Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Circumnavigation of the La Sal Mountains, Pt 2


So... when we last left the story, I had been basically screwed by this Hostellian who said he'd pick me up or have someone else pick me up at the boat ramp at 5 and at least have his phone on during the day. The guy flaked. I got to walk all the way across town carrying a bag of stuff I'd need for the hitch and a 7 gal water jug that I put a few gallons in.

The fact that this guy flaked out meant I got a later start than I would have a liked and as a result the hitch hike went all through the night, from about 7pm to 10 am when I finally reached the car.

Though he did flake out, at least this hostellian, when he finally arrived back at the hostel from his hike, gave me a ride to the edge of town where the Shell station is. He was even nice enough to then drive me BACK to the hostel, and then BACK to the edge of town, when I tried to get out of the car and realized my cell phone had fallen out of my pocket and into Jsun's trailer while I was hanging out there for a minute enjoying the air conditioning.

After about 15 minutes I get picked up by a single mom in her late 20s who is Traveling back to La Sal with her three kids and a dog. I didn't expect a car with a single mom and three kids in it to be the kind to pick up hitch hikers but apparently the kids took a vote and decided I didn't look too scary. Allright! It is also pretty sweet she was going to La Sal because no one really lives there. So I got to downtown La Sal which is really just a post office and a general store and a ranch or two. I started walking East.

Not a lot of cars drive along this road. It's getting late.

A pickup comes by and stops and there's an old timer in it. He and his brother used to work in the Uranium mines back in the day and now he lives by himself in a small house off the state highway just before HWY 90 starts to go down hill into the Paradox Basin. I helped him keep a look out for deer on the road. I think we must have seen about 6.

I get dropped off and it is getting dark. I do some walking. I realize it is dark and no cars are coming so I get some leafy branches together to sleep on and open the bag for layers. Probably should have brought a sleeping bag but didn't count on the hitch being so nocturnal back in Moab when I was unloading the duckie while it was 100 degrees outside. Crap. I'm missing a sock. BUT- I have a plastic bag with bagels in it. I take the bag and fill it with that wheat grass that grows wild and make it into a sock and put my sandal back on over it. The thing works and keeps my foot pretty warm.

After about 2 hours of sleeping I wake up cause it is cold. The road here is cutting through the Southern rise of the La Sal Laccolith and it's pretty high eleveation on a cold desert night. Damn. Eat a bagel and some peanut butter and start walking to keep warm. Walked for about 4 or 5 miles. Walked into Colorado. Started to see a bunch of irrelevant signs, like the sign that says to dial 511 for travel information on a stretch of country road that has no cell phone coverage. I've lost at least a thousand feet of elevation and I lie down to sleep some more.

It's about 3 am.

One totally random pickup goes by. I hear it, and stick my thumb out. It passes.


Lie back down.

After a while hear a sound kinda like an engine, but it's going the wrong way.

It's a truck driving in reverse.

Why the hell is a truck driving in reverse here?

Passes me pretty far.

Minutes later a familiar looking pickup drives by. I stick the thumb out and load the stuff in the back and get a ride.

This ride comes to me courtesy of two late shift Uranium miners from Naturita. These guys, like a lot of uranium miners, live in Naturita rather than Moab. These guys have about a 55 mile commute EACH WAY from Naturita to Uranium mines just south of La Sal. That is a hell of a commute. But you got to understand, unless you are buying heavily taxed and expensive beer at the state liqour store that has bad hours, all the beer you are going to get in Moab is only 3.2% alcohol. If you live in Colorado and commute 55 miles each way to your job, you can buy real, full strength beer anywhere and any time you like. This is especially important if you and your coworker live together and require at least a 12 pack of beer each night for your drive home.

Of course I'm a little nervous to be riding in this big gas guzzling truck with two drivers drinking beer on a tiny road in the middle of nowhere where it is really easy to accidently hit deer at night. And I can assure you than when you drive home from work at 3 AM for 55 miles on a country road no cops are ever on you are going to drive a lot faster than the speed limit. But, it is pretty cold outside and no other cars are coming. I have a beer.

