Twig Adventures

GC Days 10 & 11: Tapeats and Deer Creek

Wednesday, February 28th 2024
Fossil Camp mile 125.4 to Opposite Deer Creek Camp mile 136.8
11.4 miles, elevation 1962′ (hiking 8.6 miles, minus 2.5 miles missed along the river)

This day was all about getting our hiking game up to speed. But first we had to make it past two Class 7 rapids, Bedrock and Deubendorff Rapids. I rode with Cleve for the first time, which I enjoyed very much. Bedrock is an intimidating rapid, with a giant building-sized boulder splitting the river into 2 halves. Rafts need to nail the right line, otherwise they can get pushed up against the rock and become high-sided (flipped) or stuck. Worse yet, they can go down the left channel, which has huge holes, eddies and ledges. I guess it’s not the most technical rapid utilizing a downstream ferry to pull hard to the right, but I was glad I didn’t have to run it. Rob seemed so confident that it was no big deal that we didn’t even stop to scout it. He ran it first and clean, then Cleve did a masterful job keeping right, no sweat. One raft did get sucked into the pull of the left, hit the rock but took a merciful bounce to the right. It was another close call for that raft but thankfully we all made it through without further problems. The next rapid was just a lot of whitewater, soaking us pretty good. I was glad I was wearing my drysuit again this day.

I was very pleased that we made it 10 miles all the way to Tapeats creek for lunch. I still had high hopes of doing the loop hike from there to Deer creek; though in retrospect, my eagerness for this hike was somewhat foolhardy. Most rafting groups start the hike early in the morning and take all day to complete it. I’d read that it was about 7 miles in length and I had already hiked 2/3rds of the route before. I was very confident in my ability to make it in less than half a day (after all, the part I’d done before from Tapeats/Thunder River confluence to Deer Creek had taken me about 3 hours to go 5 miles, with several stops along the way). I was encouraged by the fact that only Dania and Magnus were keen to tackle the challenge with me, since what I’d seen of their abilities prior to this indicated a high level of fitness. Dania particularly was one of the most energetic people I’d ever met.

We rushed to change into our hiking attire and grab a few items we thought we might need. I’d planned ahead and packed some necessary things that morning: a water filter, snacks, first aid kit, trekking poles, umbrella, headlamp, and my PLB. My only mistake (other than starting the hike too late) was not informing Rob that I had an emergency communication device, as this might have at least put his mind at ease a little more. We set off at 1:40 pm (even later than I’d hoped for) and everything went great for most of the rest of the day. We had to hike high above the creek at the start. A view into the gorge revealed why: there were many waterfalls and deep pools, making travel at river level impossible. Also, the water was running pretty strong, as usual.

The canyon widened and we dropped down to our first crossing. There was a sketchy narrow log, which Magnus glided across easily. Dania tried to butt-scoot across but ended up dipping both her feet just as she was about to reach the other side. I was going to try her approach, then considered just walking across, then decided to go for the tight-rope. I just barely made it. I reassured Dania as best I could that she’d be ok with wet feet, but she was was pretty worried. We didn’t have much of a choice, since the rafts had gone downriver long ago and were expecting us at Deer Creek. They couldn’t go 2.5 miles back up river and I was unsure of the route from Tapeats to Deer Creek that followed along the river. The best way was still forward.

The riparian valley was beautiful and refreshing, thankfully a pretty easy stroll along the creek. Magnus enjoyed the shade of my umbrella, which I lent to him. But I fretted as the miles began to compile. We’d already gone nearly 4 miles by the time we reached the confluence with the Thunder River, much farther than I’d expected. I started my GPS watch as we set off, so I had a precise account for once. Luckily there was an easy log to cross the creek a second time. We started up the switchbacks on the 1000′ climb, which slowed us down. We took a welcomed break on the short side-hike to the waterfall, a must-see in my opinion. The way the Thunder River comes shooting out of the canyon wall was the whole reason to do this trek, after all. It’s such a spectacular sight, one of the top 5 I’ve probably ever seen. I was proud to be able to share it with Dania and Magnus and we took a lot of photos. I also filtered some water, even though we could have drank it straight and been fine.

