Escalante River


By: Jerry Haven


Sitting at work one day in September of 1970, I suddenly realized that with the year three-quarters gone I still hadn't used my allotted two weeks of vacation. My first impulse was to drop everything and run to the Sierra, but Chuck McQuillan, who also still had his vacation hanging over him, suggested that we go somewhere together. Since he couldn't go until the last week of September, we turned our attention from the Sierra Nevada to the canyons of the Colorado, finally deciding on a backpack down the Escalante River. We postponed one more week to give Tom Wall enough time to get laid off his new job at Rand, and thus on the first Saturday in October found ourselves on Utah 12 where it crosses the Escalante River between Boulder and Escalante. Even there, high on the river, the canyon country is spectacular. The road is about one and a half lanes wide, no wider than the canyon bottoms and ridge tops it winds along. The aspens were starting to turn, golden against the red Navajo sandstone and the brilliant blue of the Utah sky. We continued on to Boulder, to visit some hippie friends there. Boulder is an island of green in the midst of the red wilderness, a beautiful farming and ranching valley of about 90 people, looking like a piece of eastern farmland dropped into Southern Utah.

We returned to the river that night and the next morning Chuck in his MG and I in my Corvette (which has delusions of being a jeep) drove back toward Escalante and then down the road to Hole-in-the-Rock to set up a car shuttle. We planned to hike down the river until it became a lake, and then go up Coyote Creek, the last free-flowing tributary on the west. We had to guess where to leave the car since the area is only partially mapped. With the unexpected help of park service signs identifying the creeks and washes, we decided to leave the car at Willow Tank next to Hurricane Wash (neither of which were on the topo).

Tom had the packs ready when we got back, so we were quickly on our way. After about ten minutes hiking, the river turned, switching from one wall to the other, so we took off our boots and waded across. After two more crossings in the next fifteen minutes, we realized that we would never make it in boots. Chuck and I had shoes that we could use but Tom didn't, so we went back to the car, spent the evening in Boulder and early the next morning drove to Escalante where Tom bought a pair of tennis shoes. Thus, Monday morning, properly shod in canvas shoes, we started down the river once again. For the next nine days the only sights we had of other people wore a few fences, a cabin, several cans washed down by the river, and the con-trails of the high flying jets.

The day was beautiful, a collage of red rocks, green and yellow trees, and blue skies with white puffy clouds. The 50 - 100 foot high walls near the river blocked our view of the high cliffs making the canyon look little more than a wash, but as we continued the canyon got deeper and more narrow so that by afternoon we passed through a gorge where the river ran wall to wall, 20 feet wide below 300 foot cliffs. When we were in the narrowest part we were caught by a fifteen minute thunderstorm, which we weathered under the overhanging cliffs. It cleared quickly and that night we made camp on a sand bar by a turn in the river.

Finding campsites proved to be no problem throughout the trip. The canyon is generally wider than the river and the inside of most turns has a flat hard sand bar. The banks are covered with grass, tamarisks, cottonwoods and aspens, which, in addition to providing a bright green contrast to the omnipresent red of the walls, also provide an abundance of firewood. The only camp we made without trees nearby was next to a log jam of weathered wood left by some forgotten flood. The longest we ever had to look for a campsite after deciding to stop was less than a half hour.

The second day was much like the first. The weather was pleasant, though cool, in the morning and then cloudy in the afternoon. The wind rushed up and down the canyon, first one way and then the other, twisted and spun by the canyon walls, The walls themself continued to get higher, more undercut on the turns, and more tapestried. We stopped for lunch under one of the great overhung walls, and, through some acoustical quirk the sound of the river, which was only two feet away from us, Seemed to come from a point 300 feet above and behind us. In this part of the canyon the river snaked and twisted, requiring many crossings, but since it was smooth, wide, and gentle, they caused no trouble.

That afternoon, after we reached The Gulch, a large side canyon from the east, the Escalante canyon widened and straightened considerably. The walls were set back from the river, sometimes a quarter to half mile apart. There were some fences, since the people in Boulder run cattle down there during the summer. The hiking was better since the crossings were fewer, but also less exciting. One had a sense of hiking through the canyon instead of being a part of it.

When we got up the third day, it was completely overcast and just as we finished breakfast it started to rain. We hiked for about an hour with the rain getting worse and with a cold wet wind flowing down the canyon and onto our backs. The rain began to turn into sleet and, being constantly in and out of the water, we began to get chilled. When we saw the burned out remains of a cabin, we headed towards it, hoping to find shelter by stringing the tents in some nearby trees, Then, at about 200 feet up the wall, at the top of a sand slide, we noticed a 20 foot wide overhung ledge. Tom went up to check while I helped Chuck with his pack, which was starting to get a little wet. Soon Tom called down to us and Chuck and I scrambled up to the ledge. We huddled there in sleeping bags trying to get warm and watched the storm over the Escalante. Whenever it lifted a little we could see out over the damp, grey canyon, but mostly we were closed in and could not even see the river. The water began to streak its way down the walls, making shiny ebony stains on the red rock. It snowed softly and gently, drifting silently across the wilderness.

