Packrafting Utah's Escalante River in Late March

At 1.6 cfs in the Escalante, would there be more packrafting or raft-packing for our intrepid explorers?

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by Bill Stadwiser; photos by Bill Stadwiser and Andy Heath | 2009-06-02 00:05:00-06

Packrafting Utahs Escalante River in Late March - 1
Huge sandstone walls along the river are tall enough to fill just about any camera lens. Bill Stadwiser admires nature's architecture from the vantage point of an Alpacka.

 

Introduction

I am embarrassed to admit that, after several years of living in Utah, dozens of weeks spent in the western desert, and many nights dreaming away under a shelter slung between two juniper trees, I somehow managed to avoid reading Edward Abbey's classic work, Desert Solitaire. That is, until a few weeks ago when, upon learning this fact, a friend demanded that I correct this travesty and made sure a copy found its way into my hands. As I lay in bed one February night in Montana, I began to read:

Off in the east an isolated storm is boiling over the desert, a mass of lavender clouds bombarding the earth with lightning and trailing curtains of rain. The distance is so great that I cannot hear the thunder. Between here and there and me and the mountains it's the canyon wilderness, the hoodoo land of spire and pillar and pinnacle where no man lives, and where the river flows, unseen, through the blue-black trenches in the rock.

Reading our buddy Ed's words stirred up thoughts of the desert that had been lying dormant ever since I left Utah four years ago. Like Goldie Wilson, the young busboy in Back to the Future who suddenly realizes that someday he is going to become mayor of Hill Valley, a smile came to my face as I said to myself, "River trip in a desert canyon. I like the sound of that."

Raft-packing?

Packrafting Utahs Escalante River in Late March - 2
Stunning panoramic views greet travelers along the Escalante River. Notice the reflection of canyon features on Bill's glasses.

For years I've heard stories about the eighty-mile stretch of the Escalante River above Lake Powell. Friends of mine who have spent their entire lives in Utah have remarked that of all the spectacular backcountry Utah has to offer (and there is plenty) this length of the Escalante ranks among the most enticing.

Andy Heath, a close friend and packraft owner, agreed that Escalante was an alluring destination. We immediately began poring over maps at the library in Bozeman and formulating an itinerary. Andy and I could only find a brief window this spring when our schedules would coincide. Late March was it, and we were confident that we could cover the roughly forty river miles between Fence Canyon and Coyote Gulch in four days.

Packrafting Utahs Escalante River in Late March - 3
Desert life flourishes along the river. Is Andy is chasing a photo opportunity or an afternoon snack? A grin like that could suggest either.

Despite our optimism, there was one glaring problem with our plan - low water. As a matter of fact, when preparing for the trip, many of the people with whom we spoke cautioned us that what were planning could not be done. For starters, spring runoff would not be for another couple of weeks, if at all due to the disappointing winter snow pack. We were warned that to run it in March would mean having to walk (aka 'raft-pack') much of the canyon. Also, those not familiar with the Alpacka's tough-as-nails reputation were skeptical as to whether our inflatable boats could survive the maze of sharp stones and thorny Russian olive thickets that higher water levels would normally cover. Upon requesting permits, the rangers looked at us with a certain degree of paternal concern, then explained that the river was only running at 1.6 cfs (no, 1.6 is not a typo). To their knowledge, no one had successfully run the river at that level.

At this point, the only information we had that contradicted the negative feedback we were receiving was a forum posting written by Sheri Tingey, inventor of the Alpacka raft. She claimed that contrary to conventional wisdom, 2 cfs was not only enough water to packraft the Escalante, it was actually ideal. Putting our faith and trust in Sheri's experience above all else and hoping for a bit of rain, Andy and I thanked the rangers for their advice and asked for permits anyway. After showing us our three bailout options above Coyote Gulch, a semi-sarcastic "Have a nice walk," was the last thing we heard before heading out the door.

Packrafting Utahs Escalante River in Late March - 4
Over time, flowing water does remarkable things to sandstone. This honeycomb pattern found about 100 feet above the river's current level was just one among the many of the interesting features we encountered. To give a sense of scale, most holes seen here are no larger than an average coin.

