Spring Break Trip Report- March 2014

6 April 2014

We have just returned from one if the most memorable Spring break trips in years. The trip included some of our usual endeavors- seeing rock art and ruins, a bit of gold panning, hiking along Comb Ridge, and plenty of exploring of dirt roads around southeastern Utah. It also included new adventures: a visit to Oljeto, on the Navajo reservation, to see the trading post where the Wetherills lived and then a drive down to the now defunct Piute Farms Marina at what was once part of Lake Powell.

Piute Farms waterfall. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Piute Farms waterfall, about two miles below Clay Hills takeout, March 2014. The river below actually looked like a river. There were few signs that the lake had made it this far up the channel in years.

We also stopped in at Hite “Marina” (can you have a marina without water?) to take a look at the lake level on our way towards Hanksville. We drove down the boat ramp only to find that we could keep driving all the way across what used to be the lake right to the edge of the Colorado River. And it did look like a river- cutting down through the accumulated silt of the past 50 years and making its way toward the ocean. Looking down river, there was no lake in sight! Looking up river, the Dirty Devil was a muddy little stream braiding its way through the silt and into the Colorado. I can’t help but wonder how long it will take to clean out all that silt…. But more on that in a future blog.

Colorado River at Hite Marina. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

The Colorado River, at Hite Marina. Looking down river, as it makes its way to the ocean.

Silt plain that was once Lake Powell. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

I hope this adds a bit of perspective to what is going on at Hite Marina. This photo was taken at the edge of the river, where I stood when I took the top photo, looking back over the silty, tumbleweed-scattered plain that was once the bottom of Lake Powell. That is our Landcruiser in the middle distance, with the boat ramp far off in the photo.

Back to the archaeology for now. One of our early stops was just outside Blanding to look at a few rock art panels and nearby ruins. We met up with a group of archaeology students, their “tour” leader Daniel Cutrone, the Principle Investigator at the Nancy Patterson site in Montezuma Canyon and professor at California State University Dominguez Hills, and our friend Madalyn from the Edge of Cedars Museum in Blanding.

Nancy Patteson site. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

A central view of the Nancy Patterson site, showing excavated walls and many of the mounds that make up the possible 300 rooms of the site.

Daniel, Madalyn, and their crew kindly took us along on their outings to a few unnamed sites, the Nancy Patterson site, Spirit Bird Cave, and a behind-the-scenes tour of the Edge of Cedars Museum. We were joined on one of the days by Sally Cole, author of Legacy on Stone, among other titles. What a treat it was to look at rock art and not have to pull out our copy of her book for interpretation- all we had to do was listen! The best part for both Nicolai and I was when we were asked if we wanted to return in the summer to be part of the ongoing excavation of the Nancy Patterson site. I haven’t done any excavation in years, and definitely welcome the return to the dirt. For Nicolai, I think it is a dream come true. For more on the Nancy Patterson site, ongoing excavation, and field work possibilities, see the Shovelbums Website.

We spent a few days in Poison Spring canyon, as we often do, enjoying the sites there and some of the slot canyons accessible from the canyon bottom. Next we drove on to Green River town. In and around Green River we explored the abandoned U.S. Army Pershing missile launch complex. What an adventure that was!

Green River missile launch complex. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

The guard shack and associated buildings at one of the main parts of the Green River launch complex.

Abandoned around 1979, the buildings are in a serious state of decay, with doors falling off or missing, fences broken down from power poles falling on them- the power poles having been chopped down by looters stealing the copper wire strung between them! Ceilings had fallen in, windows were mostly broken out, and nearly everything that could be carried away had been. And the few things left on site were well smashed up and thrown into piles in corners. It was perfectly post-apocalyptic in look and feel, including a grey, overcast sky above us. While exploring I kept expecting to round a corner to find a growling pack of ferrell dogs, or maybe zombies, or at least a boy and his father resting as they made their way down The Road. Perhaps that was us?

Tent city concrete pads. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

The concrete pads, perfectly aligned and dressed right, at what is referred to as the “tent city” outside Green River.

