It was just after 1:00 PM on Thursday, April 21, 2016, when Stuart greeted me with a big grin and hug in the tiny airport in St. George, Utah. He was clad in his usual travel attire, convertible cargo pants topped with a Hawaiian shirt.
Actually he should have greeted both Vergil and me, but Vergil’s flight from Houston had been delayed and he had missed his connection in Denver. I knew. I had awaited his arrival anxiously, but in vain, first at the gate and then on the plane. Instead, his seat was taken by a young Mormon fellow headed home for some serious backpacking and hunting. After chatting briefly, I turned my attention to the music on my iPhone and my ereader.
Travel for Stu and me is somewhat easier as we live in Portland, Oregon, and Charlotte, North Carolina, respectively. For Stuart it was a simple connection through Salt Lake City, for me, one stop in Denver. Vergil, however, lives in Gulfport, Mississippi, which usually means multiple connections. This time he had to change planes in Houston and Denver. Houston had been the holdup: the late departure ensured a late arrival in Denver.
Stuart had arrived earlier in the day and had already been by the Bureau of Land Management office to pick up our backcountry permit for Paria Canyon in the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument. Paria (rhymes with Maria) Canyon is a long, deep, narrow canyon nearly forty miles long. It begins at the White House Trailhead near Kanab, Utah, and ends at the Lee’s Ferry Trailhead where the Paria River empties into the Colorado River near Page, Arizona.
Additionally, the canyon can be reached via Buckskin Gulch which is accessible from the Buckskin Gulch and Wire Pass trailheads. Buckskin Gulch is longer, more narrow, and host to a number of pour-offs which might have anywhere from ankle- to chest-deep pools to be crossed, as well as climbs where a rope would come in handy. We opted for the White House Trailhead.
Our permit was for six days and five nights. Our rough plans were to head into Paria Canyon, camp near the Confluence where Buckskin Gulch merges with the Paria, dayhike up Buckskin Gulch, then move up and down Paria Canyon, camping and seeking out interesting sights and side trips
But first we needed to know when, or if, Vergil would get to St. George, and I needed lunch having subsisted on only an airline snack all day. Stu and I hopped into the little, white Hyundai Santa Fe Sport SUV that he had rented and headed for St. George. We stopped at the first place we found to eat, a Wendy’s which was conveniently located next to a Walmart which we needed to finish our food purchases.
During lunch, Vergil texted that he had a flight to St. George arriving a t 8:45 PM. As he needed to return home before Stu and I did in order to leave for Spain to bring his younger daughter Gracie home from a semester abroad, he had already reserved a rental car. We agreed that Stu and I would shop for food and fuel, then head to Kanab. Verg would rendezvous with us at the Best Western Red Hills in Kanab later that night.
Vergil had already realized that he had forgotten his fleece hat and asked us to pick one up for him when we went to Sportsman’s Warehouse for fuel. That was noteworthy as he always forgets something, even his boots on one memorable occasion.
Stuart had brought the freeze-dried breakfasts (Breakfast Skillets, Ova Easy Eggs, etc.) and dinners (Beef Stroganoff, Chicken Teriyaki, etc.) with him. We purchased soft tortillas, cheese, and summer sausage for lunches: pre-cooked bacon and bagels to augment breakfast; and Clif bars, peanuts, and M&M’s for snacks.
We returned to the airport to gather Stuart’s luggage which had come in on a later flight. With Stu’s luggage in hand, we headed for Sportsman’s Warehouse.
I quickly located an Under Armor knit cap for Verg and we grabbed the isobutane fuel for our stoves. I also bought a cheap pair of sunglasses, and by 5:00 PM, we were off to Kanab, 80 miles away. We selected the southern route, UT 59 and AZ 389 through Hurricane, UT, Colorado City, AZ, and Fredonia, AZ, in order to avoid the congestion getting through Zion National Park which we had both visited and hiked several times.
The sun sank behind us as we headed east through the darkening desert evening, catching up on this and that as old friends do. Stuart, Vergil, and I have known each other for well over 50 years, so there is always plenty of talk. We checked in to the Best Western Red Hills about 6:40 PM, around the time Vergil finally left Denver.
Kanab is a quaint little desert town tucked up against a plateau of Navajo sandstone which rises over 800 feet from the desert floor. It is populated by roughly 4,500 souls struggling to determine whether to remain quaint and small or grow and cater to the tourists who flock to southern Utah to visit Zion and Bryce Canyons, the Escalante-Grand Staircase, and Arizona’s Vermillion Cliffs. The town has two street lights and several fine eateries as well as a McDonald’s and a Wendy’s, and roughly a dozen motels that range from the chains like Best Western and Comfort Inn to the places like the historic Parry Lodge and the Sun-n-Sand. At least two more motels are under construction.
UT 89A runs due north from Fredonia into Kanab but ends at the first traffic light where it intersects UT 89. Straight ahead takes one north on UT 89; a right turn takes you east, then south. We continued north, passing an assortment of eateries, auto parts stores, filling stations, and motels. Three blocks later, UT 89 takes a 90° left turn at the Parry Lodge which was originally built in 1931 to accommodate movie stars and crews when filming on location in the Kanab area.
Just past the Parry Lodge is the town’s second traffic light and the local LDS church. And there on the next block is the Best Western Red Hills, our home for the night.
As we checked in we inquired about places for dinner and were directed to the Rocking V which was right next door or down one block to Houston’s Trail’s End. Then I asked the young man behind the desk, “Kris, if you were going out tonight for dinner, where would you go?”
Kris didn’t hesitate.