Philosophic Thoughts

I find desert travel particularly conducive to generate rolling, rambling, and what some might even call philosophic thoughts, amateur though they may be. Like a flux capacitor surging at 1.21 gigawatts, I noticed the desert transporting my brain to the place where time moves at geological pace, thus altering (and lessening) my brain's insistence on its own significance and notions of permanence. Reading Desert Solitaire, it is obvious that our buddy Ed had similar thoughts,

Alone in the silence, I understand for a moment the dread which many feel in the presence of primeval desert, the unconscious fear which compels them to tame, alter, or destroy what they cannot understand, to reduce the wild and prehuman to human dimensions. Anything rather than confront directly the antehuman, that other world which frightens not through danger or hostility but in something far worse - its implacable indifference.

Packrafting Utahs Escalante River in Late March - 5
Taking breaks from the river to enjoy the scenery and snack is all part of the packrafting experience. Andy secures his boat before enjoying a much deserved midday rest.

Upon entering the canyon and seeing the first series of bends unfold before me, the thought came to my mind that our contemporary attitude towards wilderness conservation and preservation are narrow at best when applied to a land that is so jagged and unfinished. Encountering a place such as the Escalante River - a landscape constantly creating, destroying and re-creating itself - I realized how futile efforts would be to preserve it as it is at this moment in time. Rather, what is worth preserving are the natural, unimpeded processes by which the earth shapes itself free of unnecessary human intervention. Or, to put it into terms Back to the Future aficionados will understand, it is not the Hill Valley clock tower that is worth saving, as the crazy lady would have us believe, but rather the chance for lightning to strike it.

As we made the transition from foot to packraft, the thoughts continued, although subtler and more serene as the energy of the river began to move our bodies and gear. Floating next to the towering walls and meandering twists, this canyon and my packraft collaborated to remind me that change is necessary, inevitable, and utterly fascinating when I sit back and watch it do its thing.

Packrafting Utahs Escalante River in Late March - 6
Though water levels were very low (1.6 cfs), Andy and I only encountered a few areas where it was absolutely necessary to portage around obstacles. Here, Andy prepares to put in just below a series of unnavigable boulders.

Desert Quicksand

Those who have explored this area before warned Andy and I to watch out for quicksand. Our buddy Ed is among those offering cautionary advice:

Ordinarily it is possible for a man to walk across quicksand, if he keeps moving. But if he stops, funny things begin to happen. The surface of the quicksand, which may look as firm as the wet sand on an ocean beach, begins to liquefy beneath his feet. He finds himself sinking slowly into a jelly-like substance, soft and quivering, which clasps itself around his ankles with the suction power of any viscous fluid. Pulling out one foot, the other foot necessarily goes down deeper, and if a man waits too long, or cannot reach something solid beyond the quicksand, he may soon find himself trapped.

Andy and I discovered within a few hours of putting in our boats that quicksand is indeed a sporadic reality in the canyon. Upon exiting the boats, our first steps on shore were often tentative ones, never fully sure if the ground would give way under our feet. On one occasion, Andy found his right leg buried up to his knee in goopy sand, with the left precariously balanced on his still-unanchored boat. Fortunately, an inflated packraft is excellent device to facilitate self rescue from quicksand (reason #19 why an Alpacka raft is way cooler than a Delorean), and we were soon laughing about the event.

Packrafting Utahs Escalante River in Late March - 7
Navigating through shallow water, gravel bars, and large boulder fields meant for a pretty technical packraft. Here, Andy looks for a passable way through the maze.

Despite all the advanced warnings regarding getting stuck, the one warning we did not receive was to watch out for a different type of quicksand - the metaphorical kind that grabs your brain makes you not want to leave a place. During our float, Andy and I were so thoroughly captivated that we often talked about returning in a year or two to raft the entire eighty-mile stretch between the town of Escalante and Coyote Gulch. During that trip, we mused, we would take our time and explore as many side canyons and gulches along the way as we desired. Though exhilarating, the need to make good time in the shallow water prevented us from exploring beyond the main channel. As a result, the vast majority of the canyon's secrets still remain a mystery to us, concealed behind the twisting labyrinth of walls, cracks, and bends... awaiting our inevitable return.

