Narrows IV: Riding the Lightning

I’m not quite a year behind on travel posts yet.

Last summer, I went with (led?) the River Heights 4th young men on a trip through the Narrows. This marked the third consecutive year of doing a trip through the Narrows (c.f., 2016, 2017).

I didn’t take my camera on this one because I was trying to live in the moment for once. Plus, I’ve probably taken enough photos in my life that badly convey that, hey, this canyon is kind of narrow. But for the sake of visual interest, here’s a photo on the walk back from dinner at a pretty meh cafe near the campground we stayed at.

This trip was way more fun than I thought it would be. All the kids were easy — helpful even.

It was also more exciting than I thought it would be.

It had been raining a lot during July (this trip was in July). During our cruise through the park the afternoon before our morning departure, it was clear that the rains had left the river very muddy — the 2016 and 2017 versions had a perfectly clear river. So, while that seemed a little unfortunate, from a weather perspective it looked like we had a pretty clear two-day window to complete the hike.

The night before we left, we were camping at a campground in the park. It was hot. This isn’t the exciting part. The temps were still in the mid-80s at 10 PM, though. I was intending to sleep in the back of my car. It was hot there. At 11, while everyone else (three other adults, nine teenage kids) was restlessly tossing in their tents, I got in the driver’s seat of my car, turned the engine over, and started up the A/C.

Then it occurred to me that, since I wasn’t sleeping, maybe I should take a little drive in the A/C (so the engine wouldn’t keep anyone awake).

Then it occurred to me that, so long as I got back to camp early enough the next morning, no one would probably care if I happened to have slept in my car or elsewhere.

Verizon had good coverage in the park. There was a brand new hotel in La Verkin with a $99 room available. So I booked it, drove 45 minutes to La Verkin, slept four hours, then drove 45 minutes back to the campsite so I could be there before 5 AM reverie.

We got the kids up and moving at 5, struck camp (I think I’m using that word right), packed up, then headed over to the park visitor’s center to meet the 6 AM van that would take us to the trailhead.

The van was, of course, late, and the ride to the trailhead was uneventful despite the company having told us the week before that, depending on the weather conditions, they might end up having to drop us off a mile from the trailhead because the road would be washed out. (It wasn’t, we were dropped off at the trailhead.)

So then we started in on the hike. As we would find out later, about an hour after we hit the trail, the Parks Service changed its canyon weather forecast from “flash floods possible” (the default forecast during most of the summer) to “flash floods probable” (meaning everyone would likely die).

Anyway. Once we got into it, the river was very muddy. Going was slower than it had been the two years previous since you couldn’t see where your next step was going to land. Was glad I’d told everyone that trekking poles weren’t optional (and that Dave, one of the leaders who didn’t come, had access to a wide array of used ski poles for the kids).

Our group was a little big (there were 13 of us total; don’t worry, the NPS has since “put my name on a list” for having too large a group) and we therefore had two campsites reserved (for which I’m also supposedly listed). We ended up splitting up our group with the faster hikers going to the further campsite.

We came upon the campsite at about 4:30. The trail off the river and into the campsite was a little vague, though. I tried to climb up the bank and stepped into a deep mud-hole that took me about thigh-deep into mud (and waist-deep into the water). The harder I tried to get out, the deeper I sank.

Fortunately there were other people there, and Matt, one of the young men who’d already made it ashore, pulled me out of there.

Everyone in our advanced group started setting up camp. Since this was southern Utah, which is a hot, dry place, and likely in part because of how miserably hot, dry it had been the night before, no one in our group (other than me) brought a tent with them. So it was kind of a happy moment when, after about 20 minutes, the light rain that had come stopped.

I checked my GPS transmitter for the night’s weather some time after dinner: 10% chance of 0.05″ of rain. And then around 10:30 the thunderstorm hit and continued most of the night, coming down in east coast-style waves. Which was fine for me — I had a tent and a rain fly. Just a little loud and a couple times I woke up wondering how high the river was and how close I was to floating away in it.

It was never that high. I was fine. That was the exciting part.

Next morning we walked the rest of the way back into the park. A couple miles from the end was a ranger checking the permits of every group with backpacks. She was the one who put my name on a list. They became aware of our too-large group when all the kids parents started calling the ranger station to see if their kids had drowned.