“I’d go to Escobar’s, a Mexican place out east on 89.”
“Thanks,” replied. “That’s where we’ll go.”
We had asked for and gotten a ground floor room for ease in unloading and loading gear. Stu and I pulled around and dumped our gear in the room: a suitcase and duffle bag for Stuart and a duffle bag for me, a 120 liter Patagonia Black Hole Duffel weighing 45 pounds. We dropped off our daypacks too and headed back through town and out to Escobar’s.
Escobar’s was all we hoped it would be, small and funky with great food and cold cerveza. It was a converted fast food place with limited seating. We opted to sit indoors as the temperature was already headed for the 40’s. Stuart’s Corona and my Dos Equis (Negra Modelo not available) were soon followed by his camarones and my chili Colorado burrito.
With full bellies, we headed back to the motel. Soon we had gear strewn all across the room, both queen-size beds, the bureau, the table, and both chairs as we began making last minute decisions on what to take. I was sorting the food into three piles of as nearly equal weight and volume as possible when Vergil called. He had arrived safely in St. George and picked up his car, actually an enormous, black Dodge Ram pickup truck with a crew cab. Stuart gave him the motel’s address, and we settled back to await his arrival.
A couple of hours later, we began to wonder where the heck Vergil was. Then we got another call. He was at 125 West Center Street, in La Verkin, Utah. Right address, wrong town, not even on the way to Kanab. Only Vergil. Destination corrected, he arrived an hour later, looking neat and fresh as usual, his button-down shirt tidily tucked into his jeans.
It was pushing midnight when we crawled into bed, Vergil and me in one queen-size bed, Stuart, the restless sleeper, in the other. It is the same way the tent on the trail. Stuart carries a one-man tent, and Verg and I share a two-man tent. Old habits.
The next morning, we sat down to the complimentary breakfast, coffee for Vergil and me, Pepsi for Stuart, a full breakfast for Stuart and me, a glass of milk for Verg. We’re funny like that.
Breakfast out of the way, we dressed for the trail and finished loading our backpacks. I equivocated over whether to take my Patagonia R1 fleece or my Patagonia down sweater. I opted for the R1, the only time I have not taken my down sweater since the day I bought it, which proved to be a mistake.
I tossed Vergil the fleece hat I had bought him.
“Glad that’s all you forgot this time,” I laughed. “I mean, you did remember your boots, right?”
He gave me that loopy grin of his.
“Yeah, I got them,” he replied, then paused. “But I can’t find my rain shell. Or my polypro shirt.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Do I need to make you a checklist?” I asked.
“You already did,” Verg reminded me. “Didn’t help.”
“I guess next time I could fly to Gulfport and help you pack,” I offered.
We both laughed.
Stuart chimed in, “Good thing there’s a camping store here in town.”
With that, we headed to Willow Canyon Outdoor, a faux adobe structure filled with clothing, gear, and books for the outdoor enthusiast plus an espresso bar. Stuart and Vergil bought matching, red Outdoor Research polypro zip T-neck shirts. Stuart had forgotten his hiking stick which he was able to replace with a nice shock-corded model from Helinox.
Vergil also bought a nice, lightweight Outdoor Research rain shell and, since he had brought his MSR hydration cell but forgotten the tube and bite valve, neither of which were available at Willow Canyon, a brand new Platypus hydration system. He had also forgotten his camp chair but elected not to purchase another. His purchases were already well into three-digit range.
I bought a map.
Completely geared up, we returned to the Best Western and stuffed the last few items in our backpacks and tossed the packs and our trekking poles into the bed of the pickup Vergil had rented. We had made arrangements to leave the car at the motel. So we piled the rest of our luggage into the car and parked it around back. We were ready to go at last.
We headed back through town, turned left at the second traffic light, and proceeded south on UT 89 towards the White House Trailhead less than an hour’s drive away. The weather forecast was for high 60’s to low 70’s during the day and mid to high 40’s at night. There was a chance of rain on Sunday, but today, Friday, was warm and sunny.
We drove through the russet desert with the plateau dominating the northern horizon, Vergil at the wheel, me dozing in the front seat, Stu messing around in the back.
I awoke from my nap and asked, “Shouldn’t we be getting close?”
Stuart looked up from his iPad. “Should be,” he said.
“Gotta be close,” Verg added.
I looked at my watch. We had been driving for over an hour.
“Well, let’s see where we are,” I suggested.
Stuart and I had left our phones with our luggage in the Hyundai, but Vergil had his as he was planning to use it as his camera for the trip. I opened the map app on his quaint, little iPhone 4 and pressed the arrow symbol to pinpoint our current location.
I looked up as we passed Cottonwood Canyon Road, then back down at the map.
“We missed it,” I said.
“What?” Vergil exclaimed.
“Yep, it’s about four or five miles back,” I added. “The turnoff was right after we crossed the Paria River.”
Abashed, Vergil took the first opportunity to turn around and back we went. And there it was, right at the Bureau of “Land Management Visitor Info. Paria Contact Station” sign.
We checked in with the ranger, topped off our water, and headed two miles down the dirt road to the trailhead. The BLM only allows 20 backpackers to enter Paria Canyon daily although they do not restrict how long one can remain in the canyon. Friday, April 22, was the only day available in late April when I applied for our permit, so we were surprised to see so few vehicles in the parking lot, and at least one of them was filled with picnickers.
