I woke up Sunday morning with visions of an idyllic camp breakfast dancing in my brain. I had found a pancake mix that only required water and I’d measured out the right amount for our trip. I mixed up the batter, lit the fidgety little camp stove, and melted butter in the tiny frying pan. I poured the batter and watched in excitement as it bubbled up temptingly. Phil would wake up to a hot breakfast of delicious pancakes, he would hail me as the perfect little camp wife, and he would be forever hooked on overnight goat packing.
A powerful blast of wind shattered my reverie. A scream of rage leapt from my throat. Despite having placed the stove in a sheltered spot behind a rock, the wind had tossed a liberal amount of sand and grit into my beautiful breakfast! I picked out some of the larger pieces of debris, but the pancake no longer looked scrumptious. Breakfast proceeded quickly downhill from there. The camp stove was very fussy and seemed incapable of providing a steady medium flame. When I turned it up, it blazed like a rocket, scorching the food and threatening to set my socks on fire. I turned the flame down and it puffed out. I screamed in frustration! The first pancake came out ok. It was only a little scorched on one side and the other side was only a little raw. Phil ate it and told me it was good but I think he was probably being polite and only commenting on the syrup because I could hear the sand and charred bits of pancake crunching as he ate.
I poured a second pancake and it sat there refusing to cook as gusts of wind seasoned the batter with more sand. I carefully turned the stove up and realized it had gone out again. As soon as I relit the flame, it blasted the poor pancake into cinders just as another hurricane dumped more of the surrounding campsite into the batter. I tried to flip the pancake but it was stuck fast to the pan. I tried scraping it off with brute force and my spatula began to melt. At this point I had my own meltdown. I bellowed, raged, and stomped around camp like a maniac, shaking my fists at God and the Universe for sending all this hellacious, unnecessary wind. I was not to be appeased. My beautiful pancake breakfast was a shambles. I chiseled the ruined pancake out of the pan, dug a hole, and buried it in an unmarked grave along with the uncooked half of the batter which was mostly sand by that point anyway. I was too angry to be hungry and I felt like a useless failure. I’m not usually one to throw temper tantrums, but that morning I munched a granola bar and sulked while Phil graciously scrubbed the breakfast dishes in the creek.
On the plus side, my pants and the goat panniers had dried out nicely during the night. The camera, alas, had not. Phil tried turning it on and it made a horrible grinding noise. The viewfinder showed blackness with a few fuzzy white spots. There was nothing to be done about it. We packed camp, loaded the goats, and headed upstream. I was unsure of our route. I knew we needed to follow the river, but the river seemed to be coming from the wrong direction. We needed to head west and the canyon on our left went west along with a very clear path in the sand, but the canyon had no more than a trickle of water in it. We were supposed to be following the Escalante River and there was a strong creek flowing from the north so we followed the water. The trail did not appear to be quite as well-traveled in the north canyon but it was still well-defined and had recent footprints. The canyons are deceiving because they wander back and forth. The Escalante River canyon goes east and west in this section, but it does so by snaking north and south all along the way. I hoped that our north-pointing canyon would eventually take us west. I sorely regretted not remembering to bring a map and a trail description.
The canyon before us was lovely. There was no point trying to find a trail on the shore. The water was only shin-deep and the stream bed was level sandstone with good traction. Although the water was cold, the footing was very easy for us and the goats and we soon got used to the temperature. In fact, as the morning warmed up, the cool, splashing water felt very pleasant on our legs, battered as they were from walking through reeds and pricker bushes the day before. The canyon was narrow with very high walls and it got more and more beautiful as we hiked up it. For the most part the creek stayed easy to navigate. We kept the goats on leashes because they had a tendency to make for the shore and this didn’t usually work out well for them. We had to pay close attention to the creek bottom in places. There were plenty of potholes and deeper fissures and I didn’t want our goats falling into them. Sputnik seemed particularly prone to tripping in holes. I got in the habit of guiding him very carefully across narrow places between potholes and making sure I showed him the deep spots. He never tripped into any big holes, but the sudden slipping from ankle-deep to knee-deep water made him suspicious of the creek. Finn, on the other hand, navigated uneven underwater terrain very naturally.
