Life is all about finding those who are your kind of crazy - Spring Road Trip Part 2
After waking up fairly early in Las Vegas from the geo-party, we all had breakfast together and still made time to grab groceries, beer, and a last minute REI stop before heading back into the desert. We were supposed to be picking up our Paria Canyon hiking permits at the ranger station in St. George, but upon arriving the doors were closed and we were left reeling, the hike was supposed to start Sunday morning and it was Saturday, waiting until Monday morning really wasn’t a viable option. After some frantic calls we were able to get ahold of another ranger nearby in Kanab and he agreed to help us out, phew the world is full of good people! Continuing our drive into the evening and getting closer to the canyon we decided to camp just off of house valley rock road next to the vermillion cliffs in AZ. Choosing the closest campsite to ensure some light to set up camp and try to calm the nerves before departing on a 39+ mile backpacking trip through the Paria River Canyon, the 39+ because there was no straight line and gps hardly worked in some areas that had steep canyon cliffs, so this was definitely going to be my kind of hike, no gps, no mileage, no worries at least we had print out topographic maps. Arriving at camp, we were already in the desert, sand at our feet and eventually in our tents and food. Red sandstone rocks, juniper trees and sagebrush cover the nearby landscape. With our tents set, firewood was gathered, a fire was built, we had dinner and a few beers in-between good conversation, a great way to start off any adventure. The night was an early one, sleeping in the cool desert night and awakening to frost on the camp chairs and rain fly of the tents. I usually start my mornings off right with good coffee! From a connoisseur this means using a burr grinder and french press to make the most rewarding cup of black coffee anyone could ask for. Boiling the water on my jetboil I was soon drinking fresh coffee, my partner thought I was a bit snooty as he gulped down his instant coffee. However by day 5, after we were both out of the canyon, he was asking me to make coffee more than once a day!
We stopped at the small village of Cliff Dwellers for breakfast where we covered the table in maps and discussed plans and potential backup plans. The main plan was to drop off my partner at Lees Ferry trailhead, the southern most point of Paria Canyon, he would hike north against the river current. While I would start on the north end at the Whitehouse trailhead and hike south with the river current. So if all went well, my partner would hike North to Whitehouse, get my truck and drive back down to Lees Ferry where I would be finishing my hike. This would be our second solo outing together where we would try this arrangement, the first being our 120 mile hike in the Black Hills of SD. Never know what could happen in the backcountry hiking solo. We should pass one another, but will we actually see each other, it really depended on if we were both in the river bottom or the benches overlooking the river. After breakfast, I dropped my partner off at Lees Ferry once we found an accessible trailhead, the one on the map was right before the river and it was flowing really high, so the park ranger suggested he starts on the opposite side of the river. Once we got back to that point, there was a foot traffic only sign, gathering his pack a few words of good luck, I watched him wander away into the distance where big cliffs stood as the muddy Paria river winded around between the canyon walls, the river was flowing strong it looked raftable!
As he hiked away my mind was right there beside him, do I have all my gear, water, maps, how does the pack feel, am I ready for this, wow its beautiful! Soon enough he was out of distance and my mind was back in my body, I needed to go for a hike. So I drove back to the first canyon/wash west of the Paria River that also terminated into the Colorado River. I started wandering down the dry sandstone stream bed, the grade was quite steep and the short canyon walls were colorful and playful. About a half mile in I approached the Colorado River, which was flowing strong 150 feet below me, down a sheer cliff, it looked like an excellent spot to rock climb! I stood perched on the cliff, listening to nature, the water rushing by through the canyon and birds chirping away nearby completing the desert orchestra, there was a slight breeze cooling my skin from the already blistering desert sun complemented by the nearly piney smell from the juniper trees spotting the nearby mesa, beautiful and meditative at the same time. I found a nice flat sandstone slab to do a yoga session, right next to the cliff to further engage flow by enacting vertigo while feeling the exposure of mother earth. The best yoga sessions for me occur when I can be in a meditative state while going through my routine, which is why I like to surround myself in nature for the optimal experience. Coming back from my meditative state, I was refreshed and energized. Looking back up the canyon which I had strolled down, I began to visualize a playground. I took off sprinting, running up a nearby wall to the ledge, than hopping down on several rocks all in succession and a final leap into the sand. Taking a deep breathe, i looked across the canyon to see stacked benches starting at 2 feet and repeating every 2 feet on structural joints, 10 benches for a total of approximate 20 feet in vertical exposure, off I went starting slow to reset my cadence trying not to slip and fall, right foot on a bench, hard push off then left foot on the next bench, it was a leap trying to go forward, up the canyon at the same time. Reaching the top, the benches didn’t quite line up going down, so I confidently made a balanced foot slide to each bench then sliding to the next, arms held out at each side for extra balance, it was exhilarating! Sliding to the sandy canyon bottom, I came to a walking speed to catch my breathe, and size up the next feature, this continued up the canyon feeling invincible and the flow of nature take over me once again. Once I got back to the road and truck, I was happy to stretch a bit, drink a bunch of water and be back on the road, north to Whitehouse trailhead where i would start my journey down the Paria Canyon.
