FISH & 0WL CREEK ADVENTURE
Spring Break :
Two magical words to students and teachers throughout the land. For many, it means a week of sun and fun with throngs of wonderful weather worshippers on a stretch of sun-baked sand. Not particularly partial to crowds, myself, to me it means a pilgrimage to the deserts of Southeastern Utah. Arches, Canyonlands, Natural Bridges, Hovenweep, Glen Canyon, Grand Gulch, Escalante, Dark Canyon, Bears Ears, these federally protected wildlands provide a cornucopia of hiking delights.
I-70 provides a direct access to these desert wonderlands of sun and sandstone. Heading west, out of Denver, once over Vail Pass we begin our descent from the Rocky Mountains into the dry, austere lands of the plateaus. Through the Colorado River’s Glenwood Canyon, navigating the highway’s astounding engineering tour de force, we keep an eye out for bighorn sheep along the canyon walls. How did they build the highway out into the channel of the mighty Colorado, like that? Amazing!
Leaving late on Thursday afternoon, driving into Grand Junction at the edge of the desert, I’m ready to stop for the night. We’ll continue our trek into the desert “wasteland” in the morning.
Our motel restaurant breakfasts had barely finished sliding into our expanded bellies as we were climbing into the old Landcruiser wagon – all gassed up and once again heading west on I-70. Colorado National Monument practically glittered seductively on the Colorado River’s south shore as we hurried by on the
4-lane blacktop. Maybe next time we’ll visit the canyons and arches south of the river, there.
Soon, the “Leaving Colorful Colorado” hand-routed wood signs are upon us and we are Welcomed to Utah. It’s only 25 more miles to our turnoff at Cisco – next services 42-miles. The river is hiding as it cuts into Westwater Canyon along the Colorado/Utah border. When we turn off at Cisco – my passengers’ eyebrows rise at least 2”. Who can blame them, deserting the remnants of civilization (the interstate) and entering the burned up, dead-sage desert surrounding the dried up “Ghost Town” of Cisco does seem like madness to the uninitiated traveler.
“Soon we’ll be back along the Colorado River”, I say to try and comfort them, in my best Tour Guide’s voice. “That’s Good!” says Leigh, in a much-relieved sighing voice. “This place is f’ing disgusting! People really live here? Ugh!”
“It’s a bit different from back home in Virginia, huh, Dave?” Dave’s voice responds from the back seat, “Shit Yeah!” while my wife, co-pilot, navigator and oh-so-better half Karen slides a Jerry Jeff Walker tape into the cassette deck. We come up fast on the tail end of a Winnebago convoy, at least ten of them, most towing a small car or imported pickup behind their behemoth cruisers. Following their wallowing chassis is a bright orange VW bug and our dirt brown Toyota Landcruiser FJ60 in a frustrating parody of a slow-moving holiday parade.
Now that we’re across the Utah border, there seem to only be Colorado license plates on the traveling vehicles – and throughout our trip it will be the same. Where does Colorado spend their spring break? Utah.
I lick my lips in anticipation and taste the alkali desert dust. Cranking up the A/C a notch – following too closely behind the Winnebago’s huge butt, we can feel the slow progress towards the wet and wild Colorado River, just ahead. In my mind I see a grainy black and white photo of an ancient truck on the crowded wall of the hallway to the men’s room in an après ski Breckenridge saloon. The old truck sits high on tall tires; it’s rusty, beat-up and stopped directly in the middle of the white-washed wooden suspension bridge we are quickly approaching here at Cisco. It’s my all-time favorite bridge and a true highlight for me of every trip to the southeast Utah desert. When it was built in 1912, the Dewey Bridge was the second-longest suspension bridge west of the Mississippi River. It was built to support the weight of six horses, three wagons and nearly five tons of freight, but at only 8 feet across, a single lane that is only just barely wide enough – make sure your mirrors are folded in.
I'm thinking hard, wondering… when did we come here last? Was it in 1983? On our trip into the wilds of Grand Gulch? “Karen”, I query, “Do you know?”
“Was it before Mollie was born?” she responds. “Yeah, I think so – Jeez, that’s seven years ago.”
Since then, we’ve had one child – waited a few more years and then (Oh No) twins that are just over two years old. They are in kid heaven for the next five days, staying with grandparents in a Denver suburban brick neighborhood with our two new golden retriever puppies. It’s not that easy leaving them, but, … then again.
My anticipation is growing, but I still can’t see the river; although the tightening radius of the highway curves indicates our approach to the valley of the mighty Colorado is very near. The motor home in front of us wallows along at a snail’s pace – below the green/white Colorado license plate is boldly painted,
“Herb & Jan R Gon Again”.
