Another Spring Break in Canyon Country

21 April 2016

We have just returned from southern Utah once again. It was a late spring break for us, but well worth waiting for April to make the trip. The weather was perfect right up till the end, when we caught a bit of the storm that brought winter back to Colorado. We spent our two weeks in the usual places, revisited some of our favorite canyons, and explored some new ones. We made it a point to include plenty of time enjoying sunrises, sunsets, and the star filled night sky, and more than a few afternoons sitting on the slickrock with a cup of tea.

Blooming holly. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Holly in bloom. The desert was alive with color and fragrance.

Our itinerary brought us straight to southern San Juan county this time. We made an afternoon stop in Moab for final supplies as always, but the weather was so perfect that Moab was too busy for us. April is the perfect time of year for most people- warm days and not too cool nights, without the extreme heat that comes in another month or so. Besides ATV’s and other off-road vehicles, there were mountain bikes everywhere, and more RV’s and camp trailers to be found around every corner than I have ever seen. This was the case everywhere we went- down every road whether it be along Comb Ridge, on Cedar Mesa, or around Green River, where we finished up our trip.

Grand Gulch
We did get a few days of backpacking in this trip. We walked in through Dripping Canyon, had a day in Grand Gulch, and walked out Step Canyon. This is something I have done before, so knew the walk quite well. It was perfect for Nicolai and I- nothing an 11-year-old couldn’t handle. As always, we could have used a couple more days in this short stretch of the canyons- there was just so much to see that we had to choose where to spend our time. For anyone venturing in any time soon, water was not a problem. At least finding drinking water that is. From another perspective, that of walking, it was quite a problem in places. There was so much water in the canyons that we found ourselves skirting pools all along the walk, and especially in Grand Gulch.

Yellow ancestral puebloan pictograph in Grand Gulch, Utah. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

“Yellow Man” panel in Grand Gulch.

Cedar Mesa was a busy place. The Kane Gulch ranger station was packed on the few occasions we stopped in. But once we got in the canyons we only saw, and heard, one group of people. I should say heard more than saw them. Their presence was known to us by their extremely loud voices, yelling I would call it, and their crashing wildly through the brush. We made it a point to discuss this problem with the folks at the ranger station after our walk- noise pollution is  a problem everywhere and especially in such a place as this. I feel that these days so many people don’t know the difference between a place that is… sacred, and say, the grocery store. The analogy I like to use is that I would not come bounding and crashing and yelling into your church, so please don’t come into mine that way. But I suppose, to continue the analogy, I am preaching to the choir here.

Comb Ridge
We have a favorite camp in view of Comb Ridge making it easy to get into the canyons there. We spent five nights on the slickrock at that camp, really enjoying the night sky. I have to make a plug here for one of my more recent equipment purchases. I have been sleeping better than ever these days on an Exped SynMat 7 Sleeping Pad. This inflatable sleeping pad has an integral pump which inflates it in just a couple of minutes. No blowing it up by mouth involved! I have the synthetic fill version which is rated at an insulation value of 4.9, but there is a higher rated pad that has down filling.  I use it at the truck and on the river- it’s just too heavy for me to carry on a backpack. The pads are not cheap, but if you are struggling with getting a good night’s sleep on a thinner pad, you may want to give one a try.

We spent a couple of days exploring Comb Ridge, and as always found more ruins and rock art, middens and moki steps, sweat lodges and seasonal campsites. Comb Ridge is truly a place where one can learn about the varied archaeology of the Northern San Juan region all in one place. One ruin we visited stood out in the amount of mud that was plastered on the walls. The ruin lacked for stone, but still held together well with mud. Looking at it you could see the way it was applied, in great masses, each appearing to be left to sag and dry before the next mass was applied. The interior of the walls had niches built-in, and the end walls were curiously rounded, as if they were not continued across the front, but were left open.

Ancestral Puebloan structure in Comb Ridge, Utah. Photo by Gerald Trainor

Comb Ridge ruin with walls lacking in stone but showing an abundance of mud.

Ancestral Puebloan dwelling in Comb Ridge, Utah. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

End wall of plastered ruin showing rounded finish. Note the thick mortar beds between the thin pieces of sandstone.

