Wednesday, October 26, 2016

A bike tour of the Grand Staircase; we give it another go.

Last year Ash and I decided to do a tour of the Grand Staircase of the Escalante, which I documented here and then followed up with an article in the Utah Adventure Journal (talking about the economics of the area).  It was a great trip, but due to a bit of rain  -that makes some of the roads in those parts turn into untravelable goo, we went to plan b and ultimately plan c, with Plan A essentially undone.  This year we were looking at Fall bike tour options and figured that we'd give Plan A another try and in the meantime try to do it even better.  So off to Boulder, UT we went, as one of the primary jumpoff spots for adventures in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

The trip got off to a bit of a rocky start, unfortunately.  We coasted down to cross Boulder Creek and pedaled up the other side to where it flattened out, and as I shifted back up out of the climbing gears on my bike I realized....that it wasn't actually shifting.  Weird.  I thought that perhaps the cable had gotten pinched, but after jumping off the bike and taking a good hard look I realized that the spring inside the rear derailleur had come out
there's supposed to be a spring in there
which meant that it wouldn't pull back down to hit the smaller cogs/bigger gears.  I fiddled with it for a while; just long enough to realize that I couldn't do anything about it, and we decided the best option was to roll back the coupla miles to Boulder and deal there.  Needless to say, the irony of possibly prematurely aborting/delaying a bike tour due to an inability to shift for a guy who professes to prefer single speeds was not lost!

I had seen a couple of bikes outside a gear store in Torrey -35 miles up and over Boulder Mountain - and figured that would be a good start to solving my problem.  So I threw the bike back on the car rack and blasted back to Torrey.

Once there I realized that the bikes I saw were at gear stores that had a couple of rental bikes.  Not surprisingly, they didn't have any 7-speed SRAM derailleurs in stock, nor were they interested in pulling the derailleurs off the bikes that were there (and in fact, because SRAM is a different system than Shimano, they would have only worked marginally well anyway).   I asked how much it was to rent the bike that was there and it was $40/day, which sounded a bit crushing, but then she said "we'd like to get rid of it for the season anyway, so we'll sell it to you for $300."  I thought about it: spring to fit inside derailleur:  $1.75.  Beat up demo bike that was very much spared every expense in the first place that I've never ridden before that might work:  $300.  The ability to go on a long-planned bike tour late starting late Saturday afternoon at least 100 miles from a bike shop:  absolutely priceless.  So I bought it.

And raced back to Boulder, where by now Ash had gone for a nice ride and we were able to find the last (and phattest, and most-expensive) room at the Boulder Mountain Lodge to spend the night.  I did a bit of evening bike rigging, and by morning we were ready to roll!

Our trip in the desert started with a good climb into the mountains; the Hell's Backbone road is a well-known gravel alternative to the famous highway 12, and involved a few thousand feet of climbing to and above a bridge that was built to span a precipitous pass between two slickrock canyons:
I couldn't figure out why I was hurting so badly on the climbs, when Ash pointed out that the flat tire on the Bob may have something to do with that. 
then down along the Box Canyon/Death Hollow Wilderness, which is a great through hike.  We did a bit of exploring on the bottom end.

Our next objective was to do the Smoky Mountain Road that goes between Escalante and Big Water across the "Rugged Kaiparowits Plateau"
that we had wanted to do last year but were thwarted by the rain.  The road was built for cattle ranchers in the 60's (by the feds; you're welcome, ungrateful ranchers who not only get roads built for them but only pay something like $2.74/head/year to graze on public lands and then bitch about it and refuse to pay it!) and is 78 miles end to end, with no real "features" or highlights beyond rugged high desert, so it gets almost no use.  The surface is pretty rough  -ala the White Rim  -and about halfway across this section (very shortly after Ash said "it'd be a bummer to have a major mechanical out here!") her under-gunned bike (with 43c cyclocross tires in lieu of real mtb tires) flatted.  I had put Stan's tubeless goo inside the tube as a self-sealing system at the recommendation of a shop guy, but not only did it not work the goo got all over the tube and kept blowing off the patch.  We tried a spare but I broke off the inside of the stem, and the other spare was the wrong size.  Bad deal.  But then the first rig we saw all day came by:
And the lovely Rick from San Diego was kind enough to stuff us and our bikes into/onto his rig and drove us the couple of rough bumpy hours back to Escalante.
Our angel!
The good folks at Escalante Outfitters hooked us up with great food, lodging, and yes - a new tube, this one filled with Slime; it's all they had in the size - and the next day we took off again, determined to make it across the Kaiparowits.
Clif bar....pshaw!  Powering up with Escalante Outfitters leftover pizza!
All went well until....a mile past where the flat had happened the day prior Ash flatted again.  Amazingly, the only car we saw again all day came along, and it turned out to be the famous John Florence of local SLC radio station KRCL.
This time we were able to patch the tire - and pumped it up higher, for a rougher, but "smoother" ride - and carried on along the Smoky Mt Road.

