On The Page: The Secret Knowledge of Water

I didn’t discover the wonders of the desert until I was well into my twenties. My former partner took me to Moab and introduced me to its cranky bee-drinking bard, Ed Abbey. After that, I was hooked. The Colorado Plateau is actually considered a “semidesert” but I’ve also learned to love the Sonoran Desert and have learned to “not hate” the Mohave Desert. While mountains have my heart, it’s no accident that the mountains that I inhabit are so close to the desert and that I make regular pilgrimages to those parched lands.

Fellow Western Slope resident, Craig Childs writes about the deserts of the American West in a way that resonates with me more than anyone else, including Cactus Ed. Childs incorporates history, science, and landscape in a way that makes my Western loving nerdy heart sing.

The Secret Knowledge of Water: Discovering the Essence of the American Desert delves into the intimate relationship between the desert and water. Throughout the book, Childs looks at both still water hiding in remote canyons to sustain life and the dramatic floods that rip through the arroyos and canyons of the desert tossing boulders.

I find myself getting pulled into writing like this both as someone who follows along with Craig on his adventures and seeing places through his eyes but also as someone who has walked (albeit more superficially) through some of the same landscapes.

The book opens with Childs discussing his exhaustive study of watering holes in just one range of Arizona’s Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. The Cabeza Prieta feels incredibly remote and has always seemed very dry to me; however, because I’m a hiker with a peakbagging problem, I have spent more time on the rocky spines of the mountains than probing the quiet canyons just below them. As is usual with Childs’s writing, the scene is made strikingly visible even to those who haven’t visited the locations he describes.

He discusses how ignorance of where to find water in some of America’s driest country can easily lead to death and gives the briefest outline of the history of traversing the El Camino Del Diablo. I was excited to learn more about Father Eusebio Francisco Kino and how he successfully traversed the Camino repeatedly by listening to natives of the area. (The peak for which he is namesake is one I really wanted to climb when in the Ajo area and is pictured below but then the western side of Organ Pipe National Monument was closed to the public; it’s since reopened, I guess it’s time to go back!)

After discussing hidden water holes in the southern deserts of Arizona, the scene shifts north to the Colorado Plateau. While some more standing water is discussed, the story shifts to moving water in the canyons surrounding the Grand Canyon.

Childs impetuously watches flash floods from close range and makes the reader imagine standing on hot desert rock when thunderstorms open up and let water course down the dry falls and canyons. (I was really distracted in this section by the fact that I haven’t been to the Grand Canyon. I’m going to have to figure out when to get down there…)

While I live on the edge of the Colorado Plateau, I was still born in the northwest and learned to love the outdoor in the wet temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest so I am still fascinated with the extremes of the desert. The Secret Knowledge of Water was a book that gave me a deeper understanding of how life survives in the desert. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the southwest.

 

Summer! Roadtrip!: Part 1

I cannot think of a better start to summer than a roadtrip! Even better, Colorado decided to cooperate with me and get sunny and summer-like just as it was time to head out and meet Amanda in Green River. Amanda (of Amanda Summerlin Photography fame) had emailed me way back in April to see if I’d be interested in an adventure in early June. She’d photographed a wedding in Salt Lake and had a week to drive to Denver before flying out to another wedding. Of course, I couldn’t refuse the offer of a great adventure partner so plans were made.

I needed to leave Ridgway the day after school had gotten out so I didn’t get a particularly early start but after a busy morning of getting things ready to leave, Sprocket and I set out over Dallas Divide.

FSJ on Dallas Divide

FSJ

Roadtripping

I had initially intended to go the fast way to Green River via Grand Junction. And then I decided to go through Moab. And then I decided to take a new route through Gateway. It was a beautiful afternoon and I was so so happy to be on the road with Sprocket.

Roadtrip

Beth and Sprocket

I think he was pretty happy to be on the road as well:

Sprocket in FSJ

I’d seen bits and pieces of the Dolores River Canyon around Slickrock, Paradox, and Bedrock and I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised that Colorado 141 alongside it on the way to Gateway was absolutely gorgeous. I was so glad that I’d decided to come that way!

