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A Fellowship of the Rafting Kind
May 10-20, 2024

Well, well, well... what a treat we have for you, dear reader! An alavigne.net desert trip report, but this one full of Water! Rafts! Paddles! Flatwater! Lakes! Waves! Rapids! All mixed in with the usual desert stuff! Amazing!

And yes, the Escalante region of southern Utah has long been a destination for our ragtag group of outdoor adventurists. A remote and incredibly scenic slice of classic Southwest color-country. A mostly untracked wilderness that has hosted many of our backpacking trips.

This year, however, something new: a focus on water. A trip down the main artery of the entire region. Walking is secondary in this trip report, and travel by paddle is primary. Welcome to... the official alavigne.net (feat. G Brancatelli) accounting of a packrafting trip down the Escalante River!

Although I've dabbled in water-based trips over the years (some canoeing, an occasional kayak, etc etc), I've never really been on an extended trip that was entirely focused around paddling down a river. Friend Gino Brancatelli, however, is a paddling enthusiast. Indeed, he should've been called Gino Barcatelli. Anyway, with Gino as a regular part of our big outings these days, it was inevitable that some aspect of that enthusiasm would manifest itself. And indeed it did, with Gino proposing and then exploring the details of a paddle down the main watercourse of one of our prime areas of visitation - the Escalante region of south-central Utah. His vision - and it was a rather ambitious one - raft down the Escalante river from a point near an area known as "Egypt", all the way down to the very end of the river, where it transitions into the reservoir of Lake Powell, on the Colorado River, and then finish up at an old Mormon Pioneer route known as "Hole-in-the-Rock". It was long - more than most Escalante river-runners take on. But, yeah, it sounded pretty cool.
The fellowship of the packraft: Official Route Plan
A Long Lead-up

The main challenge of an Escalante river run is that during most days of the year, the water level is too low to allow the passage of a single-person watercraft. This has especially been the case over the last few decades, as a long an extended period of drought has further reduced flows. However, for perhaps two or three weeks in spring - and if it has been a particularly good winter - then floating down this incredibly scenic river, considered a bucket-list item by many, is possible.

The idea of a paddling trip down the Escalante took place over the course of a few years. Gino did a lot of investigation , examining trip reports; understanding the history of running the Escalante; doing an analysis of a couple of years' worth of snow and water flow data. All the way, he maintained an outreach to potential trip participants (i.e. all of us) to gauge interest and prepare them for what such a trip would entail.

After carefully watching 2022 and 2023 snow and water flow data, Gino felt that the beginning of May had the highest likelihood of conditions that would support a rafting run of the Escalante - and then only if it was looking like snowpack levels in the high terrain surrounding the Escalante were favorable. Although 2023 had been especially good, we hadn't organized ourselves sufficiently (plus I had had my GTS Chronicles adventure on the go) and we weren't able to make it happen. Thankfully the 2024 winter season saw a snow pack in the 120-130% above-normal range, which still augured well for a decent flow of water down the Escalante. If the snowpack had been only average or below normal, we would not have opted to initate this 2024 trip. As mentioned earlier, the paddling is difficult - if not completely impossible - if the water levels are too low in the Escalante River.
Not a bad year
What had started as a quirky but interesting idea had grown to an adventure with widespread interest, and by the start of 2024, we had a whole whack of folks interested in this rafting trip. Initially we had floated (ha) the idea of attempting our run during the period of May 4-12; however, obligations from some of our interested attendees shifted that ahead by a week, to the May 11-19 period. Based on 2023's spring flow pulse, we felt that we would likely still have enough flow to manage a run during that week. At least, we hoped so. And in terms of attendance, our group had swelled to nine - a true fellowship, you might say - and a large number for any trip, water or no. The Fellowship of the Raft had been formed. Would they make it all the way to Mordor Hole-in-the-Rock?

Gino had discovered that the most practical vessel for running the Escalante was an inflatable kayak. The most modern of these pack up to be quite small and portable - perhaps 5lbs and roughly the size of a packed tent. Along with an inflator bag and a lightweight paddle, you have everything you need to make it down the river - without having to deal with the challenge of getting a large unwieldly craft from a trailhead and down to the river (and back). Further homework by Gino located an outfit out of Montana - Backcountry Packraft Rentals - that would supply us with rental rafts, as well as ship them to a location that was convenient for us.

The Homemade Boat

As an additional wrinkle to our tale, the ever-crafty Hatko klan (in this case, Chris and Gillian) had - in addition to being enthusiastically for this trip - glommed onto the idea of building a packraft from scratch, instead of renting one. To that end, they started purchasing material and tools in the months leading up to our trip (design instructions here). Gillian did most of the manufacturing, slowly cutting, heating, glueing, in order to create a packraft from that online design. Slowly the raft took place, and when it was complete, we gave it a quick test run in Gino's swim-spa pool. But would it withstand the rigours of a backcountry paddle? A big unknown!
Tony taking shape
Tony's First Proof-run
The Getting There

We had decided to fly into Salt Lake City, pick up our rental vehicles, rental packrafts, and camping supplies, and then drive the five or so hours to the Escalante area. Irritatingly, about a month or so after we had arranged our flight bookings and with just over a month to go before the trip, Air Canada unceremoniously cancelled their Toronto-to-Salt Lake City route (to be clear: they didn't cancel a flight; they cancelled the entire route, even though that meant throwing probably thousands of already-booked fliers' plans up in the air). In the ensuing logistical fallout (which for me required at least four different support calls over the course of a month), we were all scattered across different itineraries, starting and ending at different cities. A block of four (The Hatkos, Chris Waddington, and Brian) ended up with an itinerary that landed them in Denver, from where they would have to undertake an especially long drive in their rental vehicle.
Departing Ottawa
Stopover in Chicago
The Wasatch Mountains
Salt Lake City
On May 10, we all started our respective journeys towards the desert southwest. Gino, Jenn, Alana and I were the first to arrive, landing in Salt Lake City mid-day. We immediately obtained two of our three rental vehicles and then headed over to the nearby UPS store where our rented packrafts were waiting for us. It was reassuring to see the relatively small size of the box that contained all eight of our rental packrafts.

With packrafts successfully obtained, we spent the next hour our two gathering the groceries and camping gear we'd need to sustain us for up to seven days in the wilderness. If things went well, we'd be out in six, but we had budgeted for an entire extra day in case things didn't go smoothly. This was prudent, given the unknowns around the packrafting (as in, the lack of experience thereof), the conditions of the river's water, and the large size of our group.
Pickin' up the rafts
Amazingly small
Camp shopping
Post Grocery shot
The Snows of Evening
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