Earth Notes
12:10 am
Thu December 15, 2005

Escalante River Journey

Escalante River, Utah – When I first inquired about running the Escalante River, I was sent a small booklet put out by the Bureau of Land Management titled Floating the Escalante River: Or Pushing, Pulling, Towing, and Portaging Your Boat Down the Escalante River.

You see, the Escalante River is runnable only when there is sufficient snowmelt in the springtime usually only a few weeks, if at all. It is an 80-mile run from the put-in near the town of Escalante in Southern Utah to Lake Powell. The attraction here is not huge rapids and big water, but rather its scenic route through some of the most remote and remarkable canyon country in the Southwest.

Things finally came together this year. A well-above normal snowpack in the mountains coincided with a flexible enough schedule for me to wait for runoff to begin. I wrangled my older brother, Coyote Bill, to join me. It would be brothers trip. We planned for 12 days.

The water, as it turned out, was way up, with a flow not seen in recent memory. I planned to document the trip on video using a platform I built for my boat and am concerned about how this high flow would affect us. The swift water could change the character of the river making maneuvering more challenging and posing a danger to my exposed camera.

At our launch point, where a bridge on Highway 12 spans the river, we methodically pump up our inflatable kayaks. These are the boats of choice since they are small and maneuverable on a river channel sometimes all of 2 driveways wide.

My boat looks more like a cataraft. It has 2 banana-shaped tubes with a mesh seat between and a toe-bar for my feet. It is an odd design, like a Fred Flinstone car, but it get 80 miles to a gallon of just about anything at least on this trip. Water tight bags hold all of our food and clothes. Each had to be secured by straps into D-rings or grommets on our boats in case of a flip.

Launching our boats, we sail downstream like a child plunging down a slide. The river is channeled with no slack water or eddies visible on the sides. Instead there are Russian olive trees that over-hang to water level. On the branches are 2-inch long thorns. We immediately encounter this gauntlet and for the entire first day we are constantly raked by the branches and thorns. I remembered a person who gave me some advice about the river saying to me: Remember your pith helmet.

The Russian olive is categorized as a noxious weed in Utah and it out competes the native vegetation such as the cottonwood trees. After being introduced to the Western states in the late 1800's for use as an ornamental tree and windbreak, the tree gradually spread to the wild. Eradication is difficult and so now we float amidst a lovely perfume and a flurry of bird activity and are left to imagining what these banks looked like before the seeds of this thorned monster took hold.

I quickly discover my boat is top heavy. It feels sluggish from the weight I am carrying. I have a platform on the front of my boat for my video camera. On this platform is my homemade mounting system made of flanges and pipe. I am also carrying a tripod, batteries, tapes, and waterproof boxes. Added to this was my personal gear and food. I quickly learn the consequences of too much weight and a poor packing job when my boat is suddenly turned sideways on a submerged boulder

No harm done. Got that out of the way.

This was not the last flip of the trip, or for that matter, the day. Both Coyote Bill and I were dunked at the same spot when our boats were taken over by the current and driven into an overhang. But we gradually find our rhythm. Straight-a-ways find us cascading through ripples. Then as each dogleg in the river approaches, we position our boats on the inside curve and then paddle hard across the current so as not to be driven into the approaching wall.

Several miles from the put-in, Boulder Creek enters and more than doubles the flow. It feels more like a river now. I get the feeling we will not be doing much pushing, pulling and towing on this trip. We hoot and flash wide smiles as move slowly down canyon toward our first camp of the journey. I am cherishing these moments. Trying not to look too far ahead. Trying to stay in the present.

We had survived our first day on the Escalante River without too much damage or lost gear that amounted to 2 bandanas and Coyote's lunch, which fell out of his boat on his flip. Better yet, we had lived it, plunged ourselves into it. And, we have many more days and nights to come. The sound and presence of the river will be with us now. So too, the loud shapes of the canyon walls.