Saturday, May 11, 2019

Early season in the La Sals

Spring stirs up a deep, irrational longing in me for a return to the mountains. As much as I love the red-rocks and canyon-country. I’ve been desperate for the sweet vanilla scent of ponderosa and the softness of pine needles.
The La Sals
For my solo backpacking trip this weekend, I stay in the foothills. Starting from a trailhead less than 10 miles from home. The high country is still blanketed in snow. Jeep roads take me to a singletrack path that I’ve never been to before.
Looking down at the red rocks of canyonlands
North-facing slopes are still patchy even this low.
Just like salmon are imprinted on their natal waters, I must have been imprinted on ponderosa pines growing up in Oregon. A strong sense of home washes over me when I stink my nose into their bark and inhale.

I love finding groves of Douglas-firs too. There is just a narrow range that they are found in the La Sals now. But I like to think about how they were everywhere here during the Ice Age, when the giant camels, ground sloths, and mammoths were roaming around southeast Utah.

Butterflies are everywhere! It seems like hundreds are darting about. I stop and gaze. How mesmerizing to see so many! It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced.
Flocks of painted ladies
The only checkered whites that slowed down enough to photograph were the ones that were otherwise engaged.
Satyr comma
I am thrilled to find another trailhead for a singletrack that veers up a canyon. Not on any of my maps. The La Sals are like this. So many trails, both marked and unsigned, not on the 40-lats or Trails Illustrated maps, or any of my Gaia GPS layers. So I follow them to see where they go, and make the appropriate corrections with my sharpie. I’ve grown to love this about the La Sals, this gift of exploration that they provide.
Delighted to find a new trail
Until I get up above 8500 feet and the trail disappears under the snow and I can’t tell where to look. Just another reason to come back later!
Back at a lower elevation, I set up the tarp in a spot where I know I will get too much wind but where the views are breathtaking. There is so much time to watch the clouds move and to feel the soft pine needles under me. I love how time feels so expansive on nights when I am alone in the mountains.
A sweet spot.
In the middle of the night, the springtime winds batter me and steal my warmth. But it doesn’t matter. It’s not that cold. And I just roll with the winds and they seem more like a familiar friend then a problem, after all these years. Just part of springtime in Utah.
Simpson's hedgehog cactus, which is only found at higher elevations
Larkspur, one of the few flowers out this early.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Davis Canyon

A weekend backpacking trip to Davis Canyon. I’d overlooked this corner of the Needles District of Canyonlands. A nine mile long 4WD-only road made it seem inaccessible.

It shouldn’t have since it turned out to be a pleasant walk. And some nice Ancestral Puebloan sites in the canyon.

After a few hours of walking, chasing butterflies, and botanizing, I finally got to the trailhead (and park boundary). A couple in a Jeep were just getting back after their dayhike. "Did you walk all the way from the highway," they asked (surprised). I nodded. "Are you on a pilgrimage?" I didn't know what to say. But the whole rest of the day I kept thinking about how neat that was. If I were on a pilgrimage, what kind would it be?
Seeker of red rocks and sand
It is true that I've been trying to hike every trail and non-technical canyon in the Needles. Not for any reason other than the pure joy of exploration and satisfying my curiosity.
Ancestral Puebloan granary
Is there such thing as a butterfly pilgrimage? The canyon was alive with flittering and fluttering. I always delight in just watching their various flight patterns and bursts of color.
Painted lady
Beyond the spring at the mouth of the canyon, Davis Canyon was bone dry. Not something I’d expected in this above-average snowfall year when everywhere else seems to be quite wet and saturated. Apparently, there are fewer Ancestral Puebloan dwellings and sites here due historical scarcity of water.
Target-style petroglyph
Still, what sites are here are very concentrated. And I was satisfying to see the well-known pictographs with a similar motif to the Four Faces and Thirteen Faces I’d seen in adjacent canyons.
Five Faces
Rather than explore the upper reaches of Davis Canyon, I was drawn to the lush riparian area near the trailhead.
Towering cottonwoods
Delicious spring water. Maybe it tasted so good because I'd been slogging through deep sand all day in the heat.
A few side canyons north of Davis Canyon beckoned as well. I scrambled up to a granary and shimmed along a ledge to get a closer look. Always when it’s time to come down, I wonder what-am-I-doing-up-here.
Natural Bridge up another side canyon
Climbing up high above camp
Clouds had been rolling through all day but the thunder and lightening didn’t start until dusk. I found a sheltered hidey-hole tucked between junipers and settled in for the night.

