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Lower Grand Gulch 2003
Shifting to Plan B

Water Canyon

Monday, April 14   God, nearly 10 hours of sleep is like heaven! When could I ever do that at home? We awoke to lovely skies around 7 am, and around breakfast, we planned our day. First up, we needed to get up to the huge pictograph panel right above us. We were close enough to see the figures, and I remember seeing them on our previous trip. We set out after breakfast, Susie and I being at the caboose of the group. You could work your way up to a spot on the slickrock, and then head about 100 meters up canyon at that level. We got to a point where there was some exposure, and, amazingly - before I thought about it - Sue turned around, saying that she was not comfortable. Now this was the same lady who normally does things that I would never try. But when you experience your first broken bone on a backpacking trip deep in the wilderness with much the same crew with whom you are with currently, well, I could see how she might be a bit timid. (Having broken both arms, one leg, and damaged both rotator cuffs over the years, all on different occasions and all in recreational pursuits, I have a gut level sense for the pain one can experience.) Susie announced that if Sue was not going to edge out along this tiny bench, there was no way SHE was going to try it. I said fine, but I was going to get up, if I could. Ray, in the lead, with his usual amount of exceptional balance, showed us the way, and Ron, Barbara, and I, although we had to work at it a bit, were able to get up to the target level. By the time we had scrambled over several shelves and boulders, we looked back toward the pictographs, only to see Sue, Susie and Andy already prowling around near them. Obviously, sometimes timidity can lead to creativity. The pictograph panel is spectacular, and it affords a great view of the campsite. In fact, it is such a terrific spot, National Geographic used a photo of the spot for one of their wilderness books.

We all returned via the easier route, picked up our day hiking gear, and headed down canyon to the mouth of Water Canyon. Ah, ....... Water Canyon. It brings back great memories: In 1985, four of the crew on the current trip had attempted to do the Lower Grand Gulch/Slickhorn Canyon Loop trip. Emphasis on the word "attempted." We had come off from the road end near the Drill Hole at 12S, 576501 E, 4138406 N, with what I had trusted to be good directions from a BLM Ranger as to how to enter Lower Grand Gulch from what he swore was the south fork (12S, 574611 E, 4138042 N) of what we now call Water Canyon (back in the mid-80's, there were no 7.5 minute quads for this area, and there was no canyon name). Well, that first evening, we spent camped on the canyon rim, because we could not find an obvious route down into the canyon. The next morning, a couple of us went out on a scouting mission. I guessed wrong, but Ray guessed correctly, and located a route into the South Fork. Based on my old maps, we descended through a slot near 12S, 575484 E, 4137546 N. But that was the easy part. Ray had warned us that there was a spot where there "might be a bit of exposure," but he thought we could do it. Now keep in mind that when Ray goes cross country hiking in the Smokies, and he reports that it got "a little brushy," that is a code phrase indicating that there is no way in the world that mere mortals can make it through this impenetrable jungle. Well, there were two places that had "a bit of exposure." One had us walking on ledges a few inches wide, with 60 feet of air to the next rock ledge. A second required crawling on hands and knees across a tiny ledge, with even more "air" to our right, keeping low to prevent our packs from snagging on overhanging rock and tossing us into the abyss. All to circumvent a couple of major pouroffs. After that, we finally got down to the canyon floor. Where we were greeted with massive choke stones, and room size boulders on the floor. I recall that one of the prettiest sights I have ever seen was later in the afternoon: a dried cow patty in this canyon. I knew that the cows were able to get up here from down below, and if a cow could get up to this point, I could get down. It was a challenging morning and early afternoon. I have a photo of Ellen Fox scrambling over a giant boulder late morning. The pained expression on her face says it all.

