Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Waterpocket Fold &The Escalante Corridor (Days 25-33)

Written 5/03/08

Lower Muley Twist
I set off from the Burr Trail in Capitol Reef with a fully loaded pack. I dropped some of my cold weather gear, and picked up an inflatable trail boat, paddles, and dry bags, in addition to a week and a half’s worth of food and water. Thank goodness for industrial strength stitching, cause my pack was bursting at the seams.

Lower Muley Twist was a fantastic canyon. Squeezed in on either side by Waterpocket Fold and the backside of the Circle Cliffs, Muley Twist cuts a sinuous canyon through some of the most spectacular walls around. Historically, it was used as a wagon road between the town of Boulder and Halls Crossing on the Colorado, and is so windy, that it was said it could “twist a mule.” The canyon starts off shallow, but soon cuts through the multiple layers of the upthrust fold. Tight meanders carved recessed amphitheaters so deep they practically cut out the sky. Gigantic walls of sheer white sandstone dropped 1000 feet to the canyon floor. It felt like walking the alleyways of stone skyscrapers. My neck started to cramp from looking up in all directions, and I had to remind myself to keep hiking if I was going to get anywhere.

Eventually, Muley Twist cut through the sandstone cliffs and joined Halls Creek. I filled up my water supplies from the Muley Tanks, one of the few semi-reliable water sources in an arid land of stone. Occurring in the natural depressions of the surface slickrock, the potholes and tanks of the region collect and store surface water and make life possible for countless animals and organisms. I noticed a multitude of tracks in the wash of animals all relying on the tanks to drink—coyote, mice, deer, sheep, cottontails. With filter in hand, I peered into the olive-colored waters rich with organic nutrients, and observed a tiny world at work. The edges were teeming with newly hatched tadpoles, writhing and feeding in the mud. Flashes of metallic green glistened from their dark bodies as they searched the sediment, oblivious to my presence. Aquatic beetles and water boatmen patrolled the depths, their wing-like paddles surging them through the murky waters. And barely visible to the naked eye were the sand fleas, fairy shrimp, and desert water crustaceans that call these pools home. An entire ecosystem in the palm of your hand.

Canyon tree frog
Loaded back up with water weight, I shouldered my pack and followed an old wagon trail down the dry meandering flood plain of the Halls Creek. Leaving the wash, I ventured into the depths of the Fold, hiking up lush side drainages lined with box elder, serviceberry, and ash trees. As I walked the narrow slickrock bottom, a small stone leaped out from underfoot, chirped, and landed in a nearby pool. It was a canyon tree frog. Scooping it up, I marveled at its chalky marbled back, cool grey skin, and lemon yellow toes. It blinked its large wet eyes at me before leaping from my palm back into the waters below. I continued on to the impressive Brimhall Double Arch, after stripping down and swimming a frigid boulder pool, deep in the shadowy depths of the canyon. Scrambling up the angled back of the Reef, I discovered dozens of waterpockets, tanks, and holds all flush with water from the wet winter. Pools spilled into pools, the overflow of one filling the next in succession along the stairstepped crease. I had never seen anything like it before.

Further down Halls Creek, I reached the foot of the 2,200 ft Red Slide, a massive collapse in the walls of the Circle Cliffs that broke through and buried the Fold. I hiked the remains of an old uranium mine track that switchbacked its way up the broad shoulder of the ancient mudslide. As I climbed the rose colored walls of Johnson Mesa fell away to the East. I had an impressive view for miles up and down Waterpocket Fold, the angled monocline jutting out of the crust and ending in a steep ridge of triangular teeth. Leaving the track, I navigated overland to the base of the curving cliffs, grunting heavily and struggling beneath the weigh of my pack. Still climbing, I broke through silver weathered pinyon branches, and ducked beneath sprawling junipers trying to find the path of least resistance. With little energy to spare, I crested the saddle just before sunset and has the whole world spread beneath me. To the East rose the dominant peaks of the Henry Range: Ellsworth, Holmes, Hillers, Pennell, and far away to the North, Mt. Ellen. I looked out over the top of Capitol Reef to the flat benchlands of the foothill mesas. To the West, where I was headed next, spread the Southern parabolic curve of the Circle Cliffs and the low-lying Purple Hills, the wrinkled drainages of the Escalante corridor, and far off on the horizon. The stretching reef of Fifty-Mile Mountain and the eastern edge of the Kaiparowits Plateau. An impressive view.