Hail to All Good Samaritans in Faded Silver Nissans

Its worth noting that there are definite advantages to reconfirming one's shuttle plans when preparing for a rafting trip - especially in the desert. At the top of the list of advantages are avoiding the scenario whereupon one arrives at the end of the trail, out of food and short on water to find an empty parking lot. I can say for certain that there is a very distinct sinking feeling that takes place in the stomach upon arriving at said location and receiving a voicemail from your shuttler confirming your suspicions that he or she is indeed not coming to your rescue and that they are "sorry." Denial, anger, bargaining, and acceptance follow thereafter in short order.

Packrafting Utahs Escalante River in Late March - 8
The closer one gets to Coyote Gulch, the more dramatic the canyon becomes. Views like this occur much more frequently as the canyon carves its way deeper and deeper into the rock.

I easily could explore the ways in which our predicament was like Marty McFly finding himself unexpectedly stuck in 1955 (November 5, to be exact) without a fully-operational time machine, but I can recognize a dead horse when I see one, so we'll just move on. What I will say is that Andy and I found ourselves in the midst of quite the dilemma: stay put for who knows how long and hope someone offers us a ride back to our car or begin the long walk along a seldom-used desert road with unknown/doubtful access to drinking water.

While weighing the pros and cons of each decision, we were delighted to see an old, faded, silver Nissan truck approaching on the sandy road to the west. Tempering our excitement, we gingerly walked up to the man who exited, said hello, and asked him the predictable series of questions people in our situation would ask. As it turned out, the man was a former park ranger and understood our situation all too well. Not only did he offer us a ride back to our car, he actually handed us his keys and told us to drop it off when we were done retrieving our vehicle. I don't recall his name, and I doubt he remembers ours, but two things are utterly clear to me after the event. Wow, were we incredibly lucky, and man, do I love Utah.

Packrafting Utahs Escalante River in Late March - 9
Stephen's Arch is the grand finale of our trip, providing one final magnificent view of the Escalante before exiting at Coyote Gulch. Here, the water slows through a wide open bend in the river, allowing Andy a luxurious amount of time to take it all in.

Final Thoughts

While Andy and I are proud to say that we successfully floated the river at 1.6 cfs with relatively few portages (two or three per day on average, of which a grand total of three were mandatory/unavoidable), Andy and I definitely found ourselves wishing for more water on multiple occasions. I will suggest that 1.6 cfs is the absolute bare minimum needed to navigate this river by packraft. Both a light load and a well-tempered boat are also essential under these conditions to maximize buoyancy. Our biggest obstacles faced while rafting were the barely submerged boulders and gravel bars. Each proved hard to spot and could halt progress entirely when encountered unexpectedly. We found that constant attention to river features and the picking of proper water channels were imperative to maintaining steady progress. In short, 1.6 cfs was barely do-able, 2.0 would have been nice, and above 2.5 luxurious.

As far as weather is concerned, March is definitely a shoulder season in southern Utah. As such, we encountered everything from snow to blazing sun. For those wishing to do a similar trip, this obviously means taking the necessary precautions and planning accordingly when preparing a gear list. Fires are both forbidden in and ill-suited for the Escalante River canyon due to the fragile ecosystem, so it is wise to consider a little extra insulation for night, especially if you are a cold sleeper. Fortunately, many items in a typical packrafting kit have multiple uses and can help lighten the load and offset the additional weight of the packraft itself. Some typical examples are as follows: First, an upside-down packraft makes for a luxurious sleeping pad for those of us six feet and under. As a result, a sleeping pad is unnecessary for many packrafting trips. Similarly, raft paddles break down easily and provide solid support for a tarp shelter. Andy and I brought a two person mid and supported it in this way. Finally, a quality dry top (an essential piece of gear at this time of year) negates the need for additional rain gear, so long as you don't mind your legs being wet during the day.

Finally, though we are all conscious of the amount of weight we pack on our trips, I would encourage folks to consider bringing along some excerpts from Desert Solitaire to most any float in southern Utah. A pared-down paperback copy weighs only a couple of ounces, and there is something wonderful to be gained from hearing Abbey's words read aloud at night, echoing off the same stone that inspired him to write.

Packrafting Utahs Escalante River in Late March - 10
After arriving at the trailhead and finding our shuttle curiously absent, Andy and Bill had to improvise and make friends with strangers. In the background is our Good Samaritan's Nissan, which he generously let us use without a second thought. Thank you, thank you, thank you, good sir, wherever you are.


Citation

"Packrafting Utah's Escalante River in Late March," by Bill Stadwiser; photos by Bill Stadwiser and Andy Heath. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/escalante.html, 2009-06-02 00:05:00-06.