There is always so much to see, and to write about afterwards, on our Utah trips. But for now it’s back to preparation for the next trip. In about a month we are back in southern Utah for more archaeology at Nancy Patterson Village. For more about us and our desert adventures visit the Desert Explorer website.

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Trip Report, June 2013- Jones Canyon

17 June 2013

After many, many years I finally managed to get back into the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness along the border of Colorado and Utah. I spent four days in the area, walking the many drainages of Jones Canyon. Jones Canyon is accessible from the trailhead at the end of BS Road, although it is a long drive and the road can truly be impassable when it is wet. (See our Colorado Canyons page for more information on how to get there.) It was never clear to me whether Jones Canyon was accessible from above or not. The trailhead is there, the head of Jones Canyon is there, but I never found any data on getting into the canyon. So to make sure that I could get into the canyon I came in from below.

Jones Canyon Utah backpacking

Cattle trail leading into Jones Canyon. I counted 14 head up one canyon. They can only get so far up and then the Canyon is untouched.

I started out on a Monday morning by swimming across the Colorado River just above the Westwater ranger station, where I left my truck parked. I walked up river about 1 1/2 kilometers, to a point where the river was narrower, the bank on the south side was not completely overgrown, and to where I thought I was on public land. I am still not sure that I was on public land- there is clearly a working ranch on that side of the river- but how far down their land reaches is still unclear to me. Either way, I crossed, skirted around the irrigated fields, and made my way up and over the ridge to finally drop into Jones Canyon.

A point of note here- the river was flowing at 10,000 CFS. I wore a full wetsuit (my $20 Goodwill, 2 mil canyoneering wetsuit served me well) and my PFD- just to be safe. On the swim over I really pushed it and made the crossing in about 500 meters downstream distance. On the swim back across, which I did at about 7 in the morning, I was happy to have the wetsuit. It took about ten minutes to travel the kilometer downstream to the take out while casually swimming across from where I waded in. That was enough time to cause a chill even with the wetsuit in the early morning. So remember- safety first, especially when you are alone. For both crossings my backpack, boots, and clothing was in two drybags that I had lashed together and towed with a long piece of one inch webbing.

The Canyons
The many drainages of Jones Canyon run the gamut of canyon possibilities- from wet to absolutely dry; from narrow, near-slots to flat, wide canyon bottoms; from shallow with easy exits to deep with no way out except the way you came in. I did manage on day three to climb out one drainage and back in the one next to it. The route out was easy, taking no more than 15 minutes. Getting back in was another story- it took a full hour of downclimbing, route finding, and pack-lowering to get back in. In hindsight it wasn’t the best entrance, but it wasn’t the toughest I have ever encountered.

Jones Canyon backpacking

View north from the mesa top after an easy climb out at the head of one of the Jones Canyon drainages.

The vegetation in the canyon bottoms is just as varied, changing from sage brush, bunch grass, and tamarisk, to willows, river cane, cottonwoods, and poison ivy. I saw peregrines and other raptors, lots of little grey birds, and very old sign from elk and bear up every drainage.  There were also endless reptiles and amphibians- the usual array of lizards, Woodhouse toads, and a variety of water snakes. There was very little in the way of cultural remains, aside from a couple of hole-in-top cans and one petroglyph.

Jones Canyon snake

Small snake in the clear water of a running spring in one of the Jones Canyon drainages.

As I noted above, water was available in most of the drainages, nearly all of it in springs.  There were a few potholes with remnants of spring runoff still in them. The water was definitely drying up though, and based on that I would recommend earlier in spring or fall for a visit. Chances are that summer is very dry in nearly all the drainages.

The best part of Jones Canyon was its feeling of isolation. It is not a popular destination for backpackers. I found only two sets of boot tracks in different drainages, both possibly months old and signs of a fire with some bits of trash that was even older, nothing more. If quiet isolation is what you are looking for, then Jones Canyon is the place.

For more on our desert adventures, see the Desert Explorer website. Look for another post soon- we are off to Grand Gulch and points south in another week for more backpacking and exploration. You can follow our progress while we are out on our SPOT Messenger page.


