Thursday, June 13, 2019

Trains, boats, and one great rental car

I've been doing a lot of training lately.  No, not running/riding (and my lack of fitness shows that), but actually taking the train!  It's a little known fact, but in addition to our beloved cars and the expensive/frustrating air travel Amtrak still exists in the US, and I've realized that it works.......mostly.....

Three times over the last few weeks I have had the need/opportunity to meet friends in Green River for trips: paddling the Black Box section of the San Rafael with the intrepid Alaskan adventurer Brad Meiklejohn, paddling the mighty Muddy Creek and canyoneering with intrepid Washington adventurer and photographer Benj Wadsworth, and returning to the Black Boxes again with endurance cycling legend-turned-intrepid-packrafter Mike Curiak, and each time there was a fair bit of incentive not to drive.   Ashley and I share a car and since she rides to work every day and leaves me the car on a day to day basis all the time, but taking it out of SLC for days wouldn't be an appropriate use of that privilege.  Yes, I could easily rent a car for a coupla days, but actually the train is pretty sweet!

The California Zephyr is a romantic name for the choo choo that chugs once a day from Sacramento to Chicago and back, and after whiling its way across Nevada arrives in Salt Lake City at the unlikely hour of 3am.

Now before you roll your eyes and think "there's no way in hell I am getting up to catch a train in the middle of the night" hear me out.  It actually works out pretty well.  I wake up at 2:30, get a Lyft to the train station, wait a few mins for the train to arrive, clamber on, and am asleep again by the time the train leaves the SLC city limits, lulled by the quiet and gently rocking motion of the train.  Compared to a plane - and for that matter, a car - train seats are mega:  they are wide, lean way back without crimping the folks behind, have thigh supports, and foot supports.  And there are so few people who appreciate the train that you'll almost certainly have a 2 seat combo to yourself.  So moderately-comfortable sleeping while "sitting" in the seats is a real thing.

All three times I have woken up a ways after dawn to watch us progress our way along the Price river, and I have just about enough time to get a cup of tea in the cafe, read the paper on my phone, and the conductor calls out "Green River!"
a little blurry, but I think he's checking his fob watch! 
The "station" in Green River is little more than an abandoned building and a landing:


But indeed, once you're off the train....

It's indeed the Green River  Epicenter, it's now 8am, you are a few blocks from a great taco truck:

that has killer breakfast burrito, and presto!  You are in Southern Utah with plenty of time to stage for adventuring!  To be sure, Green River is not quite Moab, Fruita, Escalante, or Springdale in terms of being a gateway (though they just did a ribbon cutting on a new mtb trail:
It's only 5.5 miles, but it's a start....
And of course you are poised to get to great places.     Two of these trips were for paddling the Black Box section of the San Rafael; once with Brad Meikeljohn and another with Mike Curiak.  Flat water leads to great class 3-4:

And once in the Box there's a challenging portage:

thanks for Mike for again shooting great pics.
 Before some nice camping after you leave the first Box:
I love overhangs!
and then running a coupla must-run class 4's in the 2nd box before a long paddle out. 

Another train-trip was to meet our friend Benj Wadsworth for some canyoneering and more Utah desert creeking:





The train back to Salt Lake leaves Green River at 6pm, arriving at 11pm.  For my first two trips down I didn’t need to take the train home, but for the last one – with Mike, last week, who was coming from paddling the Zion Narrows and then heading back to Grand Junction – I did need the return trip.   After we took off the river in mid-afternoon (thanks again to Jeny for running our shuttle for us) we were back in Green River and all was good:  we had enough time to have a burger at Ray’s Tavern, the train station was just down the street, it was going to come chugging through soon, and I had a good book to get me home on the train.  Until I got the text message:  “Amtrak train #5 is delayed….until 2:30 am”  Gaack.  Really?  I like Ray’s and all, but spending the next 8 hours there sounded suboptimal.  I did have my camping gear and could just sleep on the train landing.  Then a few minutes later another text:  “Amtrak train #5 is delayed….until 3:30 am.”  How could a train get an hour later in only 10 more minutes?  But it was an indication that clearly something was awry, and the trend wasn’t good. 

