A Game Changer- Pack Rafting Through Canyon Country

 

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Day ten of our desert jaunt, and I felt somewhat exhausted. I slowly sipped my coffee while I packed to go boating. It wasn’t making much sense at the time. We had spent the previous nine days hiking, canyoneering, and ruin-hunting all over the deserts of Utah and Arizona. Now, we were boating? I didn’t spot any lakes or rivers. I tried to be judicious in what I plunked into my pack. For desert backpacking, I can go light and fast. An extra shirt, some undies, and a pack towel. I was set. Now, where would I stow my packraft?

My four buddies and I awoke to the desert sun and rallied for what we hoped would be a grand adventure.   For years, the canyons of the Grand Staircase Monument have beckoned hikers, backpackers, and explorers. It was our turn. I felt more like an explorer than a captain on this day. I was the leader. It was my idea to take these lightweight boats to Lake Powell in an attempt to connect some canyons otherwise impossible to explore. I hoped a mutiny wasn’t in the cards. Each of us spied our small stuff sacks with an Alpacka boat obviously crammed inside.   I buckled the stuff sack to my backpack and then attached the paddles to the side. I was ready. We were ready.

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Packrafts have been around for a while. No, not the sleek, lightweight ones of today’s outdoor scene, but smaller rafts used for travel and survival. Smaller rafts were stowed in World War II planes in case of an emergency water landing. In the 1950s, an expedition rafted down Copper Canyon in Mexico to become the first packraft descent by an American team using rafts from an Air Force plane. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Thor Tingey explored the Alaskan wilderness by boat. His adventure in the Brooks Range prompted him to ask his mother to help him design and construct a solid, capable, and lightweight whitewater raft. Sheri Tingey assisted him and in the process founded Alpacka Raft Company.

One of our buddies, Barb, who couldn’t join the next adventure because of an ankle injury, snapped a few pictures of us; we appeared to be idiots headed into desert canyons with paddles strapped to our packs with the hope of finding water. Feeling upbeat, we waved goodbye to Barb and dropped into a canyon adjacent to the Hole in the Rock Road. I cautiously watched my step; I was hiking in Chaco sandals anticipating that we would be playing in water for the next three days. Right? The canyon was like many canyons in southern Utah. It was filled with rock and sand and fitted with short-sided walls. We continued the march. I learned to hike in a rhythm while backpacking/mountaineering and living in the Tetons. Hike for 45-60 minutes, and then take a 10-15 minute rest. My buddies were cool with that routine; we stopped to rest under a somewhat shady alcove. No visible water.  Not yet, at least. We marched on….

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I turned the corner and noticed cottonwood trees and willows growing. Water had to be close. Sure enough, after another bend in the sandstone canyon, we saw our first pool of water. Now, anyone who has hiked any desert understands the appreciation of finding water. We observed the spring water flowing from the rock and wondered if this was the beginning of a stream that would lead us to Lake Powell. Fifteen minutes later, we discovered our answer-no; the water had dried up and evaporated. We continued hiking the sandy, rocky, canyon floor. The walls of the canyon drastically rose. Red rock and desert varnish started to appear and so too the water.   Gleefully, the guys splashed water on their faces to cool off while I used my steriPEN to sterilize my Nalgene bottle filled with water.

This part of the canyon was lined with cottonwoods, which looked like they were planted by a gardener because of their perfect spacing. The canyon walls rose, and water flowed at a more consistent rate. Our sense of wonderment and discovery heightened as we hiked around each bend in the canyon. The sandstone walls were situated only about seven feet apart, which constricted our path. Would we be stopped?

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Shane, a professional photographer, watched the light dance off the walls and waited for his shot. The rest of us gawked at the enormous sandstone walls and alcoves. The canyon became a desert oasis. Cottonwoods, bulrushes, flowers, and anything that could get its roots to the water source bloomed and displayed green-leaves.  Brian yelled, “I think I found the lake!” Yep, the backwaters shimmered in the afternoon light. We dropped our packs and cautiously wadded while we checked the depth. Without incident, we waded under the tallest alcove I had ever seen. It was 500+ plus feet high; we felt insignificant. We backtracked through the water to make camp, while Brian swam.

After a good night’s sleep, Ed asked: “Mike, what are you doing?”

“I am blowing up the boat.   Or, should I say filling up the boat?”, I replied.

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Alpacka rafts have a unique way to be inflated: fill a nylon bag with air and then push that air down into the boat. It’s simple, efficient, and lightweight. The others began to rise and somewhat shine. Coffee was made, and our bags were packed. After all, this is what we came for…to packraft. We had done a good deal of packing and hiking yesterday, and now it was time for rafting. The “plan” was simple. We would float down the canyon to the mouth of Lake Powell (once the Escalante River) and paddle down river/lake to Davis Canyon. Off we went. My shoulders thanked me when I set my pack between my feet; I felt much lighter. We paddled through the muck and junk of the backwaters; soon enough, we paddled out into the caribbean blue waters of Lake Powell.