Ain’t that cute. Yeah, maybe for the first 20 miles but any longer and I may have to smash into them with the Landcruiser’s stout steel front bumper and careen them into the borrow ditch. At last, along the river’s edge, nearer and nearer the iconic bridge, it beckons us. Wait a minute I think to myself – How in the hell will these wide-ass, Winnebago moving roadblocks fit through the narrow one-lane wooden bridge? Will they?
Oh Shit! My heart drops to my ankles as we glide effortlessly up and over a new, perfectly engineered, bland, modern concrete bridge. Shit! Shit! Shit! My vintage bridge is still there, not 70 feet away, fenced off to keep vandals and suicide jumpers away and also curious, clumsy touristas. I have waxed enthusiastic for 100 miles to the back seat passengers about this great historic bridge and there it sits/now only a museum piece, no longer a real bridge to somewhere, but a doomed bridge to nowhere.
Our disappointment quickly abates once the RV parade we’ve been a part of decides to take advantage of the two BLM riverside porta-potties and they ALL PULL OFF! Yeah! Now we can enjoy the breathtaking beauty of the spectacular Colorado River Canyon, unhindered. Pink sandstone along the north shore and red tower-forming cliffs upon the south side range from tiny spires to dwindling buttes as we drive parallel to the river’s course downstream towards Moab.
Well, it’s been several years since our last visit to Moab – Karen and I hardly know the place – progress, uninhibited growth and more mountain bikes than Colorado’s cosmic Boulder announce the changes. Hot and sunny, it feels real good as the warm-dry desert air begins to soak into our chilled winter-fat skins and awaken our hibernating muscles, tendons, ligaments and nerves.
Heading south, we pass Hole in the Rock, speeding past numerous exciting back-country turn offs, the Manti La Sals, the Needles, and Lisbon Valley Industrial Area, oh well. Finally, south of Bluff, we turn on Utah 95, and head toward our destination of Fish and Owl Creeks. We drive through the road cut in the Comb Ridge Sandstone and ignoring the multiple warning signs we pull off the road and climb out of the truck –
No Stopping or Standing – to get a bird’s eye view of Comb Wash, the Abajo Mountains, Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa. Somewhere down there on the west side of Comb Wash our destination canyons meet in the sandy bottom of the wide wash.
Not much further now! Climbing out of Comb Wash we make our way west onto Cedar Mesa. I glimpse a tiny Anasazi ruin near the rim of a small side canyon as we roar by on the blacktop highway. We cross the upper reaches of Fish Creek just before the turn off to the BLM’s Kane Gulch Ranger Station and our trailhead.
It is Friday afternoon as we roll into the gravel parking area at Kane Gulch. A water tanker truck is drafting from the creek bed as we coast to a stop next to the trailer’s whitewashed steps. I can see the BLM ranger moving down in the Gulch, as he slowly crosses the paved road, crunches into the rock covered lot and then cordially invites us into the small, neat, white, government trailer that serves as a Ranger Station. As we mount the steps the hand lettered, faded info sign says, RANGER is Out To Lunch. I’m smiling inside.
It takes only a few minutes to obtain our official backcountry permit – 2 xeroxed sheets inform us about the Anasazi ruins we’ll have to respect for the next four days. “Do you know about middens?” asks the ranger with the curly red beard and dust stained levis. “Have you been here before?”
“Trash heaps?” I ask and answer, “Grand Gulch a few years ago. We hiked a loop”.
“Yes, that’s it” says the ranger. “Please be careful when you approach any ruins to avoid making or following trails over or through the middens. This protects the archaeology of the numerous ruins, found here. Have Fun. Be Careful! Please sign out when you come out of the canyons on Monday.” With that, spiel over, we are out the door.
A smooth five-mile track through the pinyon-juniper woodland leads us to the trailhead. Only a few cars are parked there as we pull into the shade of some tall junipers to pack and repack our backpacks, eat lunch and inventory our expedition- worthy mountain of backpacking gear and food.
The white slick rock where we sit and eat is packed with potholes up to 8” deep and filled with amazingly delicate, transparent fairy shrimp. Mountain bike tracks line the soft earth in the bottoms of a few of the dry potholes next to our stacks and piles of sorted gear. The scene resembles a mountain town garage sale.
“How many tents?” asks David.
“Probably don’t need any,” I say. “But, we’ll take our dome. We can all cram into it in an emergency.”
“We’ll take our own.” Dave declares as he stuffs the tent sack and poles into his Camp Trails backpack. The pack looks old and abused – It’s faded, red aluminum frame and tattered bag with busted zippers is a veritable antique.
“How old is that?” I ask.
“Since Boy Scouts, I’ve had it for years” he replies.