When we had considered the potential for changing the trip to Lower Grand Gulch a month or six weeks before we left, I had called the BLM, asking them if they were willing to issue us a permit for a route on the east side of the Canyon, a little further south and a lot less boring that Government Trail. Maybe go in Toilet Bowl, and out Arch Canyon? Just something a bit different. The Ranger, Andy, was very nice, and was willing to check with his senior management. The answer: No. They would not issue anything further south than Collins Canyon. I think the Department of Interior was so badly burned by the Zion Lawsuit - where a couple of adult leaders took a group of scouts into Kolob Canyon at the same time water was being released, and the Park Service settled the lawsuit, instead of hiring a decent civil defense law firm to say that when you go into the wilderness, you are, by definition, on your own - that they are basically chicken shit when it comes to issuing anyone a permit for doing anything out of the ordinary. Back in the good old days (before quotas and permits and crowds on Cedar Mesa), one could start and end a hike anywhere you wanted. Today, we are so regimented as to take some of the fun away from the more experienced hikers. It would seem that this is an excellent time for the BLM to consider an "Adventure Permit," that would permit the holders to go into the canyon (you can come out anywhere you want) at places other than defined trail heads. I am not talking about increasing visitation levels, just the sense of adventure.

We turned up into Water Canyon and it brought back both memories and new experiences. We went up a side canyon that we had not explored previously. Always fun to see new amazing rock formations. There was also water running in the canyon, although it was mostly a trickle. Then Ron, Susie and I turned up the main canyon, and headed up. As we walked through the thick vegetation, I looked over to my right, and saw the rock shelf that we had to leap off back in 1985 to get beyond this point. Either I have gotten a LOT older or EVEN MORE conservative, but I don't remember the shelf being that high off of the ground. Although I realize that one flood can change a lot of things. It could not have been more than about 100 meters further up when we ran into some serious rock fall. There were huge, room sized boulders blocking the floor of the canyon, and we spent a considerable amount of time trying to negotiate them. We were in the process of trying to see if there was any way off a particularly obstreperous rock that did not involve flying when we saw a couple day hiking down canyon. They were from Teton Valley, ID, and on the aforementioned slickrock shelf, and could see the other side of the boulder we were trying to negotiate. The look in their eyes said "No way!" The guy indicated that they were day hiking from the road end near the drill hole and had come down the main fork of Water Canyon. They had been in the vicinity recently, and the only safe way they knew of to get on and off the shelf they were on was using the two trees that were leaning against the shelf about 75 meters downstream. By the time we got back through the boulder jumble, they were already down off the shelf and talking to Andy and Sue. I looked at the trees and expressed some pessimism as to our ability to get up them (one was a life tree, one was a dead branch). The guy said "Here, let me show you" and went up the tree like he was a lower primate. Ok, I figured, I should be able to do it. I was not as graceful, to be sure, and I did really strain some lower back muscles, but I did get up the trees and on to the shelf. So I think everyone else in our group figured that if Roger can do it, anyone can do it. And they did. Walking on the shelf was vastly easier than negotiating rock fall on the canyon floor. But the shelf ran out soon, and it was back to slithering through openings between boulders.

It is only about 500 meters from the big turn to the north to the mouth of the South Fork of Water canyon. We stopped for a bit, and decided to turn up it, just to relive some memories. (The woman of the couple of day hikers we saw would later tell us that they had tried coming down the South Fork a couple of days previously, and decided that it just did not feel safe. She had come down it previously, without too many problems. It is mostly mental, I think.) After visiting a small group of ruins and a low pictograph panel, we got up a ways into the South Fork and ran into one of the many boulder chokes. Sue looked at the boulders and expressed that she really did not need to see the rough part of that canyon again, and Andy and I, veterans of the 1985 trip, agreed. Ron and Susie's enthusiasm for boulder negotiation seemed minimal, so this looked like a good place to have a late lunch and turn around. I had to mooch handouts, as in my haste to leave camp, I had totally forgotten my lunch sack. Fortunately, Ron was happy to relieve himself of a Clif Bar, and with jerky from Susie and cheese from Sue, I was doing pretty well. So it was back through the boulders, and the slickrock shelf. On the way down the trees, I pulled my back muscles again, so I was really in a world of hurt. I took some more Vitamin I (Ibuprofen), and while our crew stopped to talk with the day hiking couple, I headed on back to camp, as I realized that I could not stand in one spot without experiencing major discomfort.

Dinner was another handful of Vitamin I, and lemon pepper pasta with dried smoked turkey and Romano cheese. After dinner, Susie and I went up canyon another quarter mile or so to look at a pictograph panel we had missed yesterday. Another nice evening was upon us, as the moon was rising over the alpenglow-painted canyon walls. But since we knew we had a long day ahead of us tomorrow, we tried to get our stuff a bit more organized before we went to bed.

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Roger A. Jenkins, Suzanne A. McDonald, 2003