ESCALANTE ADVENTURES. When the Perfect Trip Goes South, Both Literally and Figuratively.

How can a place bring every emotion to the surface? As I sit here and scratch out words, I contemplate this place I visited. It gave and took from me so savagely and in equal measures, that I am still recovering, both mentally and physically. I will forever be marked by this adventure into the wild landscape of the high desert, I had to reach deep for the strength and endurance that was sleeping in the depths of me. My strength was not only my own, but also from the strength of those who journeyed with me, whose energy, positivity and knowledge, helped me tremendously, especially when I hit a wall, and was no longer able to move a muscle and was ready to raise the white flag of surrender. This group of people elevated the energy of the landscape.  And this land…taught me a new lesson.

The place that elevated and wrenched my soul all at once was in a canyon system in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. This place requires work to find the beauty and grandeur that hides within her depths, unlike places such as Zion, Bryce and the Grand Canyon, whose striking beauty and appeal is appreciated the moment you drive into the parks, unlike the dirt roads and tangles of trails that seem to go to no where. Escalante, Utah has been on my personal radar for sometime; the high-desert, canyons, water, no little to no people for 100’s of miles once you leave the town proper, these qualities have much appeal to me.  During Spring Break this year, we briefly explored this area, dropping into slot canyons, watching the light play off angles, sleeping under open skies and enjoying my favorite people.  Nature’s ability to shape the world around us, is short of astonishing, the slot canyons and landscape that we explored were shaped with wind, water and time.

However, this recent trip wasn’t the relaxed pace that our Spring Break was set at. This recent trip was planned by a friend to explore canyons that get little traffic, pack raft through these canyons into the Escalante arm of Lake Powell, then back on foot through and into more canyon. It was a multi-day trip, which required planning, gear, mental fortitude, a little grit, hard work, and a whole lot of “go!” The trip started by meeting the group we would be hiking with in Escalante, carb and green loading on pizza and salad at Escalante Outfitters, eventually making our way down Hole in the Rock Rd to set our first night camp.  That evening we stretched our legs and made last minute pack adjustments prior to planned am departure.

The start of the hike was slow, since we were all adjusting to the weight of our packs, taking in the desert, giggling at our dogs excitement as they explored this new place, breathing in the energy of these canyons that had been blessed by the influx of water, which as allowed every imaginable flower to bloom and blossom. We shimmied through sandstone cracks, fingers tracing the history written in the walls, our eyes adjusting to the light and shadows dancing in Willow Gulch.  Each turn in the canyon was a surprise with new views, such as turning a corner to see Broken Arrow Arch come into view.  A break in an alcove under the arch, near a cool pool that was fed by gentle moving water, in which the dogs jumped and played, while enjoyed snacks and a welcome rest.

After the break, the canyon walls started to close, water was collecting in deeper pools; frogs, tadpols and crawfish swam across our toes as we padded through these collections of water. As the canyon closed, each step became more careful, the moss was quietly treacherous, and a single misstep could derail your entire trip.

The misstep was my own. Half-way through the first day, a slip and hard fall in a deep pool, with a heavy pack and slippery moss laid thick on the sandstone beneath my feet, stuck in chip-deep water. I was struggling and honestly a little scared. I couldn’t find solid ground, fighting with the weight of my pack, which didn’t help me get out of my trapped situation.  Finally, Alek grabbed my pack and pulled me out of the pool, somehow, either upon entry or exit, my foot was bleeding and my knee was injured. Concerned voices rang in my ears and I gingerly unbuckled my pack.  Returning to solid ground was disorienting, my knee throbbed, my foot was bleeding, it was hard to focus and breath, nonetheless, determine what was fine and what was injured.  It took me a minute, but I dusted myself off, put socks on to cover the open wound, pulled my pack back on and kept moving. We moved through more tight slots, at one point creating a chain in one area to prevent us from swimming with our packs on! Teamwork was in session during this moment, there was a few giggles as we struggled to move the heavy packs to dry ground without dropping them.  The rest of the day felt like a slog, but there were moments in which I was able to take in the oasis that we moved through: sculptures of sandstone, waterfalls and new life blooming all around.

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Team work to move packs! Post injury – still able to capture the moment.