We dropped the tailgate on the truck and booted up. Vergil and Stuart were hiking in ankle-high, Gore-Tex lined boots, Vasques and Lowas respectively. I was in low-top Merrill Moab Ventilators, very breathable, not waterproof. Additionally, Stu and I were wearing neoprene socks over sock liners to keep our feet warm when wet and lightweight Outdoor Research Sparkplug gaiters to keep detritus out of our boots. Vergil had opted to not bring his neoprene socks determined to steer clear of deep water.
One of the less pleasant aspects of canyon hiking these days is that the BLM requires one to bag and pack out all human waste, and yes, that includes Number Two. When Stuart picked up our permit in St. George, he was also given three yellow mesh bags, one for each of us. They looked a lot like potato sacks, but inside of each was six large, foil, zip-locked pouches, one for each of our six days on the trail.
I eyed those pouches and wondered aloud if a few doses of Imodium would lessen my need to use them. I mean, backpacking with bags of poop lashed to your pack. Good grief. Nevertheless, we tucked our bag of pouches under a compression strap, hefted our packs, posed for the requisite trailhead photos, and headed down into the gully.
It was 11:36 AM on Friday, April 20, 2016.
Entrance to Paria Canyon © James Gregory Catledge 2016
The canyon was wide and shallow at the trailhead. The Paria River was ankle-deep, narrow, silt-laden and turbid. We were headed for the Confluence where Buckskin Gulch merges into Paria Canyon. Within the first 30 minutes, we had crossed and re-crossed the river so many times that I had lost track. It didn’t matter. My feet were wet but comfy. At every immersion, the water would cool my feet, but my body heat quickly warmed the thin film of water trapped inside my insulating neoprene socks. Perfection.
As we descended ever so slightly, the canyon walls slowly rose around us although the canyon was still very wide. We plodded through soft, dry sand; slogged through thick, clinging mud; waded through cold, murky water; picked our way through rocky stretches seeking the best footing. The inside curves of the riverbed frequently had elevated shelves of packed sand covered with thin scrub eking out enough moisture to survive and anchor the sand in place.
Occasionally a stiff breeze would whip up the soft, dry sand clouding the air with fine, stinging grains. Vergil has bought each of us a keffiyeh or shemagh. The keffiyeh is of uncertain origin but has been worn by Semitic desert dwellers for centuries and lately adopted by modern armed forces operating in the Middle East.
The ones Vergil got us were 42” X 42” of loosely woven cotton in a green and black pattern. Stuart opted not to bring his, but Verg and I did. Verg wore his folded diagonally and tied around his neck, but I tried the traditional, open desert style, folded diagonally, wrapped over the forehead, and brought around the lower half of the face and tied behind the ear.
I wore it over my OR Swift cap and usually pulled down below my chin, but when the air was filled with flying sand and my friends turning their heads this way and that to avoid it, I simply pulled my keffiyeh up over my nose and kept walking, my eyes protected by my sunglasses.
The Keffiyeh © James Gregory Catledge 2016
No wonder the keffiyeh had been worn for centuries. It filtered out flying sand, it captured cooling breezes or kept my head warm as needed. I ended up wearing all day, every day on the trail. It is now part of my standard loadout.
About three miles in the deepening canyon is crossed by a set of high-power electrical lines, a handy indicator of high far we had walked. We had been told that there was a tiny slot canyon on the left with some petroglyphs, but we never found it or them. We also ran into a couple of women here who were backpacking out. They did not know where the petroglyphs were either.
It was about 1:00 PM, so we began to cast about for a likely place for lunch. And found the perfect spot: a broad, elevated shingle with the usual scrub and a stout, twisted cottonwood tree. The day had warmed up making the shade welcome. The spot was actually an established campsite. We dubbed it Cottonwood Terrace.
After dropping packs, we pulled out lunch: tortillas, pepperoni, and cheese. As usual Vergil passed on the cheese. Stuart and I pulled out our chairs, an REI model for Stu and an Alite Mayfly for me. Vergil leaned up against a convenient log. He did not look his best. He had been a little slower than usual on the trail, stopping often and leaning over on his trekking poles. Additionally, his face was flushed and his hands shook.
“You alright, Brother?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’ll be OK,” he replied. “Back is killing me though.”
“Want to call it a day? We can camp her,” Stuart offered.
“Naw. I’ll be alright. Let’s go on,” Vergil said although he regretted that decision later.
After lunch, we saddled up and headed out. Almost immediately, the canyon walls began to close in. we were entering the Narrows, the last four miles in to the Convergence, no place to camp, no place to get above high water if there should be heavy rain upstream. Once you enter the Narrows, you’re committed. You have to go all the way.
As the canyon narrows up, sunlight rarely reaches the bottom even at midday. Rather the top of the wall high above blazes read and orange in the bright sunlight and the reflected radiance bathes the lower reaches of the wall in soft light. The walls are riddled with clefts and smoothly wallowed out holes. In places the walls are streaked dark gray, almost black but mostly they are ever hue on the red to yellow spectrum.
Scattered along the cliff walls were some unusual formations, narrow clefts starting at the top of the wall that abruptly flared out to several feet wide before disappearing into the murky stream. Being an inveterate sticker of my head in weird places or climbing up on things for photos, I headed across the stream for a photo op among one of these flutes. The water looked deep inside the recesses, so I planned to stop just short of stepping inside.
I was about ten feet away from the cleft on mucky but reasonably solid ground. The water was ankle-deep. I reached out to take one more step into a deeper pool, maybe a foot deep. My right foot never touched bottom. I sank up to my ankle in thick but insubstantial, sucking mud, quicksand actually, then up my knee, then up to mid-thigh.
