Floating Utah’s Escalante River: Getting Lost to be Found Again

Photograph by Eric Liefer
Photograph by Eric Liefer

The Grand Staircase of the Escalante, located deep within the tortured deserts of southern Utah, was one of the last places in the United States to be mapped—yet for good reason. It encompasses perhaps the most wild and remote section of the Great Colorado Plateau, strewn with a dizzying array of deep canyons and sheer-walled plateaus, effectively cutting off access to hundreds of miles of country by means of foot. It is common to not see another group for days or weeks at a time. Cross country travel? Nearly impossible. Reliable water sources? Few and far in between. Indeed, the Escalante has no comparison. It has no equal.

We gather at the river like so many times before. Our goal: float the 70-something miles of the Escalante to our takeout just above Lake Powell escaping via the infamous Crack In the Rock exit in ten days. Our boats: the poor man’s packraft, pool toys by definition, the finest chinese-made PVC chemically bonded together to create the Cadillac of the industry, appropriately named the Explorer 200, conveniently on sale at Big 5 Sporting Goods for $16.99. The plastic paddles of increasingly questionable quality (we already broke one) are sticking out of our packs in nearly every direction as we manage to fit ten days’ worth of food and gear into our packs. I neglect to lock the car once again, like it really matters anyway.

After six miles of hiking enough water is found to deploy our trusty steeds, as the river reaches a navigable depth near the confluence with Boulder Creek. Yet by may standards, the meager 20-cubic-feet per second classifies it as more of a creek than a proper river. We scrape along for the majority of the first three days, eventually reaching deeper waters as the river narrows and begins to pick up strength. Half our paddles have already broken and by day 4 we have been primarily reduced to canoe style maneuvering in an effort to conserve paddles. We are constantly getting stuck on rocks and bouncing off the banks as we dub it river pinball and begin to keep score as we occasionally take breaks to patch our boats. Carbon-copy camps are made along sandy beaches and under sweeping cottonwood trees, beneath a sky as clear as the river.

A successful run of the Escalante River is all about timing. And a bit of luck. Being one of the few remaining stretches of river in the Unites States not controlled by a dam, the season is short, if there even is one, and is solely dictated by snow-melt and runoff as navigable water levels peak for a few weeks out of the year and is highly unpredictable. Then there comes the logistical issues associated with spending ten days in perhaps the most isolated and unforgiving region in the United States. All these factors combine into a very elusive and seldom completed river run.

Things quickly change as we pass mile 41, just past the midway point of our trip as we reach Fence Canyon and the Golden Cathedral of Neon Canyon, both popular hikes that can be completed in a solid day. This landmark becomes quite obvious as we encounter several groups of nicely smelling, desert-drenched, broken English speaking tourists, all clad in shiny REI and other high-end apparel with their fancy cameras permanently hung around their necks. We haven’t seen another group for five days. They blankly stare at us, probably baffled by our tiny boats along with our weathered faces, as we look back at them with the same bewildered eyes. Not much to say really. We carry on our aimless float, and won’t see another soul for an additional five days.

We begin to take bets, wagers, and guesses as to where we are on the map as the terrain around us becoming increasingly difficult to contemplate. We avoid checking the GPS for a reason; for the only thing greater than being surrounded by such an immensity is getting completely lost in it. For when you lose yourself entirely all that is left is to be found once again. The Escalante winds and wanders for days, like a drunkard, as it becomes increasingly apparent he is lost as well. Once again this all seems far beyond the point as we join together in a seemingly aimless drift. We finally reach our exit just beyond Steven’s Arch, a daunting beacon on the horizon, an absolutely massive piece of rock, looming over 600 feet above the river spanning an impressive gap of nearly 200 feet. A proper yet bittersweet hoorah.

As we pack up our boats and finish off our route up and out of the canyon, the same sinking feeling comes over me as it always does. A reluctant return to reality. A distant longing to float forever. For just a brief moment in time we are not bound by a paycheck nor a schedule, thrown to the wind in favor of perhaps the ultimate freedom; the most sacred of rights. To wander aimlessly and search endlessly, the pursuit of absolutely nothing, getting lost for the sole purpose to be found all over again. Memories will soon fade into yet another blurred collection of photos and campfires, empty whiskey bottles and endless days beneath crimson sunsets. Yet before we head out I walk off to chat with the Escalante one final time, biding adieu to my companion, as he quickly carries on in his timeless journey. Like a river.

