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Packraft Day 5 - From River to Lake
Thursday, May 16

Today was Lake Powell day. As in, today - in all likelihood - we would complete our descent of the Escalante river to the point where its flow ended in the waters of Lake Powell. There was one main unknown associated with this: what would the transition zone be like? Would we be able to float all the way into the lake? Would the reduced gradient and flow cause the river to widen into an un-paddle-able, quicksand-dotted miasma? Would we be forced to drag our packrafts across miles of mud? These were the questions hovering in the back of our minds.
Morning Near Cow Canyon
After yesterday's gloomy, windy, rainy afternoon, the morning had dawned clear and calm (every morning, really, had been clear and sunny). Our group did its usual morning prep, somehow precisely aligned to deliver the fifteen-minute late time relative to Gino's wishes (We were ready to sit in our boats and float away at 8:18am). I think he had come to accept our continued tardiness at this point.
An impressive prow
Nearing a second Fence
Easy Shallow Paddling
The Escalante was now a lazy, wide band of muddy water. There were virtually no obstacles, save for the occasional solitary foot-sized rock that would sit a quarter of an inch below the surface and wait to snag you to a stop. Otherwise, the riverbed was simply wide and sandy. No rapids, very few large obstacles of any sort. The key skill was knowing when the current would shift the deepest channel (which at most was a couple of feet deep) from the left side to the right side. Or vice versa. We had long ago learned that laying back and lifting one's butt up a little would often get you floating passage over a shallow area, and we employed that technique a lot this morning.

Not far from Explorer Canyon, we noticed that a few of our group had fallen behind, including Chris Waddington. We stopped at a wide section of river just upstream of Explorer Canyon and waited. For a long time. Eventually, Gino came into view and explained that Chris W's valve troubles had resurfaced. Fortunately, a more thorough fix, involving not only the gasket but also a cap retaining mechanism had now been implemented.
courtesy JInnes
courtesy AWilcox
Waiting for Mr. Waddington
Lazy Floatings
Lazy Floatings
This rafting trip down the Escalante had so far shown me several sections (especially the stretch from below Scorpion Gulch through to Coyote Gulch) that I had never before laid eyes on, in my multi-decade career of visiting this area. Down here, far below Coyote Gulch, was also terra incognita for me - but even more so. Most folks do not hike or backpack the Escalante down in the zone below Coyote Gulch and above Lake Powell, and the area felt quite remote. The scenery, however, was grand - not as closed-in as higher up on the Escalante, but still a beautiful landscape of prominent walls, impressive highpoints, prows, and towers.

The Escalante River itself was clearly continuing to slow down. The riverbed was getting wider and above-water or nearly above-water sand bars were becoming larger and more frequent. Standing up and hauling the boat along became a thing we did increasingly often. Fortunately, we were encountering nothing swampy or quicksand-ish and our hauls were not too long before we could get back in and float another bit of distance.
courtesy GBrancatelli
Getting Shallower
Where's the Lake
Half-Hauling now
We rounded a wide bend in the canyon, at this point half-dragging, half-floating our packrafts. Tilted over at a 45-degree angle and partially-buried in river sand was a round white buoy with the letters "EXPLORER CANYON". We were indeed near the mouth of Explorer Canyon (a side tributary of the Escalante), and in fact we were actually a little downstream of it. But more importantly, this was a buoy that was meant to float in deep water, meaning that this was a spot that at some point in the not-too-distant past had been floating on the surface of a much deeper Lake Powell, a Lake Powell that had reached much farther up the Escalante.