Bunker near Green River, Utah. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Nicolai next to the bunker at the weather missile launch pads.

Either way, let it be known that we never crossed a fence, or a building threshold, as it is still government property and clearly marked as of limits… in a couple of places at least (most of those signs appear to have been stolen.) If you go, be sure to view it from afar.  We spoke to a local deputy who warned us that theft and vandalism have ramped up recently and that they are watching the sites. I have only touched on this marvel of modern science, warfare, our military-industrial complex, and our cold war history. Volumes could be written about it- not by me however. But I do plan to write a full blog about the site, and the Pershing and weather monitoring missiles launched from it in the near future.

Missile launch pad near Green River, Utah. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

One of the main launch pads, with rolling building still in place. There are two other, identical pads, both without the building or even the rails that it rolls on.

For now, we are planning our summer fieldwork, a family backpacking and exploring trip, and a solo trip for me. The summer promises to be a full one- be sure to get out and enjoy it. And watch out for rattlesnakes, they are already out. For more about snakes, and our desert adventures, visit the Desert Explorer website.

 

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September Trip Report, Part Two- Chinle, Comb Ridge, and San Juan Rock Art

18 November 2012

In my most recent post I wrote about the first part of my September trip to Southeast Utah. This post completes my trip report.

My next stop after Grand Gulch was Chinle, Arizona. I made the trip south in order to attend the KTNN radio Drums of Summer celebration. It was the second to last gathering of the summer and being only a couple of hours away I made it a point to take the drive. KTNN radio, the Navajo Nation’s radio station, hosts the Drums of Summer celebrations throughout the summer every year. They are held around the reservation, often in local school auditoriums. They consist of Navajo singers and drummers performing for the audience, along with space for attendees to dance. There are countless raffles and giveaways, and at this particular event there was a pinion fire burning outside with fresh frybread cooking on it. The gathering was in honor of seniors, many of them as I understood it, from the local Chinle senior center. Most of the dancers were older Navajos, and really seemed to be enjoying the event. I spoke to one of the directors from the center for a while, and he told me of the importance of seniors in Navajo culture. I had given this some thought already upon realising that there was in fact a senior center for aging Navajos, people who traditionally would have been cared for in the home by family members, rather than in a western, institutional setting. I sensed that the director was concerned himself with this fact but resigned to it, that it was in the present day unavoidable. He also expressed his dismay with some younger Navajos, telling me how so many seemed to be abandoning their own culture and language in favor of the western world, something I have heard many times from older, more traditional Navajos.

After a night in Chinle I headed north again to Comb Ridge. I was joined on one day of hiking there by two Army medics who were visiting the Chinle area. It was a great opportunity for me to introduce them to the prehistory of the region, and for all of us to make some discoveries in the canyons. I had been along Comb Ridge on both east and west sides many times. I had examined various rock art panels along the way, camped there a number of times, used it to access the eastern drainages of Cedar Mesa, but never really done much hiking there. It has always been my understanding that parts of Comb Ridge were as densely populated as Grand Gulch in prehistoric times, although on a  much smaller scale.  Anyone who has visited the Edge of Cedars Museum in Blanding will note that many recent additions to the museum, and some very important ones,  have come from the Comb Ridge area.

Ruin along Comb Ridge, Utah. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

A ruin in one of the many short canyons along Comb Ridge.

There was also the recent discovery of skeletal remains along Comb Ridge thought to be those of the long-lost traveler Everett Ruess (in the end it was not Ruess). I have to admit that I always found the amount of archaeology from Comb Ridge hard to believe, considering that the canyons are so short. The distance from Butler Wash on the east to the crest of Comb Ridge is not more than a couple of kilometers on the average- very short in terms of resource availability, both food and water. But then I must consider Butler Wash itself, and the fact that Comb Ridge consists of many, many of these short canyons side by side, running east to west, for miles and miles. Also, the tilted Navajo sandstone of Comb Ridge creates perfect building locations, although not as defensible as the shelves and benches of nearby Grand Gulch and its associated drainages, and provides for some canyon-bottom farming locations.

