Our friends are natural desert rats, leaping into the adventure with curiosity and zest. Soon they can discern constructed stone walls from natural rock faces. And spot hidden ancestral puebloan markings among cracks on shadowy cliffs.
Two years passed since our last desert encounter, yet our fourth meeting in this land of comb and canyon feels fresh as the first. Here boundaries between natural and manmade blur. Cut by water, worn by wind, canyon corridors provide for people movement too. Sand solidified, crumbled, muddied, hardened, cracked, returns to sand, leaving fanciful formations. Side canyons beckon scrambles over freshly fallen rock. We sense geologic motion, gain grand perspectives. From our camp beneath tall ponderosa pines, sunrise dawns beyond rock spires, coloring sky. Another form of sun, etched on rock wall. We try to understand on our terms, but what were theirs, mysterious people past, people of the ground, and of the place. Beyond the canyons, stretch expansive sagebrush meadows with moody, moving spring skies of gray greens and blues. Evidence of ancestors draw us back into the folds and wrinkles of these part solid sand dunes. We look in at impossibly perched places looking out over centuries. Weathered and worn, stone becomes shelter, protects from wind and rain. Where have we been, where are we going? We look, and know we go where others went so many years before. Through trough and over crest, they traveled then, we travel now. From high, we follow spreads of wrinkles and waves, a land map of rock, to be read like ancient patterns inscribed on cave walls.
Dark Canyon Wilderness stretches expansively. It drops you deep. Twisting and turning, the canyons peel away layers of human hecticness. They open and reveal that primal place where a single note resounds like a symphony.
Moving through space, this is a journey in time. Descending from the mesa tops, footsteps touch rock shelves holding memories of their ages. From high on Cedar Mesa sandstone down to layered limestone of the canyon floor, colors of compacted grains of sand or frenetic forms of frozen corral beds speak to me in different tongues.
Remote and seldom visited by people, this canyon wilderness offers close company to me. It is alive with other creatures. Tracks criss-cross the sandy trail; big hoof prints, tiny paw prints, delicate claws. I smell a deep musky animal scent among the aromatic sage. In the quiet, a distant rockfall booms, perhaps bighorn sheep on the cliff walls. Later I hear a gentle shudder of hoofs pushing off from the ground – a few deer pronging across the landscape.
Home to the animals, it is still a different environment to me. I seek water and shelter along my walk. And in this desert, any certainty I have about the presence of water is its uncertainty. In upper Woodenshoe Canyon, a wide sand and cobble creek bed flows dry, though intermittent thickets of willow, reed and grasses tell of water just below. Further downcanyon, in the layered shale and limestone bedding, small still pools appear. Though seemingly dry, the desert rock can be a reservoir for water. I watch the cliff walls carefully until a string of verdant green leaves and dark streaks speak of a flowing seep. I share it with a tiny brown and red spotty frog. Drips from ledges and mosses trickle into my collecting vessels placed below.
Making camp is a ritual of place finding and place making. The first night, a mounded cedar mesa sandstone formation beckons. With rolling rocks flat enough to perch on, it offers broad vistas to the ridges and mesas of my canyon home. I choose a sandy bed next to a protective warm rock face below, and run up and down the rock to welcome first the stars and then the morning light, watching colors change in the sky.
My second night, I camp at the confluence in a stand of Juniper where others have stayed before. As my fire turns to embers, I feel the first wet drops of the night. Not long after, rain is pounding down on my tent, the sky alive with loud thunder and vivid lightening. I think it rains all night. When I climb out my tent by first light there is no longer water falling from the sky, but it glistens brightly on the spiny needles, shiny rocks and mud red earth around me.
I wander out and up. As I climb higher, the sound of gurgling, trickling, running water seems to surround me. I search for the source and see the once dry river bed alive with flowing red liquid. I witness the miracle of water in the desert.
I linger to allow my tent to dry and engage in the changes in life on this land. And then I resume my journey. For the moment, the landscape of large ponderosa pines with their red brown striated bark, bushy green needles and big beautiful presence is above me. My landscape is that of juniper and pinyon flats, to me remniscent of the African savannah with its low acacia trees. The yellow-white puffy blooms of rabbitbrush and sagebrush taller than my head, illuminate the deep green leafed, brown-earthed landscape.
