Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Hite to Poison Spring (Days 16-19)

Written 4/19/08

Before setting off on my solo continuation of the trip, I made the decision to purchase a PLB – Personal Locator Beacon. I had been issued similar PLBs on the fishing boats in Alaska. The devices can be activated in a serious emergency and the proper authorities are notified. According to the directions, a serious emergency qualifies as potential loss of life, limb, eyesight or property. While I hope I wont be losing any of those, a PLB is a prudent device to be carrying with me in the places I will be headed.

With everything ready to go again, Ben drove me to the trail in Hite, where we dug up the buckets and split the supplies for one. It was an emotional heartfelt goodbye, and I didn't want to see him go. With plans to meet up somewhere along the trail, I shouldered my pack, and set out for new territory.  I contoured around the base of the Orange Cliffs, and headed up Rock Canyon, where I met my first solo trial. The route climbs a scree slope and passes through a short chimney climb to the canyon rim. I made it through the chimney without difficulty, and began to hoist my pack up with a length of webbing. The pack got stuck beneath the ledge, and the sheer weight nearly pulled me over. No anchors, not good. I retied the pack and tried again, but a sections worth of food and 2.5 gallons of water refused to move. I partially unloaded the pack and hand carried items to the top to lighten the load. Wedging my body into the crack, I hauled the pack to the middle ledge, and dead-lifted it over my head barely getting it to the rim. I was beat, but everything was on top.  So much for a first day.

Looking across the Red Ledges, I felt like I was on the surface of Mars. Rolling red benches spread to the north, cut by low gullies, small washes and shallow drainages.  The land was sparsely covered with low shrubs: Mormon Tea, Saltbrush, bunchgrasses, Buffalo Berry, fiery explosions of Indian Paintbrush dotted the hillsides adding another hue of red to the landscape’s vermilion palette. I crossed overland following my compass and the winding line on the topo map. Each drainage melted into the next, with few landmarks to sight the way. It’d be easy to get lost up here, if you weren’t careful. I saw little sign of human presence except some rusty cowboy cans, and the enigmatic stone cairns of the forgotten Chinese Trail. The few pagoda-shaped stacks were the only features for miles around. I descended the Red Ledges a vertical 600 ft following a steep boulder field to the bottom of Fiddler Cove Canyon. 

Dirty Devil River
Following sheep tracks and the occasional cairn, I picked my way through loose scree and rock, trying carefully not to disturb the balanced angles of repose. Down on the canyon floor, I soon found myself at the confluence of the Dirty Devil River. Draining a wide region from the Fishlake Plateau, the Henry Mountains, Fremont River and the Burr Desert, the Dirty Devil can carry a mere trickle to as much water as the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. At my first crossing, I headed out with my trekking poles testing the depth. The silty water was flowing quickly, rising to just past my knees. Up canyon, I found better, shallower places to cross, but once I wasn’t so lucky.  At one place, I stepped onto the shore and my feet sunk into a mudhole the consistency of thick pudding. The weight of my pack bogged me down like a bloated cow, sinking me to my thighs. I tried one leg, and then the other, but I was stuck good. I leaned forward, shifting my weight, my poles useless in the muck. The mud sucked the Chacos right off my feet, and I had to reach down up to my shoulder to retrieve them. Shuffling around in the mud trap, I was finally able to extract myself, half-covered in nastiness.

I continued up the river corridor, navigating the 8 foot silt banks deposited at high water. Debris lay strewn everywhere including 20ft wooden beams swept down from up river.  I navigated a maze of flooded tamarisk and willows, beating back branches as I walked. Scores of tumbleweeds lined the riverbank like fleets of abandoned shopping carts. Dry mud flats cracked in geometric patterns, the edges curled in the sun. I followed the deep meanders of the river beneath sheer towering walls. In the early morning on a sandbar, I found a blooming garden of pale white and pink primrose flowers, their heart-shaped petals revealing their inner stamens.