View west from top of Comb Ridge. The drop to the west at this location is about 700 feet down to the road at Comb Wash below. Taken with iPhone panorama application by a fellow hiker.

Those who have read my blogs in the past know that I do not like to give too much away, that my intentions are to leave the discovery to the individual by not providing grid coordinates, maps, or even trail directions. With that said, Comb Ridge is a place that seems to me to allow for endless discovery. Not only that, but the hiking, in my opinion is fairly easy- my 8-year-old son and I will be there visiting the canyons together on our next trip to Utah. You can expect to see cultural and geologic wonders, and an unmatched view if you hike up to the ridge at just about any point along the way.

Detail shot of eastern end of a very large and distinct petroglyph panel along Comb Ridge.

After Comb Ridge I spent a couple of days around Bluff, and took a look around Sand Island, the primary launching point for floating the San Juan river. Besides the boat ramp, you will find rangers in residence, campsites, picnic areas, toilets, water, and petroglyphs. The main, Lower Sand Island petroglyph panel is easily accessible from the road leading into the campground. You can in fact view the panel from your car window if you so desire. It is an extensive and busy panel that covers more than 2000 years of prehistory. 

petroglyph panel near Sand Island, San Juan river, Utah.

One of the many panels near Sand Island, showing animated, possibly dancing figures.

There are many other panels up and down the San Juan from the same time period and possibly much, much earlier. And by much earlier I mean much earlier, with probable representations of Pleistocene megafauna- between 11,000 and 13,000 years ago. The panel I am specifically referring to is known locally as the “Bluff mastodon panel”, but likely represents Columbian Mammoths, two of them, and a possibly coeval, superimposed bison. See the paper in the journal Rock Art Research from 2011 for extensive background on the panel. The paper offers a very clear description and analysis of the panel and supporting arguments for the date that are very convincing. As the paper also points out, there are likely a panel or two from the same period still waiting to be found, and plenty of discoveries within the panels along the San Juan river waiting to be made.

For more on our desert adventures, the San Juan river, and rock art, visit the Desert Explorer website.


Utah and Arizona- March 2011

21 April 2011

Nicolai and I left Colorado on 15 March and headed for our usual special camp just across the border in Utah. We expected- or at least hoped for- warm weather through the trip. We ended up with cool weather, some rain, some snow, and wind nearly every day. Knowing that this can happen in the early spring of the desert, we were prepared with plenty of winter clothing, our Sorrel boots, and goggles for the sand storms. And plenty of fire wood.

Poison Spring Canyon
We began our trip by spending 4 days down Poison Spring Canyon south of Hanksville. We tried our hand at gold panning, did some exploring up side canyons, drove down to the ford at the Dirty Devil, looked at some rock art, and made a tamarisk bow and willow arrows for Nicolai. Both of these materials worked well for his purposes. We rounded the arrow shafts the best we could and straightened them on the fire. Our next step will be to make a shaft straightener and get them really straight.

Nicolai trying out his tamarisk bow and willow arrow.

There was a lot of activity in the area while we were there. It seemed that quite a few groups were floating the river, or at least trying to, around that same time. As we understand it, some people opted out in the end, others pushed on, even while on the verge of hypothermia, and another group had to cache their equipment, hike out, and return to finish the float a couple of weeks later. We are looking forward to hearing more about everyone’s trips.

Shield figures fighting, Poison Spring canyon, petroglyph

Shield figures fighting, Poison Spring canyon.

A Drive Down to Arizona- Canyon de Chelly
After our time in the Hanksville area we headed south towards Arizona. We made our usual stops around Moki Dugway for a night, and in Mexican Hat at the San Juan Inn for breakfast. Next we visited Chinle and Canyon de Chelly. This is an amazing canyon, full of history and prehistory, being occupied for over 5000 years. The canyon was the final stronghold of the Diné people against forced relocation by Kit Carson and his troops in 1864. This was known as “the Long Walk” to the Diné, as they were marched to Fort Sumner in New Mexico over 300 miles away.