September Trip Report, Part One- Fish Creek Canyon and Grand Gulch

13 October 2012

I was lucky enough to have the last two weeks of September to myself in the Grand Gulch area of southeast Utah this year. I managed to spend about a week in Grand Gulch and on Cedar Mesa, and a few days hiking Comb Ridge. During my hikes I found countless rock art panels- a few that I revisited, but many new ones, and ruins all along the way. I also made a side trip down to Chinle, Arizona for an evening of Navajo singing and dancing sponsored by KTNN, the Navajo Nation’s radio station. The weather was perfect, not too cold, and warm during the day. There was one night and morning of sustained rain while I was down in Grand Gulch. There was enough rain to send water cascading off canyon rims and to turn the previously dry canyon bottom into a fast-moving stream.

My hikes started out with a few days in upper Fish Creek Canyon- 3 days and 2 nights to be exact. I entered from the Fish and Owl trailhead and then walked up the Main Fork and came back down the South Fork. This was a section of canyon I had wanted to visit for at least the last ten years, ever since my first trip into lower Fish and Owl Creek Canyons. The head of the canyon seems very inviting as you drive across it on Highway 95. Looking down canyon, it appears that it would be a gradual, even descent on slickrock canyon bottoms. This is not really the case, especially up high.

Entrance to Fish Creek Canyon, view north from canyon rim after walking across mesa. The walk is rough in the canyon bottom down below.

Since I was traveling alone and not carrying any technical canyoneering gear (no ropes, harness, slings) I started from below and worked my way up. It always feels safer to me to work this way- if I can climb up something I can usually climb right back down it. Coming in from above and following the canyon bottom in an unknown canyon often requires a lot of climbing out- around- back in. This adds the potential for becoming “rimrocked” while trying to find a way back in. Then there is the possibility of downclimbing and coming to impassable pouroffs requiring backtracking and climbing back out. Of course the same will then be true for traveling up canyon, but the potential for getting into trouble is minimised, in my opinion, by traveling up canyon.

Upper Fish Creek Canyon is not lower Fish Creek Canyon, not that lower Fish is that easy of a walk. The canyon started out with water everywhere, and associated brush, requiring lots of skirting of pools, and some climbs around bigger pools at pouroffs. I found pools of hundreds and even thousands of gallons of water on my hikes in Fish Creek, Grand Gulch and side canyons.  I should mention that just a couple of weeks before my arrival there was a tremendous downpour lasting some 10 hours at certain locations. This filled the canyons with water, scouring them out and depositing debris, and creating problems for navigation both in the canyons and on the mesa top. I was told by the rangers at Kane Gulch that “the narrows” of Grand Gulch had become a swimming hole at the bottom, and was jammed with debris at the top. There was a group of volunteers clearing out brush and rebuilding trails in that area while I was there.

Pothole- upper Dripping Canyon, Cedar Mesa, Utah. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Large pothole holding thousands of gallons of water, upper Dripping Canyon.

Back to Fish- canyon bottom walking was rough at times. Besides water and brush, there was plenty of climbing over, under, and around boulders higher up in the canyon. Slots were a problem higher up, requiring climbing out, skirting on a bench, and climbing back in. The vegetation changes as I gained elevation traveling up canyon occurred in conjunction with the slots- once I started seeing Ponderosa and other pines, the canyon narrowed and started to slot. I encountered more slots coming back down the South Fork than moving up the Main Fork. A rope, harness, and some slings would have made for an interesting experience in these upper sections.  I spent a few hours on benches skirting slots on  the way back down.

Slot in upper Fish Creek Canyon, South Fork. Don’t be deceived by the photo- it is about 40 feet or so down to the water. This would have been fun with rope and harness.

After I finished up with Fish Creek Canyon I headed across the mesa into Grand Gulch proper. I entered via Dripping Canyon, which is passable. That is about all I will say on the subject; it is a fun one, and can be done. I spent the afternoon in Grand Gulch and headed out via Step Canyon, where I stayed the night. Along the way I passed by some of the well-know panels and ruins in the canyon bottom. If you are new to Grand Gulch, it was at one time very populated. This is evident as you walk along the canyon bottom; all you have to do is look up every now and then to see ruins and rock art.

Pueblo dwelling, Grand Gulch, Utah. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Large, well-preserved, and defensible ruin in Grand Gulch.

Part two of my September Trip Report will cover hikes in Comb Ridge, rock art along the San Juan River, and my visit to Chinle, Arizona. I will also include an update on my tracking book bibliography. Look for that in about a week. In the meantime, for more on visiting southeast Utah, see the Desert Explorer website.