How do you turn an awesome adventure into an unforgettable journey? I had all night to think about, after arriving at the trailhead, large thunderheads loomed in the distance and were heading right toward me. I only had a 4 mile hike before reaching the slot canyon section and I didn’t want to be in there with a rain storm. So I decided to wait the storm out and camp at the trailhead, going on a scouting hike to the river, it was muddy and flowing pretty fast, the water was easily above my ankles, and my mind started to contemplate the idea of taking the packraft with on the journey. To further digest this idea I went on a longer hike up the canyon sides which were covered in the beautiful Navajo sandstone. The further I climbed up the more of the canyon I could see, the water looked to maintain its depth for a few miles, I sat down did some meditation and cleared my mind of all that had happened that day. Awaking back to reality, the sun was setting so I headed back to camp at the trailhead, this time not contemplating whether or not I would bring the packraft but going through scenarios on how to pack it and how I was going to utilize it! Back at camp, a small trailer was set up with a canadian couple staying the night in it. We started to chat, and found out they have came down to this vast desert area every year for an extended vacation. He new lots of information on Paria Canyon and other less populated canyons nearby. When I asked if he had ever rafted down the Paria River, I caught his attention, What?! Raft?! Are you crazy?! Yes, aren't we all :)
Day 1 on the Paria River was crazy! The water was unusually high as expected from scouting the night before, however it was reported to be twice as deep just 2 days ago. I started with my pack on my back, like usual and carried the packraft plus the kayak paddle in a bag that hung at my side, 6-7 lbs extra. I hiked for a bit and as I warmed up a good jogging pace set in. This river felt like nothing compared to hiking in the rainforest or the Centennial trail trip last year and the water is much warmer than most of what I end up trudging through. My feet were cold, a toe or 2 turning numb but totally doable! The water level didn’t seem deep enough to paddle at this point as the canyon was 1/4 mile wide. I knew there were 2 sets of hikers in front of me that departed an hour or so earlier. I love to chase people, it’s only a mindset thing, when I approach them I usually slow down and pass with politeness gesturing a hello or aloha and then quickly moving along. In a race I may run/bike past faster in the hopes of inspiring more effort from the fellow competitor which in turn makes me work harder too. The first couple I tracked down had bought an extra can of fuel from me in the parking lot, I didn’t even think about my fuel supply and if I had enough to spare, I was excited to see others out here doing what I love to do, so I replied with a prompt “Yes!” and then preceded to find a full canister in my camp cooking bag, I was rewarded nicely, but it was the good deed that I was really after :) This couple had really large packs on that looked a bit unstable but they were in this for the long haul and had nice wader boots on, making my vivobarefoot evo’s laughable! The next hikers I passed were 2 gentlemen that were dropped earlier than the first couple. They weren’t moving any faster, had fairly big packs, and were very hesitant in the water crossings. We passed each other a few times as I decided to take a break in a shaded bend of the river, each time I passed I tried to show them proper technique on how to cross the river facing upstream and either moving straight across or angling upstream if you want to exit the river parallel to where you entered.
