Trip Report- Spring Break 2013 in Southeast Utah

15 April 2013

We have just returned from another exciting Spring break trip to southeast Utah. We made the usual rounds, from Cisco down to Bluff and Mexican Hat, across Cedar Mesa, back up through Hanksville to Price, and on to Green River and Moab for a day. The weather was varied as it always is this time of year- from freezing cold and strong winds, to sunny, warm, summer-like days. You just never know what you’ll get in Spring in southeast Utah and it is important to be prepared for everything from sitting out snowstorms in the tent for a few days, to having plenty of sunblock and your shorts and river sandals on hand.

Comb Ridge
One of the highlights of our trip included five days of camping near the San Juan River outside Bluff, and hiking there and in Comb Ridge. We also hiked along the river, including a look at the panels around Sand Island, and up some small side canyons right from camp. But most of our time was spent in the middle part of Comb Ridge.  We managed to see five of the canyons there with ruins and rock art around every corner. We did our best to hike up one canyon then down another, but as anyone who has been along Comb Ridge knows, there are plenty of pour offs to send you back the way you came or at least send you looking for another route.  The good thing about Comb Ridge is that the canyons are all short, and backtracking is never a big deal. Comb Ridge was a busy place, with lots of hikers and people camping at nearly every site along Butler Wash. Keep this in mind if you plan a visit over Spring break.

A kiva in one of the Comb Ridge canyons. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

A kiva in one of the Comb Ridge canyons.

Tracking Practice
We did take advantage of having to backtrack from a couple of the canyons, using it as a chance to work on our tracking skills and to see a different part of the lives of the ancient inhabitants along the canyon mouths- including ancient campsites, lithic scatters, and storage cysts. Some of the approaches were long for us (we didn’t drive to a different “trailhead” for each canyon, but worked our way along the ridge from one). The walks back along these routes allowed us to find our tracks coming in, examine them for changes based on the weather and other hikers, and follow them back to our start point.  Again, being Spring break, there were plenty of other hikers out- because of this we were forced to use the lost track drill a number of times, casting about for our tracks among others, and doing the same out on the flat where we made it a point to use anti-tracking measures on our way in. By anti-tracking, or counter-tracking, I mean simply trying to walk as carefully as possible so as to hide our tracks- walking close to brush in shadows, through heavy, well-traveled brush, and across slickrock patches wherever we could.  In doing so we benefited going out and coming back.

A grooved stone we found on our approach to one of the canyons. Scale is in centimeters.

A grooved stone we found on our approach to one of the canyons. Grooves are on both sides, running parallel. Pictured side is the more pronounced. Scale is in centimeters.

The Dirty Devil River
After our stay in the Comb Ridge area we headed west and spent a night near Hite on the rim of the Dirty Devil River canyon.  The river was flowing at about 150 CFS then, but the mud chutes at the end of the river and directly flowing into the Colorado at this point were not promising for a float. It looked like a muddy mess ready to capture anyone who stepped into it.  The lake was so low that the Dirty Devil actually flowed into the Colorado River, and together they flowed off into the distance, a thin stream of a river in the middle of a vast horizon of mud.

Dirty Devil River as it flows toward the Colorado at Hite Crossing.  Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Dirty Devil River as it flows toward the Colorado at Hite Crossing. A murky thread of water through dried mud.

We stopped for a day in the Irish Canyons in North Wash, and then spent a night at Angel Point and had a walk down to the Dirty Devil River the next day. The river looked much more floatable from this point, really looking like it was flowing at 150 CFS and without a sandbar snag in sight. We recently had some comments and questions on putting in there. Aside from the walk down to the river- across slickrock, rocky with exposure in a few places, and bushy in others, the river looked good. The party mentioned was using 5 pound pack rafts- we are still waiting to hear the outcome.

