Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Kaiparowits Plateau (Days 34-44)

Written 5/14/08

Leaving the cache, I began my ascent of the Straight Cliffs and the Eastern edge of the Kaiparowits Plateau, on of the last remaining wild and undeveloped areas in the lower 48. Open space. Desolate country. 

Kaiparowits Plateau
Part of the greater Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, the entire designation encompasses nearly 2 million acres of slickrock and canyons, is home to a wide array of plants and wildlife, and contains an untold treasure of paleontological and archaelogical sites. It truly is an amazing place. The creation of the monument was the keystone piece to linking up the parks in the region, creating an interconnected corridor across the Plateau, of which the Hayduke Trail takes great advantage. I climbed the Middle Pack Trail, an old route carved out of the Straight Cliffs through to a break in the rim. The vegetation changd from stands of juniper, serviceberry, and buffaloberry to thick pinions and mountain mahogany. Patches of snow covered the trail in places where I found some young Mule’s Ear sunflowers beginning to bloom.

From the rim at 7,300 feet I could see the ground I had covered the past several weeks. The wrinkled drainages of the Escalante, my camp in the Circle Cliffs, Mt. Ellen, and the Henry Range, back to the distant Abajo Mountain; to the North, the Aquarius Plateau and Boulder Mountain; and far South to the distant flat-topped mesas of the Navajo Reservation. Further to the West were the forested tops of Powell Point and Canaan Peak. The coral pink cliffs of Bryce, and the white Navajo ledges of the Grand Staircase. Not a bad view.

I crossed the mesa top though dense fields of sagebrush and pines. Several areas had burned, likely caused by lightning strikes during summer thunderstorms, this ridge being the highest point for miles around. I passed up the opportunity to take water from a couple of springs fouled by cattle. The cows had practically rendered them useless, ruining some of the few reliable water sources on the dry plateau. Instead, I filled up my containers with three days worth of water at Mudholes Spring, a fenced off little water hole in a shady grove of bare Aspen. I inspected a nearby supply cabin someone had built, decorated with rusted horseshoes and ranching equipment on its outer walls.

Beyond the Spring, I tried following the remains of a packtrail to the head of Monday Canyon, but it was like trying to catch a ghost. The trail would disappear and reappear, overgrown from years of neglect and infrequent use. It was useless. I ended up crossing overland, my legs scratched and bloodied after beating through the dense sage. Continuing on, I dropped into a side drainage at the head of Monday Canyon. The route to the bottom was dense with pines, brush, and fallen logs, but even with my big pack I was able to make it through. From the canyon floor, the vanilla sandstone walls rose into a series of tiered benches lined thick with trees. Wanting a better view through the foliage, I climbed up a nearby slope to look around.

Metate and Mano
Beneath an overhand I stumbled upon a ledge that held the remains of half a dozen ruins. Most of the sites had deteriorated into rubble, but one was still partially intact. Constructed in a circle, the ceiling poles had caved into the living area, the ends of the beams still supported by brick walls. The wood was weathered and charred, but the hand cut marks were still visible. Shredded Juniper bark lay draped across the poles; the soot of cooking fires stained the alcove wall. Among the packrat midden jammed into the walls I found dozens of ears of maize, the length and girth of an index finger. The ledge was scattered with broken arrowheads and potsherds of varying types—white clay, black clay, red painted. I even found a worn metate and mano, a handstone used to grind corn. The site was almost completely undisturbed, but unfortunately, cattle had accessed the ledge and left their calling card everywhere. Still it was impressive to come across. Throughout the canyon, I found several more ruins, dwellings and grainaries. I find it astonishing that an entire community of people could survive and thrive in such a difficult place.

The route through Monday Canyon was difficult to navigate. The drainage was blocked by pouroffs, boulders, and rockfalls. Continuing down to Rogers Canyon was more of the same. A vile-looking creek full of brown sludge and greasy mud cut a deep V through loose slopes of shale, the bottom choked with tamarisk. The only way I got through the obstacles was by taking cattle trails. Just follow the trampled path of destruction and splattered pancakes of manure, and you’ll get by. They may be dumb, but cows know how to traverse the landscape.

Navajo Canyon
Lower down, the vegetation thinned out and all but disappeared. The ground was sparsely covered by thorny black bush, hydra-like bladderweed, spring cactus, and the ubiquitous cheat grass. All around were the sunbaked hills of gray shale and oddly balanced rocks. In the distance, I could make out the towering buttes and stone moonlights of Glen Canyon. The land was stark and empty, a desolate moonscape. It was very survival to walk through.

Nacho & Speedo
I headed up the drainage of Navajo Canyon, and got halfway through when I heard human voices and the clatter of trekking poles. ‘Who in their right mind would be out in this forbidding place?’ I wondered. Two figures popped out from behind a rock. I turned out to be Nacho and Speedo (their trail names of course), two ultralight thru-hikers Brian Frankel told us we might run into. The were doing a modified route in the opposite direction, going from Bryce to Moab in 5 weeks. Their friends Pepper and Trauma, whom I had been following since Arches, had just finished an East-to-West route in a blistering 35 days. Yikes. 2008 was turning into a big year on the HDT. During our little impromptu gathering we swapped stories, traded trail tips, and discussed the differences between the Ultralight approach of maildrops in towns versus the long term system of bucket caches. Each method has its own merits and advantages. But they require very different philosophies toward hiking the trail. Either way it was interesting to meet fellow Haydukers, especially such accomplished thru-hikers as these. We took some celebratory photos and wished each other luck on our journeys before heading our separate ways.

