Adventure #7: Narrow Places

*This is Adventure #7 in my Top 10 Adventures (of the past year and a half) Countdown* This is a long one, so make yourself comfortable or just skip to the pictures.

Where’s the most remote place you’ve been? The place farthest from other people, farthest from a town, farthest from help (should you need it)? What places have you been to where few people have walked before you? Do you steer clear of such places, or do you seek them out?

I remember the first time I went canyoneering. It wasn’t a technical canyon (no ropes necessary), and I was with two other people (Mike and our friend Josh). I really had no idea what to expect. Our plan was to take two days to hike and swim our way through Wet Beaver Canyon. We brought way too much stuff, wore inappropriate shoes and clothing, and took a full day longer than planned. Toward sunset on the third day (a day after I thought we’d be home), I lost my companions. It was then I realized I did not have a map and did not know where I was going. I was tired, hungry, frustrated, and a bit panicky. Who knew where I was besides Mike and Josh? What if one or both of them were hurt? What if I had to spend another unplanned night in the wilderness? What if I unknowingly passed them and missed my exit?

After nearly losing it and calling (okay, screaming) their names for a while, I finally found Josh. A while later we caught up to Mike, and just as it was getting dark, we found our exit and made our way back to the car. By then my panic had vanished, and I was thrilled with our “successful” completion of the trip. All the fear of potential danger left me as I thought of the great stories I could tell about the trip. I was hooked.

Josh and I swimming a section of Wet Beaver. We were totally unprepared for how cold the water would be, but it was more bearable in the afternoon sun than at 7:00 am.

Josh and I swimming a section of Wet Beaver. We were totally unprepared for how cold the water would be, but it was more bearable in the afternoon sun than at 7:00 am.

After years of canyoneering (and completing far more technical canyons than Wet Beaver), the thrill of it has only deepened. I’m far more prepared these days than I was when I first began. I have better gear, stronger rappelling skills, significant survival skills, and Wilderness First Responder training. That’s not to say I never feel a ghost of fear, but I’m confident that I’m well-equipped to handle most situations.

I’m passionate about canyoneering. I love it. It’s not as technically difficult as the rock climbing that many of my friends do (and that I only rarely do anymore), but I think it’s more adventurous. It’s more exploratory. It doesn’t require the same physical strength, but it does required a more varied skill set.

What I love best is the remoteness of a good canyon — the sense of alone-ness, of on-your-own-ness. Even if you’re not that far from civilization distance-wise, you’re usually pretty far in terms of rescue time. A couple of miles in the wilderness, in a technical canyon, is very far indeed. Just because you can see the glow of a city or the lights from a highway in the distance doesn’t mean you could make it there in a day. You do see these signs of life sometimes, but more often than not you see few signs of other humans. At a large rappel there may be some weathered webbing and a rap-ring, but that’s only if there have been no flash floods, rodents, or rock falls since the last group went through. You must be alert, cautious, and self-sufficient. You must anticipate problems and be prepared. It’s this self-reliance that I love so much. It makes me feel tough, rugged, capable.

Also, once you’re in a canyon and you’ve pulled your rope from the first rappel, there’s no going back. Once you’re in, you’re committed. You have to see it through; you have to move forward. This is another thing I love about canyoneering. Whatever obstacles appear before you, you have to surmount them. Looking back will get you nowhere.

Several canyoneering trips have made my Top 1o Adventures list; in fact, there are a couple in my top 5. This post, Adventure #7, is a catch-all multi-post. All the canyons that were great but not great enough to warrant their own posts appear here (or at least all of the ones that I can remember doing in the past year and a half). These aren’t the most adventurous, dangerous, and remote canyons, but (to varying degrees) they represent wild places that few people have walked. I’m lucky to have seen and experienced each one.

The Jug

I might as well start with the least difficult, most trafficked canyon on my list. I’ve been to the Jug so many times that I’ve lost count. I think it’s somewhere around 8. Most canyons Mike and I have done, we’ve only done once or twice. We’d usually rather explore a new canyon than revisit one we’ve already seen. The Jug is an exception. With its smooth granite, cool water, and easy approach, it’s a great introduction to canyoneering. Those who don’t know the narrow desert canyons are often shocked by the oasis of sorts the Jug presents. There’s so much water hidden away between the hot, dry cliffs! We love to take beginners to this spot, and then we entice them with even more adventure.

