Tales of the Trail: A Canyon Country Adventure, May 2000

The following story first appeared in Jim’s newsletter, Wild Wind.

The slot canyon we’re following gets narrower and narrower. The walls here, still shaded from the blazing sun, are cool to the touch. The air smells of rock and sand. The gusty wind is just a memory. Here the air is still. The only sound is the crunch of our footsteps, the scrape of boot on rock.

     We round a bend and the canyon ends; or at least our route does. If water flowed here this would be a waterfall. And a spectacular one at that. Now I look up at the slickrock pour-off envious of the canyon wren, longing for wings. I could get up another 20 feet, but beyond that it is impassable.

     Leslie starts up a route way off to the left, and I follow. We climb just a short way before deciding against it. Then it’s back down the narrow canyon, back into the sun, back onto the broad bench where we left the packs. We heft our gear and start down the wash, heading for the main canyon.

     The water has been high in the canyon we head toward. The fording has been difficult early in the day. Afternoons see the water level going down. We’ve stayed up on the benchland all morning, paralleling the canyon and avoiding the high water. Walking on the slickrock has been a dream, but now I worry that if we don’t drop back into the canyon soon, we won’t be able to do so further south.

     We decide to follow a likely looking side canyon back down to the creek. It’s a good choice. Lots of interesting swirls and tubs of rock. It narrows and drops. The last pitch to the canyon floor is another pour-off, but we climb down a deep seam of rock off to the side of it. We’re back on the canyon floor.

     Our goal for today is the confluence of two well-known canyons. We set off and in no time find ourselves facing a ford of the rushing stream. The water is fast and powerful. We struggle across, walk a short way, and are forced by the narrow canyon to cross again. This spot looks deeper and more difficult. The canyon being as closed in as it is doesn’t offer any alternatives.

    Starting across, my feet feel their way through the muddy water. A sturdy stick braces my wire tight body against the rushing current. It’s a tough ford, and I’m almost across. I tell Leslie to wait; that I’ll come back for her pack, but before I can put down my backpack she starts into the racing stream. I’m trying to get up the opposite bank when I hear her. She’s in a spot where she can’t go forward or back. She’s just straining to keep from getting washed away. In slow motion I watch her try to go back. Her feet are swept away. Down she goes. With my pack still on, I jump in and struggle toward her. She is slammed against a big boulder on one side while I grab her arm on the opposite side. We struggle into the bank, wet and scared. That was close.

     Time for a lunch break. Maybe the water level will go down a bit more. We find a big old ponderosa, one of the few we’ve seen, and kick back for a lunch of leisure. It’s a neat spot. When we move on the water has indeed dropped another inch or two, but storm clouds are building. This canyon won’t be a good place to be in a rainstorm.

     We know we’re close to the junction of the two canyons, only a mile or two, but the travel is very slow. Each crossing (and there are many) takes much time and careful consideration. As we descend the canyon the walls draw closer together funneling the water into a much narrower streambed. It gets deeper and faster. Each ford is an adventure of its own. This hike is getting interesting.

     Finally we come to a much narrower spot. I start in but the water is very deep. Retreating to the entry point, I take off my pack and balance it atop my head. I try it again as the water gets well up to my neck. My feet bounce off the bottom, the current carries me along, and I’m across. Tossing the pack up the bank, I turn back to my small wife. “You’ll have to swim. Let me get your pack.”

     I struggle back across, retrieve Leslie’s pack and paddle across. She comes in and is like a little leaf caught in the current. Away she goes. She reaches for me. I stretch out and barely catch her hand, swinging her into the shore. We’re across. Now what?

     Fifty yards later we see that we’ve gotten as far as we can. We’re only a couple hundred yards from the confluence of the two canyons, but the canyon here narrows so there are no banks to walk upon. Only the rushing muddy water remains. Not our choice for travel right now. Luckily there is a break in the canyon wall right here and steps have been cut into the solid rock by the old ones. They save us.

     We climb up the slick rock and find a flat spot against a rock wall. It is a perfect spot to finish a rather exciting day. The wind dies and we do our camp chores in the stillness of the canyon. It is a holy place this evening. It has given us beauty. It has given us joy and fear. It has given us a look at each other and ourselves. It has given us reason to celebrate this life and this story we’ve been blessed with. Later, the rain comes and the water rises once again.

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