Pack Floating a Wild Canyon in Utah
Taking the backpack for a long, wet walk
For the Aspen Times Weekly
Quicksand sucks. It sucks on my neoprene booties. We pass several dead and stinking cows who were held by quicksand until they starved, their bones bleaching under the desert sun.
When I feel the sucking pull, I do the “quicksand quickstep” until my feet find firmer ground. The stink of the cows is swept away by a desert breeze as I slosh along the braided channels of a secluded river in the heart of the Utah desert.
Our river trip begins beneath a highway bridge where every car that passes overhead emits a boom like a shotgun. But this journey actually began 20 years before on a mountain bike tour. Portaging our bikes across canyons, we waded this warm desert river, and the idea was born.
At our put-in, we drop a dry bag backpack into the river and watch it float. “This is doable,” assesses Scott, an old friend and fellow adventurer who gives thumbs up to a five-day journey unlike any we have ever undertaken.
I do a two-hour bicycle shuttle, leaving our vehicle at the take-out far downstream, then pedaling 10 miles of sand-drifted washboard and ten more miles of highway. Back at the bridge, where Scott hunkers in the lengthening shadows, we snap retractable dog leashes to our packs and launch into the wide, sandy river.
This murky, salt-brine water originates as mountain snowmelt, melds with a muddy tributary, and forms a river that flows more than a hundred miles through deepening canyon walls. On this first journey, we walk our backpacks 30 miles of the upper section at a desert tortoise’s pace of about 1.5 miles per hour.
Our crawl across this remote canyon landscape is due to a triple meander: The canyon meanders. The river meanders within the canyon. And we meander within the river depending on where the deepest channels flow.
Shallows slow our pace when our packs run aground, so we learn to read the river. The river bears our loads, and we bear the river’s pace. Distance is hard to plot, and we could care less. I am reminded of John Muir’s admonition to “saunter” rather than to “hike.”
“Away back in the Middle Ages,” wrote Muir, “people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages asked where they were going they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers.”
Our sauntering pilgrimage is all about slowing down. The gentle river becomes a formidable taskmaster in regulating our speed, or lack thereof. I saunter, taking in the surroundings with a sweeping gaze until a misstep lands me in a hole that plunges me up to my crotch and awakens me to the moment.
This river is mostly dead. No fish. No insects. No visible aquatic life. We encounter bounding deer, dozens of bird species and countless tracks etched in the sand and mud, but the lifeless river makes for a strangely quiet environment.
On our first two days, we are shadowed, literally, by a pair of golden eagles that are harassed by squawking ravens. Small sand birds strut the mudflats. A pair of white-faced ibises wade on stilty legs. Canadian geese take flight from blinds of brushy snags in mid-river where they build nests to hatch this season’s goslings. Coyote tracks show why geese hide and fortify behind moats of quicksand.
Our slow, cumbersome progress represents a key distinction between man and animal. Where deer lope effortless across the river and birds soar with hardly a flap of wings, we plod with awkward, sloshing steps, our bags in tow, our progress sluggish. After a day or so, the slow pace is a blessing. We have time, food and water (though drinking water becomes a concern even though we’re knee-deep in it eight hours a day).
We are plodding down a flowing stream that is too brackish for drinking. That’s why we deployed a third dry bag to carry our water bladders. Scanning side canyons for a seep, we take advantage of a fill-up late on Day Two from a small, mossy pool dammed by a thicket of beaver-gnawed sticks. We never see a beaver, but their signs are everywhere.
The water we take on is yellowish, but clears when pumped through a ceramic filter. It has a salty taste, but not bad for boiling pasta or making coffee. The saltwater becomes a purgative, which makes this trip into an unintentional cleansing.
On Day Three we explore a large side canyon, trudging in our soft, squishy water booties through deep sand under a searing sun. The only water is in a pourover that’s so mucked up by cattle that it’s undrinkable. We are thirsty for a good guzzle, so we float on to our destination where I know of a clear, cold spring in a lush canyon alcove.
Eager now, we begin dragging our packs over sand bars and mud flats, ignoring the river’s pace until we see how pointless that is. Going with the flow is not only easier, it’s a refreshing antidote to the entitlement to rapid, easy mobility. Now is the time to take in details of the world around us and embrace the slow pace of a desert river.
We finally reach the paradisiacal alcove where a sandy trails leads beneath a slickrock overhang. Oaks are in full leaf. The air is scented with the sweet perfume of yellow blooming barberry. In the heart of the alcove glistens the spring-fed pool whose water is the most delicious and satisfying beverage known to parched river plodders. Preferable even to iced beer?! Yes, many times over.
We spend a quiet night in paradise, sheltered from a rising gale force wind that harries us the next morning as we shoulder our dry bags and slog up a series of steep switchbacks snaking across slickrock buttes high above the river to a rolling mesa topped sparsely in cactus and desert shrubs. To the west stand snowcapped mountain ranges, to the east a maze of canyons one would need a lifetime to explore.
Our bulky packs are still heavy, and we realize how kind the river was to carry them for us. Now we feel their weight and the buffeting of powerful gusts that roar in our ears and muck up our eyes with dust that is forming the next layer of a geologic landscape that will create new terrain for rivers to carve and for pack floaters to adventure in.
Paul Andersen is a former Aspen Times columnist, book author and contributing writer to the Aspen Times Weekly.
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