In Reverence of Water
Backpacking in Dark Canyon with two dummies and a dogby Ben Tiffany
We headed into the desert with a simple goal, get deep in the canyons, far away from everyone and everything. It would be me, a reasonably seasoned outdoor editor, Dustin, a long time hiking partner, and my not so spry dog, Maia. The guidebook promised a relatively easy, dog friendly route called Dark Canyon… five miles a day for four days, in and back. The guidebooks one stern warning…bring water, lots of it, and a water filter.
The guidebook clearly stated that the route was appropriate for dogs but as we scrambled down the steep talus field, Maia begged to differ. Dustin and I considered turning back for Maia’s sake. But we had already lowered her down a sizable drop-off and weren’t sure if we could get her back up. There was no time to think about it as the sun was beating us down and Maia was panting like a pervert--we decided to press on. We knew there was a clear creek running through the middle of the canyon below. And that creek would set everything straight…for a while anyway.
The route we had chosen followed the Sundance Trail, near Monticello, Utah. The trailhead is far enough out of the way to suggest a great adventure, but the cryptic directions from Steve Allen’s guidebook take you to a well-established trailhead, complete with a visitor registry and decorative beer cans.
The trail winds its way down to the canyon rim and then heads west to the crux: a painfully steep talus field, dropping roughly 1,100 feet in one mile. With a 40-pound pack, the slope is hell on creaky knees, but leading an old dog with unseasoned paws made my knee issues seem irrelevant by comparison. By the time we were descending the talus field, Maia’s panting had all but drowned out my cursing.
“This was stupid,” I said as we let Maia rest in the shade of a large boulder.
“What?” Dustin asked over Maia’s exhaust.
“Nothing. We’ve gotta get her in that creek.”
“I hope there’s water in it,” he replied. “Who knows what kind of winter they had in the Abajos.”
Because we were off-route, our path to the creek turned out to be a riverbed with four and five-foot drop-offs. Eventually we stumbled on the creek. In this dry and thorny land was a flow of water that blasted over boulders, making impressive waterfalls and deep, clear, cold pools. Before we could remove our packs, Maia had lapped up her fill of water, was splashing around, barking in the deepest pool and generally making an ass of herself.
We decided to camp near the creek, going to the sleep of the rushing waters that had been our savior.
In the morning I awoke to a grunt from Dustin.
“We’ve got problems,” he said.
The creek was a disaster. The night before the waters were crystal clear. Now they were choked in a chocolaty mess of swirling silt.
“I guess there was a storm upstream,” I ventured.
I knew from experience that a muddy stream usually takes a few days to clear up and it seemed unlikely our little filter would be able to remove the tons of sediment in the water. And foolishly we hadn’t filled all of our water bottles the night before.
Dustin crouched beside the creek and managed to milk the First Need filter ounce by ounce until he had four quarts. By the time that he was topping off the fourth Nalgene bottle each stroke of the First Need pump was a crushing exercise in forearm strength.
A water filter is a precious thing. It’s burly enough to filter out giardia and any other bacteria that might be waiting for a warm dip in your entrails, but once a filter is fouled overhauling them is tricky business. And being the mensas that we are we neglected to bring a back-up filter or even a pre-filter. We brought a back-up stove, a back-up lighter, and a second pint of whiskey to back-up the first. But being a cheap duo by nature, we left the back-up filter on a shelf at Backcountry.com
Our only option was to backwash the unit with the hope of expelling the micro-fine clay without damaging the First Need’s precious matrix. No, I don’t know what a matrix is. I only know that when you force water through it backwards, you risk compromising its integrity and from that point on it’s a crap shoot whether you are really filtering out the bad stuff.
Being a gambling man, I backwashed the bugger and packed it away, vowing not to use it until I was sure we’d found water clear enough to work with.
We packed empty Nalgene bottles and two full Camelbak reservoirs for our hike down canyon. As we trooped down the canyon toward Lake Powell, the sights became more spectacular with every step we took. We had found a natural water park. We saw waterslides, three-foot deep huecos and bands of limestone in the sandstone walls that varied from green, to gray, to black. Many centuries ago, this canyon was just another corridor at the bottom of the sea, and it has the fossilized seashells peeking through the stone to prove it. But in this century, the canyon is a playground, a paradise.
The most interesting stretch of Dark Canyon is the final mile or two that drains into Lake Powell. The canyon narrows considerably and helps accentuate the sheer walls that climb so high that by early afternoon, they cast a shadow over the entire canyon; hence the name Dark Canyon.