Reaching camp that first day seemed like an exercise in mental and physical endurance, we all crumbled on the soft, sandy beach in sheer exhaustion and sore, achy muscles no longer willing to take another step.  Camp was gingerly set, my knee screamed at me all evening and into the night, providing little rest or reprieve, but with my eyes wide open, I was able enjoy millions, upon billions of stars, on that clear night in the backcountry. Laying there also made me tap into the realization that this trip was not going to be the gentle ache of hard work and beauty, but more of a raw, gritty certainty towards some kinds of self-actualization or break-down. We, much like the surrounding sandstone, are shaped by the environment, either curving or breaking depending on the force.

In the morning, my body woke me with its need for regular function.  The walk to find a semi-private, suitable piece of real estate to relieve myself, had my Physical Therapy brain shouting at me, “FORM, MECHANICS, RANGE OF MOTION, DO’s, DON’Ts and MODIFICATIONS!!!!!!”  My right leg immediately reminded me that I was going to face many challenges on this trip and going to use the restroom was first of many. Luckily, our morning was a lazy one, with the maiden voyage on the packrafts on the horizon.  The ritual of camping and being in the backcountry is one of the things I most look forward to, packing, unpacking, re-organization, repacking and the quiet rustling of gear and feet.

Packrafting is a brilliant way to see more of the backcountry via waterways. If you do not know much about packrafts, I recommend you check out Alpacka’s website: About Alpacka or even better, listen to the podcast on “She Explores” with Alpacka founder Sheri Tingey: She Explores Interview with Sheri Tingey.  A good friend was willing and able to lend us his custom packraft, along with an original model from a willing friend of his for this trip.  They are light-weight and inflate rather quickly with a “air-bag” rather than a pump system.  They are fun, playful crafts that have a low flip point, so, you would have to be really bad at life or having a bad day to flip on flat water. Although the packraft section of the trip was a great break from full weight-bearing, the reminder that I injured my knee came at every break, when I was forced to stand. Moving through the Escalante arm of Lake Powell, with the low water levels, gave us a glimpse of this once majestic canyon system. There was one point when we had to wait out a storm on a sandstone bench, and Alek found a “shipwrecked beer,” it was as if a small request for the fermented good was answered! The conclusion of water came to in Davis Gulch, where the marks of the water level and zebra mussel infestations from 10 years ago was at least 80 feet higher than it is today, each drop in water was well marked with mussels that were fossilizing on their final perch.

The remaining days were filled with canyons and load that never felt any lighter, laughing in the rain and grappling with the pain, and often self-defeat. There were many times that I had to dig deep to continue moving and to let go of the fact I was not going to be performing at the same level, I was in a vulnerable place.  Although, throughout this reflection, there is a lot of talk about pain and some negative aspects related to this concept, however, there was also so much magic related to this trip, I do not have enough words to describe. Honestly, everyone needs to experience the desert in a gentle female rain (Navajo belief – female rain is gentle and soothing, male rain represents thunderstorms), where the landscape is tenderly cleaned and everything awakes, the smells, plants and life in the landscape.

From start to finish, this adventure was a journey. I do offer some advice for anyone who sustains a minor injury (an often painful injury, that does not threaten life, mobility or long-term survival). Whether you are alone, or with a group, have a good first aid kit and contingency plan, continue with the original plan, make modifications within reason, or abort the trip.

  1. Assess the injury. Minor injuries include: shallow cuts or abrasions, sprains and muscle strains, bruises and skin lesions, and/or minor burns covering only a small area of skin.
  2. Address the wound with the material you have in the first aid kit.
  3. Have a serious discussion with the group (or yourself) on how to continue without further injury or how to minimize injury.
  4. In regards to sprains and strains, try to maintain full range of motion of the injured joint and take breaks to decrease stresses from weight bearing.
  5. Most important – keep a positive mindset. The negativity will take you way down.  If you are able to look at the fact that you are strong enough to be out there, you will also see you are strong enough to get out.

A major injury would include compound fractures, any type of head or eye injury, deep lacerations, severe or extensive burns OR any injury accompanied by chest pain, paralysis, confusion, severe bleeding or unconsciousness. These injuries require immediate medical attention and would take an immense amount of work, skills and services to get any of these persons medical attention.

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