We stopped for lunch on a sandy beach under a large alcove. We didn’t have much food left. We’d planned a light lunch in anticipation of eating a large dinner in Escalante that evening. We each ate a granola bar and some trail mix. The goats begged some trail mix off us as well but we managed to save a little for an afternoon snack. As we went on, the creek became more pitted and difficult to navigate. The canyon walls turned black and rose up impossibly high on either side. We came to a wider area strewn with huge boulders and there was no obvious path for the goats to follow. Phil held the goats while I scouted. A flash flood earlier in the season had wedged logs and other debris between the rocks, making them difficult to climb. I found a couple of possible routes, but decided it would be best to unpack the goats before attempting them. Phil tossed the panniers and goat packs over the rocks to me, then navigated his way over, around, and between the boulders. He found what he thought was a good route for Finn, but Finn had his own ideas about rock climbing. He watched Phil in bemusement, then nimble as a cat, he plotted his own course, leaping gracefully from boulder to boulder with perfect ease and precision. I was on the other side of a massive rock and unfortunately missed the display of athletic prowess, but the sheer beauty, power, and grace of Finn’s performance brought Phil to the brink of tears.
Sputnik, on the other hand, will never make it in the ballet. He is a strong, willing, and capable goat, but he is not an athlete. I took him through a narrow crack between boulders where he had to get wet up to his chest. We repacked the goats on the other side and continued our journey. I was starting to have a lot of doubts about our route. The Escalante River was not supposed to be this difficult to navigate, and the canyon was never described as being so narrow. I was also concerned that we still hadn’t turned west. We planned to reach the town of Escalante by late afternoon, and since we’d been down the other end of the trail on a previous trip, we should be in familiar territory by now. But nothing looked even close to familiar! Little did I know we were hiking up Death Hollow–a tributary to the Escalante River. The upper Escalante River is frequently almost dry this time of year, but since I didn’t have my trail description I didn’t know this. We were headed straight into the Box-Death Hollow Wilderness and miles away from our planned route and any civilization. But I can’t describe how beautiful it was. Over and over I lamented to Phil the loss of our camera.
Not far after the boulder field we came to a place we weren’t sure we could pass. The black canyon walls narrowed together until there was only a small rock ledge on one side. The creek ran swiftly down the middle in a deep chute interrupted by a series of even deeper pools. We walked along the narrow ledge, careful not to slip, but soon our luck ran out. The canyon walls pinched together above us and our shelf narrowed beside a swiftly-flowing flume of water. The only way to go through was to crouch down and crawl along the narrow shelf, clinging to the rock on our right. The tunnel wasn’t tall enough for the goats to walk under unless they went on their knees, and it was certainly too narrow for them to carry their packs through. If they could make it at all, they would have to go up the narrow, swiftly flowing channel and over a small waterfall. Sputnik had already slipped from the narrow shelf once before this point and had to be pulled out. Luckily the water in that place was only chest deep, but his packs were fairly well sodden. Both goats were getting tired.
Phil went back downstream to see if there was a place to go around this spot. The goats and I waited on our narrow perch for a long time until I started to get nervous. There was nowhere to tie the goats so I took them both and headed downstream in search of Phil. Sputnik fell in the water again at the same narrow place as before and this time Finn went in too. I eventually found Phil and we agreed that maybe it wasn’t a wise idea to get separated so long. He hadn’t found an alternate route, but I had studied the tunnel in his absence and I thought we could get the goats through if we unpacked them. We went back upstream and both goats fell in again at the narrow spot so now both packs were thoroughly sodden. We got to the tunnel and Phil held the goats while I crawled through. I told Phil I would explore a little way upstream to make sure it didn’t get worse. We didn’t want to unpack the goats and get them through this difficult and somewhat dangerous spot only to encounter an even nastier one further up.
I came out of the tunnel into the most beautiful canyon of all. Small silver cascades tumbled over smooth, sculpted sandstone into large, deep, and silent pools. Before the tourists came and scared them away, this was a Unicorn Canyon. I explored around a bend or two but shouted my progress back to Phil so he wouldn’t worry. When I came back I found a place where I could climb over the tunnel and back down within a short distance of where Phil was waiting with the goats. It would be much easier and safer to ferry the packs over the top than through the tunnel. Phil had to navigate the narrow ledge back and forth to bring me the panniers and packs one at a time while the goats waited on a wider ledge downstream. I had a nice perch about seven feet above the water where Phil could toss me the packs when I leaned down to grab them. I carried them over the top to the upstream side of the tunnel. Finally, I crawled back down the tunnel to help Phil with the goats.
Phil led Finn as far as he could go along the shelf before Finn slipped down into the rushing creek. Luckily the edge of the pothole was only a little over two feet high, but since the water was rushing over it, the force made it difficult to jump or climb over. Phil pulled Finn’s halter while Finn heaved himself out with a struggle. Phil let Finn loose at the other side and it was Sputnik’s turn. Sputnik plopped into the water without even trying to navigate the shelf and then he just stood there in the rushing stream and refused to even attempt climbing over the waterfall. Phil and I both pulled and were able to lift his front end over the ledge. After that it was easy, but I could tell Sputnik was exhausted and absolutely fed up with this miserable hike. Unlike us, Sputnik had no interest whatsoever in the scenery.
