Sometimes you have to live boldly and choose to get in over your head knowing full well that if you don’t, a great opportunity for an adventure or a life-changing experience may be missed. There are those out there who seem to have no problem pushing the limits and exploring what is possible for them. Personally, these individuals are a source of inspiration for me and motivate me to push myself beyond my preconceived limitations. All too often though, I find myself just living day to day, in my comfort zone, never straying too far from it. With age and the pressures of responsibility, it is easy to operate within these boundaries and difficult to make the time to pursue or experience those things on our bucket lists which may challenge us beyond what we thought was possible. On a recent fall weekend I was able to witness and help facilitate an experience that required jumping into the deep end without knowing the outcome.
Meet AJ; he is the current intern of Outdoor Pursuits (a year-long administrative position focused on collegiate outdoor programming). AJ’s outdoor passions primarily lie in the pursuit of rock climbing as this pursuit has spurred his interest in pursuing his current career path. Fortunately, he made the decision to work at an organization that employs a bunch of quirky characters who all have a great deal of experience in many different outdoor activities. I’m one of those characters. One of my goals through our internship is to expand the outdoor experience of our interns - which means they usually need to set aside their outdoor passions for the year and delve into experiencing other pursuits. Through it all, there may come a time when they end up in over their head.
AJ preparing to “jump in”...
On a Thursday afternoon I found out that I would unexpectedly have the weekend free. What a great surprise! I left the office that evening thinking about what I would do with an unscheduled weekend. AJ had approached me about possibly doing some rock climbing. That was a possibility. Sleeping in a little would be nice since this would be my first weekend free in nearly a month. Maybe taking it easy and watching some college football (which I am a fan of and never get to do) was definitely going to be on my list. Friday morning found AJ in my office asking about my plans for the weekend. Ideas were still tumbling around in my brain, but I hadn’t put anything into action as of yet.
My plans would be solidified as soon as I looked at the river levels in Utah…the Dirty Devil was running. This seldom running desert river flows south through beautiful, rarely visited canyon country into Lake Powell. It has been on my “To Do” list ever since I arrived in the southwest. It is typically only navigable by boat a few weeks out of the year—and that is typically during the spring snow melt. With all of the rain we have been experiencing this past fall, the Dirty Devil had been running nearly daily for the past several weeks. Due to my busy work schedule, I could only just look at the river gauge and resign myself to the fact that I would once again miss this window of opportunity. The run is typically 75 miles and takes nearly a week or more allowing plenty of time to explore the many side canyons which empty into the river corridor.
I only had a weekend, not an entire week. Could I paddle 75 miles in a weekend? As I was pondering the possibility of pulling off this feat, I remembered that a local adventurer had written about a weekend excursion on the Dirty Devil that involved bikes and packrafts. I needed to call Doom. With Doom’s beta and encouragement, I hung up the phone knowing where I was heading for the weekend.
“Sam, want to go on an adventure?” No. Can’t this weekend. “AJ, are you up for an adventure involving bikes, packrafts, and lots of energy expenditure?” Sure. I am in, but I don’t have a bike and all of OP’s are currently checked out. “No worries. I’ve got plenty of bikes in my garage that will serve the purpose. How about riding a Fargo Ti?” Ok. Sounds good to me. When do we leave? And thus, AJ had just jumped into the deep end of the pool.
By late afternoon we were outfitted for the weekend and speeding our way towards the Utah canyon country. This would be a weekend of firsts for AJ.
1) He had never been to southeast Utah.
2) He had limited cycling experience, let alone pedaling a fully-loaded bike down rugged washes
3) The previous cycling he had done was typically under ten miles, let alone nearly 50
4) He had never bikepacked before and combined it with packrafting
5) He had never spent long hours on a bike or in a packraft with a looming deadline of making it to work on Monday.
This was going to be fun! As with anything in life our attitudes and mental toughness usually determines the outcome of any challenging experience. As I taught AJ how to load the Fargo by headlamp upon arriving at our potential takeout, I knew that he was up for the challenge. He was most likely going to suffer physically, but his positive attitude (or naivety) was going to carry him through the adventure.
Let the adventure begin…
Waking under starry skies, we prepped our bikes and began the first segment of our weekend microadventure—nearly 30 miles of paved riding that climbed ever slowly away from Lake Powell. At our first break, AJ stated that his butt was a little sore. Knowing we had only gone 14 miles or so, I encouraged him to get used to it as we still had another 30 or so miles of riding to do, with 16 of it being off-road. I also told him, he would have plenty of time to rest his sore butt once we began the paddling portion of the adventure.
Segment #1: Thirty miles of pavement…
After another 15 miles of pavement, I waited patiently for AJ by keeping myself occupied by throwing rocks at various targets. After an hour or so and some much needed throwing practice, AJ came speeding down the hill. He was hurting and experiencing some cramping in his quadriceps. We had been climbing steadily all morning so it was little wonder that he was suffering a bit. Once again though, his mental toughness kept him in the game. Way to hang tough!
Riding in canyon country…
Though his butt and legs were both sore, he was still game to push forward, so we began the off-road segment of the adventure. The challenges for AJ were starting to pile up as he now had to ride a fully-loaded bike down a very rocky and sandy wash. This would be a challenge for most mountain bikers, let alone a beginner with a sore butt and cramping legs. Riding his own pace, AJ persevered and didn’t let the numerous obstacles in his path deter him from finishing the ride to the river. At about three miles from our put-in, AJ flatted with a torn sidewall—which provided a teachable moment on the how-to of performing trailside repairs (another first).
