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Turkey Camp, Escalante River, Utah (Llama Pack Trip)

May 26-June 4, 2006

Leader and Author: Bill Priedhorsky

Report Photos: Bill and Reid Priedhorsky

Photo Galleries: Jan Studebaker, Click  to view Turkey Camp, or Spring Canyon

Trip Participants: Petey and Reid Priedhorsky, Melissa Bartlett, Elizabeth Kelly, Dennis Brandt, Jackie Little, Jan Studebaker, Dave and Kimberly Scudder, Karen Grace, Marilyn Yeamans, and Kathleen Gruetzmacher.

Monday May 29, 8:30 AM:

The fellowship is in camp, having breakfasted on oatmeal, boiled eggs, coffee, cocoa, and the like, and our greatest excitement is the betting pool on who will get out of their tent last.  It has been a battle of the titans, but came down to the favorite, Karen, and the winning dark horse, Marilyn.  But the greatest pleasure is that we are all in camp and our adventure is underway.

We left New Mexico by various routes, driving the approximately 10 1/2 hours from Los Alamos to Boulder, Utah.  My own group - 12-year old son Petey, wife Melissa Bartlett, Elizabeth Kelly, Dennis Brandt, Jackie Little, Jan Studebaker, and myself, the trip leader - left Los Alamos at 2:10 PM on Friday, May 26, and drove through the Jemez to pick up Jan and Jackie.  We stopped in Farmington at the 3 Rivers Brew Pub at 6:00 PM for dinner, and arrived in Bluff, Utah by 9:30, where we rented the 4 bedroom, 6 bed (counting the pullout couch in the living room), and 2 bath Adams House from the Recapture Lodge for about $163 including tax.  We left Bluff the next day at 8:30, and stopped in Capitol Reef at 1 PM for a 4-hour hike to Spring Canyon.  We chose that hike, over a cooler hike in the Fremont River or Sulphur Creek, because of the cool windy day. By 6:30 PM we had arrived in Boulder for a night at the Boulder Mountain Lodge, where we met the rest of our 13 - my adult son Reid, Dave and Kimberly Scudder, Karen Grace, Marilyn Yeamans, and Kathleen Gruetzmacher, for a 7:30 dinner at the Burr Trail Grill.

Yesterday morning, our pile of gear began to accumulate along the fence line at Boulder Mountain Lodge. While we had the usual slow breakfast at Hell's Backbone Grill, Bevin, BJ, and Brian from Red Rock 'n Llamas packed our loads into their panniers.  We were near the maximum allowable weight, with 14 llamas for 13 people, despite a careful assignment of community gear weight (110 pounds) and 70 pound per person allocation of the remaining load.  Our estimate for the pannier weight was about right - a little under 8 pounds per pair.  Despite some underages - backpacker Reid came in at 20 pounds - our party weighed in right at the limit.

We left Boulder a little after 10 AM, drove to the river to help load the llamas, and sent Kathleen and Melissa with the llamas, helping BJ and Brian take llamas and gear 4 miles downstream to our camp.  Our camp was just at the "E" in Escalante River on the King's Bench topo, about 1 mile upstream of the Boulder Creek confluence.  Guiding the llamas downriver was a challenge because the entries and exits from the river were steep, and the llamas tended to crash over Melissa as they lunged out of the river.  Some of the loads got loose, and some sleeping bags were delivered wet, but they made camp by 2:30.

The rest of the party drove with Bevin along the Sheffield Road to their own trailhead.  We started at about noon, hiking across the flat, down a drainage near the Omar cabin, then a "Bevin mile" upstream with at least 9 river crossings between us and camp.  Bevin accompanied us to the river.  Ten of our eleven made it to camp by 4:00.  The way along the river was lushy and thickety.

At the trailhead: Reid, packer Bevin, fearless leader Bill, Karen, Petey with Dave behind,
Kimberly, Dennis, Jan, Elizabeth, Marilyn, and Jackie.  Photo courtesy Reid Priedhorsky.

We were worried that Jan was nowhere to be seen.  He had started with a fast party, but fell behind because he changed into thongs for each river crossing, then back into boots.  Elizabeth, Petey, Karen, and I last saw him putting on his boots at a riverbank perhaps 1/2 miles below camp.  At one tricky crossing, the upstream trail turned back downstream, and Jan seems to have accidentally reversed his direction at this point.  He hiked downstream past our entrance point, past the horsepackers' camp, until the trail and human footprints gave out. He reversed direction again, giving up on dry boots.  Back at camp, we sent expeditions downstream then upstream to no avail, but finally learned Jan's location when Reid climbed out of the canyon bottom to a bench above camp, and reached Jan on the radio.  Jan was two miles downstream and headed for camp.  This was occasion to open the wine.  We called in the search parties, had our appetizers then spaghetti dinner, and finished with Chocolate Maven brownies.  Certainly everyone was tired out by bedtime.

