The Outdoor Junkie
The Outdoor Junkie is a blog by Ann Driggers, a backcountry bon vivant who lives to hike, run, ride, ski and climb in the great outdoors, and is most often found roaming through the red-rock canyons and mountains of Western Colorado.
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By Ann Driggers
Sunday, June 3, 2012
"Early in the spring of 1869 a party was organized for the exploration of the canyons. Boats were built in Chicago and transported by rail to the point where the Union Pacific Railroad crosses the Green River. With these we were to descend the Green to the Colorado, and the Colorado down to the foot of the Grand Canyon.
May 24, 1869 – The good people of Green River City turn out to see us start. We raise our flag, push the boats from shore, and the swift current carries us down".
--- John Wesley Powell in The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons, originally published in 1875
With those words, as documented in his journal, John Wesley Powell begins the last great exploration of unmapped territory in the continental United States. Some 143 years later we seek to trace a short section of his epic journey, 80 miles of the Green River, through the canyons he names Desolation and Gray. Like many who have been fortunate to spend time on the rivers of the desert southwest, I carried Powell’s story with me, reading about his incredible and adventurous ride through this rough and beautiful land. Although the Green is now much tamer and quieter there were many aspects of his account to which we could relate, in particular the landscape. And some about which we could only imagine - the boldness of their expedition, of rounding a corner in the river, hearing the roar of a rapid, not knowing what lay ahead.
We pushed off from Sand Wash at the mouth of the canyon, now un-tethered both literally and figuratively for we would not be in communication with the outside world for 6 days. Having no flag, I briefly contemplated raising our umbrella in salute to Powell but it was rather blustery. Instead we focused on rowing hard against the headwinds and entering the canyon. Powell, "We enter another canyon, almost imperceptibly, as the walls rise very gently” and then “We find quiet water today, the river sweeping in great and beautiful curves, the canyon walls steadily increasing in altitude….in these quiet curves vast amphitheaters are formed, now in vertical rocks, now in steps….one of these we find very symmetrical and name it Sumner’s Amphitheater”
Tired from rowing hard, fighting strong winds from a cold front as it exits the region, we pull over and camp in Gold Hole. We are short of our goal for the day and only 15 miles from put in. A cool, breezy night for us, thankful for our tents and down bags, unlike Powell who writes"The wind blows like a hurricane; the drifting sand almost blinds us; and no where can we find shelter."
The morning dawns clear but cold, the river level has dropped by nearly a foot, making us again concerned about progress as today we will be traveling mostly flat water. I ply the oars hard again, with little relief from a few minor rapids, as we go deeper into the canyon, passing Powell's Lighthouse Rock.
We stop briefly to see an old iron-prowed skiff left by early river runners beneath a cliff.
“The cliffs are rarely broken by the entrance of side canyons, and we sweep around curve after curve with almost continuous walls.”
Late afternoon we have made only 16 miles and camp for our second night at the mouth of Cedar Ridge Canyon on a sandy beach under the shade of large stands of cottonwoods.
A warmer night and no winds means we enjoy a fire and lay our sleeping pads out on the sandy beach beneath a waxing Strawberry Moon.
We awake excited for we are about to enter “a region of the wildest desolation. The canyon is very tortuous, the river very rapid, and many lateral canyons enter on either side….” The lateral canyons flush rocks and debris into the river, constricting it further and here is where the rapids begin. But first we stop to view petroglyphs - evidence that others trod these canyons long before Powell.
We run several large rapids, Steer Ridge, Rock Creek and Snap Canyon amongst many others, all immense fun.
"Piles of broken rock lie against these walls; crags and tower-shaped peaks are seen everywhere, and away above them, long lines of broken cliffs; and above and beyond the cliffs are pine forests, of which we obtain occasional glimpses as we look up through a vista of rocks. The walls are almost without vegetation... We are minded to call this the Canyon of Desolation."
