More Details From the Escalante Trek- Trash, Fish, Food, and Lizards

27 August 2009

It is often hard to cover the many details of a trip in the short amount of time I have to write blog posts.  Usually, as soon as I publish a post, I remember three other items I wanted to cover.  And then I do follow-up research after the fact and want to post that information. With that said, this post is a follow-up to last week’s post on our recent Escalante Trek.

Update- Trash on the Escalante
Since the last post I have spoken with a ranger responsible for the Glen Canyon section of the Escalante River.  I informed him of the trash and fire pits we had found along the river.  I gave him the details on all the trash at the mouth of Fence Canyon and included my interpretation of the scene from the perspective of an anthropologist and a tracker: Upon arriving at the campsite, finding the trash and other debris, Robert and I did a thorough search of the area while cleaning up what we could (there was too much trash for us to carry out).  Based on the amount of debris- mainly trash and toilet paper- and other factors such as fire pits and a lean-to, we concluded that we were seeing a sort of squatters camp, occupied for perhaps as long as two weeks.  One of the first things that Robert and I discussed was the possibility that it might be related to an illegal marijuana growing operation. Two such operations have been found in recent months in southern Utah, along with many others around the western states.  When I spoke with the ranger this was his first comment as well.

The Escalante River on our second day out, still shallow and clean.

The Escalante River on our second day out, still shallow and clean.

Whatever the reason for such a mess in such a pristine location, the ranger is on it.  He plans to take another ranger, a full size backpack, and some trash bags and do a cleanup of the area.  Regarding the fires, it sounded like they are nothing out of the ordinary.  My impression is that he spends lots of time cleaning them up.  This is all very foreign to me- but I guess some people may not see the value in respecting Leave No Trace principles. In other places in southern Utah, Grand Gulch for example, in 10  summers of hiking there I have never seen a fire pit and never found more than a stray Clif Shot wrapper or a zipper pull that broke off.  The difference in the two locations is astounding. I am not sure why such a disparity exists, but it does.

Fish and Their Identification
I did not mention in the last post the number of fish that Robert and I encountered as we waded through the Escalante River.  It started out with a few here and there, and those were small, perhaps 6 inches in length. As we made our way down river, the number and size quickly increased.  We were seeing schools of fish, 20 or more at a time, some of which were reaching 12 and maybe 14 inches in length. We did our best to identify them using  field guides- we know they are suckers, but we haven’t been able to positively identify the species.  Our best guesses include the bluehead or flannelmouth sucker, both native fish, and the mountain sucker which is apparently not native to the drainage.  According to the Glen Canyon fish checklist the first two are found in the area, the third is not.  I am not sure of the exact geographical coverage of the checklist. It is from the Glen Canyon website, and should therefore include at least the lower Escalante drainage. The ranger mentioned above said he would try to pass my number on to the fish expert in his office, and I hope for a call back from him to confirm the identification of the fish. We also saw many, many small minnow-like fish, both in the main drainage and up side canyons.  I will ask him about those as well.

Robert crossing a beaver dam up 25 Mile Wash.  Note how thick the brush is- it's like this through most of the 7 miles till you climb out on the slickrock.

Robert crossing a beaver dam up 25 Mile Wash. Note how thick the brush is- it's like this through most of the 7 miles from the river till you climb out on the slickrock just below the Early Weed Bench trailhead.

Backpack Meals and Food Ideas
In the last post I mentioned that Robert and I carried our usual Desert Explorer homemade backpack meals.  Many of them are based on my own creations, some are from Teresa Marrone’s book The Back-Country Kitchen. The meals are filling, taste great, and offer enough variety that you look forward to eating them.  One lesson we did learn is that the meals are definitely too large for lunches.  Typically we do not stop and eat hot lunches, we just snack along the way and keep moving.  On this trip we decided to do it differently.  We planned enough time to allow long lunch stops where we ate well and had a mid-day cup of tea. Robert began by splitting his large dinner meals in half and adding a small side dish if he was really hungry, concluding that they were just too big for lunch. It was easy enough to separate the big meals into two bags; it is not necessary to cut the recipes in half when you are making the meals up.

As for side dishes, we usually include things like instant mashed potatoes, one of the Fantastic Foods soups, or maybe a bag of couscous.  Robert added to these sides by bringing a box of Stove Top Stuffing to the trailhead and pouring it into small Ziplock bags.  Disregarding its questionable nutritional value, it was a welcome addition, adding more variety to the menu.  I will be including it on my trips from now on. This is just one example of the possibilities right off the grocery store shelf. Take a walk down the isles- there are plenty of instant products, requiring only water, that will keep you fed on the trail.

