Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Lower Paria Gorge (Days 61-65)

Written 6/04/08

We made the decision to deviate from the Hayduke Trail to add a twist of our own.  Instead of immediately following the Arizona Trail across the Kaibab Plateau, we had procured the permits necessary to travel down the Lower Paria Gorge through the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument to the Colorado River at Lee's Ferry.  It was a section the Hayduke creators Joe Mitchell and Mike Coronella had done during their reconnaisance hikes across the plateau.  This route was so incredible that we felt that we needed to add it to our trip as well.

Buckskin Gulch
We headed back down the narrow entrance of Wire Pass to Buckskin Gulch.  At the confluence was a large panel of petroglyphs with nearly 2 dozen bighorn sheep carved into the wall.  Whoever carved the images was obviously intimate with his subject, posing the animals in natural stances, and capturing the nuances of body posture in stone.  These people knew their sheep - they were their livlihood out here.

The narrows started right away, and the morning light was radiant on the upper walls, reflecting a tapestry of colors - golden orange, vermillion red, violet.  Stray beams of light sometimes penetrated the overhung ceiling of stone.  Large logs spanned the gap, stuck 30-40 feet above the canyon floor, silent reminders of the ferocity of water in the desert.  In some places, floods had left their muddy silouettes along the wall.  Splashes and liquid throes were captured in action as the silt-ladden highwater marks of past floods.  There are few places to run in a narrow slot like Buckskin Gulch.

We saw several small groups of dayhikers, including a few big Mormon families.  What a place to take a child.  A slot canyon is a unique interactive tactile environment, and active learning experience for a kid.  We were passed by a large group of shuttled hikers, speed hiking to the confluence and up the Paria to White House trailhead, almost 19 miles in a single day.  The people were practially running through one of the most incredible slot canyons around, shooting pictures on the fly, grinding hard to get to the shuttle at the parking lot.  Not quite the way I'd want to experience this place.  I got to chatting with a dayhiking couple from Kauai, Rob and Elle, who were back home visiting family in the 4-corners region.  They were curious when they found out about the HDT, and I found it refreshing to talk to real people who were genuinely interested in our trip.  Rob was a cartographer and made his own maps of the islands.  It was cool running into them in a place like this.

Lower Paria Gorge
Most of the canyon ran along a joint fissure in the rock, a long narrow alleyway that would occassionally deviate and jog in another direction.  In the deepest sections, light had difficulty penetrating the depths of the chasm.  I lost myself in a world of abstract colors and surreal forms.  The walls were scalloped and carved by floodwaters in a variety of shapes and repeating patterns.  Scooped bowls, fluted hollows, walls of swiss cheese.  The floor was cracked with shards of dry mud fitted together into a natural jigsaw puzzle, with bits shrivelled and curled like woodshavings.  The world was dark and deathly silent.  The flapping of a raven distrubed the still air, as its wings spanned the width of the gorge from tip to tip.  I watched an adult swoop into its nest constructed out of flood debris in an eroded hole, to feed a pair of hungry chicks.  The canyon was filled with a deafening cacophony of sound.

We crossed into Arizona at the deeply cut Confluence with the Paria.  The river was barely a trickle.  Nearly all the flow had disappeared into the sandy floodplain below the Box at the Cockscomb.  The canyon opened up into a wide gorge of smooth Navajo caught in an entrenched meander, forcing the river into a winding series of bends and S-curves.  Sheer walls sloped down to the river, glazed with a sheen of dark desert varnish.  Willows and tamarisks lined the sandbars, and shady campsites appeared beneath tall cottonwoods.  It was incredible how quickly the atmosphere changed below the junction with Buckskin.

Parallel cracks opened into the drainage, where wafts of cool air drifted down from the shady recesses.  The base of the fins were worn thin by scouring floods, seemingly balanced on narrow footed pedestals.  In one of the cracks, we were astonished to find dozens of brown morels growing in a heap of damp detritus.  Mushrooms in the desert!  Back in the river, walk was pleasant in the water warmed by the desert sun.  Numerous flowing springs leaked from cracks in the walls, lush with mosses and delicate ferns.  We passed several abandoned meanders where the river channel had cut a new passage, leaving the old bed suspended high above the canyon floor.

