Adrift on the Escalante

checking downstream for ha copyIt began with a single drop that fell from a darkening afternoon sky and slapped into the baked sandstone. It left a nickel sized stain that lingered a few seconds before evaporating, but then another fell, and another. The porous rock absorbed the drops and the features of the land turned darker and more colorful as they became saturated. And still the rain increased.

Suddenly, a blinding arc crossed the sky, before it faded, the concussion of thunder crashed into the Earth, shaking the ground and making the leaves on the shrubs quiver. The storm up till now was only the overture to the full symphony. The lightning had torn apart some invisible barrier in the brooding clouds, and suddenly, like a waterfall, the rain fell.

As quickly as the water came, it was destined to wane and disappear. The clouds will retreat and the sound of swallows nesting in the cliffs above will once again be heard over the gentle trickling spring that normally meanders down the canyon. An array of desert plants will presently spring up from patient seeds which waited dormant in the sand. There will be a flurry of animal activity, as the creatures that inhabit the ecosystem rush to take advantage of the infrequent deluge. In the end, the silent canyons will be a fraction of an inch deeper and more defined, and the damp rock and sand will again dry out and resume baking in the relentless sun- awaiting the next storm.

It seems, perhaps, a bit dramatic to paint such a picture when describing the relationship of water and earth in the vast deserts here in southern Utah. But the destructive and creative power of water here is, at least in the long term, very dramatic. Water truly defines the deserts in the Colorado drainage. It gives the land its form. It decides what species of plants and creatures may live, and what may not. Its presence is welcomed and feared. Its dearth is beautiful and deadly. Water in this region means creation and destruction- often simultaneously. There is rarely enough of it, until there is too much.

Nowhere, in the arid lands of Utah is this more exemplified than in the Escalante drainage. This long river canyon runs nearly a 150 mile course from its source in the washes and springs above the frontier town bearing its name to its confluence with the mighty Colorado, now hundreds of feet below the placid surface of Lake Powell. It descends over 3000 feet during its life cycle, changing from a trickle to a broad river twenty yards wide at the end. At its source, the channel can be jumped with a good run. By the half-way mark, the canyon is a maze of serpentine walls that block out the sun during much of the day.

The river has two colors- cocoa and mocha. It is nearly always muddy, as its work shaping the land never ends. I’ve seen it run clear at the end of summer when its volume is halved and halved again, but this is quickly changed by even a brief rain anywhere upstream. The water feels thick. Wading in three inches of it completely obscures ones toes! This opacity, I found, only increases as one goes further downstream.

I was in college when I finally got serious in my exploration of its furthermost reaches. With like-minded friends I spent several years backpacking twenty or so miles into the main canyon and its many branches. I made copious notes and journal entries, most of which ended with the general thought,“I wonder what it’s like further downstream.” Realizing that the best route of exploration was by water, I made two attempts at Boulder Creek, the only tributary to the Escalante deep enough to run. Both trips were spectacular, though at the bottom, it was necessary to portage eight miles back up the Escalante River to the road. And both times, I lingered at the joining of the streams, wishing that I could put into the Escalante’s current and keep on going.

Three years ago, I, along with my brother-in-law, Mike Jemmett, was finally able to realize the dream of floating the river. After talking to rangers, locals, and one person who had made the attempt, we learned that the level of the water is of great importance. Too high, and one risks many dangers unique to this type of river. Too low, and a kayaker might find himself stranded half-way through an 80 mile float in water too shallow to carry him. Water level is a matter of timing, weather and luck. We determined that a volume around 300 cubic feet per second at the measuring station near the road was the desirable level for running. But such levels are fleeting.

However, we set our sites on early June, after the height of the runoff has typically passed. Reasoning that the river might be clearer, and that the peak water might have washed away jams and other flotsam, we packed and made ready, watching the on-line river level updates on a daily basis. Although the full length of the stream from the put-in point to where it meets Lake Powell is less than a hundred miles, we had little information of what a realistic day’s travel would be. Underestimating, we planned on making fifteen miles per day, allowing for unforeseen difficulties, and additional exploration. This translated to six days on the river, and an extra day to paddle the twenty miles down Lake Powell to Hole in the Rock, where a benevolent father-in-law promised to 4-wheel in on the treacherous roads and be waiting to take us out.