Like a lot of manly men who have male roommates it seemed to be necessary from time to time for these guys to make known their dis-approval of the homosexual lifestyle. Interestingly enough, I had lost my water bottle at the house of the guy whose duckie I borrowed. He politely let me borrow his instead, which just happened to have one of those "equality" stickers from the Human Rights Campaign on it.

Well it was dark so they didn't notice and thus I didn't have to find myself walking.

We got to the intersection with 141 around 4 AM. Happy to be there, as that was the most remote leg of the journey.

Not a lot of cars going northbound from Naturita at 4am though.

Around 5:30 cars started coming. Quite a few. Obnoxiously though every single one seemed to be turning left onto HWY 90. Every single one was a pickup truck with guys in it wearing safety clothing. More Uranium Miners.

When you haven't really slept the night before and you had to hike in 100 degree weather the day before because your ride screwed you over you're probably really tired. So you're going to lay down by the road and rest. And its cold so you're wearing all your clothing including your PFD which helps to insulate your core more. Then you're going to hear a car come and really quickly you're going to get up, take your PFD off so you look a little less weird, stick your thumb out, and look really friendly. Do that like 10 times in a row when you are really really tired and you're going to get sick of it.

So I said to heck with this intersection and hiked a few hundred years North on 141 up the hill.

Now if I heard a car it would definitely be going North on 141. I was pretty tired at this point as was dosing off. So I'd hear the car and then have to really quickly scramble to get up and stick my thumb out. Finally at least the sun had come out and was warming up the earth. That made it nice.

I get this ride finally in a little back sedan.

Hard to hear this guy talk because his voice is messed up from being exposed to Agent Orange during his 3 tours in Vietnam. That's also why he's got cancer in most of his organs and his kids have birth defects and he hates the government and just wants to be left alone to smoke pot. At least he was courteous enough to let me know before hand that the car wasn't registered and his driving license was expired. But hell, he's going the right direction, and probably could make the turns without going off the cliff.

It's a beautiful ride through Wingate Sandstone and Mining Country along the Dolores River. The river carves a deep canyon along the road.

Countless old uranium mines in the Morrison Formation line the hill sides above the road. I do some geology and history interpretation along the way.

We pass Uravan. Uravan is a word made out of the words Uranium and Vanadium. There's this stuff in the Chinle and Morrison sandstone called Carnotite Ore.

It is yellow and has radium and vanadium and uranium minerals in it. About 15% of the uranium in the first three atomic bombs came from the Colorado Plateau (most came from Canada and the Belgian Congo). A small mine and mill where Uravan would later be produced some of it. After the War the AEC was formed and did a lot to help create a domestic uranium industry. The company that would later become Union Carbide built a company town and called it Uravan. The had many houses, a swimming pool, a doctor's office, and library, a post office, and of course a big mill and several mines in the area.

Uravan used to look like this:

When the bottom fell out of the Uranium market in the 70s and 80s, they noticed that the years of processing Carnotite in Uravan left the city pretty radioactive. By then most had moved out, and they decided to disassemble every structure in the entire town. Today Uravan looks like this:

There is a bit of an interpretive display talking about how after the mining now the area is being returned to nature that sounds pretty cool huh?

Yeah... Totally.

Finally. It is 10 am and I am back at the car at the resort in Gateway. The Circumnavigation of the La Sal mountains is complete. The people at the resort were very nice and had let me park there. I bought expensive gasoline and some coffee from them and then went back to

Utah the way I had come. This time was more leisurely and fast and I stopped here and there to take pictures.

The paradox valley was nice and there was a storm brewing

The La Sals near La Sal.

