Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Winter comes to the La Sals

A Friday evening phone call informs me I am not needed for a Sunday shift at work. While the extra pay would have been nice, having time for a backpacking trip is most welcome.

This week, along with the loss of evening daylight due to the time change, the weather has shifted abruptly from crisp to downright chilly. Winter has arrived.

Yet the La Sal Mountains, from down here in the Moab valley, appear snow-free. Pink sunsets make the peaks seem warm and inviting. I piece together a route using singletracks and 4WD roads that will take me to through heart of the La Sals and down around the foothills in a broad loop.

I get a later start but for a good reason. Breakfast with someone I've known from the hiking community and finally get to meet in real life. It feels like hanging out with an old friend and lifts my spirits. Then we say goodbye and I drive off alone in another direction.
A turnoff just before the deep ford that is unwise to cross in my low-clearance honda civic becomes my trailhead. I cross the ford on foot and start hiking up the road through ponderosa pine and oak scrub.
The forest gradually gives way to aspen and fir as I climb.
A fenced-in spring is partially iced over, yet a frog is hanging out in the water. Turns out the northern leopard frog, like other aquatic frogs, don't bury themselves in the mud like aquatic turtles but instead hibernate in water. Antifreeze is the key to how they don't freeze.
Northern leopard frog
At higher elevations, there is an icy layer over small flowing streams even at mid-day. So much for turning over rocks to look for mayflies here.
Up a side drainage, I follow faint cairns, wondering if this is a route up Mount Peale. 
A small black bear is sighted crossing the scree field. When will she settle into her den to hibernate for the winter?
I loose the cairned route and decide to backtrack to the main trail to find a better way. One drainage over, the newly constructed Tuk Trail has switchbacks that make the 1.6 miles up to the saddle between Tukuhnikivatz and Mt. Peale a breeze.
Gentle switchbacks and good tread.
The trail gives way to alpine meadow, dormant for the winter. The alpine plants already gone to seed. I hear one pika eeping in the talus slope below. I hope he's got a good stockpile of grass all prepared.
 Here, on the side of the mountain, my heart soars at the feeling of air in my lungs. I gaze at the blue of the sky, watch ravens dancing in the wind below, and wonder at quickly it has changed to downright cold as I climb above 12,000 feet.
Tukuhnikivatz apparently means “The Place where the Sun Sets Last” in the language of the Ute. But this is the dark side, where the winter wind rages and the first snow of the season clings. It is bonechillingly cold up here.
Long before this slippery talus slope, I've told myself that it doesn't matter if I reach the top. That the joy in climbing up (I've gained 4500 feet on this climb) and the thrill of being in this place are what's important. This is the point where I turn around, about 12,100 feet. There is only one more hour of daylight. I am solo and there is no margin for error. My hands are frozen beyond numb, and are worthless for scrambling. Oh how I wish I had antifreeze in my fingertips.

As I descend, I soak in the views and daydream about what it would like to follow this ridge on a warm late summer day when the alpine flowers are blooming and butterflies are hilltopping. I also appreciate the starkness of this season and love seeing how the mountain is preparing for winter.
Looking into canyoncountry, to all the places I've explored and have yet to go. In the other direction, I can see all the way to the Henry's, to Bears Ears, to Sleeping Ute. Past and future, the landscapes that I hope to connect and understand.
Dry grasses illuminated.
Glowing Mt. Peale.
Finally I am glowing too. And grateful for lungs and legs that can take me up here.
In fading light, I try to make it as low as I can to camp.
Night is filled with the magical sounds of bugling elk and spectacular stars.
The next morning, I am grateful to find this so I don't have to dig a hole in the frozen ground.
At the road crossing, I walk up to a group of hunters huddled around a spotting scope. The first people I've seen out here. They let me peer through at the elk I'd been listening to all through the night. Massive, beautiful beasts on the slope above where I'd camped.

I tell them about the bear which sparks their interest. "Weren't you scared sleeping with bears around? Don't you know there are more bears here than anywhere else in Utah?" they ask.

I can't tell for sure but it sort of feels like they think I'm an idiot who doesn't know what I'm doing. But when they ask where I'm originally from I tell them I used to live in Montana and how these bears are tiny compared to grizzles up there. Then I turn and walk away. Back onto singletrack trail where I won't see anyone for the rest of my trip.

Really, I'm glad that the hunters are out here. The truth is that I slept soundly because I know the animals are skittish because there are hunters roaming about (plus I hung all my food and smellables in a tree far from my camp so they wouldn't be interested in me anyway). The bear I saw was in an area far away from trails and roads. These are not habituiated bears (as far as I can tell) and I am grateful for that. It keeps us all safe.

Much further down the mountain, my footsteps startle another creature. A herd of cows on the Pole Canyon Trail hear me coming and start a stampeed down the trail in front of me. I follow in their dust and dung and they rush ahead. We repeat this pattern for (I'm not exaggerating) 20 minutes until they finally veer off trail at a large clearing.
Following behind the cows.
By myself again, I follow the dirt road back to the gravel road back to my car. Grateful for another trip in the lovely La Sals.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Dayhiking in canyon country

One of the downsides of my “dream job” (and now you’ll understand why I say that in quotes) is that it is only 20 hours per week. I have another part time job, but two part-time jobs (for me) take much more time and energy than one full time job. This week I picked up an extra Sunday shift because the pay is less too.