Mike and Jeny wanted to help but there wasn’t much for them to do beyond getting me to the even-more-bleak western end of town where there are two gas stations near the I-70 on ramp.  I bid them adieu and hung out outside one of them and asked a couple of nice looking folks if they were going to Salt Lake.  I felt a bit like one of those guys who comes up to you in the parking lot with the sad – and perhaps – true story of his sick mom in Duluth and if he could just get a few bucks to fill up his gas can he can get a few more miles closer to her, but hoped that my somewhat normal demeanor might help (though the stupid porn mustache I was sporting – that has since gone - probably didn’t help my cause.  Soon enough a station employee came around and told me I couldn’t be doin’ that, and I got it, but he suggested a piece of cardboard, a sharpie, and a thumb might work. 

I didn’t have much to lose, so I went ahead and made my little sign saying “SLC” and walked out to the road, setting my Patagonia Black Hole bag on the ground and my paddle prominently displayed so any river types would see it and take pity on me.

A bit forlornly I watched a few minutes’ worth of people accelerate past and avoid eye contact, when suddenly a car with California plates pulled over.  A guy jumped out, ran around, and said “I’m headed to Salt Lake.  Wow, that’s a classic old Black Hole!” I was pretty excited to get a ride quickly, but even so wondered “wow, that’s a bit of a weird thing to say.”  I hopped in and we were off, and it turns out that my benefactor turned out to be a great guy named Justin Wood, who in addition to being a longtime sponsored climber guy from Salt Lake is also a Patagonia employee who roams the country helping stores with their merchandising, and was returning from a work trip to Telluride that he’d used a rental car for (hence the California plates).  Between our respective Patagonia experiences and Salt Lake connections we had zillions of mutual friends and yapped for hours, and in no time I was delivered right to my door.  

About the time I was thinking about Bed and how happy I was to be crawling into it with Ash instead of onto the concrete landing in Green River, I got yet another text:  “Amtrak #5 is delayed….until 6:30 am.”  Yikes.  That would have put me into SLC at noon and blown a good half a day. 

I of course was quite keen for the train based on my experiences before the big delay, which I think was caused by the flooding in the Midwest.  Like everyone, I’ve had my share of plane delays as well for weather and other, more frustrating reasons and it’s actually easier to comprehend the implications of one late train going across the country relative to the zillions of flight options that exist in the sky.  And our ponderous train system seems to pale in comparison to the 200+ mph trains that form extensive networks in Europe, Japan, and other countries.  It’s almost more endearing than it is practical, but the price ($35 each way), the spontaneity (decide you want a ticket, go to the station 30 mins before the train arrives, buy ticket, and get on), and relative comfort  actually makes it a viable option….if you’re patient.  Or if you are lucky enough to find The One Car that’ll take you right to your house! 

Thanks again to Benj, Mike, Jeny, Brad, and Justin for indulging me and being great pards on fun Green River area adventures! 

Thursday, May 30, 2019

An Escalante Return



When Utah has a good snow year like this one skiers focus on the copious snow that fills in all the lines and provides many great powder days, but those skiers who also like the liquid form of snow as it tumbles down rivers start to scheme about potential river adventures as the snow melts.  Compared to great whitewater states like Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and California, Utah is pretty weak in comparison but there are a few great exceptions.  The Escalante River is one of the best exceptions I know.  So as this winter's storms kept taking the southern track and the long drought started to fade as the snotels across the state grew we knew that this would be a year to be able to plan on a trip down the Escalante. 

The key to an Escalante trip is getting enough water.  The only real legitimate gauge is in the town of Escalante, and it doesn't really inspire confidence:  if you are lucky it'll be in the double digits (ie over 10 cfs; a mere trickle) and Pine Creek is a similarly-sized creek that comes in to double it to a still-uninspiring level.  So when you get to the highway 12 bridge over the river near Calf Creek the "river" (in most states they'd call it a creek!) it almost always looks barely-floatable.  But only 6 miles downstream Boulder Creek comes in which typically helps a lot, but....you aren't really sure, because the G-dub Bush administration decided in it's infinite wisdom that an effective cost cutting measure for the US was to take out the Boulder Creek gauge in 2005 (I'm sure that my taxes that year reflected that big savings!).   

