Ely and I have been planning a return to the lower end of Chinle Wash ever since our last trip up the canyon last year. It was only for a couple hours then, and we saw so much and wanted to explore more, but we didn't have the time. We were running the river, and had to make Lime Creek by dusk, so we turned around at the world famous Baseball Man pictograph with longing glances at high alcoves perched in the distant salmon cliffs. "Next year," we said, "we'll get up there."
When we got our San Juan River permits this year, I knew we were in luck. We began plotting and planning while I poured over a map. I wanted to get to those high alcoves hanging along the western face of Comb Ridge. The river was to be our highway. A layover at the Chinle delta was in order, and a full day allotted to exploring the lower Chinle.
The trip itself was slow in coming together, as friends and relations agreed and then backed out. Our passenger list firmed up only in the last week or so; Cubbie, a friend from college working as a geologist in Phoenix. Sarah, a teacher from St. George. Brandi, another St. George teacher whom we had never met, but who Sarah thought highly of. We gathered in the afternoon in Page and caravaned up to Bluff and the Recapture Lodge on Friday. I was giving a talk that evening about the condor reintroduction here in the southwest, which turned out to be a larger success than I had imagined. Dinner was at the Cottonwood Steakhouse, though we were driven indoors halfway through our stay due to a dust storm. These afternoon storms would come to mark our stay along the San Juan, blowing in around 3 and blowing out by 5, just in time to light the campfire for the evening. When we arrived back at the Recapture, it was discovered that our right rear tire on the Explorer had gone flat, and we spent a few minutes changing it out before retiring for the evening.
The next morning was launch day, and we were up and around early. We loaded our bags and headed to Sand Island in the AM. Wild Rivers was just finishing up rigging their boats for a day trip, but we were the first private group on the ramp. The solitude didn't last long, however, as trailer after trailer of rafts, cats, kayaks, and canoes began piling up along the shoreline. The river had come up significantly since leaving Page, and was running around 4900 cfs when we put in. We pulled away from the shore before anyone else, save the WRE daytrip, and floated blissfully down the calm stretch of the San Juan, taking in the sights at Butler Wash and River House. I hauled on the oars at the base of Lime Ridge and nosed The Black Mongoose's orange rubber nose onto the sand above Chinle Wash around 2pm. This beach would be our basecamp for the next two nights.
The following morning we lazed around in camp more than I would have liked. While I was up at the crack of light, before the sun crested Comb Ridge, other members of our group didn't emerge from the tent until almost 9am. Several other groups came down the river while we sat around, twiddling our thumbs and eating breakfast. A two cataraft group landed, hiked up the Chinle, and was returning to their boats just as we were cleaning up our plates. I'm not sure how well I hid my impatience, bustling around the campsite like a nervous mosquito. I'd been waiting a year to get back on that stretch of trail, and every minute we lagged behind in camp was time we wouldn't be exploring the Chinle through Comb Ridge.
Finally everyone was dressed and had their packs loaded to their satisfaction. We hit the trail at 10am, climbing easily up the sandy trail off the beach and onto the gravel bench. The trail wound its way through shaley badlands littered with cobblestones the size of mellons before giving way to Navajo Sandstone cliffs as the beds of Comb Ridge leveled out. We passed a midden with no dwelling nearby - likely eroded away by a nearby arroyo. The trail continued into a willow thicket and then down to the gently flowing Chinle Creek. We crossed on shallow bedrock and continued upcanyon on a bench by large, shady cottonwoods. A brief stop at Baseball Man stretched as we lazed in the shade, hiding from the sun. We talked, joked, and eventually scouted a route up to the bench on the far canyon wall. Time to make good on it. We slip and slide down to the Chinle, flowing only ankle deep across a bed of quickmud. Nasty going. Whacking through willows on the far bank, and then a relatively easy scramble up a bare rock ledge. I see the remnants of an old wall crossing the ledge, and beyond it the remains of a slightly more recent barbed-wire fence.
Soon afterwards, we'd reached the bench, dotted with sagebrush and yucca. The alcoves hung in the cliff above like black stars in a red sky. A wrinkle appears in our plans as we head across the sandy bench, however. Below the enormous alcove is a pourover, apparently impassible. We find several pools of water under the pourover. We thought it might be a good place to tank up, but then Cubbie noted several dead frogs and a dead lizard in the pools. Very odd. He suggests that the water may be toxic. Perhaps. But why the tadpoles and tadpole shrimp thriving in them? I've got plenty of water in either case, but it seems to me that it should be drinkable. I've got other worries on my mind, such as is the alcove reachable, and can we get back down if we get up? I've spotted some Moki steps halfway up to the ruin, but its a question of how to get up to them, and then where to go when the steps run out. There's a series of exfoliation fractures that might take up to the steps ledge, so I try them out alone. I'm the guinea pig.
