Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Grand Staircase (Days 45-53)

Written 5/23/08

The duo reunite!
It was joyous reunion. Ben showed up at the cache after hitching a ride in from Cannonville. He had spent the last four weeks in Portland with a number of physical therapists and specialists to get him back on the trail as soon as possible. Now, with a literal pharmacy of tapes and supplies, and some practice hikes under his belt, he was feeling fit and rearing to get going again. He also came bearing gifts from the outside, including a new pair of trekking poles (I snapped one while hiking the Escalante corridor), a set of shoelaces, and a replacement spoon. He also surprised me with some fresh vegetables, salami, bagels, and cheese - a much needed culinary supplement to weeks of bucket food.

We followed the wash down to the entrance of Round Valley Draw where grey walls of Navajo emerged from beneath a thin layer of Carmel. The slot opened up quickly from a fissure in the ground. We lowered our packs into the crack, and chimneyed down 20 feet to retrieve them. The walls were narrow, and ribbed with angled intrusions cutting across the drainage. Fallen boulders required some down climbing and the handing off of packs. It was great having a companion again. The closest we came to swimming was at a deep section of the slot where we found ourselves walking on snow! The snowbank had backed up its own melt water, creating a dam behind it before it broke. Mud still caked the walls and the water-logging had even caused some sections of the wall to collapse.

Upper Hackberry Canyon
Round Valley Draw emptied into Hackberry Canyon. White walls of Navajo flanked the dry wash, sloping off into broad shoulders of stone. The sand in the wash was white as snow, like a wide river of sugar crystals. Though the canyon was dry, there were a number of box elder, singleleaf ash, globemallow and paintbrush growing along the sandy terraces. We walked past deep running joints that pinched out into narrow slivers high up the walls. Blackbrush and pinyons grew out of cracks in the rock, seeming to defy gravity. The upper side canyons were full of towering Ponderosa pines leaning drunkenly at odd angles, growing in collected dunes of fine sand. It was a real mindbender to think that the petrified sand dunes of the original parent rock were now eroding back into new dunes only to repeat the process over again.Water began seeping into the wash halfway down Hackberry, changing dramatically from an austere canyon of naked stone to a lush verdant corridor. Thick reeds lined the waterway like a dark green ribbon, and willows and cottonwoods spread their branches along the embankments. Pale minnows swam the running rivulets in the creek, darting beneath our splashing feet. The going was so smooth that at one point we shed the Chacos and hiked barefoot in the wet sand. It was luxurious.

We took time to explore several side canyons, including one called Stone Donkey. Hiking back in the wash, the ground was littered with plate-sized slabs of iron concretions, leeched out of the porous rock. The canyon itself narrowed up into a sliver of a crack less than three feet wide. Hips, knees and elbows were used to shimmy up the tight slot, chimneying over chokestones and flood debris. The roof cut out all light, leaving us with our headlamps in near complete darkness. We climbed all the way back into a small grotto at the base of a 50 foot rappel. It was a sweet slot. It was about as technical of an ascent as you could get without protection or climbing gear. Coming out again, we were blinded and cooked by the direct light, our eyes had grown used to the cool darkness inside the crack.

We continued on down canyon, where we passed several places where chunks of the cliff had collapsed into the creek. One rockfall was so recent that the leaves of the cottonwood caught in the slide were still supple and green. We even witnessed a small slide occur on its own accord, and watched the crash and tumble of rocks come plummeting down the hillside. A sobering reminder of geology in action, and natural forces at work.The canyon opened up into a colorful arching crescent of lower Hackberry. We climbed a steep bench to inspect the Frank Watson cabin, an old homesteader's dwelling from the early 1900's. The roof beams were sagging, and some woodrats had taken up residence in the fireplace, but it was tough to ask for a better location. The canyon cut east through the uplifted cliffs, back towards the Cockscomb, where it had eroded out a narrow passageway. We passed half a dozen dayhikers who were out exploring the wonders of the monument. In the dark corners, I found a few Hackberry trees for which the canyon was named. Throughout the canyon, I saw few invasive plant species, and the effects of grazing were minimal. Overall, the Hackberry drainage was in excellent shape, and from what I could tell, a great example of a healthy riparian corridor.

Historic Paria townsite
We exited the canyon into Cottonwood Wash, and met up with the muddied flow of the Paria River. Old timers once said it was "too thin to plow, too thick to drink." Turning up the Paria through the notch of the Box, we soon encountered a party of jeeps and ATV-ers roaring along the riverway. When the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was created in 1996, off-road vehicle use was prohibited off of all historic and established roads. But motorized recreationalists found a loophole in the monument's regulations, citing that the Paria floodplain was historically used as an important corridor for regional transportation, albeit back then with wagons and horses. Further up canyon, we encountered a volunteer motorized trails "ranger", backed by the county commissioners and state parks - and not the federal management bureau responsible for managing the area, who was patrolling the "trails" to improve relations between hikers and ATV-ers, and to encourage minimal impact by both groups. He argued that the revving sound of his ATV was a minimal intrusion onto the wilderness experience of others, but declined to comment on the long-term effects and soil damage left by vehicles well after their drone had dissipated from the canyons. The use of ORVs on the Paria is a hotly debated issue today, one that the BLM administrators are (hopefully) working to resolve.