A short while after the Explorer Canyon buoy, we came to a curve along the river that had a massive, completely vertical wall along the outside of the bend, and a nice wide elevated stretch of sandy flats below it, and even better - half of the sandy flats were in the shade. The day had been clear, still and hot, and this looked like a perfect spot to have lunch in some cool shade.
courtesy JInnes
Forlorn Buoy
Lunchtime Day Five
The main topic at lunch was about how much longer it would be until we reached the actual edge of Lake Powell. Clearly we were close, given the wide, extensive flats and the now-braided river running over them. Given that the level of Lake Powell fluctuates with the previous and current years' precipitation levels, it was hard to know exactly. A trip report or a satellite picture from just months before might show a different river end/lake start point (relative to that same point today).
courtesy JInnes
courtesy JInnes
courtesy JInnes
The final pull
Lake ho!
The final plod
Lunch finished, we continued our journey down the Escalante. We were now walking and hauling our boats greater than 50% of the time; it wasn't that hard, because there was enough water to lubricate and lift up the packrafts such that hauling them behind us as we walked was not too burdensome, and also not that hard because the walking was, for the most part, on a nicely firm layer of sandy riverbottom. We weren't really encountering any muck or sinky quicksand.
courtesy BConnell
courtesy BConnell
Nearing the lake
The final pull
Walking on water
Literally ten minutes' walk from our shady lunchspot, in fact around the bend from it, I saw it. I was in the lead at this point, and I looked up towards the now-revealed next stretch of canyon and noticed that the river, not more than perhaps a hundred yards ahead, suddenly widened out and filled the canyon from wall to wall. There was no explanation for a sudden river widening other than that it was not a river-widening; the only explanation was that the river was reaching an area of still, pooled water. This was the clearly the current point where the Escalante ended and the dammed waters of Lake Powell started.

I excitedly called back to the others, who soon came around the corner and laid eyes on the lake ahead.
courtesy JInnes
Almost deep enough
The transition from river to lake did not pose any problems. Over the next few hundred yards, the easily-walkable sandy riverbottom held, and all that really happened was that the river banks gradually receded on either side of us and the depth of the water ever so gradually started to deepen. The flow of the river, which was already very lazy, ended entirely, and the water we waded through was now entirely still. Tired of getting in our rafts only to bottom our bums out on the shallow riverbottom, we continued splashing into the lake until there was a decent couple of feet of depth, which would ensure complete flotation. Then, for one final time, we sat down into our rafts and paddled southward.

This was indeed a momentous occasion! We had fully rafted down ninety kilometres (56 miles) of the Escalante River from Fence Canyon, right to its very end.

A mental weight was now lifted off of our shoulders with our arrival at Lake Powell. We had been concerned that the transition from river to lake might have been a long, tiring and hard slog through some variation of a marshy, muddy hell. In actuality, it had not been bad at all. Sure, we had had to haul our boats a fair bit during the last two-ish miles of river, but generally always with good footing and without much trouble. And with careful attention to the river's channel, we actually did manage to float certain segments of those last two miles.
Although we were now free of bottoming-out and having to pull our rafts, we now no longer had the free push of a river's current, and all of our forward progress was up to us. Shoulder, back and trunk muscles were now required for every forward inch of progress. We weren't speed demons by any means, but we soon settled into a decent enough rhythm and started to make measurable progress southwards down the lake.

Some in our group lamented the muddy, cloudy quality of the lake's water, clearly filled with suspended sediment from the outflow of the Escalante River. Gradually, though, every so gradually, the color and clarity of the water began to change. With every few hundred yards we paddled southward, the color became a little less brownish and a little more greenish. The brown color soon left the green and we transitioned into a zone of emerald-green water - almost flourescent in color. By the time we reached the confluence with Fiftymile Creek - about two ish miles from the end of the Escalante River's flow, we had mostly transitioned again, from emerald-green waters to a more typical deep blue.
courtesy JInnes
courtesy BConnell
courtesy JInnes
Progress improves
Color Transition
I had mentioned up above about how the lower reaches of the Escalante River was a pretty remote place, not usually frequented by backpackers. Now that we had entered into the realm of Lake Powell, however, the situation was a little different. Lake Powell is inside the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and although a unit of the National Park System, the "Recreation" part of that designation essentially means that motorized craft are allowed. Lake Powell is in fact quite a popular destination for motorized watercraft of all kinds - speedboats, jetskis, houseboats - you name it. And even with the greatly lowered levels of the lake in recent decades, it is still a popular recreational boating destination.

