Part 4: The Escalante

Part of the Kanab to Hanksville Hike 2006
More pictures available in the Gallery

Day 17

I began the day exploring some strange rocks formations near camp. Then I had a Clif bar for breakfast, packed up and headed out. The first part of the day was really not much fun. Collet Canyon is scenic, but the heat and very little shade took away most of the pleasant nature of the hike. BUT, what made this section near torture were the flies. When I did find a shady spot to stop for a cool-down, within two minutes the flies would swarm. It was awful; I’m talking ‘kid in the Africa infomercial’ flies. Luckily they didn’t bite like the deer flies which come out later in the season, but they still denied me any peace as they buzzed my face and landed on my ears and lips.

I eventually got down and out of the canyon and to the Escalante region. I stopped at the dinosaur tracks site to retrieve cache #4. There was only one car there and it was a nice couple from Oregon. They gave me some good water and fresh carrots. On to find my cache and all was good once again, although someone had found this one as there was a large, old cow bone next to my container which wasn’t there before.
I got everything out and got organized. I indulged in some ‘heavy food’ for lunch including Jello fruit cups, apple sauce and canned ham and cheese compliments of my friend Hanzel. I stayed there for several hours waiting for the sun to go down some before resuming the hike. Soon I passed Hole-in-the-Rock Road and started down 20-Mile Wash. Originally I had planned to go up to the more scenic Harris Wash- but to make up time I changed the itinerary.

The wash was dry so I picked up some water from a cattle hole; it was really disgusting so I hope I don’t need to use it! Not much longer I climbed out of the canyon to the top of some red buttes. I wanted to make sure I could watch the sun go down and the full moon come up. I did, and it was quite the show! Mandarin orange chicken and trail mix were for dinner, then I read some Abbey and went to bed with the moon still illuminating the landscape.

Day 18

Today was another miserable day in paradise. By mid-day the scenery started picking up as I became entrenched in a red sandstone canyon. However, it was tough to enjoy for several reasons:

It was hot! Hard to believe it’s only early May.

B) No water. 2 springs I was counting on were dry or polluted by cows. I ended up hiking back to the polluted water with no other choice. It is nasty; even after going through the filter. I add 2x instant iced tea packs to mask the flavor. I’d rather taste bad tea than cow…

C) The flies. Oh how I wish I could kill every fly in Utah! Do they add anything to the ecosystem? They are all over me as soon as I take a break. I actually had to set up my tent for lunch just to escape the vermin!

D) Tough walking. Most of the day I was trudging through ankle-deep sand or slipping on a clay/cow mud mixture. And, to top it all off, my shoes would not stay tied!

E) My health. Probably because of all of the above, it seems my health is deteriorating. I need to punch it up a notch for this last stretch, but instead I’m fading. Hopefully some good water from the Escalante tomorrow will help.

The good news? I passed 200 miles today! I got to explore some side slot canyons today as well. Also, I performed surgery on my shoes. The water from last week caused the toe-box to shrink and to bring on some new blisters. But, I used my multi-tool and cut out some of the inner lining and now the feel sooo much better.

Thanks to everyone who has written. It is great to hear from you all. It almost makes me forget I’m out in the middle of nowhere. I would write back if it wasn’t so painfully slow. Camped about halfway down 20-Mile Wash. Dinner was Mac n’ Cheese.

Day 19

First, happy Mother’s Day! Mom, I hope you got your gift; I’m not sure I trust that jack rabbit with the delivery! Just joking — glad to hear you already got what I sent. Today was the first day of my final week in the wilderness and it was a good day. It didn’t start that way though. Once again it was hot and I was trudging through sand with only polluted water. But then I found a small water hole. It was full of bugs; but I ran it through the filter and it was great! I could feel the positive energy run through my body. I know it’s an understatement, but water gives life and that’s nowhere more evident than out here. There has been a direct correlation to my state of being and the amount/quality of water that I’m near.

Continuing down canyon soon there were more water pools, then a trickle of a stream had formed. Within a mile it was like I had been transported into a whole new environ. Lush greenery surrounded the stream and birds sang continuously- it was as if I was in a jungle! Soon it was a snowy jungle. Not really, but seemed like it as the cottonwood trees were shedding their springtime white plumes. They would slowly glide down through the air just like snowflakes and accumulate on the ground ankle-deep in sections. It was surreal. As I continued the red sandstone walls became taller and taller and were streaked with desert varnish — this is classic Escalante! By this point I was hiking down a full-on stream. It ran crystal clear and was ankle to thigh deep. I would usually hike straight down the middle of it because it was nearly impossible to get out to the bank because the vegetation was so thick.