The fun ended when we finally reached the mouth of the canyon that spills into Lake Foul. After hiking out of a virtual paradise, we found ourselves standing in stagnant water with rainbow-colored traces of gasoline dancing on the surface. The stench of gas and dead fish permeated the area.
“That’s it?!” Dustin shouted. “We walked all the way down here to look at some smelly lake?”
It was starting to sink in that our five day canyon vacation was being spoiled by spoiled waters. Be it silt from storms or gas from motorboats the purity issue was really starting to put a crimp on things. We opted to cut thing short and began to plan an expedited exit from dank Dark Canyon.
Our freshly backwashed filter was only capable of producing a quart, maybe less of clean water. And in order to get any real service out of it, we needed somewhat clear water to begin with We dug up our pots and balled up some cotton t-shirts in the hopes that we could filter the worst of the silt out of the chocolate water.
“It looks like sewage,” I said as the clay-clouded water drops plopped into the pot. We strained a full pot before admitting defeat. And at about the same time that I was scratching my head, wondering what to do, a graying, elderly man walked by with a First Need water filter in hand. (his was wisely equipped with the stock pre-filter that was absent from mine) He was a regular Foreign Legion foot soldier in his white desert hat with its techno-weenie cape.
“How’s your water situation?” he asked.
“Not great,” I answered. “Our filter’s pretty clogged.”
“I’ve been doing everything I can to clog mine...no such luck,” he said.
“I’m preparing for it, though.”
He explained that he had been upstream looking for clear water but came up empty. So he dug a hole beside the creek where he let water seep in. He then blocked the inlet and had thereby created a pool of standing water.
“That way all the crap can sink to the bottom.”
We were too proud to ask to borrow his water filter and he, apparently was too thick to offer it or he wanted to teach a couple of greenhorns a lesson. He headed on his way leaving us as dry and dusty as when he found us.
Dustin and I decided that we too would not die from dehydration. I already had a cottonmouth and a longing for a tall Slurpee. So we dug up the filter instructions and found that we could milk it for about a quart per day (no matter how clogged) if we slowly dripped water into the top. We screwed the filter onto a Nalgene bottle; attached one end of a hose to the filter and the other end was poked into a large water-filled Ziploc bag. We suspended the Ziploc from a crack in a boulder and the Ziploc’s water slowly trickled into the filter, much like an I.V. bottle.
Next came Part II of the hydration operation: creating a pool to settle the clay. We draped my ground-cloth over three boulders that had a generous space in between. Then we weighted down the edges of the tarp with heavy rocks and filled our would-be reservoir with creek water.
“I guess we just have to wait.” Dustin said as we sat down to watch the sunset. Waiting for water to settle is well, the inverse of the old “a watched pot never boils.” To stick with the water metaphor…silt clearing from water is glacially slow. In boredom we began naming, rating, and critiquing every frosty beverage we could think of.
“How ‘bout root beer floats?” I asked.
“Nope. Nothing beats a Mr. Misty.”
On and on it went until we had talked ourselves into a frenzy. Most juices fared well. Soda did all right. But, of course, cold beer ran away with it...hands down.
The cool air of 6 am was the edge we needed on a hike out that looked to be a lot harder than the hike in. Better still, The I.V. contraption was a success. It yielded a full quart of water, which we greedily drank without hesitation.
“How’s the clay settling?” Dustin asked as I walked over to the kiddy pool. I was a little worried to see what progress (or lack thereof) had been made. Fortunately every grain of clay had pasted itself to the tarp’s reflective bottom. Sure there were a few drowned ants and a handful of UFO’s (Unidentified Floating Objects). But we finally had clear water to work with.
And while I wasn’t sure how our day would end up, I was becoming pretty confident about our canyon exit. We had enough water for several hours of strenuous hiking. And as important as anything, we were blessed with a cool and breezy morning...assuming, of course, there is a god who blesses hikers and/or bird dogs. I ambled over to the band of slickrock where Maia was sunning herself and hunkered down beside her.
“You up for walking today?” I asked.
“Everything’s cool,” she seemed to say. “Now why don’t you fetch me some dog food?”
I wondered if anything was more important to dogs than food. I wondered if she was capable of ill feelings toward me for involving her in this whole mess. Petting her head, I thought that perhaps she had also gained a new found respect for water, but then again she does drink from the toilet.