We were near the top of the climb but still had a bit to go. I was trying hard to encourage the others to keep moving, painfully aware of our shrinking daylight and the distance left. We reached Surprise Valley, a relatively flat section on the Tonto plateau that has incredible views. I pointed to the far end of the valley, describing where we would descend. I thought this would further motivate our pace, now that we didn’t have the arduous climb, but I guess the distance looked pretty daunting. I knew that it would take less than half an hour to get across and just enjoyed the beautiful late afternoon glow. I loved that I got to see this section both in the morning and afternoon from both my hikes, as the direction of the sun highlighted different parts of the canyon. We began the descent into Deer Creek Canyon just as the last rays of sunlight left us, dipping behind the canyon rim. I knew we still had an hour and half of daylight, but figured I’d better get my headlamp out for the ready, just to be safe. I was still fairly confident we’d get back before it became pitch dark.

I recalled the descent as being almost nothing…at least it had been compared to the 8 miles Worm and I had done the day before, crawling down Saddle Canyon on our Hayduke hike. We were so happy just to have a trail to follow that it had seemed effortless. Everything is relative. Now I started to remember bits and pieces, realizing that it was more technical than what most casual hikers are used to. I’d seen Dania going up and down some pretty hairy scrambles before this…heck she jumped off the Elves Chasm waterfall at least 3 times…but the length and steepness of this trail started to get to her. Though we both had trekking poles, we were starting to feel it in our knees. I was much more accustomed to the abuse, and more sure of my feet on such rocky canyon trails. Dania had to take it slow on the treacherous path, fighting hard not to slip or trip. I matched her pace and tried to be as positive and encouraging as possible. We just had to make it to the creek, then it would be an easy stroll the rest of the way. “Only one more mile!” I said, though we were already past the 6 mile mark and I knew there must be 2 more. I intentionally refrained from mentioning the skinny path through the slot canyon, with narrow ledges of only a few feet and long drop offs into the abyss. It would be our final obstacle of the day…er, night that is.

Magnus skipped ahead and unfortunately had Dania’s pack, along with her headlamp. We started running along the well trodden sandy trail next to the creek, trying to catch up and beat the darkness. We caught him at the beginning of the slot and then we all stopped to put our headlamps on. It was just starting to get dark enough to need some light, especially in the tight canyon. At least it’s a pretty short section, with an incredible wavy pathway cutting through the Tapeats layer. It was awesome coming through it in the daylight, and now even more enchanting in the dark. Magnus pointed out petroglyphs of hand prints along the wall. They almost seemed like ghosts in the rocks, reaching out to connect with us. We arrived at the most narrow spot at only about 1 foot wide, gliding past without giving much thought to the distance to the bottom of the canyon. Dania had no idea and couldn’t tell in the dark, but Magnus and I had both passed through the canyon before and were well aware of the potential for a deadly fall. I was carrying everyone’s water bottles in my side pockets and misjudged the bulk of a nalgene bottle, something I wasn’t used to carrying. It bumped once on the side of the canyon, almost throwing me off-balance. Whew, I sighed as we emerged onto the ledge, overlooking the Colorado river.

Immediately we saw the reassuring glow of a fire, still a ways down and on the opposite side of the river, but a sight for sore eyes none-the-less. All day I’d fought back negative what-if thoughts: what if the campsite was taken by the other group, what if our party had to go farther downriver, what if they didn’t see or hear us, or what if we got back so late that everyone was asleep? And further, what if they couldn’t fight the current to get back and forth across the river to pick us up, especially in the dark? I’d lobbied hard to convince the group of camping at the site across the river, having fond memories from when I stayed there just 4 months prior. Now it seemed like my plan had worked out…so far. It was 7:30 pm and we’d made 8.6 miles (according to my GPS watch) in under 6 hours. We pointed our headlamps towards the beach and gave a loud whoop of success and recognition, blowing a few whistles for good measure. We got an immediate response of cheers and jaunts. I can’t describe how happy and proud I was at that moment to be reunited with our group. They later recalled how relieved they were as well, especially Rob. Apparently he was quite sure he’d lost us, similar to the 3 that disappeared during the Powell Expedition. They were never heard from again, probably killed by Indians or Mormons, but they also didn’t have a device that could send an emergency signal to a satellite…I did. In retrospect, we really should have taken one of the Garmin InReach devices and sent regular texts instead. That would have gone a long way in soothing concerns on both ends. Lesson learned.