We stopped for lunch at Big Spring, a gushing flow of cold water straight from the wall.  We arrived at the same time as a group of 10 volunteers and folks from Grand Canyon Trust doing vegetation surveys in the gorge.  The GCT is a non-proft organization that works on numerous conservation projects across the Colorado Plateau.  Specifically, they were surveying the impact of invasive Russian olive and tamarisk along the Paria riverway, and were getting ready to start mechanical removal throughout the corridor.  After chatting a bit, we realized we had several overlapping mutual connections.  It was cool hanging out with a fun group of folks out doing important restoration work.  And what a place for a field site.  They wished us luck on our trip and we each headed on our way.

Paria River

Further down canyon, we entered the Goosebends, a series of switchbacking bends that carved out towering 1000ft overhung walls.  It was fantastic walking.  My neck was constantly craned in all directions to take it all in.  Massive stone ampitheaters, narrow shoulders of stone, streaked walls, and pocked surfaces.  We found some great swimming holes where the river had scoured deep bathtubs behind lodged boulders, where small minnows would come up and nibble us in the pools.  On the dry rocky benches, we saw some flowering agaves prominently displaying their 10-foot stalks like exploding phalluses.  After storing up years of energy, they invest it all in a major effort to reproduce, an incredible feat of plant biology.

At one point, the river slowed and deepened to a thigh deep pool.  Beavers had dammed the Paria and were hard at work building their lodge.  The dam itself was about 20ft wide, built out of a dense weave of willow cuttings.  It was cool to see they were thriving, but they will definitely have their work cut out for them once the monsoons hit and the Paria flashes it out.  Below the dam, we dropped packs and explored the side drainage of Wrather Canyon.  The draw was full of old cottonwood trees and dense box elders.  We followed a trail up the canyon to the impressive Wrather Arch.  It was an eroded alcove about 150ft high that left the archway suspended on a single support leg.

Lower Paria Gorge
We sought refuge in the shade from the sweltering heat.  In the open, daytime temperatures were nearing 100F.  It was crazy to think we had nearly frozen in Bryce less than a week ago.  In actuality, it was a great opportunity for us to acclimate to the warmer temperatures before we began our descent into the Grand Canyon.  Luckily, we found a gushing spring with hanging gardens of ferns and willows.  Dozens of little Woodhouse toads lept everywhere, and brilliant blue damselflies perched delicately on low branches.  We filled up gallons of water and drank heartily to quench our thirst.

The river cut down through lower formations to the top of the erodable Chinle where the canyon really opened up wide and began to drop in plunges.  Large boulders choked the riverway, creating pools and small falls.  While hiking, we saw Great Blue Heron, Golden Eagles, and even Peregrine falcon.  Cottonwoods began to disappear from the banks, and with them, their valuable shade.  Rabbitbrush and tamarisk grew up on the sandy terraces, as well as spiny agave and prickly pear cactus.  Massive sand dunes eroded at the base of the 2000ft walls, as the river fell away below.

Back near the river, we found dozens of large boulders with carved petroglyphs.  Several were carved on multiple faces, and one looked as if it had slid down the slope and landed upside-down.  They were full of images of bighorn sheep, hands, people, scorpions, centipedes.  Some panels were so dense with carvings, that newer images were etched right over the surface of older ones.

We followed the river down to Lonely Dell Ranch at the historic Lee's Ferry, part of the Glen Canyon NRA.  The formidable Vermillion Cliffs rose an incredible 3000ft from the bottom of the gorge.  We had travelled the entire Paria drainage from its headwaters in Bryce, down through its major tributaries and canyons, to where it emptied its load into the Colorado.  The confluence of the two rivers was Mile Zero and the official start of the Grand Canyon.  The last time I had seen the Colorado was back at Hite.  I had managed to walk completely around with out actually seeing the tepid waters of Lake Powell.  From Lee's Ferry, we were headed west for the Kaibab to begin our approach into the gorge of all gorges - the Grand Canyon.

Section mileage: ~45 miles


Redhoodoos said...

Wow - glad I found your blog. You are doing an amazing thing by traversing the Hayduke!! I hope you don't mind if I follow along on your journey by reading your blog.

I am bitterly jealous! =)

Be safe.

Emily Julia said...

kauai...nice :) i'm still really enjoying keeping up with your adventures. best wishes!!

benshaw said...

thanks for the postcards, buddy. this suspense since your last post has me on pins and needles. you guys must be so close by now.

Kate said...

Hi Ryan,

I really enjoyed reading your description of the Paria. It sounds like you had a great hike. Good luck on your adventure, we are keeping tabs with the journey and wishing we could come along. It is such a small world.

All the best to you guys,
Kate and the folks at GCT