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Packraft Day 6 - The Push to Hole-in-the-Rock
Friday, May 17

Alrighty then. Welcome to the final day of our packraft (most probably, anyway). We estimated an approximately eleven mile paddle from our beautiful campsite, down to the confluence with the Colorado, and on to the put-in at Hole-in-the-Rock. How hard could it be? And look - it was another glorious sunny day, devoid of wind. Piece. of. cake.
courtesy SWard
Morning, day six
Beautiful Morning View
Tony's Final Trip State
Repairs need repairs
Tony Repair Closeup
Tony Repair Closeup
Even on our final day, we were unable to get in the water ahead of Gino's 8am preferred departure time, putting off at about 8:12 a.m.. (and upon retrospect, we'd achieved a remarkably consistent departure times each day, really, to within about 10 minutes).
courtesy BConnell
courtesy JInnes
Final Departure
Off we go, Day Six
We paddled off south, cutting close to the inside of bends and diagonally across large stretches of deep, blue lake water. Given the good conditions and relatively low mileage left to cover, the subject of visiting another attraction came up: Cathedral in the Desert. We had been intrigued by this long-drowned but-now-accessible feature for a few years now, seeing it on the map and thinking it would be a cool place to visit. In my mind's eye, it was something similar to the Golden Cathedral - a huge overhanging dropoff barring further passage up-canyon.
courtesy JInnes
Final Campsite Bye-bye
Steaming south
Entrance to Clear Creek
In less than an hour, we reached the mouth of the side canyon of Clear Creek, up which was located the Cathedral in the Desert. Although I did want to see this feature, I also in the back of my mind thought it might be better to make best possible time to Hole-in-the-Rock, just in case that brisk wind from yesterday showed up again this coming afternoon. That might cause us trouble if it started blowing into us on our final open paddle towards Hole-in-the-Rock.

Despite the mild misgivings, Gino still wanted to visit Cathedral in the Desert, and the others seemed relatively indifferent, so ... we decided to divert. We pointed our packrafts into the mouth of Clear Creek. It was a pleasant enough paddle, in calm waters and with no wind.
courtesy BConnell
courtesy AWilcox
Heading up Clear Creek
Towards Cathedral in the Desert
Starting to narrow
The canyon of Clear Creek remained at a relatively constant width for just over a mile, with high, sheer walls on either side. We came cross the skeletal remains of a tree, long ago drowned by Lake Powell and now with its upper branches poking far above the water. Immediately beyond this point, the canyon turned left and narrowed dramatically. At first glance, it looked like it walled-up entirely, but upon closer examination, in a darkened corner, a narrow passageway continued on.
courtesy BConnell
Narrow cleft
We entered into a severely narrowed section of canyon. The walls overhung here, and the vast majority of the daylight was blocked out. It wasn't as dark as something like Ringtail Slot, not by any means, but the light in this narrow section of canyon was as it would be in mid-twilight. Our voices echoed off of the walls. We had entered the Cathedral in the Desert.

A few tens of yards ahead of us, a fifty or sixty foot high drop in the canyon barred any further progress. The lake water ended here, and a small flow of Clear Creek's water ran over the lip of the drop and down into the Lake. It wasn't quite a waterfall, instead more like a nearly-vertical cascade. Some sort of climbing line was draped down in the water's flow from the top - possibly left by some canyoneers doing a rappel.
courtesy BConnell
Arriving in the Cathedral
Cathedral in the Desert
Cathedral in the Desert

Off to the right was a large sand bar, the only bit of accessible land in this otherwise lake-filled and sheer-walled chamber. Some of us parked our pack-rafts and climbed up onto the sand bar, which was a good ten feet higher than the water and had a quite large area of flat ground atop it. It would actually be a very usable camp spot, if one wanted to camp here. It was very cool and damp, however - possibly a godsend on the hottest of summer desert days, but in other parts of the year, this would be a chilly place to hang out.
courtesy GBrancatelli
Cathedral Panorama
Getting back to the cathedral part of Cathedral in the Desert.... it really did kind of feel church-like in here. Dark, musty and it had a very similar kind of acoustic environment that you would encounter in an old medieval church in Europe. Gino had said that, when the water level was low enough, an orchestra would boat in to this point and an outdoor concert would be held.

It was interesting having had the ability to visit two of the area's "cathedrals" on this trip - The Golden Cathedral, up near Fence Canyon, and this Cathedral in the Desert. This was definitely a special place, and I'm glad we visited it - but if I have to be honest, I would say that I rank the Golden Cathedral as the more beautiful destination. It is full of orange light and has this grand circular overhanging structure with an amazing roof, huge down-tubes and all. The Cathedral in the Desert is instead a much more sombre and almost foreboding place. Very different characters.