Occasionally I had to though as beavers had made several dams along the watercourse. These pools were over my head so I had to circumvent, which was tough work each time. In one such bypass I came to an open spot and came face-to-face with 2 wild turkeys! They stood about 3 feet tall and were shocked to see me. They took off faster than one could say “gobble, gobble.”

I camped near some huge cottonwoods. The sound of the wind rustling through their leaves is great. I’m about a mile from the Escalante River. Depending on how deep it is, tomorrow could be an adventurous day.

Day 20

Wow — what a day. Where to begin? Let’s play it back from the top.

As I was having my granola breakfast, a Rufus came by to visit. This variety of hummingbird is easily identified by its loud sound while not hovering. It sounds like the waving of a light saber as it darts about (nerd reference I know). Several mornings I’ve heard them and a few times I’ve seen them quickly fly up to investigate my tent and then leave. But today this guy wanted to check me out. He circled the tent a couple of times, stopping to check it out from every angle and then he hovered not more than 4″ from my face with only the mesh wall between us. It was a cool moment-; of course as soon as I reached for the camera he took off.

The last mile or so of 25-Mile Wash is really spectacular. (note: 20-Mile Wash changes names to 25-Mile Wash along its course.) The canyon becomes very entrenched with several huge undercut alcoves.

There were more obstacles made by those busy beavers, but nothing too bad. The other obstacle which slows me down is the quicksand! This isn’t the quicksand from Tarzan or Gilligan’s Island; I don’t fall in and all that remains is my hat. No, the Utah variety is the type where you will rapidly sink up to your knees in goo with a real danger of losing a shoe — which would be a nightmare out here. I have heard stories of people getting in up to their waist and not being able to get out alone; but those stories are always from willing participants trying to see how deep they can get for a photo op. Knock on wood.

Yay — the flies have relented! But, the deer flies have now made an appearance. I’ve gotten bitten about ten times already- and they hurt! But, at least these guys don’t swarm. Also, unlike their swarming cousins, deer flies are incredibly slow. So, I take great pleasure in squashing each one which takes a bite of my flesh

By early afternoon I had reached the Escalante River and I will admit I was a bit nervous. This was definitely a river; nearly 30 feet to the other side past a quickly moving opaque flow. I tried the crossing without my gear at first. The flow was swift, but the depth only went to my knees so not that bad. Next I went back and did it with only my camera bag. Success. Back to the other side to do it again with the pack. This time it was a little slower making every step count; but it was still a success! I knew I would have to do that many more times as I made my way down the meandering canyon. For now I had the pleasure of fighting through the brush on the river’s edge. It was tough. The trees are only about the size of a quarter in diameter, but they grow less than 12″ apart. At times I would spend 5-10 minutes hacking and slashing before I could proceed 5 feet through the obstacle.

Around the bend and it was time for crossing number two. I repeated the same process as before. But, this time the channel was more narrow and thus deeper. I found myself waist deep in the powerful flow. Scary, but still manageable and I got all gear across ok. Back to more bushwhacking. My legs are now cut up and I’ve torn a hole in the side of one of my shoes. And after about half a mile it was time for another crossing. I did it without gear and it wasn’t too bad except the far bank was steep and it was hard to get out.

Then I hatched a new idea; I would make a raft out of my sleeping pad and float my pack down the river! I spent the next hour putting items in water-tight bags and fastening everything to my pack and then to my make-shift raft. I did a test run without the electronics and it went flawlessly. So, I loaded it up for real and away we went. It was great, strolling down the river next to the USS Green.

Then… We came to the first set of rapids. I wasn’t too scared as rapids are relatively shallow and I had more control in shallow water. But… The water started moving fast and my raft wanted to go faster than I could walk. When I tugged back on my tether the drag was too much and water began gushing over the side of the raft. I rushed to remedy it, but the water was too strong and the raft suddenly folded in half.

I grabbed the pack at the last moment, lifting it up I rescued it from the torrent -Though not before the current snagged my good micro-fiber camp towel and sent it swiftly toward Lake Powell. Now, I’m in the middle of the rushing Escalante awkwardly holding my pack from its backside. I realize I need to make it to shore quickly or I could lose all of my gear. I pick a spot on the far shore and start to move. The water gets deeper, but I keep the pack and what’s left of the raft above it. I get to the side and somehow manage to push my stuff up the steep embankment and into the trees. Then, I climb out myself — dejected. Back to plan A!

I assessed the damage and luckily my stuff didn’t get that wet. I let it dry, re-pack and head out again through the brush. Soon I came to another crossing. I did it fine with no gear, but I was hesitant to try it with the pack. The fear of losing all my gear was overwhelming. I took a moment on the bank and contemplated the situation. I took a look at my topo maps and I could tell I had only gone 1/4 the distance to my exit canyon. Also, the canyon seems to constrict ahead which likely meant more crossings or even sections with no bank at all. I knew I had to turn back. 🙁

That’s it — I’m officially a failure, a quitter, a pseudo-adventurer! Ok — I don’t really believe any of that, but it was sad to see my forward progress stopped. But, I felt like I had to play it safe. Again, I haven’t seen anyone for 3 days and getting out sans gear would not be fun to say the least. Besides, it’s not like I CAN just quit as I’m about 3 days from a major road!

