feet above me, blotting out the searing midday sun. I followed the canyon downstream, underneath incredible alcoves, to where it flows into Lake Powell. 

I won't even try and describe what I found down there, only that physics seems to be broken, and Euclidean geometry ceases to apply in canyon country. An abandoned meander has divided a vestigial arm from the main body of Lake Powell, and it took me hours of pondering to reconstruct how this happened. Ask me about this, if you're really curious about a deeply weird and difficult-to-describe phenomenon. 

I ventured back upstream, the way I came, past the sand dune, and made camp near an amazing alcove underneath a stately cottonwood. The water ceased flowing around here, so I tanked up with four liters, the better to quench my intense thirst. Despite the presence of continuous flowing water for the past two days, the heat left me a bit dehydrated.

The day's heat lingered well into the evening. I played peekaboo with the moon as it flirted with the canyon lip above me. Sleep came easy once again, after another thirteen hours of almost continuous motion.

I hiked the last few miles to my car the next morning, the canyon having transitioned to a dry slot at this point. I bumped into one impassible dryfall, easily bypassed by a faint climber's trail. A couple miles later I hit the dirt road, where I walked a couple miles back to my car.

While the reservoir has certainly marred the character of the lower Escalante, there were still plenty of amazing things to see. Many of them are nameless, poorly-documented, or enigmatic. A little planning, a lot of adaptability, and dropping lake levels made this an unforgettable trip. A weekend well-spent! 

Saturday, May 4, 2024

Drawing Triangles

I bought a packraft last year. The purpose wasn't to tackle intense whitewater, but rather to open up new route-creation possibilities.

I liken the Colorado Plateau to a circulatory system. The major rivers are its arteries; the small side-canyons are its capillaries. A packraft allows me to visit both the arteries and the capillaries in a single journey, giving me a better understanding and appreciation of the underlying unity of the landscape. 

My friend Paul refers to these kind of trips as 'triangles'. Hike down one canyon, float a section of river, and hike up a different canyon back to the car. Everyone loves backpacking loops (as opposed to out-and-backs); packrafts greatly increase loop possibilities. I did my first Utah triangle this weekend, and to say I'm hooked would be an understatement. Despite some gusty winds and occasionally choppy surface conditions, the trip was a complete success.

The loop began with a quiet roadwalk down into a canyon. I only encountered one vehicle along the way - a badly out-of-place Ford Escape on a jeep road. No word as to whether its oil pan survived the journey. Clear, flowing water was a welcome treat, as were the shady cottonwoods. 

There wasn't a great launch point where the canyon met the Green River, so I ended up sliding down a muddy cutbank and taking a leap of faith into my boat. It worked, but wasn't particularly dignified. Then again, there's nothing graceful about entering or exiting a packraft, especially since I have the athletic skills of an earthworm.

The float down the river was mostly uneventful. Peak runoff is only a few weeks away, and the Green was moving at a pretty good clip. I took plenty of float-breaks, and still managed to do 12 river miles in less than 3 hours. A few strong gusts of wind added a little extra spice. And of course, the scenery along the way was terrific.

At my takeout point, the high river had formed a narrow lagoon at the mouth of the side-canyon. There, sheltered from the wind by tamarisk, I paddled a decent ways upstream before reaching dry ground. My boat dried instantly in the intense afternoon sunshine. I met an Ontario couple who were rafting the river (in big ole river-runner craft). They were intrigued by my three-pound boat-in-a-backpack, but horrified to see me sip brownish river water (which tasted fine).

A short distance up-canyon, I visited one of the famous Julien inscriptions. Denis Julien, a French-Canadian fur trapper, left his mark in several sites in eastern Utah in the 1830's. This particular inscription is perhaps the best-known and best-preserved of the bunch. Among other things, it provides evidence that he used a sailboat to travel up Cataract Canyon and the Green River, which makes him the first known European to make the journey in either direction. By happenstance, I visited on the 188th anniversary of the day of his inscription - May 3, 1836.  

After hiking for a couple hours, I made a nice camp on a flat bench adjacent to the wash. The next morning, I ventured further up-canyon to check out a significantly older (and cooler) piece of rock art. Of course, there were several smaller panels along the way.

I climbed out of the canyon on an old rancher's trail, now somewhat perilously eroded. It worked for humans, but no cow in its right mind would use such a dilapidated trail nowadays! I finished with a short scramble up over the final rock lip to my waiting car and a jug of clear water that somehow tasted worse than the chocolate milk from the river. 

I'm still in the very nascent stages of packrafting development, but I can foresee how many possibilities this additional mode of human-powered travel will open up. I suppose it's possible I'll outgrow my flatwater boat, but for the time being, I'm having a blast learning this new skill.