Monthly Archives: October 2013
Whew! For a day this long, we decided to meet in the cold, dark parking lot of the Zion National Park visitor’s center at 6 am. We drove to the Pine Creek parking area and as we stood in a circle chatting before the hike, Tom dumped a huge bag with a 300 foot rope in the center of us. We all backed away as if it were a rattlesnake. No one wanted to add the weight of it to their pack for what we knew would be a difficult and risky hike. I didn’t even have a pack that day since Brian offered to carry all our gear in his pack, so I hesitantly took the big, awkward rope bag and slung it over my shoulder. We turned on our headlamps and started down a sandy wash in the dark. The ground was littered with pretty red and yellow leaves and every now and then we would plunge into a puddle that was difficult to see in the dark.Soon we reached our turn off to a series of steep slickrock ledges and we began to climb straight up. The rope bag was bouncing all over the place each time I tried to make a move up the ledges. Thankfully Brian offered to take it for awhile as we climbed the slickrock. He lashed it to the outside of his already large pack. The light began to touch us and illuminate the orange and white mountains all around us as we slowly made our way toward our first technical canyon. We crested the summit of an orange slickrock hill surrounded by large pine trees casting tall, dark shadows. We put on helmets and started down the canyon. It was a skinny v-shaped slot with wavy stripes of white, gray and orange which hugged our bodies securely us as we slid and scraped down, butts wedged into the slot and elbows and knees splayed out against the rock sides for traction. This canyon was basically a long controlled fall between abrasive walls, and many pieces of clothing were shredded. What fun! After about an hour the slot ended with a 60 foot rappel into a pool of water at the bottom. The time was only 8 am, we were in the shade, and it was still very cold. We looked at the pool with dismay, but after Louis went down first and told us it could be avoided we cheered and went down the rappel with enthusiasm.
From there we still had several hours of travel to reach the arch. We followed a beautiful sandy wash with a flat, friendly floor. Big orange and white slickrock domes rose up on either side of the wash. Bright red, rust and yellow fall foliage surrounded us. Soon we were making our way up the side of Bridge Mountain. I could hear Everett say to Louis that there was some exposure coming up soon and I tried not to worry, but exposure in the Zion backcountry often means fancy moves on slickrock that could result in a long, dangerous fall should you make a mistake.We got to the part with exposure, and it required us to hike about 20 feet across a steep slickrock slope which had about a 75 foot fall beneath it. We made our way across carefully, trying not to look down. Then we arrived at the most difficult part of the hike – a rock climb in a crack with only a log wedged horizontally to help the climber get started from the ground. I put on my harness and thanks to Mike, almost all of us opted for a belay on the climb. There was no way I would have felt comfortable free climbing it. Portions of it were fairly vertical with a 30 foot drop straight down to a sharp, rocky floor. We all conquered the big climb and continued to some smaller climbs. We chose not to use a rope. Instead we pushed and pulled each other when it got difficult. Finally we saw the arch, perched high on the side of Bridge mountain. After working so hard to get there, the first glimpse of the long, skinny arch was very exciting. We all approached it differently, some gazing up at it from the bottom, some venturing out on top of it for glamorous photos.
We left the arch feeling satisfied. Half of the group decided to hike back and the other half prepared for the second technical canyon of the day. We rappelled down the chimney climb, then descended a very steep canyon with five rapid rappels. The last rappel dropped us right near Lori’s truck. This canyon was rarely descended and all the rappels were covered in dirt and sand. They were fun rappels, with the second to last being the most memorable.We rounded a corner and right in front of us the floor just dropped out from beneath us. In front of us was a 300 foot drop all the way down a sheer rock face to the road. We all caught our breath and approached the first stage of the rappel. The first stage was a 30 foot rappel to a ledge which was only one foot wide and a bit to the side of the fall line of the rope. Once clinging to the one foot ledge, we hooked up to some beefy bolts for a big 300 foot rappel.
As soon as I started the 30 foot rappel to the narrow ledge, the world dropped out from beneath me and there was only 330 feet of air. I aimed for the one foot wide ledge and Louis grabbed my harness to pull me onto it. We probably should have tied a knot in the end of the rope for that first 30 foot rappel, we realized afterward. A mistake on that little rappel would have been fatal.
