by Amanda Close -- July 2nd, 2015
This became our motto as my first 14 day stream sampling hitch progressed. After all, we were backpacking up to 14 miles to get to our sampling sites. What’s more, we never had a trail to follow, and were traveling through slot canyons, over slick rock, and through river beds that would give way to quick sand without any notice at all… It was an adventure for sure!
Within the Western Rivers and Streams Assessment (WRSA), there are several geographic areas that contain a concentrated number of sampling locations. The Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument is one of these intensification areas. Due to the random sampling design and the remoteness and lack of roads within the Grand Staircase, many of the sampling locations require a crew to backpack into the sites. Due to my previous backcountry experience I was placed on a specialized three person crew assigned to visit the most remote areas within the monument. Because the WRSA office is based up in Logan we were not given much beta to go off of and were required to make local contacts and rely on our navigational skills to find each of the sampling locations. Easier said than done when there was so much iron in the rock that compasses didn’t work… but more on that later!
Our first sampling site was on the lower Paria River, close to the Utah-Arizona border. This was probably the most well trafficked area we sampled, but even so we only saw 5 other people during the three days we were in the canyon. Our trail was the stream bed itself and getting to our x-site involved hiking through a narrow and beautiful section of slot canyon. An enormous flood had swept through the area a week prior following torrential rains, thus reshaping the channel and depositing fresh sediment on the tiered floodplains typical of flashy desert systems. These fresh changes made measuring the physical traits of the channel difficult, as well as hiking since the unconsolidated sediments acted like quick sand. This was also the most remote of our sites, 14 miles from the nearest road. To access the site we backpacked 10 miles and camped by the first spring we came to and then hiked the remaining 4 miles to the x-site the next day to sample, and then hiked out the way we had come the third day. The trip ended up being the most straight forward of the backpacking trips, and perhaps the most beautiful as well. The varied geology of the area and towering canyon walls amazed me at every turn of the river.
The second and third sampling locations were about three miles apart on the upper Paria River and were combined into another three day backpacking trip. Like the first trip, our trail was the stream bed, but it was not quite as straight forward. We began at the Willis Creek narrows, a fairly popular short day hike. After hiking about 2 mikes through a cool slot canyon, there was a confluence of creeks as Willis joined Sheep. It is here that most people turn around but we continued downstream and left the confined canyon, shade, and tourists behind. Upon arrival at our first x-site (about 8 miles from the trailhead) we were greeted by a text book illustration of a complex system. Due in part to the recent flooding, the sediment was newly deposited and the river was flowing higher than normal. This combination created a highly braided channel with a lot of mid channel bars. The site downstream was complex as well and had us digging out our manuals at almost every transect. Despite the challenges, by the third site we had developed an efficient work flow and had learned a ton.
Sites 4-7 were all located on, or in side drainages off of, the Escalante River. We decided to split them into two 3 day trips and approach from a mesa to the south. Our plan was to scramble down the slick rock and scoot into a drainage and follow it to its confluence with the river. A plan good in theory, but difficult in practice. The desert is an unforgiving place we soon found out, and topo maps with contour intervals of 40 feet are about as good as compasses that don’t point north. We were able to find the drainage we wanted to use to access sites 4 and 5 easily enough, but kept getting shut down by shear 20 foot drops that didn’t appear on our maps. At each of these setbacks we stopped to scout ways to bypass that particular section of drainage, but would simply be faced with another obstacle further on. By noon the blazing sun was high in the sky and with water running low we accepted defeat and hiked back to the car.
The next day we set out again, this time hoping to find a route to the river near sites 6 and 7. Leaving the truck at 6am we hoped to escape the heat of the day, but due to similar issues with the steep and complex terrain, we ended up hunkering down under a scrawny juniper for several hours to wait out the midday sun and temperatures well into the 100s. During this time we were forced to drink pot hole water (home to tadpoles, fairy shrimp, and all sorts of algae) after a combination of boiling, filtering, and chlorinating. Around 5pm we decided to attempt one more scouting effort to find a way down to the river… and did! Fifteen exhausting hours after setting out from the truck we made it to the Escalante and set up camp. It was definitely the most tiring section of the hitch and unfortunately not the most productive (site 7 was dry and we didn’t have time to complete site 8) but was the most epic and satisfying part of the 14 days.
After working 160 hours in the past two weeks and backpacking close to 100 miles I’m excited to have some time off to relax, explore, and adventure with friends. My next hitch starts July 10th and I’m not sure what I’ll be doing between now and then, but I know it will probably not involve hiking in the desert. Southern Utah is beautiful and I’d definitely like to explore more of it, but I think that will be a Fall season venture when it happens.