By: Steve Smith
BLM Friends of the Inyo Wilderness first descended the length of Craig Canyon in June, 1992. The canyon had presented us with some surprises along with scenic canyon formations and challenging obstacles during that first, exploratory trip. A year later, we did a south to north traverse across the canyon. Now, seven years later, the BLM Inyo volunteers decided to go back and do a second traverse through the canyon. Even though we were familiar with the canyons topography this time, it still threw some surprises at us which required us to take an extra day beyond our planned four day trip.
Craig Canyon is on the east side of the Inyo Mountains between Daisy Canyon on the south and Hunter Canyon on the north. As shown on the New York Butte and Craig Canyon topographic maps, it is a steep canyon which is extremely narrow between 5,000' to 3,600'. Craig Canyon leaves the Inyo Crest at 9,400' and opens onto the floor of Saline Valley at 1,600', a drop of 7,800' in about eight miles. We knew from previous trips in 1992 and 1993 that the best way to access the canyon was from Daisy Ridge. Morgan Irby, who has done more Inyo Canyon descents than anyone, and Tom Budlong returned with me to do the canyon a second time and we were joined by Tom Jackman, Marty Dickes, Gerry Goss, Stacy Robinson, Don Pedersen and my 11 year old son Stenson Smith. Our plan was to schedule our days so that we would camp right where the narrows starts at a millsite at 5,000'. We thought this would enable us to traverse through the narrows in one day and not get stuck in an uncomfortable camping situation as had happened seven years earlier. But, as we would learn three days later, the narrows had some new surprises for us.
Reaching the Daisy Ridgeline on the south side of Craig Canyon, we left the Inyo Crest around 3:00 p.m. We had water for two days which was when we would reach flowing water in the canyon floor at 5,000'. We also carried four 50m. climbing ropes for the 9 rappels we had previously encountered in the narrows of lower Craig Canyon. Hiking about three miles eastward along the Daisy Ridge, we reached the Trepier Mine at 7,600' right about dusk. Its a great campsite with panoramic vistas of Saline Valley where we enjoyed watching the changing colors in the Panamint and Last Chance Ranges as the sun set.
Walking along the south side of the canyon, we admired the first two waterfalls and wedged boulder as we dropped down to the stream several hundred yards into the narrows. At this point, there was a 30' waterfall and it was obvious to us that there was a heavier flow of water than we had experienced during our 1992 descent. The canyon bottom had also changed with more potholes and pools of water along with several more rappels. The going was much slower than seven years earlier as we encountered several new rappels plus four pools of water which took time getting our packs across. It was a cool, overcast day so Morgan volunteered to go into the pools of waist deep water to ferry our packs across the pools to minimize everyone's exposure to the cold water.
The canyon was just as impressive as we remembered it - steep sided walls averaging about 40' across with a continuous variety of water cascades for a distance of about two miles. It was interesting to see the transition of Stenson who had not been very comfortable climbing on rock, now with some experience going ahead to help show me handholds. About midday we passed the point where we had been forced by darkness seven years earlier to stop and camp is small spaces between the water and canyon walls. It looked like we would make it through the narrows this year and have a wider, more comfortable (and safer) campsite but it was not to be. We were slowed by the pools of water plus there were five pitches requiring belays. Where we had been able to down climb slopes seven years earlier, the higher water level was now keeping these slopes wet or covered with slippery mud which necessitated belays.
We encountered a major obstacle where there was a 50' stretch of water which was over our heads. The north wall was laid back enough that Gerry and Tom were able to rig 100' of webbing for use as a handhold. This enabled everyone to walk along the side of the wall with their packs to get around the deep water. By early evening it was beginning to get dark and with another long belayed down climb confronting us, we decided to take advantage of a spot while it was available which was wide enough for everyone to camp together out of the water. Stenson and I smoothed off a 4' wide perch of sediment about 5' above the canyon bottom where we were able to stretch out and stay dry. The canyon was just wide enough to see some stars between the rock walls and that evening, with the water flowing by our campsite, everyone enjoyed the peacefulness and solitude of such a remote camp.
For the next couple of days, the irritation on my neck continued and developed into a small welt about one quarter inch long by Wednesday. On Thursday evening, I was headed with the family towards Los Angeles for an outing to Catalina when I got severe pains in the teeth on the right side of my face. It appeared that I had some type of a spider or other insect bite and the fight side of my neck now had a rash over it. A druggist suggested aspirin and for the next few days, I was taking 3-4 of them every 3 hours. The rash even developed on the opposite side of my neck and it took about two weeks before it had cleared up. I was aware of the toxin slowly working its way across my face as I developed pain in other teeth. After a week, it was a very unpleasant experience when the toxin reached my sinuses - I've never smelled or tasted anything so bad. I am still not sure what got me but several people mentioned that the Kissing Bug can produce similar reactions. In 35 years of sleeping out in the open in the desert, this was a first, and hopefully last, experience of that kind.
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