There you go. I was able to circumnavigate the la sal mountains. But I couldn't have done it without a river runner who has an equality sticker on his water bottle, a flakey hippe, a single mom, an old guy, two homophobic uranium miners, and a cancerous veteran. Once again Teamwork gets the job done. How I do appreciate these little hitches here and there and the cross sections of Americana I get to meet. Takes all kinds to make a world, I reckon.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Circumnavigation of the La Sal Mountains, Pt 1

A few winters ago I started to stare at a map of the desert that was on my wall. I was looking at different ways to see interesting places and I was looking at rivers, which generally allow you to do this a lot easier and safer and "luxuriously" than hiking does. I was drawn to stare at the lesser known and less frequently run Dolores River, which flows into the Colorado just below Dewey Bridge. It has some class 3 and at least one class 4 rapid on it, goes through some pretty canyons, and seemed to be what I was looking for.

Of course it is harder to run a river than it is to think about running a river. First you need some time, and then you need a boat, and then you need a permit for this section, and then you need to get out there and make the logistics happen. So I first got myself some free time and then

I went to the BLM site and read about the river. I saw it said minimum runnable flow for canoes, kayaks, and inflatable kayaks (duckies) was about 200 cfs. I kept that in the back of my mind.

I expressed my interest in borrowing a duckie to someone I work for who has a lot of duckies. I got permission to borrow a duckie, pump, and two paddles.

Then I called the BLM and figured out permits are free for the asking. The flow was higher than the minimum suggested for duckies (but not much!), so I felt the trip was doable. I was looking to do a 4 day trip from the town of Gateway, into Utah, and then to the confluence with the Colorado, and then down the Colorado to Moab. It might have been possible to put in further up, but then the trip might have been longer than I would have had time for (a four day trip is actually a 6 day trip with logistics).

However, getting back to Gateway from Moab would be interesting because I did not have a shuttle driver and it is far too far to bicycle. So what actually wound up happening was, rather than a simple river trip, a circumnavigation of the highest mountain range on the Colorado Plateau. From Gateway the river goes Northwest and then Southwest around the peaks, and then from Moab the hitch is through La Sal, south of the mountains, through the uranium badlands, and then a final 50 mile stretch due North parallel to the mountains' Eastern slopes.

Driving from Grand Junction up into the Uncompahgre you appreciate its beauty

At Gateway there is an old uranium mine just by the boat ramp.

The river was nice. Narrow and windy, lots of wildlife and I was the only person on it. The first day I saw a deer drinking from the river in the middle of the day. I also saw a beaver swimming and slapping his tail loud into the water. Here is where I had lunch on day one

Camping out was nice and very easy. No alarm clocks, being able to sleep in, and cooking and cleaning dishes for ONE instead of 15-25 was a nice change

In the evening for day one I camped beneath a small but fun rapidy section where great blocks of Wingate Sandstone had fallen off into the river to make it more challenging. Some of the nights I hiked up the mesas in the evening to see the sunset. The sunset for night 2 looked like this:

I got nervous on the afternoon of day 2 because on the border between Colorado and Utah there is supposed to be something called "Stateline Rapid" which the BLM map calls class 4/5. My friend and fellow guide Levi has a story about loosing a canoe there that got wrapped around a rock underwater.

I was trying to camp just after this rapid the first night and I still hadn't seen it by late on the second day. Did I miss calculate how many miles a day I can paddle? Did I forget how to estimate water flow speeds? Did I not bring enough water?

It was cloudy and cool so I stopped and made coffee and put on some warmer clothes. Then I got out the map. The terrain looked like the terrain way past the big scary rapid and I was pretty sure I had passed it. It was getting late and there was a nice beach across from the island I had pulled over on so I went there and set up camp. Then I climbed up the cliffs. I saw the bends of the river

And just beyond them- Dewey Bridge! The confluence with the Colorado was only a few miles away. Apparently the water was low enough I had passed through the class 4/5 rapid which was now only a twisty ripply class 2.

The sunset was nice

I went back down and went to sleep.

