Escalante Trek, May 2011- Geology, Rock Art, Tracking, and Poison Ivy

8 July 2011

This is the third part of my May 2011 Escalante Trek blog posts. There was so much to see along the way that it was impossible to cover everything in a single post. Part one covered the trek itself, part two was gear reviews. In this post I will touch upon rock art, geology, flora, and tracking practice while hiking. It is a lot to cover I know, and this post will just scratch the surface of these topics. I am still planning a post on Leave No Trace Principles, and probably a separate post on access issues on public lands. I have seen a lot in the news lately- in the Moab, Blanding, and Monticello areas- regarding problems accessing roads and campsites that folks have been visiting for 10 or 20 years. I have had emails regarding the same. It is a topic that demands careful attention, and I will start soon with visits to a couple of BLM offices in southeast Utah to ask some questions. But for now, it is back to the Escalante.

Geology
Whenever I find myself in a canyon I am always captivated by the countless millions of years of geologic history in front of me. And I always wish I knew a bit more about what I was seeing. The Escalante area is no excepotion- it is a geologic wonder. With so many different formations and so much geologic time represented there, volumes could be written on the geology of the area. Oddly, a thorough search of the internet yielded very little information about exactly which formations you are walking through as you make your way down the river, at least if you are a novice geologist. If you can read a geologic surface map, or follow a technical paper written specifically for geologists, then you will find some detailed data available. I had expected to find a geologic map of the canyon bottom for the hiker walking down the river, but found very little other than references to the formations themselves. And those were not specific. So the task remains for a geologically minded canyon bottom hiker to give us such a map. I’d really like to see one.

thin sheet of quartzite material on navajo sandstone slab, escalante river, utah. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Thin sheet of quartzite, about 1/8 inch thick at most, on a slab of Navajo sandstone along the river. This was a rather common occurrence on the lower section of the river.

From the Moody Canyon trailhead I began my walk in the Wingate and Chinle formations, which apparently dip down and disappear at the river. Most of what I walked through was Navajo sandstone, in the lower part of the river canyon, and up Coyote Gulch.

While I wish I knew more about the specifics of what I was viewing- the depositional environment, the minerals that caused the specific colors, and the events that caused the folding, bending, and dipping- enjoying the imposing beauty of the vertical Navajo sandstone walls, the fluted columns of the Wingate sandstone, or the colorful Chinle shales is usually enough. Not much needs to be said about the Navajo walls- for me they represent the desert canyons with their dark, patinated, vertical walls reaching hundreds of feet high, and the occasional arch such as Stevens arch near the mouth of Coyote Gulch.  

The Chinle formation is one that I have not had much experience with, but on this trip I got to see and feel it up close. On my last day of walking I had to cross through it on my way up and out of East Moody canyon. It was a wet day and the clayey material, revealing ancient swamps and waterways, stuck to my boots, more with every step, until each foot weighed 10 pounds more. But the moisture only added to the beauty- the purples were deeper, the greens brighter, and the extra weight on my feet just added to the adventure.

Another unique geologic feature that I have wondered about for years are “Moqui marbles”. These are round or near-round sandstone spheres varying in size from BB-size up to an inch or more in diameter. I have found them on the mesa top in the Escalante in a few different locations. Don’t confuse Moqui marbles with tumbled sandstone “marbles” found in stream beds. The formation processes for each are completely different. Moqui marbles are formed during the deposition of sand as iron froth-coated air bubbles in very wet sand. Eventually they weather out of the parent material and are found, in the Escalante at least, in large concentrations making their way down gentle slopes.

"Moqui marbles"- ironstone concretions found weathering out of sandstone. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

"Moqui marbles"- ironstone concretions found weathering out of sandstone.

Rock Art
I encountered only a few rock art panels along the river, and a few in Coyote Gulch. As it usually goes, I likely walked by at least as many as I saw. They will be there for the next trip. All of the panels that I saw were small in size and number of elements compared to most panels I have seen both in and out of the area. Perhaps it has something to do with the rough nature of the lower part of the river canyon. The early inhabitants likely chose more hospitable locations for hunting and living and making art, if in fact it was art. Excluding one panel in Coyote Gulch, all were petroglyphs. Coyote Gulch has a few impressive panels, one of which is a pictograph of at least 5 near life-size anthropomorphs. For me, there is nothing quite like finding rock art. And finding life-size human figures staring down at me from a canyon wall, knowing that they have been there for hundreds of years, is really a humbling experience.

A small rock art panel along the lower Escalante River. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

A small rock art panel along the lower Escalante River.

Tracking
Whenever I walk in the canyons I am always on the lookout for tracks. I search them out not only to identify them, but also to follow them. This is how you learn to track- by finding and following them, by reading them, and by building a profile of the quarry you are tracking. On a previous trip in the Escalante, on the upper part of the river, Robert and I made it a point to follow the turkey tracks that we found all along the river. Not only did we practice finding and following the freshest tracks, but after a while we found that the turkeys led us to the easiest paths and around obstacles.

On this trip I found the usual turkey, beaver, coyote, fox, and of course human tracks. Walking along the river margin, in many places there was only a narrow strip of dry land. I followed the tracks of a previous hiker through much of that. It was interesting to see where this person chose to cross the river, when to climb through or over or under obstacles. By following any set of tracks, after a time you begin to build a picture of who or what made the tracks, and you can begin to anticipate their next move. In this case it was a male traveling alone, on the river for days, and with plenty of experience in route finding and canyon bottom travel. Even when I stopped looking for the tracks, I found that I was still following them, that this person and I shared our choices for a route down river.

A Quick Note About Poison Ivy
Poison Ivy is found all along the Escalante River and in many of the side canyons. The river corridor, and the side canyons draining into it, tend to be very wet. They are perfect locations for Poison Ivy to thrive. Keep your eyes open for the stuff- you will find it everywhere there is a constant source of water. If you come down Scorpion Gulch, be especially watchful. The narrows down near the river require either careful wading through the potholes, or more careful squeezing and scrambling along the stream edge. Either way you will be negotiating a Poison Ivy jungle. I have taken to wearing long pants most of the time and also carry a small bottle of Tecnu, a soap made specifically to combat the oils deposited on the skin when you brush against the plant. 

Poison Ivy in a relatively dry location just up Fool's Canyon form the river. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Poison Ivy in a relatively dry location just up Fool's Canyon from the river. It gets much thicker further up canyon where spring-fed pools of water are common.

For more on the Escalante Region, Poison Ivy and other desert flora, tracking and geology, visit the Desert Explorer website.

Advertisements