Escalante Trek, May 2011- Gear Reviews

29 May 2011

This post is a continuation of my post from 27 May, which outlined a recent trek down the Escalante River. In this post I will discuss some of the new gear that I tried out on this recent backpack trip. I should state that I am not paid nor sponsored by any of the companies whose products I am writing about. With the exception of Rokit Fuel, I purchased all products reviewed here and was not contacted by any of the companies. Rokit Fuel is a semi- solicited review- I received the products from the company for free for my own trial use.

Golite Malpais Trinity Rain Jacket
My most important piece of new gear on this trip, based on the cool and sometimes wet conditions that I encountered, was the Golite Malpais Trinity Jacket. In packing I hoped for warm weather, but was prepared for anything- and that is where this jacket comes in. Normally I carry only a silcloth poncho which serves as my rain gear, pack cover, and shelter. I also carry a Golite Wisp wind shirt to add a little more protection if it’s windy. On this trip, based on the potential for cool and wet weather, the amount of time I would be out, and the distance involved, I switched the Wisp out for the Malpais. I pulled the jacket out on about day 3 and I barely took it off until I got back to the trailhead. I even slept in it on one particularly cool night.

Golite Malpais jacket

The Golite Malpais Liteshell jacket.

I make every attempt to travel as light as possible and in doing so I haven’t carried rain gear in many years. But this jacket has changed my way of thinking, and I’ll keep it in my pack. The Malpais jacket weighs only 7 ounces, about 3 ounces more than the Wisp shirt. The jacket is made of Golite’s ultralight 3-layer Trinity material, a waterproof, breathable fabric and is the lightest that Golite makes. Besides the Trinity fabric, to get to such a light weight they did away with pit zips, most of the cordlocks, hood stowage, and made the interior pockets out of a super thin mesh material. After days in the jacket, and hour upon hour of rain on one occasion, I was comfortable and dry underneath. Without question, if you are looking for a lightweight rain jacket that will really protect from the elements, this is it.

OTB DesertLite Boots
Next on my list of impressive new gear is the OTB (Over The Beach) DesertLite boot. I needed strong, comfortable footgear for this trek that would perform well on land and not fall apart being wet for 4 or 5 days straight. These boots were designed by U.S. Navy SEALS and are engineered and manufactured by New Balance. Those two facts made me take a closer look at the boots.

The OTB line has in it two 8 inch boots that I looked at- the DesertLite boot and the JungleLite boot. The boots are exactly the same in every respect, except in color and leather finish. The DesertLite boot is available in a tan upper with suede tan leather finish, the JungleLite boot comes in olive drab or black upper with polished black leather. I chose the DesertLite simply because the color fits in better in my area of operation.

OTB DesertLite boots. Photo by Gerrald Trainor.

OTB DesertLite boots.

The boots feature mesh ventilation holes on the instep and the outside of the boot, 3 on a side. These holes function as drain holes when working in a wet environment. The uppers are mesh and drain extremely well and quickly when stepping out of water. I was concerned that the drain holes might let sand in, either in the water or when walking on dry land. I did find that a small amount of fine silt did make its way into the boot, but the amount was negligible. I was also concerned about drying. But each morning when I put the boots back on they were comfortably dry, enough so that if I were on dry land for the day, my feet wouldn’t feel wet. I did set the boots out in the sun on a slab of sandstone one afternoon to see how long they took to dry completely. In about two hours they were dry to the touch, inside and out.

I wore these boots for 8 straight days, they were wet for 6 of those days, and I traveled just over 100 miles in them. The only visible wear in that time is on the “reinforced climbing rubber” on the inside of the toes. A small piece tore off on the upper corner of both boots- I did do a large amount of scrambling up and down and over sandstone boulders and rocks. Other than that, it is hard to tell that I just put a very tough 100 miles on the boots.

As far as I know there are no other boots or shoes out there that are anywhere near comparable to the OTB DesertLite boot. I have tried other “water shoes” (see the reviews from the first part of the Escalante Trek) and found them woefully inadequate- fine for frisbee in the park, but nothing beyond that. The OTB DesertLite boot gets the job done.