The logistics of the trip were somewhat in question and more than a bit unnerving as we inflated the kayaks and put in on a bright Friday morning. We had chosen inflatables over hard body kayaks for their ability to be packed up and carried out if we needed to portage or abandon the canyon altogether. The boat bags were filled with a weeks worth of noodles, rice, dried vegetables and fruits, oatmeal, and other such non “refridgeables”. It was hoped that fish might supply a meal over a fire somewhere down stream. I knew that few would survive the cloudy waters of the main canyon, but I had already caught trout on previous outings in the many clear tributaries along the way.

paddling up boulder creek copyWe checked and rechecked our gear. I felt a great sobering finality at this point. There are no roads in or out of this drainage. There is no cell service. Once you begin, you must finish on your own. One doesn’t easily rectify a forgotten patch kit or spoon two days into such a one-way trip. I looked back only once at my solitary truck as we pushed off, trying desperately to remember if I had locked my doors.

Soon, all else was forgotten as the rhythm of the river took over. Past the point of no return now, fear departed and anticipation set in. During the first miles, the river is small, barely as wide as the kayak is long. It is gentle and makes little sound. Overhanging cottonwood branches and Russian Olives are the primary obstacles of this tame upper section. It was hard not to chuckle with the delightful ease of travel when remembering how I had packed up this same canyon towing my boat, red-faced and cursing the current after running Boulder Creek. Boulder Creek was now our first night’s destination, not because it was fifteen miles in, but because it has excellent flyfishing and is stunningly beautiful. It would be worth making up the lost distance later on.

The creek was still in full spate as we peeled off the current of the Escalante and dug hard into the flow of the Boulder. This river’s source was closer, and the icy water had been snow only a day before. While it was much clearer than the river we had just come from, it was still murky with runoff and I worried that the fishing would be poor. We made camp on a small, sandy outcrop at the base of a weathered rock slide and set out to catch dinner. They required some coaxing, but with larger terrestrial flies, mostly hoppers and cicadas, we managed to hook a few small browns each before the shadows grew long and the canyon turned a dismal blue. Back at camp, a small smokeless fire of driftwood flared as we cooked the trout and planned the next day. The realization that we were doing something we’d anticipated for years was intoxicating, and with only a sheet of mosquito netting over me, I lay in my boat and counted satellites and meteors until I slept.

We were early on the river the next morning. The volume was nearly doubled by the adjoining flow of Boulder Creek, and the river was noticeably more determined. As the day progressed, the canyon walls closed in and became steeper and higher. We quickly found that a major peril on the river was the scenery, and the tendency it had to make one stare upwards, and not see a boulder or overhang until it was too late. We had no idea of what obstacles lay ahead, and we struggled between watching the river and gazing at what it had made. Waterfalls were always in the back of our minds, and we were often forced to timidly proceed around a wall protruding out into the stream, hearing a roar of rapids in the distance, but not knowing what was on the other side. Somewhere along the way, it was half decided, albeit ignorantly, that since Mike was an E.R. doctor, it made sense for me to lead, since if I met with an accident, he could surely patch me up. I wondered at the time if he had any cures in his medical kit for bludgeoning and drowning.

By day three, we were well established in the procedures for detecting boulders in the opaque water and could even determine the size of rapids downstream by the pitch and volume of the roar they made. The river had been joined by a dozen small creeks. One, called simply “The Gulch” offered us crystal clear pools to wash off the accumulated adobe paste on our gear and ourselves. Filled with frogs, small fish, snakes, and a riot of desert flowers, it was a little garden paradise to rest and take lunch in before resuming our journey. We learned quickly to take advantage of these clean tributaries to fill water bottles. The main river was so dirty by now as to make filtration nearly impossible.

We set up camp that night on a long dry bar of sand so soft, that the Teva’s were completely abandoned. There were threatening clouds moving in as we pulled in the boats and tied them off to a huge olive tree. We wondered briefly if we should seek higher ground for the night. The answer was obvious- Where? The banks of the river rose a few feet on each side as they extended away from the water. Then they met vertical rock, now five hundred feet high. If a wall of water was coming down this canyon, we were going with it. There was a certain consolation in knowing there was nothing we could do to prevent disaster if it chose to struck. The rain came just as we had erected a tarp to eat under, and for a wonderful half hour we cooked and ate and watched the drops slap into the sand.

On cue, the storm ceased, and though the river rose noticeably, the flood never came. As we assembled our capsule tents, I suddenly noticed a small toad near my foot. It was the size of a golf ball and dun like the sand upon which it stood. Then in the corner of my eye I caught another one as it hopped out seemingly from nowhere. As I watched them both, a third toad wiggled out from under the sand in front of me, and I realized they were emerging from the ground. Before long, there were a dozen of the amphibians hopping and croaking in what was obviously a nightly routine. We would come to avoid camping in the open spots of soft sand in the future to keep from smashing them.