Nine Mile Canyon
Next was a visit to Price and the College of Eastern Utah Museum. The museum houses a collection of artifacts from the surrounding region highlighting, among other things, the Fremont culture.  There is also an impressive paleontology collection. If you visit Price, or even find yourself driving through, the museum can be found right in the center of town and is worth the stop. From Price it is just a 15 minute drive south to Wellington and the turn off into Nine Mile Canyon.

A well known pictograph in Nine Mile Canyon. You may have seen this one in National Geographic- the damaged happened long ago before the state intervened on behalf of history.

A well known pictograph in Nine Mile Canyon. You may have seen this one featured in National Geographic.  The damage happened long ago before the state intervened on behalf of the preservation of pre-history here.

The name of the canyon is deceiving, being some 70 miles long in total.  The road through the canyon has been recently paved, and is in perfect shape. The is a short section mid-way that remains unpaved, but any vehicle can make it all the way up to the Big Buffalo and Great Hunt petroglyph panels, some of the highlights of the canyon. We turned around there and backtracked, but you can continue north from about mile 37 to Myton. In my opinion, the canyon has more than can be seen in a long day, especially if you plan to do any of the hikes-there are countless rock art site, ruins, and many points of historic interest.  Note that camping is not allowed anywhere in the canyon, other than at the Nine Mile Ranch private campground. So plan accordingly and start your trip into the canyon early, allowing at least a full day.

Great Hunt panel in Nine Mile Canyon. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

One of the more well-known panels in Nine Mile Canyon- called the Great Hunt panel.

Gear Reviews
I always try to highlight a piece of gear in each blog, and for this post I have chosen Rite in the Rain notebooks and Fisher Pens.  It is hard to imagine one without the other. Rite in the Rain notebooks come in many different sizes and page formats, but I tend to use one of the originals- the 3 by 5 inch, spiral top notebook.  It fits easily into any pocket and with its plastic cover, it is virtually indestructible. But the key feature that makes Rite in the Rain products so important to someone who spends a lot of time outdoors is that the pages are waterproof.  I have swam with my notebooks, used them in monsoon rains where I have been soaked through, taken notes during archaeological fieldwork sessions in dripping Central American jungles, and used them for years while in the military. I cannot say enough about the quality and functionality of their products. You can see the spiral bound notebooks and Fisher pens at TwoHandsPaperie.com.

Rite in the Rain notebooks- photo by Gerald Trainor.

Rite in the Rain spiral notebooks- a collection from over the years, including one of Nicolai’s. Archaeological fieldwork, river trips, bikepacking trips, and backpacks are all recorded here.

Fisher pens are the perfect companion writing instrument for the waterproof notebooks. Fisher pen refills are pressurized, and will write upside down, in any temperature you might normally encounter, and on wet Rite in the Rain notebook pages. The Stowaway Pen with a clip is the perfect pen for the 3 by 5 spiral top notebook- the pen slides right into the spiral and clips into place. This pen is also about the most lightweight pen imaginable. The only thing lighter might be just a pen refill by itself! The refills last an incredibly long time as well, and perform perfectly in the desert, mountains, or jungle.

Rite in the Rain spiral notebook with Fisher pen, Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Rite in the Rain 3 by 5 inch spiral notebook with Fisher Stowaway pen securely fastened in spiral binding.

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


Trip Report: Hanksville Area and North Wash; Aztec, New Mexico and Jack’s Plastic Welding

6 May 2012

Our first trip of the season is already over, and plans are underway for our next drive over the mountains to Utah. Our recent trip was just over two weeks in southeast Utah and vicinity, most of it near Hanksville. The weather cooperated with us for the most part. It was warm for most of our trip, we barely saw rain, but the wind did blow, strong on some days, as it always seems to do in the spring. Nicolai and I began our trip with 10 days of exploring west of the Dirty Devil river. Based on recommendations by Doug, Frank, Mike and others, and previous experiences, we explored the area in and around Angel Point, Cedar Flat, Little Egypt, and of course down Poison Spring Canyon. Much of this area was new to us, and it was all very exciting for both of us, with something interesting around every turn in the road and every corner of the canyon bottom.

