comes a time in the life of an outdoor person when, although the scenery, the
solitude, and the quiet are as important as ever, the loads become
harder to shoulder, and the bare existence of a backpacker"s camp loses a bit
of its appeal. In my case, it is not that I have taken my last backpack trip.
Rather, it is nice to alternate the spartan and the easy, the back pack and
the drop camp. This is the story of one such trip, with the Los Alamos
Mountaineers, in golden days of October last year.
the wild and beautiful in Utah can be reached only with muscle power. Thanks
to the domestication of the horse in the 4th millennium BC, muscle power is
not limited to human power. And thanks to the services of the Cochrane family
of Boulder, you need not own a horse to horsepack the Escalante country
of southern Utah.
a drop camp. Most horse outfitters offer escorted trips, costing on a daily
basis about what one would spend for nice lodging and meals in civilization.
But for much less, about $120 per person for the trip, we had our own gear
packed to a site suggested by the Cochranes. Our allowance, 75 pounds per
person (half a horse load) allowed us folding chairs, tables, and a mix of
dried, canned, and fresh food. This was food that we chose for taste and
storage, rather than for weight. Though it was the tail end of the great
drought of 2002, we found plenty of water for all of our needs, in the stream
and potholes for bathing, filtered to drink, and warmed to wash dishes.
boring to be tied to one camp for a whole outing, giving up the backpacker"s
freedom of movement? Hardly. True, the backpacker can move his
home on a nightly basis, if he takes the time to pack and unpack, breaking
down and setting up. And, as the name says, the drop camper camps where he is
dropped - the gear that provides comfort is also an anchor. But in the
labyrinth of Utah canyons, there are new worlds around every corner. Three
days of hiking can be had from most any junction, by heading upstream,
downstream, and up the nearest side stream.
explored Silver Falls canyon, the Escalante River, and surrounds. Ours
was a mixed group, aged 45 to 72, four men and seven women, on a trip
advertised to the Mountaineers as "Canyon Country for Broken-Down Baby
Boomers". Our experience ranged from our volunteer leader"s 50+ outings,
to canyon novices.
the Cochranes at the shallow head of Silver Falls Canyon, about 45 miles down
the Burr Trail and Wolverine loop from the green village of Boulder. The
buttes, dry washes, and red cliffs beyond told us that we were in the canyon
country. Getting our gear from car to wilderness camp was not hard - not for
us, anyway. We piled our duffels on the ground next to the cars and waited for
the Cochranes. Once they arrived, things happened fast. Bags disappeared into
panniers, and duffels were lashed between them as top loads.
into the canyon, Silver Falls Canyon changed from shallow wash to deep canyon
one step at a time. The red walls rose above us. At our feet were logs that
looked like they had just been sawed, but were actually rocks, frozen in time
since the time of the dinosaurs. Lunch, at Emigrant Spring, was under an
alcove that reached 40 yards back into the cliff. Though not our destination
this time, it would make an excellent camp in any weather.
hike into camp was into the low fall sun, which backlit the cottonwoods and
gave them a golden glow, and reflected from the little stream that had welled
up from what had been, a few steps up canyon, a bed of dry pebbles smoother
than any road we had seen in the Escalante backcountry.
a flat, sandy bench for our camp, and were reading, relaxing in the sun, and
wondering about dinner when our gear - and food - arrived. There was a great
bustle of activity as the horses were unloaded, but twenty minutes after
their arrival the camp was again quiet. Somewhere up canyon, horses and
packers were rushing to reach their rig before dark.
Into the canyon.
final minutes before our gear arrived, we talked about some "what ifs". What
if something had happened? What if injury or disaster left us alone overnight,
huddled in a pile to keep warm, nibbling the crumbs and leftovers of our
lunch? "What if" didn"t happen, and almost never happens, because the
Cochranes, or any reliable packer, know that your safety and well-being depend
on your gear. On the other hand, horse packing is not like shipping a computer
in an air-cushion van. Horse bump against trees, get stuck in quicksand, and,
on rare occasions, can roll onto a load. This time, the worst that happened
was our fault - a leaky container spilled a liter of red wine. Fortunately,
the wine just settled into the bottom of a waterproof wet sack, and was still
entirely drinkable, if slightly rubbery to the taste.
How much gear can you bring? A lot, but too much is too much.
Face disguised to protect the guilty
Part Two Part Three