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A Land of Extremes


Article contributed by: Escalante Canyon Outfitters

Had I been able to predict the ferocity of the storm and the timing, the whole group might have opted to cower in camp all day. Even after living twenty years in the Escalante Canyons I couldn't have foreseen this typical April surprise but somehow I just should have known. A beautiful blue sky gave no hint of what was to come and we left our base camp on the Escalante River with some drinking water, a bag lunch and a vague idea of where this days route would take us.

We set out upstream in calf deep water under 400-foot tapestried walls. (OTapestried refers to the black vertical stripes of manganese that are deposited by water running from the canyon rim over the face of an overhang .) At every bend the river laps against the canyon walls creating the most special places: overhangs with maidenhair fern and monkey flower cling to wet red sandstone. Somehow these delicate looking plants survive the floods. The banks of the river are lined with wire grass, horsetail, willow and water birch. Three or four feet above the river's edge grow grass, clover, white and yellow evening primrose, red-orange Indian paintbrush, cottonwood and russian olive, and an occasional tamarisk. Higher still on the banks are rabbit brush and sagebrush, hackberry, single leaf ash, squawbush, box elder and gamble oak.

As our group approached a bend in the river an enormous alcove loomed above making us strain our necks to take in its height and width. Maybe a thousand years ago the river finally undercut the canyon wall causing the sandstone to cave naturally in an arc. Inside this arc on the soft orange sand a few large boulders have metates. Their surfaces, worn smooth and dished, from years of grinding native seeds and corn by the Anasazi Indians at least 800 years ago. On another bend is a south facing alcove, truly a solar oven. The Anasazi certainly camped here. Rubble with pieces of mortar is piled where structures once stood and toolmakers littered the ground with flakes of colorful agate.

As we leave the alcove we are lucky to find the sun illuminating bighorn sheep petroglyphs. The rays across the surface have shadowed the pecked depressions highlighting the sheep. Straight across the canyon 200 feet away, a line of pecked steps ascends an impassable looking route to the top. Surely this was only for expert climbers. Being in the cave, part of a living museum, we take the time to explain the importance of treading as lightly as we possibly can and the moral and legal obligation we have to leave the archaeology undisturbed. Looking up and down canyon from this place one can easily imagine families 1000 years ago hunting, growing crops and harvesting wild plants. All along the river are the subtle remains of the Anasazi and their predecessors, illuminating another world within these same walls.

Suddenly the sun went behind a cloud waking everybody from a silent thoughtful state. But it was only a small cloud and we continued to the next bend of the river where the small opening of a side canyon intrigued us but gave no hint of what was beyond. Hiking for years on the Escalante, we long ago decided that every curiosity was to be indulged and we couldn't pass up this side canyon. The entrance was a walkway of water half an inch deep and ten feet wide flowing over brilliant orange sand. Through the cottonwood and box elder trees we could see that the top of the canyon narrowed and the bottom expanded until it opened into a colossal chamber. The inside was mostly damp compacted sand with a still pool 75 feet in diameter that reflected perfectly the red walls and blue sky. One hundred feet above the pool runoff from an unseen wash draining a large area of unknown slickrock had polished the canyon wall into a funnel.We walked across the open flat of this huge room to an alcove that cut far under a seeping wall which irrigated a forest of tall ferns all straining to meet sunlight. Their dazzling green lit this darkened chamber. Opposite the fern room was a dry overhang. Here in the dusty sand were more chips from toolmaking and shrunken corncobs left by the Anasazi. We lingered through a lunch packed from camp and reluctantly left this little cathedral walking in silence back to the river. Wanting to trade our filtered river water for something cold and delicious we stopped our upstream wanderings at a spring. From a crack in the canyon wall concealed by water birch poured a huge volume of water collected above by hundreds of waterpockets and acres of sand and filtered through hundreds of feet of Navaho sandstone. We intercepted it and, canteens full, were ready for the last part of our hike.

I thought a route by way of the canyon rim would be preferable to retracing our steps. Walking further upstream on the river№s bank tall trees reached out and the sagebrush grew over our heads almost concealing a crack about three feet wide and filled with a stairway of rocks leading to a set of pecked steps that were not impossible, like the ones we had seen earlier. Here we had some pretty good hand and foot holds.

