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Thread: Story: Escalante Escapades

  1. #1

    Story: Escalante Escapades

    Tomorrow is the second anniversary of Kent Frost's passing.
    In 1982 we met him near the Hurricane Wash Trailhead after a long, hard (but spectacular) kayak/hike trip.
    A few years later I wrote the following story about that time. My original intent was for it to be "rambling blues" type song. But I never got around to doing that. I only recently learned of Kent's death so I figured others might get a kick out of this story.

    I hope you all enjoy it.
    (I'll put it in as the first reply to this thread.)

    Mike Jewell
    Sandpoint, ID

    Here's a couple of pictures for illustration.

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    "Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies."

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  4. #2
    Escalante Escapades

    When I used to live in Colorado, I spent a lot of time in the deserts of southern Utah. But then I moved to Washington State. Well, that’s a whole ‘nother story in itself. But it wasn’t long before me and some new friends was planning to float the 80 or 90 miles of the Escalante River down there in Utah. Now this is a river by Utah standards but still, the only way to float it was in kayaks, cause, well there just ain’t that much water in that river. I’d seen a small piece of it from a side canyon so I knew that much. So, since none of us had ever been in a kayak before, we looked around and found four used fiberglass kayaks for sale from a local Spokane kayak club. After applying close to a hundred fiberglass patches (never done that before either…) we took a few lessons at a local YMCA until we were “experts” and set out in May of 1982. There was Mark and Gail in Mark’s old VW bus and me and Suzanne, which goes back to that “whole ‘nother story” I mentioned before. Well, we finally got down to Utah after losing a few misc parts off Mark’s bus and after packing a couple of weeks supplies in our yaks we squeezed in and wallowed into the muddy Escalante where Utah 12 crosses it and Calf creek slips in from the north. Now, you see, the way we had it figured we could just leisurely float with the current for a few hours each day and spend the rest of the time exploring and just goofing off in the desert. It should be a piece of cake. Well, as it turned out, it was… Only the cake was all dried out and hard as a rock, which there’s lots of in that river, but I’m getting’ ahead of myself.

    The floating started off pretty good and after figuring out that a real southwest wilderness river was some different than a YMCA swimming pool we started making pretty good time.
    I think I need to tell you a little about this place we’re trying so hard to get into. If this ain’t the heart of the southwest desert canyon country, then it sure is a major artery. It’s one of the last explored and least visited areas in the lower 48 states which is kind of amazing if you know about the magic and beauty of the place but then again, ain’t so amazing when you try to go there and realize how rugged and remote it is. Anyway, mainly due to that remoteness and some good luck there still are some pretty good size pieces of it so unspoiled as to be worth keeping forever as a monument to what natural freedom and beauty used to mean before people came along. Ok, I’ll get down off my soap box now and tell you what this land is like. For starters, a lot of it is vertical, more or less, although it’s pretty hard to find any straight lines anywhere. These desert canyons can get pretty strange. I mean strange like it’s strange to find a $1000 bill lying on the sidewalk. You can look out across 100 miles of bare desert rock called slickrock and it looks like you could just walk right across it. Only when you try, you find that every half mile or so in every direction there is a big long hole in the ground. These are called canyons and sometimes, way down in the bottom you’ll find a little creek or a river and that’s what brings life to the desert. Well, the Escalante river canyon is really a big collection of hundreds of small and medium size creeks and canyons with more waterfalls, arches, amphitheatres, beaver dams, rattlesnakes, petroglyphs and general beauty than you could shake a kayak paddle at. But we tried.

    One evening we rounded one of the 14 million bends in the canyon and thought we heard female voices. Well, we hadn’t seen a soul for 3 days and I’d read about Odysseus and those Sirens on the shore so I had some funny thoughts going through my head when we looked up to see about 20 young women walking toward us. We got out of our yaks to prepare for battle but as it turns out, it was a bunch of Mormon girls on the last day of their hard core , month long, survival class and it appeared that most of them had, indeed, mostly survived though they looked like another day or two would’ve finished them all off. They were crying and laughing and asking us where Harris Wash was. Now Harris Wash is a MAJOR side canyon to the Escalante and according to our calculations, these girls had walked right past it about a half mile down the river. Well, it was getting dark now so they camped on one side of the river and us on the other and the next day they hiked back and I suppose must have made it out Harris and back to civilization. Not us. We explored some real good petroglyphs and then headed on down the river getting deeper into the canyon with every mile. The floating was pretty easy for another day and we made pretty good time but then the canyon decided to get “interesting”. The river started to alternate between being, as the old cowboy song goes, “one inch deep and one mile wide” and being more like one inch wide and one mile deep! Either one is dang difficult to kayak in. Seems we were always either pulling the yaks over gravel or carrying them around the rocks. It was all the scraping on the bottom that started to just plain wear them out. Our boats were getting used up and we spent most of several days either getting into or out of them but not doing much “floating” at all. In three days we went about 15 miles and we started thinking about what the ranger said about there only being a hand full of people ever float the river before.
    Our time was running out and with many miles to go, Mark and Gail decided to split up from Suzanne and me since they didn’t have any commitments to be home by any certain date and didn’t want to rush it. We all had more than a few reservations about this but I guess it just had to be done so we waved goodbye and slipped into the river to finish the trip on our own.