Quicksand! © Stuart Worley 2016
I threw both hands out wide. My left foot was still on reasonably solid ground, and my immediate reaction as to struggle to get out, which only made things worse. I was now in to the top of my thigh. I weird calm came over me, and I relaxed and quit sinking.
Vergil, to my left, was reaching for me with his trekking pole, but I was pitched away from him and couldn’t reach back. Stuart was documenting the entire event with his camera. I slowly and carefully worked to regain my balance, and once that was accomplished grabbed Verg’s trekking pole with my left hand.
“Brace yourself,” I suggested, a good idea as I outweigh him by at least 50 pounds.
With Verg well braced and me balancing on my left leg, I began to steadily pull my right leg out of the goop. I was wearing low-top Merrill Moab Ventilator hiking shoes, and you guessed it: my right shoe began to slip off my foot. Now the last thing I wanted to do was to have to try to fish my shoe out of that mess. No, actually the last thing I wanted to do was lose it irretrievably and have to hike in Crocs.
I clenched the toes of my right foot which kept the slippage at bay and continued to pull. With a sickening sucking sound, I finally pulled my foot free. The quicksand closed without a ripple, smooth and deceptive, waiting for the next unwary soul.
My leg had come out so slowly and the water had been so deep over the quicksand, that my leg was washed practically clean.
“Wow! That was exciting,” I laughed.
“I’ll say,” Vergil added.
“Catledge, I swear,” Stuart added, no doubt thinking about the time I impulsively headed across iced-over Blair Creek only to crash through thin ice near the far bank.
I am normally a thoughtful, careful person, but I will admit to the occasional impulse that banishes reason far to the background and gets me into tight spots. Another good reason to never go into the backcountry without competent friends.
We continued through the Narrows as the sunlight continued to climb the canyon walls and the temperature started down. It was increasingly obvious that Vergil was not feeling well. He was stopping more and more often, but there was no going back. We were too deep into the Narrows.
As usual, he refused help. We offered encouragement. I insisted that he eat and drink something although he insisted he wasn’t hungry or thirsty. But after walking five or six miles with 30-35 pounds on his back, he needed the calories.
Soon we passed Slide Rock Arch which is not actually an arch, but created when a house-sized slab sheared off the wall and crashed down to the canyon floor, then tilted back against the canyon wall creating a covered passage. It was a rare and encouraging landmark in an otherwise featureless stretch. It was only a little more than a mile to our campsite.
Entrance to Buckskin Gulch © James Gregory Catledge 2016
Twenty minutes later, I saw clear water entering the Paria from the right. It swirled and eddied before eventually blending with silty Paria. We had cleared the Narrows and reached Buckskin Gulf. It was 6:00 PM. We snapped a few pictures and turned left down canyon at which point we walked out of Utah and into Arizona.
Five or ten minutes later, we came to a point where the canyon bent sharply back to the left with sandy, scrub-covered tiers rising 40-50 feet on the right side of the river in the middle of the bend. There were even a few scrubby cottonwoods up there.
Exiting the Narrows, Friday, April 22 © James Gregory Catledge 2016
Stuart started up the near, higher side to see if there was a place to camp. I continued around the bend until the river doubled back on itself and started up the tiers from the downriver side. About 40 feet above the canyon floor, I found a nice, large, almost level shelf. Stuart was about 20 feet above me and not impressed with what he saw.
“What’s it like up there?” I shouted.
“Not too bad,” Stu replied. “Rocky. Some small sites. How bout down there?”
“Plenty of room. I think you’ll like it. Come on down.”
Stuart retreated the way he had come where Vergil waited, spent and in pain. I headed down the way I had come and met the two of them at the downcanyon side of the rise.
We were picking our way up when Vergil spotted a small snake. We rushed to investigate and found a young rattlesnake, so young, in fact, that it had no rattles, only a button, having not even shed its skin for the first time. It moved slowly in the cooling air, headed for the undergrowth. We were so captivated that no one thought to pull out their camera.
Everyone agreed that the lower, downcanyon side of the rise was the better site. We were a good 40 feet above the river with commanding views of the canyon to the north and to the south as well as the full sweep of the horseshoe bend. We dropped packs and began pulling out gear. As usual Verg and I were tenting together and Stu was solo. I say tenting. In fact, we both brought only the poles, tent fly, and footprint, leaving the tent body at home to lighten our loads.
First Camp, Friday, April 22 © Stuart Worley 2016
Stuart brought his MSR Hubba and I brought my MSR Hubba Hubba NX. With the poles fitted into the grommets on the footprint and the stretched tightly over the poles and attached at the pole ends, one has a very stable and well-ventilated, some might say breezy, shelter.
In a matter of minutes, shelter was pitched, sleeping pads and bags had been pulled out, and everything was covered with sand. Our campsite was high and dry but also windy. In fact, so windy that in the blink of an eye, my 20 ounce Alite chair was picked up and dropped 20 yards down a gully on one side of our elevated campsite. I clambered down, retrieved it, and made sure it was secure from then on.
We all shucked our boots and set them in a likely place to dry. Between the breeze and lack of humidity, that should not be a problem. Nor was it. We started every day out with dry boots. Verg and I slipped into Crocs, and Stuart put on his Teva water shoes.
From our commanding perch, we noticed a lone backpacker headed upcanyon. He saw us too and called out. He headed up, we headed down, and we met in the middle. He was a young Frenchman, whipcord thin and wiry with an accent so thick I had trouble understanding him.