Waterpocket Fold from the Red Slide
I climbed down from the saddle and dropped into the upper drainages of Middle Moody Canyon. Still exhausted and dehydrated from my climb up the slide, I had a tough day working my way down. The canyon seemed to change personality as it cut through the different sedimentary layers. In the maroon narrows of the Moenkopi, I found fossilized slabs of cracked mud, covered by the flaking crust of the most recent storm—the same phenomenon in the same place but separated by millions of years. Mind-blowing. Further down, it cut through purple benches of lavender stone, producing knobby grape-like formations. Beyond, in the Colorful Chinle, I stepped over an entire petrified tree that had eroded out of the embankment. This place is a geologic wonderland.

I followed Middle Moody down to its confluence with the Escalante River, where I half-expected to meet a roaring torrent of silty mud, best navigated by boat, or not at all, than by foot. Instead, I was ecstatic to find a cool, clear river running no more than kneedeep. I waded out into the flow, easily able to see the worn cobbles of the riverbed, as sandy colored fish darted between my legs. I shouted with joy and splashed in the emerald waters. Stripping down I plunged deep into pools, swimming, kicking, feeling the cool wetness circulate around my parched body for the first time in weeks. I was a sponge soaking it all in, devouring it, consuming it. I sprawled out on a rock in the sun, absorbing the warmth from above and below and felt the droplets evaporate from my skin like cool kisses.

Escalante Corridor
It was time to test out the trail boat I had been lugging around for 35 miles. I pulled out raft and paddle and hauled her to a calm eddy and inflated her. Every craft needs a name, and what better than the newly christened ‘Bonnie Abbzug.’ Hayduke himself would’ve been proud. She took some getting used to, but she was river worthy. I had to kneel down in front for optimal ballast, and with paddles in either hand, we went floating along with the current. We crashed over small rapids like uncoupling boxcars, spray flying everywhere. I startled a beaver from the bank with my shouts of glee, sending it splashing into the river, tail churning beneath the surface. I took her out before any real rapids, in feat of ripping out her bottom or puncturing a sidewall. But it was good to know she was worth her mettle. I packed her back away with hopes I wouldn’t be forced to use her.

On a map, the Escalante River looks like it was drawn by a five year old, a long squiggly line from the Aquarius Plateau to the Colorado River. The canyon is an entrenched meander of bowknots, bends, twists, and turns, cutting through towering wingate cliffs, and carving huge arching amphitheaters, overhanging ledges, abandoned rincons, slopes of fallen rock. The turrets and domes of Navajo and red benches of Kayenta appeared high on the canyon rim, hinting at the world above. So close, yet so far away. But I was down deep in the gut of the gorge with little else but sheer walls on either side.

Trail ledger
The Escalante was full of life. Animal tracks cluttered the mudflats: heron, beaver, sheep, coyote, fox. I encountered ravens, merganser, wild turkey, and a countless number of songbirds and waterfowl I couldn’t identify. Whiptail lizards left signature of reptilian calligraphy in the soft sand. Large fish leapt in the swirling eddies. Plumes of cottonwood fluff sailed on the breeze like specks of arboreal dandruff. I passed hanging canyons that emptied into thin air, and sculpted performance halls with acoustics that would drive a symphony conductor wild.

I followed the narrow corridor for almost thirty miles, crossing and recrossing the river hundreds of times, wading across gravel bars and around rapids, climbing up and down steeply vegetated embankments and rockfalls, clawing through dense thickets of willow and flood debris. Footing was treacherous with slick rocks, loose boulders, and sharp beaver gnawed punji sticks that threatened serious puncture or impalement with false step. The river grew deeper, swifter, and wider with more obstacles every mile. 

The deep gorge funneled the desert gusts into a high speed wind tunnel, blinding me with sand and pelting me with grit till my flesh was raw. By the end, I was scraped, cut, bashed, and bruised; my skin was chafed, cracked and bloodied. These were some of the most tedious and arduous miles I’d ever gone through, but I found myself loving every minute of it.

While hiking the riverway, I imagined running the Escalante at high water. With a canoe or whitewater kayak, you could hit all of the sweeping turns, deep holes, and plunging drops at every rapid. Few full-sized cottonwoods lined the embankments, and all the vegetation was relatively young growth, only a couple of years. Draining a wide reach of the region, a lot of water moves through this corridor. And when the Escalante blows, it blows big. The river must come crashing down the channel in a seething mass, knocking everything out of the way like bowling pins. Flood debris was wrapped and tangled around tree trunks, strained from the flows and stacked 20 feet high. Entire cottonwood trees were left stranded on top of house-sized boulders. Rockfalls trapped branches and sticks thirty feet above water level. Wrath of God-type floods. I wouldn’t want to be here when these happen, cause you wouldn’t be for much longer.