Tuesday May 30, 8:00 AM:

Dave, Marilyn, Reid, Kimberly, and Kathleen climbing to the top of "River" butte via a friction ramp.

Yesterday we started hiking at 10:30, about 1/2 hour later than planned.  We wanted to explore our canyon neighborhood, being still tired from the previous day.  The weather was mostly clear, and a little warmer than our cool day going all.  All 13 of us went up the rocks on the west side of the river, starting on the shortcut trail to Boulder Creek.  Whether the conjoined creeks below the junction should be named Boulder or Deer is a controversy - "Boulder" is the local custom, but "Deer" it is on the topo quad.  Dave, Reid, Kimberly, Kathleen, and Marilyn climbed a long friction ramp to reach the top of the face north of camp; Bill, Karen, Elizabeth, Jan, Dennis, and Jackie worked their way up the far end of the face, with a couple of roped moves.  Petey and Melissa, tired from sleeping badly their first night in camp, turned back to camp, and made it home after a few false starts.  We eventually reunited the 11 at the summit marked "River", with huge views up and down the Escalante. Jan, Dennis, Karen, Elizabeth, Jackie, and I worked our way west, roping down a tough downclimb, loose and steep, contrary to Jackie and Karen's better judgment.  While we waited to climb down, I received from Karen the dirtiest look in my experience outside of marriage.  I offered Jackie a free beer back in town if she could finish the first pitch without saying the "F" word; she lost.

We spent at least 75 minutes working the roped descent.  Finally, I shot down the final crack carrying two packs, and Jan downclimbed the steep with my support from below.  Once down the hard part, it was straightforward to make the rest of the way to the river, with a swim and back to camp about 6.  Dave's bunch had returned long before, finishing the day with some practice climbing near camp.

Wednesday May 31, 8:30 AM:

Brothers Petey and Reid Priedhorsky on the slickrock,
along the shortcut to Boulder Creek.

2006 is a drier year than 2005.  The Escalante River, which was too frightening to cross last year, is an easy wade - our guides said it was running 15 cfs.  Yesterday we hiked to the Liston tanks for a swim, and found our favorite water hole still pleasant, but about a foot and a half lower than last year.

We left camp at 9:30 and took the trail out to the west, over the divide to Boulder Creek.  We crossed the creek and got out the rope for an easy scramble into the dry north-striking valley, then to the tanks, along the same route as a year previous.  Everyone took a dip, although not too long because the water was cool, but Petey set the endurance record.  From there we went west downstream along the drainage from the tanks, passing a pothole at least 12 feet deep - a prison for anyone who fell into it.  This route took us to the bottom of the Boulder narrows, where I tried fishing, but had just one bite.  Hiking farther downstream, I saw one big trout feeding and another jumping out of the water, along with many large carp.  We split the group when I started fishing, most going on while I fished for a few minutes.  On the way downstream, I had to backtrack 25 minutes to retrieve a forgotten sandal, left behind when I pulled out the rope to help Melissa (by the time it was out, she decided that she could climb the ramp herself).  Melissa, Petey, and I cut out the last oxbow, and found the rest of the group waiting at the top of our exit route.  We crossed below the end of the ridge north of camp, and arrived back at our cave a little after 6 PM.  We were tired but mellow in camp, and the Scudders surprised us with steaks, shrimp, and Ben & Jerry's for dessert, kept cold for 3 days with dry ice.

Thursday June 1, 9:00 AM:

We went over several chockstone obstacles, but this one
required passage through a tunnel underneath.
 Jackie emerging from the bowels of the Earth.


Kathleen, Marilyn, and Jackie hiking upstream back to camp, after exploring the complex terrain downstream  -  shortly before Jackie fell in.

Yesterday's story was the impossibility of the terrain. We left camp at 9:45 en route to the western section of cross-grained terrain, about 3 miles downriver.  The topo map showed a canyon with 600 feet of contours that disappeared into a single wall. We hiked downstream with Reid in the lead, and climbed out of the river canyon at our inbound trail, then contoured along the slickrock, lunching in the shade of a cliff under an arch.  Just after a discussion about splitting the group in two based on speed, we ran into a huge slot - perhaps 300 feet deep - that blocked our way to the crisscross terrain.  Reid found a way down a friction ramp to the stream, and we were able to enter the slot at river level.  It was hot inside, with the sun shining directly in, and our mouths tasted of something bitter in the dust or plants, but we had one adventure after another as we stemmed up chock stone barriers, with one climb emerging from a hole in the ground.  Hot and gritty, we jumped into the river at a bend below the slot, and soon cooled off, then heated up gain as we retraced our overland trek.  At the stream we met Grant of Escalante Canyon Outfitters (ecohike.com), and talked about the canyons and their revival. Back to camp by 6:30, after wading up the warm river, entertained by Jackie's fall therein.  After dinner Reid filled a coke bottle with dry ice. It exploded just when everyone was settling down for bed.  Dennis was closest to ground zero, and originally claimed that he could not feel anything below his waist.  Of course he was unharmed, as were all. In the morning, we heard the call of a female turkey on the cliff lip above camp, looking for a chick that had fallen off.  Petey and Melissa carried the chick back up top, their rescue for the day.

