2014- A New Year of Adventures Lies Ahead

28 January 2014

The new year is upon is and it is time to start planning our desert adventures for the year.  Our first trip is less than two months away- Nicolai and I will make our usual spring break trip in mid-March. Writing about it makes is seem closer, like it’s just around the corner. And my philosophy is that it’s never too early to begin planning and preparing.  It also makes me feel closer to the desert, and not just closer to the next trip- pulling out my packs and checking them over, finding something left in the bottom of one; a pair of gloves, a fuel bottle, a bunch of sand, and some dried willow leaves- this puts me back in the canyons. It places me where I belong, living my purpose in life. All else is just incidental, tasks and goals that lead to my purpose.

Bighorn sheep on the San Juan River. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Bighorn sheep along the San Juan River.

Now, with the deep philosophical thoughts out of the way, on to the plans. This year we are planning more backpacking. Nicolai is now tall enough and strong enough to carry a larger, heavier pack (heavier, but not heavy). He can carry more of his own equipment, clothing, and food. This will make it easier on me and allows us to stay out longer. Of course he has his own set of the lightest gear we can find- a Golite quilt, an extra-small Therm-a-Rest Prolite pad, titanium cup, and so on. This all helps.

We have also added to our backpacking food supplies with dehydrated and freeze dried foods from Costco and a couple of other places, making our food a little lighter as well. Costco.com has a pretty extensive selection of long-term storage foods, some of which are backpacking ready. Be sure to note before you buy them if the meals are individually packaged, or bulk packaged. You may have to measure and repack them into smaller portions. A couple of other online vendors are Augason Farms and My Patriot Supply. Much of what you will find is dehydrated, and again, often in bulk. There are plenty of options out there besides these few. Just do a little searching.


An old bear track in Jones Canyon. It is found in dry mud, but still must have been a big one for the area.

Most of the meals we currently use are things we mix up ourselves using ingredients we dehydrate and those we purchase at our local natural foods store. The majority of our recipes are largely based on those in The Back-Country Kitchen by Teresa Marrone. But we have amended many of the meals in her book, and created more of our own. You can read more about our meals and see some recipes on our Backpack Foods pages at the Desert Explorer website. They are definitely cheaper, but not necessarily lighter than packaged, freeze-dried backpacking meals. The Costco additions bring the weight down some. The only possible drawback might be the Costco-sized packages, buckets in many case, that you have to buy. Be sure to consider the shelf-life of the foods, and if you will be able to use it all within a reasonable amount of time. If you take one trip a year, the meals might last you a long time, or even go bad before you use them, depending on how you repackage them. But for us, backpacking, hiking, and floating throughout the year, they will be used up.

Another focus for the new year is tracking. Really it is just a continuation of what we are already doing. Lots of reading, studying, research, and whenever we are in the bush, finding tracks and following them. That is the extent of our “training” so far. I have never taken any sort of tracking class, but this year I am planning to do so. Joel Hardin offers classes around the west, and one is offered near us later in the year. I think it’s time to learn from a professional. In the meantime, we will continue with our practices which have taught us well so far.

Next on the blog list- gear reviews. We have yet another outdoor gear retailer with their headquarters now in Boulder. Fjallraven, the Swedish gear maker, has also opened a retail store very near us. We have recently purchased a Primus 2-burner propane stove and I have tried out a pair of their trekking pants. Reviews to follow. Until then for more on our adventures, tracking, and kids in the wilderness look over some of our older blogs, or visit the Desert Explorer website.

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

27 August 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Other Updates

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

Escalante and Kokopelli Planning- Maps, Food and Noise and Sight Pollution

11 January 2009

As my planning for the coming summer gets underway, I have been busy with making  the meals I will need for my longer trips- the Escalante trek and the Kokopelli ride, as well as for the Green River float.  I am sticking with many of my standard single-bag meals that require some cooking such as chili mac, rice and beans, campagnola, and ramen in various forms- see the Desert Explorer website for more on homemade single-bag meals.  But considering the length of time  I will be out, especially on the Escalante, and the fact that I will be physically carrying much of the food, I am trying hard to control the weight.  At the same time I am trying to make the menu more diverse while keeping the nutritional value high.  One addition I am considering to my food bag is Justin’s Nut Butters. They are sold in boxes of 10 packets, either peanut butter or almond butter.  The packets are just over one ounce each.  While they won’t take the place of a quart of peanut butter and a spoon, they will add variety to the menu, as well as a little but of protein.

Normally I purchase my maps locally.  But the cost adds up quickly, especially when I am buying 10 or 12 maps at a time.  I recently set up an account on the USGS website where 1:24,000 topo maps are six dollars each.  Of course there is a shipping charge, just five dollars, but in the long run it saves time and money ordering them online.  I have the last of the maps that I will need to cover the Escalante trek sitting in my shopping basket.  Once I receive these 9 maps, I will have all I need for the trip, 16 maps in all!

UPDATE: As of 01 March 2009 1:24,000 maps are now 8 dollars each, 1:100,000 maps are 9 dollars each.  All other maps have gone up in price about 2 dollars each as well.

Escalante river

A view of the Escalante river near The Gulch with a wall on one side and thick brush on the other. This makes walking down the river channel the preferred route.

