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  • Writer's pictureBen Kilbourne

Don't Forget To Pack Your Critical Thinking Skills

It was nearly 2 pm when Porter and I set foot on the wet, red, sandy trail that drew us south towards the mouth of Deer Creek Canyon in Grand Staircase National Monument in southern Utah. The monsoons had let up—at least for the time being—and when the sun landed on the dripping rabbitbrush, cottonwoods, and willows, they released an intoxicating scent that smelled to me like home, abundance, and health. Porter had done most of the planning for this trip, dropping pins where he expected to find safe ingress and egress points along the route. I tromped along behind him, fully trusting the maps on our phones, the blogs we referenced, and a canyon-hiking book from 1997.

Deer Creek Canyon in southern Utah.

The first couple of miles were more or less what I expected—I had hauled a group of friends down there just the year before and we didn’t make it very far. But beyond those first miles, I could tell that things had changed in only a year. We had passed a bloated cow carcass beneath a ponderosa which had since dissolved into the land. A year of bright sun, dry winds, hungry scavengers, and heavy rain had scoured all flesh from the bones and now they were pure white, scattered down an arroyo. If that much can happen in just a year, what else has changed since the blogs we referenced were written?

Flash flood debris made hiking slow.

When we dropped into the canyon we observed another change right away. Heavy monsoons had flashed through the canyon at least a dozen times over the last few months, and judging by the height of the debris stuck to the cottonwoods and willows, the floods were ten feet deep at times. It made me queasy to imagine the sheer force of that much water being channeled through the 20-foot-wide canyon. If we had been caught down there in one of those monsoons, we'd be toast, but the skies were clear for us that day. The going was slow, as we stepped over and under piles of sticks and the occasional bucket or tire.

We continued plodding through the creek, trying not to twist our ankles on the thousands of basketball-sized volcanic bombs hiding just beneath the surface. I saw a stretch of smooth sand beneath shallow water just ahead and felt anticipatory relief, but when I stepped onto the sand the surface gave way, sucking my leg in up to my knee. "Ahhh, quicksand!" I warned Porter. None of the blogs mentioned anything about quicksand. The book didn't mention it. And last year when I visited this canyon, there was no quicksand either. The natural world changes rapidly and without warning. I flopped over onto my hands and knees and crawled my way to the willowy bank.

The geologic timescale is often more reliable, so I felt 100% certain that there was a section of narrows waiting for us down-canyon. When we reached the narrows, we looked at the photos we had taken of Steve Allen's book Canyoneering 3: Loop Hikes in Utah's Escalante. His directions were to backtrack for 100 yards and locate a steep crease in the sandstone on the right. We did as told, and found the route no problem. Thanks, Steve!

Approaching the narrows. The crease described by Steve Allen can be seen on the right side of the canyon above the willows where the light meets the shadow.

Reentering the canyon was a different story. We looked at the map from his book, matched it to the maps on our phones, and headed for the so-called draw that would lead us back down into the canyon. When we reached the draw, it was a near-vertical 40-foot drop. My heart started pounding. All the potential detours began swirling through my mind. Will we have to just camp here and walk back up-canyon to the car in the morning? Will we have to swim through the narrows with our teeth chattering, floating our packs in front of us? I became suddenly aware that we could have to adapt because one of our route-finding sources was proving inaccurate.

The impassible draw is just out of sight where the little stream of water disappears over the edge. We continued another eight minutes up-canyon or roughly west until we found a way in.

Then we re-read his description. He said to follow the rim of the canyon for 10 minutes, but the deathly draw had appeared within only about two minutes of rim-walking. So we continued another eight minutes along the edge of the canyon until the canyon wall relaxed before us and let us down to the creek. I let out a deep sigh of relief stepping back into the familiar and welcoming water. His map was inaccurate but his description was correct. Porter and I had considered all the information available (Steve's map, Steve's description, our GPS maps, and the land before us), adapted accordingly, and found a way into the canyon. I was suddenly struck by the dangers of putting too much faith in a single source, abandoning one's own abilities to think critically and problem-solve when backpacking.

To keep this from happening, don't rely on single sources when route-finding. Cross-reference blogs, books, maps, and personal observations. Then, if you find that things have changed since a book was written or a blog was posted, don't panic. It might even be wise to expect things to change. Also, remember that both humans and the tools we make (technology included) are fallible, so accuracy is rarely guaranteed. Take a moment to breathe, re-read all of your available materials, have a snack, drink some water, drop your pack, and poke around a bit. The answer could be right in front of you, or only eight minutes away.

Steve Allen's map labeled to better match his description of the route.

Written by Ben Kilbourne

You can check out more of Ben's work on his blog

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