Though it requires a 2.5 hour drive from Phoenix with about 15 miles of dirt road, the Jug is no secret. It may be remote in terms of distance to the nearest town, but it’s popular with anyone looking for a wet and wild foray into the desert. With only one optional rappel (the other option is to edge your way out onto a thin ledge and jump 20 feet into a pool), the Jug does not require much skill to navigate. There’s a hot hour-long hike in on an old jeep road, but then there are pools of cool water between high, smooth walls. You can swim, splash, and slide your way through this awesome canyon. The conditions vary a lot depending on the time of year and amount of recent rainfall.

In the past year and a half we went to the Jug 2 (maybe 3) times. Fall 2012 was fun, and we had a big group. Spring 2013 was probably the best Jug trip I’ve been on, though, because the water levels were higher than ever. This turned some trickling waterfalls into mad gushes and ramped-up the adventure. Although I always like to explore more technical and difficult canyons, I’m sure we’ll be back to the Jug again. If you’ve never done canyoneering and you’d like to try it, ask me to take you to the Jug sometime, preferably around April or maybe October. It’s easy enough and short enough that it’s suitable for most fitness levels.

I couldn’t find any pictures from our last two trips to the Jug. On our Spring 2013 trip, Mike and I forgot the memory card for our camera, and Jat, who was taking pictures for the whole group, dropped his in the water. I don’t know why I couldn’t find pictures from our fall trip. If you’d like to see some pics, though, you can visit my earlier posts “Return to the Jug” or “The Jug.” We’ve gotten lazy about photos since we’ve been so many times.

Headdress Canyon

Headdress is another canyon we completed with a medium-sized group in Spring 2013. Located mere yards away from Tortilla Flats, my favorite little town in the Superstitions, this canyon is not terribly remote either. As I mentioned before, most canyons can be considered remote in terms of search-and-rescue times, but this one is closer than most to a town. As with most canyons, we had to hike up before descending, and the winds at the top of our hike were staggering. The canyon walls blocked most of the gusts once we dropped a few hundred feet, though. Headdress was a simple canyon with only a few short rappels, but we had a good time. After a leisurely half day in the canyon, we ate a meal and topped it of with Prickly Pear ice cream at Tortilla Flats.

Here’s a slideshow of that adventure:

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And a video:

Double Play Canyon

Double Play is not one of my favorite canyons, but it was still an adventure. One of the reasons I didn’t care for it was its long approach. We (a small group of 4) had a couple of miles of uphill hiking along a trail, followed by another long stretch of bush-whacking before we ever got to the canyon. Once we were in it, it was a lot nicer, though. There were several short rappels, some pools to wade through, and very pretty rocks. The rocks were definitely the best part.

Here’s a slideshow from that trip:

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Quartz Canyon

Quartz was another canyon located just outside of Tortilla Flats. We parked our car in the lot behind the ice cream shop and hiked up from there. This time it was a group of three: me, Mike, and Pradeep. The hike involved a lot of bush-whacking and no trails whatsoever. We had to navigate around many cactus very carefully. Pradeep wasn’t convinced we were going the right way for a long time, but we were, and we found the canyon eventually. Mike usually pre-loads GPS data points  ahead of time so that we can at least find the canyons. Once you’re in a canyon the GPS doesn’t usually work as well, but that’s not a big deal since there’s really only one way to go: down. There wasn’t anything particularly memorable about the canyon, but it had several fun rappels (including one 100-foot and one 120-foot rappel). We got out just in time to have Prickly Pear ice cream before the store closed.

This is the slideshow for Quartz Canyon. All pictures were shot with Mike’s GoPro helmet cam since this was shortly after our good point-and-shoot was stolen in our break-in.