There really is nothing like the sound of rain striking DCF. I smiled and fell back to sleep even more deeply.

While I missed having company for this trip, I admit that I savor my solo mornings. Waking before dawn, packing up quickly, hiking as I watch the sunrise.  A time I feel most at peace.
Evening primrose in the morning.
Instead of taking the 4WD road back, I decided to follow a purposeful-looking cattle trail. It took me to all the exciting places I’d missed— solitary shade-trees with thick carpets of cowpies below and extensive mudflats. It kept me above the wash for a more expansive view for several miles— much further than I’d have expected- before it veered off into another canyon. A fun end to the trip!
The very faint Cow-Pie High Route Alternate.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

First timers to ISKY

Four of us start down off the edge of the plateau. This is M.’s first backpacking trip in Utah and C.’s first full day in Utah. Both are interns at the park.
Into the canyon
We are on the same loop I took during my first season as an SCA here. A place to make you fall in love with canyon country. At least it did for me. The expansive views still take my breath away. Seeing it through their eyes adds an extra dose of wonder.

Still there are surprises for all of us. The first few blossoms of spring.
Mags and C. join us for the first part of the day. Enough time to plunge deeply into the canyon and see the water striders gliding across pools of water.

We joke about the relative pack sizes in our group-- the difference between backpackers and dayhikers.
And we wonder what other people must think as they walk by and see M. carrying so much and Mags with his tiny pack.
C. and Mags decide to turn around to allow extra time for the climb back out. I wish they could stay but they have to work tomorrow. At least we could hang out for most of the day!
Where we parts ways.
M. and I continue on. Down to the Green River where minnows dance in the shallow backwaters.
Water near the Green River.
Not as bad after the sediment settles overnight.
We make it much further up our return canyon than I’d expected. And finally pick a spot in a side canyon.
View from our campsite.
While moving rocks to hold down my ground cloth, a scorpion surprises me.
It seemed much larger.
I relocate the scorpion up the canyon. But are there other scorpions lurking under other rocks? I figure there is only one way to find out! And proceed to turn over all the rocks in the area. But how far do scorpions roam? I widen my circle as the sun goes down. As M. set us her tent. A tent with a full zipper and netting. Scorpion-proof. Oh why did I opt for a tarp with no bug netting?!

As I turn over more rocks, suddenly, I feel something tickle my arm. Later, M. says that she’s never seen anyone rip of clothes so fast. I toss my hoodie and shirt to the ground and examine every inch of my arm. Nothing. Nothing on my clothes either. Then I notice the metal snaps on my shirt. Ah the power of the imagination to turn a snap into a scorpion.
Just like a scorpion welcome-mat.
M. points up and says, “Look at the bats!” And we joke about how they are certainly the types of bats that eat scorpions (i.e. pallid bats). Even though I don’t really know how to distinguish bat species. And somehow the idea of protective bats flying about lets me sleep deeply without fear of scorpions in the night.

Rain arrives the next morning.
The ever-changing weather of springtime.
But then the sky clears again.

Nearly there.
Back at the top, M. remarks how much her perspective of the canyon has changed after experiencing the full depth of the canyon on foot and seeing what it looks like from down below. I am reminded how many people don't have all the time to see more than the overlooks. And I am once again grateful for my extended time here and for the joys of sharing this place with friends.
Back to the high point.

Monday, February 18, 2019

The view from up there

“I wonder what the view looks like from up there,” I often think to myself. This weekend I got in a solo backpacking trip where I had the opportunity to discover just that.

I couldn’t find much information about this area. Just some reports about the 4WD roads that come in from the other direction. Definitely not a backpacking destination. Fine by me.
A sure sign I’ve crossed over from the National Park into BLM land.
The wind is bone-chilling on the open plateau. I take a detour up a canyon to see if a spring shown on the map is flowing.
All the water is frozen solid. Not what I was hoping for.
There are a few potholes filled with ice. I wack at them with my poles, hoping to break through to get at liquidy goodness underneath. But it’s too thick. I resort to melting snow for water.
A place to climb out of the canyon.
The wind gets worse near the high point. It should be the hottest part of the day. But I am wearing all my clothes (raingear, down coat, even my down balaclava) and hiking uphill and still can’t get warm.  When all my fingers go numb, I almost give up. But there is that drive inside. Not sure where it comes from. But it pushes me forward. Upwards.