Rokit Fuel Endurance Foods
I am constantly refining, amending, and otherwise changing my packing lists, the gear that I carry, and the foods that I carry and eat while in the bush. I make most of my own meals by the way- see our Backpack Foods pages for more on that. I was recently emailed by a representative of Rokit Fuel, a local, Utah company, and asked if I would try their products. As I am always happy to try any new outdoor product on the market, I heartily agreed.

Crystal from Rokit Fuel supplied me with three of their products in various flavors- Stud Muffin and Cherry Almond Cereal Cups, two prototype Energy Bars (not yet on the market- but coming soon as Booster Bars according to the Rokit Fuel website), and four flavors of their Cereal Pouches. I can summarise my experience with all of them in one word- delicious!

Okay, so good taste is obviously important, but what about the energy part of the foods? I have to admit that it is really hard for me to tell sometimes how an energy bar, or endurance food in this case, actually affects me. I can say that I specifically tried the products at a time when I needed a boost, on longer parts of the walk, and in between meals. Based on this I can say without a doubt that I got the boost that I needed. The highlight of all the products is the fact that they are made with whole foods- grains, nuts, seeds, and fruits- and that these foods in minimally processed form are better for you and are digested and absorbed faster by your body then processed foods. The products range in calorie content from about 250 calories for the Cereal Pouches to about 350 calories for the Cereal Cups. There are plenty of carbs, protein, fiber, and other good things you need when out there pushing yourself. See the Rokit Fuel website for a complete nutritional breakdown of all their products.

On to the products- the Cereal Pouch comes in a small bag and requires water. This could be an obvious problem if you are in a race or on your bike for example, but for backpacking it becomes a non-issue. In fact it only took seconds for me to tear the pouch open, squeeze water into it from my Camelbak tube, mix it up and enjoy it. I was concerned about how it might mix up, how long it might take. But again, it wasn’t an issue. Once the water was in it took a few seconds of massaging the pouch until all the ingredients were saturated. And the outcome- imagine a quick few bites of tasty granola cereal in milk right on the trail. Or maybe a liquid granola bar. Either way, it tasted great and I was on my way in a couple of minutes. My favorites were the pumpkin chocolate and the stud muffin.

The Cereal Cups come in some of the same flavors as the Cereal Pouches. If you are using those oatmeal breakfast packets from the grocery store shelf, the ones that require 3 or 4 to fill you up, and end up being a gooey mess, you should look into the Cereal Cups. I dumped mine into pint Ziplock bags. In the morning I poured enough hot water into the bag to moisten the contents, closed it up for a few minutes, and my breakfast was ready. Each cup makes a decent sized, filling, and not-too-sweet trail breakfast. Give the cherry almond a try.

Rokit Fuel Cereal Cup dumped into Ziplock bag for backpack breakfasts. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Rokit Fuel Cereal Cup dumped into Ziplock bag for backpack breakfasts.

Finally, the Booster Bars were a welcome change of pace to my usual peanut butter Clif Bars, not that I will shun them forever. But change is good. The Booster Bars will come in four configurations- two chocolate covered and two without. I try to stick with bars that are not chocolate covered; the desert heat and chocolate in foil always ends up as a mess. But excluding this fact, the chocolate covered bars will please your taste buds and give you the energy to keep moving.

Unfortunately at this time these products are only available at a few outlets and online. But once you give them a try you probably won’t have an issue ordering a big box of them online. And I’ll bet we will see them in stores in the near future.

Part Three
Check back in a few days for part three of  my Escalante Trek post. I’m still planning to touch on the geology and rock art that you might see while walking down the river, discuss a bit of the flora, and relate my methods of getting in some tracking practice while hiking. I’ll also go over LNT, or Leave No Trace principles while backpacking. For more on ultralight desert backpacking and associated gear, backpack foods and making your own meals, water, and desert adventures, visit the Desert Explorer website.


Escalante Trek, May 2011- Moody Canyon to Coyote Gulch and Back

27 May 2011

Wind, clouds, rain showers, and cool weather- this summarises the eight days I took to “finish” my trek of the Escalante River. I know it is still spring, but I had hoped for more summer-like weather. I began on the 12th of May at the Moody Canyon trailhead, about 20 miles down the Wolverine Loop road from the Burr Trail. The road to the trailhead is well maintained, and if dry it is not really a problem for almost any vehicle, although a high clearance, 4WD is recommended in case bad weather does move in. From the trailhead I walked for 8 days to complete a loop back to my start point. Along the way I saw a few rock art panels, endless geologic marvels, was serenaded by flycatches and towhees, and had an overall terrific experience alone in the bush.