The views were captivating and incredible, but also unnatural. Caribbean blue waters should not be in the desert; but after years and years, the sediments settled in the otherwise sandy waters leaving clear blue, simply stunning water. In the distance, I spotted something along the canyon wall. I paddled closer to investigate and realized I was looking at a set of Moki Steps from the Ancient Ones, Ancestral Puebloans.   These steps were chiseled out of the porous sandstone walls to enable the Ancient Ones to travel up and down the canyons. My guess was that these Moki steps allowed access to the Escalante River. Water was precious and needed daily.

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All of us got into a rhythm on the water. We were the captains of our own vessels. I paddled the water and appreciated the solitude, splendor, and grandeur of canyon country. The canyon continued to twist and turn. Many times I could not see the correct path until the very last minute when I needed to maneuver left or right. Finally, in the distance, I spotted the canyon marker floating in the middle of the lake. The park service placed buoys to mark the canyons so people who boat up from the lake know their exact location. It was a good, “You are here” marker. We beached the rafts, savored a quick snack, and jumped in the lake for a refreshing swim.

Lake Powell is a reservoir created by the Glen Canyon Dam in Page, Arizona, and includes over 2,000 miles of shoreline. Some of the major waterways that create Lake Powell are the San Juan, Dirty Devil, Colorado, and the Escalante rivers. We paddled down the Escalante, but it was no river. It was a large turquoise blue lake with no apparent current. We battled a little headwind, as we approached the buoy that marked Davis Canyon. With a right hand (starboard, in boat terms) turn, we paddled and soon were in yet another, “Oh my God, this is gorgeous” spot.

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“Would you look at that!” Shane yelled out. We all strained our necks to gaze up at La Gorge Arch directly above us. Ed called out as he beached his packraft: “I am going to hike up to the opening—arch.” The rest of us paddled around the corner in the canyon and saw Ed poke his head out of the arch. The receding water of the lake has uncovered these marvelous, jaw-dropping places. The canyon walls constricted the smooth waters once again. Soon our paddles hit bottom, and we ran into a dry riverbed.

Our feet touched Terra Firma once again, and we began our transition to backpackers. We deflated the boats with a few simple valve releases and started to pack up. Within an hour, we shouldered our packs and hiked up Davis Canyon. Boaters from long ago carved their names in the alcove walls where we now examined the graffiti.  Why do some insist on carving their names no matter the location? Bill from Texas, really?   Yes, I would guess with the lake 40-50 feet higher long ago, the alcove served as a wonderful campsite. We trudged through the sand to make our way to the far end of the alcove. A stunning waterfall impeded our up-canyon progress. We switchbacked up the sand dune and skirted the waterfall. The crystal clear water cascaded over a slickrock lip to an enormous pool of water lined with green, lush willows. The canyons of Glen Canyon still share their secrets to the desert wanderer.

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Our feet led us further up Davis Canyon; our eyes looked for a horse trail—the sign of our exit out. The horse trail is infamous for being the place where Everett Ruess’s horses were found when he disappeared in 1934. He was an artist and a desert wanderer whose horses were found in Davis Canyon, but he was not. He has never been found, and his mysterious disappearance has generated some romantic, desert reads (Evert Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty and Finding Evert Ruess). I was on the lookout for one of his famous “Finding Nemo” signatures carved in the rock walls. Supposedly, there is one at the bottom of the horse trail. But, dinner called; and so I trekked back to camp to boil water and get my bivy ready for the night. We set camp next to a stunning, clear pool of water. We filtered water, talked “smart”, and imagined Evert’s life back in the late 30s. The canyon wrens and the frogs lulled us to sleep.

The following morning, we resumed hiking by 8am trying to beat the heat. We topped out around 9 on the rim of Davis Canyon, and I called my wife as a safety check. The view in this canyon country is wild: miles and miles of slickrock, a faint blue lake in the distance, and Navajo Mountain towering to the south in Arizona. I talked with my wife for a few minutes; then the group began to plan our jaunt back to our vehicles. We surely looked odd with paddles strapped to our packs, but we felt stoked on our accomplishment. As we walked across the desert landscape of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, the image of us hiking and rafting put a smile on my face. We reached the vehicles and celebrated with cold beers.

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Packrafting is a game changer. The rafts are lightweight and easy to pack—they allow the traveler limitless opportunities to connect canyons and waterways. Can’t imagine any route possibilities right now? I would encourage you to grab a map of Utah and let your imagination wander. I am…

Author’s Note:

I’m not fan of the creation of Lake Powell, Reservoir Powell, Lake Foul, etc. However, I don’t think it’s going anywhere. So, I do enjoy the recreational opportunities it provides. I purposely did not include any technical jargon about packrafts in this article. Why? I am inexperienced. I will say that our Alpacka Rafts were outstanding and worked flawlessly. The Alpacka Company was great to work with, and I always support a somewhat local company (Mancos, Colorado). Feel free to research and ask questions of them at alpackaraft.com

 

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