At 11 o'clock, two hours after we had reached the ledge and three hours after it began, the storm lifted, and we went out to investigate the area, since it seemed we might have to stay several days. There was plenty of firewood and around to the right, sort of behind our ledge was a spring. The spring flowed across a little alcove, a circular glen no more than 50 yards across set at the base of hundreds of foot of red cliffs. The glen was full of lush long-leaved grass and had a still, small reflection pool in its center, which was dappled along one edge by the red and yellow leaves of an overhanging aspen. The uniform cloud cover provided even, shadowless light. It seemed that each leaf glowed softly with its own luminescence in, the pale light, so that the bottoms were as bright as the tops.

Sprinkled over everything like stardust were the fresh droplets of the recent rain. It was an enchanted garden. I felt ecstatic, as if I were dancing elf-like through a magic forest. It occurred to me that Nature had planned the storm just to share with us this special place, like an old woman opening her hand to show us one of her most treasured jewels.

It cleared after lunch, so we picked up and continued down the river. The canyon remained fairly wide, with vast areas of sandy sage brush behind the narrow zone of green along the river. We camped near a large sand slide, three or four miles above Harris Wash. An old-timer in Boulder named Doyle had told us that there were Indian petroglyphs on the far side of the canyon from the slide, but although we spent a half hour the next morning searching for then, we couldn't find anything.

We reached Harris Wash, the first major tributary from the west, at 10. Up to there the river had been relatively clear. It was potable and we had seen numerous small fish. But Harris Wash was completely silt-laden, a dark brown stain flowing into the Escalante. By the time we made camp that night the Escalante itself was saturated with silt. We couldn't see the bottom of a Sierra Club cup dipped into the water. From there on we had to carry drinking water, which we got by letting the silt settle in pans overnight. Fortunately, the water cleared reasonably well if left for just an hour, and a pot left overnight produced clear delicious water.

The opaque waters greatly complicated the problem of stream crossing. We became adept at reading the ripple patterns on the surface and at feeling our way with our feet. I concentrated so much on my feet that they seemed to be extra eyes, seeing the bottom of the river. Amazingly, in 349 crossings made between Highway 12 and Coyote Creek we had only one fall, when I stepped off the edge of a rock into a hole four feet deep. Fortunately, no real damage was done, Although I did lose one days pictures. Except for that one mishap, we never got any deeper than mid-thigh. Another problem caused by the silty river was soft footing along its banks. Two or three times I stepped into quicksand, but each time hit solid rock only a foot or so into it and was able to struggle out. In other places it was just soft, like a bowl of Cream of Wheat. Frequently, when we stopped, we found ourselves sinking into the ground and many times the ground the leader crossed was turned into almost impassable goo by his passage.

It was also about the fourth day that we began to suffer from sore, burning, scaly skin on the backs of our legs. Since it was apparently caused by the constant wetting and drying, coupled with exposure to wind and sun, we named the condition "dishpan legs". Next time I will be sure to take a large bottle of skin lotion.

The spirit of the trip also seemed to change after we got past Harris Wash. For one thing Harris Wash is less than half way down the river and we had hoped to reach it sooner. As a result, we began to push harder. We didn't know how difficult the rest of the trip would be and it added a sense of urgency to our journey. For another, the day after we left Harris Wash it got very overcast. We hiked all day under threatening skies. That night we camped among some small trees on a bench 30 feet above the river and prepared our tube tents. Although it cleared around noon the next day, we remained uneasy about the weather. We could only see a narrow slit of sky overhead and after being caught in one storm, we never really trusted the weather again. In addition the canyon again became deep and narrow, adding to our feeling of uneasiness and isolation. Of course, scenically it was magnificent. The walls were a thousand feet high and fell almost vertically to the river, which ran smoothly between them, making the hiking easy although the footing was frequently soft. But the great walls made us feel small and insignificant, so that it took us a day or two to adjust to being at the bottom of such a canyon. At first it was a little overpowering. The next day, day six, started as more of the same. We did find a clear spring two turns below Scorpion Gulch which provided a welcome drink of clear cold water. By noon, as the wind drove the clouds away allowing the sun to shine on us, the walls of the canyon seemed to melt away. Their bottoms were covered by long talus slopes, reminiscent, except for color, of those in the Sierra. In places only the talus was visible, so we appeared to be walking through a great rubble heap. It reminded me of descriptions of the City after the Holocaust. Where the walls were visible, they were fantastically sculpted. They seemed to be made of big blocks of stone which formed castles and statues against the skyline.

