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Is That a Freight Train?
Buckskin and Paria

Aug. 21, '94

The Buckskin and Paria rivers are little streams that cut extremely narrow canyons (slots) through sandstone plateaux in southern Utah.

Day 0

Mike, Curtis, Ben and I departed sweet Tucson at around 10 am. The drive passed without incident, although it was rather windy. North of Feenicks (Armpit of Arizona) a wondrous sight presented itself to our astonished eyes--A Dairy Queen. No, not just a DQ, but a sort of super-colossal DQ. Upon entering, our suspicions were proven right: we were in the ``Largest Dairy Queen in the Southwest.'' Happy Day!

At Flagstaff, another halt was called for. A quick trip to the coffee shop, and then for'ard in search of film, fuel and some sort of flotation device. As Mike and I went into the Mall in search of the first, Ben and Curtis went to the local ``Toys R Us'' on a quest for the third. And did they strike gold! Curt had found a device called the ``Caribbean Mat,'' with a lovely poolside photo on the box. This was certainly festive--all manner of tropical colours and floral patterns.

We pressed on, ever northward. We stashed a car at Lee's ferry where we would emerge from the canyon. About 6pm we reached lovely Page, AZ - ``Established: 1957.'' ``Hmm... wonder what happened in 1957,'' mused Mike. To our disappointment, the Powell Museum was already closed. Oh well, we are not placed on this earth for pleasure alone. In the local supermarket while picking up supplies (i.e. beer) Ben made a wonderful find--a discount beer called ``Brewski''. We didn't try it, though.

After a suitable amount of dawdling, i.e. long enough till it was dark, we proceeded. Of course we pulled off at the Glen Canyon Dam visitor center and made fluid offerings to the Concrete God, with the handy cover of darkness. A little later, we were at the trailhead. A beautifully clear night, and the half moon soon set. A perfect night for--bitching! Mike had of course gone to bed.

This was not long after Meg and I had broken up, and Michelle and Curt (``As psycho-babes get older they tend to become quicker on the pscyho-trigger'') had just parted ways too. The beer started to flow like ... well, beer as Curt and I settled down for some quality whining. It then turned out that Ben too was ``far from gruntled'' and a pleasant time was being had by all. The highlight of the evening was when Curt declared that the reason women didn't like going backpacking in places like the Paria was because ``there were no potties.''

That was when we noticed that something was moving in the shadows. After the initial shock we realised that what we were looking at was not a woman hiding in the bushes but only (phew!) Mike's truck starting to roll backward across the parking lot. We greeted this spectacle with glad shouts and finally managed to get the beast stopped just before it rolled into a large ditch. At this point Mike woke up and came out... we let him get by with not too much shit.

Day 1

The 16th dawned clear and sunny, and we were able to see the low valley we were in. We all took our time packing up and taking care of other business, and finally set off down the wash. After about half a km--there it was! The stream bed went straight for a low sandstone slope and started cutting into it. It happened to be clogged with tumbleweed, which led to some anxious moments--perhaps the whole slot was choked like this! We needn't have worried; we didn't see any other more tumbleweed.

Well, anyway, there we were, in the slot. You've probably all seen pictures; they don't do it justice, and neither will this account. It was just mind-boggling. The fantastic carved shapes on the sides, and the extreme narrowness! At one point, we had to take off our backpacks and walk sideways--it really was that narrow. It was also a good hundred metres high by now.

Every now and then, the slot would widen out a little, and there would be a little island of light, with some flat areas and greenery. At one of these we found part of a calf--the head and one fore-leg. Delicious as a light snack.

We continued to walk on, and the slot continued. Incredibly gouged walls, and also a few tree trunks that got stuck as they were being washed down - the only thing that made this unusual was that these trunks were about a hundred feet up! There were also boulders that had fallen from the cliffs above and got stuck in the upper parts of the slot.

We also passed numerous day hikers going the other way, many with tripods and large backpacks of cameras. Apparently Buckskin is a photography hotspot. One party tried to reassure us, and told us about hip-deep pools of icy water with deep mud bottoms--a certain member of the party expressed a hope that swimming would be required. Needless to say, it was not your correspondent.