At first in Dark Canyon, my landscape was bordered by bold red topped mesas with slopes clad in evergreen. As I move upcanyon, the more arid landscape emerges in raw forms of rock castles, bold buttresses, slender spires, towers, arches, and alcoves. They are not only myriads of forms, but rainbows of colors including purple, maroon, crimson, orange, cream, ochre, yellow, buff and peach. The rock landscape is undulating and punctuated. I see exclamation points, deep holes of periods, and laughing commas in the landscape.
I am becoming more at one with my surrounds. I feel leaves fluttering as they cling and let go of their branch hold, dancing to the canyon floor, playing with the wind. They crackle as I step on them. I pick up a faded yellow-brown sprig and tuck it into my pack straps, I want to be part of this leafy place too. A bird nonchalantly flies by and settles on a small tree just in front of me. At night, red bunny eyes look at me curiously in the dark, as I at him.
It’s the season of falling leaves when days and nights are equal. Aware that the earth wears shades of gray, I thrill as my body’s senses engage anew. This shimmering sky of wonder is like a fireworks display suspended in time, and a path to see beyond. Stars cycling describe earth turning. I see lit cliffs from a rising moon and dark hillsides in its shadow. And somehow, where edge of earth meets sky, it always seems a little brighter. Animals greet night too, for some it’s time to go out. Coyote calls as the first star twinkles in the just dark enough sky. Later deep in the night there are more howls and calls, and I think I hear a delicate elk cry.
A shooting star on an impossible mission blazes by, and then another and another light the sky. One comes so close I hear the whoosh. Where are they going so quickly? And how many more fly silently by, unseen?
An owl hoots just before the morning light. And the sun rises to birdsong. I read changing light magic on the mesas.
Water is a gift. Camping close to a quiet spring, I feel at home with the birds, crickets and frogs who also choose this place. The water is clear and cool nestled against a stepped limestone edge on one side and waving willows on the other. It feels good to rest in the present moment.
With pack on back, I’m on the move again. As I approach the intersection of Dark and Peavine canyons, a sturdy arch catches my eye. Beyond, more exotic forms sculpted in red-colored rock lure me to continue further up Dark Canyon. While the trail was a double track here, filled with water from recent rains it appeared as a creek.
This place holds human-made history, an old cabin, barn, a broken cart. But I prefer the solitude of nearby Horse Pasture Canyon. The intimate space is edged with brilliantly painted rock walls defining a grassy meadow. I set up camp on the cusp of the flats, at the base of a bent oak covered hillside.
It’s a pretty scene with the fascinating rock formations and subtle hues of browns, rusts and golds in the brush. I enjoyed the play among curvaceous branches, delicate leaves and firm rock.
Morning explorations yield the discovery of a narrow rock bridge followed by a climb into a large high alcove. Nestled way back is a tiny granary. As I gaze over the landscape from the ledge, I realize that the granary is fully in view from my tent – only I’d considered it a small rounded rock! How much more there is than we ever know.
In time, this eager outward exploration turns inward. I feel urging home. I return to the intersection and start up Peavine Canyon. Walking on a double track doesn’t have the sense of adventure of the narrow trail, nor as close connectedness to nature around me. I am glad when I regain the winding trail upcanyon.
Stands of stark white barked aspen trees stand out among dark green firs, punctuated with pinkish sandstone monoliths. The grassy pastures look inviting but are eaten short by cows(ugh). Light is fading. My last night’s camp has a perfect table rock. It is rectangular, attractively patterned with a flattish top, and located next to a friendly aspen tree with branches inviting hanging gear. My headlamp no longer working, I eat dinner by tea-candle light, then use my different senses to locate things and pack away. How well our bodies manage when allowed.On the sixth day of my trek, I thank the canyons for their expansiveness, diversity, peace and companionship. I pass the wilderness boundary sign and return to my car, hiking the last few miles on a dirt road where an elegant flock of turkeys seemingly greets me.
Perhaps I came a little closer to being a beast.
Backpacking the Lucky Chance Circuit was lucky for us in so many ways – we were blessed with sunny Sitka weather, and helped by skippers and their boats transporting us over water to the trailhead.
A great group of friends was keen to go exploring, and fortunate to be successful in route finding through the wild SE Alaskan landscape (with the help of technology)!
At times making our way through the leafy forest felt more like gymnastics (with a backpack) than hiking, as we twisted and turned over and under stumps, and dodged fiesty devils club thorns.