He had been in the canyon several days, working his way up and down the canyon, exploring. We asked about water conditions down canyon. He reported that the spring at the ten-mile point near the first fault crack was feeble but that Big Spring at Mile 12 was pouring right out of the canyon wall or the Moses Rock as he called it, an obvious reference to Exodus 17:6-8 where the recently liberated Hebrews are thirsting in the desert when Yahweh commands Moses to strike a rock with his staff causing water to gush forth. We immediately settled on Big Spring for our third night in the canyon.
I noticed that Frenchie was carrying a ÜLA backpack and asked him how he liked it. I had been considering one at one point. He raved about it. Maybe my next backpack, sometime in the future.
The Frenchman headed on towards Buckskin Gulch, and we set about preparing dinner. We considered scooping water from the Paria and letting the silt settle out before filtering but decided to take advantage of clear pools of water left behind by the receding river from which the silt had already precipitated. Stuart slipped down to the pool at the bend of the river below us and filled his 10-liter Sea to Summit bucket. When he returned, we simply filtered from that. At 2.8 ounces, I added one to my gear as soon as we got home.
Dinner the first night was a departure from Vergil’s favorite, Mountain House’s beef stroganoff. Instead we tried Mountain House’s Chicken Teriyaki. Either it was very good, or we were hungrier than expected. The three of us ate two packages which advertised 2.5 servings per package. As usual there was a debate as to who would get to eat from the foil packaging. I offered to use my cup for dinner which meant I was the only one with a dish to clean up.
We sat around after dinner, and Verg and I enjoyed a cup of Starbuck’s Decaf Coffee Via, one of our indulgences. As the temperature dropped and the breeze picked up, we all three began to add layers. Soon by common agreement we decided that our sleeping bags would be warmer, and we each clambered in to our sandy sleeping gear.
As usual, I started out using my bag, a brand new Western Mountaineering EverLite bag, 8 ounces of high loft goose down in sewn-through, box-constructed configuration. Total weight 17.25 ounces. It is rated down to 45° F, which means I am usually good to at least the high 30’s.
We all slept somewhat fitfully that night. The wind shrieked through the canyon all night long. A near full moon brilliantly lit the canyon walls and eventually found its way all the way down to us, causing the tent wall to glow faintly in the soft, lambent light.
The morning dawned clear, and the Paria which had been wide and silty the day before was now shallow, narrow and crystal clear. I headed up to the rockface where we had hung our food. A previous hiker had jammed a forked branch down into the rocks over a deep cleft by the wall. Wedging another desiccated limb into a crack in the wall, they had placed the far end of the second into the fork of the first. We had tied our foodbags together and stretching out over the cleft had draped them over the horizontal limb.
It didn’t look great, but it was the best we had, and it worked. No camp robbers got into our food.
We rose at 7:00 Am and had a good breakfast of Ova Easy eggs and precooked bacon wrapped in tortillas. Verg and I had a cup of Coffee Via Columbian Roast. Yum.
By pre-arranged plan, the only firm one we had at this point, we had decided to spend two nights at this location and spend the day hiking up Buckskin Gulch, but first everyone crawled back into the sack and wait for the warming rays of the sun to creep deeper into the canyon. We climbed back out at 10:00 AM.
By consensus we agreed that our campsite out on the point was too windy. We decided to move up to a more protected spot that Stu had earlier discounted. No sooner had Stu pulled his tent stakes than I heard a shout of warning form Vergil. I snapped my head around just as Stuart’s airborne tent grazed the back of my head.
I watched in fascination as the wind carried it off the point of our elevated campsite and 20 yards down the slope. I dashed down after Stu’s tent, and just as I grabbed for it another gust picked it up and lifted it over my outstretched fingers, back up the hill, past my tent, and dropped it back at Stuart’s feet where it had been pitched. Stu grabbed the tent, and the three of us stared each other in surprise.
“What the heck.”
“Did you see that?”
“Are you kidding me!”
We shook our heads in disbelief, and went back to moving camp.
I pulled up my stakes uneventfully, and hefting my tent overhead, headed uphill. Several rock formations provided windbreaks and Stu and I re-pitched our tents at the new location.
Relocating Camp, Saturday, April 23 © Stuart Worley 2016
That accomplished, we pulled out our little REI Flash 18 Packs. At 10 ounces they make a great daypack that also doubles as a stuff sack.
We each tossed our hydration systems, lunch, snacks, and extra layers of clothing (including raingear) into our daypacks and then booted up.
About ten minutes up Buckskin Gulch we found an ideal campsite on the north side of the gorge. It had several tiers, very flat, and more trees than we had seen in one place since entering the canyons. A party of three was setting up camp on the lowest tier. We marked it down for possible future use, particularly the highest tier, and headed on up canyon.
Buckskin Gulch © James Gregory Catledge 2016
The walls rose and narrowed simultaneously, at one point narrowing to only six feet wide, and the trickling stream completely disappeared.
Buckskin Gulch, Saturday, April 22 © James Gregory Catledge 2016
At about two miles up the Gulch, we came to a rock-fall that appeared to be easier to climb over going upcanyon than coming back down. We claimed victory and turned around. Vergil’s back was better to day, but no one wanted to take a chance.
We settled in to our new site, both tents nested among protecting boulders with all additional tie-downs staked out. As we had the night before, we piled rocks on top of our stakes. It had been an easy day, and Vergil’s back was still doing fine. We dined on beef stroganoff and had settled back with our coffee when we heard voices of what turned out to be a large group down on the canyon floor.
It looked like a large family, two or three adults and the rest kids. They were headed upcanyon at a reasonable pace but paused to call up to us to confirm directions and mileage. We shared that it was at least eight miles to White House Trailhead and be sure to take the right fork at Buckskin.
They thanked us and continued on. It was about 8:00 PM.