It was therefore no surprise, then, when as we were paddling south towards Fiftymile Creek, we heard a distant engine sound, at high revs, and growing louder. Soon enough, a high-end speedcraft of some sort, fully up on its plane, came into view. In it was a group of folks lounging and sipping drinks, listening to a pumping pop music track. The speedboat did lower its speed when it passed by us, headed up-canyon towards the Escalante, but not slow enough to avoid a fairly substantial wake. As the doppler-shifted music trailed off, the wake passed through us, getting us all rolling up and down and sideways. Such is the inevitable situation on Lake Powell.
courtesy JInnes
courtesy JInnes
courtesy BConnell
Gino on Cruise
Emerald Waters
Water and Stone
A few corners later, another watercraft - this time a large white houseboat moored to a low bit of shoreline. As we got closer, it became clear this was a very luxurious unit (model type "Escalante Star", if you can believe that). It was a good fifty feet long with a lower and an upper deck, a built-in waterslide, a couple of jet-skis parked on the stern, and just in general, it was a thing that shouted "upscale". All seemed quiet, though, as we paddled past this bit of high-end living. Perhaps the owners/renters had gone off touring in another companion craft. Perhaps even that very music-blaring speedboat we had seen earlier?
courtesy JInnes
The Escalante Star
courtesy AWilcox
courtesy AWilcox
Gino and the Bathtub Ring
Lake Break
We were now feeling much better about our trip's overall progress. We were on day five out of an intended six, and at this point we were at roughly 95 kilometres (59 miles) completed out of a projected 115 or so total kilometres (71 miles). That meant that we were now quite well positioned to have our last day be of reasonable length (less than 20 kilometres / 12 miles). And therefore, our time pressures were easing. We could now consider doing some side-trips.

And that's just what we did as we came up to the confluence of the side canyon of Fiftymile Creek. We had seen on maps and read in reports that there was a natural bridge a short way up Fiftymile Creek, called Gregory Natural Bridge. Reports talked of a sandstone fin that one could actual paddle through. Sounded cool.
Fiftymile Creek
We passed a white buoy floating in the blue waters of the lake (the same kind of buoy that we spotted partially buried in the sand of the Escalante back up at Explorer Canyon). On it were the words "Fiftymile Creek", confirming that we were at the right point, and we turned up into this smaller side-canyon. The water of Lake Powell still filled this side canyon completely, from sheer vertical rock wall to sheer vertical rock wall.

It was a short twenty-minute paddle up the canyon of Fiftymile Creek before we came to what appeared to be the end of the Lake. A sandy ridge of ground rose up out of the lake and barred any further waterborne progress. My topo map indicated that we were at the location of Gregory Natural Bridge, but looking around, we could spot no such structure.
Ridge at Gregory Nat Bridge
Gino hiked up to the top of the barrier ridge and looked down the other side. No sign of an arch or a tunnel or anything. we got back in our rafts and debated a bit about where the bridge might be.

Gino suggested that maybe the bridge was underwater. I was adamant. "No", I said, with as much conviction as I could muster. There's no way the bridge is underwater, especially given the relatively low water level of Lake Powell (today the level was at 3562 feet above sea level, only forty feet above the record low level of 3522 feet (normal full pool is 3700 feet, or nearly 140 feet above the current level). The arguing continued. Gino still thought it possible somehow. "No. I'll bet you", I said to Gino, "I'll bet you one hundred -- no, I'll bet you a thousand dollars that the natural bridge is not under the water here. It is somewhere nearby but it is exposed. There's just no way it's underwater!"

As it happened, a family in a small aluminum cruiser was stationed under a shady section of cliff not far away from us. Gino thought they looked like locals. Maybe they'd know where Gregory Natural Bridge was. Maybe they could confirm whether or not the bridge was here, but under water.

