Awash in the Canyonlands

The Hike

We went in November because the threat of flooding is usually low (July through September is high-flood season) and the crowds are thin. We encountered one other party on the first day of the hike, then saw no one for the next three. The downside is that the weather is often chilly, which is not conducive to hiking all day in a numbingly cold river. Our outfits, devised on the spot, out of necessity, were unorthodox, as if we were dressing for two seasons at once: insulated shirt, fleece pullover, winter jacket, gloves, and hat up top; shorts, neoprene socks, and river sandals below. The idea was that being too hot above the waist would counteract the effects of being too cold below — our body, we figured, would somehow spilt the difference and maintain a nice temperature all over. This did not happen. I spent much of the hike sweating and shivering, often simultaneously. By day three, not surprisingly, I was battling a cold.

Seven miles down the Paria we arrived at the river's main tributary, Buckskin Gulch. We removed our packs and wandered into the gulch. I am not quite sure what to say that can do justice to Buckskin Gulch. I have been fortunate in my many travels, to behold some of the world's most revered natural wonders — glaciers calving into the sea, the pinnacled heights of the Himalayas, the dance of the northern lights. My hike through Buckskin was of the same head-soaring caliber.

Buckskin's walls are 400 feet high; in spots, the gulch is three feet wide — I could place my hands on both sides at once. The walls of Buckskin Gulch do not rise vertically from the muddy bottom; rather, the rock is warped and twisted like a T-shirt ready for tie-dyeing. Only the tiniest sliver of sky is visible. The rock is tinted in a hundred shades of pink and red; the colors, ever-changing in the diffuse light, combined with the bulging, corkscrewed walls, give a person standing at the bottom the distinct feeling that the entire gulch is shimmying. I actually felt dizzy and, for a while, a bit claustrophobic. Canyoneering is the opposite of mountaineering — the deeper I ventured into Buckskin, the less of the world I could see. If water came, there was no possibility of escape. Still, I spent hours in the gulch, awed, and only emerged when H. J. warned me that darkness was imminent.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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