At the rim, the view is even more breathtaking than I’d imagined. I'm glad I kept going.
All of the sudden, I enter a nature documentary. A golden eagle swoops overhead, then spirals around to join another eagle. They grasp talons and spin downward. Then finally, they let go and swoop back upwards. WOW! I’d heard eagles do this as a courtship behavior and to reinforce pair bonds. Seeing it in person I am completely awestruck.

This eagle came close! This photo is taken on my crappy iphone (i.e. no zoom).
I leave the eagles in peace and retreat. A few miles to the west, I set up my tent in the lee of a large rocky outcrop of sandstone. From here, I can see my park in the distance. My park I keep thinking. Mine.
But of course none of this is really mine.
After the 35-day government shutdown ended, HR got my paperwork through in record time and I started back as a “permanent” this week. I thought I would feel a sense of stability, but the shutdown shook away all illusions of that. Nevertheless, I am incredibly grateful for being able to live in this place that fills my heart with joy.

The next morning, I follow some old ranching roads to a wash and then turn up the wash into a nameless canyon that looks interesting on my map. Will I get to an impassible pour-off? Will I find a spring? Every twist and turn seems like an exciting adventure. Surely not as spectacular as other places, but as usual, the quiet and lack of human footprints makes up for it.
More frozen potholes.
Overall, a quiet trip. I continue to be astonished by the seemingly endless opportunities for hiking and exploring provided by the BLM land surrounding the more famous landmarks around Moab. It still feels like I could pick a different area every weekend and never get bored.
Still pretty wonderful, even if they are faint and take some imagination to see the bighorn sheep.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Solo backpacking in canyon country

Sometimes I just want to spend vast quantities of time traveling inordinately short distances (as the crow flies anyway).
Creeping along the edge.
Is this a way down?
Where the methods of locomotion involve crab walking and butt scooting. Where you can stop and look at everything. Like examining the spines of the prickly pears close up and watching the evening shadows drifting across the landscape.
The shorter, more numerous spines of a cactus are called glochids. Unlike the larger, easy to see spines, glochids are barbed and easily break apart so are nearly impossible to dislodge.
Shadows drifting across the canyoncountry.
Doing the Ledge Shimmy.
Winter seems to invite such types of travel. Ice makes me even inclined not to rush anything. Complete lack of people makes me feel more free to explore.
Snow/ slickrock.
My time isn't as vast as I'd like. I have to work Saturday morning so I don't get to the trailhead until afternoon. But slowing down and having solo time makes it seem more expansive. Normally the late start would annoy me, but I’m grateful for the extra hours of pay. Even though the government shutdown is now over, it will still take a while to get our paperwork though to get us hired back.
Utah ice skating rink/ swimming hole.
I head up a canyon and get my tent set up about an hour before sunset. Enough time to play on the rocks. I find a slickrock superhighway and follow it around twists and turns. I relish the feel of rock beneath my feet. The highway gets narrower and becomes a ledge, then opens up again. I love not knowing what will happen or if it will dead-end or if I will be able to go forever.
Following slickrock.
Surreal evening light reflected in a pothole.
The rock continues all the way out to a point where I can see forever. The La Sals, the Blues, and even ISKY.  Such expansiveness.

I love these long nights where I can zip into my sleeping bag by 5:30 PM. The forecast calls for lows in the upper teens and low twenties. Cold enough that my eyeballs feel like they are going to freeze. For the first 2 hours, I always wonder if I will be warm enough. But then something magic happens and I am snug and toasty. I drift off to sleep listening to “Podcasts with Park Rangers” which restores my faith in human goodness and makes everything seem right with the world.

In the morning I play “I wonder what’s up this side canyon” and “I wonder if I can climb up to that alcove.” Two of my favorite games. I realize I've spent all day going a handful of miles as the crow flies. Perfect!
I can!
So many possibilities.
 Views that make me want to go everywhere.
There is no one at the trailhead when I get back. Such a rare thing for the Needles. But I'm not complaining.