We later saw ATV-er Jesse who gave us some water:
Which was great; in any other circumstance we both probably would have not found any common ground, but desert adventurers get along just fine.

The Smoky Mountain Road ends with a precipitous drop a couple thousand feet off the mesa to the valley floor:
With great views

and some nice rolling terrain towards the Lake Powell moorage "town" of Big Water

this is not quite fair; it was a bit bigger than this, but not much....
We spun west for 10 miles on the busy highway 89 then turned onto Cottonwood Wash road, which we had gone down last year.  Cottonwood Wash road is a bike touring gem of the area, with great views, great road, and lots of hikes.  Last year we took 3 days to noodle down it; this year we did it in an afternoon to go on to new things. But the riding was challenging, as well as beautiful:
and we ended up at Kodachrome Basin, the best state park I know of, complete with hot showers!

The other road we tried to do last year but got denied on was Skutumpah:
It's apparently pronounced SCOOTumpah,
I think this is a native word for sandy:
and steep!

But it led us to three awesome short slot canyons: the first was Willis Creek:

The second - and best - is Bull Run Gorge:

that's a car that fell in, killing 3 guys in the 50's. 
and Lick Wash
After a chilly night in the mid-20's, we rolled out of camp into the sun, and came upon the spot where we had literally gotten bogged down a year ago
nice and hard this time
And then found this road:
that would take us up to the west of Bryce Canyon national park.  

as always, we had to share it with cows:

most of the time the only water we would see would be these super skanky water tanks alongside the road; again, you're welcome ranchers!
This road got a bit steep heading up to a pass:
But soon enough we found ourselves in civilization.  
If you've ever wondered where Podunk really is; we been there.  It feels like East Podunk.  
Since it's near Bryce, there are some Brycelike features in the area:

And after spending a night in the mid-20's a motel at the Bryce Entrance was hard to resist:
Moving along we headed up onto the Aquarius Plateau north of Bryce, again endeavoring to stay on great gravel roads with no traffic
and big views

We saw further evidence of locals taking great care of their natural resources:
note that this would have copious rabbit brush and sage....if the cows "using the natural resources wisely" hadn't chewed it to a nub. 

musta been a helluva party.
Riding on the gravel roads of southern Utah we realized that there were some zones that were pretty Bud Light oriented:
and others that were Coors Light specific:
maybe the Fed can sell the naming rights of the roads?  Like "Bud Light Parkway" or somesuch? 
and "sharing the road" doesn't have the same meaning in the dez as it does in urban areas with lots of cyclists:
This amazing network of roads led us back to the Hell's Backbone road, where we again crossed the eponymous bridge:

and rattled back into Boulder.  

Southern Utah has a million lifetimes' worth of adventuring in any one of a lot of different disciplines, and the ability to see a good chunk of it via the (government-built for private use!) gravel roads offers up plenty of access and adventure.  Just bring a coupla extra good tubes!
 and if you are looking for a cheap - in many ways - well-used mountain bike, I got one for sale!

Thanks again to Ash for of course being ze best buddy and trip/map planner around and for taking the time for another awesome adventure.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Running the Middle Fork Salmon - 2 years hence

Two years ago I wrote in these pages about a great trip that we did floating the Middle Fork of the Salmon in September at low water.  When you have a great trip it's always tempting to go back to sorta re-create it, but the danger always exists that it won't live up to that first, sorta magical time (I remember after going back to ski in British Columbia a couple of times and saying "the snow is always good there!"  I eventually realized's not).  But assuming that it could be just as good but it also could just as easily pour rain the whole time or somesuch is a good way to manage your expectations and ensure always having a great time.

Once again we had a small crew in small crafts:  4 Jack's Plastic packrafts - including a custom "triple nipple" - and two whitewater boats made for a nimble party that had no worries about major stickages on rocks at the low level.  It was just under 1.6 feet, for you Middle Fork gauge geeks; that's about as low as it gets, and actually with the small draft of rafts with lower air pressure in the tubes, rafts can indeed make it down the river if there aren't many passengers and people generally goes backpack-style in lieu of the typical blender, bar, innumerable cases of beer, huge kitchen boxes, etc that are normally associated with float-n-bloat river trips.

