Pictographs and Chocolate Drops
Sunday, April 8
Morning in upper Pictograph Fork
The next morning, Easter Sunday, dawns cloudy. Luke, Sophie and Catherine have agreed to pack up a little earlier and head down to our camp so that we can have breakfast together. As part of a bit of Easter festivities, we head up-canyon a little and place little clusters of easter-eggs in the wash, creating a little trail of them to our campsite. (fear not, we made sure that all of the eggs were found and none were left behind in the canyon).
The backpacking portion of our itinerary today is really quite short. It is only about four or five kilometres from where we are to the end of Pictograph Fork, where I'm planning to set up camp for the second night in the Maze. The reason why we've gotten up so early then? Well, the idea is to explore the Maze, and if we get to our camp early, then we can spend the afternoon, poking around and visiting some of the nearby sites. I have two things in mind: visiting the Harvest Scene Pictograph Panel, and exploring an old route up to a distinctive-looking Maze Landmark: the Chocolate Drops.
The going is pretty easy now: we just walk down the mostly flat canyon-bottom, downstream. The Canyon gradually widens as we descend. There is no path to speak of at this point, and route simply follows the bottom of the wash. As I said just above, our second day in the Maze has dawned overcast and dreary, and we get occasional sprinkles as we hike along. Obviously our forecast of warm and dry is not panning out. Is this the famous 'curse of Luke and Sophie' at work?
Although there is much beauty here, I can't help but think this gray day is muting the beauty of our walk down the canyon. Hopefully we'll have some bright sunshine and blue skies before we leave the Maze.
We soon reach the spot where the direct route from Chimney Rock comes in on the left, where we stop for a snack break.
Hiking down Pictograph Fork
From this point down, the canyon is again wider. The wash in the canyon starts to have more real estate to play with, and now meanders back and forth from corner to corner. We encounter nice, well-defined use paths that cut through the vegetated benches in the loops of these meanders. These little path segments are very pretty, and wind through pleasant, garden-like desert vegetation.
As we round a corner in the canyon, we get our first closeup glimpse of the Chocolate Drops, high above. The Chocolate Drops are somewhat misnamed: if anything, they look more like really thin slices of dark cake with white frosting. The Drops are a distinctive and important landmark in the Maze, and their appearance signals to us that we are nearing our destination: the Pictographs and the mouth of Pictograph Fork are basically underneath the Chocolate Drops.
First view of the drops
In a few minutes, it is time to start thinking of picking campsites, and again we are going to split up for the night, as per the park rules. Luke, Sophie and Catherine pick a spot not far from a little bit of flowing water in the canyon bottom (we checked with the ranger, who confirmed to us that there is usually some sort of water flowing in a few spots in the lower part of Pictograph Fork). There aren't any good places on the vegetated benches that aren't also covered in cryptobiotic crust, so the spot they choose is a raised sandy bench on the edge of the wash. Ewart exercises his gardening skills in the wash by digging a little hole so that water can be easily filtered.
Jenn, Ewart and I continue downcanyon to make our own camp. On the way, we pass the ghostly figures of the Harvest Scene etched on the lower walls of the canyon. Very impressive, and once we set up camp, we'll be coming back to have a closer look.
Hiking Past the Harvest Scene
Once we've gone far enough downcanyon from Luke and co., we make camp. Jenn and I go a little ways away from the wash and set up in a little bit of sandy ground about 100 feet from the main wash. Ewart chooses to set up his tent on a flat section of the wash itself. Not in the very lowest part of the wash, but definitely still in the wash. We'll find out later that this wasn't a particularly prime choice.
The other campers arrive.
After both of our parties have set up our tents, we communicate on the radios and agree to meet at the Harvest Scene, where we'll examine them and any nearby rock art. Since both are upper and lower camps are about equidistant from the Harvest Scene, it is a simple matter of setting out at a normal pace, and when we (Jenn, Ewart and I) arrive, Luke, Sophie and Catherine are visible walking downcanyon towards us.
The main focus here is the Harvest Scene itself: It is mostly a scene of tall, narrow figures, some with multicolored stripes, some reaching, and some strange-looking elongated animals, too. One of the tall figures appears to have a sheaf of wheat or something similar sprouting from one of his hands. Some of the drawings are quite fine and intricate.
