Canyon Tales
The River Trip
by Marjorie McCloy

The gray light of dawn bumped me awake before I was ready; groggy, I tried to make sense of my surroundings. Sleeping bags, curved into esses on the desert ground, were scattered about — six women, trying to sleep off a 10–hour drive to the southern Utah trailhead.

We mumbled and groped our way through coffee, then started packing packs. Our agenda: Two days, 22 miles, first down the scenic narrows of the Chutes of Muddy Creek, then back via Chimney Canyon and the Pasture Track. There was a problem, though. Dawn was over, and the day was not looking brighter. Building to the east, oddly enough, was an ominous–looking bank of clouds. And they were heading our way.

We talked about the clouds; the sunny forecast; the seven miles of steep–walled narrows; the fact that Muddy Creek, which fills the narrows even in the driest weather, was probably high because of the rainier–than–average summer. We talked about the time and effort it had taken to prepare for the trip and drive the big drive, stuffing two days of adventure between a pair of work weeks. We scanned the sky, some sensing danger, urging restraint; others pushing hard to go anyway, clouds be damned, saying even if it rained there was bound to be a place to climb out.

A few drops spattered as we hiked the two miles to the mouth of the narrows. We crisscrossed the river–not–calf–deep, as the guidebook had suggested, but creeping to mid–thigh and higher. Not cold, at least. At the narrows we reassessed. Now we could see only a slice of the sky, but it looked better. Sun streamed down, a couple of clouds lumbered across our view, then scuttled out of sight. We hemmed, we hawed; finally, we entered the narrows.

The uncharacteristically deep water was instantly an issue. Averaging about one mile an hour, we labored downstream, occasionally post–holing deeply into the gravel riverbed. It took tremendous effort—and sometimes an assist—to pull out a leg that had been sucked into the gravel, and our packs, though waterproofed inside, were soggy and heavy from this ‘elevator–down’ routine. Now and then one of us would drop completely into a deep hole, and our packs would tip us face–first into the muddy river. Above, the narrow slit of sky grew bruised and alarming.

We were in our third hour—only four more hours of post–holing aqua–aerobics to go—when the thunder started. Why we started running through water we were struggling to hike through, I’ll never know. Diane, Linda and Margit were in the lead–out of sight around one bend or another. Where? How far? Could they see one another? Pushing hard, I could barely keep Cammy in my vision as she plunged downriver. My close friends Judy and Annie were out of sight behind me. Were they okay? Did they need help? My mind raced backward to be with them, but my body pushed senselessly forward. Finally I was reduced to one thought: Keep Cammy in sight. If she goes down, you’ll see her. If you go down, maybe, just maybe, she’ll hear you yell.

Now the noise was everywhere. Thunder echoed through the canyon, deafening in its immediacy. Lightning was striking the rim. Suddenly, Margit and Diane pushing coming toward us, heading up river against the current.

“Go back,” they yelled.

Back? To where? How? The strong current made upriver travel even slower, and we were smack in the middle of the narrows.

“The ledge.” They waved impatiently. “There’s a ledge about 100 yards upstream. We can climb up on it and at least be out of the river.”

Another bend and we saw Judy and Annie; one bend more and the narrow ledge, about 10 feet off the river and with a small spit of sand below, appeared. The rain was streaming down now, and the lightning strikes on the rim were only a minute or so apart.

“Oh my god, where’s Linda?” No matter how I counted, we were now six, and Linda was not among us. “She heard me say to turn around.”

Margit looked defensive.

“Well did she?” demanded Diane.

“I don’t know.”

Lame, lame, lame. What was wrong with us? We were seven experienced rock climbers and outdoorswomen, and yet we had gone into a long slot canyon in bad weather. We had panicked at the storm’s onset and allowed ourselves to become dangerously separated. And now one of us was missing. Linda—who led hard rock and ice, who expertly danced the tango, and who lectured in Spanish about the technicalities of her company’s telecommunications devices to South American engineers—was not on the god damn ledge.

Diane and I were setting off downstream to look for her when she rounded the bend, sans backpack. Immediately after hearing the turn–back command, Linda had stepped into water over her head—not just a hole, but a long stretch of river. She pulled her backpack off but couldn’t swim it upstream, so she had to let it go. Gone was her sleeping bag, dry clothes, a chunk of dinner and a bottle of wine, but at least she was safe. For now.

We huddled on the ledge, engulfed in thunder and lightning. Waterfalls roared off the rim around us. Somewhere deep inside me I realized the terrible beauty of what we were witnessing. Few see this, I knew. Even fewer see this and live. We prayed, each to her own private place of solace. No one spoke. And we watched the river rise.

Finally, it was over. The sun shone brightly again, but not on us, it had passed over our serving of sky and was headed toward the horizon. We were chilled. The river had risen about two feet – now it would be chest–deep, not thigh–deep, and we still had four miles of narrows to go. We considered tying ourselves into the ledge and spending the night but, as we pondered this, the river began to drop, imperceptibly at first, then quite quickly. Within an hour it was back at its pre–storm level, and we were in it. The sky was still unsettled, and thunder rumbled distantly. The sixty–million–dollar question: “Was it raining upstream?”