I hope this doesn't come across as complaining. I love what I do and am happy I get to do something that is so meaningful. I just wish I had a 40 hour a week job (with healthcare, retirement, etc).

I’m telling you this because it meant that this week, I just had one day off work. And I needed that one day to count. So I made up my own route to include enough uncertainty to make it interesting and engaging, trees and cool geology to add natural wonders, a scavenger hunt for an arch, and even a peak to scramble up.
The not-so-famous arch that I did end up finding.
I leap out of bed well before my alarm for and am on the road winding through the pitch blackness. After I turn off the highway, I see no other vehicles, not a one. I'm the first one at the parking lot. A kangaroo rat hops across the road, the first I’ve seen here. How night transforms this place!
After a full hour of hiking in the dark, first light.
In darkness, I start down the familiar route. Just enough moonlight peeks through clouds that I turn off my headlamp and let my feet and instinct guide me. As if feet can find the way on their own just by sensing the texture of sand and rock. I try to leave footprints that are so shallow that the wind will cover them before any other visitors arrive.
Turning up-canyon, I find mountain lion tracks in the mud. No human footprints have been left here for a while.
The namesake trees of this wash have dropped yellow crunching leaves.
Late-blooming scarlet gilia.
After crossing the park boundary, the rocks lining the canyon abruptly change from steep to slopey, making it possible to climb out of the canyon here. Update: the geological map shows this is a fault. I'd been walking in a canyon with walls of Entrada-Slickrock but then climbed up the Curtis-Moab along the fault. Now that I see how helpful it is to consult the geological map for routefinding, I'll have to include that in my pre-trip planning phase.
Following lightly-traveled roads. There is a butte up ahead that beckons.
Not sure how I'm going to get up there but I decide to try.
Each layer of rock has different color and texture. I wish I knew what it all meant.

Chert? Jasper? The Morrison formation is such a contrast to the sandstone down below.
I start wondering, as I often do, what the heck I'm doing up here by myself. The wind is gusting fiercely. The popcorn surfaces are slippery and cut my hand when I fall. I try to avoid the underground tunnels in the soil/rock, which I later learn is called "piping". (Piping is subsurface erosion by groundwater in noncohesive layers of sediment. The geology article fails to say if hikers can fall into these but they are discribed in the "Problem Soils" section of the article.)
Stormy sky casts shadows as I get above the saddle. Breathtaking views in all directions. Oh wow!
The way down takes me longer than getting up, since I decide to take a different route back. There is much backtracking when I get to cliffs I can't get down. Finally, I join an old road and the going is easier. Time has flown by and I'm not sure I have time to make it back by dark and I'm worried about going cross country, if there will be cliffs I can't get up. In the end, my curisoity gets the best of me and I veer off the old road across the slickrock to the canyon rim.
Following the rim takes longer but has incredible views of the canyon. I leap over cracks and wind around the circuitious route following the twists and turns of the canyon walls.
Last spring I explored the bottom of this canyon and saw the pools of water at the base. By climbing around the rim, the source of some of that water is revealed. Here is where water pours over the top and a series of tinajas are full.
Finding where the water is.
I end up feeling rushed at the end, hiking as fast as I can on the cross-country part of my route. Finally, I reach the familiar territory that I've been to before and feel a rush of relief. This part I can do in the dark if I have to, no problem.
I collapse on the rocks for a while before the final climb. I don't remember being this tired in a long time.
As the sun sinks in the sky, sunbeams light up distant canyon walls, making me wonder,"how can I get over there?"

Back at my car, I step back into a different universe. The parking lot is packed with tons of visitors. After not seeing anyone all day, it's a bit of a shock. I'm just glad that there are places like this left, where there is plenty of solitude to be found, where you can go to challenge your route-finding skills, where you can discover things for yourself and have mystery behind each canyon twist and turn.

More information

I struggle with wanting to tell you all how to find these beautiful places where you can find solitude,  and not wanting to provide directions that would spoil your sense of the wild or inadvertantly send more people here than this fragile place can support.

My advice is get a few good maps of the area. Figure out how to connect washes with slickrock and old roads so you don't trample the fragile soil crust. Learn how to navigate cross-country. Tell multiple people where you are going.  Carry an In-Reach and know how to use it.  If you are like me and don't carry ropes, don't go down anything you aren't 100% sure you can't go back up. Be responsible for your safety and error on the side of caution.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Angel Arch in Canyonlands

I’ve been eager to get back to Salt Creek Canyon in Canyonlands National Park since exploring Horse Canyon and the southern end of Salt Creek this spring. This trip to Angel Arch made a great overnight backpacking trip.
Rabbitbrush fills the canyon with golden blossoms.
Following the fresh bear tracks for the first two hours. Shouting "hey" around all the blind corners just like when I hiked in Montana. Even though there are "only" black bears in Utah, I still don't want to startle one.
Many people do a one-way hike of Salt Creek Canyon but I just had my two day weekend. An out and back gave me more time to explore side canyons, chase butterflies, and watch clouds.