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Forum Index » Editor's Roundtable » Packrafting Utah's Escalante River in Late March


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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Packrafting Utah's Escalante River in Late March on 06/02/2009 19:15:46 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Packrafting Utah's Escalante River in Late March

Richard Nisley
(richard295) - M

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: Packrafting Utah's Escalante River in Late March on 06/02/2009 20:52:37 MDT Print View

Cool trip... thanks for sharing.

Julian Watson
(JulesWatson) - F
nice ! on 06/03/2009 02:23:35 MDT Print View

Looks great, nice trip. I'm pretty sure the sandstone hollows are formed due to wind processes.

Charles Reneau
(charley289) - F

Locale: Cascades and Oregon Coast Range
Awesome on 06/03/2009 02:25:45 MDT Print View

Awesome report!!! I'm officially saving up for an Alpacka as of right now. . . the kayak can wait.
Charley

Larry Tullis
(Larrytullis) - F - M

Locale: Wasatch Mountains
Escalante on 06/03/2009 07:08:24 MDT Print View

That is a float I've always wanted to do, all the way to Lake Powell. Another option, that I have done, is I hiked up from the highway bridge and fished and explored my way up Sand Creek, which drains the Boulder Mountains plateau (also great hiking and fishing). There are lots of ancient american dwellings to gaze upon and abundant scenery to create much awe. The sight of a brown trout rising to a dry fly at the base of a 1000 foot red cliff is something that is etched on the mind of this flyfishing fool. Other side canyons like Calf Creek (a fun hike with much photographed Calf creek falls) also have good fishing.

Edited by Larrytullis on 06/03/2009 07:12:06 MDT.

Sam Haraldson
(sharalds) - MLife

Locale: Gallatin Range
Packrafting Utah's Escalante River in Late March on 06/03/2009 09:54:43 MDT Print View

Bill,

You have a way with words. And just how you managed to make references to Desert Solitaire and Back to the Future in the same article is beyond me - - but it worked!

One of your chosen passages from Desert Solitaire hit home especially well with me as it's my favorite quote from the book:

...Anything rather than confront directly the antehuman, that other world which frightens not through danger or hostility but in something far worse - its implacable indifference.

Amy Lauterbach
(drongobird) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Escalante on 06/03/2009 16:09:56 MDT Print View

Bill - Very nice article and photos. Thanks for taking the time to share.

We recently hiked the Escalante River from town to the backed up Reservoir waters and had a terrific trip. Very special place.

For those interested in helping to make sure this river and its environs stay healthy, there are three efforts worth mentioning...
1. Bill Wolverton and others are doing heroic work to eradicate Russian Olive from the river corridor, including the entire stretch from Egypt to Coyote. Bill has been at it for ~10 years, working on his own, and hosting volunteer groups.
http://www.math.utah.edu/~sfolias/canyontales/wolverton/articles.php

2. GrandCanyonTrust.org acquired the grazing leases in the area featured on this packraft trip and removed the cows. The canyon floors are now free of cow dung and the willows are recovering. Vegetation in the canyon bottoms is noticeably different than it was 25 years ago, however there are still cows grazing upriver from ~Choprock.

3. SUWA.org is steadily and relentlessly working for protection of the southern utah roadless areas.

- AmyL

David Linn
(davidlinn) - MLife

Locale: The foot of the Wasatch
Running the Escalante on 06/03/2009 21:48:40 MDT Print View

Having hiked the Escalante a number of times, this trip was always a much-discussed dream for me and my fellow hikers. Thanks for sharing your experience. It's reawakened my desire to do what we spent late nights along the river planning.

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Re: Running the Escalante on 06/04/2009 11:35:24 MDT Print View

Bill, thanks for the great story.

I think the upper Escalante from town is tough at 1.6 cfs and only mildly irritating down lower, due as much to slow speeds as anything else, especially if you are using it primarily as a means of traveling to explore the side canyons on a long trip, rather than an end unto itself.

At 2.5 cfs, you'd never know it unless you'd done it at low flows, but it's a regular rock concert, and at 5-10, well then you're talking about a more spring runoff like experience where the bigger stuff starts to get submerged.

