Saturday, October 2, 2010

Canyonlands National Park

Our day of rest was just bliss. David caught up on bike maintenance, and I caught up on household chores. We have to do laundry wherever we can so I made use of the camp site facilities. The laundry done and hung out to dry, it dried to a crisp in a very short time. Then I pampered myself with a long shower, washed my hair and titivated my body doing those things that women do to make themselves feel good, and in my case clean-many camp grounds do not have shower facilities so you really appreciate being able to have a daily douche. Glowing in my scrubbed cleanness I put on my sun dress for the first time since mid July at the bike rally, and basked in the heat.
The following day we set off bright and early for Canyonland. To me this sounds like an enormous theme park a la Disneyland. But it couldn't be more from the truth. Canyonland is nature in all it's glory. It is an area carved into three: Island in the Sky; The Needles and the Maze, by the Colorado and Green Rivers. We are told that it is at the confluence between the Green and Colorado Rivers that the famous rapids take over. Our route on dry land, was going to take us to the Island in the Sky, the most accessible of the three areas. David had chosen a route via the unpaved Potash Road and Shafer Trail Road. The journey started well. The road was flat and gravel and I happily took photos and videos along the route here you can see David adjusting the tickover or some such thing whilst I was trying to be artistic.
We soon came upon a sign telling us we were on a public road just before a quagmire of red mud. I offered to walk through it (the idea being that I would have more control over my legs than the bike, whilst David attempted to manhandle Nancy through it). But he poo-pooed the suggestion saying it was no problem-he could get through it just fine, with me on the back. Well we wiggled and slid, as David attempted to follow a track through, and as I envisaged any moment landing in a red mud bath-I quickly put the camera away, and found myself gripping, less out of ardour and more out of my rising anxiety, his love handles. I am not sure why squeezing the life out of his flabby bits was going to save us! But not to disappoint, he got us through. In a former life I had a biker fiancé who was a bit of a boy racer. He loved nothing more than showing off, especially as we drove up towards our local biking pub, he would put on a show, doing wheelies with me on the back! Anyway one day we came off. Not in front of all his mates but on a busy main road in the winter, we skidded on black ice and I went sliding down the road in one direction, my shopping and feminine hygiene products burst free and scattered like confetti all over the road, whilst he held on to his dearly beloved bike taking off in another with sparks flying, in the vain hope of avoiding an oncoming car. Another time we came off in thick snow on a roundabout. So I get a bit edgy when I can feel the rear wheel sliding and so far when David has suggested riding an unpaved road I have managed to distract him from it. Not this time. I don't think I was really paying attention. He just glibly told me he thought we could go along a gravel road for a bit. Thirty-something miles later we got to our destination.
But along the way we met a guy who was taking his family for a day out in his four wheel drive, so from time to time at the beginning of our journey, we caught up with each other, for a photo shoot. I was quite grateful in a way to know there was someone else on the trail, in case we broke down in the middle of the desert.
It was interesting to see that there was widespread mining of potash in the desert. It seems it is brought to the surface, pumped into a man made lake, mixed with cobalt to attract the heat of the sun, so it will dry quicker, then it is scraped off.
As we biked on, we came across a notice board giving information about the Potash Road. If you double click on the photo you can focus in on the text. It tells that the road used to be an old cattle trail, constructed around 1917. Then in the early 1950's Uranium was discovered and the old cattle trail became a truck route. Apparently it was completed in 1952. I am not sure what was work completed, because to me it looked pretty impassable to trucks. In many places, the trail or road disappears under huge slabs of sandstone or has been washed away by flash floods. But one thing is true about taking a road into the backcountry, is that you get to see some truly magnificent scenery and listen to complete silence. As you can imaging these backcountry unpaved roads see little traffic, so we were the only people we saw for miles and miles.
From time to time we caught a glimpse of the Colorado River. After all the rivers and lakes we have seen so far which are a pure and a tranquil dreamy turquoise, the Colorado is brown due to silt, and it appears to travel at quite a pace through the canyon, churning up red sand as it goes and along which many activities are offered to tourists such as rafting, kyaking, canoeing, and this one a Jetboat which speeds up and down the river
