Swett Canyon and around Lake Powell
May 18, 2018
Day 31 (continued)
I had just finished packing up after my re-supply in Ticaboo and was now headed on a sandy road back toward the canyons. I was headed toward the Henry Mountains and almost on cue a storm seemed to be moving in with dark clouds looming ahead (I have a long history of getting rained/hailed/snowed on late in the season every time I go through the Henrys.)
The road forked and I continued north up Shootamaring Canyon (aka Shitamaring Canyon for those not easily offended.) It was actually a better road than I expected, though I didn’t see anyone for the few hours I was walking up it. I did see several cows though — as well as several dead ones not too far from the road. 🙁
According to the map there was a mine ahead on a parcel of private property spanning the canyon. I didn’t originally plan on coming this way so I didn’t know too much about it. I was hoping that I’d be allowed to walk the road through the area, but didn’t know for sure. When I got there, I was shocked to see how big of an operation was there:
There were several large modern buildings and heavy equipment parked nearby. Ramps led to dozens of mine-shafts in the cliffs on each side of the canyon. It seemed to be shut down at the moment, but it was definitely seemed to be quite the operation when running.
NOTE: I later learned that this was a “moth-balled” uranium mine. It’s heyday was back in the ’80s, but more recently the mine became infamous for its role in a scandal involving indirectly providing the ore to the Russians.
No people around the mine on this day, but there were a BUNCH of cows. Really really skinny cows. Unlike most cows that usually moved AWAY from me, these guys followed me as I walked down the road as if wanting a hand-out. Soon I left them behind — they either didn’t want to leave the central industrial area or didn’t have the energy to keep following me.
The mine-shafts and slopes of tailings continued to line the canyon for a little ways farther, but soon I was past the mine area and took a fork in the road into a side canyon. The road was much smaller/rougher by this point — evidently the nice road was just to provide access from the highway to the mine. Now I was on what amounted to an ATV route.
As the sun was going down a eagle flew overhead and screeched at me as I made my way up the canyon. It wasn’t too much farther and I decided to make camp.
Got up and continued up the canyon. Soon I was climbing up its upper reaches and into a rolling landscape dominated by colorful hills of of bentonite. Mt. Hillers was much closer than before and it dawned on me that it was a NICE day — the bad-weather curse of the Henrys seemed to be broken!
Soon I came to a muddy stock pond. It didn’t look very appealing, but I thought that I’d get some water as I didn’t have that much left and I didn’t have any confirmed sources ahead for a while. But… then I noticed a dead cow on the nearby bank. Thus, I decided to walk on without getting water.
A few miles ahead were two reservoirs on the map. When I got there I passed the smaller of the two not being able to see past the earthen dam, but thought I’d continue to the larger reservoir less than 1/4 mile ahead. When I got there… it was bone dry. I investigated around a brushy area in the middle that looked as it it might be holding any remaining water, but alas… it merely encircled more cracked mud. I went back to the first reservoir and it was dry as well. There were a few other potential ponds ahead, so instead of going back to the one with the dead cow I pushed on.
Soon my glorified ATV route intersected a major gravel road not too far off the main/paved highway. I saw a family outside a truck and horse trailer nearby so I walked that way.
It was a rancher family; dad and mom were probably in their mid-30s and had 5 platinum-blonde-haired kids playing around the vehicle. The dad was classic rancher sporting a cowboy hat, plaid shirt, and chaps. The mom looked a bit more modern with jeans and an Under Armour shirt. It looked like they had just finished a road-side lunch with the kids.
As I approached I said “Hello” and something akin to “How’s it going?” They got really quiet. The kids stopped playing and all gathered around the parents. Dad said “all good — where you coming from?” I told him what I was up to including which way I’d recently walked.
He asked if I’d seen any cattle in the canyon I’d come up as he said they were out trying to locate a few of their stragglers. I told him what I’d seen. Ranchers mark their cattle with different colored ear tags. I unfortunately didn’t recall those, but I did list the various colors of cattle I’d seen and where they were located. At this moment the wife said to him “those are probably the ones we saw”. Those were the only words spoken by anyone other than the dad during our whole conversation.
I asked if by chance they had any extra water as I’d was running a little low. Typically I find that car campers (and ranchers) usually carry a lot of extra water. “Hmm, maybe, let’s see what we’ve got” and asked a kid to get their cooler. I could immediately tell it was a bigger ask than I imagined — so I politely said “Oh, it’s not a problem, I still have plenty.” But, alas, the kid came back with a few re-purposed Gatorade bottles with water. The dad said “Sure? You could have one of these”. Then I said “OK, thanks!” and took just one. I offered to pour it into my container and he said “No, just keep the whole thing.”
