Sunday, April 12, 2009

Dad's Easter Letter on Canyoneering

This is an email that my father sent to the parents of Boy Scout Troop 171 in response to some drama queen's piece in the NY Times. My two cents: This NY Times writer is enthusiastic and awestruck-- and the canyons need people like that. But he has no clue what he is doing. Pardon me for being protective but when ignorance meets canyoneering, one usually sees either dead newbs or damaged wilderness. I've walked by too many pictographs that have been destroyed by yokels with high powered rifles. I digress.

Here's my dad's letter:

Dear Troop 171 Family,

_______, mother of Scout ________, sent me a link to the lead article in today's New York Times Travel Section, which is about the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument GSENM), where the Mini Adventure crew spent a delightful Spring Break this year. Here are a few thoughts on the piece and canyons in general.

A photo of Spooky Canyon fills half of the front page of the Travel Section. My heart fell upon seeing that photo, for it means that more people will invade that area and degrade it. I know that my attitude is a selfish one, but these desert areas are delicate and cannot stand a lot of traffic. Troop 171 used to hike Paria Canyon (which we are planning to do next Spring Break) with no permits necessary, but then it appeared twice on the cover of Backpacker Magazine and now is very difficult to gain access. When I put up a website about last summer's ________ Canyon trip, I purposely named that area "Beast Canyon" and did not refer to it by name.

Here are a few lines from the NYT article and some crusty comments from a Troop 171 desert rat:

"When I made a pilgrimage there last summer, I didn’t pass a single car, let alone a sign of human habitation." That's because you went in the summer, ace. Anyone with any sense goes to GSENM in the spring or fall, as the troop does. You also didn't mention the possibility of flash floods, which periodically kill people, and are most likely during summer months. That's another reason we do Utah canyons in the spring. Take a look at this video of a GSENM canyon flash flood. If someone were in Spooky when one of those came through, he'd be toast.

"After a few false leads, I made it to Peek-a-Boo Canyon, whose hard-to-spot entrance was surrounded by what looked like a shallow pool." Dude, the entrance to Pee-A-Boo is about 30 feet high.

"I took a step in and sank straight up to my thighs in thick mud." Wish we had been there to see that. If you went desert hiking by yourself, that was Mistake Number Two. See Aaron Ralston for possible consequences. Suggest you carry a sharp knife on future solo hikes.

"As the sun continued to climb in the sky, I wished for my own Ute guide — or at least a GPS tracking system." How about a map?

"Hugging the canyon wall for shade, I pressed on heroically and found Spooky Canyon, named for its otherworldly atmosphere. It was only an 18-inch-wide crack in the rock, but to me it yawned like the gateway to Shangri-La." Heroically? A few weeks ago we had a bunch of 12-year-olds who ate that canyon up. And in 2008 our crew hiked Spooky in the daytime and then came back to do it again in the dark. If you are a hero, then our Scouts are superheroes.

"Finally, I drank the last of my water and staggered across the rock like a sun-struck character out of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” I was parched, scratched, encrusted with mud — but triumphant." No, I'd say you were more like someone from "City Slickers."

* * *

One over-excited NYT writer aside, GSENM is a wonderful place to go, as a Scout troop or a family. My wife and I went there last fall and hiked Spooky and Peek-A-Boo. It's amazing to me how many travelers will make a beeline from national park to national park, ignoring these wonderful canyons that always have only a fraction of the human traffic. The book that the Troop uses to select our Spring Break destinations is a self-published book by Michael Kelsey.

Kelsey is an odd duck--he spells "photo" as "foto" and has a very idiosyncratic style of writing, but he is The Man when it comes to canyons. To explore all of the canyons he chronicles, he apparently runs down them. When the Troop first did __________ over a decade ago, we noted that Kelsey hiked it in 17 hours, so we figured it might take our rugged crew three days. It took five. As Scout ______, who shows some promise as a phrase-maker himself, put it last summer, __________ is "Having fun while nature kicks your arse."

I have several Kelsey books and others on Utah if anyone would like to borrow them.

Pardon this longwinded post on a gray Easter morning. I take enormous joy and satisfaction from these desert trips. I'm used to going with the older Scouts, but hiking with the younger guys has its own delights. As fathers Tom Kroenke and Mark Horwitch and I squeezed our way through Spooky Canyon not three weeks ago, we could hear the Scouts up ahead of us encouraging each other as they climbed over and under the various obstacles. Shouts of "This is awesome!" and laughter filled the air. They had a wonderful time, and so did I. I'm already thinking about next year's trip.

Yours in canyoneering,


1 comment:

Walker said...

I wholeheartedly agree. One thing Jeff doesn't mention is that the massive influx of people to Paria Canyon has resulted in more effects than simply having trouble getting permits. The amount of fecal matter has stacked up (in some cases literally) to the point where for the first 24-hours or so in the canyon you have to carry wag-bags to carry your own. Having Campsite overrun with crap is a little more impactful than permit issues. Jeff points out that the New York Times author went in summer, when flash-floods are at their greatest danger. And as the author mentions "I finished the last of my water," so how many canyon Noobs are going to not a take enough water into canyons in the desert now. A sharp knife indeed.