    Suzanne and I had a couple more long, hard days before my kayak just plain gave out. It was leaking so bad from scraping on the rocks and sand that I had to just drag it along and dump the water out every 20 minutes or so. Suzanne’s yak was doing ok relatively speaking. You see, we paid $40 for hers and only $30 for mine. I guess you get what you pay for.

    Since the last half of the trip would have to be on Lake Powell (or Lake Foul, as folks who knew the canyon before it was flooded call it) we realized that our plans were gonna have to change. My boat would never make it without sinking and you just cannot put two people in or on one kayak. We know ‘cause we tried it. So since we would have to abandon ships, so to speak, and hike out a side canyon we camped and started into a spectacular weight reduction program. This involved eating as much food as we could, burning what would burn including one pair of very used up shoes, all of our trash and a few pieces of clothing. Hey, it was either burn it, leave it behind as litter or pack it out. And with only small day-packs, we were gonna be hard pressed to carry much with us. Well, the next morning, we had a big breakfast, and then tied everything we could onto our day-packs, stashed the kayaks above the high water mark and headed on down the canyon. We only had 10 miles or so to go before we would reach Coyote Creek which would then lead us another 10 miles or so to the “Hole in the Rock” road where we might find someone to take us the last 20 miles to where our car was hopefully waiting for us. Relatively speaking, we were just about home free which was a good thing since the trip had started to lose some of its fun (like about 3 days ago) and we were getting pretty ragged feeling and looking. Coyote Creek is the side canyon I had been in twice before but I’ve never seen such a beautiful sight as when we walked away from the noisy river and came to the first waterfall in Coyote. With tears in our eyes we made camp, watched the evening light on the canyon walls and sipped our last cup of coffee, the best I’ve ever had.

    The next day we hiked thru Coyote taking time to swim in the many pools and waterfalls and admire the arches and natural bridge. On the hike out we ran into and spent some time talking and laughing with at least two couples with no clothes on. It seemed strange at first but after a while started to seem like the only “right” way to be. Let’s just say that the rules are a bit different down there than in the cities. We had a good day but nonetheless were really draggin’ by the time we were within a mile of the “Hole in the Rock” road where we looked up to see an older Chevy Blazer parked beside the trail with an unusual camper behind it and two people sitting in the back seat.

    I should tell you about this guy’s camper. It wasn’t exactly a Winnebago. Near as we could tell it used to be an old green hard top jeep but the engine and front wheels had been replaced with a trailer hitch and a little cast iron wood stove had been put in where the steering wheel used to be complete with smoke stack out the roof and the dash board was the kitchen counter. It was quite a sight. But then so were we with our 30 pound day packs, kayaking helmets, life jackets and kayak paddles, dirty, tired and sunburned, hiking along 10 miles from the nearest water deep enough to get the tops of our shoes wet. They probably thought we were nuts. They were probably right.

    So, we stumbled up to their rig and asked for a ride down to our car. But the old guy just smiled and said “maybe” and then “Have a drink” as he handed over the bottle of bourbon they were sharing in the back seat. Well, suddenly it seemed like everything was under control and we had a great time telling desert stories while our new friend cooked us a meal on a microscopic campfire that burned out just as the after-supper coffee started to boil. His name was Kent Frost and we’ve since learned that he is rather famous down there for exploring many of the canyons for the first time. He had a book with him that he wrote and he autographed it for us. Of course that was the next day after fixing us breakfast and taking us to our car at “Hole in the Rock”. We all said goodbye and started the long drive back home but before we had gone 5 miles we were already starting to plan and dream about our next desert trip.

    By the way, we eventually met back up with Mark and Gail back in Spokane. They ended up having a similar experience to us and hiked out Scorpion Gulch and hitched a ride to their car. They even ran across Kent as well in a different location.

    In the years since, I have heard from Kent several times and although he’s starting to get pretty old now, he still goes camping in the desert with his friends. I guess I’d feel mighty lucky if I could be like him when I get old and someday just disappear into the canyons that I’ve come to love so much.

    Mike Jewell, 1992

    I just learned that Kent left us a year ago last May. I knew he was getting rather old but I hadn’t heard the news.
    I am now about the age that Kent was when we met him that day more than thirty years ago near the Hurricane Wash trailhead.
    I feel like the luckiest person in the world to have had the chance to spend a little time with him deep in “His Canyonlands”.

    Mike Jewell, 2015
    "Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies."

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  6. #3
    wonderful tale, Slim

    thanks for taking us along

  7. #4
    Glad you liked it.
    "Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies."

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