Sunday, May 29, 2016

Bikepacking, backpacking, packrafting and escaping the Escalante River

May 2016, D&J& Topaz the dog.
It's difficult to chronicle when things don't go as you'd hoped and planned for. This was the adventure we wanted to complete while in Utah in April but never got the weather. Well maybe not exactly this adventure. More on that later. This trip is difficult to classify. It was definitely not a failure and yet we didn't accomplish all that we set out to do.

Our intended itinerary was to park at the Willow Gulch trailhead, bikepack the 38 miles to a pre-placed cache at the Harris wash trailhead, hike down Harris Wash to the Escalante river then float some 58 miles down the river all the way to Lake Powell. From there we would paddle another few miles to Willow Gulch, then up Willow to waters end. The last leg would be the 7-ish mile hike back up to where we parked at the trailhead. An adventurous plan and our most ambitious yet. About 116 mile loop through VERY remote and rugged country.

Have I got your interest yet? Yes? read on. No? Just skip to the pretty pictures and/or video.
Lotsa words, here's your cliff notes:

We were stoked and ready to roll. By the end of day 2 after leaving Nevada we were camped in our familiar little campsite off Hole-In-The-Rock road south of Escalante Utah. Day 3 had us placing the cache at Harris Wash then driving out to the Willow Gulch trailhead where we were met by a strong wind and blowing sand and dust. Joannie advocated packing up and getting moving. I reluctantly agreed to the plan. About 2pm we were riding back up Hole-In-The-Rock road toward Harris Wash and I  realized I had underestimated the difficulty of riding Hole-In-The-Rock road pulling Topaz in the trailer. Topaz has gone deaf in her old age and although very fit we couldn't let her run free with the amount of traffic on the road and being unable to call her back. So out of the 38 total miles, she ran on a longish leash for maybe 3 or 4 of them.  In some cases I simply could not ride OR push through the sand up the hills with Topaz in the trailer. Four dust choking wind fighting hours later we camped for the night near Dry Fork trailhead. For future adventure warned that HITR road is a soul sucking sand hell and I would recommend a fat tire bike or at least a plus size bike.

Leaving the truck

Camp near Dry Fork trailhead

Not much needs be said about the remainder of the ride back to Harris Wash the next day. It wasn't horrible. I wish people would slow down a bit passing riders on a dusty dirty road. We pulled into our cache about 3pm and set up camp.

Camping at our cache location

It took us awhile in the morning, now day 5 out of Nevada but day 3 from our vehicle, to reorganize to hiking mode and cache our bikes and extra gear we wouldn't need for the remainder of the trip. We now carried monster packs and just to make it interesting, our packrafting paddles extended above our packs, just to make sure we got entangled in the bushwhacking that was sure to come. Walking down Harris wash we encountered Kim, a geologist working out of Winnemucca NV whom Joannie had spoken briefly with yesterday on HITR road. Cool dude. He gave us some tips about the topography ahead. Comedy during the days hike was generously provided by watching Joannie with a pack as big a she was, half climb, half fall down the many steep embankments returning to the stream bed as we hiked down the canyon. She contends that my unintended Tarzan swing from an overhead branch, with full footing lift-off, while descending one of the aforementioned banks was better than anything she provided.

Some hiking, some wading, and a bit of thrashing led us to our stunningly beautiful campsite on a bench in an alcove overlooking the creek. The sandstone walls arching overhead and protecting the newly leafed cottonwood trees provided the must-stop-now impetus for camping. That evening we built a small campfire out on the sand bench still under the protective overhang a couple hundred feet overhead.

Just starting down Harris Wash trail. Remember- hang a right at the wash.

Junk show :)

Awesome alcove camp!

The fourth day was a continuation of day 3 down to the confluence with the Escalante River. As an interesting side note, we had followed fatbike tracks all the way down canyon. That must have been fun. In a type 2 way. So far things were going swimmingly. A bad choice of words as the end of the day would prove. Finding a meager sand bank beside the Harris Wash creek and maybe 20 meters from the confluence we once again reorganized, this time for packrafting mode. With that we were off! Topaz starting in my boat. So although the Escalante may not be that technically difficult you don't have much time to relax either as there are constant sweepers and logjams, not to mention numerous shallows. In all though we were having a rollicking good time, all the way to Choprock canyon where just downstream Joannie got stuck on a gravel bar and flipped her boat trying to get loose. Well things were definitely going swimming as mentioned above. Both Joannie and Topaz who had the doggy misfortune of swapping boats, went for a full dunk, as well as Joannie's pack. It was a helluva time to find out your dry bags leak like submarine with screen doors. Lesson for the day: PRE-TEST ALL DRY GEAR!! Ok so following that episode we hauled out and set up a camp on the river bank between Choprock and Fence canyons to dry things out. This move turned out to be very providential in the next couple of days.


Setting up packrafts


Day 5 - Saturday. Joannie woke up happy as always but felt funny. Unfortunately it wasn't that funny.
"What is it?" I asked.
"I don't know, I'm kinda dizzy"
"Well" I replied "I had a stomach ache last night but its gone now, is it that?"
I had mentioned maybe taking a rest day and hiking to Neon Canyon's Golden Cathedral. Having done that several years ago together, I knew exactly where we were and more importantly, that there was a relatively short escape route up to the Egypt trailhead from Fence canyon.
"Let's take that rest day and see how I feel tomorrow" she said. "But I don't feel like hiking to Neon"

She continued getting worse throughout the day and vomiting to the point where I asked a group of canyoneers returning from Choprock for a ride from the Egypt trailhead back to Willow for the following day. By now I wanted Joannie out of the backcountry before she got any weaker. At first they didn't think they could accommodate us as they were not going out until Monday. About 30 minutes later the groups obvious leader came back and very generously offered the use of his vehicle as long as we could return it to the trailhead Sunday evening in case they hiked out.

No need to go into details but the following day was very tough for Joannie. We packed up at first light, made our way to Fence canyon then up the trail to Eygpt bench and trailhead. It was a very difficult hike for Joannie and I felt guilty for enjoying it. Not only that but Joannie was forced to drive Pete's truck back to Egypt when all she wanted to do was lay down. It worked out though and if this had to happen, this was the best place on the river for it to happen. Anywhere downstream and escape would have been much more problematic. So although we didn't fully succeed, neither did we fully fail. We completed roughly 55 miles of our planned route and about 5 unplanned miles. I guess anytime you get out of the backcountry after an "episode" that counts as a win!

Joannie toughing it out on the semi-epic escape...

Cache retrieval the following day