We emerged out of the spruce/hemlock/cedar forest, onto an open muskeg populated with artfully sculpted trees with views of our dynamic destination ahead.
After pausing at Pinto Lake, a tantalizing ridge urged us to continue up.
Nearing the high point, we clambered over rocky outcrops.
Our reward was the perfect ridge-top campsite. Looking east over Silver Bay we saw twinkling Sitka lights in the distance.
Views to the east encompassed epic mountain masses, bearing reminders of glacial times passed.
Awed by ever changing light, our cameras were barely put away, before again being pulled out. A paradox of Lucky Chance is its troubled gold-mining history. Yet we experienced great richness, awed by brilliant sunset light, and later the yellow-green glow of a northern aurora.
In the morning we awoke to be floating above a white puffy blanket, with protruding peaks like baby birds’ beaks.
A curious early mountain goat peered at us from above, we’d also sighted bear and deer.
Gently the mist lifted. The mountain lakes were bathed in morning light.
The highest peak on Baranof Island is 5390, named for its elevation in feet.
Dipping and rising summits extended as far as we could see. At our feet, tiny alpine plants formed delicate tapestries of similar intricacy.
Our adventuresome group glowed in this alpine setting, a lucky chance to be in this place at this time, together.
Colors of the water-land-scape were astounding: brilliant blues and verdant greens.
Continuing our cirque, we wished to prolong our time up high, transcending present and past.
The sun rose strongly in the sky as we gazed towards our descent, including remnants from the mining era of the late 1800’s to early 1900’s.
Next day back home, I woke to a misty morning. The veiled mountains held many more mysteries to be unfurled.
There could be interesting names for this trek, perhaps “The Other Four Pass Loop”, or “The Williams Mountains Circuit”. But truly, this trip evolved from my desire to touch those remote parts of the Hunter Frying Pan Wilderness nestled in distant basins between the two drainages.
I traversed four passes, though only half of those are named. Trails existed at the beginning and the end of the route, but in the middle, boulder hopping, elk tracks and trickles of streams shaped the way. There were people only within the first and last half-hours of travel, the other 47 and a half hours were solo, except for all the extraordinary life.
I started high, and climbed higher. Mountains extended in all directions with only nature visible in the foreground and beyond. The Williams Range formed the backbone of my journey, and while I would encircle the long ridge with its craggy peaks, I would also descend and ascend a diversity of deep valleys.
Where water sprang from the ground or seeped from melting snow, slopes were alive with seductive fresh flowers, as though summer was just starting.
Exposed higher meadows still held their fading glory, tinged with early fall golds and reds.
After cresting the second pass, I dropped into a fork of upper Hunter Creek. Water flowed, fell and frolicked among pink flecked granite boulders, graced with verdant flowers and foliage. Almost dancing my way downvalley, I paused at a broad meadow edged by spruce trees, through which a calm creek meandered.
The sky was growing darker and as moisture started to fall, I sheltered in the embrace of the nearby forest while snowflakes fluttered. It was as though I had stepped into a magical kingdom. As I resumed my wandering, I sensed vibrations, and on turning, watched a magnificent herd of deep brown elk with young, bound almost silently through the woodland. A path upslope beckoned and I followed keenly. It released me on a perfect knoll, at the head of the second river fork and upper basin.
Here I would become immersed in the changing colors of evening playing on the mountain spine, highlighting its pinnacles and spires.
Then later turning to a moonlit night sky.
Crisp morning light articulated the third pass and its family of peaks that drew me on.
From over 13,000 feet I soaked in views of mountain ranges from new perspectives.
And met new friends who seemed a little shy.
Too soon, I was as far away as I could be in this wilderness landscape. That signaled time to turn, to drop two thousand feet, then turn again and climb, through a stately Colorado mountain valley.
Grateful for the expansiveness of this terrain that held me till the sun was low above the ridgelines, I stretched out on my sleeping pad and again observed the changing light.
I marveled how this sweet blush of color turned each day, yet how seldom we pause to recognize such luminescence. At that moment, I was thankful to be so alive outside where rare shooting stars burst brightly across an inky sky.
Previous explorations had taken me up and over the gorges of tumbling creeks feeding the Frying Pan River. I rested at their lakes and scaled summits, looking across to the mysterious ridge that bounded the lake family comprising my missing puzzle piece.