Colorado 141

I caught some glimpses of the hanging flume:

Hanging Flume

When we reached Gateway, I turned onto John Brown Road and headed up the canyon.

Entrance to John Brown Canyon

Sprocket and I took our time (mostly because the FSJ continues to have vapor lock issues) but the scenery wasn’t too shabby so there wasn’t anything to complain about.

Relaxing in the back of the FSJ

Views near Gateway, Colorado

John Brown Road to Moab

Check back tomorrow for the rest of the drive to Green River, including one of my new favorite gravel roads!

Cedar Mesa: Fish and Owl Canyons

I was planning on heading to Utah’s La Sal Mountains for Memorial Day weekend but when I started chatting with a fellow teacher, I discovered that she and her husband were hoping to get out backpacking on Memorial Day so I happily changed my plans a bit and we obtained permits to hike Fish and Owl Canyons off of Cedar Mesa.

Both Meghan and I needed to be at graduation on Friday evening so we set our departure time for very early on Saturday morning. We got a little bit later start than we wanted but still had time to stop and grab breakfast at The Peace Tree in Montecello (I believe it is owned by the same people as The Peace Tree in Moab).

As we approached the Kane Gulch Ranger Station to pick up our permits, I was a little apprehensive about the whole trip. The temperatures were in the upper thirties and it was raining. At the ranger station, we learned about where the water sources were in the canyons (we’d had enough rain that there was pretty much water the entire way except from Fish Canyon about a mile from the confluence to Owl Canyon about two miles up from the confluence). We watched a quick ten minute video about protecting the water and archaeological resources on Cedar Mesa and then we were off.

 

As we unloaded from the car, it started raining and rained on us for pretty much the next couple of hours as we descended into the canyon. The rain did not dampen the spirits of any of us (dogs included) as we stretched our legs after the long ride.

Fish and Owl Canyon Trailhead

The mile and half to the edge of Fish Canyon went quickly and before we knew it, we were at the edge of the canyon. Growing up in Washington State, I hated going to the eastern part of the state because it was a boring desert. Now, I have this big place in my heart for deserts (eastern Washington included!) and the views just made my heart happy.

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Hiking to the entrance for Fish Canyon

Descending into Fish Canyon

Fish Canyon

Many trip reports make a big deal about “The Crack” into Fish Canyon and we made quick work of it. My friends’ pup, Wilson, wasn’t so sure about making the descent but Sprocket had quite easily demonstrated the descent into my arms technique and we all made it just fine.

The "Crack," descent into Fish Canyon

Owl canyon exit

Sprocket backpacking

Fish Canyon

I decided to take you all a rainy selfie while waiting for Meghan and Ethan:

Backpacking in the rain

Fish Canyon

Sprocket in Fish Canyon

I love wandering through canyon bottoms. The trail was fairly well cairned as it crossed back and forth across the canyon and we covered about eight miles or so from the car before we made camp. After making some meals, trying to keep the dogs out of Fish Creek (I hate wet dog in my tent!), and a little bourbon, we headed to bed. I’m glad that we were choosy about where to pitch our tents because about 1am, it absolutely poured on us!

The next day, we decided to make the push all the way out of the canyon so we tried to keep up a nice steady pace down the rest of Fish Canyon and then up Owl Canyon.

Fish Canyon

Fish Canyon

 

Rocking some serious backpacking style:

Backpacking attire Beth style

Fish Canyon

Fish Canyon

The hiking in Owl Canyon was a little bit easier than it was in Fish Canyon. (The route finding in upper Owl was a little more difficult though). The rock formations were also a little more diverse.

Friends in Owl Canyon

Beth and Sprocket at Nevills Arch

The dogs were super happy when their three miles without water ended and Owl Creek appeared.

Dogs cooling off in Owl Creek

I really enjoyed the route finding on the way out of Owl Canyon (and my curiosity about all the side canyons was totally piqued!). There were some awesome waterfalls, with actual water!, and an exciting ascent out of the canyon.

