el Narrows

The infamous hike of Zion: the Narrows. Postcards crowd the display cases with images of this deep canyon framed by walls of sandstone and floored by flowing water. I could not resist the temptation. I obtained a permit from the backcountry office, waiting in a small line at 6:30 in the morning. Of course everyone in line was excited, for each person had his/her own new, exciting adventure planned, trekking to one of the many delectable canyons of Zion. Some to Orderville Canyon, others to the Subway (a canyon as well, not a transportation). Two members of the Grand Canyon owl crew were coming to visit, and I took the opportunity to do something worthwhile with our time instead of dawdling idly at camp, bound to the movement of shade for hours on end. We (Kerri, Heather, Mike, and I) drove the hour long ride up out of the depths of Zion's canyons and up onto the pinyon-juniper laden plateau. The dirt road winds its way along rolling "hills" and drainages, finally purposing on one drainage, the North Fork of the Virgin River, to descend. At the trailhead, and for much of the hike, the scene is much different from the postcards. A wide, broad valley funnels water from the pinyon-juniper and oak hills, centralizing it into the North Fork, which is lined by water-loving trees such as Fremont's cottonwood, boxelder, maple, and willows. Occasional patches of open grass, planted, no doubt, by the former occupants of the valley for cattle feed. We follow a road (which we are not allowed to drive down), recently graded, with brand new fire hydrants every 200 meters. Looks to me to be a housing development planned here soon, but can't tell for sure. The graded road ends, turning into a smaller, rougher dirt road. Old, rusted, tireless tractors are seen along the way, sunk several inches into the sandy soil. A more recent cabin two miles downtrail with a dilapidated roof, maybe 1960's even. The land is privately owned in this area, and we are thankful that the owners allow such heavy backpacker use. We pass by a drifter's camp. It is a sad camp, making us wonder about those that it belonged to, for they had only been gone for a few days...still bags of unopened Dorritos bags and granola bar boxes, a cooler with chicken floating in water from melted ice, children's shoes, bottles, and diapers. A weathered note left at the camp reads "This is private property. Pick up your stuff and leave. Will be back at 6PM." Where did they go and will they return? A mother with a child? In the middle of nowhere? What lives they must lead... We move past, partly in wonder about the circumstances of those that ate and slept there for a time, and partly in disgust that someone would leave such a mess, risking access to the land being shut down for others who respectfully walk through.
The canyon narrows, but doesn't 'narrows' narrow. The dirt road turns to a trail, the trail eventually, to water, for we soon are required to wade the calf-deep water for short stretches. We hike downhill, following the river as winds its way along the path of least resistance. We try to do the same. Most of the 'trail' is hiked along the sides of the rivers, along rocks and boulders, or sometimes veering up and around prominent obstacles on the river bank. The rest of the 'trail' is in the water. The water is warm and murky, but further down canyon, Deep Creek enters into the funnel, and the water becomes colder, clearer, and deeper. But we are prepared for this...water shoes, trekking poles (very much required for constant wading through the rocky river), dry bags (everything in our backpacks is watersealed), and wet suits, just in case. The wading is tough and straining. In the beginning, one steps with confidence, settling his foot securely on the bed of the river with the help and guidance of the trekking poles; later, each step becomes weary, no longer searching as intently for the secure placement, but expecting each step to slide and slip to a new, sometimes awkward position. Fortunately, no one loses footing and falls sprawling into the water. Lots of close calls though. Ankle spraining is definitely a risk. I wouldn't suggest Chacos...no ankle support and super-bad rubbage (not trash, but rubbing of the straps on the tender skin of the ankles); the river contains some of my blood and DNA now. Someday it will make it to the ocean, which would be sweet.
Route-finding to avoid deep spots and obstacles is a constant. Mike and I lead much of the way, the girls following behind, happy to not be leading. In and out of the river all day long. Plunging into areas chest deep and probably deeper, although we can't know for sure since our backpacks kept us very much afloat. We finally enter the first of the narrows, where the steep, vertical-walled sandstone canyons box in the river. It is rejoicable. And we rejoice. And are content. We arrive at our campsite (number 10) after about seven hours of hiking, and we are spent. Everyone whips out their chef hats and makes dinner amongst sighs of relief and contentment. I brought the library of books and distribute them to their owners. We read, lying on our comfy pads and sleeping bags, under the towering cliffs of sandstone which limits our view of the starry sky to a shape similar to that of the winding river. The sound of the river eternally roars, hypnotizing us to sleep. And sleep we do. We sleep in till 10am, planning on hiking when the ambient temperature is much warmer. And I am glad we did. The rest of the day was spent in the actual 'narrows' of the narrows, where sunlight only momentarily peaks its flaming eyeball into. It is chilly in the shadows, and I refuse to stop hiking until I reach the blessed warmth of the sunshine where it filters its way down. Pushing through the water becomes part of you. When you aren't pushing through water, it feels as if there is something wrong. The narrows are beautiful, which we ruefully did not catch on film...to busy pushing water I guess. Eventually, we started running into herds of people. Tourists, family reunions, boyscout groups, all of humanity, making their way up the river. We had reached the upper limits of the dayhiking area accessible by bus from the main canyon of Zion. The hoards got bigger the farther down we hiked. People ogled our backpacks. Some asked "did you spend the night up there?". We desperately wanted to say something sarcastic. Why else would we be wearing such massive packs? But it's probably just a conversation starter...so we courteously say "yes, we did spend the night up there."
Finally, we start running into very small children. We are weary of this water-pushing at this point. And every step is painful for me. Small children mean the end is near. We reach the paved Riverside Walk, hike another mile, and we gleefully board the buses of Zion. We ride the bus to the Museum, where the road to our base camp is located, laughing at comments from the bus driver and talking to a tourist from Pennsylvania. More hiking back to our base camp. Finally at camp, I collapse into my chair with an iced Barg's Red Creme Soda, and my fellow hikers follow suit. Just another day in Zion.


  1. Hi Jesse,

    I'm printing out your blog entries and will take them with me on the plane tonight to go see Dawn, Peter and the three boys for a week in Italy. Can't wait! Read your first post and your trip sounds awesome. Know I'm be thinking of you and wishing you safety, fun and adventure!

    Love your cousin Debbie


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