Leigh is David’s long-time girlfriend – she’s recovering from a knee injury – she’s never been backpacking before. The BLM map and info sheet advise, “This trip is not for Novices!” ‘She’ll be fine” says Dave. He’s on his first desert trip, as well, although he has backpacked many times over the years in his native Appalachians.
I heft the dinner bag, lunch bag and breakfast bag saying, “Who wants the heavy one?” “Not Me” says Karen, while she attempts to fill her navy blue pack’s top section with the lightest equipment and gear that she can find. I take the lunches. Dave gets the dinners and Karen reluctantly agrees to find a place for the royal blue stuff sack full of breakfast items. She’s always color-coordinated. I pull on Danner mountain boots and hang the old, beat up Nike Lava Domes on my Kelty Expedition Pack flap strings. They’ll be my slippers for the next four days. 2 quarts of water in each pack should do it, the topo maps are stuffed into Karen’s clear map pouch on top of her high tech frame pack. I help it up onto her shoulders, she slides into it and buckles the waist belt across the curve of her hips. I swing mine up onto a hip and then slip both arms into the pack straps and buckle the hip belt on the way to the trail. We only have to unlock and lock the car doors 4 or 5 times before everyone remembers all the stuff they need. We meet the two rookies from Virginia over at the trailhead sign.
David and Leigh stop at the trailhead sign and in classic fashion, ask, “Which way do we go?” They each point in opposite directions. Off we go.
We have chosen to hike our loop in a counter-clockwise direction. We’re heading down Owl Creek and then east to the confluence with Fish Creek at Comb Wash. Then, we’ll head upstream along Fish Creek and back out to the trailhead at the canyon that lies just to the north.
We drop into the steep canyon rift that is Owl Creek Canyon. Immediately, there’s an Anasazi ruin sitting deep in a cleft below the canyon cap rock to our right. Faded handprints decorate the pink canyon walls. The sandstone here is nearly vertical, we slide on our butts down the stair steps as the canyon is engulfed in shadow. We are off to a late start – so what else is new – but shouldn’t have very far to go to find a good campsite for tonight.
Tiring after only a little over an hour of hiking, sliding, crawling, wandering and searching to follow “the trail” down the upper reaches of Owl Canyon, it is time to stop for the night. We find an excellent campsite on a nice flat bench above the tiny creek where the side canyon of the North Fork of Owl Canyon joins Owl Creek. As we are getting it together for dinner, I take the cooking pots to fill with water from a semi-stagnant pool. A fellow hiker greets us – she’s camping just up the North Fork side canyon – from Salt Lake City, she’s been in here for six days and clearly she’s anything but ready to leave.
“I’d really like to stay” she waxes, “this place is so great. We’ve seen a little of everything, lots of water and amazing ruins, except for the ones on the map and today I found a kiva, no really, unmarked on the map, up the canyon, it was so fantastic! You should check it out, too.”
Her rapid travelogue is almost too fast to follow as she provides a synopsis of her last six days. Sadly, she lingers, “Tomorrow we go out. Back to civilization and I’m not looking forward to it. Have Fun! You’ll love it,” and with that her dark brown, lean and leathery Anasazi-like body disappears into the shadowy slickrock of the canyon.
We sat down for an excellent 3-course dinner of freaking fajitas! No wonder our damn packs feel so heavy. Foil wrapped fajitas and tortillas. No chips, No Salsa, no Sopapillas, just Wyler’s Lemonade Margaritas, and limes. It was quite tasty, but ultra Heavy! Shit!
As we hike into its lower reaches, Owl Canyon becomes more and more spectacular. Before reaching the main canyon we come to a tall, narrow, pour-off into a deep, cold, exotic looking plunge pool. The water is beautiful, so clear and inviting but we are twenty feet above it and must traverse all the way to the end of a side canyon to gain access to the canyon floor. David leads the way and quickly has us all ledge walking and rock climbing down the sandstone in our heavy packs. Yikes! Routefinding? Nah, Way to go, Dave.
It is worth it once we reach the level of the pool. A truly perfect campsite lies just downstream from this natural water park. We’d have chosen it had we started a bit earlier, yesterday, as our first night’s stop over. We swim – cool off – eat a leisurely lunch – and reluctantly don our heavy packs to begin traipsing down canyon towards the main Owl Canyon and another huge pool.
After a short burst of activity, we all stand above the big lower pool and since no one is around, we toss rocks into it. Splash! If we were cliff dwellers this would be great, however, we’ve miles to go before we sleep and so we shuffle off about a half-mile down this side canyon before we finally gain the bottom of the main canyon and its smooth, red slickrock floor. Although we’d love to, we don’t have the time or inclination to hike up to this big pool, so wistfully, we turn our heads back upstream to the pool, wishing for more time and energy, but instead continue doggedly downstream toward the confluence of Fish and Owl.
