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With the Mountaineers to Silver Falls Canyon, Utah  -  in Style

Part One     Part Two     Part Three

Author: Bill Priedhorsky, Copyright 2003

There 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.

Much of 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.

Ours was 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.

Was it 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.

We 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.

We met 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.

Starting 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.

The final 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.

We picked 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.

In the 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 One     Part Two     Part Three

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