Of course we drove down to the Dirty Devil River. No trip to the area is complete for us without visiting the ford. It was running at about 200 CFS when we took a look at it at the end of March. It has been steadily dropping since then; today (May 6th) it is at about 65 CFS. At this rate we’ll be dragging when we put in toward the end of the month (our next trip is a 10 day float on the Dirty Devil). There were a lot of people taking advantage of the high flows when we were there. At the ford/take out there were 5 trucks the day we drove all the way down. We saw one kayaker a few days before that while on a hike down to the river in a side canyon. We also drove most of the way down to the take out near Hite, on Sheep Springs road. The road was in terrible shape, washed out along nearly every drainage. It took us about 45 minutes to drive about 2/3 of the way to the take out at which point the shovel work  and rock moving required to continue wasn’t too appealing. But for all I know  it could have been perfect around the next corner all the way to the take out. We did ask a ranger at Hite if it would ever be graded or maintained and she thought it very unlikely. She didn’t know the condition of the road further down.

Geology and North Wash Canyons
We spent lots of time on this trip looking over the geology of the area. The Little Egypt road gives you some great views of the Henries, as well as a good look at the Entrada formation and its interesting hoodoos- the same you see at Goblin Valley state park. We found lots of interesting rocks and minerals near the Entrada hoodoos, many of which we still need to identify. We found something that looks like gypsum, or maybe quartz, but is probably some evaporite mineral. It was in the form of plates about 1/4 inch to 3/4 inch thick, to me appearing foliated vertically (if I have my terminology correct). Our guess is that much of what we found weathered out of the Henries up above.

Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Nico making his way up one of the Irish Canyons.

On the way out of the area we stopped for a day down North Wash for some canyoneering in the Irish Canyons. Nicolai dove right in- literally. No sooner had we snapped our helmets on than he was nearly out of sight up the slot. We came in from the bottom since it was just the two of us, and went as far up as he could safely climbing with me spotting and giving him a push up from behind. It turned out to be the most exciting part of the trip for him, and he is already planning on our next visit there after we finish on the river in early June. Since it is usually just the two of us, we are hoping we can tag along with a group at some point, have someone for belay, and come in from the top.

Chopper found in North Wash. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

A chopper we found in the bottom of one of the Irish Canyons while canyoneering there. The scale is in centimeters. We photographed the chopper, and put it back in place.

A New Boat
After North Wash we made our way south through Shiprock and over to Bloomfield and Aztec. Our primary purpose for the drive south was to visit Jack’s Plastic Welding in Aztec and pick out our new boat. We had a very informative visit with them and I think at this point have decided on the Cutthroat 2, the 24 inch wide version with 19 inch by 14 foot tubes and a 9 1/2 foot frame. It seems like the perfect boat for our favorite floats- the San Juan and Green Rivers for example. It can also be fitted with a motor mount, something that will come in handy for a trip from Bullfrog up the Escalante (a trip that is in the planning stages). After Jack’s we stopped in at Aztec Ruins National Monument for a few hours and looked over the reconstructions there. It is a worthwhile visit, and is easy to get to as it sits right on the edge of town. If you are in the area and have even half an hour, the Great Kiva must  be seen- it is the largest reconstructed kiva in existence. 

Aztec ruin. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Aztec ruin. Note the lines of greenish sandstone visible. It is unknown exactly why the builders chose to include the line as the whole structure was plastered over and it would not have been seen.

News From the Region
On our trips we will often regroup, and cleanup, with a hotel night. Blanding is one location where this often occurs and the Sunset Inn is our usual choice, an easy one at 25 dollars a night! On this trip we found it under new management with lots of changes going on. We did not stay this time, but found out that there are upgrades in the rooms as well as on the outside. The price has increased to 43 dollars a night (still a bargain) and the name has changed to the Stone Lizard. On our way through Blanding we had a late breakfast at Yaks Diner. It is worth mentioning as it is the only diner in town and has cheap, fast, hearty American breakfasts. It is on the north side of town right on the highway.