There was plenty of sand and river bottom cobbles to make the riding interesting…
A late afternoon arrival to the Dirty Devil…
We arrived at the river by late afternoon and quickly broke down our bikes and inflated the packrafts. The river was literally a “dirty devil” with chocolate milk-like water flowing along at about 100 cubic feet per second (cfs)—low, but navigable. With the low water and the braided nature of this part of the river, it was going to be slow going. Hopefully, we wouldn’t damage our packrafts while navigating our way down the shallow rocky shoals that were around every corner. Setting off at a little after 5:30 PM, we only had about two hours of day light remaining. We had to make some miles or Sunday was going to be a long day.
Packed and ready to paddle…
An hour into our paddle I sprang a leak. I first noticed my raft getting softer, and then I heard the faint hiss of bubbles of air escaping from the left side of my raft. Our paddling for the day was going to be cut short as a repair had to be made in order to keep moving forward on this adventure. Finding a place to camp for the evening was easy as this stunning canyon had many beautiful sand beaches to sleep on around every corner. After applying a quick patch to my leaky raft and a one-pot meal cooked on alcohol stoves with some dark chocolate for dessert, we quickly fell asleep under a clear night sky. Tomorrow was going to be a long day.
The canyon walls greeting the new day…
Waking early, AJ was sore, but looking forward to the day ahead. During my phone call with Doom on Friday morning, he mentioned that we would have between 20 to 25 miles of river to paddle. Guessing how far we had paddled the previous evening, I figured we had at least twenty miles to paddle for the day. As the crow flies it was only ten miles to where the truck was parked, but this was canyon country, where the river has carved a circuitous route which winds back and forth across the landscape. We had lots of miles to paddle. There was no way we were going to make it back to Durango by dinner.
The canyon walls—closing in…
My patch from the previous evening had held overnight so we got on the river with little delay. As we paddled further south, the canyon walls became steeper and began to close in on us. With the ever narrowing of the river corridor, came a deeper channel and less sand bars in which to get hung up. The braided nature of the river evaporated and we were soon making good time downstream. The canyon was striking as high vistas serving as sentries above us. There was going to be no easy way out of the canyon if a situation required it. After nearly nine hours of non-stop paddling we paddled under the Hwy 95 bridge. My truck was only 200 feet or so above us. Now where was the take-out that AJ had scouted on Saturday morning?
The truck is just up there…
Doom had warned me to be sure to scout the takeout, as it could be tricky climbing up from the river to get to the highway. Before our departure on Saturday, AJ was heading towards the bridge to do some “daily business” so he said he would scout our take-out. Upon his return he stated that he had identified a route up from the river back to where we were leaving the truck. He asked if I wanted to take a look at it. In a hurry to get the adventure underway, I said, “No. I trust you.” Mistake. At his proposed takeout, there was no way we were going to find a way up the steep canyon walls to the road. After another brief scout that yielded no easy way out, we were forced to continue on towards Lake Powell. In year’s long-gone-bye, the waters of Lake Powell had met the Dirty Devil right near the Hwy 95 bridge. But after years of drought and over-consumption by the major cities lying downstream, the lake has receded so much that its waters are now miles from meeting the Dirty Devil where it once had. What in the past was an easy paddle across the lake was now miles of braided channels of mud flats with remnants of packraft puncturing trees and other debris. It was slow going.
After another hour of struggling through ankle to knee-deep mud, I could see the roadway above us at the top of a steep, loose rocky slope. It was time to end the mud-paddling nonsense and get off of the river. Under quickly fading light we made our first carry of gear to the former high-water mark of the former Lake Powell—nearly 80 feet above the river. Under the light of headlamps, we made our way up to the highway in stages. I reached the blacktop first and quickly remounted my bike heading for the truck, leaving AJ to finish shuttling his gear. After a quick dinner of our remaining food supplies, we piled into the truck and began the three-and-a-half-hour drive home. I crawled into bed at 1:30 AM after over 18 hours on the move. What a weekend!
Coming into work the next week, my co-workers chided me for “wrecking” AJ. He was physically exhausted, but in good spirits emotionally. He had embraced the leap into the unknown and I am proud of him for that. He definitely was pushed beyond his skill limits in both mountain biking and packrafting, making huge strides forward in both of these pursuits. His mental toughness allowed him to swim out of the proverbial “deep end” and complete this adventure. Through it all though, it was a great reminder for me of what it is like to attempt something new and how sometimes you just have to go for it without knowing the outcome. Only then will you truly find out what you are capable of accomplishing. So the next time you are presented with an opportunity to jump into the unknown, consider taking the plunge. You never know where it may take you.
A well deserved dinner of tortillas, Goldfish, cheese and hot sauce…
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I grew up in a military family where we moved 13 times before I left for college. Consequently, I have the continual urge to explore and travel having climbed, kayaked, and biked all over our amazing planet. My passion for the outdoors drives me to seek out adventures which often times combine multiple modes of travel or activities (i.e. biking to a wilderness area and then backpacking in to climb a high peak). "Keeping life simple" is a guiding motto of my life and for me, bike travel epitomizes simplicity.