We tediously picked our way down the remaining switchbacks, which proved to be a lot more difficult in the dark. I remembered some important junctions, but I also took a few wrong turns, leading to a cliff. By the time we made it to the beach, the yellow cataraft was waiting for us. It was the lightest boat, therefore the easiest to row against the current. Charlie, our consummate and always-game-for-anything captain, had generously volunteered to fetch us. We all took up paddles and helped him row upriver in the eddy, then across. The rest of our amazing party had saved some dinner for us and welcomed us into the fire circle. What a homecoming! Then I realized just how worried and upset Rob was, which made me feel terrible. All things considered, the 3 of us had smashed the hike and gotten back at a pretty reasonable hour. I was also happy for getting to experience Deer Creek Narrows in the dark, which was a really unique experience. We didn’t even have one mishap, besides wet feet. But we never should have taken on such a hike, so late in the day. It was a judgement call that would have been fine for myself, but probably wasn’t fair to the group. I also felt bad that Dania’s knees had been troubling her so much. They might have been fine at a slower pace.

We put all this behind us and just enjoyed the night. I was feeling very energized from the hike, not tired in the least. But I still needed to set up my camp. This too proved to be easy, since I already knew just the spot for my tent. I easily relocated my site from 4 months before, scaling the small ledge from memory, darkness be damned. The sandy flat site was perfectly cleared, just as I’d left it. My tent was up in minutes and I was back at the fire in no time. All’s well that ends well.

Thursday, February 29th 2024
Opposite Deer Creek Camp mile 136.8
0 miles, elevation 1962′ (hiking 3 miles)

I lobbied to take a layover day at this site, since the hike through Deer Creek Narrows ought to be enjoyed by the whole group. I was glad that most everyone agreed, even if the campsite wasn’t the best and the paddle back and forth across the river was kind of a pain. The trip leader from the other rafting group I’d stayed with on my Hayduke hike had made it look so easy. He rowed over to get Worm and me in the early evening, inviting us into their camp for the night. It barely looked like any effort going back across, yet it had taken all of Charlie’s strength and 3 other paddlers to get across the night before. Maybe the river was higher or stronger? Despite this, about 8 of us rallied in the morning to go across to the waterfall. Once there, I took the opportunity to bathe, wash clothes and relax. Later, I hiked up the creek a few miles. I wasn’t feeling very motivated this day, so I went back to hang out at the ledge and enjoy the view. I missed rafting through the most narrow part of the canyon but at least I could see it from the ledge. Magnus was there, creating one of his many masterpieces. He was our resident artist on this trip and had already painted a canvas for almost every day.

While on the ledge, I stared at the far side of the river for a bit, trying to discern a bighorn sheep among the rocks. Worm and I had spotted a ram last time and I wondered, if by chance, I could see him again. Sure enough, after just a minute, I picked out the form of another ram, perhaps even the same one I’d seen before. He was directly above our camp, almost in the same spot. I couldn’t believe it! Magnus and I watching him move slowly along the ledges, mesmerized by his grace and agility. Apparently this was his favorite territory, which he occasionally had to share with rafters. I was also quite taken by a pair of mallard ducks that were swimming around the base of the waterfall. We’d seen hundreds of ducks along the canyon, which made me reflect on just how amazing they are. Their bodies are basically rafts and submarines, which means they can go down any rapid, surf, dive, fly and walk…there basically isn’t anything they can’t do! Being a duck wouldn’t be so bad, I think. Finally we all went back to the other side of the river late in the day, taking it easy the rest of the night. Not much else to say about this day.

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