Swimming the Escalante
My first day took me down to the river. On day two I walked up river to 25 Mile Wash and back to “connect” this walk to my 2009 walk from the Highway 12 bridge down to and out 25 Mile Wash. After that the walk really got interesting. The weather grew cooler, wind blew, rain fell, and the river got rougher with every kilometer I walked down it. River crossings- there were at least 25 each day- were deeper, swifter, and colder as I got further down river. I had to swim on a number of occasions, floating my pack alongside me. A note on crossing rivers- as a safety measure when crossing swifter water always unclip your breast strap and waist belt and at least loosen your pack straps, or remove one arm entirely. If you should happen to lose your balance and fall in the current it is far better to swim out of it without a backpack strapped to you, which can become quite dangerous in some circumstances. By the last day of walking down the river the flow had peaked, and as I got closer to the mouth of Coyote Gulch, within a few kilometers, it began to calm and become shallow. This was mainly due to the height of the water in the reservoir below.

View of the Escalante River below Scorpion Gulch looking up river, photo by Gerald Trainor.

View of the Escalante River below Scorpion Gulch, looking up river. Note the boulders and tight margins along the water that must be negotiated. It gets tougher the further down river you get.

Floating the Escalante
Coyote Gulch is about where the Escalante starts backing up and the flat water below begins, although this year water was still flowing on past Coyote Gulch. I met a few groups of boaters along the way. All were in inflatables and two of the groups were taking the smart way out, floating all the way down and meeting a boat to shuttle them back to Bullfrog. I am told this will cost about 350 dollars or so per shuttle boat. Even if you go solo, you can try to link up with another group and split the cost of the shuttle boat out. The other option is to haul all your gear up and out Coyote Gulch, something not very fun with just a backpack, let alone a boat and river gear. Currently there is only one portage on the lower part of the river, a large boulder jam that has been there for years. Depending on the flows, there may be more than this one. The river was flowing around 100 CFS during my trip according to the USGS website, but apparently that number doubles once you reach Boulder Creek. Current river flows can be found at the USGS website.

The Loop
To finish out the trip I walked up Coyote Gulch to Dry Fork of Coyote Gulch, across the mesa to the head of Scorpion Gulch, back down to the river, up river to East Moody Canyon, and out from there. It all sounds fairly easy, but don’t be fooled. It was a long one, just over 100 miles, and although the bushwhacking wasn’t too bad as compared to conditions on the upper part of the river, the river crossings and negotiating the river banks more than made up for that. Navigation was not much of an issue- follow the water down to Coyote Gulch, walk up, cross the mesa, and so on. Of course there is more to the walk than this, but for the sake of rambling and spoiling the adventure for anyone else who might choose to do it, I will stop the narrative here.

A pool of fresh, clean water about mid-way down Scorpion Gulch. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

A pool of fresh, clean water about mid-way down Scorpion Gulch.

Trip Summary
It goes without saying- but I am going to say it- that you should be prepared for this hike. Carry the gear that you will need, don’t overpack, and be in shape. There was really nothing too technical anywhere along the 100 miles of the loop other than a bit of bouldering and crawling though a few cracks here and there along the river. There was no climbing or rappelling, no need for technical gear unless you explore further up some of the side canyons such as Fools Canyon. You can walk up Fools a couple of kilometers before you reach a pouroff that requires rope and harness to get around it. From there it’s anyone’s guess.

In my experience, May is a good time to do this walk, with the chance for cool weather and lower river flows.  Average river flows are around 10 CFS for May- but they could be at 200, 300, 400 CFS or higher. Temperatures should be around 75 or 80 with a sunny sky- they could be 35 or 40 with clouds and rain. Bugs were not an issue, but they certainly could be, especially if you visit later in the summer. A point of note- do keep your eyes open for poison ivy. It is all along the river, and up and down many of the side canyons, especially the lower sections of Fools Canyon and Scorpion Gulch.