We carried two 300 foot ropes so we could set up a simultaneous rappel for the 300 foot drop to the floor of the canyon. Louis and I both got on rappel and sat on the ledge together, ready to descend. He slid over the edge and I followed close behind, until we were both perched right below the edge on our ropes, legs dangling with 300 feet of air beneath us.What fun to share such an exhilarating experience with a friend, side by side. I’ve never done a simultaneous rappel before and I highly recommend it. It’s especially great during a big, airy, exciting rappel because instead of talking myself through it to stay calm, I had a friend right there to chat with and point out every ledge, every overhang, every change of friction. We rappelled side by side as much as possible due to the danger of rockfall should one person get ahead of the other, so there was constant negotiation.
“You’re in my space, can you move over a little?”
“You’re going faster than I am, I have a lot of friction here.”
“I just jumped down this ledge, I’m going to wait for you to do the same before continuing.”It was a wonderful 10 minutes on rope and at the end we were happy to finally have our feet on solid ground again. Once Brian and Lori made it down, a 30 minute photo shoot followed as we celebrated our big rappel. Lori’s little friend named Elephant even made it into the shot. He accompanies Lori on all her best adventures. We then continued down the rest of the way and enjoyed a nice dinner all together in Springdale. The highlight was ordering two huge desserts and sending them all around the table for everyone to nibble until they finally disappeared.
Prankfest is a unique, three day canyoneering party in a very remote location with 40+ attendees. It’s organized by a couple of dear friends who are full of fun and pranks. Nice pranks. That is the only rule of Prankfest.
The first day we did High Spur canyon. It involved a grueling 1.5 hour drive on terrible roads and one member of our party sacrificed an oil pan and needed to get towed from the middle of nowhere at $200 per hour. Ouch. Once we made some phone calls and got help for the injured vehicle, Dylan asked for my help pranking one of the vehicles at the trailhead and we installed over a dozen condoms on every phallic shaped item in the vehicle, even the beers in the cooler. I began the hike toward the canyon snickering, wiping my hands on my pants. They were covered with sticky lube from the condoms.
High Spur was one of the most beautiful slots I had ever seen. The narrows were perfectly sculpted, wide enough to walk through easily, and very picturesque. We enjoyed a couple open spots in the canyon before heading into more deep, glowing narrow sections. After most of the narrows were behind us, there was a gorgeous break in the slot where we ended up in a large, striped cavern with light streaming in through the ceiling.
Brian and I were in the lead at that point as we pushed through some small pothole sections with waist deep, rust colored water. We exited the difficult section and celebrated the beauty of the cavern with a wild make out session. Our friends caught up to us and we were officially busted as we celebrated.
I was torn about what canyon to do the next day. Alcatraz is said to be a great canyon but it has some sections which can be very difficult to pass through. Everyone always talks about the ultra-skinny sections in this canyon, and there had been a chilling rescue there recently. A man had become severely wedged in the slot. After hours of struggling, his canyoneering team still could not free him from the constriction. He remained trapped and ended up spending a night alone, wedged in the canyon. He lived to tell the tale, thankfully.
I’m not the smallest person and have certainly gotten stuck in canyons before. My sticking point is always my rib cage, which is a very unfortunate place to become lodged because it becomes difficult to breathe as the two rock walls of the canyon compress my lungs more and more with each exhale. Every time I let out my breath, my chest shrinks just a bit and there’s the potential of slipping further into the constriction. It’s a nightmarish scenario which is best avoided.
However, my friend Adam is a little bigger than me and planned to descend Alcatraz that day. He’s a skilled climber, able to go over constricted areas rather than through them, and I decided I would do whatever Adam did. If he climbs high over a skinny spot, I climb high. If he fits through the canyon, I know I can fit. I would be proactive in avoiding the skinny sections by going up and over them, rather than trying to fit through and learning too late that I’m trapped by this cruel, unforgiving rock slot.
We drove to the beginning of Alcatraz and Brian set up my bright purple rope on Vanifest for the big, overhanging, 100+ foot entry rappel into the deep, dark slot below. Vanifest was the biggest, creepiest vehicle present so it was chosen as the rappel anchor for this drop. We all moved down canyon. I made sure Adam was ahead of me so I could watch his progress through the thinner sections of the canyon.
This was going well. I was climbing up between the narrow walls of this very dark slot canyon, sometimes gazing down 30 feet into the abyss below with my back on one wall and my feet on the other. Should I slip, I will surely become lodged deep in the canyon and need either a lot of help from my friends or a visit from Search and Rescue. It was risky, but as I was doing it the moves felt completely within my abilities.