“Wonder where they’ve been all day?” I asked.
“No idea,” Stu replied. “We sure didn’t pass them earlier. Course we were up Buckskin most of the afternoon.”
“Well, they only had daypacks, so I guess they came in from White House. Still …” I said.
“Yeah,” Verg added. “They’re going to have some whipped kids by the time they get out.”
“Roger that. With luck it’ll be pushing 11:00 o’clock before they get out. Getting colder too,” I said zipping up my R1 fleece. “And they look pretty lightly geared.”
“Good reason to keep moving,” Stuart noted.
We all shook our heads in disbelief.
We were early to bed again.
Down canyon from Camp 2 © James Gregory Catledge 2016
Day Three dawned, still clear. In fact, the night had been so clear that when Stuart got up in the middle of the night to relieve himself, he set up his camera on his tripod, and got a beautiful picture of the Big Dipper hovering between the moonlight drenched canyon walls.
We rose at 8:00 and feasted on egg, bacon, and cheese burritos. We leisurely broke camp and were on the trail by 10:30.
At one bend there would be tall columns of stone, tapered at the bottom so that they resembled pipes in a pipe organ, at the next turn deep clefts with stair steps leading deep into the rock, shafts of sunlight filtering down from 200 feet above. One formation resembled nothing so much as a pair of praying hands, palms together, raised in supplication.
A Sense of Scale © James Gregory Catledge 2016
Stuart and I were so busy with our cameras that it took us nearly four hours to walk four miles. Vergil’s back continued to hold up.
On the left side of the canyon at another bend in the river, there was yet another tiered shelf of sand with a mixture of scrub and large cottonwoods. we were at Big Spring. We climbed up and began scouting for a likely spot to set up camp when we ran into the people we had seen camping in Buckskin Gulch the day before. They were from Pocatello, ID, a man and his wife and brother. They were even older than us. We chatted for a few, and they headed back up the canyon.
Big Spring Camp, Sunday, April 24 © Stuart Worley 2016
We found a nice wide flat spot close to the canyon wall which included a convenient overhang in case the weather turned wet. And it looked like it might. High, thin clouds began to roll in.
Stuart and Vergil went down to the Moses Rock to get a bucket of water which we nevertheless filtered. We pitched our shelters, and hung our socks up to dry. We set our boots under the overhang just in case.
I was lolling in my Alite chair when I felt something brush the back of my head accompanied by a fluttering sound. I swapped across the back of my head once, then again. I thought it was a large butterfly. The third time it brushed my head, I swatted harder and knocked a small gray and white bird with a russet crown to the ground, some sort of flycatcher, I believe.
Stunned, the small bird hopped up under the log beside me and cowered in a convenient crook. I pulled out my camera and shot a close-up. Something bright green clung to its beak. I had noticed caterpillars the same color scattered about on the cottonwood leaves. I still could not imagine what he had been after on my head. I pulled off my cap and looked at the back, and there on the dark olive of the cap was the Outdoor Research logo in bright green, the same color as the caterpillars.
All through dinner, the cloud cover increased and the temperature dropped. We made it our third early night in a row. As the temp dropped, I snuggled deeper into my bag. Eventually, I climbed all the way in and zipped the bag up. I was warm but pushing the lower limit of my bag’s range.
Canyon Abstract © James Gregory Catledge 2016
Monday morning broke cloudy and noticeably cooler. We could sense the moisture in the normally dry air and suspected we would see rain before the day was over. We soon had all of our layers on for warmth. We powwowed over breakfast and looked at our options: head further down the canyon with borderline gear, spend another night here and dayhike downcanyon, or head back and camp in Buckskin Gulch. With the wind picking up, we thought that Buckskin would be more protected. We selected the third option, planning to ease out to Cottonwood Terrace for the last night.
Plans made, we cleaned up after breakfast and packed up. Walking, as usual, warmed us up and we pulled off layers. We were back at the Confluence in a little over two hours. The Paria River was still clear, still only a shadow of what we had seen last Friday. The wind had continued to rise and the temperature had continued to fall throughout the morning.
With the wind whistling down the even more narrow Buckskin Gulch, we decided to push on to Cottonwood Terrace for the night. Maybe we could take a better look for those petroglyphs.
We headed back into the Narrows, and within two miles, the Paria River simply disappeared, dried up and gone. Assuming this might be the last water we might see on the way out, we backtracked to the nearest pool and filtered enough water to fill every container we had. We each carried four or five liters as we headed back out.
There was no sense of urgency. We meandered along taking photos and talking. We cleared the Narrows a little after 5:00 PM. In the widening canyon we could see darker clouds to the north and west, and it must have been raining there because a serpentine flow of foamy water came twisting down the canyon floor, gaining strength and volume by the minute.
It is impossible not to be moved by these little wonders of nature, knowing that in but four short miles, the flow would reconnect with its receding waters downcanyon. Then it started spitting rain. We hustled on towards Cottonwood Terrace, adding the rain factor to the equation.
We dropped packs at Cottonwood and cast about for tent sites. The sand was deeper and softer than we remembered. It would be a challenge anchoring our shelters. The temperature continued to fall, and we soon had on every layer off clothing we had brought. And we were still cold. Howling wind and intermittent rainfall didn’t help.
The rain was an irritant, but the wind was a huge factor. Wind chill as an abstraction becomes very real in these situations. It robs the body of warmth that becomes increasingly hard to replace. Our layers of fleece, wool, and polypropylene were designed to trap air in small spaces so that our bodies could keep that air warm, but our rainshells did not block all of the wind and those warm pockets of air were being depleted faster than we could warm them back up. It was not a winning equation.