Another deviation from our normal routine was to cook a Ziplock bag lunch meal at breakfast.  After re-hydrating in the bag, wee placed the meal inside of our titanium cups where it was safely stored away until lunch.  This helped us avoid breaking out stoves and unpacking too much gear on our lunch breaks. This is another procedure we will likely continue to use, especially on days when we are planning a long movement. For more on our techniques, and some of our recipes, visit our Backpacking Foods pages.

Lizards

Another desert spiny liard posing for the camera. They were everywhere along the way, and many were very curious about us.

Another desert spiny lizard posing for the camera. They were everywhere along the way, and many were very curious about us.

I have finally had time to add a few more photos and some more text to our page describing lizards of the region.  I added the northern plateau lizard, Sceloporus undulatus elongatus, also known as the eastern fence lizard.  There are a couple of photos of it, as well as a new one of a side-blotched.  Some species, including the northern plateau lizard, can be tough to identify when they are on the move. I have done my best on the web page with their identification from my photos.  If any herpetologists visiting the blog or website have any comments or pointers on identification, they would be appreciated. Visit our Desert Reptiles page and see what you think.

Other Updates

I have added more information to the Desert Links page– updates from Moab, and information on the towns of Escalante and Caineville, Utah, as well as Grand Junction and Fruita, Colorado. Now that the summer is (nearly) over, I will be adding more to the web page regularly. Be sure to check back for new updates.

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Trekking Down the Escalante River- a Bushwhacking Paradise

22 August 2009

The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument provides some of the roughest, most remote wilderness opportunities in southern Utah.  It is a place where you can definitely lose yourself- and get lost if you are not careful- in the rugged terrain of the Escalante River corridor with its Navajo and Wingate sandstone walls, slot canyons, Fremont rock art, and windows into the unique history of the region.

Trailheads and Water
Robert and I spent a fairly leisurely 8 days walking along, and in, the Escalante River and some of its side canyons starting at the trailhead at the Highway 12 bridge and ending at the Early Weed Bench trailhead.  The trek from trailhead to trailhead is just about 50 miles, not including any side trips, which are unlimited in number. We began by dropping the Land Cruiser at the Early Weed Bench trailhead. The road to the trailhead demands a solid high clearance vehicle, as do many of the trailhead roads.  From there it is about a two hour drive to the Escalante River Highway 12 bridge trailhead, not including a stop at the Kiva Koffeehouse.

View downriver from the mouth of Choprock Canyon before storm. River flow is about .2 CFS.

View downriver from the mouth of Choprock Canyon before storm. River flow is about .2 CFS.

Same view as above the next morning, at about 130 CFS.  River had risen nearly 2 feet.

Same view as above the next morning, at about 130 CFS. River had risen nearly 2 feet.

The river at the bridge was calm and the water was clear and clean when we began.  For the most part, until a storm clouded the water with silt on day 5, we just scooped water out of the river and treated it with the MIOX.  After day 5, when the river rose from .2 CFS to 130 CFS and became a silty and potentially dangerous mess, we had to take other steps to get water. Fresh water is available in many of the side canyons, and is more abundant on river right, in the canyons to the southwest.

Bushwhacking
To say that there is bushwhacking along the river corridor is an understatement. There is some relatively easy walking on cattle trails higher up river. Many trails were fresh, and we were grateful for our bushwhacking, route-finding bovine friends. Game trails can be followed along most of the river. But be prepared to squeeze,  break, chop, push, and crawl through tangled masses of willow, tamarisk, Russian olive, sagebrush, and cottonwoods.  Also, be on the lookout for poison ivy- it is here and there along the way. There will be many river crossings, some in deep water- your pack should be waterproofed.  Be prepared for deep, sucking mud and quicksand further down river.  In the end you will be scratched, scraped, muddy, and your gear, clothes, body, and mind will have been tested.  All in all, it’s a great walk!

Prehistory and History
There were at least 10 rock art panels along our walk.  Much of the rock art was Fremont era, but some of the elements appeared to be older.  I am in the process of looking over photos and identifying some of the elements and will write another blog post specifically on the rock art soon.

Five figures from a very large panel. Center figure is about 20 cm overall.

Five figures from a very large panel. Center figure is about 20 cm overall.

Some of the rock art panels are identified on the maps that you can review at the Escalante Interagency Visitor’s Center in the town of Escalante, where you can get the latest road and weather conditions and a permit.  In many of the canyons you will also see historical inscriptions dating from the late 1800’s through the 1950’s and 1960’s.  There are a number of cowboy camps with a foundation or two, corrals, fences, and historic trash piles. If you look carefully you might find evidence of occupation, or even a ruin or two, under an alcove.