Water was not an issue anywhere and excluding the river entirely, there was plenty of water in every canyon, just around every corner at this time of year. I didn’t have to filter any of it, I just filled my bottles and treated the water with the MSR MIOX purifier pen. You can read more about the MIOX at the Desert Explorer website. This fact helped to keep my pack weight down. For the most part I didn’t carry any more than a few liters of water on my back at any given time. Again, the water situation could change dramatically from year to year, and as it gets later in the summer. For more on ultralight desert backpacking, backpack foods and meals, water, and desert adventures, visit the Desert Explorer website.

Part Two
Check back in a few days for part two of this post, where I will review the new gear that I tried out on this trek including the Golite Trinity Malpais jacket, OTB DesertLite Boots, and Rokit Fuel endurance foods. You can also read our gear reviews from the first part of the trek– we tried out Sea To Summit pack liners, the Sealine HP  map case, and a Drypack case for the digital camera. I’ll also touch on the geology and rock art that you might see while walking down the river, as well as a little about the flora and fauna.


Gear Reviews- Sea to Summit, Sealline, and Dry Pak Bags and Cases, Merrell Water Shoes

7 September 2009

In a recent post I mentioned a few new pieces of gear that Robert and I used on our recent trek along the Escalante River. All the new gear had to do with water- waterproofing and walking in water. This included a Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Pack Liner and Dry Sack, a Dry Pak cell phone case, a Sealline HP map case, and the Merrell Waterpro Maipo water shoes. In this post I will give a quick review of each piece of gear.

Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil bags- Sea to Summit makes a full line of Ultra-Sil Dry Sacks and Pack Liners, and medium-weight and heavier-weight dry bags with various features including air evacuation material.  The bags are available from REI (Pack Liners are available online only), and at Amazon through the links below where they can currently be found a bit cheaper.

STS_packlinerIn a word the bags we used performed perfectly.  Knowing that my gear was safe and dry was worth the extra 4 1/2  ounces that both bags added to my overall pack weight. I used a 50 liter Ultra-Sil Pack Liner, which stayed in the bottom of my Golite Pinnacle pack and had gear packed into it. The 50 liter, their small size, weighs 2.6 ounces and costs about 35 dollars at Amazon or REI. The small is available in orange only. The medium, at 70 liters,  weighs 3.4 ounces, comes in green and costs about 28 dollars at Amazon (lowest price).

STS_drybagOver top of that I packed a 20 liter Ultra-Sil Dry Sack, their extra-large size, which I used for all of my small gear, maps, daily snacks, and essentials.  The Dry Sack came out of the pack for easy access to gear.  The two bags together were perfect for organising and packed easily.  I was in deep water a number of times with the pack submerged and there was no indication that water got into either one.  Of course this has to do with how you pack them- packing gear snugly inside, removing all the air, and rolling the tops tightly is essential to their function.

The 20 liter bag weighs just 1.8 ounces. It costs about 23 dollars at Amazon or REI, although is cheaper at Amazon if you order the orange color.  These bags are available in sizes from 1 liter up to 35 liters, and range in price from about 11 dollars to 25 dollars at Amazon.

The bags are very thin silcloth material and are light in weight. They were perfect for this type of trek. If you plan to be in water beyond an occasional quick swim across a deep pool, such as while canyoneering, you may want to choose something a little more substantial.

Sealline HP Map Case– If you are looking for a map case, look no further. This map case tops my list as my favorite over the years- and I have carried many.  Most recently I have been using freezer weight, one-gallon Ziplock bags as map cases.  These are a great choice for general hiking, but the Escalante with its possibility of swimming at any moment demanded something more secure.

The Sealline HP Map Case is made of very thin urethane material that is strong enough to survive hanging out of your pocket while bushwhacking along the Escalante. The material is crystal clear, the map inside is easy to read. I hope it stays this way- the previous version of the HP map case yellowed and hardened with exposure to the sun. The new version is a completely different material and I think this is one of the reasons for the re-design.

sealline_caseThe new version, just out this fall, has a roll top with a velcro strip that holds the roll tightly together.  I had the case completely under water many times and only once, after a long wade across deep, fast water, was there the slightest bit of moisture in the outer-most roll when I opened the case later.

The case has two buckles and a strip of web to hang around the neck. I removed the web and ran a piece of 550 cord through one of the loops to secure the case to my belt loop.  The case also has 4 tabs, one in each corner for tying onto the deck of your kayak perhaps, or the pack of the man in front of you. As I would never use them, I cut off the tabs straight away (extra weight).

