Escalante Calling

By our fifth day of meandering down the wondrous Escalante, we are out of superlatives to describe this rarely run wilderness river in southern Utah’s redrock-canyon country. We keep using the same gushy adjectives-unbelievable! mind-boggling! stunning!-as our intrepid band of six pushes south past the narrow mouth of Scorpion Gulch, a tantalizing side chasm choked with willows and tamarisk.

We were told that the 20-mile section from Scorpion Gulch to Coyote Gulch would be the most physically demanding portion of our eight-day, nearly 100-mile journey to drought-shriveled Lake Powell. No one mentioned that this stretch would also be the most beautiful. Necks crane higher, jaws drop lower. The sheer sandstone walls of orange and pink, streaked with magnificent patterns of desert varnish, tower 800, 900, even a staggering 1,000 feet over our heads. In gravity-defying fashion, the smooth ramparts sometimes lean out over the shallow, silt-laden river, making us feel even punier.

Everywhere we gaze, bare-bones geology is on display. We ponder countless wind-scoured alcoves, natural bridges and arches, rounded domes, crumbling buttes, and slickrock amphitheaters that abound along the main river and untold tributary canyons.

However, when the Escalante cuts deeper into the Colorado Plateau’s softer Chinle Formation, we are suddenly reminded that canyon gawking will have to take a backseat to serious, cautious river-running. We’ve encountered swift, mildly technical water since day one, but not like this. The river begins to rip downstream, accelerated by a steepening gradient that begins to average 21 feet per mile.

“Never expected so much action!” Larry Laba breathlessly remarks upon joining me below yet another lengthy whitewater gantlet. Neither did I, but we really shouldn’t be completely surprised. A guidebook reference we both read before our trip stated that the Escalante is “a Class II river, but considering its remoteness, potential for severe equipment damage or failure, and limited escape routes, river runners should have at least Class III skills.” The summary is dead-on.

But whatever class the Escalante is, I’m overjoyed to be here. This is a dream trip come true. Some in our group, myself included, have been yearning to float the Escalante for nearly a decade, but until this spring there has not been enough water for even a marginal run.

The days before our May 10, 2005, launch date were full of anxiety. The river’s flow was still only the barest of trickles-“unrunnable,” a Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument ranger told us, unless we wanted to “push, pull, tow, and portage” our boats over a grueling web of rocks, sandbars, and riffles.

However, the winter’s snowpack, 200 percent of normal for the Escalante drainage, had been working to our advantage, exactly as we had hoped. The morning we converged at our put-in, where Utah Highway 12 crosses the “river,” at this point not much wider than a thicket-lined irrigation ditch, the Escalante’s flow was 65 cubic feet per second (cfs), a mere 15 cfs above the minimum recommended to start a trip. But the days and nights have been growing warmer since our arrival. As a result, snowmelt off the 11,000-foot-high Aquarius Plateau to the north has been steadily releasing more and more runoff into the Escalante and its feeder streams.

Ironically, now deep into the canyon, 50 roadless and uninhabited miles from our put-in, we are beginning to wonder if too much water might come charging down as our flotilla-four inflatable canoes and a rather out-of-place 14-and-a-half-foot plastic expedition kayak-threads its way around boulder gardens and gravel beds. But the truth is that we couldn’t have chosen a better time to be here.

We are pleased beyond reckoning that we are running this ephemeral river instead of wading it.
DROPPING 2,000 FEET between the Highway 12 bridge and Lake Powell Reservoir, the Escalante barrels ahead like a river on a mission. Class II to II+ rapids continue virtually nonstop below Scorpion Gulch, requiring deft boatmanship in our heavily loaded vessels. But soon we’re stopped in our tracks by the first of two known boulder jams along our route. At this one, a huge slab has broken loose from the adjacent cliff and clogged the river with angular, truck-sized blocks of sandstone. We get out and portage everything to calmer water on the other side.

The tranquility doesn’t last long. Scorpion Rapid lies just ahead, waiting to sting us. “Pretty straightforward Class III,” I concur with Jeff Josephs, the only kayaker in our group, as we scout the 100-yard-long boulder field sluiced by what we estimate is 250 to 300 cfs of whirling, mocha-colored water-more than the Escalante has seen in a long time. Laba, an experienced canyon boater and the manufacturer of the inflatable canoes we’re using, shakes his head at our assessment of the rapid’s difficulty. “No way, dudes. Look where we are: in the middle of friggin’ nowhere. Look at all those moves you’ve got to nail. I’m calling this a Class IV.”

The rest of our party watches from an adjacent talus slope as first Jeff, in his gear-packed straight-tracking kayak, and then I in my moderately rockered canoe make clean runs, though not the prettiest. Laba goes next. And maybe Scorpion is indeed a Class IV, because our friend gets knocked all over the place, smacks dead-on into a boulder, gets pinned sideways, is ejected overboard, and goes for a bruising swim.

The next morning, while Laba licks his wounds-pulled calf muscle, sore knee, poison ivy outbreak, and a mysterious eye infection-the rest of us prowl around a nameless side canyon near our cliff-ringed campsite. Without walking far, we discover some well-preserved Anasazi rock art and ruins. Our serendipitous find exemplifies the fact that the Escalante was the very last river added to the map of the contiguous United States. Today, it remains one of the wildest and most inaccessible river canyons in the country.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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