Spring is in the air. This can mean many things, but for Peter Bakwin and I, spring means, “go to the desert!”
This year we were going for full value: a 3 1/2 day, 110 mile backpacking route starting from the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, thru the very remote country of Beef Basin and Fable Valley, and down into the bottom of Dark Canyon. Then back again (can’t forget that part). Backpacking allows us to get into the really remote places, to watch the sun come up and watch it go down again, to see the stars, and to experience the desert environment up close and personal.
“Lawrence, only two kinds of creatures get fun in the desert: Bedouins and gods, and you’re neither. Take it from me, for ordinary men, it’s a burning, fiery furnace.”
“No, it’s going to be fun.”
– Lawrence of Arabia
SATURDAY, APRIL 12
We start walking at 1pm. Not because we slept in but because we left Boulder at 5am the same day – our one-week itinerary was jammed (we were doing a trip in the Grand Canyon immediately after this) – and we had to get in 21.5 miles this same day. That’s long for one afternoon, but it was 21.5 miles to the first source of water. Backpacking in the desert is really different than in the mountains.
The Needles are great, with terrific running trails, but we were happy to leave the Park, even if we were now hiking on a mostly flat, featureless, old jeep road. Because it also meant we instantly left all other humans behind – we saw only one other party for the next two days.
Moving at a hiking rather than running pace allowed us plenty of time to contemplate this remarkable place we were in. Beef Basin is full of Anasazi sites – this very deserted location was once a thriving community – how did they manage that? They must have had remarkably adaptive technologies that we can’t imagine – we haul in all our carefully packed rations for as long as we will be here – they lived here for centuries, and judging by their buildings, in apparent comfort. I’m sure over the next three days we contemplated some other really important stuff, but … uh… I can’t remember what that was. I mainly remember walking.
“What is it, Major Lawrence, that attracts you to the desert?”
Nearing the end of our first day, the crux was not a high mountain pass, a difficult cliff band, a swollen river to cross – it was finding water – any water. There was a spring marked on the map. We had been hiking for 7 hours – we left the car carrying 3 liters of water and now were almost out – we really needed to find that spring. Fortunately, we trusted our navigation system, which should be noted, as it’s probably not what you would guess: the iPhone! Yes, times have really changed. Here’s how we navigate:
1. Plot the entire route using free online software (CalTopo is best)
2. Create an Excel spreadsheet listing every decision that needs to be made: route junctions, water sources, with mileages between and cumulative
3. Print the spreadsheet and carry it in the handy front pocket of your Fastpack (due out in August!)
3. Note the key GPS waypoints and enter them into the iPhone
5. The phone is only used to find or verify the key waypoints; the spreadsheet and custom printed route maps are generally used
6. The Sim Card can be turned off, so the large battery of the phone lasts much longer than any watch, and the screen is much larger and clearer
7. A free App has been pre-loaded with local maps, so when the pre-loaded waypoint comes up, a scalable map also comes up on the screen – great!
Hiking or running a new route thus entails a lot of pre-planning, followed by pure execution: the key to efficiency is to keep moving forward, which can be done because most planning and decisions have already been made, and the Fastpack is designed for food, water, and maps to all be readily accessible on-the-go.
So we reliably found “Homewater Spring”. Which was not so great! It was a 2″ deep puddle of water, pockmarked with cow hoof prints, strewn with cow dung, and smelling strongly like cow urine. I was bummed. But Peter persevered, and noticed water was seeping down a mossy rock, and pressing his bottle firmly against the rock, managed to fill it after about one minute.
We arrived at the spring at dark, so we turned on our headlamps, laid out our groundcloths, our pads, and the sleeping bags, ate dinner, and went to sleep. Normally we both use the NeoAir Xlite sleeping pad, which is a plush 2.5″ thick, but it’s also an inflatable, which don’t work in the desert – everything is sharp and prickly so they pop. So we used 3/4″ thick closed cell pads which don’t pop, but make my hips and shoulders ache.
Potter: [trying to copy Lawrence’s snuffing out a match with his fingers] “Oooh! It damn well hurts.”
Lawrence: “Certainly it hurts.”
Potter: “Well, what’s the trick, then?”
Lawrence: “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.”
On our first full day, a huge rainstorm hits midmorning. In just :15 minutes I’m soaking wet and seriously cold. I call for setting up our tarp to get out of this storm – another example of “waterproof/breathable” garments being neither (UD is working on that too – February!) Being under the tarp is a savior, we put on all our clothes to wait out the squall, and after an hour and half are walking again. We’re unpleasantly surprised to be so wet and cold on our annual desert trip, but that’s the way it goes. This is not a race, which no matter how hard it is, has an aid station with radios and EMT’s every 10 miles; we must take care of ourselves. I am again reminded of this brilliant quote: “There are two ways to die in the desert: one, by not enough water; two, by too much.”
We do a lovely traverse on a thin trail from Beef Basin down into Fable Valley, which has flowing water. Fable Valley is beautiful! I could live here! (not really)
Our route in this section is the same as the Hayduke Trail. The HDT is a clever route from Arches NP to Zion NP, on the Colorado Plateau, hitting the highlights mentioned in the super classic “Monkey Wrench Gang” by Edward Abbey, whose iconic main character was named George Washington Hayduke. There is a HDT guidebook, but by far the best info is the Data Set sold on DVD by Andrew Skurka – at $35 it’s a bargain, and gives one an idea of what guidebooks of the future should look like.