Through much of the journey, this discovery of unfamiliar ecosystems and the creatures that inhabit them was a regular occurrence. It seemed every side canyon that fed into our river held strange new delights. Up above, at the canyon rim was a wasteland of scorched rock and sterile soil. But in the depths of the gorge, a concentrated explosion of life held us spellbound. Reptiles, including Chuckwallas, larger than my arm, a variety of frogs, toads, fish, insects, birds and mammals all competed for survival in this narrow space between stone walls. Pools isolated by miles of nothing but damp mud were found holding bass and crayfish. Bats came out of nowhere in the evenings to gorge on myriad insects that disappeared during the day. I stopped for an hour one afternoon to view and photograph a five foot long water snake devouring a large sucker. One couldn’t help become a naturalist as the river paraded by a constant stream of living things specifically adapted to this hostile environment.

We were dwarfed by our surroundings. Everything seemed larger. Talus from ancient rock slides contained boulders the size of houses, creating mazes of interesting rapids. While few parts of the river required portaging, there were some hazards, including drops offs of varying heights, overhanging clefts of bank which were just high enough to allow a boat beneath, but sweep its passenger into the water, and the afore mentioned giant boulders laying in the current. These, we learned were deceptively dangerous at times. Irregularly shaped and fractured, they sometimes lay in regular patterns across the full width of the stream, creating what amounted to a badly leaking dam. Upon approach, we typically found a large, deep pool of water backed up against such a blockage. This caused unexpected and strong suctions through small openings in the rock, often unseen beneath the surface as the water sought for a way through.

kayaking beneath stevens a copyAt one such place my boat was completely pulled in and wedged beneath the water. I had managed to jump off the back before it went under, but by the time I had secured a safe spot, it was firmly caught with the immovable weight of the river forcing it deeper into the crack. After an hour of pulling with ropes, we were unable to budge it. Finally, only by reaching in and deflating the kayak so it could completely be sucked through were we able to extricate it. To my joy and disbelief, boat and bags made it through with little harm.

The danger only added an efficacy and increased meaning to our trip. It somehow seemed only right that a voyage of this significance, amid such amazing surroundings should be difficult, and at least a little treacherous. It made the nights around the fire a triumph over the elements and over self. It sobered the mind and made us constantly aware of our ephemeral status here- that this place would go on with little change long after we were gone.

Inevitably, we neared the bottom. On the fifth evening, we came around a bend right at dusk to behold Steven’s Arch directly overhead. This huge natural bridge one thousand feet above the canyon floor forms an outcropping which the river nearly surrounds. For twenty minutes, we floated around the gigantic feature in revered silence. Shortly thereafter, we were delivered to our last planned campsite on the river: Coyote Gulch. Those who have hiked its full length know of the unparalleled beauty of this spring-fed gorge. We pitched our tents in a circular opening a couple hundred yards up the small canyon and after eating most of the remaining food, spent the evening watching the bats twenty feet over our heads as they performed aerial maneuvers while feeding.

The next day saw the slow transformation from river to lake as the Escalante backs up against Lake Powell. There is much sediment deposited here, and as the river cuts through it, large chunks of dried mud, some the size of cars, would come crashing down into the water. We quickly learned to stay at mid stream. Before noon, the current had all but ended, and our trip, at least the free floating portion was over. We had heard that one could pay to be picked up by boat and delivered to Bullfrog Marina for a stiff fee. But we were idealists, and had predetermined to see the trip to its end under our own power.

The trek to Hole in the Rock, was a grueling twenty-mile plod against the clock to meet our ride. We did take a moment at the mouth of the Escalante, where it meets the main channel of the lake, where far below the surface, the true canyon finally ends, to contemplate all we had seen and done. Ninety or so miles and a weeks worth of toil, excitement, and wonder had come and gone so quickly. It was a trip not for the faint of heart. It was dirty and difficult. We were tired of sand in our hair, sand in our eyes, sand in our food. We were sunburned and our hands worn with callouses. We were ready for good food, soft beds, and all the other comforts that civilization affords. And yet we both knew that the experience and the river had attached itself to us in a way we would never be free of, nor want to be.

As I type at this very moment, every so often looking back at all the photos and notes and reviewing my maps for reference, my pulse still quickens slightly when I anticipate visiting that wondrous canyon again, and knowing that even now, the river is there flowing quietly as it has for a million years. And just as surely, I know I will return to it.

Dan Hill is an avid outdoor enthusiast and instructor of wilderness survival, orienteering, and fly tying. He has lived in Utah all his life.

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