Side Canyons of the Lower Escalante 2005
As the loose stones and gravel shooting out from under my hiking boots confirmed that the slope of this enormous bowl of slickrock was way steeper than the angle of repose, and my eyes darted around to find the sweet spot, the left side of my brain kept asking the right side: "What are we DOING here??!! It was not supposed to be like this! The plan was for a nice, relaxing stroll down the Escalante River, spending idyllic days exploring the recently revealed mouths of places like Cow, Fence, and Explorer canyons. That was the PLAN. So what was I doing HERE, trying to remain erect as we gently descended this huge bowl to a point just above the high water mark in 50 Mile Creek Canyon. I gingerly stepped on the flattest, most stable footing I could find, thinking that if we all could get to the bottom of the bowl, and somehow negotiate the crack that our "scouts" had reported would require pack and person belaying, maybe PLAN B wouldn't be so bad after all...........
It had all started sufficiently auspiciously. Lake Powell was down - way down. More than 140 feet below maximum pool level down. You would have to have been living under a rock not to have seen all the articles in the popular press the winter of 2004 - 5, about the draining of the Lake Powell bathtub. The southwestern drought was into its sixth year, and as the need to feed the electricity god's thirst for power in Las Vegas and LA overwhelmed the parched earth's ability to fill the lake, the level of water had sunk first 50, then 100, and was pushing 150 feet. While marina operators bemoaned the loss of business, many outfitters were rubbing their hands in glee over the increased opportunities for guiding groups of hikers into the canyons, the bottoms of which had not been seen for 20, or 30, or even 40 years. For many people, it was like having a whole new wilderness area available for exploration. One person's tragedy is another's opportunity.
When it became clear that a substantial amount of new territory had opened up for the first time since I was in High School, we just had to see it. Our plan was to descend to the mouth of Coyote Gulch at Crack in the Wall, and head down the Escalante, base camping near the mouths of Cow and Fence Canyon. Then, we would return upriver, turn back into Coyote, and ultimately exit near Red Well. That was the PLAN. With a 300%-of-average snowpack looming over the headwaters of the Escalante on the Aquarius Plateau like a menacing thundercloud, the signature phrase from the great 90's TV show, Northern Exposure should have been ringing in my ears: "In your dreams, Fleishmann!" But, in retrospect, it appears that only Andy was paying attention to this critical detail.
Having recently relocated to Bozeman, MT, Susie and I enjoyed the luxury of throwing a load of wine and beer, and - oh yes - backpacking gear in the rear of our Highlander and heading for Salt Lake.. We arrived mid-afternoon on Friday, made a quick trip to the REI Coop to look for freeze dried peas (our local shops in Bozeman not yet being stocked for hiking season) and met Barbara and Robin for dinner at the Pierpont Cantina. Saturday morning, the rest of the crew arrived. First, Andy and Sue from the Austin area, and then the remaining Knoxville contingent: Ray, Ron, and Will. After the obligatory stop at the Sandy REI, to boost the number of stores on our "Life List," we headed south on I-15 for the thriving metroplex of Escalante, Utah.
Maybe it was an omen, or maybe it was bad luck, but Aurora's one-man police force was out, protecting the citizens of town from evil drivers with his obviously un-calibrated radar gun. He stopped Ray, driving the 15 passenger van, claiming that Ray was doing 48 mph in a 35 mph zone. This was akin to accusing Billy Graham for running a porno web site. It seems way out of character. We all took the $82 ticket pretty well, seeing it as a donation to the Aurora Police Benevolence Association. But readers might want to reconsider using Aurora as a shortcut to canyon country. (It should be noted that on our return, we orchestrated a two vehicle boycott of Aurora businesses, just to express our displeasure with speed traps. If Aurora wants to benefit economically from the passage of tourists, there are better ways to go about it.)
As we crossed over Boulder Mountain on Highway 12, marveling at the reality of the 300% snow pack, we could see the sky near the north end of 50 Mile Mountain turning the color of charcoal. I felt a sense of foreboding since this was just the first of several days of predicted showers. We pulled into the Prospector Motel (pretty nice in a small town kind of way) and while folks unloaded their gear and initiated a belated cocktail hour, I headed over to what is now referred to as the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center. This is the first time I had seen the new digs, and was blown away by the size: as large as the visitor center for our nation's most visited National Park. It seemed out of scale with the rest of the town, but maybe the locals who raised hell when the Clinton Administration had the good sense to finally designate much of this area as part of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument are beginning to see the benefits of a tourism-based economy vs. the boom and bust of mineral extraction and government-subsidized grazing. However, I do confess to having sniffed the odor of roast pork in the air, if you get my drift.
The Center was closed when I arrived, but a friendly ranger was packing his car outside, and strongly urged us to return first thing in the morning "to get the latest weather report and information on water levels in the Escalante." We had planned to be out of town heading down Hole-in-the-Rock Road by 8 am, but I figured we could blow a half hour at the visitor Center. After briefly explaining our planned hiking route to him, the ranger indicated that a couple of guys had drowned earlier in the week in a side canyon of the Escalante (actually, the South Fork of Choprock Canyon: they had canyoneered into 36 degree water with wet suits, that of course, did not offer sufficient warmth for swimming in water that cold, and drowned), and he wanted us to be safe. His last words to me were: "Look, no matter what you end up doing, you'll have a good time." That surely did not sound auspicious.
I headed back to cocktail hour with the report, and we digested the information along with the food in the restaurant adjacent to the Motel. The food was not too bad, considering the size of the town. And it was only sprinkling, so maybe our luck would improve.
In your dreams, Fleishmann!
© Roger A. Jenkins, 2005; Scenic Photo © Barbara Allen, 2005; People photos © William H. Skelton, 2005