Compounding our attempt to forecast the flow this time was....the forecast: a well-advertised cold and wet storm system was marching across California, Nevada, and western Utah, and since the watershed of the Escalante includes the high elevations of the Aquarius Plateau and Boulder Mountain, the potential existed for the flows to get totally shut down by high elevation snow, but at least it'd be cold and rainy on the river.  I have now lived in a quasi-desert now for 20 years and made innumerable trips down to the real desert in southern Utah innumerable times, and I'm always amazed at how many times I've been affected by storms there!  But once we were in the 'hood with our gear and devoid of any other "bad weather" options anyway,  Ashley announced "WE ARE GOING!"  And thus it was. 

Scott Martin was a river guide on Cataract Canyon for a few years many years ago and had heard plenty of tales of floating the Escalante, but being a guide, then a committed working stiff, then a family guy with a huge raft (that would barely fit inside the entire Escalante riverbed) he'd never been able to put it together to get down the river.  But the many hours in the skin track thinking about the storminess down south got into his head, and he got a rare unencumbered pass to spend the week+ with us, which was a treat. 
SLC watershed defender by week, groveling dirtbag by weekend...
So the three of us piled out of Scott's rig at the highway 12 bridge over the Escalante, took a look at the river, declared it enough water to float a boat, and after a quick shuttle (Scott's theory on driving washboards - of which the Hole in the Rock road is infamous for  -is to drive fast enough to skim over them, and it seemed to work) we floated on down.  Fortunately the upper section of the river is mostly a single channel, and it was easy to skim along in our Alpackas that have very little draft (they stick down only a few inches).  As predicted, a cold rain began to fall, but - starting a trend that would continue for almost a week  - about the time we were ready to stop we spied a nice overhanging camp.


Overhanging camps are sheer magic.  I've spent plenty of nights in tents in the rain and it's fine, especially with a more-spacious Black Diamond Megamid, but rock is dryer than nylon, it's great to be able to walk around under an overhang, and in addition to feeling snug, you also feel smug that you are warm and dry while it's pouring just inches away and you are still outside. 

We woke in the morning with no change in river level and we were only a quarter mile above Boulder Creek, which as anticipated was a nice aqua contributor.  Yep, it was on the cold side  -esp for mid-May, when the typical temps are in the 70's - but as Ash put it, that's why we spend a bunch of money on expensive clothes.  And we were able to find a huge, fern-lined overhang a couple of hundred yards up a side ephemeral stream with a nice pool to supply water just as the afternoon rain started to kick in again.  We reveled in our overhang smugness as we sat in the dry sand with some appetizers, played some scrabble, watched the rain fall a hundred feet away, and wished we had a frisbee to cavort about under our overhang. 

I had assumed that the pool we were near was a function of the springs that also fed the prodigious ferns that stuck out of the wall, but as so many times in nature, we way underestimated natural events.  As I was facing the pool an hour or so after it started raining, very abruptly - like the hand of God turned on his bath faucet -  a huge blast of water suddenly shot over the wall 200 feet over our heads and created a thunderous waterfall (ala the famous "Butt Dam Falls").  We were safely out of the way of the pool and the outflow, but it was so big that it was created a ton of spray off the pool that was washing over us, so we scrambled away (we still had plenty of room under the overhang).
Scott giggling, until we realized that the spray was coming! 

The waterfall was about 200 feet.  

Though the rain stopped the draining did not, and the waterfall raged all night. Fortunately, even with the enhanced acoustics of our copious overhang and the volume of water making a deafening noise, it was a "white" (so to speak) noise that was very sleepable. However, I fell asleep with a bit of unease; if we were getting that much water, in our little streamlet, how high would the river get? 