Numerous ruins are shown on our topo maps, but we spot very few, the canyon walls here are so vertical and so rugged that the tiny rock shelters and granaries are lost in the overwhelming verticality of the topography. We follow the bubbling stream in the canyon bottom, kicking up dust from the sandy hiking trail. The vistas are constantly more and more amazing until a large arch appears on the north side of the canyon high up on the towering wall. Neville Arch is marked on the map, and from our angle below we can see the cap rock of the mesa through the huge window in the arch. After much photography and enthusiastic discussion, we realize that we missed our last water stop and we are dry. So, ever the gentlemen, Dave and I hike back upstream to find the creek and fill all of our bottles while the ladies take a “rest” beneath the arch.
On the return to our lazy partners, we meet an outfitter with five llamas, each carrying about 100 lbs. He tells us that he will be setting up camp for a party just below the 2nd plunge pool. While his stock carries their heavy packs, he is unencumbered, wearing only a small fanny pack as he holds the goofy-looking creatures by a colorful braided lead rope. He remarks that the llamas haul in the beer and steaks, folding chairs, tents, etc. He’s out of Green River, Utah and has given my wife his business card. When we reach the girls, Leigh is very excited!
“I touched one! I petted him!”
“Why can’t we travel like that?” Karen complains.
Now, my pack feels like at least 100 lbs when I strap it back on. The last section of Owl Creek opens up wider and wider but also becomes ever drier. We are parched and exhausted when we finally turn the corner into Fish Creek. About a half-mile up the canyon we choose a quiet, peaceful campsite under scraggly cottonwoods in a large bowl-shaped section of the canyon. Hot, weary and hungry we set up camp and enjoy Tea-Time of Wyler’s Lemonade and gin with Snake Bites after dinner and cheesecake for desert. We always seem to eat pretty well on these trips. Post dinner, we tell stories, joke around and enjoy the epic light show that is the night sky away from city lights. Our companions marvel at the beauty of the Milky Way as they have never witnessed it before. Counting stars, we are soon fast asleep under them.
After a gourmet breakfast, with David exploring a side canyon while Leigh took advantage of our creek side location by washing her golden tresses, Karen and I just soaked in the desert majesty and simply goofed off. Only minutes later, David’s whistle pierced the air, capturing our attention. Waving wildly, he beckoned for us to come and see what treasures he had found. The girls were too laid back to get up, but I was game and when we met, he’d uncovered some small pottery shards near the remnants of a couple tiny dwellings or granaries hiding in the early morning shadow. There were piles of small seeds back in the storage areas. Each seed was pierced by a teeny, tiny hole giving the impression that they were miniature beads, but what were they, really? We’d have to ask the ranger back at Kane Gulch to explain the mystery, on our way back out.
Dave and I killed at least 30 minutes searching for potsherds and we found a mano and metate, some stone scrapers and we gathered them all together for a picture or two. Then, carefully placing them back where we had found them we returned to camp. The black and white pattern on the pottery conjured up visions of the people who had once called this sandstone ledge their home. Dave and I scanned the canyon walls and marveled at the view these folks had enjoyed from their front porch. Both up and downstream the scene was blissfully peaceful, just sandstone, cedar and cottonwoods with the glint of sunlight from the ribbon of water flowing in Fish Creek.
Living up to its name, the creek does have fish, from 1” up to 4-5” long, we see them darting along in the deeper sections of the stream channel as we cast shadows across the surface of the slow moving stream. The canyon here is narrow with vertical walls and very short and steep side canyons, making it very different than the grander lower Owl Creek Canyon just over those steep walls to the south.
Hiking beside the creek, our packs were finally beginning to feel right. Our bodies adjusted to the tightness of the waist belt across our hips and the strain of the pack straps on our shoulders. The packs were even beginning to feel a bit lighter as we consumed more of our gourmet mealtime fare.
The hike up Fish Creek is a visual treat with sandstone monoliths, vertical walls and always the sound and sight of water trickling and sliding over the rocky streambed towards Comb Wash. We had some friends from Silverton camped down there in Comb Wash. They had also made the trip from the Rocky Mountains to the Utah desert, car camping with their dogs and kids. Their camp was only about a half dozen miles away down in the big wash, as we trudged along soaking in the desert sun, shade, and reflections completely surrounded by colorful sandstone and indigo blue sky in the protected walls of the canyon. Maybe we’d have time to drive down the wash on our way out on Monday to say hello and share some stories and our love and longing for these springtime desert experiences. If not, then we’d have to plan a trip to Silverton, high in the San Juan Mountains, the place that they call home.
Our weather was clear and beautiful, but storm clouds began building over Cedar Mesa as we continued up the streambed. As a few large raindrops hit and disappeared into the dry sand underfoot, we stopped for lunch in the lee of a huge midstream boulder. The wind blowing down from the canyon’s upper reaches blew cool air, almost cold, as we ate in the cover of that two-story rock.
