Sunday, June 13, 2010

Canyonlands Grand Tour

Peggy's cleaning out the cellar and found this old story, one Mountain Bike Magazine never did run. Some of the folks whose blogs I read are interested in this sort of stuff -- mountain bikes, packrafts and the great SW sandstones. I wrote it at the tail-end of my outlaw days, when I still had an outdoor adventurer's version of Libertarianism viewpoint inspired from a dozen years in Fairbanks. Reading it made me smile so I thought I'd take the time to type it all up here in hopes it makes you smile, too.

I dug into the current, propelling myself and my overloaded 4-pound 5-foot nylon packraft across the Southwest's mightiest river, the Colorado. Downstream roared Cataract Canyon.

I dug deeper, paddled faster, a chill coursing down my spine in spite of the exertion. Worry mixed with apprehension. This was fear. Fear, not of the physical challenge, but rather of arrest.

Arrest for possession. Arrest for possession with intent to distribute, so far as I knew, for there I sat in my yellow packraft, deep in the sacred wilderness of Canyonlands National Park, in possession of not just one, nor two, nor even three....but four mountain bikes.

Not only that, but I had no river permit. Hell, I didn't even have a backcountry permit. And to think Thoreau had said wilderness was a state of mind. Not a chance. Wilderness is a section of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).

A code that we four hellbikers had been doing our best to uphold.

We had embarked on a mission. A mission that, with the exception of this renegade crossing, lay entirely within the letter of the law.

It all began with a phone call to Flagstaff. My end went something like this:

"Heh Bill....Yea, doing OK. You....? Good, good.....A route? Yea, I do indeed."

I fondled the map. "It's a beauty. Starts in the Needles, crosses the Colorado into the Maze District, crosses the Green, finishes on the White Rim. Gotta fly back from Grand Jct on Tuesday, but you guys could loop back to the start on the Lochart. I call it the 'Canyonlands Grand Tourismo'.

"How long? Four days, 140 miles: We spend the night in the van. Leave Squaw Flat pre-dawn and hammer down to the river. Cross. Then hammer through the Land of Standing Rocks. Gotta get out of the Park to camp....

"Permit? Naw, no permit. Don't need one if we don't camp in the Park.

"Why not get one? They'd never believe us if we told them.

"Legal? Yea, it's totally legal.

"OK meet you and the Mutants in Moab."

Five years earlier, Carl Tobin, Jon Underwood and I dragged our mountain bikes around a small watershed in central Alaska. We'd done the route before, both on foot and on skis, and knew that the first four miles climbed 2000 feet to an open tundra plateau, the next five curved trail-less around a spot of bog, a bit of brush, and a fell-field before looping back to the start via a wonderful six miles of rolling singletrack.

A footrace now covers the 15 mile loop, winning time around two and a quarter hours. Our first hellbike trip took seven hours, but opened our eyes to the possibilities of cycling the Alaskan wilderness.

Since then, we pedaled road and trail-less routes through deserts, tropics, and tundra. We called any type of bike trip requiring that a significant portion be paddled, portaged, or pushed a hellbike trip, a play on the words "Live to Ride, Ride to Die Mountain Bikes from Hell" Tobin came up with on our first extended trip in 1988.

For many, perhaps most, hellbiking seems absurd. Yet the gains in confidence and control over our immediate destinies are emotions common to ultra-marathons, mountain climbs, and trans-continental junkets through third-world countries. Hellbiking's primary rewards include the thrill of wild singletrack after a gnarly portage; the satisfaction of exercising technical skills while fatigued, hungry, cold and wet; the sense of freedom reading rivres and brush; the revelation of true, yet often hidden values of food, water, shelter, and companionship -- all reveal the symmetry of outdoor adventuring.

To take a wild landscape and extract a route satisfies a primitive creativity. We see wildland as a dynamic, re-useable, physical canvas to paint bold strokes of uncommon adventure. But, yes, hellbiking's hard and no place for novices. The unseasoned will hesitate to take a bike where they'd hesitate to go without one. Still, hellbiking is really little more than ramped-up backyard exploration. Other cyclists, too , might see that the essence of exploring for new trails is the distillate of the helltripping urge that carries us onwards for days and weeks. Rather thn areturning home for a shower, full meal, and a soft bed, we live the ride on rations, bivouacs, and B.O.

Yes, it's hard, often damned hard. Things get broken: patches of skin, parts on the bike, regs on the books.

Rideable jeep trails lace the spectacular steppe that stretches beyond Moab. Were the landscape not incised by 2000 foot deep canyons, the three main districts (Needles, Maze, White Rim) could be linked and toured by jeep as well as bike. Of course, each district makes for a spectacular destination, but stitching all three together with portage, paddle, and push -- now that makes for one hell of a bike trip.

Wilderness photo-journalist Bill Hatcher and Team Mutant members Yod Branch and Steve Garro met me in Moab. Our plan: the Canyonlands Grand Tourismo.