I sailed through the canyon with plenty of help from Brian and a push or pull from a couple other canyon members. I would call out to Adam ahead, “Did you fit through this?” When he would say yes my heart would soar. When he would say no I would start to climb up rather than plow right into it and get stuck.
I did get stuck at one point. After an hour in very dark narrows, the canyon presented us with a dramatic pinch point and there was no easy way to climb over it. I call this the crux. I began in a pool of knee deep water and needed to climb up a skinny crack in the wall to get up and over the pinch point. Or so I thought. This pinch point was 15 feet in the air, and Brian helped me push myself up and over it. Only that didn’t work. My rib cage was wedged in it as I tried to move through. Kristin, on the other side, offered a hand, a foot, anything to get me through. I reached out to her, but grabbing her hand didn’t help me move.
All other parts of my body could wiggle, but my chest remained wedged and it was getting difficult to breathe. Getting stuck is so embarrassing and inconvenient. I’ve never found it to be scary, because there are always at least two people pushing and pulling on me when it’s happening, and I somehow find that comforting.
I was covered in sweat, trying to move up, move down, do anything to get my chest out of that pinch of rock while my legs dangled freely and uselessly. The whole ordeal only lasted a couple minutes before I discovered the only way to move my chest through the pinch was to slide diagonally downhill. Once I found the correct angle I shuffled right through the rock pinch. Next time it will be easier, but the first time through it was hard to know exactly what to do.
It was such a relief to escape the pinch and see the canyon opening up with orange light in front of me. Kristin and I sat and celebrated at the side of the canyon with some water. The adrenaline started to dissipate from my body and I moved downcanyon to a celebration party where we all changed, ate snacks and enjoyed various treats.
Wiggling through that pinch with the help of my dear friends was an excellent climax to the weekend at Prankfest! I’m so glad I did Alcatraz, because then my friend Dean invited Brian and I on a descent of Pandora’s Box Canyon, a challenging and famous skinny slot in Capitol Reef. Every canyoneer is interested in opening Pandora’s Box, but you must be ready for it or it will inflict endless misery upon you. It is said to be the best Wingate sandstone slot on the Colorado Plateau, so I decided to give it a shot with an excellent, experienced canyon team. To quote Dean, “The activities we enjoy are the things that most people would give up everything they own to avoid.” This statement pretty much sums up a descent of Pandora’s Box Canyon, which would be a frightful and grueling experience (if not downright impossible) for the average person.
Our descent of Pandora’s Box involved more exposed climbing than I had ever done before and at one point I found myself 40 feet off the ground, feet on one wall, back on the other, shuffling sideways with my pack dangling beneath me on a piece of webbing. I didn’t take many photos that day. The air temperature was only about 45 degrees and the canyon was cold and dark. It also had many difficult problems to solve and many extremely awkward sections. This canyon definitely had my full attention and my camera was forgotten. I was mainly just trying to stay alive. Our descent of Pandora’s Box was relatively drama free, thanks to our skilled team and our constant vigilance.
It was a 10.5 hour day out, and well worth the effort for the chance to see this amazing slot I have always heard so much about. We moved efficiently and felt proud of our time descending the canyon. Usually this trip takes canyoneers 11-12 hours, and we also spent at least 30 minutes dislodging a wiggling, 100 pound rock which threatened to come loose and kill someone on the last rappel. We enjoyed a gourmet meal at Cafe Diablo in Torrey, Utah, and felt entitled to a decadent dessert as well before we hobbled back out to our cars on very tired legs.
I love waterfalls. My first big, gushing waterfall rappel was in 2010 in Cascade Canyon, Ouray, Colorado. After I felt it’s frenetic energy gushing all around me as I dangled on a rope, I couldn’t look at a waterfall the same way again.
Now each time I see a waterfall, I imagine how it would feel to rappel it. I’m ruined. I can’t simply appreciate the aesthetics of beautiful, falling water. I want to attach my rappel device to the rope at the brink of the falls, then feel the water surrounding my ankles as I step into the flow. Then, as I begin to walk down the waterfall my legs become invisible and I am blindly feeling my way with my feet on the rock wall behind the water. If it’s a big waterfall, eventually the water will splash out from the wall and fall all over my head, splashing off my helmet. The water droplets on my plastic helmet sound like loud rain on a tin roof.
Sometimes, in the middle of a long rappel in water, I can see that I’m about to drop into an especially chaotic stream of water right below me. The sight is intimidating. The water shoots in several directions at once. I take a deep breath and move into the chaos. Everything becomes white. I can’t control my movements and rather than fight against the force of the water, I let it push me down the rope. I’m disoriented as I get pummeled by many overlapping curtains of white, pushing me around and trying to get into my mouth.