Friday June 2, 8:00 AM:

The heat is one - any time spent out of the river gets uncomfortably warm.  But a hike downstream in the river was cool and comfortable. We left camp at 10 AM to hike upstream to Bowington Canyon.  We passed a natural air conditioner on the way up - a slot that poured cool air out of the bottom along the trail.  Otherwise we kept cool by regularly throwing ourselves in the stream.  At the mouth of Bowington we found a pictograph panel that marked the way, then hiked upcanyon past pools (nothing spectacular) and had lunch in a nice grassy, cattail area.  We had an incident that reminded us of the need to keep radio conversations to emergencies and information only - jokes and misinformation are not easily handled over that medium.

The arch was indeed impressed, and most of us climbed up under.  Reid and Kimberly headed up to the top and a pictograph panel, not especially impressive, marked on the map.  The rest of us hiked downstream, more or less all the way in the river, with an interlude in a deep pool that Petey loved. Kathleen had cooked and dried a hamburger chili dinner.

Saturday June 3, 5:00 PM:

We are back at Boulder Mountain Lodge, the wilderness sadly behind us.  Today was a day to pack and head out.  We sent Dave, Kimberly, Kathleen, and Dennis to hike the upper route and pick up the cars, while our other 8 hiked upstream 4 miles along the Escalante to the highway and the other cars.  We did not wait to load the llamas, although we packed the panniers, which cause Brian a little upset.  With a long lunch break and swim, we left camp at 11:10 and arrived at the cars by 2:30, reaching the lodge almost the same time as the upper trail gang.  Along the way we sang Happy Birthday to Marilyn, because it was her day.

Yesterday, Friday, we sent Reid on his way back to Las Vegas and Minneapolis.  Of the 12 of us remaining, 3 stayed in camp for a rest day, while the rest hiked the shortcut to Boulder Creek, arriving at the creek about noon.  They took until 3 PM to hike down the Escalante River and back to camp, with a lunch break at a pool that was deeper than Elizabeth's head.  Hiking in lower Boulder Creek was very bouldery (surprise!) It was too hot for any slickrock shortcuts.

I broke loose from the party when I arrived at the creek and saw a couple of nice trout swim by, and fished up the stream until about 4 PM.  There were many more carp in the stream than trout, but I caught 4 trout on a dry fly, including a 16-incher.  It took 30 minutes to hike downstream to the point on the creek where Melissa, Petey, and I left the creek a couple days before, then 45 minutes over the top to camp, cooled by jumping into the creek with all my clothes on before setting out.  This was our last evening in camp, and I entertained by reading from a book on the history of the Western mountain men.

Dinner the last night was at Hell's Backbone Grill, wonderful and a little pricey as usual.

Important facts:

We found that a warmup hike the weekend before the trip was very useful in reminding us of warm weather hiking - up to 3 liters per day needed, testing new boots and gear, giving us some practice with the rope, and reacquainting the group.  We hiked on Sunday May 21 up Kitchen Mesa at Ghost Ranch.

This is about as late in the season as one would like to hike the Escalante River.  The deer flies were reputed to arrive in a week or two as we were leaving.

A llama from Red Rock 'n Llamas can carry 80 pounds, 6-7 pounds of which are the empty panniers.

One of our cars drove to Bullfrog to take the ferry to Hall's Crossing.  The drive takes 2 hours, and it pays to check the ferry hours by calling (435) 684-3088 - the ferry was scheduled to close for maintenance the next day.

For 13 people and 6 dinners, we used about 1 1/2 gallons of Coleman fuel in our two two-burner stoves.  We could save weight by taking only two tables, 3 gravity water filters (even 2 might be OK), and 1 two-burner stove with a second backpacking stove, using the same fuel, as a backup.

Our packers, Red Rock 'n Llamas, used 14 llamas to get our gear in and out, for a charge of $2,278 plus tip. They are an excellent group and can be reached at www.redrocknllamas.com.

We stayed at the Boulder Mountain Lodge, which is lovely with views of a wetlands and the Boulder scenery, but a little pricey - up to $180 with tax for the two-bedroom suite.  They can be reached at http://www.boulder-utah.com/.  Their on-site restaurant, Hell's Backbone Grill, is top-notch.  Next door the Burr Trail Grill runs about half the price, and offers excellent food if not the gourmet fare of Hell's Backbone.

Another report of this trip, by Reid Priedhorsky, can be found here.


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