The Choadakee Lake Boys Ride Again
Last year, a group of friends set out into the middle of the Painted Desert to explore the untrammeled backcountry along the Hopi/Navajo border. Spurred by our success, Curtis, Matt, Marques, and myself laid plans to reach the seldom-visited Chaol Falls, deep in a side canyon of Navajo Canyon. Unless you are Navajo, or have a Navajo friend with you (and the grazing leaseholder's permission) this trip is basically impossible for outsiders.
Curtis attempted to contact the leaseholder several days before our departure to no avail. On Monday, we headed out anyway, stopping by the homestead and leaving a note saying exactly where we were going and how long we would be gone. Then, on to the end of the road and down into the canyon.
We ran into ominous signs almost right away. There was a pile of bones next to the trailhead, presumably from a sheep. This we ignored and continued down the trail. We curved across a sandy wash and then found an old road which crossed a bench on the south side of the canyon. Considering this was an obvious, easy route, we followed it. We passed beneath a sandy orange hoodoo like a hooded figure, rounded a bend, and a horse whinnied at us. We all froze and looked around.
Down the slope was a mysterious figure and a saddled horse. We discussed for a minute. Should we go down and talk. I said yes. Matt was unsure. Marques and Curtis were for it, but concerned since neither speaks excellent Navajo. "Just leave us pale-faces out of it," I advised them, and down they went. Matt brought out his binoculars and we followed their progress. The talking appeared animated and agitated at times. Finally Matt said, "I think we're good - they're giving her money." A good sign indeed. The two returned with good news. At first, the old grandma didn't want any of us out here, but then she relented seeing that two of the group were Navajo. She was okay with them being there, but not with us two Anglos. After a bit of discussion (and some cash), she finally agreed to let all of us go through as long as we were only staying one night.
Despite this happy resolution, nerves were somewhat frazzled. We continued along the road/trail until coming to a point. We dropped our packs and Curtis suggested that we camp on this lofty sandy saddle for the night. He pointed out the trail ahead of us - across a sandy flat, up to a red butte, then down into the canyon to the right. We contemplated this. It was a majestic view, and would make a spectacular sunrise vista. But...
"Why don't we hike out to the red butte?" I suggested.
"That means we'll have to carry our stuff across the sand," Curtis replied.
"Yeah, but we'll be able to spend more time in the canyon tomorrow. Besides, we still have two hours of daylight. What are we going to do here?"
He liked my logic and mentioned it to the others. Soon we found ourselves trucking across a disused ATV trail, slogging across decently consolidated sand. Curtis was in the lead, with me right behind and the other two close on my heels. All of a sudden, Curtis pulled up short.
"Check it out!"
There, on the track in front of us was a small rattlesnake - my first rattlesnake ever seen on a hike. I thought that when I moved down to Casa Grande I'd see more rattlers, and I was right. But the rattler was back up in my old backyard! She seemed somewhat irked at our presence and slithered into a bush where she was perfectly concealed. We took some photos and left her in peace. As we continued along, Curtis remarked to me, "You know, in Navajo that's a bad omen. In Hopi, its a good one."
"Well, maybe because we know a Hopi or two, it will even out?" They liked my logic, and we all joked our way along until we got to our campsite for the evening: the red butte.
The view was spectacular, and after setting up our campsite for the evening we set about constructing a campfire. We watched the moon rise between Navajo Mountain and Tsa Eskezi before being eaten by the clouds. As the night grew on, we alternated between telling scary hiking stories and Marques sharing stories about going to wild parties in Las Vegas (along with video from his iPhone). That was certainly a new experience for me for a backcountry campsite. My dinner sucked, due to it being stupidly old, but fortunately Marques had brought an extra soup so I was able to eat something - something good tasting even. The moon soared through the sky behind the clouds, making strange glowing shapes: an eye, a ring, a skull. Eventually we let the fire die down, the moon casting a pale glow over the canyons. To our tents we all crawled to await the morning. I was only woken once, when Curtis my tent-mate started yelling my name. I responded that I was right there, and he told me, "The sheep! The sheep!" He then woke up, told me he had a bad dream, and went back to bed. I did too.
I woke up just as the sky was getting bright to the east. I grabbed my camera, headed to a tree to take a leak, and got to the fire just in time to catch the first crisp rim of the sun breach the horizon. We watch the canyons come alive under a cloudless sky, then have breakfast and break camp. Plan for the day - hike down to the falls, hike back to camp, and then hike back to the truck. Lots of hiking! We'll leave our backpacking gear at the campsite and take only the essentials - water, food, and cameras.