Up and out of the canyon we climbed to where the slickrock stood in spires and monuments. Although we were on the bench above the river level we were still 800 feet below an array of slickrock buttes and peppermint domes made of white slickrock swirled with red stripes. We walked the rim downstream heading for an old horse trail that would take us back into the canyon below camp. Bowls of sand between sandstone knobs contained tiny lemon smelling flowers beneath the Pinyon and Juniper. A Hopi woman once told me that these, a relative of the marigold, were a traditional food used as a broth in winter. On a sandy hill we came upon a blackened area of sand from ancient fires surrounded by flakes of obsidian, imported as a trade item, used for toolmaking. Nearby were potsherds (broken pottery) that were yellow with black stripes and triangles. This could only be black on yellow Jeddito ware made by the Hopi around the sixteenth century. A fascinating discovery for us! Having seen signs left by the Anasazi at almost every bend of the river, this discovery was evidence of their modern successors, the Hopi. The Anasazi migrated out of these canyons in the 1200's heading southwest and the Hopi returned with their pottery 400 years later.

Travelling along the rim we came upon the wash that poured into the little cathedral we explored earlier. A series of brimmed waterpockets stairstepped up the slickrock wash. I dropped my pack, peeled my shirt, dove in the chilly bath and jumped out the other side. One by one almost everybody followed suit and we all laid out in the hot sun on the warm sandstone. I shut my eyes and dreamed of the countless pools. Then the light darkened and I opened my eyes to find a cloud had blocked the sun. But in a moment it was gone. At this point the group split. Half opted for the direct walk back to camp with a guide and the rest of us, six including myself, decided on a more challenging route up the wash and over the top of a high dome. Three deep crevasses slice this 800 foot slickrock monolith creating a giant "W". Two from the west are separated by one crevasse from the east. To traverse this dome we must zig-zag across two causeways. The route is a little scary but wide enough to be safe.

On the way up we entered one of the shady west facing cracks to cool off and doze in the shade. Meanwhile, I walked up the crevasse until it narrowed so that only a thin string of blue sky was overhead. The convoluted bottom would only allow one foot at a time. I wondered how such a deep crack could be cut by only the water that falls on this one rock. I turned sideways to continue and it ended directly below the causeway we would soon be going over. I felt a surge of excitement thinking about walking over the passes.

Rested, we shouldered day packs and noticed for the first time white puffy clouds moving quickly overhead. We climbed the steep slickrock and as we topped out on the dome the southern sky became visible. Black clouds filled the sky and below them was a solid wall of red from sand being blown by rain filled wind heading our way. Everyone reached for their rain gear while slickrock spires and peaks disappeared in the red sand cloud less than a mile away. It was moving very fast and I became concerned that it would hit us while we were on top of the causeways. The wind became strong just as we rounded the first western crack and got on the six foot wide ridge between that and the east crack. Only two of the six of our group made it across the first causeway before the initial sand blast hit that brought the rest of us to our hands and knees.

The route to the second causeway dips down then up which is unnerving even in good conditions. Just as we started down hail began clacking against the rock and thumping our heads. The air was thick with sand, hail and rain flying sideways collecting in the cracks of the slickrock. My poncho flapped like a sail and the noise of it all was deafening. I was in back as we climbed down the first part of the causeway and everybody huddled behind a rock fin. "Don't stop!", I yelled.

The wet rock would only get slicker so we kept moving. The climb up began at the edge of a 200 foot sheer drop into the east facing crevasse then got better as you climbed. I stood with my heels on the edge and helped everyone above me with footholds and a boost. It rained so hard that waterfalls were shooting down the slickrock on all sides. I pushed the last person up the slippery rock. She turned and offered me a hand and we scurried away from the edge to safety.

My appetite for adrenalin is large so I was excited but I felt awful to have put everyone through such a terrifying experience. I looked through my hood at my sloshing shoes and walked downhill as the rain slowed to a stop. Then I heard Maxine exclaim, "That was one of the most incredible experience I've ever had!" I pulled my hood back to see five wet grins. Waterfalls were still cascading down the slickrock and the rain was pounding the bench on the other side of the river. The sky cleared and we took off our coats to let the sun dry our saturated clothes. It seems that you can never know what to expect in this land of extremes.