Narrow Escapes in The Southwest
Sunday, March 19, 2006
My tale of canyoneering in southern Utah begins in Northern Virginia. In my bathtub, to be exact.
My daughter still laughs when she remembers finding me there one day in July, standing in 10 inches of water and 40 pounds of ice. I wanted to know what it was like to wade in 50-degree water, because that's what I planned to do a few months later in several Southwest canyons. And I wanted to see what combination of socks, shoes and pants would keep me driest and warmest.
So, when I set out for Utah in October, I carried with me the best my local outfitter had to offer -- waterproof neoprene socks, water shoes with special slip-resistant treads and double-taped waterproof pants -- confident that I was prepared for anything the rivers could throw at me. Provided it wasn't more than waist-deep.
Spring and fall are the best times to go canyoneering in the Southwest. People do it year-round, but in winter you'll wade in truly frigid water and in summer you'll bake in triple-digit air temperatures. Also in summer, you'll compete for road space and lodgings, and the danger of flash floods is greatest.
Dividing eight days among Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and an area along the Utah-Arizona border that includes the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, I aimed to try my hand -- and feet -- at "canyoneering," hiking along streambeds in narrow canyons. I planned to make my debut in a stunning section of the Virgin River called the Zion Narrows, one of the premier canyoneering locales in the United States.
The idea held great appeal because while millions of people go to the places I would visit, only the tiniest fraction are willing to get their feet wet. I knew I'd have plenty of solitude.
And I'd always wanted to photograph the innards of those special canyons, with their soaring red cliffs throwing down warm reflected sunlight onto pools and riffles below, little seasonal waterfalls, mysterious unnamed side canyons, ferns and flowering plants clinging to dripping rock walls, and ancient Anasazi drawings.
Against those attractions stood some difficulties and dangers, I knew -- hypothermia, injuries from falls, deadly flash floods that periodically and unpredictably flush the narrow canyons.
Into the Narrows
The Zion Narrows begins at the end of the one-mile Riverside Walk in Zion National Park. From there to a point some 16 miles upstream, the river is forced into a spectacular gorge, as narrow as 20 feet and as deep as 2,000 feet. There are dry, rocky patches along the shore here and there where the river channel widens, but hiking the Narrows essentially means wading the river.
Unfortunately it had rained hard the night before I visited, and when I got there the river was running high and was opaque from silt run-off. Hiking among the submerged, algae-covered rocks has been compared to walking on greased bowling balls, and I figured if I was going to do that, I should at least be able to see them. What to do?
The answer soon came in the form of two small mule deer, making their way slowly down the river and out of the mouth of the Narrows. I noted their spindly little legs, and I saw they weren't wearing neoprene socks. They seemed utterly untroubled by bowling balls, hypothermia, flash floods or anything else. I plunged in.
All went well for about a half-mile. I worked my way slowly up the Narrows, probing the murky water in front of me with a walking stick and stopping frequently to photograph the canyon.