Then our paths would diverge-we took the road to the right on to the next highlight. I have to say that when we stop to take photos, David invariably keeps his jacket and helmet on. He says they protect him from the heat. Consequently he often looks like a spaceman, in the middle of the desert, a bit worrying when you are travelling through the nation which has had the most sightings of UFO's on the planet. He wants to watch himself.
As we entered the National Park, the road continued in much the same way, a mixture of sand and boulders ranging from the size of footballs to elephants, with occasional mud for good measure.
Then we passed an information board about the White Rim Road which peels off from the Potash road. It is a bit of a white knuckle trail in that it is 100 miles long, there is no water along the way (as is the case all over the parks in Utah), you can only camp in designated places, so you have to make progress each day, and it takes about 4 days to do. So if you are daft enough to mountain bike it, and many do as a badge of honour, in temperatures around 95-105F it requires a back-up vehicle to follow behind with supplies (we saw one guy from the White Rim lookout later that day, being followed by his backup vehicle-a tiny pin prick in the distance) . And if you decide to ride it on a trails bike, there is no end of information about safety and avoiding becoming a casualty or corpse. Of course some folk drive it but it is only passable in a four wheel drive vehicle. And the same applies, the heat and dehydration is a killer and the park publishes a lot of info about survival.
Anyhow we carried on on our bumpy road taking in the scenery. You can just see the road to the left of this picture. Here's David stretching his legs, and about to have a drink. (we are advised to drink about 4 litres a day each when going into the desert). We were a bit daft and only took 3 litres in total, but hadn't anticipated the road being difficult and it was only about 10 miles as the crow flies to our planned destination. And reflecting on the journey so far. You can see the road, yes it is a road, ribboned into the arid landscape. The remainder of the road is just off to the left, carved into the canyon. We had climbed about 2000 feet. I began by taking photos as we rode. As the surface changed I put the camera away in case we fell off and it got crushed; and I hung on occasional crying in my head hysterically-but there was only one way out and that was onward. Soon the road rather than being just gravel as we had kind of anticipated (well I had, and I think it came as shock to David too) began it's steep assent from the bottom of the river valley, over a range of surfaces: deep sand in places, packed sand in others, sometime dry others a mushy mud. Rocks either loose or generally like the backs of elephant seals, deeply bedded into the earth, or huge smooth slabs of sandstone lying like elephants in the sand. At times the road was indecipherable from the landscape it traversed. At one point we encountered a park ranger and tractor. He told us they were making some improvements to the road (tarmac would be a good idea!), which had been washed away by rain and floods. As David gingerly plotted a route across the rock I tried my best to be the good pillion and relax letting the bike find its way. It is a bit nerve racking partly because if the bike goes over, we may damage it and be stranded, but also on one side of us plunged a deep ravine, so deep you lost all sense of space and size, with a horizon so far in the distance you could almost see the curvature of the earth. I know I was only the pillion but it was such an exhilarating ride and proved to me not only what the bike is capable of, but also how David's green laneing and various off road bike courses before we left the UK have stood him in good stead. He was great, never revealing any concern, or nervousness, taking it all in his stride, whilst I breathed deeply and learned to trust.
By this time the temperature was just below 40F. The views were incredible You can see in the foreground the edge of the road which was about as wide as a car.
At the top, the views of the White Rim Road were stunning, After lunch in one of the few shaded picnic areas, we went on to each of the overlooks, Buck Canyon The Green River overlook; The Upheaval Dome where we embarked on a short 2 mile hike across slickrock guided by cairns some of which were becoming small tower blocks. At the end of the trail I was gasping for some cold water (a rarity on the bike) and David was searching for ships.
As we left the sun was low on the horizon, and we headed towards our final stop of the day: the Mesa Arch with spectacular views of the La Sal Mountains,
and which David could not resist climbing, successfully this time, but it is a heck of a long drop if the arch chose this moment to break
Before the close of the day we made one more stop so we could photograph the Shafer trail we had taken that morning 2000 feet to the top of the Canyon and the Island in the Sky. What a feat!
We arrived back at camp about 12 hours after we had set off. On the way Pizza Hut did us proud again with a veggie pizza washed down with a beer-perfect :)

PS. The last 2 posts of Jill's have taken me over 2 hours each to download so I will be having words with her to keep it short. Sorry if that disappoints you. Love the downloader.

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