I was of course very keen again to further explore the unlimited trail running potential along the river.  The River Trail parallels the river for 80 miles and is a great, rolling, mildly-technical trail, all of the major tributaries have good trails going up them for many, many miles, and given the relatively arid nature of the area and the fact that pretty much 100% of that region has burned, virtually every one of the 100 camps along the 100 mile stretch offers the opportunity to go straight up the steep hillsides that rise 3-5000 feet above the river.  And there are so many deer and elk in that area that many of the sub-ridges have nice undulating ungulate trails on them that are quite runnable.

Brother Paul was the one who had the foresight last October 1 and called in on that day to get the post-lottery season permit, Janette was back again to face some of the demons that lurked in a couple of rapids, and we added some of our Northwest connection with Benj  - fortunately recovered from the devastating broken leg exiting out of Mill D 1.5 years ago (a broken leg less than a mile from the road in Mill D??!!?  Benj proved it can happen!) when he was in town for the Outdoor show, and he brought along Lama (or is that Llama?  The spelling sorta depends on when he had his last shower) freshly healed from a "broken face" (apparently an apt description for what he did when he made an ill-advised dive off his mountain bike in late June) and the relatively as-yet-unscathed Gib, both of whom were determined to use their fly rods to slay the hogs that undoubtedly were lurking in the deep pools between rapids.

A couple of notes about the photos below:  I realized that the final chapter of my camera's journey had occurred:  at the put in I discovered that the trigger no longer worked.  So it goes; it's been a trusty steed, and like Pheidippides, it traveled far on it's final journey, then dropped dead.  So most of the photos below are not mine, and in particular, Benj is a remarkably good, semi-pro photographer, so the pics that look quite amazing are all his.

the Cast Of Characters:

Our fearful leader, giving us the daily "Hear Ye, Hear Ye" of The Plan
Every Captain should have a huggable First Officer

River God Lama
Benj, in front of the camera for once
the ever-laughing Gib, ready for action
King Dork, on the scout at Pistol Creek rapid
I liked this sign at the put in.  Gives me fodder for when I see people tossing orange peels, validates my hatred of plastic bottles.  I wish they had one for mylar balloons!
On to the river! The first few miles are pretty busy, but it mellows out and is no harder than class 3, so everybody's happy.
Pistol Creek is the 2nd rapid of note (after Velvet, which we didn't get pictures of), and at higher water this hole can get quite mean, and even at low water it would probably be a little sticky if one just dundered over it. 
But mostly it's a lot of crystal clear flat water:

With awesome beach/ponderosa camps
that have sublime views
The fishing was good:

That is, if you're good.   I threw down for a fishing license, but once again....I failed in getting on the fishing stoke, despite the allure of seeing this:

But watching Gib do this:

Kinda made me do this:

So I therefore went and did this!  
As I remembered, the trails were amazing.  The River Trail always delivered:

 and I ran miles and miles up Marble Creek, there's a great trail climb above Camas Creek, and as I remembered, the steep climbs above the hills were great.  
Paul on a game trail high above the river. 
But you gotta be careful on that River Trail; it's got rocks in it, as brother Paul found out when he tripped on one about 12 steps into a run and dove into another:
he tried to pass it off as a bear attack, but I was the witness.  At least he had some much-needed Liquid Ego to drink (thanks Scotsman!)
I'm really convinced that this is a sleeper vacation for the trail running crowd.  The mere word "boats" typically makes runners break out in hives, but a river trip any time of year down the Middle Fork puts you into more incredible trail run opportunities in a condensed area than anywhere I have been.  

We got into a bit more whitewater.  These are a few photos from Tappen Falls, one of the more dramatic drops on the run.  Close up:
Janette laughing at the demons

Gib preparing to throw his paddle

Lama cool under pressure

Goin' a little deeper without the floation of Jack's Plastics.  
And from a bit farther away, for perspective:

A cool side attraction is Veil falls/cave:
why do they call it Veil?
and of course the nightly camps were just a huge party around the fire:
The poison ivy was in full bloom:
it was easy to spot this time of year!
And the trees - that were left after the fires - were super colorful as well:
I think that a lot of folks call in for those permits almost a year in advance, and then they bail on them, because we hardly saw anyone on the river, despite there being an allocation of something like 6 launches per day.  It's a pretty special time to be down there.  

thanks again to brother Paul for the foresight to get the permit and for being a good leader

And to the rest of the crew for many laughs and a great trip!