Leave No Trace
Anyone who has read a few of my posts knows that I often mention Leave No Trace principles (some of you may be getting tired of it). But I feel I have good reason- I’ve been going into the wilderness all my life, and have found campsites, for example, that are absolutely disgusting- with firepits full of broken bottles and half-burned beer cans, trash all around, and toilet paper blowing in the breeze on the sagebrush. Whenever I encounter a site like this I do my best to clean it up. I often leave the bush with more trash that I have picked up than I have made myself.

Nciolai Trainor starting our nightly fire in the fire pan. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Nico starting our nightly fire in the fire pan.

I have also encountered many absolutely perfect and pristine campsites, places where previous campers have been as diligent as I try to be about cleaning up and leaving the place untouched for the next person to come along. My personal rule is to always leave a site cleaner than I found it. I have been teaching these principles to my son since his very first trip, and they have become the norm for him. As a final comment on LNT, since we started floating rivers about 8 years ago now, we have carried our river fire pan along with us in the truck. During that time we have only made our fires in the fire pan, packing up the charcoal and ashes the next morning with our trash. I feel it is a great way to minimise our impact and leave our camps just a little bit cleaner.

For more information on Leave No Trace principles, visit  the LNT website. For more about who we are and our adventures in the Utah desert, visit the Desert Explorer website. Photos from the trip are posted on the Desert Explorer Picasa page.


North Wash Canyoneering Trip, Rock Art

13 October 2009

I have just returned from a long weekend in North Wash with a group from the Boulder area.  We were in the canyons throughout the day on Friday and Saturday, and on Sunday morning.  We managed Blarney Canyon on Friday, a first canyon for many of us, then Leprechaun Canyon’s left and middle fork on Saturday, and finished with the right fork of Leprechaun Canyon on Sunday.  Each canyon day was about 5 to 8 hours long. Friday was longer for those that went through both forks of Blarney. Saturday was longer for those that went through the left and middle forks of Leprechaun. These are considered beginner canyons, rated “G” for the most part (middle Leprechaun is a “PG”), and they were a great place to start. A selection of photos form the weekend can be found on the Desert Explorer Flickr page.

Canyoneering- Equipment and Climbing Skills
Canyoneering is not for everyone.  It can be strenuous and challenging both  physically and mentally, not to mention dangerous. Our group was “fully informed”; we all had a pretty good idea of what we were getting into and  everyone seemed to be up for the challenge. Everyone was helpful and encouraging as we moved down the canyons. And we had knowledgeable and competent leaders.  Ours was a group operation and it held together well, something important in any group activity, but even more important in an activity such as this where lives could be at risk.

down_canyon

Moving down canyon, Blarney Canyon, North Wash.

Canyoneering requires typical climbing skills, although you are moving down canyon, and therefore down climbing for the most part. It requires typical climbing equipment- harness, helmet, slings, carabiners,  (static) ropes, and so on, and much more depending on the canyon you are traveling through.  The canyon walls can tear you up, and wearing old, disposable clothing is advised.  We also wore elbow and knee pads and gloves for climbing and rappelling.

Most of the details of the trip, such as directions, the time involved for each canyon, and necessary equipment is thoroughly covered elsewhere- information on the technical parts of the trip can be found at Tom’s Utah Canyoneering website.  More general information on canyoneering can be found at CanyoneeringUSA.com. General information on desert hiking and backpacking can be found at the Desert Explorer website. Be sure to visit these websites and DO YOUR RESEARCH before you go into the canyons.  Plan your visit, know where you are going, and exactly what you are getting into before you go.

If you are new to canyoneering, do not rely on these websites to teach you how to do it.  Find a competent teacher with experience and credentials (see the CanyoneeringUSA.com website for course information). Canyoneering is a potentially hazardous undertaking and proper training is a must.