After another balmy, windless night we push off headed for the 'big one'. Joe Hutch Canyon Rapid is considered the largest of all in Desolation Canyon, though only recently formed by a debris flow - an example of how the river may have changed to a greater extent since Powell's trip. Even though several of our group had run this rapid before, the water levels were sufficently different and we felt it worthy of scouting. Chad and Jeb discuss lines:
Before running it:
After Joe Hutch I lost all sense of time, the days defined by the rapids, glorious weather, and the progressively stunning landscape. The nights by good food and company, camps on sandy beaches, sleeping on the raft, lulled to sleep by the gentle flow of the river speckled silver with moon light. I succumbed to the rhythm of the river and it seemed as though time stood still.
Except it didn't.
The miles slid past and with every oar stroke the end of our journey neared.
"We have an exhilarating ride. The river is swift and there are many smooth rapids. I stand on deck, keeping careful watch ahead, and we glide along mile after mile, plying strokes, now on the right and then on the left, just sufficient to guide our boats past the rocks into smooth water. At noon we emerge from Gray Canyon as we have named it..."
Powell continued on down the Green to its meeting with the Grand, whence it becomes the Colorado River and flows into the Grand Canyon. He and his men emerged some two months later.
Our journey, on the other hand, was finished. I didn't want it to end. If I could have rowed back upstream I would, for I have been bitten by the river bug.
By Ann Driggers
Tuesday, May 15, 2012
I headed out for the first backpacking trip of the season this last weekend. It was a good opportunity to pull the pack together, make sure I had everything ready to go for the summer, test out some new gear and just generally blow out the cobwebs. I thought I was doing quite well when I managed to locate the vast majority of my gear despite the fact we are still living out of boxes to some extent. That was until I got to the trailhead.
The plan - leave after work on Friday, head into the Flat Tops Wilderness and rendez-vous with friends Pete and Holly who had (hopefully) set up camp earlier that day somewhere within a few miles in this communication-less location. On the drive up the dark clouds that had been billowing to the north morphed into a steady but light rain and by the time I reached the trail head it really started to set in hard. There is no bad weather, only bad clothing I thought, at the same time remembering the rain jacket, thermal underwear and down sweater I had packed. Or not. In fact I had mistakenly pulled two black thermal bottoms out of the black drawer and failed to bring any tops. Well doh! First mistake. Still I carried on, throwing on all the clothes I had, and figuring if it got really cold I would just have to swaddle myself in my (new) down quilt.
After an hour or so hike through the rain and into the dusky gloom of the unknown canyon I found Pete and Holly and their camp. My arrival was heralded by clearing clouds and a low angled blast of sunshine for which they were grateful having spent the afternoon hunkered down under a tarp in a stormy gale. Along with the sun, a cup of hot tea and a roaring fire lifted our spirits and dried us out.
After a solid nights sleep we were up and raring to go for a hike next morning.
We roamed along several trails in this beautiful canyon with its towering rock walls and floor of open parks of sage brush and stands of aspen their neon green leaves now unfurled.
Another shakedown of sorts on this trip was Miska, Pete and Holly's rescue sled dog. Having spent the first six months of her life on a chain and the second six in a shelter, the lucky dog was adopted into a caring and understanding family who have spent another six months teaching Miska how to be like a dog and not a caged wild animal. This was her first big trip out in the woods, overnight and off the leash. What would she do? Hang with her new pack, or run?
Miska decided that she likes the life of a camp dog and that she would hang with her new pack of peeps. It was a joy to see her sniffing, routing, running and generally learning what it was like to be a real dog in the outdoors. Yes, she did like to take off chasing squirrels or chipmunks but with a little shout or whistle she quickly returned.
Early spring flowers are starting to bloom. Violets, serviceberry, columbines...
After 11 miles or so of hiking we returned to camp and another night around the fire, cooking, stories about winter skiing, planning summer backpacking trips, a little whiskey sipping and, if you were Miska, stalking squirrels.