The case is available at Amazon in two sizes, small and medium, at 25 and 30 dollars respectively.  There is also a large size that I have only seen at Moosejaw.com.  They are not sold at REI yet, but should be in the future. (REI sold the older version of the cases.) The small case weighs 2 ounces, the medium 2.5 ounces, and the large weighs 5 ounces. Inner dimensions are 9.5 inches by 12.25 inches for the small, 13 inches by 15 inches for the medium, and 14 inches by 21 inches for the large.

The small size accepts a USGS 1:24,000 mapsheet with the margins cut off. The mapsheet can be folded in half on both axes and slid right into the case. See the 11 January 2009 blog post for more on how and why I trim maps.

Dry Pak Cell Phone Case– This was my first experience with Dry Pak cases.  I needed something for my point-and-shoot digital camera. The Dry Pak Cell Phone Case was the perfect size.  The case performed as I had hoped, keeping the camera clean and dry, and providing a little bit of padding (designed for flotation). The only drawback is the closure-  it is a bit bulky with hard plastic strips at the top and two button closures. Once twisted to open, the button closures could, if pushed the right way, come out of the plastic strip and be lost. They are secure when new, but may be something to keep an eye on once the case is well used. I was worried that the bulk of the closure strips might be awkward in my pocket. But I did carry it in my shirt pocket and it was fine, being no thicker than the camera that I put inside it.

drypak_caseDry Pak cases come in many shapes and sizes to fit nearly any piece of electronic equipment.  All appear to use the same closure device. The Cell Phone Case comes with a lanyard and small snaplink, both of which I removed immediately (extra weight).

The small case which I used weighs 2.4 ounces and is 4 by 6 inches in size.  The material and the seam welds seem strong and durable.  I am guessing I will be using it on many other trips.

Merrell Waterpro Maipo Water Shoes– The final piece of new equipment on the trip was the Merrell Maipo water shoe. Both Robert and I used these shoes, and both of us returned them after the trip because of broken straps. We only put about 70 miles or so on the shoes and expected much more out of them. Since returning them, I noticed that they are no longer available at REI.

In my search for water shoes I read a bunch of reviews and concluded that none were very well designed, at least for our purposes. I ended up choosing the Merrells, based on the fact that they were one of the fullest shoes available, they were light weight, and because of my own positive experiences with Merrell products. I own two other pairs of their shoes at present and have never had an issue with these or any of the many other pairs of Merrell shoes I have owned.

merrell_maipo

Merrell Maipo water shoe

After using the Maipo shoe I can say with certainty that they need more design work.  The small straps wrapping all around the shoe, while they may add some support and a little bling to the shoe, are a very poor idea for many reasons. The straps are only about 1/4 inch in width. These straps wore through, broke in half, in two locations on my shoes, and the cord that the straps wrap around (near the bottom of the shoes) broke on Robert’s shoes.  On both of our shoes the straps and cord were wearing through in other locations.  I ended up tying the broken straps together to restore the support they offered, and to allow the laces to function (the laces run through these small straps at the top of the shoe).

Beyond the strap issue, the shoes were comfortable, as all Merrells are. They drained well; the mesh is large enough that it drains quickly, but also large enough to allow sand into the shoe.  I think this may be the case with any water shoe that has good drainage.

Merrell Ottowa water shoe

Merrell Ottowa water shoe

Merrell makes another water shoe similar to this one, the Ottowa, seen at left.  I have not used this shoe, but it seems to be a better design than the Maipo. On this shoes they only have the problematic strap at the top of the shoe. There is no cord through it to cause friction and wear through- the laces run through a plastic eyelet.

The mesh seems to be the same however, and there is more of it exposed.  You may end up with more sand in these shoes than the Maipos. But I am sure they would hold up better in the end. You can read more about them at Merrell.com. And if anyone from Merrell happens to read this review, I would be happy to try out a pair of the Ottowas and write about them. I am heading back to Utah in early October for a canyoneering trip in North Wash and will need a good pair of shoes.

For more information about our walk along the Escalante River, see our 22 August blog post or the Escalante Trip Pages at the Desert Explorer website. For more on the gear we use and ultralight backpacking, visit our Ultralight Pages.


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.