Gino casually paddled over to the family, and in the silence of the canyon, we could hear him strike up a friendly conversation. "So hey, we're looking for Gregory Natural Bridge. Would you happen to know where it is?"

"Why, sure, it's right here underneath the water at this point in the cliff. When the level is a bit lower, you can see through it. If you're a good swimmer, you can dive and swim right through it in about 30 seconds!"

And that was that. Gino had been right, I had been wrong. The bet was lost. One thousand (fortunately Canadian) dollars. And although the others scoffed a bit at my insistence (to honor the bet), I felt I needed to be accountable. If I'm going to go around, flapping my mouth with confident proclamations, then I need to take responsibility when I'm proven wrong.

So, just why was I wrong? A very simple assumption had driven my absolute confidence, and if that assumption had been right, I would have also been right. That assumption was that Gregory Natural Bridge was a feature created by the flooding of Lake Powell. But that wasn't the case. Gregory Natural Bridge *pre-dated* Lake Powell, and when the lake was formed and filled by the Glen Canyon dam in 1966, Gregory Natural Bridge had been drowned in the rising waters of Lake Powell - until the recent multi-decade drought, which caused it to start to re-emerge.... but only when the water level sank below 3552 feet - ten feet below the water level on this day.

Sigh. Live and learn. And you know what they say about assumptions....
courtesy BConnell
Paddling out of Fiftymile Creek
Heading downcanyon
With the drama regarding Gregory Natural Bridge now over, it was time to turn our attention to making a bit more progress, but more importantly, finding a suitable campsite for the night. Finding a campsite along Lake Powell had been another of the fuzzy unknowns of our trip. Owing to the fact that much of the lake is bounded by sheer cliffs, there was no guarantee that any one section of lake would have a place we could even disembark, let alone have terrain suitable for tents.

Under a beautiful and calm sunny afternoon, we paddled south at a medium pace. We were soon back out from Fiftymile Creek into the main waters of the "Escalante Arm" of Lake Powell. We continued down-canyon, towards the Colorado River.

Although we were still technically in a sinuous canyon, the fact that hundreds of feet of water filled it from wall-to-wall meant we were able to chart a much straighter path (than if we were following a canyon bottom on foot). We were therefor able to make an almost straight beeline downcanyon, soon passing the mouth of Davis Gulch (of Everett Ruess / Nemo fame). Shortly beyond Davis Gulch, we spied a large and very promising looking grassy tongue of low terrain, nestled against a sheer wall on the inside of a wide bend.
Campsite Ahoy
Exploratory stop
This looks good
The tongue of low terrain grew closer. It was very obvious that this would be an excellent place to camp. It was a very large chunk of low shoreline, no doubt at one time far below the level of Lake Powell but today a very inviting-looking spot - multi-tiered, with a wide and grassy lower flat and a sandier, gravelly higher section. We circled around to the downstream side of the spit of land, looking for the best landing spot, and in fact finding just that in a little sandy cove. Perfect for stashing the rafts. Done deal. Campsite number five had been secured!

We decided to choose the upper bench as our tenting location. It was free of vegetation, had lots of good stones for helping secure the tents, and had quite stakeable ground. It was also in the afternoon shade, and protected us from the day's warm sun (the grassy lower tier of our spit of land was fully in the sun).

It had been dead calm so far today, but now, late in the afternoon (shortly before 5pm), a solid breeze started to blow. We were in the middle of setting up our tents, and this breeze (wind, really) was strong enough to make setup troublesome. Brian had his hands full (overfull, really) setting up his one-man tent, and I had to go over and give him a hand. It was good that we had finished our paddle before this wind had come up, because if it had, and it had been a headwind, we would have had a much harder time. A point to remember for tomorrow, I thought to myself.
Given our relatively early arrival time (in fact, this was the earliest we had arrived to a campsite yet on this trip), we had lots of time to lounge about after completing our tent set up. And what a place to do it! The scenery at this spot was astounding, with sheer walls and mysterious alcoves and grand water vistas in all directions. We really had scored an amazing site - the best so far of our trip, really. Wide, spacious, scenic, and all to ourselves.