Sunday morning, as another sunny day dawned bright, we headed out, happy with our little season opener, a successful shakedown backpacking trip.
By Ann Driggers
Tuesday, May 8, 2012
Through a deep gorge cut into the great slab of dark rock, a ribbon of cobalt blue meanders in and out of pools of cerulean green. At first sight the crystal clear and sparkling waters of the Gunnison River seem to be an apparition. If it weren't for its documentation on the map before my very eyes I would believe there was some deception afoot.
We follow a hot and dusty trail rolling across the wrinkles of the high desert, threading through stands of pinyon and juniper and parks of sagebrush, switchbacking down and down. A smattering of desert flowers are blooming despite the dry winter and spring.
The beauty of these blooms and the improbability of their existance in these barren lands never cease to amaze me. As does the apparent river we are descending towards. Finally we reach the floor of the gorge and find the oasis to be real. Along the rivers edge a riparian habitat flourishes and its ice cold waters harbor trout of legendary proportions.
While gusty winds result in more tangles than bites for Chad, I relish digging my toes into the sandy beaches and lying under the shade of a cottonwood tree.
After several hours of simply enjoying this special place, we turn back and upwards. While the 1,200 foot ascent requires a slower pace, it affords us the opportunity to find a few more floral gems. The sego lilies in particular appear so contradictory to their surrounding environment, their elegant chalice of petals delicately attached to long slender stalks, punch through the grey rocky and cracked earth and bow to the hot desert breeze.
The sun sinks into the western horizon of the Uncompahgre Plateau, casting a hazy glow over the dusty valley of the lower Gunnison River wending its way towards a rendez-vous with the much murkier and larger Colorado.
And in the eastern sky the Super Moon rises quickly, sprinkling the desert with silver light, yet another jewel in the desert.
By Ann Driggers
Sunday, April 29, 2012
After last weekend's incredible ski on Mount Sopris, I was all fired up to squeeze out one more day of turns before hanging up the skis for the season. With another round of rain and snow last week it looked like I might just get another chance for some good skiing. I wasn't wrong.
Climbing high up into the Elk Mountains are Craig Burger, Kussum and Kya:
Pearl Basin in the background looked like there was still plenty of good skiing to be had. We decided to head up into Montezuma Basin however, our sights set on a ski of the north face of Castle Peak.
From afar the snow conditions didn't look too great but seeing that it had been skied recently we thought we'd check it out, plus I wanted to use my crampons at least once this year. About half way up the snow became even more rotten and shallow and it was apparent a ski descent would be survival turns at best. Having skied this line twice previously, once in corn, the other in powder, I decided I really didn't want to end my season by skiing it in rocky, rotten windblown sastrugi. 500 feet from the summit I decided to turn around and go over to the Montezuma Headwall which was covered in fresh untracked powder - a much more appetizing descent for me. Since Kussum (Craig's puppy) had yet to summit a fourteener, they dumped their skis and scampered up to bag the summit.
We reconvened down in the basin and enjoyed some splendid powder turns for well over two thousand feet.
The skiing was really, really good but with the added challenge of trying to predict the angle from which Kussum was going to rugby tackle you. She just loves to chase and play with skiers. Here, Kussum sets up for a move to take me out and I am wondering if I should try to avoid her. I learned the best strategy was to play her bluff and keep on my line - she'd eventually cave and get out the way.
Montezuma Basin holds snow well throughout most of the year so it was no surprise the skiing was good up here. In the distance however, the mountains were looking distinctly skinny for April.
We were fortunate that we could ski to and from parking giving us a descent of almost 4,000 feet. It was a great day and with that I'm hanging my skis up for the season. Although I have never ended my ski season so early, usually skiing well into June, it's time to move on to other adventures. Trail running, backpacking, cycling, mountain biking and water sports are calling my name.
With 77 days of skiing under my belt for the season I will count it as a good one, despite the overall poor snow conditions.
Now it's a wrap. Last turns......