The path of a river is one of life’s greatest metaphors. The depth and beauty of it develops with age and time. The flow will rise and fall with the changing seasons. Its path twists and turns, its character calm or turbulent, its faces beautiful or tragic, its demeanor lazy or challenging. But the life of a river never stops, always on time and not a second sooner, exactly where it is supposed to be at any given moment, following its fate to its bitter end, often completely blind of its true path but nonetheless always seems to make it to exactly where it is supposed to be the whole time. But really, how could it go anywhere else?

Comments

  1. Danny
    Netherlands
    November 26, 2013, 12:52 pm

    Really? 10k shared. No single comment?

    Anyway.. Nice story. Great message.

  2. Jarka
    Slovakia
    November 26, 2013, 6:01 pm

    i liked the article, especially the next to last paragraph, and the info of the boats used was also veery interesting for me 🙂

  3. Eric Leifer
    November 27, 2013, 1:59 am

    Thank you very much to both of ya! And Jarka, it is quite amazing what those cheap little boats can do. 🙂

  4. James Holman
    Salt Lake City
    December 2, 2013, 5:16 pm

    Still on the bucket list….I may try it in April-May but Boulder Mountain is yet to see real snow this winter. My inflatable kayak is a little heavy for packing out Crack in the Wall, but trudging up that hill is never fun….You didn’t even stop to see the Golden Cathedral? You just floated by?

  5. Brian
    December 3, 2013, 12:10 pm

    Loved the article. I’ve made several trips to the canyons along the Escalate, and have always wanted to raft/kayak it. Are there any outfitters you’d recommend contacting?

  6. Nancy Timper
    United States
    December 3, 2013, 1:05 pm

    I’m a bit confused by the words, “our takeout just above Lake Powell escaping via the infamous Crack In the Rock “. Isn’t there quite a bit more river between the Crack and the Lake? I have not been down to the river round there, tho I’ve been to Crack in the Rock from above. Can you run any further than that, or do you consider it Lake Powell at that point?

    Just curious!

    Thanks for the cool article! Passing it on to paddler friends.

  7. Claire Johnson
    Boulder, Utah
    December 3, 2013, 3:37 pm

    My most favorite river in the world. Grew up on its banks. I think you captured the essence of it perfectly. That’s always how I feel when I leave it as well.

  8. AG
    SLC,UT
    December 3, 2013, 8:06 pm

    So jealous….

  9. Shayne
    California
    December 3, 2013, 8:51 pm

    Jealously… Sigh, its only vicarious living for most of us. Looks fulfilling on a soul level.

  10. Eric Leifer
    December 5, 2013, 2:49 pm

    Thanks again for all the replies!

    James: definitely stopped at the Golden Cathedral, should be illegal not to. Such an amazing spot.

    Brian: As far as outfiters, I dont know of any catering to the Escalante River itself. If you happen to be passing through Flagstaff, Arizona Ceiba Adventures is a great outfitter that rents out inflatable kayaks and all the accesories!

    Nancy: There is quite a bit of river below Coyote Gulch but logistically, it is too much of a mess to float out to Lake Powell. You would then either have to arrange a Lake Shuttle, push down to Hole in the Rock, or trudge back up the river to Coyote Gulch.

    The full album can be found on my website below:

    http://canyonchronicles.com/escalante-river

  11. craig orr
    United States
    March 23, 2015, 10:11 pm

    My brother and I have done the float 3 times. First time was lucky and we caught a great runoff maybe 20 years ago and was the best,we didn’t realize how brutal it can be in low water until the second attempt as we ran out of fresh water and almost food while post holing in mud and dragging the kayak towards the end when the river widens out and small streams finger out between sandbars. Floating the escalante is one of the hardest and most rewarding adventures I have ever done and as hard as it is not a spring goes by that I don’t think about doing it again.