Alone in the Desert and Thoughts on Trip Planning

10 May 2017

I’ll begin with one of my favorite statements lately- there just isn’t enough time in the day to do it all. As luck would have it, I did find time to get out over spring break, and of course I have planned to write something about it. So here we go, to summarise: I managed 12 days of hiking and saw some amazing sights, as always. Weather was great, excepting the usual spring winds that always come up. There were birds- lots of raptors this trip, including many bald eagles. Reptiles were out- lizards of many types and one very cold rattlesnake that didn’t move throughout an entire day.  And the rock art- there were so many amazing panels and elements and discoveries within panels that it constitutes a blog in itself. But beyond all that, this trip was unique as it was my first spring break alone in about 10 years. My usual sidekick, my son, had too many prior engagements to come along. I made the most of my time alone, enjoying the Utah sunrises, sunsets, evening fires, and every minute in between.

Square spiral petroglyphs in southern Utah. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

A unique set of four square spiral petroglyphs. Do they represent the seasons? I would be curious to revisit this site during the seasonal changes to see if there are any types of solar alignments.

One thing that struck me this trip beyond all else was the amount of time we spend planning, and where that planning can sometimes get us. Don’t get me wrong- planning can be everything, it can mean the difference between a fun, memorable trip and a disaster. But there are times that planning can get in the way of our adventures. Planning can hold us back, it can hold back the explorer in us and stifle the sense of accomplishment, the sense of discovery that we seek out there in the bush.

We live in an overstimulated world with just too much information flowing around us, in our heads and readily at hand. One of the reasons I go into the desert is to escape all that. And I don’t want to bring along a bunch of data- on anything. I want to walk and see and hear things, feel the sand under my boots or under my bare feet, wonder about what is around the next corner.  I don’t want to look for the next thing I am supposed to find at a certain distance from a certain point. Where is the fun in that? For me, that is too much like everything else in life these days- click a link and it’s all there. That is decidedly not what wilderness is about for me.

white hand pictographs in San Juan county, Utah. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

White hands- one of my favorite pictographs, and one of the first I “discovered” in southeast Utah about 20 years ago. I visited them again on this trip.

I have never been one to plan an entire trip, hour by hour, water point to water point, camp site to camp site. I know that people do this. There are guide books that do it for you. This is one of the very reasons I don’t use guide books, other than for very general information. My favorite writer of guides, as I have expressed over the years, is Michael Kelsey. He gives clear, concise, to-the-point information, and not much more. That is all I want- mileage to the trailhead for example, if I don’t choose my own, or maybe data on the best way to climb out of a canyon that everyone says cannot be climbed out of. Kelsey’s books are the place for something like that. After that, it is all up to me.

Moving on from my philosophy of wilderness travel back to civilisation, I always end my trips in Moab. I like to mention my favorite local businesses, in support of the community there. Moab Gear Trader has recently moved into the space above their original store. They have so much used and new gear now that it’s easy to find something you can use. I have an account there, and usually drop gear to sell on every trip. You don’t have to live locally to do this- give them a call to see if they may want your used gear. And if you can’t find what you need there, just down the street is Gearheads, where you will find whatever it is you forgot to bring along. There was a time when I would worry about that piece of gear that I inadvertently left behind, but not any more. Between Moab Gear Trader and Gearheads, I know I will find what I need.

Axe head found in wash in southeast Utah. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Found in a wash bottom- one large axe head. They artifact had signs that it had been in the wash for some time, and also plenty of use wear. It was made from a perfectly shaped, very flat river cobble.

Gear is good, but we can’t leave out food and coffee to make us happy. Moonflower Coop, on 100 North right off of Main Street, recently completed a major renovation and it is not to be missed. They even  have a seating area now at their deli, where they offer fresh salads, sandwiches, soups, and much more. They are right across the street from Moab Coffee Roasters, one of our favorites. Need a backup bike tube with your coffee? Be sure to visit Moab Classic Bikes on Center Street for both- yes, there is a coffee shop in the bike store. Very convenient!