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Waterfall in Owl Canyon

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The pups and I paused at the top of the canyon to wait for Meghan and Ethan. The views were again, incredible.

Sprocket looking at the view

Sprocket resting on backpack

We’d had a great time in the canyons. There’d been some rain, some fun hiking, beautiful canyons and really good company. Since we’d put in 10 solid miles that day, we decided to head for home to sleep in our own beds. We stopped on the way home at Stateline Bar and Grill near Dove Creek, Colorado for some very needed burgers.

Cows on Cedar Mesa

I think we tuckered out the dogs:

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Winter Desert Weekend, Part 1

Right after Christmas, Josh contacted me to see if I would be interested in joining Ofa, Prajit, and himself in for some slot canyon adventuring. I decided since it was such a long drive that it might be fun to invite a friend along for the ride especially since I had a long weekend and Josh and his crew had to get back to SLC on Sunday. Fortunately, Kelly decided that she and her pup Petey would join Sprocket and I on our adventure.

We pulled out of Ridgway right after school on Friday and headed out over Lizard Head Pass. Sprocket insisted we stop at the top of the pass for a quick stretch break and photo opportunity. (He actually whined all the way from the Telluride round-about to Lizard Head and just wanted to frolic in the snow.) We pushed through a long dark drive across the Navajo Reservation, experienced some desert fog, and talked about skinwalkers and eventually made camp at Whitehouse Campground between Page, Arizona and Kanab, Utah. We were both exhaused and I hardly registered it when Josh, Prajit and Ofa drove in and were setting up their tents.

Lizard Head Pass

The next morning, we made a quick run to Kanab to try for obtain day-of permits for The Wave, however, during the winter all the permits for the weekend are given away on Friday so we settled for breakfast in town before heading out to hike Wire Pass and Buckskin Gulch.

Happy Dogs

It was a gorgeous winter day for hiking:

Wire Pass trailhead

After a short ramble through the wash, we dropped into Wire Pass.

Sprocket in Wire Pass

Beth and Sprocket, Wire Pass

Wire Pass

I tried to help Sprocket over the following chockstone and he basically decided to jump over my shoulder. This is my Class 3+ doggy:

Sprocket doesn't mind chockstones

Sprocket on Wire Pass Trail

Beth, Wire Pass, Utah

Wire Pass, Utah

Wire Pass

Eventually we emerged at the junction of Buckskin Gulch and Wire Pass:

Buckskin Gulch

Unfortunately, there was a lot of water going both directions. Sprocket was the only one who thought continuing was a good idea. Instead, we enjoyed the views and enjoyed the majestic canyon junction before heading back out of the canyon.

Petroglyphs, Buckskin Gulch

Sandstone Art

The Wave trail, Utah

Some of Ofa and Prajit’s friends were headed to the Horseshoe of the Colorado River just south of Paige to watch sunset so Kelly and I hopped in Prajit’s car and joined them. The Horseshoe is majestic but it was so crowded (although it did inspire our trip to the Goosenecks of the San Juan on the way home).

Horseshoe Bend, Colorado River

The sunset colors were pretty sweet though:

Horseshoe Bend Sunset

Back at camp, we had a beer and then headed for our warm sleeping bags. (Well, Prajit and Josh decided to make some awesome art first.) Sprocket had spent a good chunk of Friday night shivering so I decided to cozy him up in my Turbodown. At first, he wasn’t really sure how he felt about it:

Unsure about this. Sprocket

I pulled the hood up and he suddenly understood and immediately fell asleep in his cozy coat.

Warm puppy

TurboDown Pup. #omnidog

On The Page: The Way Out

The Way Out

Craig Childs’ The Way Out: A True Story of Ruin and Survival wants to be a deeply introspective book. Childs details the story of a trip through canyons of Northern Arizona (specific location unspecified) with his friend Dierk Vaughn. The two have traveled extensively though the deserts of Utah but this trip into unknown territory challenges them both physically and mentally.