The shower was all too brief, maybe 20 seconds of splattering rain quickly replaced by the warming rays of the sun. No longer in danger of getting wet, we quickly began to dine on our usual yummy fare. These tasty treats filled us with renewed energy for the trek ahead, as we sprawled contentedly atop large flat-topped boulders at the water’s edge.
* Homemade Peanut Butter Fudge (Karen’s favorite backpacking delicacy)
with more Wyler’s Lemonade made fresh from treated Fish Creek water in our Nalgene bottles
Luxuriating in the sunlight, we savored fresh oranges, while another group of hikers marched up the streambed into view. We’d already seen two of them earlier that morning, practically racing down towards the confluence of the two creeks with just a bright red summit pack, between them. As we exchanged “Good Morning”, they indicated that they were hurrying back to their last campsite in Owl Creek to get a bowl that they’d somehow left behind in transit. Laughing about it, they good-naturedly sped down the trail that we’d traveled much more slowly the evening before.
We were incredulous, why would anyone walk all the way back into the next canyon for just a bowl? “He must really love that bowl”, quipped Dave. We had a pretty good laugh at their expense, then, but here, at lunchtime, they had already caught up with us, even with their foray back to Owl to rescue the wayward bowl. Needless to say, they had made pretty good time, moving much faster than our lazy pace could muster.
As a party of four, the two guys from the morning walk into Owl and another guy and girl, they had huge backpacks on that towered massively above their heads. I had only seen gear like this once before. During a summer in the Wind River Range of Wyoming where the NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) tested the stamina of their students with these gargantuan 100+ lb. packs, I’d witnessed these human pack animals, hiking the trails near Gannett Peak, Wyoming's highest summit.
As they reached our noon retreat they joined us for a friendly chat.
“Are you NOLS?” I asked instantaneously.
“Yes, we are” responded their leader, a small-in-stature blond guy, “We’ve been out for 23 days and we’re heading in tomorrow.” His pack was big, probably nearly as tall as he was, and undoubtedly full of nearly everything but the kitchen sink. Climbing gear and rope hung from the pack like a multi-colored garland, ready for deployment, if needed, with military efficiency.
As they told of their 23-day adventure, I watched the faces of our girls. Karen and Leigh both had faces that showed total disbelief. Why would anyone want to do this for three weeks? They couldn’t even imagine being away from civilization for such a long time. The NOLS group had hiked down Grand Gulch, then along the San Juan River to John’s Canyon. Then into Owl Creek where they had spent the past few days. Now, they were heading to the North Fork of Fish Creek to try their hand at canyoneering the rock falls and pour offs that made traveling the virtually unexplored North Fork a risky and adventurous exercise.
Had they enjoyed their outing? Their yes was a conditional one. They had really missed only a few facets of civilization, like, ice cream, cold beer and hot showers. They were keeping up a good pace and hoped to make it as far up the North Fork of Fish Creek as possible, that night, and then on to Kane Gulch and civilization the next day. Not able to dawdle, they stepped on out with their big packs on while we relaxed without our packs for another thirty minutes at the water’s edge.
Eventually, as they say, all good things must come to an end, and we still wanted to make it as close as possible to the “trail” that climbed the canyon walls back onto Cedar Mesa by nightfall. Leigh’s knees seemed to be holding up well. David was reveling in the isolated beauty of the desert – like a true Desert Rat. Karen and I were both soaking up the warmth, scenery and peace of this isolated canyon system with renewed awareness of just how necessary these springtime desert trips become to your constitution after a long cold, high-country winter.
The hike continued, straying now and then up onto the banks of Fish Creek but mostly heading directly up the stream channel to provide wonderful glimpses of this phenomenal example of erosion. Checks of the topo map apprised us of our relative location and we kept a sharp lookout for the landmarks and ruins labeled on the USGS maps. Finding an almost invisible arch on the north side of the streambed about half way up the sheer canyon walls, we vainly searched for it on the map, but nothing. Another arch marked on the map eluded us, as did the marked ruins. They were completely lost in the grand scale and sweep of this maze of colorful sandstone. We kept looking for them, though, as Karen and David took turns navigating, attempting to discern our location by matching the canyon’s magnificent contours with those tiny brown lines on the printed USGS maps. For Dave, it was totally unlike any place he’d ever been or backpacked before. His native Appalachians had provided him with many exciting adventures, but nothing like the feeling of real wild wilderness conjured up by this remote corner of Utah’s Canyon Country.