Illegal ATV use
We hiked up the familiar braided Paria floodplain. With every storm, the river jumps its banks, cutting new routes, and abandoning old ones. The craggy Vermillion Cliffs and sherbert colored Chinle hills formed the walls of the river corridor. We saw plentiful evidence of people past and present, in the form of ancient petroglyphs and pictographs, numerous cowboy etchings, the old Pahreah townsite, and the abandoned Spencer gold mine.

We spent several days exploring the side drainages of the Upper Paria. We made a visit to an old study site for an ecology project I worked on. In 2006, I worked as a wildlife technician surveying spotted owls and trapping small mammals in the monument. It was cool to revisit some of my old haunts and to share some of my favorite places with Ben. We climbed up onto the rim a few times to explore the stone gardens and to take in the views. From on top, we could see the western half of the Kaiparowits Plateau and the terraced formations of the Grand Staircase. We found streaked standing fins and stone teepees, arranged in a powwow of short peaks like whisked whipped cream. We stretched out on warm slickrock and spent hours supervising the passing of delinquent clouds. Violet-green swallows bombed around us like avian fighter jets swooping up insects on the wing. A pair of golden eagles soared overhead in wide parallel arcs, lazily patrolling the world below. Who knew exploring could be so exhausting?

Fremont pictographs
Up near Deer Range Point, we found a remote panel of petroglyphs. The etchings were carved into the side of a narrow crack in a shallow drainage. The wall was stained black from the build-up of desert varnish, making the glyphs stand out clearly in stark relief. There were dozens of images of animals, spirals, suns, and snakes. But what was most intriguing was the location of the panel - it was literally in the middle of nowhere. Looking closer at the images, a progression of a half-dozen bighorn sheep seemed to walk across the panel, as if through the crack itself. Then it dawned on us that the panel was carved at the bottleneck of a sheep drive. It would have been possible to corral a group of sheep down off the mesa into the upper fork of the drainage. With the proper planning and communication, the sheep would've been funnelled into the chokepoint between the narrow walls, with no immediate way out. It was a perfect hunting spot, and eerily cool.

Further up the Paria, the walls of the canyon changed from red to white, demarcated by a clear line between the color bands. The white rock had lost all of its iron content, leached out into the plentiful concretions we found everywhere. We found numerous carvings by early pioneers at the turn of the century, as well as old time ranchers and cattlemen. But we also saw several recent inscriptions in the rock dated 12/26/07. Where are you now Mav, Red Dog, Klancy Ott? Their carved names seemed blatantly out of place.

Bull Valley Gorge
We turned up Sheep Creek and into the towering formation of the White Cliffs. The sheer walls were reminiscent of Zion, which was only 50 miles as the crow flies - but 350 trail miles away. We took a side trip up Bull Valley Gorge, one of the best slot canyons in the region. The etched relief cross-bedded dunes were visible in the wall, stacked layer upon layer for a thousand feet. Ponderosa pines and Douglas fir grew in every direction. Some trees had long sinuous root systems branching out further than they were tall, anchoring them to the treacherous face of naked rock. In a few places, trees had fallen against the opposite wall, still growing upward. The canyon squeezed into a tight narrows several hundred feet deep. Broken logs spanned the gap high overhead, jammed into place by raging flood waters. At the historic bridge at Skutumpah road, we looked up at the smashed remains of an old pickup truck that had slid off the bridge and gotten crushed in the upper reaches of the chasm. Two men died pinned in the cab while a third fell 200 feet to the floor below. Not a nice way to go. The truck had been wedged in place for over 60 years, and was in surprisingly good shape. We returned back down canyon over fallen boulders that choked the upper gorge.

We followed the white walls of Sheep Creek to the junction with Willis Creek. We found an interesting panel of petroglyphs, but they had been vandalized by visitors. I had never seen so much destruction of rock art before, and it really sullied the whole experience. The panel was easily accessible by ATVs and nearby settlements, but that was no excuse. It was disappointing to see. We followed Willis through a short section of hikable narrows. Dark clouds moved in and began to snow on us. We hurried to the cache and sat in our shelter, readying ourselves for a climb to the higher elevations and the Pink Cliffs of Bryce.

Section mileage: ~52 miles

1 comment:

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