The route was along firm granite rock interspersed with bright alpine flowers. It led towards the summit until I reached the snowy rim. Being highly respectful of white slippery slopes, I sat on a warm rock and ate lunch. Refreshed, I resumed my quest and discovered a way to the top. At last the puzzle was complete as looked back upon the lakes and ridges where my desire was born.
In the Rocky Mountains, June is an exceptional month that holds the longest day and heralds summer’s start.
At the start, I was unsure of the exact nature of this excursion. Later, having experienced it, I realized that my solo backpacking trip was all that I desired, and more.
Based on a framework plan to hike deep into a Cedar Mesa canyon and its tributaries, I had freedom to explore and to immerse myself in the sensual nature of the diverse desert landscape.
A solo trip into the backcountry is a rare experience of both dispossession, and at the same time, the most wonderful self-indulgence and richness. Everyday comforts and conveniences are cast away, connections with family and friends are on hold, and the internet is (hopefully) inaccessible. Taking the minimum essential for survival, it’s necessary to work hard at simple tasks like preparing a place to sleep or finding clean water to drink.
This opens a doorway to such treasure; that of the natural world around us. Senses awaken – vision infuses with color and light, nostrils sniff the damp of a pool, ears attune to animal song. Existing solo, but never alone; intimately alive and connected with mother earth.
Amongst a myriad of felt sensations are the sun’s warm caress and the canyon’s deeply cooling shadows; a light breeze fluttering leaves or a strong wind calling loudly; a watery pool attracting a toad, a snake and a lizard; evening song of frogs, crickets and bats; smells of dry sage and damp mossy springs, and the glow of golden evening light or soft pink moonshine on rock. I sensed the timelessness of this place, where people of the past ran across the slick rock I walked on, and where they communed with spirits through spirals and ghost hands on stone.
At night, I pitched my tent in a place that felt just right; in the morning, I discovered age-old art, and I knew that others had felt at home here too. Eagles soared and stars cycled above in the sky, as they had done centuries before in this mystical life-giving place.
I learnt that survival is not about “what’s out there to get me”, but about how I manage myself. At the end of a long day of exploring, I was looking forward to camp. Upon arriving, I took off my wet shoes and set down my backpack. Then I noticed something missing – my tent! Reluctant to don my soggy sand-soaked sneakers, wearing flip flops, I set off through the scrub and river landscape to find my missing shelter. Short-cutting across the creek, I felt the sudden, eager grab of quicksand. My leg jerked back up, but my flip flop remained trapped below! Dropping to hands and knees, I dug frantically in the watery mud, imagining laughter resonating from the looming canyon walls. Eventually, without the flip flop, I returned to camp, wincing across prickly ground. But, still determined, I put on the soggy sneakers, and went again in search of my tent. I think the canyon spirits pitied me, for not long after, in the middle of a clearing, I found my blue tent bag. Beneath a darkening sky, I returned humbly to camp.
I learnt life lessons in the canyons including to be open to surprises; to be persistent; step back to gain clarity, and consider from many angles.
Be patient. Inhabit a place and it will grow. The longer you stay, the more will be revealed. Where you saw only a rock with a shady overhang, there will be a small dark door to a hidden granary. A craggy rock face will soften to hold a smooth panel marked with a red man, green hands or a white antelope.
Release expectations, hold anticipation
I followed the meandering river, walking in huge arcs, looping back upon myself. I ran up the slick rock canyon sides and circled down again. I stood atop a narrow promontory between two river bends, trying to understand the form, feeling the shape, the way that water moved in an intricate dance with rock; water carving rock, rock guiding water.
I understood better the timeless spirals etched in ancient rock and knew that the desert winds would propel me back to this mystical mesa again.
I’ve seen my second full moon rise over the snowcapped peaks of Sitka. Etched in the clouds, a streak of golden light swelled to a shimmering globe.
Through the dense tall tree trunks, I’ve glimpsed the silhouette of a small Sitka deer, as he startled and disappeared. In my ridgetop tent, I’ve been woken by a clucking ptarmigan, with snowy white plumage, a handsome black head and red beak. Through the night, the landscape glowed in shades of silvery gray.
As the red blush moon sinks into the sea, fresh light brings focus to the day.