Although Childs and Vaughn are traveling together, most of the true narrative takes place in Childs’ mind. Much of the book is devoted to recollections of his alcoholic late-father. One gets the sense that Childs has never really decided how to come to terms with his father’s legacy: was his alcoholism a tragic end to a good man? or was he a father who just did not know how to love? Besides Childs own recollections, he remembers stories that Vaughn has told him about his life as a policeman. To me, these recollections were as much about how Childs saw the world as they were about why Vaughn was who he was.

My introduction to Childs as a writer was his article Heart Shaped River (subscription required) in High Country News this September. That article was entirely more upbeat than The Way Out and I enjoyed it a lot more. In the more condensed article length, Childs was more lyrical and concise. I’m a huge fan of this genre and The Way Out by all indications should have been a huge favorite of mine: reflection, fantastic canyon setting, adventure. Somehow, instead of being a favorite it left me cold, I was always waiting to delve deeper into Childs’ psyche or experience to really understand but I never got the chance.

Canyon Hike Near Slickrock, Colorado

Two weeks ago, F, Sprocket, and I set out for some adventuring with our new friend Karen. We met Karen in Ridgway when she was passing through on her DRZ (just like F’s). The next thing we knew, the jeep was loaded up and Sprocket and I were playing sag wagon for three days as F and Karen made their way to Moab the long way.

Our first meetup was planned for Slickrock, Colorado. We all pulled out of Ridgway mid-morning and Sprocket and I headed directly for Slickrock. The skies over the mountains were looking questionable and we were hoping to stay west of the storms. Since I’m not really familiar with the area and realized that Slickrock is the “dead zone” between many of the Trails Illustrated and Latitude 40 maps, I stopped at the ranger station in Norwood to see if they had any additional information. The very helpful volunteer helped me pick out a couple of BLM maps for the area. ($4 each! With topo lines!)

When Sprocket and I arrived in Slickrock, we picked a narrow canyon and headed out for a hike. To get a better view of the area, we passed the entrance to the canyon and hiked along the road to a viewpoint above the river:

Dolores River

Dolores River

When we backtracked into the canyon, Sprocket was very pleased to discover that the recent rain had left all the potholes full of muddy water. I was really pleased to discover that this little canyon without a name was pleasantly narrow and really pretty.

Pothole swimming.

Sprocket pothole swimming

Sprocket just jumped from puddle to puddle and ripped around the slickrock.

Sprocket hiking

Sprocket with pothole

Sprocket

Trickle of water in canyon

Pothole swimming

Sprocket rolling in mud

Muddy Sprocket

Canyon views

Waterfalls

Eventually, we reached a waterfall and I was afraid that our hike would be over. As we walked back downstream, I looked for a way that I could get myself and Sprocket around the obstacle. It took a little bit of searching but we managed to find a way. Unfortunately, rain clouds were starting to appear to the southeast and the last place I wanted to be was a tight little canyon so we headed uphill. As I climbed through the piñon and junipers, passing deer sign, I couldn’t help but think that this is where the Big Kitties live. Fortunately, we did not encounter any.

Terminal waterfall in canyon

Rather than backtrack through the canyon since rain and our appointed meeting time with Karen and F was approaching, Sprocket and I walked back along the ridge separating our canyon from Highway 141. I could hear thunder rumbling in the distance but no more than a couple drops of rain ever fell on us.

Views to the north

Back at the car, we headed for our meeting place. It was about 3:30 and F had told me to expect them between 3 and 5pm. So Sprocket and I waited. And we waited some more. I’d been told not to worry until about 8 or so, so we sat tight. At about 7, I drove up Slickrock hill to try and find some cell reception. At 8, I headed a couple miles up a gravel road, knocked on a door, and asked if I could use the phone. No answer and no messages on my phone. At 9:30, admittedly getting a little worried, I returned to the house and asked if I could use the phone one more time… and F answered!

Moonrise

Turns out, they’d been within 10 miles of me for hours. Driven further south than they’d planned by the storm I’d been watching, they tried to find their way back north off-road from Dove Creek. My timing on calling the last time had been perfect, they were in Dove Creek again and were just trying to decide whether they should “slab” it up (dirt biker talk for riding pavement) to me or sit tight until I called them.

