A Noncamper Conquers Canyonlands

Self-confessed non-camper Karen Laski spends 12 days in the wild and enjoys (almost) every minute of it.
By Karen Laski - March 8th, 2004

"Are you sure you want to do this?" asked my husband. No, this noncamper wasn't sure she wanted to spend 11 nights in a tent, much less embark on a wilderness adventure best suited for hardy, experienced campers.

Despite an adventure consultant's warning that most noncampers start with shorter trips, I had opted for O.A.R.S. (Outdoor Adventure River Specialists) 12-day Canyonlands Trekking Expedition (O.A.R.S. is an authorized concessionaire of Canyonlands National Park).

This 170-mile trip down the Green and Colorado Rivers included extensive hiking in one of the more inaccessible places on earth, Canyonlands National Park in southeast Utah. Much of Canyonlands remains a primitive backcountry park, where wind and water have carved spectacular canyons, mesas and buttes. It's a geologist's dream come true.

The trip begins in Moab where head guide, Dave Lyle, holds a pre-trip meeting the night before departure. There are seven of us, six with extensive camping experience. After an hour of answering questions, everyone receives a dry (waterproof) bag and an ammunition box for personal belongings.

The other two river guides, Eric Trenbeath and Natalie Cox, a trainee, meet us at the put-in at Green River State Park, 56 miles northwest of Moab. Our small flotilla includes an oar boat and two custom-made dories similar to those used last year, when O.A.R.S. collaborated with MDTV's Mark Davis in documenting Major John Wesley Powell's legendary descent of the Colorado River. "Lost in the Canyon" appeared on public television this past spring.

We willingly don our personal flotation devices for warmth, as well as safety reasons. High and low temperatures in spring and fall can vary 30 degrees and it had yet to reach the normal daytime low. Before the trip ends, Dave will admit that this is the coldest May trip he's ever guided.

After a day of rowing down the delightfully unpopulated Green River, we camp near Dellenbaugh's Butte, named for the youngest member of Powell's second expedition, artist Frederick S. Dellenbaugh. Campsites aren't as plentiful in spring as they are in summer when the river levels drop, exposing sandbars that make ideal camps.

A "fire line" forms and everyone helps unload the boats. Carrying heavy, awkward propane tanks, tables, stoves, cast iron cookware and water tanks up (or down) steep riverbanks that sometimes crumble beneath you is exhausting work. Only nine campsites to go!

Afterwards I lug dry bags (one contains a sleeping bag), pad, tent bag, ammo box, backpack and waterproof camera case to my site. The dome tent, nylon fly, three fiberglass poles and six aluminum stakes fit amazingly well in a small storage duffle. Figuring out what goes where is the problem. My prayers are answered when Dave uses my tent in an abbreviated demonstration that leaves it two-thirds complete. By the third night, I successfully pitch my tent without assistance, but I never turn down a helping hand.

Natalie has the dubious honor of introducing us to the "groover," so named for some of the first outdoor toilets - ammunition boxes - which left grooves on your buttocks. "Pack it in, pack it out" is the park service's edict. This includes solid human waste. Enough said.

While the guests are settling in, our guides busy themselves preparing dinner. Over the next 11 nights, the menus include steak, fish, chicken, pasta, salads, fried potatoes and rice (not all at the same time) - far better fare then Powell's "rancid bacon, mouldy flour cakes and dried apples."

It's so cold the first night, I shake my water bottle in the morning to see if it is frozen. It isn't. But it is cold enough to instantly congeal the warm maple syrup on our Grand Marnier French toast and turn hot coffee into its summertime counterpart.

This isolated arid land receives only eight inches of rain annually. To an Easterner, only the cottonwoods and small oaks resemble real trees; the ash, willow and pinyon pine look stunted. Dave patiently teaches us to recognize the colorful flowering plants and low-growing blooming cacti. Still, it's an unforgiving land for man and beast alike. No wonder Powell was demoralized when a capsized boat reduced his food supplies by a third at a place he called Disaster Falls. There's not much to eat here, unless you develop a taste for the ubiquitous lizards that scurry to and fro.

One of the more challenging hikes occurs on the fourth day at "the Bowknot," where the river doubles back on itself, making a sharp U-turn. Six of us take 30 minutes to scramble from the river to the narrow saddle of the ridge. From our lofty vantage point, we have a panoramic view of the river both coming and going.

Our guides know where to find Native American ruins, historic inscriptions, petroglyphs, river registers and Anasazi granaries among the maze of canyons. If you know where to look, this inhospitable wilderness reveals many secrets.

At Hell Roaring Canyon, we find yet another inscription by Denis Julian, a French-Canadian trapper who carved his name throughout the Canyonlands area. He's credited with being the first white man to navigate Cataract Canyon and the lower reaches of the Green River.

