The Situation Is The Boss, Man: Straightforward Canyon Adventuring*
Words and Photos from Eszter Horanyi
(*Some Penalties May Apply)
We’re marching forward with our The GRATEFUL DEAD documentary "Long Strange Trip" inspired series. In it, Steve Parish–perhaps their most infamous roadie–described the period during the "Wall of Sound" era that featured the PA and speaker system that was the size of a small town. He reflected on the chaotic and unhinged ordeal of transporting the equipment from place to place and getting it set up by showtime, and how when the police, venue managers, etc. asked the inevitable question, "Who's in charge around here?", their response was always, "THE SITUATION IS THE BOSS, MAN." We couldn't help but wonder how many times the adventurers in our orbit have felt the same way in the situations they've found themselves in. Here, our friend Eszter Horanyi shares a tale about an easy canyoneering and packrafting trip with hidden fees.
“Well, this is different.”
Scott said this while looking down at the small and clear creek flowing at our feet. Freshly greened-out cottonwood trees towered overhead, contrasting beautifully with the red canyon walls just beyond them. Birds chirped—the temperature, ideal.
“This is nice,” I agreed. I hopped across the waterway and back, just to prove to myself how small and benign it was. “It’s not a raging torrent of floodwater! This is already going better than last time,” I clapped my hands.
Scott and I had dreamt up and attempted this packrafting loop two years prior, during one of the wettest springs in Utah that I could remember. The plan was to walk down the Sundance Trail into Dark Canyon, follow a perennial stream to the Colorado River, reaching it just below Cataract Canyon, inflate packrafts, float back to Hite, and then pedal stashed bikes back up to the top of the Sundance Trail to retrieve our vehicle.
On paper, it seemed like a straightforward trip, but springtime weather in Utah always has the ability to throw a spanner in the works with wind and the potential for flash floods in the canyons. Since the trip had 12 miles of floating on the Colorado River in an area notorious for strong winds, our main concern for the trip was the rivering bit of the mission. Packrafts on big rivers with strong headwinds are a recipe for disaster. This time around, though, the wind wasn’t going to be our problem.
That spring had been one of the better springs for desert rivers. The Utah snowpack was solid, and it wouldn’t stop raining. Some of the creeks in the area that normally only run for a week or two during peak snowmelt had been going strong for six weeks. A huge rainstorm had just passed over the Cedar Mesa area over Memorial Day, and the summer heat was threatening to settle into the low desert for the season. It was under these conditions that we shouldered packs with boats, paddles, PFDs, and headed down into the canyon for the first time. Our hope was to get through the loop in one day, hiking down the canyon during the cool hours of the day and spending the hot afternoon floating back.
The Sundance trail utilizes a loose scree field to get down through the vertical layers of the canyon. Years of hikers using ill-defined routes has led to an eroded mess of options to drop the nearly 1,000 feet to the canyon floor. It was loose, rocks liked to roll, and the heavy packs made for slow going. I’d quipped, “I’m sure glad we don’t have to come back up this!”
Reaching the bottom of the Dark Canyon tributary provided some relief, the loose rocks being replaced by sand. We couldn’t wait to get into the canyon proper, which promised smooth sandstone ledge walking, a sparkling stream, and an unimpeded path down to the river.
But there it was before us. A fully flooded stream, roiling brown and silty, racing down the narrow canyon, overflowing its banks.
I stuck my pole in to try to gauge the depth of the fast-moving water near the shore. The pole disappeared into the depths. “Think we can cross it?” I asked.
Scott looked at me dubiously.
“I think if someone held a gun to my head, I could get across,” I offered, somewhat optimistically, with the reality of the situation settling in.
“I think the canyon gets narrower as we go down, and we’ll have to cross the creek several times.’
We stood there at the side of the flooded stream, knowing full well that we weren’t going any further that day, but also refusing to admit, for just one more moment, that we were faced with the steep, exposed, and now hot, climb back up the Sundance Trail to return to the car.
Resigned to our fate, we turned around and started to climb with the sun beating down overhead. And just to fully put us in our place, a rattlesnake sunning itself on the trail made its presence known with its signature, blood-curdling rattle early on in the climb. After that, every foot placement was watched carefully as we climbed back to the car. We arrived fully defeated.
Now, two years later, the bottom of the canyon was a welcoming, gentle place. Lizards darted from the rocks, leaves rustled in the breeze, and we were finally able to head downstream. With overnight gear this time, we took the time to savor the spectacular location.
The canyon was everything I had imagined when I planned the trip two years ago. Beautiful sandstone, waterfalls, scrambles, and a friendly, happy little creek for company and water.
And once on the Colorado River, we were treated to a completely wind-free afternoon with which to paddle to camp a few miles downriver.
Conditions remained in our favor as we packed up the boats in the morning and headed around Mille Crag bend in the company of a family of curious beavers. We couldn’t believe our luck.
Nearing our takeout, a breeze began to blow up the river, just as it liked to do every afternoon. We pulled the packrafts over to a small beach near the road to end our journey. One foot over the side tube followed by the other, I heaved myself out of my boat and immediately found myself knee-deep in mud. The odor of goose poo immediately overwhelmed my senses as I struggled to free myself and my boat from the quagmire and get us both to more solid ground. Mud squelched through my loosely tied shoes, threatening to steal them with every step until finally, the suction of the mud overwhelmed my foot’s ability to stay shod. I immediately went after the lost shoe with my hands, elbow-deep in muck, pulling it out of the smelly mess.
A few more stumbling steps dragging my boat behind me got me to more solid ground, everything absolutely covered in smelly, sticky, and poo-infused mud. I collapsed on the sand, exhausted from the two-minute struggle. All I could do was laugh. Amazing conditions throughout the entire trip, but in the end, Nature gets the last laugh. It was a perfect redemption trip, with the smelly reminder that try as we might to control the variables, nothing is ever going to go quite as planned.
Eszter Horanyi is an endurance mountain bike racer and bikepacker, a record setter on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, a packrafter, writer, and an address-free Scamp dweller that can be usually be found somewhere in the Southwestern United States.