When I splash into the pool below the waterfall, I quickly let rope out through my rappel device to get away from the pounding flow. I swim backward as quickly as possible and catch my breath. At this point I’m still attached to the rope, floating, twisting the lock on my carabiner and trying to stay out of the flow as I get free of the rope.
To call an experience like this “intense” is an understatement. Rappelling a pounding waterfall takes me out of my body for a few moments, and I have no choice but to join the water and do as it does. Then, at the bottom of the waterfall, floating in the pool, I regain control of my body and wipe the water from my lips. I stand on my feet and look back at the waterfall I just rappelled, knowing much more about it than would ever be possible by viewing it. I know how cold it is, how it feels to be right in the middle of its flow, how it looks from the top and from the bottom. This is experiencing a waterfall completely.
Seeing a waterfall from an overlook is beautiful, but after rappelling a waterfall you know the overlook is only revealing about 25% of the waterfall’s magic. To experience the other 75%, you need a rope.
It all started at Freezefest around a huge campfire. Snow, frozen water and zero degree temperatures attract a group of slightly insane canyoneers to the annual New Year’s festival called Freezefest. It takes place each year in Southern Utah.
“Water canyons in Mexico this summer, who’s in?!” says Matt.
“Stoke-O-Loco!” becomes the name of the event. We start to plan our Mexico canyoneering trip. We’re stoked until we find out how much it costs to go to Mexico. High alpine canyons in Colorado become the plan instead. Now it’s “Stoke-O-BROKE-O” in Ouray, Colorado.
Fast forward eight months. It’s August in the high mountains of Colorado. Stoke-O-Broke-O is here. It rained this morning and clouds still cling to the steep peaks surrounding the small town of Ouray, Colorado. I drive my van to the trailhead of Cascade Canyon and meet AJs group. They depart, and a few minutes later the “Stoke-O-Broke-O” group starts showing up. Matt, Mark, Randi and I are feeling stoked as we pack our gear. Mike pulls in. He just drove all night from Flagstaff, Arizona. He’s pretty stoked, even after zero sleep. He quickly packs his stuff and we are ready to go.
We shuttle in my van (called the “free candy van” during this trip) and start up the trail. It slowly climbs 2300 feet with great views of the surrounding mountains. I like these approaches, where you do all the climbing at the beginning of the day. When we exit the canyon we’ll be right near our cars and a tasty restaurant, says Matt. Perfect.
We get to the start of the canyon and wiggle into our wetsuits near the top of a 25 foot waterfall. The soft white water gently pours over a wide lip. Below lies a floor of colorful rock divided by white rivulets of rushing water and then the canyon drops steeply out of sight. The recent rain makes the rock look polished. The saturated surfaces of the rock shine with tones of rusty red, soft green and dark gray.
We enter the canyon and enjoy several rappels near waterfalls, but not actually in the water. The rock is very solid and perfect for downclimbing. On some downclimbs my legs are obscured by gushing water, splashing in the air, tugging at my feet. I’m accustomed to using my sense of sight for downclimbing. Downclimbing in flowing water requires use of a different sense – feeling. I feel with my feet and find my way down rocks I can’t see.
Small balls of white hail erupt suddenly from the sky. We laugh and Mike shoots a short video of the hail. Three separate times that day the sky opens up suddenly with a dramatic hailstorm. Clouds pass over, the sun comes back, rain, hail, repeat. The weather holds more surprises for us later on.
A drenching waterfall rappel appears in front of us and Matt gets the rope out. It’s only about 30 feet but it will be my first rappel into a heavy flow of water. I wonder if I will be able to breathe once I get into the thickest part of the waterfall. How hard will it push me down the rope? These are the things I’ve been warned about when rappelling in flowing water. I rig high friction on my rappel device and drop down into the rushing water. It shoots down the back of my wetsuit, intensely cold. I love the sound of the water splashing loudly off my plastic helmet, like standing under a tin roof while it’s raining. Cold sheets of water hit me in the face, but I can breathe when I need to. I like this.
It starts to rain. The canyon is especially lush after the recent rain. Pine trees and bright green bushes crowd the rim of the rocky canyon, and occasionally a glossy green plant clings to the rock down in the watercourse.
Despite the cold weather and complete lack of sleep for one of our friends, our laughs and smiles warm the canyon and we forget about the cold. We stay busy on many fun, wet downclimbs and numerous short rappels.