I left the Dirty Devil, and headed up Poison Spring Canyon – The start of my 7000ft climb to the top of Mt Ellen. It was a beautiful canyon. The stream bed cut its way back up through the geologic layers. Massive chunks of Wingate sandstone had fallen from the cliff face, the canyon seemed to crumble like the walls of Jericho.  Rock squirrels played on the scree slopes, and fat spiny lizards basked on boulders in the morning sun. At the Chinle layer, I found numerous drill holes and several posted BLM authorized uranium claim sites. Poison Springs is a beautiful canyon, but it might not be for long. Last fall we noticed they had installed several new oil wells on the mesa top of Island in the Sky, just outside the boundary to Canyonlands NP. Is no place sacred anymore?

Up canyon, I ran into a field biologist named Glenn, out conducting Mexican Spotted Owl surveys for a private consulting group. The project was a preliminary survey of the canyon to ensure that no threatened owls resided in the area so that the mining industry could proceed with their drilling. Having previous conducted spotted owl work myself, I told him about a small slot I had explored earlier in the day that definitely had owl sign. He too had found some potential roosts and would check them out later.  Promising news for the owls, not for the miners. Take that resource extraction!

Glenn offered to “buy me a cocktail”, and I couldn’t say no. We kicked back with ice cold margaritas (ooh!) and chips and salsa (ooh! ooh!). Absolute luxuries on the trail. He lived in southwest Colorado, and we soon realized we had mutual contacts in the park service up at Mesa Verde. Glenn was impressed with the trail, and was currently attempting a large trip of his own. He was tackling, in sections, the actual continental divide, not the popular CDT. It involved technical climbing and walking the ridgeline of the continent. No one has actually done it before, and he was spending several years piecing it together. It was nice to share camp and enjoy the company of an interesting guy. 

Further on, the Wingate disappeared, giving way to the red Kayenta, and the adobe Navajo domes. I filled up my containers from a masoned off pipe spring coming straight from the rocks. Delicious cool clear sandstone filtered water. I realized I had done 3 dry camps, and carried enough water to avoid taking from the Dirty Devil and a nasty case of the runs.  Going dry for that long might not be as easy once the weather warms up.

Poison Spring Canyon
While exploring a side canyon, I accidentally spooked a Great Horned Owl from its day roost. Small mammal bones littered the ledge like discarded toothpicks. I climbed higher, through the red benches and on top of the large swells of undulating Navajo. Gale-force winds nearly toppled me over, pummeling me with incredible force from every direction. To the west, stood the snow capped Henrys looming above the drainage.  From above, Poison Spring Canyon was a vulnerable oasis in the middle of the Burr Desert. A narrow ribbon of verdant green and lush Cottonwoods wound its way through sagebrush flats and sandy dunes.  Walking the rim, I found puddles of iron marbles – small round balls collected in depressions in the slickrock. Some were perfectly round, as smooth as glass marbles, while others were cracked like splitting zygotes.  The mitosis of stone. Shapes like raspberries, flying saucers, and paired testicles. The “moki balls” are formed when water leaches out the iron into precipitate formations from the ferrous sandstone. I had never seen such variety in the concretions before.

I walked out the last miles of the canyon with my hat plastered against my face. Wind howled through the gully, blasting me with grit. I crossed Highway 95, dug up the cache buckets, and began the climb to Mt Ellen.

Section mileage: ~36 miles


benshaw said...

i'm glad you decided to buy the epirb..... corey was cursing your names for not saying that you bought one on your last update...i've been checking for updates that indicate your survival... keep on rockin'.

mike said...

good call with the PLB ryan, I had one when I soloed my way to the escalante river--a little peace of mind.

sorry to hear ben isn't finishing with you, but psyched to see you continue.

keep it wild,

Mike Coronella

Emily Julia said...

you should turn this into a book

Surat said...

very good posting!

Anonymous said...

I was in Poison Spring Canyon years ago. We learned that the early mapmakers were forbidden th publish maps with the real name of the Canyon. The locals called it "Pissing Spring Canyon" which referred to the trickle of fresh water coming out of the short pipe driven into the Canyon wall.