By Ann Driggers
Sunday, April 22, 2012
My new geography, here in the lower Roaring Fork Valley, is defined by two major features - Mount Sopris which stands sentinel to the south and, the Roaring Fork River which flows through and created the valley itself. Both mountain and river are ever present in my world, both visually and as primo locations for recreation. Mount Sopris looms to 12,935 feet, the highest point in my new landscape and the river, at its confluence with the Colorado, the lowest at 5,700 feet in elevation. To travel between these two points under my own power, using skis, bike and raft, seemed like a good way to spend a spring day here in the valley. Sharing in my dream was my frequent ski partner, Scott McCurdy, and we had the support of Chad and my friend Christy Wall who drove from Salt Lake for the fun. Once we had the logistics sorted out (requiring more than a few beers) all that was left was to implement the plan. Here's how we pulled it off:
0500 hours - Appropriately decorated, Christy and I start hiking up the Thomas Lakes trail towards Mount Sopris. Scott, along with three others arrive a little later, and Chad, the designated manager of the paddle section of our day, is happily (for him) fast asleep in bed.
Sunrise in the forest:
Skinning across the lower of the Thomas Lakes, Sopris and our route Thomas Lakes Bowl above us:
Once under the warmth of the suns rays, we decided to wait for the rest of the gang, who were about 40 minutes behind us. We entertained ourselves with a tour of the bristlecones:
Christy had never seen a bristlecone pine before and declared the drive from Salt Lake worth it for this reason alone:
The others caught up with us and we started the climb up the center of bowl:
The summit in sight, with the yawning drop below into the Laundry Chutes:
1000 hours - Christy and I celebrate reaching the summit, the Elk mountain range spread behind us. Capitol Peak is on the left.
To the east we could see the Gore Range and the Continental Divide, to the south the San Juans, to the west the La Sals and Grand Mesa and to the north our ultimate ending point of the day. Behind Scott and I is the Roaring Fork Valley through which its namesake river flows and along whose path we would shortly be traveling to its end. Although both Scott and I have climbed Sopris many times each, reaching the summit of this magnificent peak never gets old.
Especially when the skiing was as good as it was! In the Winter That Never Was, this ranks as probably the best turns of the season. A series of storms last week dropped over a foot of snow and we were the lucky beneficiaries. Christy shoots through the cornice off the summit ridge:
Scott lays it out with the valley far below (top right corner):
Giggles and grins in creamy pow (me):
Thomas Lakes bowl is massive and goes on and on, for almost 3,000 feet. The snowcover on the morraine at its base was sparse compared to previous years but we threaded through and had continuous skiing well into the forest below.
Finally, after a glorious run we reached the lakes far below and finished up the hike out:
1200 hours - time to drop the poles and pick up the pedals:
Scott and I jumped on our bikes and headed down the Prince Creek drainage towards Carbondale. Some nice little singletrack in the oakbrush:
And stellar views of Sopris down in the valley, where the budding grass and leaves are neon green:
1500 hours - After a brief refuelling stop in Carbondale - mexican food and margaritas - time to swap out pedals for paddles ( actually oars in this case):
Boys rowed and fished:
Girls partied. Or tried. Beer choice somehow got missed during logistics discussions but we did our best:
The river was real skinny and it took us a long time to float all the way into Glenwood Springs. As we passed into the faster moving waters of the Colorado River, the sun was setting on Mount Sopris on whose summit we had stood just 9 hours ago.
1900 hours - the end of our human powered expedition from the highest to the lowest point of my new geography. And what a blast it was. Thanks to my cohorts, Chad, Scott and Christy! This is surely the first of what will now be an annual event.
Pole Pedal Paddle By the Numbers:
Pole - i.e. foot travel (skiing and hiking) - 14 miles, 4,000 feet of climb and descent
Pedal - 12 miles, 2,500 feet descent
Paddle - 12 miles, 500 feet descent
Total distance - 38 miles
Time - 14 hours from start to finish, 9 hours from Sopris summit to rivers end.