Approaching the narrows or Paria’s slot canyon section, the canyon walls moved in closer 20-30 feet across and with the walls straight up and down providing the formation of sand benches, so it was all water walking and it quickly got deeper. At one point maybe a half mile in I decided now is the time to try the packraft! Finding a good spot in the shade, I unpacked the raft, inflated it, made sure all of my gear was in water resistant bags and tied on, laughed at myself a bit, and jumped in. I WAS PADDLING ON THE RIVER!! Ha!! It was a blast while it lasted, cruising down the channel staring up at the wondrous sandstone and randoms clouds pass through my small window of the bright blue sky. However I didn’t paddle for long, I kept getting stuck in 6 inches or less of water, my pack and me were too heavy. I tried to crab walk and scoot back out into the channel each time but I soon had major cramps in my calves, ouch! So a bit reluctant to get out of the boat I finally stood up, not grabbing the raft immediately it started to float down stream, that was the “Ah Ha” moment, I can sludge through the water and my pack can take a river boat ride, genius! And it was a splendid day from that moment on, it was still moderately challenging to keep up a pace as fast as the boat making sure it keeps going around snags and low water spots, but it was a good trade even as I tripped over the stream rocks while staring up at the big canyon walls. I eventually encountered some quick sand pools, some sucking me into waist deep sand/water mix before I could even react, the Canadian couple had warned me about these spots and they were correct, quick sand was lurking all over with the high water levels. At one point that day I was stopping every time I saw the sun, take it for granted in the desert then walk in a slot canyon with 300 feet high shear cliffs and cold water. I put on another top layer and changed into neoprene socks, drank water from the spring, ate some smoked salmon (I love to eat real whole foods everyday even in the backcountry), and set off again. I passed big spring next which had a campsite nearby. I could stop here and have a relaxing evening and still make it to Lees Ferry in time but my curiosity pushed me along and the other hikers that I had passed could easily end up here later, I was on a solo hike and thus wanted to camp alone. An hour or 2 before dark I came across 2 more hikers and 2 dogs camped on the nearest river bank, I stopped quick to chat and amuse them with my raft. The dogs were small and noise makers plus I was getting cold so I promptly moved on. Then I came across 4 guys I saw depart the night before. There jaws dropped when they saw me wandering along with my pack in a raft :) I stopped and amused their curiosity for awhile too. The asked me to join them for camp, but I moved on in hopes of finding my hiking partner I had dropped off the day before..but did I really want to find him, this was meant to be a solo journey, it had already been healing, maybe I do just wanna camp alone, my mind just needs some motivation to keep on moving. It was getting dark when I came to the conclusion that walking down the middle or side of the stream in the dark would not be fun so I better find a camp spot. Seeing this large sandstone wall towering above the rest with a top face that slightly domed over I knew this was it! Throwing my pack on and pulling my boat out of the water I headed on to land and set up camp. The stars were beautiful that night, the big dipper and north start in view with the moon lighting a nice backdrop on the sandstone cliffs. It turned out to be a great day and relaxing evening after all.
The next morning I was up early, but didn’t feel like continuing my trek down river quite yet. I made some tea, and found a trail to hike up above my camp, this included a bit of bouldering but I made it and wasn’t the first person to be up there. I found a nice spot to relax and meditate, then wrote most of this posts thoughts in my journal. At some point I could hear hikers getting closer, it was the 4 guys that I passed the following night. With my tent fly zipped shut and raft still out, they most likely thought I was still sleeping rather than perched above taking in all the desert orchestra has to offer. I finally found a route down, that allowed me to skip the bouldering section, packed up my tent and hauled my pack and raft to the river. I immediately noticed the river level was lower and the current not flowing as fast. Plopping the boat in I tied my pack on and started my wandering, having to push the boat along more than yesterday it was still entertaining as I was able to watch the iron staining on the canyon walls flash as it caught the sun and my polarized sunglasses. My pace was slower but I was a bit sore from the previous day which I trekked 8-9 hours covering roughly 15 miles before stopping to camp. Thus today could be an easier day and I could hammer out the remaining miles the third day, which was how I usually roll, put in an incredible day on the last pushing myself to limits I didn’t know existed yet. I hadn’t been in the water long before coming to a big bend, I could spot a hiker coming my way, it was my hiking partner! He was bit disgruntled to see me cheerfully walking along with my pack in the raft, my back not hurting at all. He wanted to take an immediate break in the shade, so I followed him across the sand flat to the nearest tree, however I wanted to stay in the sun my part of the hike that day had been in the shade and I was still wandering down the middle of the cold river. We exchanged stories, he had been warned by several groups that I was coming with my raft, most of hikers being impressed by the situation, how often do you see a crazy guy breaking the barriers of what backpacking is expected to be. For me living without expectations its easy to break through the invisible barriers while I set out to do something new and exciting built on previous experience. My partner’s legs were red and looked sore, he had told his story of thrashing through willow saplings and sliding down large sandstone boulders, the river had been so high his first day that following the river bottom was near impossible and finding the trail above the river was tough and seemed to no be continuous. A rough first day indeed, it turns out not many people hike the Paria River Canyon from south to north, thus the trail is not marked well from that perspective. I was feeling great and all smiles, I didn’t get that same vibe from my partner, so we parted and continued on our way. He had planned to pick me up in 2 days sometime in the early afternoon. I had a lot of canyon to cover yet and wanted to see some of the side canyons as well.