It was all a very strange interaction. BUT… what made it even weirder was that one of the youngest children (a girl, maybe 5) sat on the open tailgate during this whole conversation eating a huge slice of watermelon and it looked SO good! She just consistently slurped it up while never losing eye contact with me. She stared as if looking at some strange creature from the wild talking with her father. All very strange!
I thanked them again and wished them luck with their cows and then continued across the road and continued down a wash.
The next stock pond I came to was dry once again. And… in the depression was another dead cow.
Soon I left the wash and decided to climb up to the nearby highway. This was really not like me, but for some reason I was craving some mindless road-walking to get down to the next canyon. It served that purpose, though I ended up getting annoyed by the amount of litter that I saw along the road, so I was glad that it was only a few miles before I’d leave the road and be back into another wash headed into Swett Canyon.
Where I entered the canyon there was a huge culvert that ran under the road. It was a great place to step inside and escape the warmth of the day for a break. I laid down on the cool floor and nearly fell asleep.
Headed down the canyon the wash soon cuts into Navajo Sandstone and through some shallow narrows.
Side Note: this canyon is where Les Stroud aka Survivorman shot part of his “Utah” episode many years ago. I really liked that show, but this particular episode was later revealed to be at least partially staged via several people that I know from the hiking community. Something must have happened with his shoot as after starting in another canyon twenty-some miles away, the production was inexplicably moved to this canyon and he continued to film as if he was in the same place and an inescapably deep canyon miles from civilization. I found this humorous as I could still hear the vehicles whizzing by on the highway behind me as I made my way down the canyon. 🙂
As the canyon got deeper the canyon walls glowed reflecting the late-day sunlight
I noticed walking down the canyon was more tedious than normal due to a plethora of hard, rounded cobblestones in the wash. I believe these were polished granite from the nearby Henry Mountains. They were hard underfoot and if I accidentally planted a trekking pole on one it would ricochet to the side and sting my hand. It was scenic canyon, but I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I’d hoped. I was also starting to run low on water, but alas I knew a spring was coming up.
Before getting to the spring the canyon was bone dry. When I saw greenery ahead I knew I must be getting close. When I finally got to the spot marked spring on the map I was dismayed to only find a small seep coming out of the wall and failing to pool underneath. I continued on down the canyon about another 100 yards and was concerned when there was no more additional water to be found. I decided to go back and get what I could from the seep.
I literally filled up a liter a bottle-cap at a time. It was extremely slow, but I really wanted to have some extra water in case I didn’t see any more before getting to Lake Powell. I knew I probably would, but I’d feel better with the extra water so I took the 20 minutes or so to grab it.
I packed up and headed out down and around the very next corner… there were POOLS or water! So much in fact, at one spot I couldn’t keep from getting my feet wet. I couldn’t believe I’d just spent so much time getting water from that seep when just minutes later I was here:
I grabbed more water and continued down canyon. The water did soon dry up once again as I entered the narrows of the Wingate sandstone.
I was a little nervous about an upcoming obstacle. There is one known chockstone in Swett Canyon which at times can be difficult to get past. However, from what I’d read the difficulty was almost always going UP canyon. When I finally got to the spot I was relived to find that it was no obstacle at all — just a easy slide down onto dry mud.
Looking back up I could see how it might be tough to get up the 8′ climb. This would be especially true if there was a pool underneath and/or one was solo — as there really are no handholds to pull oneself up.
Below this spot the canyon really began to open up. I got to this area just in time to see the setting sun light up the west-facing walls:
I continued a bit farther down the canyon. As it was getting dark the Hoskinnini Monument rock pinnacle made for a cool silhouette against the moon-adorned sky. All the better there was more water near this spot, so I decided that was a pretty good place to camp.
Kept going downcanyon in the morning. I’d explored the lower part of this canyon once before on my Escalante to Monticello Hike. That time there was a a large amount of water running down and over a ledge creating quite a waterfall. No such luck this time. But, the nearby rock pinnacle (volcanic dike maybe?) was still cool to check out. It kinda looked like a mini Hoskinnini.
Soon I was at the junction with Trachyte Creek. This creek frequently runs a silty gray — even the name implies this type of sediment. But, on this occasion the water in the lower end was running clear.
Headed south soon I was at the mudflat that marked the beginning of Lake Powell. Shells littered the ground in the area and one could see the high-water mark high above on canyon walls. I moved to the eastern bench where I would make my way around the edge.
My plan from here was to follow the edge of the lake around to the North Wash area. This is the route I’d done before. I had some ambitions of exploring an “over the top” route, but w/o any definitive beta I wasn’t optimistic that I’d be able to find a way to make it work. Running behind schedule, it didn’t seem the right time to do a difficult exploratory route. So.. it was back to what I knew.