We arrive at the 150 foot waterfall and find AJ. He’s the last in his group to go down, and he’s just getting on rappel. The sun shines as we get ready for the first of seven remaining rappels. The grand finale of the day will be a 300 foot waterfall – Cascade Falls.
Randi goes to the top of the falls and starts to get on rappel, then stops. Then, Matt is nearby so he decides to go first. Matt gets on rappel. This takes about a minute, and neither of them knows it but in about a minute and a half the creek will start to pulse. I am standing off to the side of the waterfall, watching. As soon as Matt starts to drop over the edge the flow increases and softball sized rocks start tumbling down the stream with the current. Danger.
Matt scrambles hand over hand up the rope. I can’t hear anything above the sound of the water. I can just see the look on Matt’s face, and he is not stoked. He points at the rocks tumbling in the water, mouth open, yelling.
The next couple seconds pass in slow motion. I see Matt at the top of the falls, now standing on solid ground. The creek suddenly changes color to a milky, chocolate brown. It could flash flood at any moment and I’m standing on the brink of a 150 foot waterfall. I think back to all the debris we saw in the canyon from previous flash floods. These facts combine in an instant, and I leap into action and fly up the rock to the side of the falls, then up a dirt slope. I don’t even bother to put the items back in my pack. I just toss them up the slope in front of me. We all claw our way up the hillside and perch on a dirt slope, safely and helplessly watching the creek increase in volume. The flow isn’t huge, but it’s about double what it was earlier. That’s a lot for this canyon.
We cower beneath big trees, and a light rain shower trickles between the branches. We put on extra clothing and I feel relieved and safe, laying there under the trees. Mike notices a large, brown, sparkly geode nearby. We admire it.
Right as we’re starting to relax, thunder booms right near us. The whole canyon trembles. Is it better to be on the slope or under a tree? There’s nowhere else for us to go. Neither seems ideal, so we decide our strategy will be to hope. We sit and hope lightning won’t strike as thunder booms all around us. The storm passes. We watch the creek decrease in volume over the next hour and we talk about getting ready to rappel. Suddenly, the flow increases again to the same level as before. The water continues to move softball sized rocks. We have seven rappels ahead of us and the sky is gray and misty. More rain is coming. We can’t do these rappels right now.
We talk about how to help AJs group below us. They are between two of the long waterfall rappels, and might be stuck there until the creek mellows out. While the canyon is raining drama down upon us, we remain calm. A couple people even take a short nap on the slope. No one complains, although we realize the situation could lead to an uncomfortable bivy or difficult exit. I feel thankful to be with this positive group.
Matt is trying to find a solution. He stands at the top of the waterfall trying to communicate with AJ down below. The rope became wedged in the rock as the creek surged, and now it’s stuck somewhere in the middle of the falls. Matt yanks on it for several minutes. Finally it comes loose.
A long session of “canyon charades” ensues, which we watch with great interest. Matt is standing at the top of the falls trying to discuss options with AJ, at the bottom of the falls. Only they can’t hear each other. The water is too loud. Matt uses facial contortions and wild arm movements to say everything from “do you want me to pull the rope”, to “let’s meet at the bar later on” and everything in between. After several minutes, an agreement is flailed out between AJ and Matt. The waterfalls are too dangerous if the creek continues to pulse. AJs group will attempt to hike out.
We’ve been sitting by the creek for an hour now. We decide we should try to hike out, too. Matt apologizes to us for not completing the canyon. Even the half of the canyon we saw, which was the mellow half, was incredible. It had still been a pretty awesome day, overall. Now, the unknown exit lay ahead of us.
As we sit on the slope, we eye a broken down cabin across from us on the hillside. Mark hikes up to the cabin debris and finds a large cast iron stove which had to be hauled in somehow.
“It sure didn’t come down the watercourse,” Mark says and we giggle. We’re still in good spirits.
We hope there might be an old trail somewhere. We go up the hillside and pick our way across the front of the mountain. We find a faint trail and it’s definitely a welcome route across the steep and rocky terrain. We follow the faint trail for about an hour, then rejoin the main trail. We hike the rest of the way out, and are happy to see AJ at the lower trailhead. Everyone is safe, although it sounds like AJ’s group had a rougher hike out than we did. They hadn’t even changed out of their wetsuits before the hike because there wasn’t even a good place to do it. I guess we got pretty lucky with our route.
