Zion Backcountry

This past week has been a hard one for our crew. Finished with the local canyons (those located in the main canyon of Zion, which are typically a short dayhike), we moved on to the backcountry sites (those requiring long hikes and overnight gear, and sometimes rappelling gear). I have been in the backcountry for five nights, visiting five different sites. The backcountry is not a friendly place. It is the true heart of Zion, the center of uncompromising ruggedness. Trailless and remote, if anything goes wrong (a twisted ankle, snakebite, dehydration, etc), it is a long ways to help. And we rarely see other people. But be comforted dear mother! We do carry radios, first aid kits, snakebite kits, water pumps, extra food, GPS, compasses, and maps. And extra socks (it is a glorious feeling to put clean socks on!).
It is easy to get burned out doing sites like these...Steph has exclaimed that she would rather quit than do any more...Mike left three days early for his break (without telling our boss!!). As for me, my parents have done a wonderful job of raising me for this type of stuff. Although I am exhausted and need an extra day of recovery (which is why I am blogging right now), I enjoy the challenge. I know that I will burn out eventually, but I feel I can last the summer.
Although the backcountry has been cruel to us, the owls have been very kind. At all but two survey sites, the owls presented themselves to me before I even started the hooting protocol. If we see the owls, our survey is done because we are only determining site occupancy (whether or not they are present in a canyon). This means we don't have to stay up til the early morning hours hooting...we can just go to bed, which is awesome after the long hikes.
In Currant Creek (which I have visited before...the dehydration episode for those who remember...it was much easier this time now that I know my way), the owl flew right above me onto a cliff ledge. I hooted at him. He looked at me. I hooted at him. He flew to another perch on a tree. I hooted again. This kind of routine went on for a while. He flew several times from rim to rim and from tree to tree. Eventually, he just flew away for good, I suppose to go hunting on top of the rim. And then I went to bed.
In Spring Canyon, the lady owl popped her head out of a small cave in the canyon wall. I just happened to look up at the right place. I sat and watched her. She sat and watched me. Eventually she started down canyon, landing from perch to perch. I followed. A big, clumsy, slow biped she must think of me, as I clamber over rocks to catch up to her. She began barking like a chihuahua and "yeoow"ing. I have no idea what she is telling me. Probably something really philosophical and meaningful that humans will never understand. And then I went to bed.
Right Fork is the royal beast of all beastful canyons in Zion. There are worse canyons, but I like to think that this is the worst. From the outset to the end, pushing through dense vegetation (getting whipped in the face and legs), crossing over and under logs, and walking over unstable, ankle-biter and -twister rocks, is the easy part. The sun throws its relentless rays of heat upon your body. Your skin bakes, you sweat like a horse, your brain begins to swell, your backpack becomes heavier with every stride. You begin to really wonder what madness has brought you to this seemingly God-forsaken place. Having a poor route-description and getting lost doesn't make you feel any better about the situation. We (Mike and I) made many minor route-finding mistakes that cost us more time and energy than was necessary. I had to monitor Mike's route-finding abilities...he would sometimes make assumptions about the route-description and the terrain, which would potentially get us into trouble. (Thanks, again, to my parents for my ability to understand topographical maps!). The route takes us down into a broad canyon, which we have to get out of to access the canyon with the owls. It's a long and torturous hike up and over the ridge. And a long and torturous hike down into Right Fork. A nine hour day of hiking and one rappel dropped us down into the spotted owl's core area. We searched the area finding many feathers and whitewash. We decided to go down canyon to find a sandy place to make camp. At one point in the canyon (actually there are several similar places), huge boulders about the size of five elephants lie wedged into the bottom of the canyon. At this particular place, we attempt to go up and over one of the boulders. At the top of the boulder, I hear Mike start freaking out. He sees the owl. I race over to see. Sure enough, there's the owl...sitting there looking at us, just like all the other owls always do. The same thing goes through both of our heads: "we get to go to bed now!"
We worked our way under the giant boulder (since there was no way above it) which required getting our feet wet. The canyon became narrower, and eventually we arrived at the Black Pool. The name says it all. A deep, black pool of water extending 25 meters down the slot canyon. Only one thing to do. Flip-flops on our feet, all important gear in dry bags, stripped of our clothes, we plunge into the freezing water. The water is the temperature that only allows one-syllable words to be uttered in half syllables. For example: "th--this i--is s--so co--cold." Shivering, we found a very large sandy area, made camp and dinner. And went to bed.
The next day brought multiple rappels through some gorgeous canyons. You can imagine being in the bottom of a giant bowl with edges that are 200 feet from the floor. Cut the bowl in half and add seeps of water pouring from a crack running horizontal on the walls. Above the crack is red-orange striated sandstone, in the crack are ferns reaching out, below the crack is dark green and black from moss and water-stain. At the bottom of the bowl is a flowing spring-fed creek which has scoured the bedrock perfectly smooth. The last rappel at the end of this bowl marked the end of the slot canyon (and shade) and the beginning of the slog back to the car. Excruciating and exhausting are the only descriptive terms I can think of. And endless. We got back to the car around 6PM, making it another 9 hour day. I over-stuffed myself with a super burrito in Springdale...and went to bed.


  1. More! We want more! And more pictures would be grand also.. I know your slammed for time.

  2. Nice work, Jesse! Don't give in to that backcountry.....

  3. Yes! More, please! and you get paid for this?! You WERE well prepared for it all. Wylies


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