After spending about twenty minutes in the dark chamber of the Cathedral in the Desert, we got back into our rafts and headed back out. We had a singular mission now - get to the Hole-in-the-Rock exit and out to the cars before it got too late.
courtesy JInnes
courtesy JInnes
courtesy JInnes
Departing the Cathedral
Drowned Cottonwood
Drowned Cottonwood
We arrived back at the mouth of Clear Creek at around 10:30 a.m. From here, we calculated that we had approximately six miles (10 km) of paddling to get to Hole-in-the-Rock. Seemed eminently doable given the relatively early hour.

We paddled southward down the remaining length of the canyon of the Escalante. Along the way, we encountered an increasing number of pleasure boaters - some fishing, some cruising along. Whether the increasing pleasure boat traffic was due to the approaching weekend or simply because there is more recreational traffic near or along the Colorado river, I don't know. Some folks were very friendly, though, as evidenced by one fishing boat party befriending and giving Brian a cold beer.
courtesy BConnell
courtesy AWilcox
Resuming our main journey
Colorado in sight
End of the Escalante Arm
At 11:30 a.m., we came to the end of the Escalante River canyon, marked by another of the floating white buoys (this one marked "Escalante River". We had arrived at the Colorado River.

Paddling conditions were still great as we looked both ways before crossing over the main traffic channel to the eastern bank, where we then continued our southward course. We were taking advantage of the full width of the lake in order to keep our course as straight as possible. We were feeling a little grumbly at this point, and given that it was indeed just past noon, we decided to come ashore along the low-lying land on this side of the canyon. Gino and Sophie hiked up a short ways to a shady alcove to have lunch, while the rest of us just floated in our rafts on the bank, and had lunch without disembarking.
Colorado Lunchstop
Spirits were high and we were untroubled as we set off after a relatively lazy forty five-minute lunch. We continued paddling south, gradually angling diagonally back over to the western side of the lake in order to maintain our straight course towards Hole-in-the-Rock. We noted the large number of quite sizeable fish swimming below in the fairly clear waters of the lake.

To this point, we had been travelling basically south - or even a little south-east, down the course of the drowned Colorado River canyon. We were coming up to a large bend, however, where we would turn to the west for a bit. From that curve it would be a straight shot of perhaps two kilometres (1.2 miles) to the mouth of the little side-canyon containing Hole-in-the-Rock. We were almost there.
Lake Powell Aqua Life
Above the water...
And below the water.
We pulled out as a group and started the paddle around the inside of the west-turning bend. Almost immediately, we were hit by a headwind breeze, which over the next few minutes increased to a strong headwind. The water around us, which had been placid and glassy, was riffled up, then started to form little whitecaps and waves.

Concurrent with the rise of the headwind, the effort required to make forward progress increased dramatically. Surprisingly so. Since we were close to the inside edge of the bend in the canyon, I could look over to my right and directly observe how I was only able to advance at a crawl, even though I was paddling quite forcefully. Sustained, hard paddling was the only way to make forward progress. Any letting up meant backsliding back the way we had come from.
Sudden headwind
It was clear that things had quickly gone from relaxed to serious. Everybody was paddling hard and not making much progress. Little wavelets were splashing into the front of our rafts, sometimes creating a little bit of spray.

We could see that soon we'd be rounding a rocky point where we could turn more sharply to the west. That would likely aid us, as the wind would then be coming from our port side and not be impacting our forward progress quite so much. Progress to the rocky point, however, was tiring and painfully slow.

It was roughly at this moment that I suddenly noticed that Chris (W) had veered off to the left, angling away from the shoreline and out into open water. I thought, "what the hell is he doing?". Furthermore, Sophie appeared to be following him! The rest of the group were continuing to carefully hug the cliffy shoreline, making their way gingerly to the rocky point and around it to the west. Why, I thought, were we splitting up? This seemed like the worst possible time to do it, in these sketchy conditions. What if someone capsizes out in the deep middle of the lake?
Getting a Tongue-Lashing
For the moment, I was just concentrating on mustering enough energy to battle the headwind and waves, trying to get to and then around the rocky prominenence. Immediately after doing that, I shouted as loud as I could to the now-distant Chris and Sophie, yelling some variant of "Get back here" (I don't remember exactly). It was a long shot against the strong wind, but fortunately it appeared as if I was heard. Thankfully, I could see Chris and Sophie then turn back.

About half of our group were now safely around the point and we were now making our way west along a flat shoreline with many good egress points. It was definitely easier now, being 90-degrees to the wind instead of directly into it. We located an easy get-out point and stopped to collect our breaths and to wait for Chris (W), Sophie, and for Gino and Brian (Brian had fallen behind a bit, and Gino was back escorting him).
Taking a breather
Chris (W) and Sophie soon returned from their strange diversion, and Chris explained that he hoped that the cliffy eastern shoreline would shield us from the wind, and had thought that we needed to proceed around an upcoming bend to the left in order to get to Hole-in-the-Rock. This wasn't the case, however - we needed to be on the *western* wide of the canyon and we were not going around the next bend to the left. Going over to that side would have simply meant that we would have needed to cross the full width of the lake again - something that no one would have felt too keen to do, I'm sure.