We reach our resupply point at Mineral Bottom on the fifth day. Fresh food and water for the remainder of the trip are stowed onboard. An empty groover replaces a full one.

After lunch, a stiff wind slows our pace and by mid- afternoon the best campsites are occupied. At 5 p.m. we're still three miles from a suitable campsite, so we settle for one within easy reach of an ancient Indian dwelling.

An early morning trek to "Robbers' Roost," a desolate way station once used by turn-of-the-century Butch Cassidy and his "wild bunch," takes place under overcast skies. From the roofless cabin, our ultimate objective, an Anasazi ruin, is a distant silhouette. Experts agree the sandstone tower was built between 1193 and 1278 AD. What they can't agree on is its purpose.

Placid water gives way to whitewater where the Green and Colorado Rivers join in the heart of Canyonlands. In 1869, Powell scaled the rock walls here and later recorded his thoughts. "Wherever we looked, there was a wilderness of rocks." The current is fast and dangerous below the confluence, the force of two rivers pouring tons of water through Cataract Canyon. Powell called it the "roughest, meanest stretch" of his epic journey.

High water in May and June is followed by a less intimidating flow in summer and fall. The speed and power of the river's flow is expressed in cubic feet per second (CFS) and depends on snowmelt. Thrill-seekers hope for a flow above 30,000; the rest of us pray for deliverance under any circumstances.

Our river guides successfully negotiate the first five rapids before making camp on a wide sandy beach. These are the least intimidating of the rapids. They get more exciting. It's late afternoon, and our hike to The Doll's House is postponed until the next morning.

We leave camp at 7 a.m. planning to raft "The Big Drops" after our return, a plan that never comes to pass. When O.A.R.S. advertises an "in-depth exploration of remote canyons," they're serious. The seven hour roller-coaster hike to The Doll's House requires ascending steep talus slopes, crossing a valley and traversing a dark narrow joint in a canyon wall. This is my Waterloo. Eric tells me that the drop into the joint is only five feet; it's really twice that distance. Leonard McIntyre, a former boy scout leader, helps each hiker by using his walking stick like the rung of a ladder. When my turn comes, he tells me to step on his wrist for additional support. I hesitate, then reconsider. What the heck.

Another hour passes before we're resting beneath the towering twisted red and white sandstone spires. The views are great.

That evening Dave reviews safety procedures for the second time. "If you are ejected, float on your back and point your feet downstream. If you're too far from the boat for anyone to pull you in, swim for shore." If you wind up under the boat, reach up and read the instructions in Braille. Just kidding.

Cataract's running at 18,000 CFS, rough enough for a wild ride, but far below the 1982 record levels of 118,000 CFS when no one rafted the river. Everything is lashed down in the boats except ourselves. Mile Long Canyon's eight rapids are run through in quick succession, leaving everyone drenched and shivering. Three times the boats are beached so river guides can reconnoiter Cataract's finale, "The Big Drops," which descend 30 feet in less than a mile.

Trouble comes at Big Drop II when an oar pops out of the dory's oarlock. Unable to see what's going on behind us as Dave tries to regain control, we're suddenly broadsided and swamped by a mountain of frigid water. "Bail," shouts Dave. "I'm bailing." "Bail faster!" Seconds later everything is back to normal.

We watch Eric's smaller dory bob like a cork from one wave to the next. Natalie successfully maneuvers her 18-foot raft with two passengers, ice chests, bedding, water and supplies through Big Drop II like an old pro. Others from another group on the river that day are less fortunate. Two passengers are pulled to safety, none the worse for wear, after being catapulted from their raft when it's high-sided.

Once the excitement dies down, the dories are lashed on either side of the raft. An outboard motor mounted on the raft enables us to motor 15 miles across man-made Lake Powell to Dark Canyon, our last campsite.

"Come to our wilderness, but be ready to rough it," said Bates Wilson, Canyonlands' first superintendent. That we did, and enjoyed every minute of it. Well, almost every minute.

About the Author

Karen M. Laski is a writer and photographer living in Marshall, Virginia. Since 1991, her travel articles, profiles and photographs have appeared in two dozen magazines and 14 newspapers, including British Heritage, Farm Family America, VFW Magazine and The Washington Post. For the past three years, she has authored a monthly column for Recreation News on state parks, forests and refuges in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. When she finds a destination or activity which is particularly appealing, Karen likes to "share the experience with others." Besides traveling, she enjoys gardening, hiking, horseback riding and rafting.


I really enjoyed the

I really enjoyed the article, but some paragraphs would make it much easier to read.

Posted on May 28, 2008 - 9:35am
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