As the south side of the canyon darkened in lengthening shadow, we drew nearer to the junction with the North Fork. The narrow canyon walls were towering above us with one dark side and the other bathed in golden evening light, when my eyes caught a group of shapes way up high on the north wall. A grouping of four unmistakable black rectangles contrasted with the peach colored cedar mesa sandstone. And just barely visible in the twilight was a pattern of red and white running horizontally right across those rectangles. I broke out my binoculars, focusing on the steep north walls and there sat the unmarked ruins of a long deserted Anasazi home. Pointing the shapes out to the rest of the gang took awhile, but eventually all had searched the sheer sandstone, discovering the cliff dwellings high above our heads.
Large pools in the creek bed were inviting and must have provided water aplenty for the past residents, in their hey day. The conditions must have been really tough in the 13th century for these families to have ever given up their idyllic lives in this pristine, spectacular Eden. But, leave they did, migrating south to the Pueblos along the Rio Grande, far to the south in New Mexico.
Salt cedars grew very thick along the stream bank and huge boulder falls from the ruins side canyon made camping along the creek here, impossible, so continuing upstream around the next bend we met the North Fork Canyon running into the main canyon from the right. A large flat bench about 30 feet above the stream made a natural campsite with an astonishing view directly up both forks of the twisty slickrock canyon.
Gaining the bench, we dropped our heavy packs with pleasure and practically floated above the ground with the lightness and comfort that comes from getting out of your backpack at the end of the day, Karen and I quickly washed up and gathered water for dinner while David explored the upper reaches of the main canyon. Leigh picked up firewood for a small campfire from the piles of driftwood along the creek.
With our chores completed, we began the process of preparing dinner and mixing up some cocktails for Tea-Time/Happy Hour. Pumping and firing-up my 15-year old MSR stove we listened contentedly to the roaring of the burner that although old and well-used, was still going strong. The stove’s loud burner cut through the absolute stillness of the evening, as the “golden hour” light rose higher up the canyon walls. Soon, the water was boiling and a few handfuls of noodles slid into the bubbling pot.
There’s a classic Sierra Club Cookbook that we’ve picked recipes from for many years and for an assortment of backcountry hiking trips throughout the west. Karen gleaned the makings of her favorite peanut butter fudge that she was snacking on earlier in our adventure from this venerable source. A simple dinner from the book is Alpine Spaghetti – a concoction of spaghetti noodles, a can of clams and Parmesan cheese. It’s not the absolute lightest of backpack grub, but by keeping our trips short in duration, we’d learned to highlight the quality time of each trip by substituting real food for the pitiful fare of dehydrated food whenever possible.
Soon, noodles drained and al dente we mixed them with clams and cheese in the cooking pot and were helping ourselves to large portions of this hearty meal. Sipping pink lemonade cocktails from our trademark Sierra Club Cups, surrounded by the wildest country, spectacular beauty, serenity and good friends – it just doesn’t get any better!
This is why we subject ourselves to these torturous trips. As I reclined against my foam pad seat ruminating over my dinner, I philosophized about our lives. We had just spent the last year living on a 17-mile long island in the Caribbean – moving there with 6 month-old twins and their older sibling to fulfill our dream of life on an exotic isle.
Our work there had been both frustrating and fulfilling. Visiting a resort can be pretty fun and exciting. Spending a week or two on the beach tends to make anyplace look pretty much like paradise. Raising a family and working in that environment proved to be quite a challenge and expensive. Living in a different culture, teaching in their schools, adapting to with antiquated educational bureaucracy and infrastructure, dealing with student drug use, really getting to know our students who lived in poverty that we’d never have to experience; it was enlightening. Not to mention the day-to-day roller coaster ride that is parenthood. When you’re responsible for twin toddlers and an active preschooler, life in any culture can prove to be a formidable challenge.
For me, as a professional teacher, providing my island fifth grade students with environmental education opportunities to heighten their awareness and appreciation of the natural world was the key. The Calypso Culture doesn’t necessarily provide strong bonds with nature. Years of slavery contributed to a reluctance to embrace agriculture and Mother Nature’s plentiful bounty. Waste of resources, wanton littering and little regard for the natural world were attitudes that had passed down through generations to my students who were focused more on their own survival. An attempt to foster the appreciation for protection and conservation of their finite island home was a driving force for me. It was a tall order and a truly interesting year, with a perceptible change in attitude and behavior in my students. Continuing our teaching into the future was an option, but reluctantly, we eventually escaped paradise to return home to Colorado and our families.
Staring into the campfire, my thoughts focused on just how much I’d missed the wild serenity that we’d enjoyed on this long weekend in the Utah wilderness. We’d had to rush this trip, spending 3 ½ days on what should’ve been a 6-day or more expedition. Our busy lives made that impossible, so the logistics of leaving, finding someone to watch our kids and dogs for nearly a week, trying to work around our guests’ airline schedules and driving nearly ten hours from the Front Range and then back home again had complicated our lives this weekend. Like everything else, the harder your goal is to accomplish, the more savory the success. I was definitely doing some savoring as I sipped my lemonade cocktail and contemplated the dancing flames.
