August 18, 2010

The List

At risk of great humiliation I post this story! What the hell, I'm unabashed.
It seems to me that with experience and routine comes an unfortunate time of complacency. Complacency, almost always, breeds mishap. When this mishap strikes it's ironic that the same experience can, but not always, keep the mishap from becoming disaster.
We loaded the truck in Price the day before and drove out to Sandwash Ranger Station, following the routine of nearly every week during the summer for the past several years. Theres a gear checklist hanging on the fridge in the boatshed that I meticulously created to try to avoid forgetting something important in town.
Despite the list, it seems somebody always forgets to bring something; paper towels for the kitchen box, a can opener, a chair, a sleeping pad, etc. Usually with a little creativity these mishaps can easily be overcome. I was once distraught about having forgotten a chair. I used my sleeping pad that trip as a backpacker style chair, which I folded and leaned against a tree or rock, making a quite comfortable spot to sit for hours at a time. Once I even forgot tent stakes and poles, making my tent pretty much useless. I was lucky it didn't rain that trip. I created the above-mentioned list after forgetting to bring coffee on a trip a couple years ago. I was so pissed-off at myself! We were camped at the ICP island on a May trip, first one of the season. I woke the first morning and set about making coffee. After putting water on the stove I discovered, much to my astonishment, that the coffee simply wasn't on the boat, at all. Luckily for me I was the only coffee drinker of this particular trip.
Anyone that knows the story of the John Wesley Powell Expedition knows how terribly impoverished the men were upon exiting the Grand Wash Cliffs. The men were blackened by the sun, they'd been eating moldy flour for weeks, they had not even the shelter of clothing at night but, by god, they had coffee in the morning. I'm convinced that if not for this coffee the men of Powells Colorado River Exploring Expedition would have surely perished.
August 11th; my fourth ranger patrol trip of the season on the Green River through Desolation Canyon in eastern Utah. There is always a little anxiety before a solo trip because the smallest mishap could lead to ultimate disaster when there is no one else around to go for help. The level of anxiety before this trip was unlike what I've experienced on any of about 20 solo trips over the past nine years. I couldn't put my finger on it, but I knew something wasn't the way it should be. Nevertheless, I needed to get moving downriver so I pushed the patrol boat into the current about 3pm.
I rowed for an hour or so, with no shirt on, enjoying the windless calm of the afternoon and the warm sun. As I let my mind settle into the unique place that it goes during a solo trip, I felt the anxiety fall away. I decided I better cover some miles before dark so I fired up the outboard Honda. I moved downstream at about half-throttle thinking that I should be wearing my life jacket while running the outboard. I didn't quite finish that thought when I hit the kill button on the motor realizing that I'd forgotten my lifejacket in Price. I thought about motoring back upstream, and even tried it for a few minutes, to get a spare life jacket out of the ranger station. After a few minutes I realized that the 5hp outboard would move the boat at about half the speed that I could walk, besides it was illegal to motor upstream. I found a spot to tie the boat, where I felt good about being able to find it in the dark, roughly across the river from Duches Hole. It had rained earlier in the afternoon and the tamarisk bushes were still wet and swarming with mosquitoes. I didn't bring any bug spray so I got into my rain gear for mosquito protection. I forced myself to sit still on the boat while I collected my thoughts, and went over my plan. I thought about the old saying "mishap breeds disaster" and I knew I needed to be very careful so I didn't further exacerbate the situation. I would walk back upstream behind the Serengeti Plain campsite where I could pickup an old two track road. The road comes off of Horse Bench, fords Ninemile Creek, heads False Ninemile, and connects with the Sandwash Airstrip. I knew this route was necessary to go around the cliffs upstream of Ninemile and that it'd put me on the benches above the river and away from the mosquitoes. I knew I'd return from Sandwash under the darkness of a new moon, but figured it wasn't a big deal since my route followed a road. I guessed the route to be about 12 miles round-trip.
I filled my water jug, slung it over my shoulder with a boat strap, and started walking about 4:30. I was sweating bad in my rain gear before I was even off the boat. The mud in the Serengeti Plain saltgrass stuck to my shoes and made my feet heavy. I thought about all the hiking I'd been doing this year and how it had put me in pretty good physical condition for such a hike. I picked up the road and followed it past the old Nutter ranch where I stopped to check out all the now historic brands and signatures on the inside of the cabin. I crossed the creek and by the time I started up the dugway out of Ninemile bottom I had already passed about 40 piles of bear scat, since I left the boat. I thought how exciting that would be to walk back through in the dark. Once I got above the riparian bottom and out of the vegetation I left the mosquitoes behind, and was finally able to get out of my raingear to such a welcome relief. I continued to pass bear sign as I proceeded up the road to the airstrip. I made it to the ranger station about 7:30pm. I filled my water jug, grabbed the spare lifejacket, and a zip-loc of mixed nuts and headed back out before the sweat dried. Back at the airstrip I took another break to eat some salty nuts. I sat on the rim and watched the last light of the sunset on the hills across the river give way to night. As I started down from the airstrip I memorized the route thinking of anything that would trip me up on the way back. When I got back into Ninemile bottom it was dark and the mosquitoes were really going off. It actually felt good to get back into my raingear and out of the bugs. As I passed through the thickets of greasewood and tamarisk I slapped on my water jug and shouted so I wouldn't surprise a bear. Soon the road fizzled out and I was again crossing the Serengeti Plain, only this time in complete darkness. The distinct musty smell of the Plain made me smile at the wildness of the landscape. I made it back to the boat with the ease I had planned for when I tied the boat where I did. I un-tied from the tammies and pushed the boat out trying to hurry and get away from the swarming mosquitoes.
I was hoping to relax and row, free from the bugs for a while, and watch the stars. The cussed bugs followed me out onto the river so I started the outboard and followed the river channel as I remembered it. The darkness was intense making driving the boat very slow and difficult. I was planning on making it to the big mid-river beach at mile 89 to camp because I knew it was likely to be bug-free, and it would be in the shade in the morning so I could laze around. I made it to mile 89 around midnight without running into the riverbank, or a sandbar. Much to my relief the bugs were gone when I started unloading. I set up everything to accommodate some serious relaxation; chair, beverage, chips, salsa, and dry clothes. I oriented my chair to be able to see the largest swath of sky, as the stars were brilliant in the moonless sky. As if the physical act of sitting on my ass wasn't enough of a pleasure, I was treated with a shooting star that thoroughly ripped the sky in half! I then remembered that the persius meteor shower was occurring. I proceeded to drink my beverage and eat my snacks as the meteor shower displayed at least 50 shooting stars over the hour or so that I watched.
When I arrived at Three Canyon, four days later, I saw Scott Mosiman and another Moki-Mac guide. I saw no one else the remainder of the trip. I wouldn't have wanted to be on that trip without a life jacket. Truly a trip to remember, a lesson well learned, and thankful that an honest mishap didn't turn into the ultimate disaster.

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