Camps, Trash, and Animals
Dry, sandbar campsites are abundant along the route, making for comfortable sleeping and helping with Leave No Trace policies.  Regarding Leave No Trace policies, the middle section of this trek, around Fence Canyon to Neon Canyon, was some of the filthiest wilderness I have ever seen.

Pile of trash at the mouth of Fence Canyon. I always pick up bits of trash here and there to carry out, but this was too much.

Pile of trash at the mouth of Fence Canyon. I always pick up bits of trash here and there to carry out, but this was too much.

We encountered literal piles of trash there- shoes, shorts, pants, socks, endless ramen bowls and bags, wrappers of all types, toilet paper and even human waste on the ground surface! Additionally we counted  at least 20 fire pits along the way, most of them along this same section. Many of these fires had partially burned trash in them, especially those around Fence Canyon.  Most were made right on the ground surface with just a bit of sand or a few rocks thrown over them.  Many were probably made by the same person, someone using fire as a means to heat water, as they were not large, warming fires.  Fires are not permitted in the canyons by the way. I have since contacted the Glen Canyon subagency, which administers the lower part of the Escalante, and reported the mess.  The ranger’s first remark was about a possible illegal growing operation in the area.

A curious desert spiny lizard checking out my gear.

A curious desert spiny lizard checking out my gear and my camera.

We slept in bug shelters most nights, and right on the ground a few nights. A few mosquitoes did come out for an hour or so around dusk, but for the most part mosquitoes and other bugs really weren’t a problem. Animal tracks were everywhere along the trek- turkey, coyote, deer, raccoon, and beaver were most common.  Turkey were everywhere- we saw them 5 of the 8 days and in the end found that they had a pretty good idea of the paths, and so followed them along the easiest routes.  We also found ringtail, fox, and elk track and scat. River otter have been reintroduced in the river, but we did not see them nor any sign that they were around.  Apparently they are nomadic, and could have been anywhere along the river. We had visits every day from whiptail, desert spiny, side blotched, and eastern fence lizards.  We also saw a number of toads- Woodhouse’s most definitely and red-spotted as far as I could tell. We saw one Utah black-headed snake and no rattlesnakes at all.

Fresh, perfect turkey track along the river.

Fresh, perfect turkey track in the fresh, silty-sand along the river.

Gear and Food
We carried the usual ultralight backpacking gear- see the Desert Explorer Ultralight pages for more information on what we pack. We tested some new gear on this trek including the new, improved Sealline HP map case, a small Drypak cell phone case, Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Packliners and Ultra-Sil Dry Sacks, and Merrell Waterpro Maipo water shoes.  The Sealline, Drypak, and Sea to Summit waterproofing equipment all performed flawlessly- they were all tested with submersion numerous times and maps, cameras, and all gear were perfectly dry.  The Merrells on the other hand fell apart after just a few days of walking.  If you buy them, they should not travel much further than your local park unless you bring backups.  Full reviews of this gear will be in an upcoming post.

Delicious dinner in a bag.

Delicious dinner in a bag.

For food we both carried our homemade, dehydrated backpack meals, many of which can be rehydrated in Ziplock bags.  Although they get a little heavy when you get 10 days or more of them in your pack, they are hearty, tasty meals and will definitely keep you moving.  For more on making you own meals see our Backpacking Foods pages at the Desert Explorer website.

Detail from the trailhead sign.

Detail from the trailhead sign.

This trek is definitely not for everyone.  From the looks of things not many people do it.  We encountered tracks close to the highway bridge, from Fence Canyon to Neon Canyon and Ringtail Canyon- popular technical canyoneering locations, and no where else.  If you go, you may find yourself alone for miles and miles, and you will have an experience you won’t soon forget. But be prepared- you could die out there.

For more information about desert backpacking see the Desert Explorer website.  For more information on the town of Escalante, see our Desert Links page. See our Escalante Pages for information on more treks in the area.


Family Float on the Green River, Green River town to Mineral Bottom

21 August 2009

We floated the Green River from Green River town to Mineral Bottom from 02 August through 07 August 2009.  We had a leisurely float, as the Green River seems to provide at this time of year.  Paddling was not optional, and, as usual, we could have used more time.  We can always use more time in Utah!  River flows were just under 3000 CFS, and the weather was rather cool, in the 80’s each day.  The usual crazy winds blew up river each afternoon, but died out in time for dinner.  The moon wasn’t  full till the day after we took out, but it was full enough that we enjoyed the nights on our sandbar camps without flashlights.

