Colorado Plateau 2011: Day 2

Monday, June 13, 2011

It was an hour before sunrise, and a cool breeze filtered through my tent. There was no need for an early start, but I had no choice. I was awake, and excited to be in Utah.

The heavy morning air filled my lungs. It was an intoxicating blend of dry desert air, infused with a hint of fresh sage.

I enjoyed a simple breakfast — but not because the food was in any way special. Rather, this meal was consumed without the helpful guidance of my gnat friends. They are always eager to show me which facial orifices not to put the food in.

I can’t sit still very long. A book serves as only a momentary tranquilizer. Give me 10 minutes, and my feet start tapping. At 15 minutes, my legs join the party. They want to hit the trail, scout, or do something productive.

In my preparation for this trip, I printed satellite maps that show the canyon in great detail. The best glows are found at goose-necks in the canyon. I located several key areas that seemed worthy of exploration. My furthest target was some 7 miles down canyon.

I planned to start my hike around 9AM, head 7 miles down canyon, kill some time at my turn-around point, then hike back out in the early afternoon. This strategy gives me the opportunity to see a 7 mile stretch of canyon during both late morning, and early afternoon light.

A break of dawn start was not needed, but I drove to the trailhead anyway. Relaxing in the canyon with a cool breeze was more appealing than marinating at my campsite in a concoction of sweat and gnats.

As is often the case, I was the first car at the trail-head that morning. I parked my truck facing southwest. This angle keeps direct afternoon sun away from the cargo area of my truck where I store my film.

I loaded my day pack with supplies: ample water, snacks, a satellite map, and my GPS to tell time, not location — there is no reception in the canyon.

A glimmer of light appeared on the horizon. I watched as this sparking gem grew in intensity, and struggled to climb an insurmountable sandstone monolith. A reassuring breeze swept across the land, jarring the sun free of its earthly obstruction.

Sunrise.

A switch had been flipped, and the temperature began to rise. Today’s forecast called for highs in the 90’s.

The silence of morning gave way to a distinctive gravel crunch. A vehicle approached from the north. The white Suburban coasted to a stop some 20 yards away. It was parked diagonally in the middle of the lot.

Such vehicles are often used by services that shuttle hikers to trail-heads. The hiker’s own vehicle is left at the exit point.

It’s a strange practice really — paying someone a large sum of money to drive you a 2 day walk from your own vehicle.

13 miles downstream, Buckskin Gulch meets with the Paria River. Following this river upstream an additional 7 miles leads to the a popular exit point — Whitehouse campground. Although this hike can be done in one day, 20 miles of rough terrain is a lot of ground to cover. A primitive camp is located near the confluence of Buckskin Gulch and the Paria river. Permits are required for overnight stays in the canyon.

A man in his early 30’s flung open the passenger door, and hopped out. He was dressed in black shorts with a red shirt. He exchanged a few words with the driver through the open door, then reached into the back seat to retrieve a large backpack.

I  fastened the waist-belt of my backpack, and walked to the trailhead.

The Suburban made a quick departure — stirring up a cloud of dust.

I introduced myself to the hiker. His name was Joel, a school teacher from southern California.

Though an avid backpacker in the Sierras, this was his first experience backpacking the Southwest.

I told him a bit about the canyon, and what to expect from my previous visits. He was glad to have a guide along for the first leg of his journey.

Joel’s wife was suppose to come along, but she declined after learning one key piece of information. There was good chance they would encounter cold, stagnant pools of waist deep water — sprinkled with an assortment of dead animals. This was somehow unappealing.

The wash narrowed as we approached the first of several slot canyons.

Our conversation turned to precautions when heading into the wilderness alone.

“I promise my wife that I won’t do anything stupid on solo trips.” Joel’s voice echoed off the canyon. “Otherwise, she wouldn’t let me go on these trips.”

“Same here,” I said. “I promise my fiancee that I will listen to that little voice in the back of my head. If it says not to do something, I won’t. It’s not worth getting yourself into a bad situation.”

I paused for a moment, then continued “On an entirely different note — my backpack is completely soaked in gasoline right now.”

We both laughed.

The chiseled sandstone walls parted, revealing a natural cathedral lit only by beautiful reflected light.

“Wow…” said Joel.  “…It’s just like that scene from Star Wars.”

Four miles downstream, we reached a wide stretch of canyon.  The canyon was some 200 feet across, with massive sandstone walls on either side. It was here that we parted ways.

Joel continued on his trek downstream, while I relaxed in the shade. This was the furthest point I had reached on previous trips. From this point on, it was new territory for me.

It was too early to scout the canyon according to my plan, so I read a read a book, enjoyed a snack, then ran my hands through the cool pink sand.

Just after 10AM, I continued my journey into the canyon. I tried my best to track my progress on the map, but it was difficult to maintain a sense of distance and direction.