Towards evening we came to the pools--or, to give them their proper name, the Cesspool. It started innocuously with mud instead of sand on the canyon floor; then small pools that we could walk around; then a small pool that we had to wade through. Man, that was chilly. With no sun and a brisk breeze blowing down the canyon, it was most bracing. The pools then grew bigger, muddier and more numerous. Let us draw a discreet veil over this part of the proceedings and just say that it was quite challenging. One stretch in particular comes to mind--one had to first wade in the knee deep water/mid, and then duck under a wedged tree trunk. With backpacks on, this was interesting. At one point, I found myself on all fours trying to move sideways like a crab under that trunk; with my face about 6'' above the water, I felt the backpack suddenly get stuck on that trunk. Owing to a sudden fit of laughter Curtis couldn't film this predicament I was in.

The plan was to hike about 15km to a place where it is possible to climb out of the slot, the Middle Trail. When we got there, it looked like just another one of those slightly open areas--not a sign of a trail. Curt and Ben started to climb up one wall, and Mike went up the other. I stayed back and guarded the packs. Then, a little conference--which side to climb out? The advance parties said they both looked equally hard, so we flipped a coin. It was to be the right wall, on the other side from the Middle Trail trailhead.

Man, was that hard. And scary. It was all sandstone, so we had good traction, but no real handholds because the rock is so crumbly. And, of course, no ropes--``if you fall,'' Curt said, ``Just flatten. It's like sandpaper--the more skin you put on the rock, the more it will hold you.'' Not a comforting though, once we were about a hundred feet above the bottom; and still climbing. Of course we'd take off our packs and pull them up with a rope over the scary bits.

Coupled with a very long and fatiguing day, a good time was not had by all. We finally got to the top and found a place to camp. The occasional pile of cow shit didn't say much for the BLM calling it the ``Paria Canyon Wilderness.''

Day 2

Again, a clear dawn. Or so we guessed when we woke up at around 8. A quick breakfast, and then we couldn't put it off any longer--time to go down! The upper part wasn't too bad, mostly jumping off short ledges without too much exposure. The lower part was--well, not too bad actually. We (except Ben) took off our packs, and passed them down. Since we were rested and happy the descent seemed much easier than we feared. In about 30 minutes we were back down at the bottom.

Another quality day of slot hiking. We entered this unusual section of the slot, where it would go straight for about a hundred metres and then turn sharply to enter a sinuous and narrow slot. About a hundred metres later, again a sharp turn and a straight section. We guessed that it was probably due to the joint structure in the sandstone. The straight sections were now open enough that we could see the top of the slot--in some places, very impressive walls that we estimated at about 250m.

We stopped for lunch at another open part that had a couple of cottonwoods. As we leaned back and looked up, we noticed that the sky was no longer blue. Grey clouds were very much in evidence. And then Curtis and I both felt drops of water. Hmmm... We pressed on.

One of the other little surprises we found--lots of crows in the slot. Not just any crows, but a sort of Top Gun variety. We heard a beating of wings and looked up, and there it was. He waited for the slightly wider part of the slot to flap his wings, then glide through the narrow stuff, and then bank hard and fly knife-edge to get through the really narrow parts. Incredible!

Photographs truly don't do this place justice. At one point we saw that a large (house sized) boulder had dropped from the canyon above and been wedged in the upper part of the slot. The slot at that point was narrow at the top and widening out towards the base. Standing under it and looking up was an eerie sight. It looked like the walls were delicate pillars or buttresses suspending that boulder high above, and that they would give way in a matter of seconds. We hurried on.

By late evening, we were close to the confluence with the Paria. We knew this since there was now a small trickle on the canyon floor. We walked on and suddenly--there it was! Another slot canyon came in from the left, with a slightly stronger flow. Eureka! (Unfortunately we also heard voices coming down the canyon. We hurried on after a brief stop, but not before the other party came into view. Damn and blast! It looked like there were about 14 of them.)

A little later we arrived at Wall Spring. Part of the canyon wall seeped and dripped into the river. The canyon was a little wider now with a beach on the other side, so we decided to camp there for the night. To get water, we had to put a rock in the stream to provide a base and then balance a bottle on it such that the drops would fall in. The fresh wind whipping around made the drops land outside more often than not, but hey, we had time.

Day 3

Now we were in the lower part of the Gorge. The bottom was about 25m wide on average, and there were numerous springs and seeps. The river was also flowing strongly now, your feet were definitely soaked when you waded across. And of course you had to wade across every 10 metres or so. Luckily it was a warm day and the wider canyon walls meant that we got quite a bit of sunlight.