Rigging boats under the shade across from the JW Powell Museum.

Rigging boats under the shade across from the JW Powell Museum.

We put in above the bridge in Green River on Sunday afternoon.  It is an easy place to put in, with plenty of room and good shade under some big cottonwoods if you rig early enough in the day.  We left the Land Cruiser in the parking lot at the John Wesley Powell River History Museum.  The signs there say “No Overnight Parking”, but if you let them know your plans in the museum, leaving vehicle information and your float dates, your vehicle is okay there.  You can leave your permit with them as well- they are an authorised permit issuer for the river.

Long exposure of tent at night. We have a string of solar lights we use in the tent on the river which light it up well. Moon is near full, Jupiter is also visible.

Long exposure of tent at night. We have a string of solar lights we use in the tent on the river which light it up well. Moon is near full, Jupiter is also visible to the right of the moon.

The permit for this section of river is free and there is no lottery for it, just download the PDF from the BLM website, fill out a copy for the BLM and one to take on the river. If you plan to float on into Canyonlands National Park, there is a charge and the logistics get more complex.  See the Floating the Lower Green River page at the Desert Explorer website for more information.  You can also park, leave your permit, and put in at Green River State park, about half a mile down river.  It will cost five dollars to get in, and roughly about 20 dollars for a week of parking.

Make sure you allow enough time in your itinerary to visit the museum, at least an hour or so.  Do it before your float if you can, and the river will be all the more interesting as you float along and see the same scenery that the Major and his party experienced back in 1869.

There is only one market in Green River, the Melon Vine Food Store, near the west end of town.  They are closed on Sunday.  There are many gas station convenience stores for last minute drinks and ice.  Water can be found at a couple of the gas stations as well as in the picnic area at the River History Museum.  It used to be available a the park in the center of town, but there is only a drinking fountain there now.

Boats at the edge of the river at Crystal Geyser.

Boats at the edge of the river with mineral deposits from Crystal Geyser in the background.

During our float, we camped on sandbars most nights, but opted to camp at Crystal Geyser on our first night.  We fully expected company, and we had it.  Crystal Geyser is a popular place, easily accessible by about any kind of vehicle.  The geyser does not really have a set eruption schedule, but does go off every 12 to 14 hours or so.

Nicolai watching the geyser erupt.

Nicolai watching the geyser erupt.

According to Kelsey’s River Guide to Canyonlands National Park and Vicinity, in 1991 the geyser shot as high as 30 meters (about 90 feet).  We witnessed two distinct eruptions reaching maybe 25 or 30 feet in the air, about 12 hours apart.  But the geyser was active nearly the entire time were there, a total of about 16 hours- the geyser was amazing and we didn’t want to leave it.  We all walked through the cold water again and again and came away with orange-stained toe nails and feet from the minerals in the water.

Unidentified species of spider at our camp at Crystal Geyser.

Unidentified species of spider at our camp at Crystal Geyser eating another spider.

We noticed brown tamarisk from the beginning of our float on.  The tamarisk beetles have made their way along the Green.  I do not recall them being so far up river two years back.  At Crystal Geyser spiders have taken advantage of the dead tamarisk and moved in.  There were hundreds of them thriving in the denuded tamarisk branches. I can’t help but wonder if this is the beginning of the next phase of the problem, the domino  effect that usually occurs when we mess with the natural order of things? An infestation of giant river spiders? For more on tamarisk beetles and the tamarisk problem, see the Desert Explorer Tamarisk Beetle page.

Nicolai and Gerald on the saddle at Bowknot Ridge.  Major Powell stood up there!

Nicolai and Gerald on the saddle at Bowknot Ridge. Major Powell stood up there!

There is much to see all along the river, more than can be covered in one blog post. Kelsey’s river guide, aside from informing about the actual floating, tells the history of the river, the ranches, cowboys, boats, mining, and archaeology all along the river corridor.  It is an indispensable guidebook and is highly recommended.

A few of the highlights include Crystal Geyser,  Dellenbaugh Butte, Trin Alcove Bend, Bowknot Bend, Ruby Ranch, the Julien and Launch Marguerite inscriptions, the river register, various cabins, water wheels, and mineing debris.

Flat water- view up river at Bowknot Bend.

Flat water- view up river at Bowknot Bend.

We floated in our Aire two-person inflatable kayaks, but canoes seem to be the more popular craft on the river.  The kayaks are a bit slow and require a bit more energy to paddle. We reached Mineral Bottom about mid-day on our final day, along with 4 other groups who we saw on and off along the way.  The Green River is a  popular float and a great choice for calm, family river trip.