At the end of the day, we feel good everyone is safe. I think about the tiny events which protected us that day. I thought about the delay getting on rappel at the waterfall right before the creek pulsed, our trail in the middle of nowhere, and the safe exits found by both groups. Cheers to a memorable day in Cascade Canyon!
Last weekend I got to go canyoneering with 38 other women in southern Utah. We rappelled, climbed, hiked, swam and had a fabulous potluck and fashion show. It was pretty inspiring to see so many amazing women in one place with wetsuits, climbing gear, and a thirst for fun and adventure!
Non-canyoneers might be lucky enough to encounter just one or two of these strong, fierce, loving women in an entire lifetime, as we lady canyoneers are obscure and few. To see us all together, donning ripped clothing and dirty hair, laughing and assisting each other through slot canyons, was breathtaking.
The most touching moment of the weekend happened when I realized I forgot my wetsuit for a canyon which requires hours of swimming in cold water. I had just hiked over an hour up a steep, rocky slope to enter a six hour canyon called Knotted Rope when I realized the wetsuit wasn’t in my pack. While I’m not especially afraid of cold water, I was nervous about hours in it with no escape and the possibility of hypothermia when I needed full dexterity to climb out of narrow canyon constrictions.
The ladies around me immediately started rooting through their packs for spare gear to keep me warm, and within minutes I had a fleece shirt, a pair of neoprene shorts and a rain jacket. These items, combined with my neoprene socks, neoprene vest and wool hat kept me warm all day and a crisis was averted. I was even warm enough to slow down, have fun, help others, and take photos in a beautiful canyon filled with what canyoneers call “potholes”.
A pothole is a rounded depression in the rock which usually holds water. The water can be ankle deep or deep enough to swim. That day the the potholes were very full from recent storms. All day long we slid into these potholes and climbed back out, giggling and helping each other every step of the way. We would grab the top of the pack of the lady in front of us and dangle her like a marionette as she dropped into the pool. By doing this, we avoiding dropping in over our heads into the chocolatey brown water and getting it in our mouths. Even expert canyoneers don’t relish the idea of dropping into a pothole and coming up with a mouthful of dirty canyon water.
The next day over a dozen of us bounced on horrible 4×4 roads to reach a canyon called Baptist Draw. We saw a half dozen wild mustangs galloping across a high desert plateau on the way to the canyon. I’ve heard many rumors about these horses roaming around the San Rafael Swell but this was my first sighting. They were wild and free, unafraid of us.
At the beginning of Baptist Draw, one of the ladies announced it was her friend’s very first canyon. We all cheered and celebrated, happy to be part of this woman’s first canyoneering experience. You never forget your first canyon! Our beginner was already a strong climber and cruised through the canyon as we assisted and gave verbal instruction and encouragement. When she came up to the big 83 foot rappel, it was an exciting moment.
“This is it, this is the big rappel”, her experienced canyoneering friend said as they both stepped up to the steep, open drop. This rappel had been set up with two independant ropes so two people could rappel side by side. The new canyoneer got on one rope and her friend got on the other. They both rappelled down together, side by side, smiling and sharing a very special canyoneering moment.
After the big rappel, we continued up Chute canyon and enjoyed plenty of challenging upclimbs which became difficult after a few people had climbed up and left slippery mud on the walls. Our teamwork included knees to step on, ropes to climb up, and even mighty pushes on wiggling butts to ascend tight spots. We giggled as we pushed and pulled each other up these climbs.
Canyoneering is just different with a team of all women. Love is in the air as we wiggle through slots wearing dirty wetsuits and helmets. We bring playfulness, caring, and a slower pace to the canyon as we move through the twisting slot as a group with many experience levels. We all know we’re united in this experience. We keep the mood high and the canyon fun with smiles on every face, even when we’re fighting for a foothold on a slippery, muddy upclimb over a huge rock.
To finish this blog post, here is one of my favorite images from the weekend: my van filled to the brim with spectacular women ready for a day of canyoneering! We piled into my van, sitting on the bed, couch, and camp chairs. Together we bounced along a rough 4×4 road into Baptist Draw canyon. I am in awe of these women. I drove away from this gathering filled with love for canyons and for my network of fellow female superheroes.
With my ankle still healing, Brian and I decided to rent a kayak for one of Yellowstone’s classic backcountry trips. We paddled across two lakes to reach a remote thermal area. From that thermal area we backpacked another 10 miles into one of the finest soaking springs anywhere, Mr. Bubbles. I’m from Idaho which is famous for natural hot springs, but Mr. Bubbles is definitely unmatched.