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Sundance Canyon

Sundance  is a really neat canyon in the West Clear Creek area. Though it’s short distance-wise, it’s one of the more dramatic canyons, mostly because of the 180-foot rappel at the end. Since West Clear Creek is in central AZ, the landscape is more forest-y than desert-y. We (just Mike and I on this one) used downed trees to avoid more than one chilly pool in this canyon. I was a little disconcerted by a small memorial (a cross and some fake flowers) at the entrance to this canyon. Mike looked into it later and learned that a fifteen-year-old boy scout had unexpectedly collapsed and died there in 2009. It wasn’t a canyoneering accident but a medical issue of some sort. Nevertheless, it was sad to see the memorial in such a remote area. We carried on and completed several smaller rappels before we got to the giant 180-foot drop. The first 50 feet or so were up against the wall, but the last 130 feet were all free-hanging. It made for a very dramatic canyon climax. After that, we hiked through West Clear Creek for a short distance to our exit.

Here is a slideshow of that trip:

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Zig-Zag Canyon

Zig-Zag hardly qualifies as a canyon since the actual canyoneering section is only about a quarter to a half a mile long (if I remember correctly). Mostly, it’s just a really cool, HUGE rappel. This one’s near Tortilla Flats in the Superstition Mountains, too. The drop from the edge of the canyon to Fish Creek road is 500 feet. Since we don’t have 1000 feet of rope, we did the 500-foot rappel in 4 smaller sections. Each of those was sizable, however. The raps were pretty cool because there were awesome views. There were also lots of curious spectators at the bottom. Rarely is canyoneering so public, but I like making a dramatic entrance as much as the next girl, so it was fun to see the gawkers for a change. Given proximity to Tortilla Flats, we stopped for Prickly Pear ice cream before heading home. 🙂

No photos for this one; just a video:

Soap Creek Canyon

Mike and I visited Soap Creek Canyon on our way to Iowa in Summer 2012. Soap Creek descends from the Vermillion Cliffs toward the Colorado River (and is part of Grand Canyon NP). We parked at the Cliff Dwellers site, which I covered in an earlier post. From there we descended into possibly the muddiest canyon ever. There were several fun rappels and then lots and lots of muddy clay. It was very slippery to walk on and through, and it just caked our boots. In some spots the mud was dried and flaky, which made it fun to walk on, but those spots were rare. We fought our way through this hot, dirty canyon and then piled all our muddy stuff in the car for the remaining hours and hours of driving ahead of us. We finally cleaned our gear at my sister’s house a few days later. By then it was nice and ripe.

Here’s the slideshow:

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Dam Canyon

Dam Canyon was probably the craziest of these trips since it was the first time we used inflatable rafts to reach a canyoneering destination. Mike and I and 3 friends drove out to Canyon Lake on a Tuesday and immediately began inflating our rafts (which are really designed as pool toys). We launched them into choppy waters and struggled to row them approximately one mile across the lake. With some difficulty, we eventually reached our destination near the Canyon Lake Dam. I had to hop out and find a bush quickly since the boating had taken so long and I was sitting in a puddle of water (splashed in) for most of the time. As soon as I pulled down my pants, a helicopter came out of nowhere and started circling overhead. Poor timing.

Anyway, once we secured the boats, we started a bush-whack up a steep, cactus-filled slope. We had more than one Teddy Bear Cholla incident on the way. Those cactus may look hug-able, but they’re anything but! We had great views from at the top before we started working our way into the canyon itself.

Not only was the approach one of our most dramatic, but the canyon itself was pretty cool. We had some fun raps, some tricky pool-avoidance routes, some interesting rappel anchors, and one 180-foot rappel. We finished the canyon around dusk and quickly launched our boats. Though we ended up rowing half the lake in the dark, the water was much calmer, and it was a very pleasant return trip.

This really was one of my favorite trips, and in a less-eventful year and a half it might have made the top 10 on its own merits. However, with six more awesome adventures to come, it just couldn’t pull its weight for a solo top spot. That’s good news for you, though, since it means there’s more excitement to come!

Here is the Dam Canyon slideshow. It’s a good one!

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Mike also went on a few canyoneering trips without me, but you’d have to ask him about those.

If you’ve made it this far into my post, you probably have a better understanding of why I love canyoneering so much. It’s always an adventure! I value the natural beauty, the physical challenges, the company of my fellow adventurers, and the escape. I came across the following Paulo Coelho quote recently, and I think it sums up why I do these crazy things quite well:

“If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine; it is lethal.”

If you have the time after already spending so much reading my blog, leave me a quick reply about your adventures. Where is the most remote place you’ve ever been? Do you seek out such places, as I do, or does alone-ness have little appeal for you?

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