Our next trip is planned for the end of May- a couple of weeks in the Hanksville area. We are planning, if weather and water levels permit, to walk the Dirty Devil River. No dragging the boat this year! In the meantime, there is plenty more information on desert travels in southern Utah at

Rattlesnakes and Snakebite, and Wolves in Utah

7 March 2012

I recently received an email from Marc of asking about some of my Dirty Devil River writings. We have exchanged a few emails at this point and I am certain there will be more. One of Marc’s comments had to do with the Desert Explorer pages on rattlesnakes. Marc has done extensive research on venomous snakes in the US and has published it all on his website. He has actually found an expert that would answer his questions honestly and clearly, and not beat around the bush. I had serious problems getting straight answers to the questions I asked, especially the question of what to do if you are bitten way out in the bush.

Some of Marc’s email to me on venomous snakes is so important, confirming a lot of what I ultimately did find out, that I have to quote it here. For one thing, Marc’s source states he feels that

“99.5% of all medical doctors… do not understand snakebites. He went on to explain that snake venom develops to kill what they eat, and they don’t eat humans. He explained that most snakebite deaths are caused by anaphylactic shock rather than from venom poisoning. He told me at about 25-30,000 people per year in the US are bitten by venomous snakes and that only about 15-25% are envenomated. In a really bad year 8 or 9 people in the US die from snakebites and in an average year the number is 2-3 deaths, usually in very young or very old people with weaker immune systems.

He also explained that most adult snakes do not envenomate humans because they have learned to control their venom releases. They need the venom to kill what they eat, and they have a limited supply, so using venom on something they cannot eat may cause them to starve to death. Baby snakes, on the other hand, have not yet learned to control venom releases, and so they usually give you a full dose. That is why some people falsely believe that baby snakes are deadlier than adult snakes. It is technically untrue. All snakebites have equal venom potency, and the real end result is determined by human physiology and general health conditions.”

Marc goes on to comment on the Sawyer Extractor and field treatment stating that he and his source talked about

“the Sawyer and he told me that it has one major problem – it acts just like a tourniquet – it traps venom in a localized area causing severe dermal necrosis. When used according to directions it may actually cause far more damage than from allowing the venom to carry through and be diluted by body mass. He also said that once the venom goes subcutaneous there is little chance of getting it back out. Luckily, most snakes have very short fangs and they do not penetrate deeply most of the time, especially if the skin is tough. In fact, they are also very brittle and they break off easily. In some cases a pair of fairly new blue jeans may prevent a snakebite, and any kind of leather shoe or boot is impenetrable. He said that rather than using the time needed to dig out the Sawyer and use it, just place your hands in a circle around a bite area, press hard and move them toward the bite marks pushing the venom back to the surface. It will be a yellowish-clear liquid. Try not to touch it with your bare skin, but rather wipe it off with a clean sanitary wipe of some kind, safely dispose of it (I prefer burning) and then clean the wound with Betadine and a loose bandage to prevent bacterial infection. If you don’t get the venom out really quickly, then any effort is worthless, and you will never get most of it, but unlike that one doctor told you, you most likely will NOT die! That is a statement made in total ignorance.”

The last part of what Marc wrote is the most important to me, that I am not likely to die if bitten by a rattlesnake and do not receive medical attention. Of course the truth is that I want to hear that I won’t die if I am bitten. But aside from that, I do know that it would be best to seek medical attention if possible. I also know that there are different species and subspecies of venomous snakes, different types of venom and levels of envenomation, and each individual will have a different physical reaction. The question I explicitly asked the Poison Control Center people on all of my calls to them was “what do you do if you are out in the bush and cannot get to help?” No one wanted to answer that question. Well, they did, but the answer was “seek medical attention.” So I phrased it differently, asking “what have people done who have survived venomous snakebite without getting medical attention?”  Same answer, “seek medical attention.” And so on. But Marc’s source did answer that question for him. And his answer confirmed my suspicions that you are not necessarily condemned to death if bitten.