Catching up the rear, Gino and Brian soon arrived. Gino had seen all of the split ups and shouting that had gone on, and the first words out of his mouth were an angry lecture about staying together as a group and not wanting to be involved in having to do a water rescue in a strong wind.

We were all a bit frazzled by the sudden appearance of the wind and the splitting up and the shouting and lecturing and just... everything (although perhaps we shouldn't have been that surprised about the wind, given the similar wind that had blown up in the afternoon the previous day, at camp).

We could see that ahead of us was more low-lying coastline, that eventually curved more to the south and eventually became sheer cliffs. Not far along those sheer cliffs we could see the little shadowy indentation that marked the mouth of the Hole-in-the-Rock Canyon. It was perhaps just over a mile away from us. So near.

After a bit of calming down, we assessed the situation. We were roughly split in two on what to do: one group wanted to proceed, hugging the shoreline, and eventually do a hard into-the-wind paddle to get around the corner and into Hole-in-the-Rock. The other group wanted to make camp here, where the terrain was flat enough to allow it, wait out the wind (essentially wait it out by camping overnight), and do the final paddle into Hole-in-the-Rock first thing the following morning, when very likely there would be no wind at all.

Eventually we came to a compromise. We would proceed along the low shoreline, making progress towards our goal while keeping the option to stop and camp if the conditions got worse. Those who were uncomfortable with paddling could wade with their raft along the shoreline, while those more comfortable could keep pace a few yards out on the lake. And since the wind was pushing us north, into the shoreline, anyone in the water who had difficulties would simply be pushed ashore in a few short minutes.
Shoreline Traverse
We spent the next hour essentially inching along the shoreline. There were a few deeper coves cut into the shoreline, and in these places, we would all paddle across and then come ashore at the far side. At each of these sorts of points, we would stop and have a short debate about whether to continue. It seemed (at least to me) that the wind was starting to ease a little bit, and it was hard to tell if this was because the period of wind was ending or if we were starting to enter the lee of the cliffline ahead. I was therefore more of the mindset that we should just continue inching along - and not only that, but it did seem that the packrafts were quite stable in this environment. Others were still of the mindset that they wanted to stop and camp.
Conquering the wind
This slow back-and-forth halting progress continued for some time, and by about 3pm (after almost 2 hours of inching west along the shoreline at barely over half an mile an hour), we arrived at a point where multi-hundred foot cliffs again rose directly out of the water - meaning no more coming ashore. We had a final conference here, and I think that even the holdouts regarding the camping were starting to get a little more comfortable with being out on the water in the headwind. Plus it was definitely less windy here, and as a final incentive, I was able to report that we were only about 800 metres (maybe half a mile) from the little point at which we would fall into the shelter of the little cove in which Hole-in-the-Rock was located. So we decided to go for it - although I'm sure a few folks felt a bit coerced into doing so.
Nearing mouth of HOTR Canyon
The last few hundred yards along the cliff passed by relatively uneventfully. With a more sheltered aspect and a bit more confidence paddling, we were able to cover the last stretch to the entrance of Hole in the Rock in only about twenty minutes. As soon as we rounded the corner and headed into to the little cove/canyon, we could immediately feel the wind at our backs, and suddenly the walls on either side began scrolling backwards at a much higher rate.

Ahead we could now see our destination: the pointy end of a very short canyon. At its base (at the water level) was a sandy and boulder-filled slope. Above the water, a steep V-shaped canyon sloped upwards, narrowing to a sharp cleft - and looking much steeper than any of us expected. The cleft led up to the skyline (and presumably the trailhead parking and our waiting rental cars).
This steep cleft, of course, was Hole-in-the-Rock itself. It was definitely steeper-looking than expected (in fact it almost looked like a rock climb from here), but I knew from long experience to temper my anxiety. Slopes always look steeper when you approach them head-on - especially from below - like we were doing right now. And after all, wasn't this an old constructed Mormon road that was used to travel to Bluff, Utah? Surely if a wagon could get down that, we could get up.
courtesy SWard
Wind at our backs
Nearing Hole-in-the-Rock
We ground ashore below Hole-in-the-Rock at around 3:30pm. By my estimation, the afternoon's excitement had caused us about two extra hours of time (versus if it had been a straight paddle with no wind and therefore no drama). Still, we were here. We had made it all the way from Fence Canyon, down the Escalante, around on the Colorado, and out here at Hole-in-the-Rock. In six days. One-hundred-and-seventeen kilometers (73 miles), including side trips, of paddling. That was indeed something to feel good about.
Aground at Hole-in-the-Rock
Even though we were fairly bushed now and in some cases frazzled by the unexpected challenges of the windy afternoon, we still had a final challenge in front of us. How difficult would this climb be? We knew that on paper it was claimed to be about seven hundred feet of gain in just over half a mile. It didn't sound bad at all; but looking at the steep gash above us, with the top now hidden and the depths of it hidden in unresolved shade, we weren't so sure. One way or another, though, we were going to get up it.
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