There was a 100 yards straight away, followed by a slight left turn, then a big right turn, then a small left turn, and another left. I soon lost my bearing on the map. It was only when I reached another dominant straight section that I found my location on the map. I was most of the way to my turnaround point.

The canyon narrowed dramatically, and turned hard to the right. This was one of the areas I hoped to explore. The light angle was not ideal in the morning, but maybe it would look great in the afternoon.

A lonely cow-pie caught my eye in the middle of the sandy path. What business does a cow have crapping in this canyon, miles from food and…..

Not a Cowpie.

Near mid-day, I reached my turnaround point. This was the furthest I hoped to make it on this trip. I rested in the shade, and killed some more time. The longer I waited, the better my opportunity to view this same 7 mile stretch of canyon in afternoon light.

On my way back up-canyon, I spotted a pair of  juvenile owls. I think they might be Great Horned Owls, but I don’t know for certain. This solved the mystery of the exploding Mourning Doves I saw scattered throughout the canyon.

Just after 3PM, I emerged from the canyon. Honestly, I didn’t find any locations that were well suited for photography. The photo I captured last year has a lot going for it.  It’s an up stream view (check) of a large glow (check) at an attractive bend in the canyon (check) without a trampled foreground (check).

Today, all potential locations fell far short of these guidelines. Some scenes had a great glow, but the foreground was ugly. In others, the foreground was good, but the canyon walls were tarnished. Nothing clicked.

How do I know a location is ideal for photography? It’s a split second reaction. First, I feel it in my heart — an emotional reaction. Then, my mind takes over, analyzing the scene. How’s the lighting? What angle best captures this subject? Are there any technical issues? When the heart and the mind agree, that’s when I  know I have a shot.

I didn’t get that feeling today. Was last year’s glow shot (Luminosity) the best I can hope to produce from this location? I don’t know.

I returned to my truck and stowed my gear. It was too early to head back to camp, but I had a strange urge to drive somewhere. Air conditioning was a novelty. Also, driving my truck meant I could run the thermal electric cooler to keep my film from boiling.

I drove north on HouseRock Valley road, then made my way East on highway 89. Perhaps I should checkout the Whitehouse campground? This was the end point of Joel’s 2 day hike.

My failed scouting trip hung heavy on my mind. If things didn’t work out in Buckskin, the Paria river narrows was my next location.

I exited the highway, and drove a short ways down a gravel road. A lone vehicle was parked at the turnout with its hood up. That’s never a good sign.

The owner was standing nearby with pair of  yellow jumper cables raised in the air.

I pulled beside him, and popped my hood. The man’s name was Richard, a avid hiker from New Mexico. His battery chose to die at an inopportune moment.

We got his truck started without any issues. Luckily, he was along the highway when this happened. If he had stopped along a remote BLM road, who knows how long it would take for help to arrive. Cell coverage is spotty at best in this region.

Richard said he would drive to Page, the nearest town where he could find a replacement battery. I’m just glad I was in the right place at the right time to help him out.

I continued 2 miles down the dusty dirt road.

The Paria River was off to my right, a muddy stream that meanders across a broad flood plane. For such a small stream, it flowed with surprising intensity. A stand of mature cottonwoods clung to the eroding riverbank — their lush leaves only partially concealing the tortured trunks that lie beneath. The soft wind danced through a maze of tall grass and sweet sage.

A white sandstone bluff paralleled the road to my left. The bluff drew closer as I approached the campground.

Several tents were scattered over a sandy hill. There was very little shade, only picnic tables and the occasional fire pit.

I very much preferred Stateline Campground. The covered picnic tables provided shelter, and my tent was staked on firm ground — not sand.

I parked my truck, and walked to the trail register.

“Hey!  What’s up?” A voice appeared from behind me.

It was Joel.

“I hiked right past my camp site in the canyon,” he said. “When I realized my mistake, it was several miles behind me.”

His feet and lower legs were covered in mud.

“I decided to finish the hike in one day, since I was most of the way here anyway.”

That’s over 20 miles in one day with a heavy pack — quite the workout!

I was great to see Joel one last time.

Though he didn’t get a chance to spend a night in the canyon, he had a good time.

“Any dead animals?” I asked.

“Nope. And the water was never higher than my shins.”

We shook hands, then parted ways once more.

I spent 15 minutes checking out the area, then drove back to camp and planned my strategy for day 3.

2 Responses to “Colorado Plateau 2011: Day 2”

  1. bob Says:

    Im waiting for the photos and video, just kidding. Be safe ,

  2. Doug Says:

    I don’t know if you went that way but traveling north on Cottonwood Canyon Road takes you up to Kodachrome Basin State Park. There is a lot of great scenery along that teeth jarring road including Grosvenor Arch. Kodachrome Basin SP has an exceptionally nice campground with flush toilets and showers…a real luxury on the Grand Staircase.

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