Back in the Desert

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img_6385We managed one more 4-Day trip to the desert the last week of October. All three of us were eager to test some new gear and enjoy the end of our Indian Summer here in the Southwest.  The Utah desert is very popular this time of year and securing a backcountry hiking and camping permit is difficult in the Canyonlands National Park.

 

nationalparkWe learned in Spring that we could come into the very bottom of the National Park (green shading) as day hikers, by entering and exploring the Butler Wash Wilderness Study Area directly south of the park. This area is some of the finest desert wilderness and deserves it’s special designation.

p1430695The only footprints in the four days were deer, bear and bobcat  (excluding the day hikes deep into the National Park where we only saw one set of human prints). Water sources are the primary reason no one goes into this region, but we’ve now scouted and recorded a number of water holes. Our trip itinerary is dependent on finding adequate water and each time we’re able to explore new canyons and routes until we run low and have to backtrack.

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10/25/16 East Fork of West Fork Salt Creek



img_6400Because we’ve seen numerous bear tracks and scat in the drainages that we travel and camp, we always hung our food.

Will and Mike both had new packs to test.  Mike’s was a new version of zPacks “front zip” backpack, and Will is always testing and reviewing new pack designs for Gossamer Gear. This trip Will’s pack was a new, soon to be released, 55-liter lightweight backpack. I was able to test out my newest ultralight shelter with it’s dual doors open. However the very best addition was bringing a new UL 1.75 oz pillow. The pillow combined with a “hip hole” in the sand made for the most comfortable sleep I’ve ever had on the ground. Overnight temps were 40° and daytime temps were low 60’s, perfect weather for desert exploring.

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Typical camps.
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Our track went thru narrow drainages and over bands of layer rock formations.p1430689

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As usual, a Good Time was had by All. And in little over 4 weeks we’ll be in Thailand.

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Reworked my UltraLite Gear page and added an online UL Gear worksheet in case you’re curious.

Escalante 2016

P1010957The Escalante Legacy Tree Study lives on, with our most recent trip to the desert duct delivering the Dixie National Forest waters thru the high Utah desert to the Colorado River at Lake Powell.  The Escalante River is said to be “navigable” sporadically during the Spring runoff, but it’s more like a shallow creek most of the year, especially in August.

Mike and I have been lucky enough to be invited to assist Melissa, a research and restoration ecological biologist specializing in Southwest and desert environments, the last two years on the Escalante River, and in the past in the Grand Canyon. The Escalante Legacy Tree Study finds and catalogs those historic trees in the Escalante drainage that meet a specific criteria, not just size. As the GaiaGPS track segment shows, this involves searching both sides of the river banks for qualifying senior candidates.

Track

P1010950Since the access is either down the river along the seldom used animal trails or over the high desert and into the canyon thru steep access, not many get to experience the verdant micro-climate winding thru the desert crust. It took a full day just to get to where we left off last year, route-finding our way to a slot in the canyon wall and bushwhacking down the river bank.

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Unusually cooler temps for this time of year made the week working in the Utah desert tolerable and mostly pleasant.  My original plan to not take a sleeping bag was fortuitously amended at the last minute, because the pre-dawn temps were in the mid-50’s rather than the anticipated mid-60’s.  Day-time temps never broke triple digits in the canyon and since we were mostly in the trees and often making repeated river crossings in the P1020070
water, we were comfortable in the long sleeves and long pants necessary for bashing thru the undergrowth. This isn’t a trip that boasts high mileage as the entire goal for the week was to log trees in just a five-mile section of the river.  It takes a full day to search about a mile of river: finding a tree, logging it’s height, distance from and height above the river, GPS location, health, number of stems, girth, and the species (plants) surrounding that granddaddy.

P1020059We spilt up when the river bank is larger than we can see thru the foliage, using coded yodels for communication and then gathering around when we find a living heirloom, each taking a series of recording chores. Melissa managed the most difficult, bushwhacking a direct route to the river to establish distance from the water. Mike and I counted stems (trunks out of the ground), girth and struggled with identifying species IMG_5771surrounding the tree. By mid-day many of the long slender plants started looking very much the same. Pictured is the list of common names we encountered and the code we needed for logging a tree’s vegetative environment. An interesting TED talk describes how plants communicate and share below the ground (worth viewing). We also needed to photograph the tree with ID number, which involved hiking back far enough thru the brush to find a suitable profile.