“Well, what do you think?” Stuart asked.
“I’m with you fellers,” Vergil replied.
I pointed out the obvious: it was getting colder, it was raining, the river was rising, even if we got the tents pitched and anchored, the wind would be whipping sand and rain under the rainflies, and the trailhead was only three miles away. I had initially been reluctant to walk out early but was being swayed by the safety factor.
“Let’s cook and eat dinner. Maybe that’ll warm us up. Then we can decide whether to camp or push on,” I suggested.
Verg and Stu agreed.
Using a log and two flat stones stood up on edge, I created a windbreak and lit my stove. We decided to try the Mountain House Beef Stew which proved to be our least favorite dinner. Everything, beef, potatoes, carrots, everything was diced into the same sized cubes, about ¼ inch to a side. It was just not very beef stew-like.
But it was warm and filling. Only we were still cold and getting colder. We had planned for temperatures at least a few degrees cooler than the forecasted high 40’s nights, but we were already below that and falling. The wind continued to be the real warmth sapper though. It was shaping up to be a miserable, cold, wet night, and I was seriously regretting opting for the R1 fleece rather my down sweater. I’ll never make that mistake again.
At 6:00 PM, by consensus, we decided to head on out to the White House Trailhead three miles or so away. With the river filling back up, we dumped most of our water to lighten our loads and saddled up. We had already put in a solid nine miles but were determined to set a fast pace.
The Gathering Storm, Monday, April 25 © James Gregory Catledge 2016
The river continued to get wider and deeper, evidence that the dark clouds to the north and west were dumping heavy rain upstream. Light rain came and went with maddening frequency. The only way to stay warm was to keep walking. We were now spending nearly as much time in the water as out, deeper water at that, as we trudged through stretches of rock and sand and mud and water.
We made pretty good time and covered those three miles in a little over an hour. We climbed out of the canyon at 7:15 PM. The parking lot was full of vehicles. People were setting up tents in the adjacent campground as the rain continued to fall. We had backpacked 12 miles with about 35 pounds on our backs, more than any of us done in a while. But we had made good time and were in good shape.
We got a stranger to take our picture: three old guys swathed in most of our clothes. Piling into the truck, Vergil cranked her up and turned on the heater. Soon we were headed back to Kanab in the increasing rain, tires humming on wet pavement.
Trail’s End, Monday, April 25 © James Gregory Catledge 2016
Back in Kanab at the Great Western Red Hills, we got a room for the night, not ground floor this time but conveniently located next to the guest laundry. We hauled our gear up and proceeded to strew it all over that room.
By 9:30, Stu and I were showered and changed. Verg, as usual, was focused on washing clothes and opted not to go with Stuart and me to find something to eat. We tried out the Rocking V but found it too high end for our tastes. We both wanted a hamburger to the exclusion of anything else.
Houston’s Trail’s End was already closed. Apparently 10:00 PM is the witching hour in Kanab. We ended up at the Wendy’s/Walker’s Convenience Store/Gas Station right across the street from the Kanab Bureau of Land Management Office. We got our hamburger just before they started closing up. After eating, we grabbed some milk for Vergil at Walker’s and headed back to the motel.
It rained all night and was still raining the next morning. Coming out early we thought we might have extra chances to get into the Wave before Vergil left on Thursday, but that was not to be. After a late breakfast at the motel, we checked in at the BLM office where we learned that the last 10 miles to the trailhead for the Wave is a compacted dirt road, considered a challenge when wet even for a four-wheel drive vehicle, which we did not have. Our disappointment was somewhat mitigated by the absence of blue sky for contrast and the flat light conditions created by the overcast and rain. The Wave would have to wait.
With the Wave out and Vergil scheduled to leave on Thursday, Stuart decided to head back early too. I looked into changing my flight and was shocked at the cost, but my only option was renting a car, paying for another two nights in Utah, and wandering around in the rainy desert. The weather forecast was for continued rain and very cool temperatures. I bit the bullet and booked a flight home for Thursday.
We spent the rest of the day checking out Kanab and shopping for gifts for family. Denny’s Wigwam was suitably tacky, but the Little Hollywood Land Museum with its movie sets from countless Westerns filmed in the area, relocated and preserved, was pretty cool. I even found teardrop-shaped turquoise earrings for Sherrie. The pair I got her several years ago had recently become a singleton. I found some neat scarves for Annabelle and Sawyer, our fashionista granddaughters.
We finally got a meal at Houston’s Trail’s End and enjoyed it.
The next morning, we decamped for St. George, heading back west on UT 89, but first we decided to go by Coral Pink Sand Dunes Park. The dunes were more yellow than pink, no doubt because the sky was overcast. After a short stop we headed on. I rode in the Ram truck with Vergil. We cut back down to UT 389 rather than take the slower route through Zion.
It was still cold and spitted rain the entire way to St. George. The plateaus to the north and west were covered with new snow. Stuart wanted us to see the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site, and Vergil and I wanted Stuart to see Snow Canyon State Park. We headed to the dino site first, and it was wonderful.
Apparently back in 2000, a local optometrist, Dr. Sheldon Johnson, was leveling a hill on his property in St. George when he uncovered a thick level of sandstone. Flipping over the large blocks, he discovered perfectly preserved dinosaur tracks. Eventually thousands of tracks made by dinosaurs and other animals were discovered from what had been the shores of an ancient lake some 200 million years ago.