I stuck with the rafting until reaching the first canyon, where I found a good beach to get all of my gear onto, then covered it with the raft to keep out any rain as the sky was getting a bit dark with potential for a storm, i was feeling a bit tired and convinced myself to go see Wrather arch up the canyon, if it was raining when i returned i’d just camp here and call it a short day if it was sunny i had planned to push on. Wrather arch is the 5th largest arch in the colorado plateau region. The map said it was 3/4 mile hike, so i brought a bottle of water and started up the first 100 feet, the canyon had a little bit of water running and was blocked up with logs in several areas. The trails went all over I tried to keep on the most traveled one, however that can be a tough task for me always wanting to take the path less traveled. The trail suddenly got extremely steep, i slowed to a crawl getting out my trekking poles only to realize i took another side canyon and it was going to get steeper before getting any easier. So i descended back to the mess of trails and picked another one, this was also steep but I was able to push up, figuring the arch would be around a bend in the canyon, I reached that point and took a break for some water and to catch not only my breathe but the view and 1500 feet of elevation i had already climbed. Continuing on there was another bend, it had to be up there so i pushed on taking in the beautiful red canyon sides, not thinking about my burning calves or lack of oxygen. I could finally catch a glimpse of the arch but it was hidden enough that it required another steep scramble up the adjacent canyon side or yet another 1/2 mile on another trail. While I wanted to get up close and personal the black clouds were closing in and i didn’t want to be trapped in that canyon during rainfall, it could get ugly fast including good potential for a mud/sand slide. So I made the closer ascent, which gave me a view good enough to see through the arch, it was huge and really cool but I gotta get down to my gear now. So off i went hastily jumping and letting gravity take me down the canyon trail as fast as i would let it. Taking leaps of faith and landing in deep sand only to spring off to an instant running pace again. It only took what seemed to be minutes to reach the bottom where it was sunny and no storm clouds in sight, weird, well i was fully energized from the short hike ready to push on. I also decided it was time to pack up the raft and carry all my gear on my back from here on out, it was fun while it lasted but now i was on a timeline with many miles to go with an afternoon/evening, one more camping spot, and a morning/early afternoon hike.
There was still so much to see, and I was off..the pack didn’t feel to bad probably because i hadn’t carried it much, so i picked up the pace to a jog, I could now move faster being on land more than in the water, cutting through meanders over land and thought the willows. I pushed on quite late, looking for a good camping spot where i could be alone, i knew there were some fellow hikers ahead, and if i stopped before the spring I should be on my own for camping. Coming around a bend, there always seemed to be another bend ahead and behind, however this time there were a few cottonwood trees that looked suitable for a hammock. I hiked up quick to see if I had a place for a tent and suddenly i had found home for my last night in the Paria Canyon. The hammock was up in minutes, I laid down and quickly fell asleep. Awoken mainly from hunger, I set up my tent, fired up the jetboil for hot water and warmed up some dehydrated beans. I migrated back to the hammock and again drifted off, I wasn’t sure why I had set up my tent, at this moment the hammock was pure comfort in the serenity of the stars bounded by the red canyon walls and rush of the river on its way to Lees Ferry. I woke at some point and crawled in my tent, it was abnormally warm, where the previous nights had been rather cool.