The glowing red coals of the fire sent sparks shooting into a spectacular night sky absolutely filled with hordes of bright stars in the blackest of desert nights. Before this trip, our guests had never seen the starry desert sky and of course they were awestruck and amazed that the lights of civilization had hidden so much of the night sky from view, until now.
I sat there, next to Karen, feeling her warmth against my body and counted myself lucky to be alive and sharing this and our other escapades with such a wonderful friend and lover. David would settle for none of this quiet reflection, though. He initiated Happier Hour, sloshing drafts of Yukon Jack into our flat aluminum cups, adding lime and swilling tangy Snake Bites under a canopy of stars just above the trickling creek. Sitting there in the cool night air, slurping up the syrupy drinks with relish and feeling a bittersweet sadness as the bottle emptied, the liquor warmed us from the inside-out while the fire worked on us from the outside-in.
Too soon, we were brushing teeth and squeezing into the warm cocoons of our nylon sleeping bags while watching the stars disappear into the fuzzy depths of slumber.
Early the next morning, I woke refreshed and fighting off the chill. I gave my dozing partner a squeeze and a peck on the cheek. She barely stirred so I slid out into the brisk morning air, drank a few swallows of halazone-treated creek water and stuffed the bottle and a few morsels into my daypack. Shouldering the pack and my 35mm camera, I decided to visit the ruins we’d spotted high on the north rim of Fish Creek Canyon, late yesterday. Time to explore…
Treking across the pinyon-juniper covered bench I hustled east back towards the ruins. Leaning against a small pinyon pine was a nicely smoothed walking staff, awaiting its owner’s return. I hefted it, felt its smooth contours and appreciated its rustic patina for just a few moments. Someone had taken much time and considerable effort into crafting this hiking tool. Then, I leaned it back against the pine and headed east toward adventure. The view from the bench above the stream provided a bird’s eye view of the shallow creek interrupted randomly by large pink boulders and silvery pools.
The pools were there courtesy of the huge sandstone chunks that had slid down into the streambed from the steep walls. A half dozen rocks as big as small houses that had once resided up near the canyon rim, now punctuated the rippling waters of gurgling Fish Creek. Had the Anasazi who’d built the ruins I sought once farmed this streamside bench? Had they watered corn, beans and squash with the water from Fish Creek? Probably, back when the rains and snow provided enough water year-round this would’ve been an excellent place to live – just as we found it now.
The first task in ascending the side canyon was to climb up a small cliff of rotten rock about 6 feet high, just above the creek bed. Carefully, I tested hand and foot holds and found few that didn’t crumble into more loose scree to litter the slope below. Eventually, after a few cautious attempts I managed to reach the slope above the cliff and walking slowly, upwards, I caught my breath. The next obstacle consisted of a large boulder field, with rocks of all sizes some teetering and some firmly planted, that littered the steeply ascending slope. I climbed onto a small ridge of sandstone that rose above the majority of the boulders and stepped up onto a wide ledge at the base of the cliff that housed the square-windowed ruins. Looking straight up, I could barely make out the ledge and the faces of the small rock structures, high above.
It was time to shed a few layers, so the long-sleeved flannel shirt I was wearing went into the pack and I was tempted to remove my t-shirt too, even though the sun was still well below the mesa top to the east. Winding back and forth across the unsteady field of sandstone boulders, reaching a ledge of rock and earth just below the ledge that housed the ruins, I was very near my goal. An easy scramble up a steep sandstone friction pitch put me at the same level as the ruins. I could finally see them up close – astounded by their good condition and small size. It looked like they had been deserted, only yesterday.
Most of the sidewalls were still standing – along with much of the original plaster on the exterior surfaces. The ruin consisted of a large ledge area with a couple of small rooms flanked by storage granaries and around the corner another 50 feet out into the canyon there were two more small ruins, still intact, accessible by only a very narrow ledge at a dizzying height above the boulder field, below.
Climbing to the structures, I cautiously peered into the dark doorways. Small corncobs, dust and packrat turds were the predominant items visible in the shaded depths of the shelters. The view from that high terrace in front of the ruins was stupendous and a short rock wall still stood along the brink of the cliff edge – presumably a railing to keep precocious youngsters from toppling into the canyon below. Discretion being the better part of valor, I eyed the narrow ledge to the ruins around the corner, but decided against any heroics. I’m sure that’s why those two ruins are still pristine. They are just too exposed for most hikers to risk accessing them.