Seeing the fresh bear tracks made me nervous since I was going solo and tend to be a quiet hiker. So I was happy to meet a friendly couple near the trailhead who were just finishing a long hike who reported they hadn't had any trouble. They also reported that there was only one place with flowing clear water but that I would have no trouble finding it. They were the only people I saw all day so I was glad for such good intel.
After ominous clouds move through all morning, finally large raindrops splash on rocks and fill the air with the scent of rain.
The burn area near the side canyon to Angel Arch.
Angel Arch really is quite spectacular especially in real life and made a satisfying turn-around point.
Trying to hide from the wind behind a juniper. I moved my bear canister far from camp before bed. Thankfully there were no critters to bother me during the night.
On my way back to the trailhead the next day, I saw arches and archaeological sites I had missed on my rush to reach Angel Arch.
How could I have missed this arch the first day?
I used to ignore all the white butterflies thinking they were all the same. But it turns out there are several different species of whites with subtle differences.  Like most everything in nature, there is pleasure in becoming engrossed (and lost) in the small details.
Becker’s white (Pontia beckerii)
Checkered white (Pontia protodice)
There are also more field crescents flying around. I love how they have such variability in coloration within the same species. Seeing how some are very bright, others more dull, some darker, some more orange made me wish I could study them to find out what accounts for all the variation.
Field crescent (Phyciodes pulchella)
More Information

Permits are required for camping in Canyonlands National Park.

Bear canisters are required for overnight trips to Salt Creek Canyon. I brought my own but you can also borrow them for free from the Needles visitor center. You also need to pack out your poop in a wag bag. 

Salt Canyon has a rich history of the Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont peoples. The Salt Creek Archaeological District is on the National Register of Historic Places. I have chosen to not publish my photos of archaeological sites and pictographs that I saw in order to help protect them and to allow others to “discover” them on their own. Do your part to help protect the archaeological sites and pictographs by staying off them and not touching them.

Dates: September 23-24, 2017

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Listening to fall in the La Sals

Another solo overnight in the La Sal Mountains of Utah. Once again on the Trans La Sal Trail, further north this time. Autumn is happening quickly in the high country. Leaves have changed dramatically in just a week.

Early in the day, I run into a herd of bikers where the Trans La Sal Trail shares tread with the Whole Enchalada Bike Trail. They laugh and chatter as I scurry quickly, leaping off the trail as they wizz by. Until I reach the next turn and am back on the empty hiking only trail. After they pass, I realize just how quiet it is up here. Except for the distant call of elk bugling.
Gently rustling aspen leaves.
Later in the afternoon, I take a detour on an old road. I see two hunters, apparently father and son. They move quietly and leave few footprints. I wonder if they heard the elk too.
Place of swirling winds.
Since moving back to Utah, I still haven't quite gotten used to the quiet here. Kentucky was a cacophony of grasshoppers, cicadas, and frogs. Loud, boisterous, surround-sound, full of life. Here in Utah, there is mostly silence, other than the elk and wind.
Silently fluttering field crescent (Phyciodes pulchella)
I'd been wondering all day where they are, but the echoing of the calls in the valleys makes them hard to locate. Looking downslope on my way to my chosen campsite reveals the answer. A big bull elk with his head tilted back, the sound emerging. Two females are in the meadow beside him. I'm pretty far away so I don't think they can they see me, but of course I don't approach. Though I wish I had my binoculars.
The strange call reminds me of whale, piercing, haunting, beautiful. What would it be like to have a voice like that that penetrates so far?

I climb as high as I can to watch the sunset. Wind gusts driving me back to the shelter of trees and my hidden hammock in the trees above the elk.
Peering into redrock country
Dancing light
Castle Valley
 In my hammock, I slip into my cozy down sleeping bag, down booties and down hat. It was risky camping this high given the forecast calls for freezing temperatures tonight. But for the sunset and the bugling all night, it is worth it.
Worth it.
Wind like a creature, like a freight train. The air is alive, wandering air. I can relate to this wind, always in motion, never managing to stay still. It gains force in the wee hours of the night. Snug, I enjoy being surround by its restless nature.
 In the morning, I find a side trail on my map and decide to check it out, following the narrow tread upwards. More bugling in the distance. Listening to myself breathing and thinking how out of shape I still feel, I round the corner and there they are: silky coats, muscles. Elk. My heart races. So close! A branch breaks under my boot and they bolt. Gone.
Trembling aspen
At the end of the side trail, there is a scree field so I continue across on rocks, listening to their hollow sounds under my feet. Trying to spot the pikas that sound their eep-alerts as I approach.
Wandering around on the rock
On my way back to the trailhead, I think about all these sounds, those of the creatures, the wind, and the human sounds. I've been reading this book called "Wild Soundscapes" (by Bernie Krause) that talks about how to study the health of an ecosystem using sounds and why it's important to study changes in soundscapes. Normally, I get preoccupied with visual things and scents, but out here, the natural sounds are just as engaging and unique. I hope they stay wild.

Date hiked: September 16-17, 2017