Sixteen maps adds a bit of weight and bulk to the pack.  As a way of cutting at least a couple ounces of that weight, I trim all the mapsheets down.  I cut the north and east sides off all my maps right along the map’s edge.  The west side is trimmed  about 1/8 inch off the map’s edge, so that I can read the coordinates along the side.  I trim the south side off according to the year of the map- different maps have different, often unnecessary marginal information, along the bottom edge.  While this may seem a bit overboard, trimming 16 maps leaves a considerable amount of scrap paper, paper that I am not carrying on my back for two weeks.

Noise and Sight Pollution
I was browsing through information on the Escalante a few days back and happened across a PDF titled Canyons of the Escalante.  It covers all the more common topics- permits, fires, popular hikes and so on.  But on page six, under Minimum-Impact Camping, I was surprised to read the following:

“CAMPING GEAR: Brightly-colored packs and tents shrink the wilderness by being so noticeable. Use drab-colored gear and camp where your tent will not be easily seen.

NOISE: Loud noises, yelling and radio music disturb others who may be enjoying the quiet solitude of the canyons. Please observe quiet hours after dark.”

I will do my best not to rant, but Finally! This topic has been at the top of my list as long as I can remember, probably 30 years at this point. It become further emphasized for me during my time in the military, where noise and light discipline are stressed, not to mention the importance of subdued colors.  At this point nothing bothers me more than bright yellow jackets, red packs, and deafening voices when I am quietly, stealthily sneaking my way down a canyon. But now my complaints about so many of the folks I run into in the wilderness have been listened to. All those comments I have left in so many ammo cans and at so many trailhead registers have finally paid off! The National Park Service has listened.  Although, quiet hours should be observed 24 hours a day when you are in the canyons, but we will work towards that.

On the topic of bright colors, I  recently looked into a jacket made by Merrell called  The Gatherer.  It is essentially a two-layer shell with zippers throughout the whole jacket allowing it to be stuffed with leaves, juniper bark, newspapers or the like- just imagine a down jacket without the down.  Unfortunately, the jacket comes in white only, with bright orange zippers.  I emailed Merrell to ask about the possibility of other colors, and received a terse reply that this is the only color.  I also asked about the weight of the jacket, as I could overlook the color if the weight was low enough- I was assuming it would be around a pound.  The weight was curiously missing from their website and the few reviews that I read about the jacket.  The reason is because it weighs nearly three pounds, thus not qualifying for a place in my ultralight pack.

Dewey Bridge Page Updated
I recently tracked down a photograph of Dewey Bridge from the 1980’s, when it was still the means for crossing the Colorado River along Highway 128.  I have added this and a more recent photo of the bridge to the Dewey Bridge page on the Desert Explorer website.

Fire Making, Desert Explorer Updates

18 February 2008

Fire Making

This weekend I continued my experimentation using Cottonwood bark for a fireboard. I have had great luck with dry bark that I have found at the base of larger, older trees. It also provides the hairy inner bark which can be used to create a “birdsnest” for fire making. The “birdsnest” is the carefully constructed bundle of bark which receives the spark created by friction on the fireboard. I had never read of anyone using Cottonwood bark for a fireboard, but I am sure it has been done. Typically the board is created from a piece of Cottonwood branch. So far I have made at least the last 10 or 12 fires using it.

Cottonwood bark is rather soft, compared to a fireboard made from a Cottonwood branch. A 1/2 inch thick fireboard from bark is good for 2, maybe 3 fires per hole. Using the inner bark for a birdsnest to receive the spark is not as efficient as using Juniper bark. My birdsnest was a handful of bark with the pieces being about 1 to 1 1/2 inches long. About a third of the bundle, in the center where I placed the spark and began blowing, was crumbled to dust. All in all it requires more work. In the case of my latest experiment, this amounted to about 5 minutes of blowing and coaxing the bundle of bark into flame. The same can be achieved with Juniper bark in less than a minute. For more information on building fires and primitive fire methods visit theDesert Explorer website.

cottonwood bark fireboard with cottonwood branch drill for bow and drill firemaking kit

The above image shows a fireboard made from a piece of Fremont Cottonwood bark. The drill is from a branch of the same tree. The hole in the fireboard was used to make three fires.

bundles of inner bark from Fremont Cottonwood and Utah Juniper

This image shows bundles of inner bark from Fremont Cottonwood on the left, and Utah Juniper bark on the right. Both are suitable for use as a “birdsnest” for receiving the spark from a bow and drill fireset. The image shows both types of bark without having been prepared for use. The Juniper bark is the easier of the two to ignite.

Desert Explorer Updates

This week I added a Nevada Page to the trip guides. There is very little to it yet, but it has been started. So far I have a listing of places to visit in and around the town of Fallon, in the Lahontan Valley. Fallon is located on Highway 50, south of Highway 80. Some of the listings include directions and particulars on the sites to see. These include the local museum, rock art and archaeological sites, an historic fort and the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge which offers amazing birding. I will continue working on this page with all the rest.

I have been working on the Backpacking Foods pages. They are coming along, with about 10 recipes so far. These pages seem to be popular, so I will continue adding to them in the near future as well.

I added some explanations and gear links to the Desert Gear pages and the River Gear page.