I continued on up Navajo Canyon, through Surprise Valley and to the water cache we had left on the ridge. In all directions spread the expansive reach of the Kaiparowits Plateau. To the south in the distance I could see across the border into Arizona—the Echo Cliffs, the Vermillion Cliffs, and the sloping rise of the Kaibab Plateau. I dropped down into the pastel-colored hills of Reese Canyon to where the drainage had cut down to some exposed beds of coal. Not too far away in the Burning Hills, a coal seam caught fire when struck by lightning and now smolders away slowly underground. At one point there were plans to mine much of the coal in the area, but the designation of the monument put a stop to that, blocking all resource extraction within its borders. For now at least.

Hiding from the swarm
I turned up Last Chance Creek, one of the few reliably flowing streams on the Plateau. Unfortunately, with running water come the bugs. The gnats were almost unbearable, orbiting my head like little winged electrons. I killed dozens at a time just by clapping indiscriminately around my face. It became an all-out war. The like to crawl into the folds of your ears, along your hairline, into your eyes. At some point, it became an unwinnable battle and I would submit myself to the aerial attack. Occasionally, brief moments of respite would come when the breeze would drive them away. But as always, they would return with an aggravated hunger. The relentless hordes were enough to drive a man insane.

Fortunately the wildlife more than made up for the bloodshed. I listened to the predawn howl of coyotes, and the sad long rueful coos of the mourning doves. I caught whiptail and leopard-nosed lizards, and even a fat 3-foot bull snake basking in the wash. Tadpoles filled the creek by the hundreds, writhing and feeding the soft mud. In the evenings, I walked the stream bed by moonlight, following the chorus of calls coming from the creek. I discovered reclusive Spadefoot toads singing away beneath the river stones, and dozens of spawning red-spotted toads mounted in amplexus. It was a springtime orchestra of love, and I let the lovers be.

The near disaster
I followed the creek up to our supplemental food cache for the section. We buried the bucket high up out of the wash, but when I got there the entire embankment was gone. Disappeared. Washed into the creek by the winter floods. I was stupefied. Luckily Ben had the fortuitous foresight to tie the bucket to a tree in case something like this did happen. I found the bucket balanced on the brink, 15 feet above the wash, still tied to the juniper that was ready to fall over itself. Nacho and Speedo had seen the cache and salvaged two of our water bottles—but the rest was history. The problem with caches is that you are completely reliant on their contents being there. Had the cache failed, it was nearly 40 miles in any direction to get anywhere. I would’ve been up Last Chance Creek without a paddle. The bucket was fine, but the whole situation was cutting it a little too close for comfort.

I took a much needed rest day, giving my legs some time to recuperate, my first day off since Hite. I camped out beneath a leafy cottonwood, relaxed, and just enjoyed myself for a day. Before leaving, I cached the bucket in a more secure location, and set off up the creek. I turned up Paradise Canyon, where I filed up with enough water to see me through the last 25 miles to the end of the section. Following a dirt road, I left the lower drainages and climbed out to the rolling arid benchlands of the western Kaiparowits Plateau. It felt great to be out of the canyons for a while and away from the bugs. I cruised along through branching junipers and fields of sage, and relished walking on a freshly graded road.

Along the way I met some BLM paleontologists on their way out to a dinosaur dig site. There were excavating some Hadrosaur skeletons out of the Kaiparowits Formation, but they also commonly find Triceratops, and the occasional Rex. This area is rich in dinosaur fossils. On par with the Badlands in Montana and the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, the Monument is unique in that it contains formations throughout the Mesozoic Era, from the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods. The entire dinosaur fossil history available in a single location, and enough to drive a rock hound wild. I was tempted to jump in the truck and join them. Growing up, my childhood occupation of choice was to be a paleontologist. But I had to keep on moving.

Grosvenor Arch
Crossing the bone dry washes out of Tommy Smith and Wahweep Creeks I made my way towards the Cockscomb, a long upthrust escarpment marking the Western edge of the Kaiparowits. Looking back from the ridge, I could see all the way back to the Straight Cliffs, and the miles and miles of open plateau. I hiked through The Gut of the Cockscomb, and descended into Butler Valley, where I stopped to spend some time at Grosvenor Arches. A delicately eroded double arch, it looks like a broken pretzel turned on it side. I sat and marveled at the unique spectacle of geology as I contemplated the nature of my journey. I have hiked almost 400 miles across the Plateau, mostly along, and have seen some pretty amazing things. Half the time I have to convince myself that this is all real. And now at the approximate midpoint of the trip, I look forward to the miles ahead, and the anticipated return of my hiking partner. I continued on down the road to the trailhead at Round Valley Draw, where I anxiously waited for the arrival of a hopefully healed Ben.
Section mileage: ~81 miles


JD Schaefer said...

Your trip reports are always a welcome sight in the "mailbox". Too bad about the cache. Looking forward to the photos.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this description of an isolated corner of our country once occupied by dinosaurs and teaming with life.