We dared no backcountry permission from the NPS. Our plan was too bold, ambitious, and mostly unconventional. The imaginations of too many rangers have been dulled by dealing with the lowest common denominator of American Culture, the car-camping touron.

Our unfortunate public servants, we feared, would neither believe in nor allow for our trip. First the river crossings would seem out of the question. And second there was that piece of the CFR: in US National Parks [outside of Alaska] bicycle possession off roads or parking lots is subject to fine and/or imprisonment.

This meant dismantling bikes for single track portages. It meant middle ring sprints between campsites made beyond Park boundaries. It meant humping Elephant Hill, each of us with 3 gallons of water, 4 days of food, camping, boating, and biking gear, no permit and an incipient ulcer about getting caught.

We left in the dark, hammering beneath a full moon through the bread box canyons of the Grabens. At dawn we arrived at the "no-bikes" sign welcoming us to th ehead of Lower Red Lake Canyon Trail. Curiously, bike tracks snaked down the trail. We resisted their temptations.

We stopped, stripped, and stepped onto the trail perfectly legal. Not one of us possessed a bicycle. Garro and I wore two frames each around our necks as "double-triangle, perpendicularly indexed pack frames"; Yod and Bill each carried four wheels as "radial-framed satchels".

Using one small raft to portage 4 men and all their equipment demanded innovation. Otherwise we'd be ferrying all day and unable to camp outside the Park boundary and so be legal by nightfall.

In a triage of rule-breaking we decided it a less egregious crime against America for me to possess 4 bikes for 15 minutes while crossing the Colorado at Spanish Bottom, than for four of us to camp inside the Park without the esteemed permission of the public's proxy, the likely outcome of pursuing the no-bike rule.

Perhaps now, at this confession, I risk imprisonment for possession. But I swear, I had no intent to distribute.

"Just say 'NO!', Yod," I pleaded as I beached the far bank and he reached for a bike.

Once across the Colorado we portaged big awkward loads out of the canyon via the Spanish Bottom Trail, reaching the Doll House and the jeep road. Beyond we passed through the Land of Standing Rocks, pedaling sand bogs crusted into rideable conditions by recent snows and no recent vehicles, sprinting for the safety of no-man's-park where we could camp without official papers.

The rest of the trip sped like most accounts of touring the wild jeep roads of Utah: we mined water from iron-colored, rust-flavored springs; we enjoyed day-long downhills dropping off pine clad mesas, coasting past undercut dry-fall drops of 500 feet and sandstone towers of 1000, arriving at the tamarisk-lined Green River in a November desert drizzle.

Of possible use to readers is our crossing of the Green River at Queen Anne's Bottom. Here the White Rim Road comes nearest to the east bank of the Green, before climbing upwards to Holeman Springs Basin and the White Rim proper. On the west side of the Green is another jeep trail which leads into Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and the Maze District. We waded the Green River here, where it braids into two wide channels. Garro balked and Bill fell in, but the crossing was not much deeper than the level of our testicles.

If, like Steve Garro, who was born and raised on an Indian Reservation in Arizona, you prefer not to dip your dry goods into the Green, then can I suggest a packraft? In any case, cross the river and tour beyond.

And whenever possible, avoid government permission for your RIGHT (which lawfully requires NO permission) to walk, camp, and travel by non-damaging means across YOUR PUBLIC lands -- unless you are too timid to try and stand up for your rights and so betray everything fought for by American Revolutionary soldiers.


  1. Thank you to Peggy for uncovering this gem.

  2. Hell yes! Been wanting to do that circle trip (starting and ending in Moab) since 2005. Maybe this fall.

    I hate the dread of breaking rules and waiting to get caught, but my annoyance with the NPS is running high these days. (No boating on McDonald Creek in Glacier between 4/1 and 9/30 due to "resource protection".)

  3. @Sam H: I let her know. She's looking for more stuff....

    @Dave -- I am so close to getting a new bike and so excited to get back in the saddle and ride....but too old and "respectable" to break the rules as I did in my youth....did your packraft show up yet?

  4. Yep, paddled this morning!

  5. inspirational-mad-but inspirational

  6. Dave, give me a shout if you want to do a route like this later this year. I've got a couple other bigger, longer ones in mind linking Fruita, Green River, and Moab.

  7. I enjoyed that, especially having ridden with Yod, Steve, and Bill back-in-the-day. Good times!

  8. oh man, I'm so glad you mentioned the trip w/ Tobin and Underwood. I remember reading that article...Was it in Outside? That was so inspiring. Any chance you have that archived somewhere. I'd love to read it again...and the pictures were great too if I recall.

  9. @ Thomas:

    Maybe this one?

    There's another one that was on the Black Rapids and Susitna Glaciers...I'll try and dig that one up, too.

  10. Thanks Roman! That's the one! The line about using the 6 in adj for a spoon really made me realize back then just how little you need to get by. The image of mealtime it conveys still makes me laugh abit, but it changed the way I approached biking.
    Thanks Again

  11. First time I read that. Great memories. Thanks for writing that down so I know it wasn't just some weird dream I had.
    You Branch


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