The decision was quickly made that I should drive down to meet them. They were soaked through and a hotel room to shower in and get things dry sounded like just the ticket. The day was a lot longer than any of us had planned but it turned out just fine.

Hunter Canyon

While F was riding, Sprocket and I headed out hiking. The weather was gorgeous but on the hot side so I took Sprocket to Hunter Canyon. There was still plenty of water in the canyon which made Sprocket really happy.

Hunter Canyon

I love hiking and exploring some of the narrow canyons in the deserts. This was a pretty nice trail that crossed the creek several times. The cliffs above the had arches and other interesting rock formations. It was really nice to be out enjoying myself in the company of my puppy. Sprocket was pretty delighted to have lots of water to play in.

Hunter Canyon

Sprocket in Hunter Canyon

Hunter Canyon

The Hunter Canyon trail is about four miles round trip and is mostly flat. The canyon isn’t that narrow so there’s plenty of sunshine but also lots of places to find some shade for a break. It’s not too far from Moab but also is less popular than trails in Arches or elsewhere. Open to hikers only, it’s a nice quiet place to relax and explore.

Hunter Canyon

The Mountains Called Us…

“The mountains are calling and I must go.”   -John Muir

After some hiking in Fruita’s Devil’s Canyon and grabbing some food and hitting up REI in Grand Junction, we were headed for Gateway, Colorado.

Devil's Canyon

As we made the turn west off of US 50, F commented that we were only a couple hours from Ouray & Silverton. I’d been wanting to explore that area for a long time and we were both anxious to see it in the spring with snow still gracing all the high peaks. Just like that, our plans changed and away to the mountains we went.

Exploring the Book Cliffs

After weather sent us scurrying from the San Rafael Swell, we headed to the Book Cliffs. Although I-70 passes along their base from US-6 east to Grand Junction, they’re a relatively unvisited area. Our adventures in the Book Cliffs started in the (ghost?) town of Thompson. The remaining residents have put up a sign with a map detailing the recreational activities available from their little town:

Thompson, UT map

We camped out for the night as it was getting dark and headed to the petroglyph (rock art carvings) AND pictograph (rock art painting) panels in Sego Canyon. Most of my experience with rock art in the Southwest has been with petroglyphs so I was really excited to see the pictographs:

Petroglyphs in Sego Canyon

Pictographs in Sego Canyon

Sego Canyon pictographs

After we checked out the rock art (and waited for the sun to peak over the canyon walls), we headed up Thompson Canyon to the end of the road then returned to head up Sego Canyon and the ghost town of Sego. Sego was a coal mining town that appears to have operated off and on from the 1890s through 1948.

Sego ghost town

Abandoned building near Sego

Cows Sego Canyon

The road goes about 15 miles up into the Book Cliffs and dead ends at the Ute Indian Reservation. We were able to drive almost all the way up (about 13 miles) and walked the rest of the way. The views were incredible!

Sego Canyon Views

Views from the top of Sego Canyon

I even spotted bear tracks in the sand near the end of the road:

Bear track, Sego Canyon

We headed down the canyon and turned onto Book Cliffs Road (clearly marked as a 4×4 road…). It was quite an adventure, as the road dropped into a deep, narrow canyon and climbing back out wasn’t the easiest thing to do but Forrest and the van managed just fine (I tried to manage the chaos in the van and Sprocket slept…).

Van at the Book Cliffs

Forrest at the Book Cliffs

Book Cliff Road

Van in canyon

Road in Wash

Book Cliffs Canyon

Eventually, we cut back south to I-70 and skipped east to Book Cliffs Over The Top Road. According to the map it was possible to make a loop up one canyon, over the top of the plateau, and then dropping down another canyon.

Book Clifs Over The Top Road

Sprocket

As we suspected, the top of the plateau was still pretty muddy and we had to skip our plans for making a loop. Despite the fact our plans had changed, it was awesome to be that high and have views out in every direction. I’m sure we’ll be back with the jeep in a more hospitable season to explore some more!

Tavaputs Plateau

Tavaputs Plateau