Monument Valley off in the distance, on the drive south to Chinle.

The canyon is worth a visit even for a quick look if you are traveling through the area. There are driving tours on both the north and south sides of the canyon with viewing overlooks into the canyon along the way. There is only one location where you an enter the canyon without a guide, and that is to see the White House ruin. You can visit other places in the canyon by hiking or driving, even backpack there, but a guide must accompany you on the trip. Guides can be found in Chinle, and complete information can be found at the Canyon de Chelly visitor’s center.

The Hubbell Trading Post
Our drive took us on towards Ganado and the Hubbell Trading Post, where we spent and afternoon, an inadequate amount of time for a place so rich in history. While nothing can make up for the Long Walk and forced relocation, John Lorenzo Hubbell did more to help the Diné than anyone in his day. He is largely responsible for making the Navajo weaver known to the world. He helped create the craft at least in a commercial sense through the design and marketing of the “Ganado Red” rug, the quintessential style of Navajo textile.

Hubbell was a friend to the Navajo and to the artist as well. His house is full of drawings, paintings, weavings, baskets, and collections of art bought by him and given to him by many a famous artist. You can tour the house, and will find it in exactly the state lived in by the Hubbell family- it was sold to the Park Service by the Hubbell family in the 1960’s as is. Some clothes were packed up, the door was locked- this is how you will find it. The trading post itself is still in operation. You can buy supplies there, as well as contemporary weavings, baskets and other works of art. I have to mention that Teddy Roosevelt visited the place, and we saw the room and very bed where he slept- Nicolai was fascinated by this, as he is a big fan of Roosevelt.

Window Rock and the Navajo Nation Museum
We stayed the night in the Navajo Nation capital, Window Rock. There we visited the arch which gives the town its name, saw the veteran’s memorial and Code Talker memorial under Window Rock, stopped by KTNN, the nation’s radio station, for stickers, and toured the Navajo Nation museum. The museum is not to be glossed over. It is in new, modern structure whose form is after the hogan, the traditional Navajo dwelling, and of course it is entered from the east, as the hogan is.  The museum houses displays of contemporary Navajo art, historic and prehistoric artifacts, and a number of weavings of the “chief’s blanket” style that shouldn’t be missed. The museum is another “must see” if you are in the area.

Navajo Code Talker memorial, Window Rock, Arizona.

Navajo Code Talker memorial, Window Rock, Arizona.

Exped SynMat 7 Sleeping Pad
After Window Rock we headed back north for some camping and exploring in Cross Canyon, near Hovenweep National Monument, and further north around Blanding and Monticello and then to Moab. As we didn’t plan much in the way of backpacking for this trip, knowing it would be more of a road trip with plenty of tent nights, I finally took the plunge and invested in a new sleeping pad.

Eped SynMat 7

The Eped SynMat 7

The SynMat 7 by Exped is one of my favorite new pieces of gear in years. It has an integral pump that is operated by placing your hands over valves in the pump. I opted for the size medium-72 inch long, 20 inch wide, synthetic version. It comes in a down-filled version- the SynMat 9 Deluxe, giving a higher R value, and both are avail able in various widths and lengths. The SynMat 7 can be inflated in a couple of minutes without much effort. I had some of the best sleep I’ve had on the ground with this pad, and while it is not something I would carry in my backpack due to the weight (just under 2 pounds) and size, I will not sleep on anything else if I am at my truck or on a river trip. If you are in the market for a new pad make sure you take a look at this one.

For more gear recommendations and reviews, visit the Desert Explorer Gear Shop pages.

I am off to the Escalante in just under 3 weeks. I will be in the bush for 12 days or so, on a solo from Moody Canyon down to Coyote Gulch and back out. Check back for a trip report towards the end of May.

In the meantime, for more on our adventures, the Dirty Devil, primitive skills, and recommended gear, visit the Desert Explorer website.