For more information on rattlesnakes, snakebite data, and first aid, please visit the Desert Explorer Rattlesnakes and Snakebite page. And be sure to visit the Southwest Paddler Snakebite Information page for even more data on all species of venomous snakes in the US as well as recommended first aid for snakebite. Please note that all information contained in this post and on the above mentioned pages is for informational purposes only. I am not an expert on any of these topics, I am not a doctor or a herpetologist. Please use the information as a catalyst for your own research and to help reach your own conclusions.

Wolves in Central Utah?
The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has reported sightings of wolves or wolf-dog hybrids near Springville. For reference, this is about 130 miles northwest of Arches National Park, as the crow flies . They have plans to track and capture the animals in the next few days, taking advantage of a coming snowstorm. After capture, the animals will have their DNA tested, the only way to confirm if they are in fact wolves. For more on this sighting, and the state of Utah’s wolf policy, visit the Utah DWR website.

Rattlesnake Bites- First Aid, Treatment, and Myths; Personal Locator Beacons; Everett Ruess

29 October 2009

I first wrote about rattlesnakes a few years back on the Desert Explorer website. The research was as much for myself as for visitors to the site. My goal was to find out the truth about rattlesnake bites.  Some of the questions I addressed, or tried to, included asking what first aid measures should be employed. What kind of treatment can be administered if you are deep in the bush and cannot get to medical help? Is the venom of young snakes more potent than older snakes? And does the latest suction device, the Sawyer Extractor, really work?


I searched the web, visited the library, and called the Poison Control Center with a list of questions.  My main question for the Poison Control Center was about treatment, about what to do if I was a five-day walk from help. I called them a number of times, as my research developed, and asked that question again and again.  I got the same answer: “Seek medical attention.”  None of the doctors I spoke with would commit to anything beyond that statement.

A good friend of mine told me how he encountered the same answer in a seminar he attended as an environmental scientist. The treatment for rattlesnake bite: “Seek medical attention.” On a recent trip to Utah one of my fellow canyoneers told me how she heard the same phrase during a wilderness medicine course.

With this in mind I decided to revisit my rattlesnake bite research.  I have since scoured the web for more recent data, finding quite a bit including literature about Crotaline Fab antivenom (a brand name antivenom) and it’s effectiveness, the toxicity of venom and it’s possible increase in potency,  and recent studies on the epidemiology of snakebite and trends in mortality rates.

I also made a couple of calls to the Poison Control Center, still asking the same questions and getting the same answer, but this time with a qualifying statement.  I asked my usual question about what to do if I am a five-day walk from medical help and get bitten by a rattlesnake. On my second call I was given the usual answer, but I had been persistent enough in my questioning that the doctor added to his stock statement: “Seek medical attention, or die.” Finally an answer, but not the one I wanted to hear.  He told me that there is no field treatment, made it sound like first aid should be quick, and limited to stabilisation of the patient, and was resoundingly against suction devices such as the Sawyer Extractor. Here he made a good point saying that if you can extract 30% of the venom, as the manufacturer states, the other 70%  is still in your system and just as likely to kill you if you don’t get antivenom. (I will still carry the Extractor with me- if there is at least some chance that it might help save my life, it’s worth the few ounces of weight.)

Personal Locator Beacons
This same doctor made another good point- if you walk off  into the bush, are many days away from help,  and are bitten, the only sure way to save yourself is by having a satellite phone or a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). Rattlesnake bites might be reason enough to look into a PLB, something I have never considered before. And oddly enough today I found an article online about abuses of PLB’s by people who probably shouldn’t have been let out into the wilderness alone anyway, using it to call for help because their water tasted salty. This a far cry from Dave Foreman’s fantasy Primeval Wilderness where there would be no trails, no signs, no guidebooks,  no maps, and no rescue. True Wilderness, with a capital W. So much for that. For more PLB stories, click here.

Red more about rattlesnakes, bites, first aid, and find links to some of the data I found at the Desert Explorer website.