The trail is indistinct and we get off of it easily, only to rejoin it near a V Notch in the sandstone. We zig-zag down, passing a horse skeleton and onto the original trail, built in 1934 and marked with slashes of white paint. Kaibeto Canyon opens in front of us as we draw closer to the rim. Finally we hit a limestone ledge and we can see the creek far far below us. The trail switchbacks down in a few broad sweeps to the sandy bank at the creek's edge. Downward we go.
Only, when we get down to the sandy bank at the creek's edge, the creek is actually some 50 feet below us! Curtis and Marques are stunned! A few years ago they did this same hike and were able to walk from the sand directly into the wash. Talk about erosion! We search around for some 15 minutes, looking for a way down. Matt finds a crack that he shimmies down. The rest of us slide down a sand slope, Curtis slamming his tailbone at the same time. The we hike off upstream, crossing the creek every 40 feet or so. The view is gorgeous - red rocks, green trees, gurgling creek. We wind this way and that, then suddenly the canyon narrows up, the banks gone. I climb a sand slope, following Curtis, while Matt and Marques wade directly upstream. The roar of the falls was clearly audible, and over an old rotten fence we came upon them.
Chaol Falls (called Pinon Falls on the topo maps) may be the most surreal set of waterfalls I have ever come across. Crystal-clear water dove over a limestone ledge and then wound its way through numerous channels before plummeting into interwoven slot canyons, knit through with natural bridges. The channels themselves were organic and fluid, like the water that was sculpting them. Set at the bottom of a thousand-foot canyon with cottonwoods setting a backdrop, there are likely few prettier locations for a waterfall. Not tall or wide, but something strange, surreal and fairyland make Chaol Falls stick to the mind.
I laid down across the cool rock and took a nap, while Matt and Marques walked around an abandoned meander further upstream. We met back up at a rock art panel upstream with a half-sized bighorn, and then descended back to the falls. Curtis was back around, so we all pumped some water and settled in for the last part of the big day. It was 12:30 and we still had to climb out of the canyon, follow the old trail back to camp, cross the sand flats, hop on the old road, and get back to the truck.
We make good time heading upstream, and then conquer the sand hill at the base of the trail. We push hard and make the limestone lens in one push. Breaktime, then up the ridgeline in one push. Breaktime. Talk becomes short. Pictures cease being taken. We are men on a mission. Up to the saddle below the V Notch. Breaktime. Past the horse bones and up to the V Notch, where we take our final break before hitting the campsite. We notice fresh footprints wearing sneakers. Sketchy. Then a blue ATV sitting in the shade of a tree. No one around. I feel like I am in a Tony Hillerman movie. We push on up to camp, following the fresh ATV tracks. Our gear is still around and in good condition. We spend about half an hour in camp, and then grit our teeth to set out across the sand flats. We push through the sand, much less consolidated than before. A truck appears on the far ridge, on the old road we'll be taking. We all start inventing crazy scenarios about what this all means. No rattlesnake this time. We take a break at the top of a sand hill, our legs screaming. All talk has ceased on the hike, just sweat and pushing ourselves. One more push and we are up at the old road, where I made the suggestion to continue on to the red dome the day before. We start to rest, but then Marques spies a figure ridding towards us on horseback. We share a look. "Remember that show Mantracker I was telling you about?" I ask.
"I've been thinking about that since the ATV."
"Yeah, me too."
Back on the road. We make good time across the cleared surface and soon reach the parked truck we spied from camp. A new, empty Toyota. Blue, clean, and totally out of place. "No Rez Rocket," Curtis remarks. No sign of the driver, and no ramps to load an ATV - yet another mystery.
We push on, under the hoodoo and then over to the base of the cliff below the truck. We take one final break under the rim, since there is no shade on top, and then reach the truck. My legs are burning. So are everyone else's. Big trip in good time - just about 24 hours from start to finish. Hiking times: 1:05 from the truck to the point, :36 from the point to the dome, :55 from the dome to the creek, :20 from the creek to the falls, :15 from the falls to the sand, 1:30 from the sand to the camp, :40 from the camp to the point, 1:00 from the point to the dome. About 6 hours, 20 minutes of total hiking time for almost 11 miles and 1561 AEG. I know that is an afternoon for some, but this was one epic trip for us. Mark this one down a win for the Choadakee Lake Boys.
Now, for our next trip...