I was excited to see though that this year the lake was much lower than on my previous trip. This allowed me to short-cut many canyons where before the water level had filled to make a bay. In fact by the time I neared the main part of the lake I found it easier to follow the beach than walking the high cliffs as I’d done in the year past. So… it was kinda a new experience after all
At a few points I even sat down in the water to cool down and relax for a break. The only thing I missed walking along the lake’s edge was the toadstools that I’d stumbled upon on my last trip.
Around the big bend across from White Canyon it was possible to cross a large flat area that is sometimes underwater. It was amazing to see the huge amounts of driftwood now far above waterline. Also sad to see… numerous fire-rings and boat camps now nowhere even near the lake.
Headed northeast along the lake I had to climb to a higher level as the edge becomes a cliff. The higher elevation provided a good view of what was ahead though:
Walking this section wasn’t easy, but also wasn’t too bad. There was a lot of in and out and up and down to find the best route. But, there was also a lot of cool petrified wood to check out along the way.
I’d hoped to make it to North Wash by nightfall, but I quickly realized that wasn’t going to happen. Along one of the higher stretches I made camp at a good spots tucked in beside some boulders and overlooking the lake.
In the morning I continued NE. The area seems so isolated and remote, but… I also stumbled upon several tall stacks of cairns serving as a reminder that other venture out here on occasion. And, the man-made reservoir always within sight with an occasional speedboat going by also shows that civilization isn’t too far away.
Before making the turn around the bend and into North Wash there a few major canyons that cut deep in the cliffs making it a slow go. In a few spots it almost appears as if the route could be blocked, but there’s always a way around.
Rounding the corner into North Wash there are some good views of the lake/river below and one can see all the way over to Hite and the boat ramp now a long way above the water level.
Now around the corner the route seemed more tedious than I remembered. Maybe I was just tired and in the need of more water.
Finally I got to the only place in the area where it’s possible to get down to the lake level. I made my way down the steep talus slope and through the brush to a plain of cracked mud where there was not-too-long ago a lake. In fact, last time I was here I actually had to swim across! On this day though it was bone dry and I had to walk out of my way and back toward the lake just to get some water. Within a 1/4 miles I found water. It was cool to see the water on top of cracked mud as the lake level must have been on the rise. It made for a cool effect:
I filled up and headed back up the wash. As seems to be always the case… around a few bends there was a trickle of water in North Wash. I finally got to the point where is was possible to climb out and to the highway which I would follow to Hite. But… I actually walked the opposite direction for a short distance to a big pullout. I had decided I’d try to hitch a ride instead of walking the pavement for approx. 6 miles. I’d walked that stretch last time and though it’s nice, I was beat and didn’t feel like pounding pavement after a tedious stretch over the last day. I justified the lift knowing that the extra mileage I logged near Bullfrog earlier in this leg was more than the assist I hoped to get here. So… it seemed fair, but my tired legs might have been biased!
I created a sign to make sure people realized I wasn’t looking for a long ride. I figured the sign plus my location near the big pull-out would greatly increase my chances of getting picked up.
So… I stood there with my sign and waited. And… waited. And… waited.
There wasn’t much traffic in this location, but I quickly realized one problem was most of it was headed the OTHER direction. After about 20 minutes four cars going my way had passed me by. After an hour of waiting that total had grown to nine. I could have been nearly half way to Hite by now if I’d just continued walking.
I was just putting away my sign and prepping to set out down the highway when a truck with a raft on a trailer going the opposite way honks and hits their brakes somewhat swerving to come to a stop just off the road on the opposite side and down from my location. A guy steps out into the road and yells… “Jamal?!”
It was Nick — a friend from SLC! He was with his wife Audra and friend Jen and they had all just finished up a rafting trip on the San Juan River. They offered to turn around and take me down the road. Along the way on the short ride they filled me up with COLD water and a bunch of great snacks including an apple which I loved. It’s such a luxury to have new/different types of snacks all of a sudden. They dropped me off at a dirt road where I’d walk toward Dark Canyon. We said our goodbyes and headed in opposite directions.
I walked the desolate dirt road until the sun was nearly down — without seeing another soul along the way. At that moment I realized I was sweating like crazy! I thought it was odd because it wasn’t really that warm and I wasn’t walking any faster than normal. Then it dawned on me… it was because I’d gotten so re-hydrated while on the short ride with Nick. Not only did I drink close to a gallon while in the truck, they also refilled my jugs to full capacity. It was awesome and evidently running through my system at this very moment.
Just as the sun was going down there was an eerie calm over the landscape. I soaked it in and then soon found a place to camp for the night.
I was excited for what was coming up as I was about to return to one of my favorite places with a plan to explore a new-to-me route. But… details on that will have to wait for Part 11: Dark Canyon to Fable Valley.