The art is very old: it is of a type called the 'Barrier Canyon Style'. It is about two to three thousand years old, making it a very old piece of art indeed. There is similar but less extensive Barrier Canyon Style rock art elsewhere in the vicinity of Canyonlands, but this (and of course, the one at nearby Horseshoe canyon) are the best and largest.
After exploring the rock art, we return to our respective campsites for lunch and an quick afternoon siesta. The high cloud has thinned somewhat, and a fairly warm sun is managing to shine through. We're encouraged, and I suggest that after our siesta that we explore a route up to the Chocolate Drops. The Park service no longer publishes the route, but I can tell where it goes up from and old topo I have, and if we get up there next to the drops, the views should be spectacular. It's nice to just laze around in the warm sun in the middle of this scenic wilderness -- I don't do enough of this!
After out siesta, its time to get up and do a little afternoon exploring. We contact Luke on the horn and soon we are all at our lower campsite, ready to explore this rarely-used route up to the Chocolate Drops. We only have to walk a few hundred metres downcanyon before the route veers off to the left up a small side drainage. There is minimal marking down low, with the path basically following the bottom of the small wash that empties the drainage.
As the route climbs, it starts to get marked by cairns -- a good sign. The route leads up into a small overhanging cove, where we reach the bottom of the steep bulging slickrock ledges. From here, we can see that the route goes over somewhat exposed ledges.
Unfortunately for us, the skies have darkened again and a rainshower has started. It continues for a little while, and we decide that we shouldn't be scrambling around on exposed slickrock that is wet, since it might be a little... um... slick. So we esconce ourselves in the little cove, and decide to wait out the rain. If it doesn't stop, then we'll just head back down the trail to our camp.
Waiting out a shower
The shower intensifies, and there are a few little streamlets and waterfall-lets that cascade down into our little cove. We wonder if we should just give up and head back to camp. Eventually, however, the shower passes, and nice, bright afternoon sun shines down on us. We are amazed at how quickly the rock, which was pretty uniformly wetted, dries out. It takes no more than 10 minutes or so from when the rain stops to when the majority of the rock is again bone-dry.
With the rock dry again and with the morale boost of bright sun, we continue on our ascent route. Catherine has decided that the route looks a little too exposed for her liking, so she decides to wait us out down below in the wash. The rest of us scramble up a couple of ledges, following cairns, and then proceed horizontally along a ledge for a ways (again, following cairns).
Second Scrambly bit
We then get to a spot where the route climbs over a slopey ledge with few handholds, and with a bit of exposure. Here Ewart, Luke and Sophie decide this is a bit much for them without ropes, but Jenn scrambles up the spot with a little bit of assistance from myself. I then try it myself, and discover that yeah, it is a bit awkward.
We spend a fair bit of time deciding if we really want to continue the route, given that Luke, Sophie and Ewart have decided to stop, and given that it is late in the day, and also that we don't know how many more of these more tricky ledges we'll encounter. We also need to consider how easy it'll be to downclimb these. After a bit of time, and a bit of simple belaying from the static cord I've brought, I join Jenn on her higher ledge, and we both go to survey the next higher ledge. It too is moderately exposed and doesn't have a lot of holds, but does look quite climbable. Above that, it appears that the route lessens in steepness, and we think that the route is again straightforward and easy from there. We decide, however, not to climb this section but instead head back, because we are concerned about time we've got left in the day and about the potential for a tricky downclimb later. We're only a few hundred metres from the Chocolate Drops, and it is a bit of a drag to turn around. Hopefully some other time?
We quickly scramble back down in the late day light and return to our camp.
Well, we've had a full day, and now it was time for some chow. We all eat dinner together in the glorious evening light, and generally reflect on the nice, relaxing day we've had. As the evening wears on and sunset approaches, it once again clouds over. Damn forecast! What's with all this cloud?
Fearing some more sprinkles, Luke, Sophie and Catherine head back to their camp before any rain starts.
Filtering under the drops
A video of our full day in Pictograph Fork, including a visit to the Harvest Scene:
Pictograph Fork - Click on video above to start