In the morning we got our answer; the river had come up a lot.  We put on and floated on down a bit, and we weren't on the water long before we saw some lightning flashes with and quick peels of thunder and soon enough the big water droplets started getting even bigger and harder, so when another overhang presented itself we ducked under it: 

just as the inevitable hail began pelting us. 

Getting an inch or more of hail didn't warm up the environment much but we were again pretty smugly snug in our overhang, so we decided to hang a bit, and about the time we were settling in a party came barreling in, and they were in fairly bad shape. A couple of them had swam several times (they were in an Alpacka Forager, which puts the paddlers up pretty high and thus closer to hanging branches) and were super cold and relished the opportunity to get out of the weather, have some tea, and warm up before heading downstream.
The guy in the drysuit was fine; the guy in the red jacket was wearing a 3mm wetsuit top and capri pants and had nary an ounce of fat on him to keep him warm.  He was bumming, as was his boatmate (kneeling)
The river peaked shortly thereafter and then dropped quickly to a fine floatable level, and we slowly worked our way downriver, still taking advantage of the overhang camps: 





From the highway 12 bridge to the most common takeout at the mouth of Coyote Gulch is 75 miles, which doesn't sound like much for a 9 day trip, but the beauty of the Escalante is the myriad of spectacular side canyons to explore, and because the canyon isn't very deep, there are a fair number of opportunities to get up high, sometimes using "Moki steps" - small holds chiseled into the sandstone that the Anastazi/Fremont natives put in about 800+ years ago. 

The canyons all have their own characters, and the opportunities for adventures is literally endless (Ace Kvale and his Desert Dawg have tried as hard as anyone, as seen in this video).   Here are a variety of representative hike pics:
Hiking in drysuits - the new Escalante look



Quite ogle-able




some fun scrambling



And of course, we paddled too:


And fortunately, I had a map to navigate our progress:

The improving weather enabled us to have some non-overhang camps
(overhangs get a little thin in the 2nd half):
And to prove my theory that a good way to get away from crowds is to do something stoopid, since we put on as the Big Gnarly Storm approachethed we literally didn't see another human bean for a week, until we were just a coupla miles from Coyote Gulch.

You'll note that in a few pics we are sporting very stylish white suits.  More on that later, but suffice to say I felt immensely stylish indeed:

And Scott was able to get all artsy using the medium:
White Man On Dark Rock.  $1190, framed. By Scott Martin
The dez is in full bloom this year:


and there was plenty of petrified wood that showed that stuff bloomed a long time ago:
Gratuitous juvenile male humor....
As we arrived at Coyote (and bumped into old friends Jake and Addy and their friends) it felt like our adventure had come to an end, but the Good Nature wasn't done with us yet.  Thunder and lightning in the morning was a bit unusual, and by the time we got to the sandstone slab that represented our exit from the gulch it was soaked, and an exposed traverse that is absolutely easy and totally forgettable when dry became pretty dang spicy with sand covered shoes on the wet sandstone.  After leaving our friends and another group behind there with a length of webbing for a fixed line we trudged up the long sand hill to the Crack in the Rock; the subtle and key spot that takes advantage of a fallen block to work your way up to the top of a cliff, where we in full exposure to pouring rain and a good stiff breeze.  We didn't need to see the snowline shockingly low on the flanks of the Kaiparowits Plateau to know that the temp was also quite low, and once again we found ourselves in full river clothing as Ash led the swift march back to the trailhead where the car awaited. 
But that wasn't quite the end of our adventure:  as desert travelers know, hard rains on clay roads makes for some greasy excitement. But Scott proved that not all GMC suburbans are only driven on pavement, and his masterful seesawing of the nearly-unresponsive steering wheel and insistence on carrying plenty of momentum delivered us safely to the paved highway 12.
And 6" of snow on Boulder Mountain! 
Thanks to Alpacka for making such Escalante-worthy crafts:

again to Ash for hatching the idea over the winter and insisting that WE'RE GOING
and Scott
the Escalante is burly!
for taking virtually all of these pics (I lost my camera in the Grand Canyon), and most importantly taking the time to join us for a week of ogles and yuks.