Most of the group went down to a sunny part of the water's edge where the bottom dropped off deeply into watery canyon unknowns, in order to go for a quick swim in the waters of the lake. Chris Waddington made a little game of diving under and through some underwater cliff formation, showing off yet another of his many sportsy skills.
Wicked Good Campsite
Tent setup, LP Camp
Unparallelled Views
Underwater Cliff exploration
Dinner was a relaxed affair, as was the evening council session. Long gone were the stressed tones describing the shortfall of progress or of the difficulties ahead. Tonight, all statuses were looking green: we were at a mileage total of 60 (miles) out of a total expected mileage of right around 70 miles. That meant we only had to cover less than 10 miles on our final day, and we had now consistently proven that we could manage 12+ miles - especially without river obstacles. So we were feeling pretty confident that tomorrow, we'd be hiking up the old Mormon route at Hole-in-the-rock, up to where our two rental cars were patiently waiting for us.
Dinnertime, dav five
Consummate Outdoorsman
Dinnertime, day five
Final council meeting
Backcountry Bathroom
The late afternoon wind that had made our tent setup a pain had now long died off, and by sunset, it was completely calm again. It was so clear and calm and pleasant here that I gave serious consideration to simply sleeping out (not in the tent) under the stars. Ultimately I didn't, although Chris (H), Gino, and I did spend quite a bit of time lying on the coarse beach sand as it grew dark, watching satellites and planes in the sky overhead, and seeing an occasional meteor. It would have been nice to do some dark-sky milky way watching, but unfortunately the moon was now waxing gibbous and would spoil any attempt at seeing a truly dark sky.
Interactive trackmap with photo points - Packraft Day 5 - click map to view
River Day 5 Segment 1: Cow Canyon to Fiftymile Creek
Start Time: 8:17a.m.
End Time: 3:04p.m.
Duration: 6h47m
Distance: 16.19 km (10.06 mi)
Average Speed: 2.4 km/hr (1.5 mph)
Start Elevation: 3628ft (1106m) *
Max Elevation: 3637ft (1109m) *
Min Elevation: 3477ft (1060m) *
End Elevation: 3534ft (1077m) *
* : +/- 75 feet
Total Elevation Gain: 204ft (62m) *
Total Elevation Loss: 297ft (91m) *
* : +/- 75 feet
Elevation Graph
Side Paddle to Gregory Natural Bridge
(Track color: )
Start Time: 3:05p.m.
End Time: 3:50p.m.
Duration: 0h45m
Distance: 2.34 km (1.46 mi)
Average Speed: 3.1 km/hr (1.9 mph)
Start Elevation: 3536ft (1078m) *
Max Elevation: 3580ft (1091m) *
Min Elevation: 3514ft (1071m) *
End Elevation: 3580ft (1091m) *
* : +/- 75 feet
Total Elevation Gain: 46ft (14m) *
Total Elevation Loss: 2ft (1m) *
* : +/- 75 feet
Elevation Graph
River Day 5 Segment 2: Fiftymile Creek to Lake Powell Camp
Start Time: 3:50p.m.
End Time: 4:42p.m.
Duration: 0h51m
Distance: 2.19 km (1.36 mi)
Average Speed: 2.6 km/hr (1.6 mph)
Start Elevation: 3581ft (1092m) *
Max Elevation: 3586ft (1093m) *
Min Elevation: 3553ft (1083m) *
End Elevation: 3560ft (1085m) *
* : +/- 75 feet
Total Elevation Gain: 2ft (1m) *
Total Elevation Loss: 24ft (7m) *
* : +/- 75 feet
Elevation Graph
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