One of the springs was very refreshing indeed--Big Spring. It flowed almost like a faucet, and was nice and cool. There was also a little pool that had formed at the base of a corner in the wall, and it was just filled with tiny fish. About 200 of them would make a nice snack, we decided.

The river now had these little stretches of flat water. We inspected the facilities and decided that the time had come for another Pan-Galactic Skip-Off. Of the official attempts, B. Whaley (USA) went first and recorded 4 skips. C. E. Dyreson (NOR) was second but was not in form; in spite of finding a world-beater rock, he could only deliver two skips. He retired in disgrace. Throwing last was S. Mohamed (IND). With a mediocre rock, he came through with 6 to clinch the title--again!

Later in the day some bitching was heard on this count. An alternative contest was arranged on another flat stretch--this time, the objective was to skip a rock off the water and hit the opposite cliff face. Obviously a bogus contest, where strength was all and technique and finesse played a small part (if any). Running a high fever, the Pan-Galactic Champion made several valiant efforts, but his strength was waning. Whaley and Dyreson took advantage of this to hit the wall.

Onward on the adventure. The canyon floor was now about 100m wide in places, but the walls were still vertical and very high. Gave a definite impression of hugeness. Tentative plans were made to set camp at a side canyon called ``The Hole.'' We walked on and no sight of side canyons. Suddenly, behind what we thought was just a fin, a narrow little canyon. There was even a convenient spring close by, although it came up through the sand.

The Hole was very impressive. Dark and imposing, it went back about 100m into the wall and then ended in a sheer dryfall. A pool at the base of the fall was filled with murky water with lots of green stuff and living things, so it was probably ok to drink, if a little unappetising. There was also a large sand bench on one side, but it was entirely too dark and dank for us. Across the river and a little upstream was a very nice bank; we made for it and found a lovely campsite. Even downed trees to sit on! Dinner itself was a joy, with cinnamon rolls (with pecans) baked by Chef ``Jacques'' Dyreson.

However as we were enjoying our dinner, the brats of the other party were there. Loud and shrill with lots of hooting sounds, they made for the Hole and seemed to be settling down. We all prayed that they would move on, that perhaps they were only waiting for some slower members of the party. It was not to be; the slower members arrived, and they too headed for the Hole. After some discussion, a majority of our fearless group voted to move on, and so it was (amid a lot of whining on the part of your correspondent). There didn't seem to be any good bacnks downstream, and the ones upstream seemed overrun with tamarisk. We decided that the sky was clear enough and the canyon wide enough that there was no risk of a flash flood, so we camped on the beach. Nice flat sand, very comfortable.

Day 4

Another lovely morning, but this time, an ominous sign of trouble. Your correspondent still had that annoying fever, but Curt looked quite unhappy. At first he suspected that the cinnamon rolls didn't agree with him, but later developed a raging fever. It was the considered opinion of all that they had never seen Curt so miserable on a camping trip. (It should be noted that none of the other members of the heroic '90 assault on Mt. Lemmon were along on the present trip.)

The show must go on. We packed up and continued our journey. By now the canyon had widened out considerably. As a result, the sun beat down mercilessly and we started to suffer for water. We took every opportunity of wading through the river but it was still brutal. For very long stretches the trail would climb up a hundred feet or so and stay on top of a bench with only sagebrush for shade. With both Curt and I with fevers to contend with, this was not pleasant!

Still, the canyon was very nice. Geologically it was spectacular; we were passing through large Chinle deposits with the bright sediments and colours dominated by now-distant cliffs of Wingate and Navajo sandstones. We also saw lots of fauna, mostly lizards and toads. But as much as we tried to distract ourselves from the heat and our thirsts with this sights, we were in a torment. I convinced myself that Lees Ferry was just around the bend of the canyon so I decided to ``sprint''--to drink all the water and start a single-minded assault. Alas, the end was not yet close. I don't have the words to describe the torture (and the CDA would probably ban such inhumanity) so let us draw the curtain of discretion over the suffering. Let's just say that in due course we all reached the Lees Ferry campground.

Then all that remained was for a large celebratory dinner, drive to the other car, and then back to Tucson.

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Copyright © 1995,1996 by Shamim Mohamed.