. Callahan
(AeroNautiCal)

Locale: Stoke Newington, London, UK.
Enchanting! on 06/04/2009 18:15:44 MDT Print View

Wow! That was fantastic, thanks for sharing! (o:

Julian Watson
(JulesWatson) - F
second read on 06/05/2009 02:53:19 MDT Print View

and after a second read, even better. Makes me want to get on a plane !

Sean Shealy
(Paleo) - F
Drift Awe on 11/23/2009 19:49:04 MST Print View

"Though exhilarating, the need to make good time in the shallow water prevented us from exploring beyond the main channel."

I call bullsh*t on this comment.

I've done the canyon from Escalante to Fence, and I know EXACTLY why you never left the raft: You're mesmerized. As the canyon walls slip past, you see a crack, an opening, and it towers above you and deep into the rock, and you literally don't breath for several seconds as you glide through, feeling tiny and awed, and by the time you snap the trance and think, "WOW! I WANT TO EXPLORE THAT!," you're on around the bend and entering the next twsit in your adventure ...

Been there.

Done that.

Lost most of my T-shirt to the A*shole Trees (as I called 'em. 'Russian Olives,' they say). 8<)

Thomas Turiano
(tturiano) - F
cfs vs. gauge height on 03/22/2010 10:14:05 MDT Print View

There seems to be a vast amount of confusion over runnable water levels on the Escalante. I've never run the river, but have been watching it for 10 years, waiting for the coincidence of good flows with time off.

I think many people are confusing cfs and gauge height. There are two graphs on the USGS water data site...one for discharge (cfs) and one for gauge height. The BLM recommends a minimum of 50cfs on the Escalante gauge. This corresponds to a little over 2 feet on the river gauge. I suspect that this posting party and others squeaked through at 1.6 feet, rather than 1.6 cfs. Sheri Tingey ran it at 2 feet, not 2 cfs.

When I someday get to run the Escalante, I will be looking for at least 100 cfs (about 3 feet I would guess) on the Escalante gauge, counting on at least an additional 150 to 200 cfs coming in at Boulder Creek. There used to be a gauge at Boulder Creek, but there is no longer. But Boulder Creek does seem to run with twice as much volume as the upper Escalante during most of the runoff season.

It seems that April and early May are generally not the best times to run the Escalante, unfortunately. The best runoff appears to be during mid May to early June, heavily weighted toward the end of May and early June.

If anyone has anymore first-hand experience on Escalante river levels, I would be interested to hear.

Thanks, Thomas Turiano

Edited by tturiano on 03/22/2010 10:18:06 MDT.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
gauge v. cfs on 03/23/2010 16:40:38 MDT Print View

Thomas, I've hiked the Esc a good bit. Never boated it, so take this fwiw.

I think you're correct about the confusion over gauge height v. cfs. Looking back at historical data, I can recall one trip years ago where going upriver from Scorpion Gulch to Moody Creek we barely got our knees wet. That was in a late March, with a measured flow of 2.6 cfs at the bridge. Given the levels we saw that low down, I can't believe the upper part would have seen much floating.

On another trip I recall struggling across the river to get into Neon Canyon through a waist deep and fast flow. That was in April, with a gauge reading of about 80 cfs. That seems more likely to be good floating.

My wife and I once ran the Virgin River through the main canyon in Zion (not the narrows) in inflatable kayaks at 300 cfs, and that was about perfect. We butt-checked some gravel bars that we probably would have cleared in a packraft. Much more water and the pushiness would have made some of the rock gardens and sweepers substantially more hazardous.

Packrafting the Esca (and the Narrows) is a dream trip for sure.

Edited by DaveC on 03/23/2010 16:53:09 MDT.

Jodi Norris
(T_Next) - F
CFS and not gage height? on 04/28/2010 13:35:23 MDT Print View

The comments about whether it was cfs or gage height had me wondering too, but it was easy enough to check the record for the two months in question (March 2009 for this trip, and May 2008 for Sheri's trip).

The record from both months support that it was CFS being reported - here's an easy link to each months gage data on the USGS website

http://waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/dv?cb_00060=on&cb_00065=on&format=gif_default&begin_date=2008-05-01&end_date=2008-05-31&site_no=09337500&referred_module=sw


http://waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/dv?cb_00060=on&cb_00065=on&format=gif_default&begin_date=2009-03-01&end_date=2009-03-31&site_no=09337500&referred_module=sw