The broken country made the hiking much harder, and it was even worse the next morning. By lunch we had set a new record of 47 crossings, an average of one every 4 to 5 minutes. We had to scramble over rock and wade through cold waters on slippery mud. Twice I got into bad quicksand. Our choice was to either clamber over sand and sandstone with wet tennis shoes and backpacks or to wade through swirling opaque water on an uncertain bottom. The weather, however, was perfect and soon after lunch our efforts were rewarded as we got once again into my favorite kind of canyon, very deep with high overhanging walls. There was a great half dome, over 100 feet deep, allowing us to stand on the far side of the river and still be under the dome. The river itself got smooth again, making the hiking pleasant and easy after the struggles of the morning. That afternoon we turned a corner and saw Skyline Bridge, a great arching bridge placed in a wall high above the river. We camped where the wall that contained the bridge fell suddenly to the Escalante. It meant that we were only a quarter mile from Coyote Creek and our route out.

The next day we left our packs at camp to hike down to the lake. Since we were no longer under pressure, we took our time to photograph and just look. The walls remained very high but were farther apart so it was warm and sunny on the bottom. There are several clear springs and many seeps, starting about two miles above Coyote Creek. We were in high spirits. It felt goad to be there under the blue sky and the red rock. The river began to get very wide and flat, until we reached a wall to wall mud flat, with the river meandered desulatorily across it. We had reached the lake, or rather, the ravages of its periphery, since it was drawn down farther than we walked. Hearing about the damage being done in the side canyons is one thing, but to actually see this beautiful river, our friend and companion for 8 days, dying in a sea of silt sickened me. As I stood there I thought of an ending for this write-up - "And so, as the lovely Escalante sinks slowly in the muck, we say goodbye to the grandeur that once was, remaining ever thankful for the beauty that is left."

However, that is not the end of our story. After a day of rest, we started up Coyote Creek toward the car we hoped to find. We had been so long in the canyon that I had forgotten just how far down we were. The first part of Coyote Creek was not very impressive, but soon we were in one of those magnificent Glen Canyon side canyons with such towering walls that it is almost impossible to believe that they were cut by such a tiny, peaceful stream. There were many seeps, marked by richly marbled walls and a profusion of zed and green leaves. We passed a series of four small waterfalls where the water sparkled and tumbled over the rock. There were little caves two or three feet deep, forming mossy shrines set into the rock walls. The balance of form and color between rock, sky, and tree was exquisite. Around one corner, we found a bridge, a place where the stream had cut through the wall to make a ten foot tunnel no wider than itself. And then, around another corner a half mile on, we found a sculptured temple, one of those things that is uniquely a part of Glen Canyon.

First we came upon the most richly colored of all the seeps we saw. Just around the corner was a forming bridge, a great jagged hole in the rock wall. The wall continued to the left and actually went under the overhanging edge of the far wall which was undercut several hundred feet. Beyond this the stream continued in a series of undercut S turns. Standing behind the bridge, with the walls arching gracefully over my head, I felt that I was in an abstract cathedral of carefully sculpted flowing forms. I yelled, loud and sharp and for six seconds the canyon rang, reverberating like a bell. As the sound got softer it got higher pitched, until it seemed to become both inaudibly soft and inaudibly high at the same time.

Tom has since moved to Boulder, and he tells me that Coyote Creek is not unusual, that the canyons of the Escalante River are filled with bridges and sculptured walls defying description. And from what I've read, by the standards of Glen Canyon, Coyote Creek is not at all extraordinary. I find this beyond imagination. That one sculpted corner on Coyote Creek is certainly one of the most magnificent things I've ever seen. It may be that Glen Canyon is lost but I am convinced that all remaining side canyons are the loveliest things left in this world.

From that point on the canyon got progressively less deep, but remained beautiful. Keeping to our left, we lunched by a bare trickle beneath walls only one or two hundred feet high. Soon after that, the water disappeared and we were in a sandy wash. After a seemingly interminable six miles up the washes, hot, dusty, and dry with the sun beating down on us after so many days in the canyon bottom, I saw a short wooden sign. I knew it was the road. The question was, where was the car? I hurried to the sign which read "Hurricane Wash", and sure enough, when I turned around there was Chuck's car waiting for us on the hill.

We managed to pack the three of us and our peeks into the MG and drove to Escalante for dinner and after that to Boulder for a warm night of telling stories and readjusting to civilization. It had been a fine trip and if there weren't so many other beautiful places in this world, I could scarcely wait to get back.

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