Letters from the Desert
from Steve Allen

Dear ones all,

It is hard to believe that this canyon country craziness started five years ago. What was to be a one year hiatus away from the real world of work has turned into a lifestyle that has become rewarding, challenging, and, most importantly, fun. Canyoneering: The San Rafael Swell is in its second printing and has seen some critical acclaim. Classic Canyon Country Loop Hikes is now at the University of Utah Press and, barring unforeseen troubles, will be on the shelves by October, 1994. Work on several new projects continues apace.

There were so many great trips this past year—but, as usual, a couple stand out.

—  Sleeping with Sheep  —

While I was setting up camp on the rim of Twilight Canyon one evening in late April, a full–curl big horn sheep wandered up to the opposite rim of the canyon, which was perhaps twenty–five yards away. I stopped working, sat down, and watched the sheep browse on the scarce vegetation. It would pause every now and again to stare at me then return to eating. As night fell I was surprised that the sheep didn’t leave and was startled to see it in the same place the next morning. Rutting season for sheep is in the fall. During that time they join with groups of ewes, do their duty, then split off from the heard and lead a solitary lifestyle until the next fall. Perhaps this lonely big horn was as enchanted by me as I was by it!!

While finishing breakfast I watched my new friend as he slowly walked to the edge of the 400–foot–deep canyon. Then without moments hesitation, the ram leaped off the rim into the abyss below. The canyon walls were nearly vertical with only the occasional thin ledge to break its otherwise flat plane. Astonished, I scrambled to the edge of the gorge in time to see the big horn literally fly down the wall, its body a grey blur against the red walls. Vector sensing hooves barely brushed the rock as it checked its speed on the tiny ledges during its downward plummet. On a larger ledge, it performed a lightning–fast pirouette with the grace of a Nureyev, our eyes locked for a split second, and then as if to say “watch this,” it hurdled down the final cliff, dropping at least seventy–five feet before hitting the slope at the bottom of the canyon. My fearless friend quickly disappeared from view. After closing up camp, I slung on my pack and headed down the same route. What had taken the big horn ten seconds to descend took me an hour or more.

—  The Great Chimney Cow Caper  —

It started as a simple request to the local BLM office three years ago. In 1990 a group of us had hiked into Chimney Canyon in the San Rafael Swell. While there, we noted that two cows were doing permanent damage to the fragile riparian areas in the upper recesses of the canyon. After discussing the matter with the local BLM officials, we determined that the cows were strays; the last allotment holder had failed to remove them during round–up several years before. The BLM wasn’t interested in removing the cows from this remote canyon. But, dog gonnit, Chimney Canyon is trashed by cows that shouldn’t have been there!

We started a letter writing campaign to try and force the BLM into action. Since I guide a couple of trips into Chimney Canyon every year, it was easy for me to monitor the cows and the damage they were doing. After every trip the BLM would get a passel of letters from my trip members demanding action, NOW!!! And respond the BLM did. They dispatched a helicopter to see if we were telling the truth. We were. They sent in a team of cowboys to try and find the cows, but they were stopped by the rough terrain. We suggested they hike into the canyon and shoot the cows, but that was against the rules. We demanded that the allotment holder go in and get the cows, but he had retired and wasn’t interested. Finally the BLM told me that if I could make the route into the canyon passable to horses, they would remove the cows. In September, Ginger, Joe, Sandy, Chip, and I hiked into the canyon and repaired an old trail that would allow horses to get above a short cliff and permit easy access to the cow. (One cow had died in the meantime.)

Now for the rest of the story. The BLM sent in seven cowboys on horses. They cowboys caught the cow and started to lead it out. Bu the cow, having lived a pastoral life in a lush canyon, was not used to moving any more than a couple of hundred yards a day. Partway out, it had a heart attack and died. At a cost of at least several thousand dollars and untold man–hours of work, this cowed turned out to be an expensive—and hopefully appreciated—meal for the local carnivores.

And so it goes in canyon country. I hope your year was a good one, and that the upcoming one is great! Keep me posted on your doings. Cards and letters are always appreciated.




© 1990–2007 Steve Allen