Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Spring Break 2014: Fence Canyon to Harris Wash, Utah

Ellen and Bei exiting Harris Wash on slickrock at the end of our hike.

I remember how excited I was about backpacking as a youngster growing up in the Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C.  I went on trips with my scout troop, which was remarkably active, and before very long I was hiking with friends and even alone.  In retrospect, it seems incredible (but great) that my parents let me out for a week by myself when I was not much older than Bei, now 12.  Once, in the mid-70s not long after the Watergate scandal, I hiked alone on the Appalachian Trail for a week, carrying a very lightweight, bright yellow, aluminum frame pack, covering 10-20 miles a day, and then settling into camp to read Woodward and Bernstein’s book, All the President’s Men.

Early in my backpacking career my parents gave me a SVEA 123 stove, a Swedish contraption, heavy but functional.  It looked like a shiny perforated brass cylinder with a windscreen, also brass, that twisted off and on, unlike today’s lightweight aluminum foil windscreens that fold up to be inelegantly stuffed into a sack.  I loved the whole idea of that stove and everything about backpacking. I devoured Colin Fletcher’s The Complete Walker but lingered over his advice about how to traverse the backcountry more effectively. I told friends how great it was to be so untethered, with everything you needed right on your back(!!).

Later, when I became a rock climber, backpacking became an unpleasant means to an end—the painful part of getting to a remote climb, less enjoyable than in my youth, in no small part because of the weight of rope and gear and the need to go fast when big climbs were squeezed into weekends. I scoffed at backpacking for its own sake, wondering why anyone would carry all of that weight around without the reward of a wilderness climb at the end of the trek.

Now, at age 55, backpacking is regaining its appeal.  I’m less ambitious, and it’s just nice to be out.  And I have enough money to invest in ultralight gear, the newest thing. Sleeping bags are no longer giant and heavy. Tents are wispy. Empty packs don’t weigh 10 pounds. I can walk with my family and enjoy not carrying 30 pounds of climbing gear.  And I’m not in a hurry. I’m not so fascinated by the gear anymore, and I like relaxing and exploring. Plus, I’m not nearly as hungry as I was when I was a teenager, so food doesn’t weigh so heavily on my mind when I have only a limited amount. 

For our spring break this year, Ellen, Bei, and I walked a lovely loop in the Escalante drainage of SW Utah.  We left our car at the Egypt trailhead, hiked down to the Escalante river, and explored downstream to Neon Canyon and the Golden Cathedral before carrying our nice little ultralight loads upstream to Harris Wash.  Eventually, we scrambled out of Harris on slabs (scary for Bei) and returned to our truck. Along the way, we camped in perfect spots—at the mouth of Fence Canyon where a clear spring kept my half-and-half cold long enough to enjoy a few cups of creamy coffee before switching to powdered milk; at the mouth of Choprock Canyon where moqui steps provided an unlikely path to the canyon rim; at the mouth of Harris Wash where a perfect sandy bench allowed me to be barefoot while my shoes dried after multiple river crossings; and finally, on slickrock above Harris Wash where we enjoyed a little campfire under a full moon. 

Bei doesn’t share my love of being out, and she would never admit it even if she did have fun with a pack on her back, but  I think she enjoyed the trip despite herself, and it was more fun goofing around with her in camp than trying to compete with electronics at home. I’m grateful that when I was her age, compact little brass stoves were the most exciting thing around. But I’m also grateful that I can spend a week with Bei and Ellen wading across rivers, gnawing on bagels, bushwhacking through tamarisk, and reading by headlamp in our cozy little tent.

Ellen and Bei, hiking off of the Egypt Plateau towards Fence Canyon and the Escalante River.

Descending into Fence Canyon.

Bei, sleeping late in Fence Canyon.

Heading for Neon and wading the Escalante.

One day we crossed the river 14 times.

Petroglyphs and cowboy graffiti near Neon Canyon.

Bei leaving the Golden Cathedral in Neon.

Mud flakes near the mouth of Neon.

Bei and tamarisk, along the Escalante.

A gift to me from Ellen--an ultralight coffee filter.  At the mouth of Choprock Canyon.

Lunch between Choprock and Harris.

Lower Harris Wash.

Moqui steps near the climb-out from lower Harris.  There is an easier exit a little farther upstream

Me and Bei after the exit climb.

Ellen and Bei at our slickrock camp above Harris Wash.

A campfire (later erased!) on the slickrock.