There are always interesting things to see besides legacy trees.  This river P1020020canyon was home to many in past centuries, just as all the other canyons and deserts of the Southwest.  In one alcove above an early twentieth century cowboy settlement, we stumbled upon an Indian settlement and granary with corn cobs and pottery shards.

A good time was had by all and we look forward to another section of the river next year.

To make sure I don’t bring the same Version 2pair of worn out hiking shoes I did the same gesture I used to do leaving a boat yard in the past. This dumpster was right next to the first ice cream stop out of the desert.

 

 

 

West Fork

tgCampDespite not being allowed to hike in the Canyonlands National Park on arrival, as planned (all reservations and capacity was filled), we opted for hiking in the Butler Wilderness Study Area just below Canyonlands.  Access was 60 miles further south and this area was part of our original exploration route anyway. This diversion knocked off a half day on each end of the five day trip, so we came out in four days.

NotchWater was the controlling factor on this desert hike so we had to carry five or six liters much of the time. (Five liters of water is more than my entire pack weighed before water.)  Fortunately we found an elk and wildlife watering hole up a side canyon the first day and that afforded us further exploration looking for routes over the canyon walls. This “notch” (pictured on left) was our first success in finding a way thru the cliffs.

5routesWe’d mapped out five potential routes and only managed to pass thru 2 of the 3 we tried. Hiking was often tough as we were on game trails and bushwhacking rather than frequently used routes.  The washes were dry and sandy except when they were overgrown with vegetation which forced us up onto benches.  It was very interesting to see these areas of seldom-travelled and little-known parts of the desert wilderness.

CampSome nights just finding a flat spot for three tents proved challenging as you might notice in the lead photo.

It’s only twice a year that you can go into this region since summer and winter prove inhospitable.  We won’t be able to go back now until the Fall for more exploration. This was a great warmup or shake-down for a season of ultra-light backpacking.

BearTracksWe were overwhelmed by the number of bear tracks we saw of the way out. We’d seen single tracks occasionally, guessing they were at least a week old, but these tracks were recent, like that morning. A whole family was just ahead of us by the looks of it. There must have been several yearlings along because they often scuffled in the sand as they lumbered along.  We used the defensive measure of talking loudly to them as we followed along, “Hello bears, we right behind you.  No need to turn around.”  The tracks winnowed down to a couple after several hours and finally down to one set. At the last fork before our ascent over the exit pass the last bear took the left fork to our relief while we turned right.  Even though we’d planned to end the day before climbing the pass, we decided to soldier on over to put some distance between us and that bear we’d herded up the canyon.

New UltraLight Pack

IMG_5526Does this pack make my butt look big?  It’s hard to check the fit of a new pack when you’re home alone. But there’s always a way in this new digital world.  (I’m sure to get comments on that location for carrying an iPhone as awkward and difficult to frame the snapshot on the trail.)

Our cadre of UL hikers are heading out for an exploratory trip into the southern region of Canyonlands. Will, the veteran explorer, has this region pretty well dialed in, but he is always looking for a new path thru the sandstone bluffs.  Topo map’s can’t give you a true answer whether a route down thru boulders or up a hillside is “doable”, but Google Earth 3D gives you a little more encouragement.

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Canyonland routesAs you can see from the tracks superimposed on Google Earth in photo on the right, Will has covered and explored much of this region already. It’s a real pleasure to hike with him and benefit from his extensive knowledge of these areas.

The only downside to checking out these routes is that you have to carry a lot more water than normal.  Six liters is what we’re planning on for this section and that’s 13.23 pounds of water.  Which is 4 pounds more than my *Base Weight of 9 pounds.  Fortunately our 5 day food weight will be down some from the approach hike and that water weight will decrease each hour we’re on the trail.

Regarding the new pack in the top photo: It’s a zPacks Zero (weighs in at 13 oz with extra custom features) that I ordered last Fall and haven’t had an opportunity to test it out. It’s only 5 ounces less than my other UL pack but was time to upgrade and save the other one for heavier loads.

Acclimating back in Durango isn’t quite complete, although the important things like taxes, re-stocking the larder, and getting back to the gym routine have been accomplished. The transition from sea level to the Rockies takes 21 days for the hemoglobin to increase it’s oxygen carrying capacity and that’s only 2/3’s done.

A couple of river trips are next on the schedule after this 5 day adventure in the Utah desert, and by then the snow’s will be greatly receded and hiking in the high country will be possible. Come join us. I’ve got an extra UL pack now.

*BaseWeight – Total weight on your back without consumables (water, food and fuel)