The next day I saw the otters playing just beneath my campsite in the river. I have always loved otters but it is rare to see them, so this was pretty special.

I also saw a Dobson Fly- which is the adult stage of the frightening hellgrammite larvae. This large winged insect with big scary pinchers- was flapping in the water after having fallen in. I scooped him up with the paddle and gave him a ride while he dried off, then deposited him in the grass on the shore.

Not all wildlife interactions were as benevolent. A plague of deer flies seemed to have enveloped the Dolores during my journey and though the DEET I sprayed over myself usually prevented them from biting me, going down a river means ever few dozens or hundreds of feet you are going to encounter a new colony of deer flies that hasn't met you yet and doesn't initially realized you are covered in DEET. So you get like 6 or 8 flying around your head at once and you are trying to swat these guys while making your turns to keep your line and to avoid getting caught up on shallow rocks.

I had also left my food / kitchen bag on the beach night 1 and didn't think much of it. This is pretty normal. But "normally" on commercial trips we have these nice big "dry boxes" that lock up tight and store food efficiently. Here I had a duffel bag that is old and worn and seems to not really close that tightly anymore. Nothing bad seemed to happen with leaving it out though.

Day two for lunch I decided to indulge myself and eat the cookies first- an impossible luxury for a guide to ever experience in normal life. Some of the cookies on top were crumbly so I took a big punch of crumbles and started chewing. Then I looked back into the bag for my next cookie and noticed many of the small, red ANTS.

There were really quite a few of them.

Now I am all about Leave No Trace, picking up microtrash, and yes, faithfully bringing my own ammo can along to poop in. But a mouthful of cookies and ants in most circumstances going to take priority over, well, darn near everything else. Immediately I spit them out into the river and jettisoned the cookies.

After that lunch I went hiking and found what was either old mining stuff or cowboy ruins

* * *

Pulling out into the Colorado you have about 10 miles of still water paddling through deep canyons before entering the 13 mile "daily" section with a few interesting rapids in it.

The river was wide and the current lazy so I ate lunch mid river just getting into the bag and digging out my bagels, peanut butter, jerky, and onions. For dessert I had an orange.

I paddled through here and into the daily section and enjoyed the rapids, which are a lot more fun in a duckie- where they appear larger, and the possibility of flipping is greater than when in a raft.

I camped a little bit below Rocky Rapid at a beach river right in Professor Valley.

A lot of the beauty of this valley sadly is lost in the hustle and bustle of shuttling, rigging, and running Daily trips. When you are just there by yourself and not in a hurry to get anywhere you are finally able to appreciate it the way it is meant to be appreciated. I hiked up into the Chinle formation to examing some interestingly colored rocks and to view the sunset. I got high enough that I could see over the hill and into the green grassy town of Castle Valley across the river. Sunset happened and the rocks started to glow.

I like this picture a lot the cameraphone quality ads a nice touch:

Rocks are pretty cool things to examine.

I forget if this was Chinle, Moenkopi, or Culter, but at any rate this conglomerate is deposited in a sandstone rock layer from Triassic or Permian rock, very very old. How did it get there? I don't think these ones were river rounded like a lot of the ancient stream channels you can detect in the Culter. Geology is pretty mysterious.

In the morning as I ate breakfast on the beach a family of young Geese led by their Goose- mother swam upstream past me.

The next day began with White's rapid, the biggest on this trip. I have had incidents there before.
The first time I ran it fine in a duckie, at about 20,000 cfs with big fun standing waves. The next time was in an inflatable pool toy and I flipped early but it was at even higher water so I just hung on and rode out the much lighter wave train that the rapid becomes when it is washed out. The time after that I ran it flawlessly, also on a pool toy. The time after that I was on a pool toy again and flipped in the hole and went swimming. The time after that I was on a 14 ft paddle boat and the captain (a friend of a friend) and my friend were both drunker than I think anyone has a right to be on a river. He steered us right into the hole, and sitting on the middle of the stern, was ejected. The force of the wave also pushed the other member of the crew overboard. I found myself alone on a 14 foot raft trying to paddle it to two drunks who didn't seem the least bit interested in swimming either to the boat or to shore. Finally one and then the second were rescued. I no longer raft with those people.