In May, my second month, the forest understory shows off its green plumage like a peacock’s emerald tail. I walk among carpets of starry mosses, colorful lichens and sun sparkling leaf sprays. In soft moist bogs, tentative stalks burst into bold skunk cabbage soldiers. Like the spring forest, I sense a deeper layer, a growing connection to this landscape.
A magical place is the promontory of Totem Park, where forest meets ocean. Tentacles of water ebb and flow rustling pebbled beaches, discarding ribbons of red-brown seaweed, broken white clamshells and white-washed wood.
Where the Indian River estuary joins the sea, there is a wealth of sound and activity. A merganzer duck family paddles around a floating log, watched by bald eagles perched on tree tops high above. I hear multitudes of birds’ sound – calling, screeching, wings flapping, and sometimes just a whir as they pass by.
The aliveness of this place enraptures me. I pause mid-stride while running, watching as an eagle swoops or a sunray lights the water gold. From stillness in sketching, I step out to tidal pools where orange-tentacled seastars stretch and scrawny crabs scurry.
Spirals and circles, meticulously chiseled into desert red-rock walls hundreds of years ago, perhaps represented cycles in the lives of the ancestral Puebloans, as they have meaning in the cycles of our lives today. My season of living outside started in early spring amongst warm desert rock and now, in late fall, the cycle is complete.
Three years ago, I made a three-day backpack into lower Salt Creek canyon, in the Needles district of Canyonlands, camping beneath a crescent arch under a full moon. I hiked up-canyon a ways, then turned to visit angel arch. From that time, I was drawn to discover more about the upper section of Salt Creek canyon, where I heard there was limited camping and plentiful evidence of ancient people from the past.
The circle came around this fall, as my friend, Dina, and I descended a thousand feet from the canyon rim off Beef Basin Road into upper Salt Creek. It was a long day of backpacking – 12 miles downcanyon to our camp. We passed through forests of bulrushes, glimpsed hints of ancient habitations, and were surprised by seductive waterfalls. We marveled at a boundless gnarled rock landscape striped in pink and white like a scene from the Nutcracker.
Our camp was beneath a large homely cottonwood tree in the dense riparian bottomlands of Salt Creek, the lush vegetation being a special feature of this desert canyon. It was dusk when we pitched the tent and started to cook, later to learn that these shorter fall days would foster several more nights of setting up camp by headlamp while watching glittering stars emerge beyond.
In the morning, our camp was in deep shadow, but as the sky brightened light shimmered on the ridge behind, enticing us up, over and into a whole new world of spires, pinnacles and fantasy creatures hued in a spectrum of crimson through cream.
Mesmerized, we sat quietly meditating on the richness of the ever changing sunrise light. The theme of circles repeated in curved and rounded rocks with conical heads and mushroom tops, smoothed over centuries by water drops. At last, with a mind map of sights(and sites) to be seen, we embarked on our return up canyon and further exploring.
After investigating our first ledge of extended stone structures and pictographs, we stopped at a layered waterfall known as upper jump, our senses titillated by water droplets, cherished in the dry desert.
We were intrigued by several granaries in front of which grew an extensive vine that on closer inspection revealed small round squash. We read that this squash plant(or its ancestor) was originally planted and tended by past canyon dwellers over 700 years ago!
Our third and fourth days in the canyon included further wandering and exploring. We discovered side trails to ruins, of which the Big Ruin was impressive for the extent of structures in excellent condition that were located high on a ledge above a steep cliff face.
We considered the National Park Service management of this ecologically and culturally sensitive area. In our world of increasingly invasive manmade impacts, it is satisfying to be in an area where roads have become overgrown tracks, trails are narrow with spiky shrubs whipping at a hiker’s calves, and willow branches meet over backpackers’ heads. The desert and its delicate cryptobiotic crust are protected with spiny spiky vegetation that discourages off-trail wandering. I loved the juicy red prickly pear fruit, although the delicacy left its legacy of fine thorns lingering in my finger tips.
Our last night’s camp was outside the Park’s boundaries, beside a shrubby tributary canyon. At a micro-scale, we observed small insects crawling over dry seed pods that waved on the sandy canyon floor. From the top of a slickrock scramble, we admired larger scale views of the intricate canyon maze.
On day four, we climbed out of the canyon, circling back to the beginning of our hike. Now we saw in the expansive views, layers of meaning integrated in the twisting and turning shelves of rock below. They were filled with magical color, ancient art and vegetable plants started over 700 years ago!