Stevens Arch
I took the time to explore some of the drainages that fed into the main channel. I love the intimacy of small side canyons. The main riverway was magnificent, but also rugged, raw, and wild. Back up the side canyons, the world is quiet, peaceful, serene. The feeling of a Zen sanctuary, a secret lovers’ hideaway. Hanging seeps dripped from the walls, cooled by soft mosses and lacy black-veined maidenhair ferns. Dark morning shadows shaded the deep recesses of horseshoe bends. Water striders skittered across the perfect reflection of the walls above, whole schools of minnows wandered the shallows below. I could have sat in the silence of an alcove for days back there, and just watched the world go by.

Towards the end of the Escalante, I encountered the newest geological layer on the Colorado Plateau—the Lake Powell Formation. Backed up behind Glen Canyon Dam, Lake Powell has left a pale bathtub ring of sun and silt, deposited by years of accumulation at high water. Miles of the Escalante and canyons of the Colorado, not to mention Glen Canyon itself, were flooded out and are silting up beneath the ‘Gem of the Southwest.’ But the falling lake levels have recently exposed hundreds of miles of shoreline that have been submerged for decades. I went on a kayak tip a few years ago, and was fortunate to visit sites like Cathedral in the Desert that had returned from the abyss. If these canyons bear any resemblance to what still surfaces, it is saddening to think about what was lost when Glen Canyon became no more.

The flow became sluggish and the wading difficult. Thick silt and tiny rocks fell out of suspension, collecting in a loose bed of slippery grit that slid into your shoes. Small rocks rubbed and irritated my feet, forcing me to shake out my Chacos every few steps. I looked over my shoulder and saw the curving window of the Stevens Arch behind me. The fifth largest arch in the region, there are stories of daredevil pilots, illegally flying through the gaping hole in the wall. I suddenly realized that my days of solitude were about to end. It had been over six days without seeing another human being—just me and my thoughts.

Cactus blooms
I rounded the bend to Coyote Gulch and suddenly encountered eight people in the first five minutes. The impact of human foot traffic was soon evident, but it was far less than the destruction of ATVs, offroad vehicles, and grazing cattle. Coyote Gulch receives a lot of visitation for one reason—it is simply gorgeous. I spent a few days working my way up the canyon, just relaxing and taking in the wonderful scenery. The sandy creek flowed through thick reeds, beneath towering streaked walls. I walked through park like groves of verdant green cottonwoods, their delicate leaves dancing in the breeze. There was a dazzling array of springtime flowers. Pink plumes of tamarisk; paper-thin magenta flowers of beavertail cactus; pale, lavender-tinged blossoms of narrowleaf yucca; trumpet-shaped red perstemon and scarlet gilia; fields of low-lying ivory primrose. A venerable oasis in the desert. Water flowed from everywhere out of the walls, over the rock, along the ground.

I drank deeply from sweet dripping springs, and followed seeps back to lush pools lined with clematis vines and poison ivy. I passed beneath Coyote Natural Bridge, and gazed up at Cliff Arch and Jacob Hamblin Arch. I chased up onto ledges and caves, where I found a dwelling tucked away below an overhand. I laid out in a curving amphitheatre and listened to the sound of the creek echo throughout the chamber. The place was divine.
Jacob Hamblin Arch

I passed dozens of hikers along the way, each out enjoying the wonders of the canyon. I met two backpackers, Rob and Jim, who were geologists from Salt Lake City. One of them had heard of the HDT, and they were interested in the logistics of the trip. It was nice being in the company of others who shared an interest in being outdoors for a change.

I stretched my stay to the last cup of granola, until I was out of rations and hat to pack it up. I reluctantly headed up the canyon, through Hurricane Wash, where I reentered the adobe swells of Navajo dunes. The drainage cut through some nice narrows, where I walked beneath a squawking nest of ravens. Following the draw back out to Hole-in-the-Rock road, I dug up the next cache, and started preparations for the next section across the vast wilderness of the Kaiparowits Plateau.

Section mileage: ~73 miles


Jim said...

As referenced in his text, we had a chance meeting with Ryan in Coyote Gulch. We have posted photos in another blogspot. So, please hit this link and view photos of Ryan in Coyote Gulch!
Rob and Jim


Anonymous said...

Looking forward to hearing of your continued journey...it was wonderful to meet with you and Ben in the beauty of red slot canyons and big springs to quench the thirst...light feet and big eyes..enjoy!
Lauren from the GCT

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