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. 




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