Arches NP, Sunday/Monday, 14-15 May 2023
I have to admit, my first view of the swollen, cocoa-colored Colorado River, filled with debris and breaching its banks, had me questioning my sanity.
What have these flood waters done in the desolate Cataract Canyon? Will our rafts endure the super-sized flow, or will we end up as more detritus in the river, floating on the wrong side of Forever?
The weeks of 'atmospheric rivers' hitting California this winter had primed a snowpack with well over double the average depths. When I booked my whitewater trip, the extent of the runoff was still unknown. Last week, the forecast called for a volume of 56,000 cfs (cubic feet per second). As of today, that has grown to 62,000 cfs. (To compare, last year the river at 23,000 cfs.)
Without knowing what I'd signed up for, I set about planning this trip in March, my 12th package of this challenge. This trip posed novel problems. For most packages, I simply grouped three or four parks in one region, linked them in a logical sequence, and took off. But once I'd scheduled 'rafting in Canyonlands', a host of other questions arose. Should I go early and handle Arches NP beforehand? Should I add a Colorado park or two? Could I get my friend Bill to join me? Must I rent a car, and waste money as it sat for five days while I rafted?
I decided to come in a day early - just in case airline delays caused me to miss my flight into Canyonlands Airport. With only an eleven-day break following my Channel Islands adventure, I couldn't catch up with everything I'd fallen behind on. Thus, I left for Utah feeling somewhat divorced from reality, as if I was playing a part in a badly scripted movie.
Travel travails added to that surreal feeling. The check-in area for Delta Air was an absolute zoo, with a single line stretching from Delta past Air Canada's check-in into United's area. Twenty minutes in line only got me halfway to the counter, so I bailed for an 'agent assist' line that only took a couple minutes. I tried to call Sue to relate what I'd faced - and my phone didn't work! It could place and receive calls, but neither I or Sue could hear each other. Finally, she texted me and suggested I reboot it, which worked. My wife, the phone tech guru!
Thankfully the rest of the day passed uneventfully, besides my ongoing feeling of disconnect. Heading for the desert, it surprised me to see fresh snow covering the tops of the mountains around Salt Lake City,
and in the La Sal mountains south of Moab. Soon, though, the flight south from SLC winged over the canyon-country terrain I expected to see.
The Canyonlands Airport ranked as probably the smallest airport I've flown into (other than some municipal airports) - I walked right past the baggage claim without realizing it was there!
Moab has changed in the 25 years or so since I last visited. More resorts, more restaurants, and higher prices that have forced local workers to live thirty miles away or find unused land on which to pitch a tent. One welcome addition was the Moab Area Transit. The city received grant money to arrange for small shuttle buses to move people about for free. Simply download the phone app, say where you are and where you want to go, and they'll send a driver (you may share a ride with other travelers). This feature allowed me to roam the area without renting a car, using it four times in two days. (In only two months of service, they've already logged over 7,000 rides.)
This morning, the shuttle took me to a bike shop where I'd reserved a mountain bike for the day. Destination: Arches! a bike trail took me the four miles from Moab
to the park, a great way to avoid the lines at the entrance booths. (Even with timed-entry tickets, cars still back up waiting to get in.) Halfway to the park, I crossed over the old Colorado River bridge, and that's when I saw the monstrous waters awaiting me.
I knew going in that bikes are not allowed on any park trail, only on the roads - not that I would have risked an accident by biking slickrock for my first time. (On the shuttle ride into town, a call came over the radio for an ambulance to extract someone who'd just broken their ankle while biking slickrock.) I also knew I'd face a steep climb for the first mile or two to get into the heart of the park.
No problem; for 20-25 minutes I cranked along in a low gear, and soon found myself surrounded by slickrock nature.
I soon came to Park Avenue, the first named feature in the park.
The massive fins of rock rising sheer from the desert floor must have reminded someone of downtown New York. Indeed, in this area, fins dominated the land, while most of the arches would come later. I mused that if this was the heart of the park, they could have called in Fin-land NP.
To the south, the La Sal Mountains took command of the horizon.
The air contained a slight haze (courtesy of wildfires in Canada) that muted their grandeur, but the mountains still towered over the land. Clouds billowed on the highest peaks, though none made it anywhere near me.
A nice thing about bicycling: it forces me to slow down. No zipping from named site to named site, scarcely noticing the terrain in between. The road gradually descended to Courthouse Wash, allowing me to glide. I then made my relaxed way up a long, mild slope to 5,000' elevation (the Visitor Center sat at 4,000'.)
The slow pace gave time for nature to soak in, breathing in the fresh desert air. Slowly my sense of disconnect ebbed, and things started feeling real again. Halfway up the long slope, I saw a couple parked in a pullout, with one person taking the other's picture, so I veered over and took a photo of them together.
Balanced Rock - a massive rock perched on a spindly pedestal -
sat at the top of the climb. I took the opportunity to get off the bike and hike a short way to the overlook. Again, the mountains to the south provided a backdrop, with an expansive valley breaching the gap to me.
The road split at this point. Most of the named arches lay straight ahead, but with my limited time, I turned right to the Garden of Eden. A short downhill and uphill took me to that point, where I found a mere smidgen of shade in which to sit and enjoy my lunch: a banana, hummus and chips, and a pastry.
1:00. Time to turn back. The temperature stayed in the 80s, with a cool breeze to keep me from overheating. The ride back up the hill gave me a new point of view,
and I stopped for more pictures in this delightful place, before cruising down the steep road to the park entrance.
As the bike trail neared Moab, I turned left and followed that spur up the river. It snaked up the scenic canyon, past a single raft dwarfed by the canyon walls.
It ran through the lush bottomlands and squeezed between the river and the highway (which skirted the canyon walls). The river, well above its banks, was only a few feet below the trail. People expected the trail to be underwater before long.
I returned the bike early, then headed to the tourist information center. My burning question: was there a bookstore in town? A friend had recommended the book The Emerald Mile to me, which talked about the history of rafting in the Grand Canyon, and I figured a bookstore here would have it. Didn't even have to go to the center, as I passed the town bookstore on my way. Of course, they DID have it. So now I have reading material for the adventure!
In town, the temp in the 80s no longer had the breeze to offset it. Thus, when I saw the food truck selling mango sorbet, I treated myself. Live in the moment!
From the app, I called for the free shuttle to take me to Sherri Griffith Outfitters for my orientation session. There I joined Craig from Maine and Pam and Bryn, a mother and daughter from Atlanta, as the four customers who had signed up for this extreme adventure. That's practically a private tour! (Normally, they take 7-10 people on a package.) Owen talked to us for an hour about what to expect and how to pack. He then gave us two dry bags for storing our goods on the raft - a small red one for personal items we may need during the day, and a large blue bag for what we'd need in camp (each already contained a sleeping bag).
After the talk, Pam and Bryn drove me back to town, where I found a restaurant for dinner, then I caught another shuttle back to my room. Time to re-pack my goods for the next five days. As I went through each item in my suitcase - take this, store that - thoughts of what lay ahead raced through my head. The excitement and apprehension of the excursion mixed into a strange stew of emotions. Tomorrow is when it begins...