Now the site is a museum with catwalks over the excavations and scientists hard at work teasing fossils form the surrounding rock. There are even life-size representations of the creatures, Dilophosaurus, Megapnosaurus, Scutellosaurus, and Protosuchus, arrested in mid-stride in the tracks they once made. Dimorphodon hovers overhead. It is truly fascinating. I purchased 200-year old fossilized shark’s teeth for my grandsons, Jake and Dylan.
We lunched at the ubiquitous In-N-Out Burger, then headed to the Best Western Travel Inn on East St. George Boulevard. It got exciting when Stu, while making a left turn, startled a pedestrian in the crosswalk who gave Stuart a piece of his mind in no uncertain terms.
Once checked in, we all piled into the Hyundai and headed up to Snow Canyon. In 2009, Vergil and I had spent several days in St. George when our buddy Ralph McCumber had needed to be hospitalized with severe gastric issues. After Ralph’s release, we had camped in Snow Canyon and done some dayhiking.
With its cinder cones, lava tubes, both red and white Navajo sandstone petrified dunes, rich black basalt, scrubby green sage, and shifting dunes, Snow Canyon is a study in contrasting colors and textures. There is no backpacking, but the park is covered with trails, even if like us, you don’t necessarily feel the need to restrict yourself to trails. We had wandered and scurried and climbed to our heart’s content.
Of course, with the overcast and rain, it was less than vivid but still spectacular. We drove about and took a few pictures, then headed back to the motel to pack for Thursday’s morning departure. For our last night together, we walked a couple of blocks to George’s Corner Restaurant, a cozy, funky retreat with live music-one guy, his guitar and harmonica.
Vergil had the grilled ribeye; Stuart ordered the battered fish and rings. I had the smoked turkey club. The food and the music were good, the company even better. We walked back to the motel with full bellies and finished packing.
Vergil and I were on the same 7:25 United flight to Denver. Stuart’s Delta flight to Salt Lake City left an hour earlier. Having two vehicles was working out great. We set every alarm we had and turned in early.
Stuart’s stirring around roused Verg and me. We bid him a fond farewell and tumbled back into the bed for a few more minutes. By 6:00 AM we were on our way to the airport. We dropped off the truck and went to check our bags.
The St. George airport only has two gates, only one of which they apparently use. One security line accommodates both TSA Pre-check and the common folk. For some reason, my boarding pass had not been flagged as usual for TSA Pre-check, so we had to wait until those three people were cleared before it was our turn.
Then the fun began. I had won the lottery and got wanded, then tested chemicals that could be used to build a bomb. Next the ultra-vigilant screeners became suspicious of the two irregularly shaped lumps, each about the size of a large potato, stashed in the bottom of my daypack. I must admit they did look suspicious on the screen, although they were only sandstone blocks holding petrified shark’s teeth all swathed up in bubble wrap for protection. The TSA screener unwrapped one to satisfy that all was safe, and I was free to go.
Vergil had gone through with no complications, and we entered the boarding area to find Stuart waiting patiently for his flight. He looked up somewhat abashed.
“I misread my boarding pass,” he admitted. “I got here before the airport was even open.”
We all had a good laugh and sat down together for those last few minutes. Stuart’s Delta flight was visible through the window. The United jet Vergil and I would take was parked way around to the left. We had seen it as we walked in.
For some reason, Vergil’s layover in Houston had increased from one-a-half to six hours. No one at Ticketing had been able to explain why or correct the issue. He was less than delighted as he had a quick turnaround to leave for Spain.
Soon Stu’s flight was called, and with one last embrace, he was gone.
Vergil and dozed until our flight was called. We headed through the same gate. The jetway had been swung way around to the United jet parked around the corner. We made ourselves as comfortable as possible in adjacent seats and settled in for the one hour 41-minute flight.
Despite the lack of activity at the airport, we still got away late. It was snowing when we landed in Denver. Naturally our connecting flights were nearly as far as they could possibly be from our arrival gate. We hustled through the airport, paused long enough to use the restroom, bid a hasty good-bye, and boarded our respective flights.
There is a particular poignancy saying good-bye to old, old friends that you only get to see once or twice a year. The previous October, my father had the stroke that ultimately took his life. I got to Tupelo the morning after his stroke and moved into the hospital with him. Vergil drove up from Gulfport the next day and stayed the week as I moved with Dad to hospice where he spent his final few days. Vergil would come drag me out just to get me away or just sit with me in Dad’s room. That is the kind of friend he is.
I was lucky in my seat, a bulkhead seat, and because the bulkhead did not extend all the way to the deck, I could stretch my legs all the way out. The two seats beside me were empty, but I couldn’t flip the armrests up as that’s where the tray-tables were located. I called Sherrie to tell her that we were leaving Denver on time and settled in.
As we flew over Kansas, the beverage cart came by. I hadn’t eaten since dinner the night before, nearly eighteen hours ago. I ordered the heartiest sandwich on the menu and a rum on the rocks, then caught up on my sleep.
In between naps, I thought about the trip. Had we made the right decision coming out early? I thought so and still do. Could we have stayed in? Undoubtedly, although it would have been a miserable night with at least the potential for hypothermia. It might have come down to breaking park rules and building a campfire.
Considering the ease of travel in the canyon, I would like to go back and do a point-to-point, from White House all the way down to Lee’s Landing on the Colorado River. We only saw 12 of Paria Canyon’s 38 miles. That’s for another year.
Our plane landed right on time, 3:16 PM EDT, and I headed for baggage claim. Warm 80° F air spilled in from the open doors as I descended on the escalator. Cold rain to snow to warm sunshine in less than six hours. Sherrie was already there, waiting patiently at the carousel with that radiant smile of hers. I was home again.