We loaded our light blue, double sea kayak on a very cold, foggy morning. The boat quickly swallowed our gear and large amounts of decadent food. We started out with a calm paddle across Lewis Lake. During the first hour of our trip, a bald eagle hunted right in front of our kayak. He swooped down to the water and created a small splash over and over as he tried to catch a fish. We watched quietly, then cheered when he finally came up with a small fish in his talons.
The next portion of the paddle took us up the Lewis River to Shoshone Lake, the largest backcountry lake in the lower 48 states. As soon as we started up Lewis River, we found a snobby Osprey in a tree who turned his back to us as we approached, resistant to our attempts to get a nice photo of him. He was probably just hoping we would go away. Then, as we got closer, he took flight and left the area.
We also met a very friendly Beaver in Lewis River who glided along the top of the water for quite awhile examining our boat. He came closer and closer, and once he identified us as human he dove quickly underwater with a big splash of his round, leathery tail and was gone.
As Lewis River nears Shoshone Lake, the current becomes too strong to paddle and the boat must be drug upstream. The water is very cold and there are many rocks to rake the boat over. The larger rocks have colorful marks on them that look like crayon scribbles from all the different colors of plastic boats that have scraped them over the years. This is certainly not a trip for a delicate sea kayak. During this mile long boat drag, I got to sit in the boat and watch Brian yank the boat over rocks and splash through the current to pull it upstream. This was great fun for me, and he was happy to let me play “queen of the boat” while he worked hard to pull us upriver to Shoshone Lake.
Shoshone Lake is a magnificent sight, especially for someone who has just drug a boat upstream in a mile of freezing water. The lake is huge, lined with thick forest, with crystal clear water. We paddled all the way across the lake to our first camp, near the Shoshone Geyser Basin.
This steaming, bubbling backcountry thermal area has no boardwalks or signs, only a small footpath which winds its way through bright blue pools and calcite formations which intermittently bubble and even erupt over 25 feet in the air. We enjoyed a leisurely stroll along the footpath and then focused on our goal: to find the rumored soakable Shoshone Creek Hot Spring. We looked around for about an hour and finally decided to very carefully skirt a sign the park service had placed in the basin which said “Danger! Thermal Area.” Behind this sign we found some social trails leading to Shoshone Creek and we found our first soakable hot spring.
Clouds of steam indicated the hot water source on the hillside was very hot, and it needed to be mixed with the river water to make it a safe soaking temperature. When we first got into the small soaking pool at the side of the river, the streams of hot and cold were not well mixed. It needed some work since the last people had soaked there, which looked like quite awhile ago. Soakers create natural hot springs by building a ring of rocks at the side of a river which loosely hold a mixture of hot and cold water for soaking. Hand built rock channels move hot water from the spring and cold water from the river into the ring of rocks. Once the two channels are in balance the perfect soaking temperature is reached within the ring of rocks. I moved some rocks around in the hot and cold channels to modify the flow and we enjoyed a short soak before splashing off to find more hot springs. We joked that a park service sign which says “danger” means the area may be worth exploring and we should keep this in mind in the future.
The second soakable hot spring we found along Shoshone Creek was surrounded by red, orange, green and yellow moss which had been sculpted by the flowing water to look like very thick strands of hair. The hairy hot spring cascaded down some small terraces the size of stairsteps and then joined Shoshone Creek, where a small ring of rocks held the hot water loosely as the cold river trickled between the rocks into the soaking area. The hot water source was a milder temperature than the previous spring we found, and the soaking area was the perfect temperature without any modifications. The bottom of the small pool was filled with algae, so we cleaned it out and settled into the relaxing, hot water. Often these seldom used natural hot springs require a bit of maintenance upon arrival to create a pleasing soak, and it was well worth the effort to soak in a beautiful creek right next to a colorful hot water source and listen to a geyser regularly erupting nearby. Only in Yellowstone!
Satisfied with our two soaks in the Shoshone Geyser Basin, we enjoyed a dinner of fresh pasta, fresh basil leaves, butter and alfredo sauce. We then camped near the lake and slept near bubbling thermal pools and steaming fumaroles. We slept well after 12 miles of paddling, then exploring and soaking. The next day would start our backpack trip on the Bechler River trail to the famous Mr. Bubbles hot spring.