I was up early making tea and some breakfast before packing up and promptly getting on my way. I didn’t have any water left at this point and really needed to get to the spring up ahead. Around 2 canyon bends I found the couple that had the dogs, they were still packing up camp, i waved and pushed on to the spring, apparently thats where the 4 guys i had seen on day one were camped but had already packed up and moved on. I stopped and filled several water bottles purifying each bottle and filling my camelback, this would most likely be my main water stop for the day so i filled up, it was also one of the better springs i had seen in the canyon. The couple with the dogs passed me while i was filling up on water, however it didn’t take long to catch up to them. We shared the same pace for a mile or so, then I pushed on past them for a few miles, until i suddenly came upon boulder filled with petroglyphs, COOL!! I stopped and took a few pictures wandering around the site, before realizing the boulder had fell off the cliff, and actually belonged some 1000 feet above the river bottom. The guy from the couple caught up to me at this point, he was alone with one of the dogs, we chatted briefly about the history of the cliff dwellers and he explained that at this point you could connect up with another trail and follow it all the way back to SW Colorado. We departed the petroglyphs together and kept a fast walking pace interspersed with good conversation, eventually passing the 4 guys and pushing on until we reached Bushhead canyon. There we both stopped for a rest and I decided to go explore the canyon, while my new hiking friend pushed on. The 4 guys were just getting to the base of Bushhead canyon when I took off running up the steep incline.
This side canyon was even more of a mess than the previous. There were larger logs and larger rocks filling the main channel and making me hike under, through, or around each clogged area. The canyon walls were steep and the sandstone was part of the Chinle formation and thus in nicely dissected blocks that were heavily eroded, making it quite dangerous situation to be in. I noticed there were several springs not too far back in the canyon if one decided to camp on the rivers edge someday. After climbing up some more, hoisting myself up some large rock falls then eventually reaching an area where I have to hug the wall and balance on a foot wide trail to advance any further, I made the little trek only to find more of the same followed by a 50 foot wall that I was going to need rope and partner to navigate, good enough for me, canyon has been explored. I took in what I could see including a lot of preserved wave ripples, carefully turned around and made my way back down the canyon, hopping off some large rocks and free falling ten feet or more a few times. Reluctant to see the abuse I was doing on my body, it would soon catch up to me.
Once I got back to my pack the 4 guys were long gone, time to play the chase game. I started off at a slow pace which didn’t last more than a few hundred feet and I was soon jogging again. This jog allowed me to catch up to the 4 guys, and luckily I caught up to them, as they had found the high route on a bench at least 100 feet above the river. There was a continuos trail up here for the remainder of the hike about 12 miles, I would have struggled crossing the river several times picking my way through the large boulders as my partner had done days previous. After climbing up the ridge I stopped and took a rest and shared some good conversation before sending off to finish out this backpacking trip strong. The sun was high in the sky, making shade hard to find but beautifying the canyon walls and vegetation i was surrounded by. My achilles on my right foot was starting to hurt pretty badly, so my run pace had slowed to a walk, I was alone in the desert again, finally rounding a corner I found some shade an promptly dropped my pack for an extended break. The shade was cool, causing goose bumps on my skin but felt relieving at the same time. Soon enough the lady and one of the dogs from the couple had caught up to me, she too decided to take a break in the shade. We talked for about 5 minutes, then I realized I needed to push on and finish as my partner would be waiting for me. I walked blissfully for the last 5 or so miles, reflecting on this 3 day backpacking adventure, what a treat, I was very grateful for the opportunity. The trail came back towards the river around the last bend, I could recall seeing my partner walking down this path only a few days prior when i dropped him off. Now I saw my truck parked up ahead, the pain in my foot suddenly disappeared as I was looking forward to a beer and some food. This last day ended up being a 20+ mile hike mostly in the heat and I had ran out of food, not planning or packing nearly enough. I ate 2 dinners that night, probably close to 10,000 calories and was still starving. With a bum achilles tendon I would get some rest over the next 3 days and gorge on food until I was satiated again.