We were thirsty, too. We had drunk the water we carried, and the river was too turbid to filter—at least to filter enough for seven thirsty women in a hurry. And in a hurry we were. The trip had long since ceased to be a pleasant hike down a scenic canyon. We wanted out of those narrows, the sooner the better. As the sky once again turned the wrong shade of blue, we upped our pace to a strenuous 1.5–miles–per–hour, swimming, wading, crawling, and stumbling through the remainder of the narrows. Finally, they released their grip—the canyon opened and its walls gentled. Two more miles of slimy mud and countless river crossings later, we were at the mouth of Chimney Canyon, our exit and the start of the next day’s hike.

Back home with our maps, we had picked out a camp spot about a quarter mile up Chimney, where there’s a fresh water spring. But between us and the spring resided a 40–foot–high Class IV rock wall—a fun obstacle in dry conditions and in some state of being that wasn’t senseless exhaustion. Thirsty or not, the spring would have to wait. Instead, we opted for a knoll right at the confluence of Chimney and Muddy Creek. Thirty feet above the river and with no signs of previous flooding, it looked like home.

The miracle of being alive. It pressed upon us almost palpably. We considered celebrating with our remaining bottle of wine, but chose not to—too dehydrating, and filtering enough water for a pasta dinner and for drinking had been a huge and largely unsuccessful chore. Wet clothes and gear adorned shrubs and rocks. Exhausted beyond all reason, we crawled into our bags and fell asleep, just as the full moon ventured into the storm–tossed sky ...

“What the hell was that!?!” Annie and I slammed bolt upright in our bags, instantly alert from what sounded like two planes crashing overhead. We had been asleep maybe two hours. A roar engulfed us, drowning out reason, demanding explanation. Half naked, barefoot, we stumbled to the edge of our knoll. Maybe 15 feet below us—not the 30 it had been seconds earlier—the river roiled and screamed.

“Jesus,” breathed Annie.

Diane was up now too, shaking from the night air and the spectacle before us. “Oh my god.”

We perched on the edge, trying to gauge the violence below. When the moon was free of clouds, it showed us huge hydraulics and standing waves, tree limbs and boulders, foam and power. Then an instant later the moonlight was gone, snuffed to blackness, and only the roar suggested what was happening below. Moon in, moon out. Hugely raging river at our feet; now you see it, now you don’t. Either scenario was terrifying.

Now everyone was up. Muddy Creek had backwashed into Chimney Canyon and was pushing hard upstream, cutting off our exit, turning our knoll into an island. We eyed the one small tree, perched bravely in the center of the rise. Could seven women survive a night in that tree? Or more to the point, could the tree survive a night with us in it?

Options: Do nothing, but post guards and watch the river level. Climb the tree. Collect our gear and swim across the backwash up Chimney Canyon, which had no current, then climb the 40–foot rock wall.

Questions: Was another flood wave on its way? Would Chimney Canyon flood from above? Would fresh storms add to the critical condition?

Posting a guard seemed the best option. Some slept, dreaming what dreams? Some sat by the edge, watching the movies that ran through our heads, movies of grieving lovers, of children never to be seen again, of the awful beauty of nature and the senseless drive of ego.

Morning dawned clear, Chimney Canyon just a puddle and Muddy Creek a rough ride in a burlap stream. We stuffed our soggy gear and clothes into our packs, climbed the wall, and headed toward the Pasture Track and the cars. We hiked hard, pushing to stay ahead of the cumulus building to the west. Though there were no longer narrows in our route, we still had about two miles of flood plain above the narrows’ mouth between us and the trailhead, and we now fully knew what that meant.

Nine miles later, we hit the flood plains, and began jogging the remaining miles in our 30–pound packs. Black clouds merged above us, and the familiar sound of thunder rolled around our sky. The earth between river crossings had turned to slime, and our gaits were a run/glide kind of affair, with the occasional Keystone Cops fall to the ground to punctuate our progress. The cars were only a couple hundred feet away when the heavens opened again. But this time, it was golf ball–sized hailstones that hammered our bare arms, legs, and heads, raising instant welts wherever they hit.

“Stop it!” we screamed at the sky. “Enough!!!”

But the gods had one final indignity for us. As we reached Diane’s car and thrust the key into the lock, the key snapped off, filling the lock with a useless slice of metal. The hail rained down, without mercy.

We made it out, in the end. We had another key, and the flooded washes that crossed the roads eventually receded to the point that we were able to drive home. In the wee hours of the morning, safe in our cozy beds, we tried to download our trauma to our loved ones, but they mostly yawned, rolled over, felt we were exaggerating.

We weren’t. We knew. We were there.


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© 2002 Marjorie McCloy