DAY 2As we were getting ready for the kayak trip I asked Brian where I should put my backpack. He looked confused and asked why I would bring it. I laughed, I guess he was offering to carry all our stuff on the backpack since my ankle is still healing. That morning we hid our kayak by a hillside, hung most of our food in a tree, and Brian packed up my two down coats as well as all our other backpacking gear and we set off to hike 10 miles to Mr. Bubbles. The hike was pretty but almost completely devoid of “dangerous and delicious” animals, as I had started calling them. Brian spotted a small deer, but my Grizzly Bear fantasies went unfulfilled.
Once we got to the small valley where Mr Bubbles sits, things got interesting. Steam filled the air and a huge white, yellow and blue pool cascaded down the hillside. It was one of the prettiest thermal features I had ever seen, but far too hot for soaking. We continued. Mr. Bubbles was waiting.
We got to the end of the trail and reached the grand Mr. Bubbles, a bright blue pool 30 feet across with a steady stream of big bubbles erupting in a three foot circle in the center. A hot creek surrounded by yellow flowers and red dragonflies fed the pool on one side, and a small river skirted it on the other. Steam from the other thermal features in the valley set the scene for an amazing backcountry soak in crystal clear water. Luckily, a group was just leaving as we arrived.
We spent hours in Mr. Bubbles in total solitude and even had a dinner of tortillas and a package of pre-cooked bacon in Mr. Bubbles. It was hard to finally leave, but when the next group arrived we felt it was the right time to hike back to camp. We heard animals outside that night but didn’t bother to investigate.While camping in the Yellowstone backcountry it’s easy to imagine every branch snapping is a ferocious Grizzly Bear, but at that point we were just too relaxed after the long soak in Mr. Bubbles to care.
We backpacked out to the lake and were happy to see our food still hanging in the tree. Our glorious boating food — including ham, avocados, and nectarines — was a welcome sight after the backpack. We began paddling and encountered some very strong afternoon winds. The boat bounced along in huge waves and I got a little nervous. We decided to cross the lake and in the middle the rolling waves got so big they lapped over the top of the kayak. I was frightened by the size of the waves and the cold temperature of the water and paddled as hard as I possibly could. The big, heavy boat just cruised right over the waves. After the crossing we camped for the night.
We enjoyed an easy paddle down the Lewis River with very little boat dragging. Once again, when it was time to drag the boat over rocks I got to occupy my “queen of the boat” throne as Brian lugged it downriver. Lewis Lake was very wavy, and after the exciting crossing on Shoshone Lake the day before we stuck to the shoreline. We ended the trip with big smiles and a beautiful drive to Jackson, Wyoming to return the canoe and enjoy a mountain bike ride in the Teton National Forest. The trees were changing color and riding a single track trail through bright yellow Aspen groves was magical.
I’ve been to Yellowstone National Park many times, and my latest trip was really great. The weather ranged from warm sun to snow to heavy rain. Vanifest saw its first snow of the season, too. Brian and I hiked and biked when it was warm, and hid inside when the snow was swirling and the rain was falling in heavy sheets. One afternoon we soaked in a wonderful hot spring called the Boiling River hot spring. It is probably my favorite spot in the park. It’s a short walk from the road to a beautiful set of pools next to a shallow river. Our timing was just right to see a herd of elk making their way across the Gardner river to graze on the other side.
Brian and I headed to the Boiling River Hot Springs with his mom and her husband after a busy day driving all over Yellowstone. We had just had a late lunch and it was early evening when we arrived at Boiling River. We hiked ten minutes to the soaking pools where the Boiling River gushes into the Gardner River, creating some areas which are the perfect soaking temperature, and some which will scald or freeze you. We chose our spot carefully, then settled into the hot, clear water to relax. We even found a wonderful little cave that was the perfect temperature with hot droplets trickling over the opening and splashing softly into the water. As we sat in the hot cave, we saw a huge bull elk crossing the river only 50 feet away. We emerged from the cave to see what would happen next.
This was the start of an amazing elk display which lasted about 30 minutes as we watched from our hot spring location. First, a huge bull with tremendous antlers crossed the river. He held his head high and pranced to the top of a small hill, perhaps trying to appear even larger. Then a group of female elk followed, lingering in the river with their young.
As the females and young elk lingered, another large bull appeared at the other side of the river, interested in the herd. The first bull quickly crossed the river to defend his harem and help them cross to the other side. There was no confrontation. The other bull quickly retreated, knowing he did not want to challenge the first huge male. By the end of this amazing show of strength and protection there was quite a crowd watching the herd of 20+ elk as they all finally made it across the river. The first proud bull elk stood watch over the entire herd as they peacefully grazed on a hillside next to the hot spring.