It's kind of an interesting ascent, but I reach a shallow ledge (about three inches across) and am (barely) able to hoist myself up onto the Moki Steps. They are "keyed", meaning you have to start off on the right foot or you'd get stuck half-way up. I get it right though and scale the cliff to a small ledge. There are ancient trail marks leading towards the lip of the pourover, and from there it should be an easy scramble to the dwelling. Unfortunately the trail has lost a section to a boulder fall sometime since 1300, and as I step around a ridge I find my foot suspended over 70 feet of air. Mmm. Carefully hugging the cliff, I turn around and make my way back to the top of the Moki Steps. "This is a no-go," I shout to my companions. Sarah, Ely, and Cubbie are climbing a crack that looks a hell of a lot easier than my Moki step approach. They see another crack that might go all the way to the level of the alcove, but they want me to test it out first, since I'm already halfway up. Sure. I'm game. I gingerly make my way along the ledge (portions of which are also missing) to the crack. It is almost easy compared to the earlier sections, so I quickly gain the next ledge. I see immediately that the route to the upper alcove is impossible - a vertical wall becoming overhanging, with only a pencil thin crack leading upwards. With technical gear? Probably. But not today. I cautiously work my way towards the large alcove, and find that despite some last-minute narrow parts, the route goes! I rush back to the top of the crack, whooping. Sarah begins her cautious upclimb, from a section I cannot see. It looks from the top like she is overcoming an overhanging wall. Once she gets into the part I climbed, it goes faster, but she boogies past my sitting position near the end to get back on flat ground. Ely follows, even more cautiously, but she makes it as well. I am sweating bullets seeing her climb, but I breathe a big sigh of relief as she makes it past me. Gathering back together at the crack's end. We had a big round of smiles and then walked along over to the alcove.
We dropped our packs at the mouth of the alcove, by some bedrock petroglyphs, and began exploring. The back of the alcove was a work of art in itself, a monument to groundwater sapping. Rays of concentric fractures radiated out up to the ceiling, and a line of seepage allowed for almost of jungle of wild berry plants. Two set of buildings line either side of the alcove, which is not nearly as large as it first appeared, with a sunken depression between them. On the outside of the depression stands a chimney-like structure; the remains of a ventilator shaft for a kiva. Potsherds, flakes, bones, and wooden implements litter the ground. Bottlebrush plants are in bloom, and the view from the alcove is astonishing, taking in the potholes far below, the gash of the Chinle Wash canyon, and Lime Ridge in the distance, with a green line demarking the San Juan River. What a place! I head north along a thin ledge to another adjacent alcove, noting a historic inscription I can't read next to some ancient rock art. There is the remains of a storage structure, standing alone, with just its slab foundations, but I can read the tumbled-down rocks. There used to be a fronting wall, and a couple more buildings. Whether they have eroded due to natural causes or the hand of man is unknown; all I can say is that they're no longer standing.
I find an obsidian flake in the shelter of a Sacred Datura. I wonder where they brought it in from. Several more sharp flakes litter the edge of the nearby midden. I head towards the lip of the ledge. Sarah says, "Be careful, Rob." I'm a little bit irked (I've been in places like this a lot more than she has), but more grateful that someone is watching my back. If she's looking out for me, and I for her, etc., maybe we can avoid making a stupid and potentially lethal mistake in the future. I acknowledge her advice, and make my way across the lower ledge, back towards the entrance to the alcove, passing more plants, pot sherds, and a few other things that have special resonance in such a place.
Once again, on the way out, we pass by post holes on the upper ledge, where no doubt the original inhabitants had erected a wall to prevent unwanted entrants, forcing all comers through the treacherous lower passage. I downclimb the crack first, the others unsure if it is doable. I'm certain it is, and am right, though it takes a while to find the right foot placement lower in the crack, as it narrows and becomes vertical. We regroup with the Brandi and Cubbie at the pools, and sink into what shade we can find to eat our lunch.
Our hike back to camp is not a direct path, as we scout the edge of the bench for ruins and routes to Duck Head. Eventually we give up, finding lots of neat sherds but no way down. After backtracking to the original slickrock ramp we reach the panel. Strange bird-headed humans appear to be engaged in some sort of combat while a recumbent Kokopelli plays his flute near an enormous quail. And other such oddities. We ohh and ahh and stare for a while, and come to the conclusion that a beer and a dip in a cold river would be just the thing. We recross Chinle Wash by the beaver dam and trek cross country again, through a leafy, shady Cottonwood grove. Then it is back across the Chinle, this time at a bedrock crossing, and then into the blazing desert. Over ancient gravel bars and past the exposed midden, passing Panda-faced donkeys who gaze at us as though we are specters in this arid landscape, we begin our final descent along the sandy trail into camp. A Great Blue Heron is rousted from his (her?) nest and flaps languidly away from us - even it is feeling the heat. Down to camp, where we strip off shoes and packs. I grab some bottles from the cooler and Cubbie and I climb into the frigid water. I can't think of a better way to end the day; sipping an ice-cold Oak Creek in the wilderness while clouds and the river roll by, each in their own direction. We've gotta get back in there again...
||Wildflowers Observation Light