Sandthrax Camp- Toilets, Fires, Water
The campsite we stayed at is worth mentioning.  It was not a campground with assigned sites, nor did it have a toilet.  On Saturday morning there must have been close to 70, 80, possibly 90 people there for trips into the canyon that day.  It made for some pretty tight quarters, and I understand that it was an anomaly.  No one had seen so many people there at any other time.   The only toilet in the area was about 5 miles down Highway 95 towards Lake Powell.  We can only hope that everyone who needed to made the drive.  If not, Sandthrax campsite won’t be habitable for much longer with this number of people moving through it. Our group brought a groover along just in case.  If you don’t have one available, at least carry along Wag Bags and use them if you don’t want to make the drive to the Hog Springs pit toilet.

sandtthrax

Sandthrax camp on saturday morning showing maybe half of the vehicles that were there.

Also worth mentioning are the number of fire pits at the site.  Most of them seemed to have rock rings around them, and there seemed to be enough of them. I did find fires built at the mouth of Blarney Canyon and Leprechaun Canyon directly on the ground, with the ashes and charcoal scattered all around. I hope I don’t see any more there the next time I visit.  In keeping with Leave No Trace principles, no more fire pits should be made.  And whenever possible those that exist should be cleaned out, and the ash and charcoal removed and taken home with someone. Perhaps people should consider bringing along fire pans like on river trips?  Just my two cents.

As for water, there is none available.  Be sure to get all you need at the Hanksville BLM office parking lot, at a gas station in Green River, or somewhere else along you route.

The canyons and campsite were incredibly clean otherwise, especially considering the number of people who use them.  This was encouraging.

Rock Art of Lower North Wash

pictos_1

Barrier Canyon style pictographs high in an alcove near Hog Springs.

On Friday afternoon a few of us took  a walk around the Hog Springs area and found a pictograph panel high up in a large alcove and a petroglyph panel across the wash from it.  The pictograph panel was Barrier Canyon style, dating from between 1000 B.C. and A.D. 500.  The anthropomorph (human form) was near a meter and a half in height.

Although hard to see in the images, the eyes and mouth of the anthropomorph were pecked into the rock before the application of pigment.

pictos_2

Detail of anthropomorph showing "beaded headdress and necklace" and simple, linear interior body decoration.

The same is true for the visible indentation in the chest. The spalling seen at the bottom of the image likely occurred  prior to its creation, based on the fading out of pigment towards the bottom of the image.

The zoomorph (animal form) to its right may have been unfinished in antiquity, although some pigments fade more readily than others and it may have been a polychrome image, part of which has faded with time. The zoomorph may represent a canine, my guess based on the overall shape and the tail.  Canine figures are common in Barrier Canyon sites in the area. The preservation of the pictographs was good, due to their sheltered
location in the alcove.

petro_1

Poorly preserved and vandalised panel in North Wash.

The petroglyph panel across the wash fared less well with time.  It showed extensive signs of vandalism, both with modern additions to the panel (note figure with square head and feathers) as well as outlining, circling, and crossing out of some of the elements. The petroglyph panel was likely the same age as the pictographs, although probably of the Glen Canyon Style 5 tradition. I say this based on the fact that it is pecked rather than painted, and because of the elements of the panel- the “atlatl” figure, the snake or “power lines”, and the abstract lines.

For more information on the rock art of Utah and the Four Corners Region, see Sally Cole’s Legacy on Stone– be sure to get the 2008, revised edition.

The Next Step
I have been planning to try my hand at more technical canyoneering for years.  I already spend lots of time in the canyons, backpacking and hiking mostly, but with scrambling, climbing and squeezing every now and then. Recent trips down the Dirty Devil River and in the Escalante have pushed me into taking the steps to find capable guidance for a foray into more technical canyoneering. For more on our fearless leader of the past weekend, visit A.J.’s website. With that said, I am ready to see more slots and look forward to returning to Utah and the challenges that await.