I hiked back up river and found a place to camp. There I came up with these three options:

A) check water in morning: The volume of water is actually higher in the afternoons due to run-off upstream. There’s a slim chance hiking in the morning would be feasible.

B) check for a canyon exit: I checked near my camp for a way to climb out of the canyon. It’s possible if I can reach the bench above I could find an overland route to my exit canyon. I checked near camp to no avail. Though I did find a set of moki steps at the shortest climb. These are grooves chipped into the rock by Indians to help them climb out of the canyon. It was about 30 feet tall; too scary for me. However, maybe I can find another access route in the morning up canyon.

C) And the final option is to retrace my steps (back out 25-Mile.) I could add a twist though and go up one of its side canyons and head 30 miles north to the highway.

So… Stay tuned!

The day ended with an amazing cloud formation at sunset. I’m not sure if it looked more like Heaven, or Armageddon!

Day 21

Had a little thunder and lightening last night; somewhat ominous in the canyons. I got up early and checked the water. I had stuck a series of branches in the mud to gauge the river’s height. To my dismay it looked exactly the same. It may have been an inch lower, but it didn’t matter, I had to retreat.

So, back up the Escalante I went. The river crossings were again tough, but at least this time I knew exactly what to expect. The bushwhacking was even tougher than before because I was going against the grain. Most trees/bushes slant downstream due to late summer floods. This means going upstream I would frequently get my eyes poked, my face slapped, my ears tugged, my ribs stabbed and my legs cut. Between the bushwhacking and the deer flies, my legs are pretty torn up. I don’t think I’ll be winning any ‘best legs’ competitions soon despite the new muscle tone

I gave up on other canyon upstream. It was out of the way and didn’t look too feasible on the map. Instead I headed back up 25-Mile with the possibility of a new plan: to head north via a side-canyon, down Fence Canyon and exit Escalante to the east via Choprock or Silver Falls canyons. I’ve read hiker reports for these canyons, the problem is I’m not sure for which sections. Back up 25-Mile and again it is gorgeous. If I have to repeat a section, I’m glad it’s this one. I came to the 1st possible exit canyon and it was too steep. I see more moki steps, but again no way am I going up those. I continue upstream.

The 2nd canyon seemed possible, but the brush was too thick and beaver had dammed it up. I saw a dead beaver in this section — sad. Continuing, soon I found a section where I could climb out to the slickrock bench. Then sun was already down so I decided to camp right on the slickrock. Not a cloud in the sky tonight and again the stars were brilliant. I saw several shooting stars. Dinner tonight was tuna, trail mix and a granola bar. A new problem due to slow progress and the diversion: I’m running low on food. I should have been to my next cache by now, so instead I’m going to have to ration my food. Good thing I fattened up before I left!

Day 22
I began the day climbing up through the slickrock desert. The undulating landscape was a challenge, but was very scenic and a pleasant change from the canyons. But, with very little shade and no stream, it was hot. My face got sunburned for the first time of the trip despite sunscreen and breaks huddled under juniper trees. After the slickrock came a long stretch of coral pink sand dunes — killer on the already tired legs.

I finally made it to my entry canyon, but could find no way down the steep rock face. I eventually found a user-made trail that clung to a cliffband and cut down to the bottom. If I hadn’t seen previous footprints I may not have done it as it was pretty sketchy! Once down in Fence Canyon it was like paradise. Lush green canyon with steep red walls and a small stream, but not overgrown. I saw lots of fish in the pools and a fairly large water snake.

Then I was back to the Escalante — still as big and powerful as downstream. The advantage here is that the canyon is wider giving me more options when I have to cross. The first crossing was tricky, but a success. I dropped my big pack and went on a side hike to Neon Canyon. Along the way I met two other backpackers — Carol & Brenn from nearby Boulder, UT. We chatted a bit and they offered me an apple and let me look at their maps for my newly planned exit route (for which I didn’t have maps since it was not near my planned route.). Continuing on I made my way to Neon. This was a fantastic canyon — narrow towering red and black streaked walls. The canyon ends at a dramatic alcove with a pool and double arch; the Golden Cathedral it’s called. It’s a special place for sure.

I made my way back to all of my gear, loaded up and continued. Tired and with the sun going down I didn’t make it too much farther before calling it a day. I camped by a beautiful “s” bend in the river and had my last hot meal for dinner.

More pictures available in the Gallery

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