THE (AHEM, COUGH) PLAN.
A year ago we’d hatched a grand plan to ride the frozen ice of a certain wild, remote, and tragically dewatered western river. We wanted to ride this particular canyon in it’s ephemeral frozen state simply because after 4 years of waiting to float it when liquid, the liquid had yet to come.
Whether it’s Al Gore’s fault is debatable, but a very rare and very warm early winter kept the ice from coming too. End result? Our river had too much water to ride, but not enough to float. Classic first-world conundrum.
So we ended up compromising with an omniterrain route that scratched all of our particular itches for adventure, engaging scenery, landscapes devoid of humans, and dark starry skies under which to camp. And it was, truly, a great trip.
But once an idea has been hatched that idea doesn’t simply unhatch itself – it needs to be followed through on. When the coldest, darkest days of 2015 rolled around, we dug out warm bags, studded our tires, packed a few meals, and slid fresh batteries into headlamps.
Alas, the eve of departure arrived and with it some timely, if disappointing, intel: The river of sorrows was living up to it’s name, and had still not zipped up tight enough to ride. The annual window of strong cold on the eastern edge of the Colorado Plateau can typically be counted in weeks, and on the fingers of one hand. We’d had one too-short week of single digit nights leading up to this day, but the forecast for the following week already spoke of highs in the 40’s. Warm enough that no more ice was going to form. Warm enough that if we wanted to ride a river of ice, we needed to find a different one, and do it now.
Greg, Doom and I bandied ideas back and forth and even did some internet sleuthing of weather stations and satellite imagery. There was simply no way (hallelujah) to know for sure without getting out and exploring, but our best guess was that the Dirty Devil just might be frozen enough to ride between Poison Springs Rd. and (more or less) Hite Crossing. Besides, I rationalized, even if it ain’t frozen it’s rarely more than ankle deep. Right?
THE DOING OF IT.
Thus we finally set on a plan and thus we ended up caravanning out to our meeting spot. Jeny, Greg and I came from the north, passing through Hanksville and crossing the Dirty D ~40 miles upstream of our planned ‘put in’. And…
…there was water. A lot of it, flowing both over and under the shore fast ice. Ever the optimist, I told myself that way up here, out in the open, it was only flowing where the sun beat down on the ice all day. But deep down where we were headed, with canyon walls soaring hundreds of feet straight out of the river? It was going to be frozen there, for sure. Had to be.
And that’s the mantra I repeated to myself for the next 40 miles of highway, until we pulled off and waited for Doom to arrive from the south. The legend himself rolled up moments later in a cloud of vaporized engine oil and transmission fluid (both of which are welcome — they help to smother theeau de doom), bearing bad news: The Dirty D was flowing healthily out of the bottom end of the canyon — our hoped-for egress.
Crap. Snookered again.
As a group we tossed about ideas, and ultimately decided on an amended itinerary that included riding to and from the river, camping somewhere within it’s influence, and spending the lion’s share of a day wandering the hallowed halls of Happy Canyon.
But first we had to get there.
Poison Springs road starts out as a graded gravel affair wending eastward away from the Henry Mountains and down toward the canyon carved by the Dirty D. It quickly devolves into wash bashing and thrashing, and then the spring dumps onto the road and things get really messy. Or, during this rare frozen week, really engaging, as the mishmash of rock, dirt, and ice opens up lots of creative options for macro-level route-finding. No longer are you confined to just the roadbed — now the whole valley is your oyster, and even the lower bits of the walls are fair game too.
We poked and prodded and rolled and sessioned and eventually, hours later, popped out of the deep wash and onto a shelf overhanging the Dirty D. It isn’t until this overlook that you truly understand how vast the canyon country you’ve descended into can be. We followed a derelict mining track north past vast striated arrays of petrified wood and through enormous boulder gardens until darkness pulled us off of our bikes to suss out wood to feed a snow-melting fire, as well as protected-from-wind bivvies.
I rarely sleep well on my first night ‘out’, and this night was no different. Toss, turn, adjust something, then just lie there for awhile. A looming sentinel butte helped mark the progress of the moon’s shadow marching downward to our spot, then hours passed slowly, in and (mostly) out of sleep until the sky began to lighten to the east. Awake as I was, it was not enough to want to exit the bag in these chilly temps. I waited until direct sunlight popped over the rim and sprayed my bag directly before rousting to meet the day, and to find that Greg and Doom had already rekindled the fire.
You can’t live where we do and not know about Happy Canyon. I’ve wanted to explore it for years but it’s just not an easy place to get to. Even though we could see the mouth of the canyon from our camp, we still had 4+ miles of really rough riding to where we ditched the bikes, then a mile of scrambling down to river level, and finally The Ford.
Wading a slushy river is something everyone should experience, at least once. Because our bikes and camp were behind us, up on the rim, we’d do it twice.
Once in there the need for words more or less vanishes as your brain stem takes over.
Look. Touch. Absorb patterns of light and contrast. Admire textures and striations. Grunt. Repeat.
Often I found myself planted in place, unwilling and unable to move my feet. As though my brain had put a hold on further ambulation until *this* sensory data had at least been partially absorbed.
I wasn’t the only one.
Eventually we popped out of the narrows and into bright sunlight. The canyon hadn’t ended, it had merely gotten shallower. Sensing the lateness of the afternoon we decided to flip it and head back down — all except for Doom, whom continued up to scout the approach to a tower he aspires to climb. Greg, Jeny and I meandered back the way we’d come, savoring a different perspective on the place through which we’d just passed. Back to the river, back across, back to the rim, back on the bikes, back to camp at dark.
Better sleep made this night pass faster, but early blue skies quickly faded to scud. Spoiled as we are, it isn’t enough to just *be* here — we want warm, low-angle sun to create contrast on the stunning landscapes all around. We note aloud —before breakfast or coffee are even ready — that the day already feels warmer than the previous two. Beginning of the end of ice for this year, and it’s only January 2.
Egress is back — up — the way we came in. Our aim on the way down had been simply to make it to camp by dark, since much of the day had been eaten up in driving to the start point. Thus we hadn’t spent as much time as we could have dallying and exploring what is unique about the wash. Today we are up early and motivated, and as such we feel free to screw around poking our heads up side canyons, riding every out-of-the-way stretch of ice we can see, often testing our luck on ice that we know is way too thin to support us. More often than any of us can believe, we roll the dice and win. I get body slammed once when my front wheel dives through an air bubble, Jeny has a scare where she punches through the skim and finds not gravel bottom but quicksand. Doom is there to offer a helping hand.
While the rest of us are busy looking elsewhere, Jeny pokes her head up a side canyon and quickly insists that we all join her. In her own inimitable way she has already nicknamed it Cheetah Lane before the rest of us arrive to see. I had a fascinating and immensely satisfying grad-level geomorphology class back in ‘92 that explained in some detail the precise process by which solution pockets are created, but standing there under it’s influence my 45-year-old self is less interested in explaining away the magic than just marveling that it is. Sorry Dr. Winters.
Gradually the wash widens, the ice recedes, and we are left climbing a graded dirt road out into the sunlight. Back to the cars, gas in Hanksville, burgers at Rays, a long drive home in the dark, and we have welcomed 2016 into our corner of the world.
Please enjoy 6 minutes worth of moving pixels that tell a far more compelling story than the one I’ve just labored through above.
All stills and handheld video shot on a Canon 5d3. POV and underwater shots came from a GoPro Session.
For more stories from bike, head to his website Lacemine29.com