Back up the side canyon, I could see the wall behind the ruins was wet where a small seep was dripping down below the cap rock. At the canyon rim there were several cracks and fissures in the pale cap rock suggesting possible routes up and out onto the mesa. I sat there, lounging in the courtyard of that ancient ruin, like a tiny version of Balcony House in Mesa Verde, sipping my treated water, nibbling on peanut butter crackers and pondering the mystery these ancient stone masons had left behind.
Supposedly, their culture on a down-hill slide with years of drought causing heartache and starvation, some of the Mesa Verde residents relocated into the canyons of southeastern Utah to try to salvage their preferred lifestyle. What really happened to them may remain one of the greatest mysteries of all time.
Being careful not to twist an ankle or start a rockslide, I worked my way back down to the canyon floor for a refreshing splash in the cold water of the pools. Back at camp, things were progressing slowly and after a gourmet breakfast of whole-wheat pancakes with real maple syrup we packed it up for the last time and shouldered our now almost lightweight backpacks.
David had hiked upstream the evening before and he had found the rock cairns that marked the route climbing out of the south side of the canyon. Across from the stacked rocks, the canyon walls were undercut by the creek, which created an inviting and beautiful poolside grotto in the shade of the reddish-pink sandstone walls.
We filled up our bellies and water bottles at this last stop along the creek, then, with both turpitude and regret we began the arduous vertical climb to the mesa rim. After an hour of scrambling pretty much straight up the shallow side canyon we approached the thick band of cap rock. A grayish layer about 15 feet thick, it stood as a vertical barrier to the beckoning rim above. Several cracks and ledges to the west looked passable, but the trail followed a somewhat more doubtful path up to a narrow 3-foot wide defile filled with the weathered trunk of a long dead pine tree.
With a little pushing, lifting and shoving we all managed to top out at the rock cairns placed along the canyon rim, indicating that we were still traveling on the main route. I doubt that I would have been happy about sliding down that knotty tree and negotiating that steep downward climb to the creek bottom. All things considered, it was clear that our choice of hiking direction seemed like a damn good one. Counter clockwise into Owl and out Fish was not the way most visitors chose to negotiate this loop, so another plus was that we never had to worry about not finding an open campsite, either.
Looking back down into Fish Creek, the view was beautifully rewarding. The pink and white striped canyon lay in the foreground with Bears Ears just to the north rising above Cedar Mesa and the snowy Abajo Mountains farther north on the eastern horizon. The Abajos seemed to have lost a good deal of their snowpack in the time we had spent down in the depth of the canyons. Spring had sprung from the slickrock canyons to the snowy peaks, beyond. We all clowned around on the rim, getting a few pictures and really enjoying the sensation of looking out through the clear air, to the desert landmarks, far in the distance.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sign stated that the trail back to the parking area is 1.5 miles from this location and it looks about that far on the topo map, but, on the hike back to the parking area it seemed like at least twice that far. Following the constantly winding trail around the top of the mesa avoiding the cryptogamic soil and stunted pinyon and juniper trees was anything but a straight shot.
Karen and Leigh led the way while Dave and I lagged behind, picking up shed antlers and generally complaining about the Bureau of Lousy Measurement and their government ineptitude. As we followed the twisting trail, the girls surprised a couple of guys who were in the process of removing their union suits just a few steps off the trail. You should have heard the giggling and carrying on after the two female voyeurs got an eyeful from those two unlucky gents. Cheap Thrills!
Dave and I offered to provide them with a similar show but they turned us down, flat. As they say, “Familiarity breeds contempt”. Once back to the vehicle, loading up our gear, we then loafed our way back out onto the pocked surface of the slickrock above Owl Creek to take five for a final view of where we’d been. Then we climbed into the old landcruiser for the 5-mile drive back to the Ranger Station to sign ourselves out.
The incongruous feeling of riding in a car after a few days of backpacking can only be compared to your first boat ride. It always seems just a little strange to feel the road through the seat of your pants after so long absorbing it through the soles of your feet.
Dave and I were really looking forward to looking over the BLM’s Archaeological Display board inside the trim white trailer at Kane Gulch, unfortunately, the trailer was locked up with nobody around. We signed out on the registration sheet, left a few inane comments in the ledger next to those of the other hikers who survived the trek and returned reluctantly to the real world.
What can you say about an area like Fish and Owl Creek Canyons? It is a totally indescribable natural wonder that you really need to see yourself. The only way to even begin to appreciate it is to experience it, firsthand and the longer you can stay, the better. Just ask those NOLS campers we met on the trail.
Would we go back, YOU BET! How long would we stay? At least 6 days. Would we carry some dehydrated food next time, for lighter packs? No Way! And we wouldn’t have to ask twice to get Leigh and David to come along, either.
by John Koshak