Packrafting the Escalante River at low water provides a sneak peek of a possible apocalypse

The quicksand took me to my knees, and I sank deeper as I flailed my arms and legs. This tortured landscape, once a pristine river corridor, is now entrapped in silt from a declining man-made lakebed. As the sediment crept into my membranes, I surrendered by lying across its surface.

The Escalante River meanders far beyond any road or human dominion. For 90 miles the river twists and turns through a sandstone corridor lending itself to a unique riparian habitat. Since Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was established in 1996, extensive invasive plant eradication and cooperation from local ranchers has helped to restore Escalante’s canyons and watershed.

packrafting escalante river sandstone spire
Early optimism had us ready to paddle. However, no paddles required!Morgan Sjogren

These are some of the most pristine and beautiful waterways of the Southwest, connected to what is considered one of the last rivers to be mapped in the Lower 48. Today the Escalante is no longer a secret, affirmed by the presence of Boy Scouts, families and tourists visiting its canyons.

Yet it has a secret: though it is undammed and flows freely in its upper reaches, its lower end is being humiliated at the hands of man.

To get to this impasse was no small task. The work began even before starting the hike through bone dry washes, thorny invasive species and cow shit. The nearest town of Escalante, Utah, is one of the most remote in the west. From there it still takes hours of driving the washboarded Hole-In-The-Rock road before turning toward the trailhead down the sandiest Jeep trail imaginable.

To create a shuttle for a loop route, my hiking companion volunteered the use of his motorcycle. This saved us very little time, as our load was not suited to the deep sand. In short order the sand overtook the tires and launched both of us and our heavy packs into the dirt, face first. Feeling like I’d been punched in the gut, I spit sand from my teeth and looked out at the Mad Max world awaiting ahead.

From my seat in the dirt, I hitched a ride down the final stretch of road to the trailhead with a passing search and rescue vehicle. With little option, my partner walked the motorcycle most of the remaining distance.

flower packrafting escalante river
Shallow but flowing at the start, the Escalante has a secret downriver.Morgan Sjogren

The loop itself was a perceived thing of beauty. The objective: to backpack from the trailhead down to the Escalante River in the afternoon, make camp, and then float past the confluence of the Escalante and Colorado rivers to Lake Powell the next morning. Arriving at Lake Powell, we’d paddle two miles to our takeout, pack up our packrafts and hike a tributary canyon back up to my Jeep.

It sounded fun, despite the fact that we had not checked the water flow. We did not realize the prime packraft season had long passed on this desert river and we were deep into a drought year.

At the river we excitedly inflated our Alpacka rafts. We launched into a few inches of water, occasionally using paddles and feet to help scoot along. As the water thinned we started walking alongside to keep the rafts from dragging along the bottom. Eventually, the boats had to be pulled with a rope like a leashed animal. Not 10 miles later, the river disappeared altogether, and we were left with little choice but to carry our boats.

Though we should have been nearing the confluence with the Colorado River, I was face down, literally crawling across a new man-made ecotone — a dying lake bed. The flies buzzed around my sunburnt face. Resting my cheek against the cool mud that smelled of mold and must, the momentary respite provided a semblance of quenched thirst. Not expecting to need water on a float of a freaking river, an hour or more passed without water in searing heat. I contemplated licking the mud.

I imagined a world without water. I also imagined a world without food, as the remaining rations were a package of mustard-flavored sardines, black coffee and half a pack of cigarettes. I never needed to smoke, but this trip affected my mind. 

The Southwest is well into a decade of drought and heat escalation. The Glen Canyon dam, which helped create this foul mess at the edges of Lake Powell, was built in 1963 to store water and generate hydroelectric energy for major cities in Arizona, California and Utah.

From my vantage point on the ground, I looked up at the “bathtub ring,” a white line stained across the sandstone wall reflecting a high-water mark from long ago. While it is a relief to consider the possibility of this canyon and others reemerging from their underwater burial, it is haunting to lie almost 90 feet beneath obvious net water losses. In fact, over recent years Lake Powell has experienced its lowest water levels since its pre-dam era as a living river.

escalante river packrafting boatwalking
Eventually, the boats had to be pulled with a rope like a leashed animal.Morgan Sjogren

Could someone in Phoenix turning on a faucet imagine us, slogging through the muck dragging boats where the not-so-eternal water source used to be?

I pulled my face off the ground, and one hand at a time I caressed the surface. As I gingerly slid my hands across the mud, followed one by one by my shins, in a delicate crawl I was allowed passage. In slowly leaving behind the terrors of the quicksand, I remained aware that there is a beautiful canyon beneath this hostile layer of sludge. The ghastly white mark tracing the canyon walls above is ever-present, serving to remind us of the presence of Lake Powell. It had to be near.

With my head down I crawled forward, until I stopped at the sound of a familiar squeal. Perhaps a bird? I looked up to spot a power boat in the distance, expecting the expanse of mud stretching between me and its bow to be a mirage. But there, standing on a deck, a woman in a hot pink bikini stood flailing her arms, making what sounded like party noises. I risked sinking to rise and wave my arms. “Hey!” The woman shifted her stance and looked toward me.

She motioned to her friends. They pointed and chattered, watching me slog toward the lake shore. As my partner and I drew near, both of us fully covered in thick black mud, I noted several anchored boats. On nearly every boat at least one person took photographs of us, the two swamp creatures approaching shore.

In the midst of the distractions, I realized my paddle fell off of my pack. I floundered back across the muck to retrieve it. My partner, still far behind struggling in quicksand, had yet to look up. I called to him. His response: “This sucks!” Literally.

The boaters had ample time to capture video, post footage to social media and crack open another beer while we labored to the shore. I could not help but laugh (or maybe curse) at this bizarre disconnected world we live in. Modern life in the Wild West can be stranger than science fiction.

At the lake, I shimmied face down and slid into the stagnant, murky water. I drank deeply, not caring whether the water was laced with boat gasoline and human feces. When my partner arrived, we rinsed mud from our bodies and readied our packrafts. Launching toward the enclave of onlookers, I expected to simply paddle by, thinking only of crossing nearly 2 miles of flat water. I had nothing to say, or so I thought, as we approached the bewildered boaters. They asked if we were OK. I looked up at them lining the deck of the shiny white vessel, and muttered, “Yes. Beer?”

muddy feet chacos desert
The sediment creeps into the author’s membranes.Morgan Sjogren

Unbelievably, we are handed a generous six-pack of beer (yet no clean drinking water, although in all fairness it was not the request). After thanking them we paddled off into the seemingly vast and bottomless desert sea — across the grave site of Glen Canyon.

Not even the most elaborate trick (a dam) can convince the Colorado Plateau to retain water in this unnatural way. Even the record-breaking snowpack in mountain ranges that feed Lake Powell can override unrelenting heat and evaporation. No monkey wrench is necessary to foil the plans of a dam and a lake that was never in nature’s plan.

I chugged my beer and turned to paddle fervently for the next canyon while contemplating where I should cache the extra beer. I could already envision a west without water, or worse, and I knew very well what my last words will be.

MORGAN SJOGREN is a free-range raconteur typically found roaming wild in the Colorado Plateau, but is now quarantined in Southwest Colorado. This story is a behind-the-scenes glimpse of her third book, The Best Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Hikes (2019).

For more on bikepacking and packrafting near Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, check out “Sufferpacking” by Cole Davis.