This time I skillfully avoided the hole, going just to the left of it, excited to try out the duckie in the standing / lateral waves just beyond. However the owner of this duckie is a bit shorter than me and the paddle I have been using this whole time has been a bit short. Short paddles in duckies are obnoxious because they drip water on you constantly, and they prevent you from turning as fast as you might need to. I came into the lateral a bit pointed too far to the left.

And immediately flipped.

Luckily I had rigged to flip every day and all was tied in well- nothing got lost and nothing got wet that needed to stay dry. I was able to flip the duck and re-board it rapidly before the end of the rapid.

Sometimes when guiding trips my fellow guides may want to dump out the extra water at the end of the trip. I always insist on waiting until we get back to the ranch, "just in case"- we get a flat tire, we stop and get thirsty, we meet people biking their own shuttle who could use some extra water (this has happened), etc... I have never before though run a trip with EXACTLY enough water. For this trip, apparently, I brought EXACTLY enough water along. I had only one liter left 100 yards above the take out. The moral of this story is that you never want exactly enough water... being able to pull over and make coffee or have extra tea at morning is pretty nice. Plus the piece of mind you get...

Luckily for me, 100 yards above the takeout is Matrimony Spring, a source of clean drinkable water spilling out of the Kayenta cliffs along the river just north of Moab that has been a source of dependable drinking water since the earliest days of Mormon Settlement in the valley. I tied the boat off and refilled a few gallons into my large green 7 gallon water jug.

Then I paddled down to the boat ramp. I was two hours early. It was 3pm and about 100 degrees. A hostellian who shall remain nameless had agreed to have his phone on that day and meet me at the ramp at 5pm. I called him and his voice mail was not set up so I left a text. The rafting outfitter I work for sometimes is only about a mile away from the ramp, so I deflated my boat, breaking it all down into three piles, and began carry each pile towards the outfitter, carrying one far, then dropping it down, then going back for the next pile to carry it just beyond the first one, etc... etc...

At 6:37pm after I had stowed my gear and hiked all the way across town and back to the hostel I got a call from this individual informing me his hike with Trundell, the hostel dog, had just ended, and he was now free.

I had survived the rapids and the river and the deer flies, but was I any match for a long walk/ hitch back across the desert, the La Sals, and on to Gateway?

Survive I did, but it is now 9:40 pm and I have got about 3 hours of sleep in the past night of travel. My brain can no longer sustain the timely output of this recollection and my tent is not even set up yet. Stay tuned for The Circumnavigation of the La Sal Mountains, Pt 2!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Great Success

I took and passed the Utah Whitewater Captain test. This means that I am now, officially, a Western Riverboat Captain. This is a great pinnacle to have reached, makes me more marketable, I feel more validated, and now everyone can call me "Capt'n". What more could I wish for?

Well, how about a big fat check in the mail from my former landlord covering my pro-rated rent days for May, my entire security deposit, and an extra $70 for when they withdrew rent twice and I got two over draft fees? Woah, imagine that, just came in the mail yesterday, right after I took the test!

Ok, well, what I would really like would be a permit to run the Dolores River from Gatway, CO to the confluence with the Colorado, and then take that down to Moab. And I'd like to borrow a duckie to do it in. Wait a sec, what's this in my glove compartment? Woah, it's a permit to run the Dolores, and here on the phone is some one calling me to let me borrow their duckie + pump. Sweetness!

In short, things have been going pretty good, and seem to be on a good trajectory. Definitely able to work less and save more now that I am living in a tent instead of a city. I feel like it would be in my interest to continue this trend. I am also working on drinking less beer with hostellians and working out more, and riding the bike for several miles in the cool morning.