Everett Ruess
In case you didn’t hear, Everett Ruess is no longer found.  The family had doubts that the bones found along Comb Ridge really were those of Ruess and sought a second DNA test from the Armed Forces DNA lab. The test results conclusively stated that the remains were not those of Everett Ruess.  The remains found along Comb Ridge are now being returned to the Navajo Nation, as they are not those of a caucasian. So the mystery of Ruess’ disappearance remains a mystery. And I still have an excuse for crawling around amongst the rocks searching for bones in the Utah desert.

The Dirty Devil River is My New Favorite, Visiting Central Nevada

29 May 2008

My time on the Dirty Devil River is over. I say that with a deep sigh. It was one of the best trips I have ever taken- a 14 day solo. I put in on 13 May just below Hanksville. I was loading my boat and gear back into the Landcruiser on 26 May, after having hitchhiked back to the Hanksville BLM office for my truck earlier that morning. I didn’t realize that the 26th was Memorial Day and I was in a bit of shock once I got back to Hanksville seeing the number of rushing people, with their expensive, oversize, manly trucks with barbeque grills strapped in the back towing shiny powerboats back to garages after their inaugural weekend on the ‘lake’ for the year. But enough of that- back to the Dirty Devil.


the Dirty Devil River, a few days down river

The trip was nothing short of amazing. The weather was hot the first week and cool towards the end, with wind and some light rain over the last five days, apparently an abnormal pattern. I had a full moon midway through the trip and so was able to enjoy the stars and planets early and late in the trip and the bright moon In the middle.

I spent lots of time looking at the geology of the area. The cliff faces were enormous in places, up to 1500 feet high. it was a great chance to see millions of years of sedimentary rock all at once.


I tried to keep track of birds, but it was tough. I could have just sat still for the two weeks and watched birds. I saw the usual- lots of wrens, Spotted Sandpipers, Turkey Vultures, and little gray birds, Western Tanagers, Hairy Woodpeckers, nighthawks, and hummingbirds. Added to the list were a couple of nesting pairs of Peregrines, two separate flocks of Chukar high up Twin Corral Box Canyon, a lone Forster’s Tern (?), pairs of Indigo Buntings, and a pair of Ruddy ducks among others.


I had two rattlesnake encounters, both in Twin Corral Box Canyon. (For more info on Twin Corral Box Canyon and others’ snake encounters, as well as super-informative floral information, visit Watching the World Wake Up Blog. I ran into Alex and Steve a few days into my trip.) The particular snake to the left was about 5 minutes upcanyon from Alex and Steve’s camp, just before I met them.

I was visited by lots of Red Spotted toads, some of which may have been Spadefoot toads. I did not check that closely. According to Sandy, the wildlife biologist at the Hanksville BLM Office, you have to pick them up and look for the spade on the foot, this being the telltale sign. On my overnight up Poison Spring Canyon I explored a side canyon that had what could be called a stretch of wetland in it’s middle. It was filled with tules, segmented and spikey grasses, and cottonwoods. It was also home to lots of toads, specifically the Woodhouse toad.


narrows of Happy Canyon, UtahI managed two overnights, one up Twin Corral Box Canyon and the other up Poison Spring Canyon. I had a great, long dayhike up Robbers Roost Canyon, up to the inscriptions in White Roost Canyon. I enjoyed a walk through Happy Canyon, up through the narrows and into the wide open canyon above. Also explored Fiddler Cove Canyon, up to the pouroffs a day after rains up on the mesa. There was water running from the pouroffs to the river, making the hike even more interesting.


I will post specifics about the trip on the Desert Explorer website once I am back in Colorado, along with lots of photos.

For now, I am in the Lahontan Valley in central Nevada for the next week or so before heading back to Utah and the trip home. I am planning to visit some of the local sites, including Lovelock Cave and Salt Cave to view pictographs and their ancient habitation.

For more on my trips, the desert, survival and primitive skills, visit the Desert Explorer website.