We re-saddled the goats and dumped water out of our panniers. Phil and I gave the goats a break and carried the panniers ourselves for a while. The day was wearing on. The sun touched only the tops of the canyon walls. Phil and I split an apple and gave the other to Finn and Sputnik. We were both starting to realize we would not make it out tonight so we saved the trail mix and trudged on, still clinging to the fast-failing hope that we were on the right track. At least we were still by the river.
The canyon soon widened and looked more like the familiar Escalante Canyon, raising my hopes for a bit. Unfortunately the stream bed got more difficult to navigate. It ran in deeper, narrower channels between steep, sandy banks and began to wind more. It was quicker to cut across the bends, but the trail was not usually very easy. A trail would look good for a while, but then it would peter out and we’d have to bushwhack to pick it up somewhere else. Our legs were sore and scabbed from the previous day’s bushwhacking through pricker bushes. Here there were no prickers, but the reeds were brutal. They ripped open the scabs from yesterday and tore new ones. The sand was hard to walk in, especially for the goats. Sputnik was starting to groan as he walked.
We came to a split in the canyon. One trail followed a small watercourse to the west (finally, a trail going west!) while the main watercourse continued north. We opted to keep going north along the stronger creek with the wider trail, but we had to cross the deep, narrow tributary to get there. Phil and Finn jumped across, but Sputnik and I were tired. The bank was steep and sandy and I didn’t think we could make it. I saw a log in the creek and decided to use it as a step. Bad idea! Although it had looked large and solid, it was merely floating on the surface! I sank immediately up to my armpits and burst out laughing as I clung to the reedy bank like a drowned rat. I couldn’t climb the bank. It was too steep, too high, and too sandy. There was nothing to grip. I turned back and grabbed onto Sputnik and used his horns to pull myself up. We bushwhacked our way to the place where the two creeks joined and were able to cross there. I later learned that I had fallen into Mamie Creek–a tributary to Death Hollow creek which is in turn a tributary to the Escalante River. It turns out it was a good thing we didn’t try following Mamie creek because it eventually dead-ends at a sheer wall with nowhere to go but back.
We trudged on in the gathering dusk, each bend in the river offering brief hope that the canyon would open up and we’d see something familiar. We started to see deserted campsites along the way which dampened my spirits. If we were on the proper trail, we would be close enough to the town of Escalante that no one would camp here. On the other hand, it was comforting to know we weren’t in a trackless, uncharted wilderness where we would never see human life again. The creek crossings were getting treacherous in the deepening twilight and I told Phil we’d better pitch camp at the next suitable spot. We rounded one more corner and suddenly we saw tents! Human life! Two men were sitting under a tree near the creek, talking and sipping wine from their camp mugs.
We were extremely relieved to finally see someone, and the first thing out of my mouth was, “Where the heck are we??”
One of the men broke out a map and showed me. They were crossing the Boulder Mail Trail that runs for about sixteen miles between Boulder and Escalante and intersects Death Hollow in the middle. They had descended into Death Hollow canyon that afternoon and pitched their campsite right at the intersection where the Mail Trail climbs back out of Death Hollow and continues up over the slickrock to Escalante. Luckily they had started in Boulder and were headed to Escalante as we were. We asked if we might follow them back to town next day and they very kindly agreed.
Their names were Bill and Adrian and they had never seen or heard of packgoats before. They were delighted with them. Unfortunately Phil and I crashed their party. The tree they’d been sitting under was perfect for hanging our wet things, and the spot next to it was ideal for tethering the goats so I’m afraid we took over the best part of their campsite, but they were good-natured about it. Darkness fell soon afterwards so we didn’t spend much time chatting with our “rescuers.” Phil and I quickly pitched our tent and got the goats settled. We opted to save the scanty remains of our trail mix for morning. We had an estimated eight-mile hike up and out of the canyon and across the desert to Escalante next day and we had no other food with us. Thankfully our warm clothes were packed at the top of Sputnik’s panniers and weren’t too wet. The sleeping bags had gotten wet but the synthetic materials hadn’t soaked up much water and they dried pretty quickly once we unrolled them and got in. Our bags were chilly but not freezing. We went to bed grateful to have found someone who knew where we were and better yet, how to get us out!
Since our camera was broken, I’ll attach some other people’s photos of death hollow and hope they don’t mind.
Photo taken from this blog: https://www.arieleeflang.com/?p=543
The spot where “Tim” is clinging is where Phil tossed the packs up to me. The spot to the lower left of the photo is where we had to crouch down and cling to the rock and the goats had to go for a dip.
Photo taken by “KyleP” from this message board:
And here’s the view looking upstream. I would not want to crawl along this ledge with a pack on my own back, but that’s how most people do it!