Our stay in Fable Vally is too short, as we climb out a trail-less side canyon, and up onto the Dark Canyon Plateau. That is brief as well, as we immediately drop down into Youngs Canyon, a side drainage of Dark Canyon, which has been our main objective all along. Youngs has a massive impassable pour-off, requiring one to exit the canyon entirely, and is the biggest pour-off off by-pass I’ve ever encountered; we hike a full mile and half up on the rim in order to get past the pour-off and back in at the next possible entry point. Our shins are scratched up and our shoes filled with dirt and gravel. These canyons are big, steep, and deep.
Finally, Youngs spills us out into Dark Canyon itself, which is wonderful. Water flowing over smooth rock, cascading down little pour-offs, filling deep, perfect swimming holes. In my two previous times in Dark Canyon I jumped naked into these desert classics, but with the temperature on this trip about 45 degrees, Peter and I are not so inclined. We stop for the night here, after a solid 13 hour day, which would be our standard. It rains at that point, so we bring our stoves in and cook under the tarp, which works well. The sound of flowing water at night is a treat. I even clean my pot, unlike last night. Overnight the rain turns to snow on the plateau we had just left above us.
We march up Dark Canyon. This is an official Wilderness, which certainly deserves the title. Around Noon, after not seeing anyone all day, we exit via Trail Canyon, which indeed has an old trail that someone went to a stupendous amount of work to construct decades ago, for some unknown reason. The snow is 1-2″ deep in the shade. Now we’re back on top the Plateau and the landscape here is reversed – the high places are gentle, rolling open forests of Ponderosa, Fir, and some Aspen, with really steep and deep canyons incised into the Plateau, so the lower you go, the rougher the topography – this is the exact opposite of the mountains.
Our next major objective, as usual, is the next source of water, called on the map “Big Spring”. With a name like that we figure we can trust that it exists, and sure enough, it’s there, and still dripping. It takes a minute of drips to fill a bottle, but the iron pipe some cowboy hammered into the ground ages ago is still working, so we don’t have to share the water with cows.
The rest of the day is spent hiking the roads on top of the Dark Canyon Plateau. Road hiking like this isn’t so bad – there isn’t a soul for miles around, it’s quite peaceful, the views are big – plus as runners, we sort of like getting our mph average up – bushwhacking entails 30-minute miles, which is totally understandable and worth it, even though as runners that number is a little hard to swallow.
We sleep that night back on the edge of Canyonlands NP, ready to close the loop the last day by hiking down the excellent Salt Creek and back to our car. The sky is crystal clear and the night cold. My oversized Prostate gland offers one advantage: when I get up at 1am to relieve myself, the Lunar Eclipse is in Totality. The Blood Moon is an amazing sight. I would have tried a photo, but my camera has jammed with sand and isn’t working.
We’re hiking with headlamps by 5 am, because we want to be out of here today with enough time for dinner, shower, and a beer in Monticello. And because we like to move. And because it’s really cool to be hiking in the desert with the Full Moon and Mars shining behind you in the west, and a very bright Venus ahead of you in the east.
But whether its because we’re looking up instead of down, or because it just doesn’t exist, we miss our intended trail and end up on something else entirely. We had studied the route carefully, consulting five different maps, and all of them showed a trail going where we wanted to go and nothing at all where we did find a trail and did go. This is still a mystery. So we went a few miles out of our way, finally connecting to Salt Creek, then put the hammer down for the final push. We did the last 18 miles in 6 hours, which is good for backpacking, and covered 67 miles the last two days, still getting out by 4pm.
There was no beer in Monticello, but that was OK, because the next day we drove to the Grand Canyon, for the epic Royal Arch Loop, a report coming soon.
YOUR COMMENTS and QUESTIONS are welcome – please post!
“If you’re insubordinate with me, Lawrence, I shall have you put under arrest.”
“It’s my manner, sir.”
“My manner, sir; it looks insubordinate but it isn’t, really.”
“You know, I can’t make out whether you’re bloody bad-mannered or just half-witted.”
“I have the same problem, sir.”
Great post Buzz and awesome trip, a very entertaining read. Thanks for sharing.
I love it! Dark Canyon was one of my first real adventures. In the summer of 1991, a friend and I hiked from the top of the canyon on Elk Ridge to the Colorado River, some 35 miles, and hitched a ride out with a river group. We saw nobody for the first two days, then met our first people on the third day a few miles from the river. They said they were from the “Sierra Club,” which I had never heard of, and I remarked that they were a long way from the Sierras. They were not amused.
Glad to hear Dark Canyon is still there and still wild.
Great write up! Glad to hear there was still snow in Dark Canyon. I look forward to it soon!!
Thanks for the post, Buzz and Peter…as I go deeper into my 60’s, I leave Ultrarunning behind and enter the world of more backpacking. Love reading these stories.
Keep them coming!
Steve: Same here! Running has become sort of hard on the joints, but backpacking has long days, beautiful scenery, good companions – this is worth it!
Great trip report! Really enjoyed the LoA quotes sprinkled in there too.