Two of us floated the Escalante river in Utah April 5-9. We used a Yukon Yak and an Alpacka. It was a great trip and well worth it at flows just over 2 CFS that we encountered.
This was our third year trying to float the Escalante, having diverted to other rivers due to low water the two prior attempts. A good strategy for those who don’t live nearby is to plan to fly in to Salt Lake City, which provides many good options for alternates, and to plan and/or permit an alternate just in case. The first year, we diverted to a bike-packraft-backpack in Canyonlands on the Colorado. The second year we diverted to the Middle Fork of the Salmon. The Owyhee makes another good alternative, and all of these are around a five hour drive from SLC just like the Escalante.
I found the best online resource to be http://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/detail/id/1848/. Within one click at this site are the three SNOTEL stations relevant to runoff that feeds the river, the USGS gauge, and the weather. I found the weather to be the least predictive of river flow, as I could never correlate temps with changes in flow measured by CFS. There must be a relationship, but I couldn’t sort it out. I also subscribed to the USGS water alert and used CFS of 2 as my alert level.
We left our car at 40 mile ridge, and used Shawn at Escape Goats for a shuttle. Plan on a healthy chunk of budget for this. He took us to Egypt trailhead. Our hope was to make it to the river the first night but this was too ambitious, we didn’t start hiking until close to 6 PM. Our plan was to hike in fence canyon, but Shawn told us about a sneak route which put us into the Escalante canyon across from Neon Canyon.
Our plan was to float the river over three days, April 6,7, and 8, to Coyote gulch, around 39 river miles. Overall I feel we didn’t plan enough time, and an extra day would have allowed less aggressive river days and more time to explore side canyons.
The river has a lot of technical class II rapids, where a number of maneuvers are required to successfully get through. However, the ramifications of failure are small, as the flow is slow and the river not very deep (at least at the levels that we encountered). In this way it is a great river for beginners to develop skills. Second, brush is an important issue. While the sweepers are not really a big risk to the boater because of the low volume river, they are a big risk to the boat. The main current tends to flow into the outer bank of every turn where it undercuts and creates lots of overhanging brush. Since this is the only channel deep enough to float, you will regularly encounter brush and make decisions about what to try to fight thorough and what to get out and walk around. A strategically placed sharp branch could cause a fatal puncture and tear. Combined with a lot of butt scraping and dragging, this run will have high risk of requiring repairs along the way. I’d recommend bringing a roll of tyvek tape, in addition to your usual repair kit. There is generally only one channel of current deep enough to float, and this channel bounces back and forth between river banks. Even on straight sections, we found ourselves snaking back and forth to keep enough water to float. This seemed to mean that the actual mileage travelled is greater than the anticipated river miles, and made for slower going.
The flows for the three days we were on the river are shown here http://nwis.waterdata.usgs.gov/nwisweb/graph?agency_cd=USGS&site_no=09337500&parm_cd=00060&begin_date=2015-04-06&end_date=2015-04-08#.VSlRkhSqWM8.mailto. As you’ll see they were mostly just over 2 CFS. I estimate the river was flowing at around 2 mph most of the way. On our first day, we spent more than half of the day checking out the petroglyphs upriver of Neon, and hiking up into Neon itself. Because of this we floated only about 7 miles this day. The floating was easy and pleasant. We camped two miles past 25 mile wash. There were minimal rapids, no portages, and only around five times getting out of the boats to drag short distances. Two of those times were to avoid brush overhanging the main channel.
The second day we made about 14 miles, finishing a couple miles past scorpion gulch. This was a slow day with a lot of getting out of the boat to drag. More water would have made for a better experience over this stretch. Large boulders began to fill the river for here until the takeout. Only in one location did the boulders create a dangerous hazard with water being sucked through and under two adjacent boulders without enough clearance for boat or person. There’s an obvious well used portage on river left to avoid this. I think there were two to three true portages on this day, none of which was very long and each of which we carried in one trip.
The final day was long, 19 miles to coyote gulch. However, despite similar CFS per the gauge as the prior day, the floating was much better and the going easier. Lots of fun rapids. Wind was a major factor the last two days - when against you, you would go backwards if you stopped paddling. When behind you it doubled your speed. Planned to hike up Coyote Gulch and then out a steep slickrock ramp at Jacob Hamblin Arch, but too many people spooked us about how technical the ramp out of the canyon would be. Since there are no alternatives once you hike in that far, we chickened out and got out of the gulch at the traditional spot for boaters at crack in the rock. I used enough rigging and bow lines on the two packraft to rig enough rope to haul out our packs – you need 20 to 25 feet.
Fantastic trip, perfect for packrafts, suitable for all skill levels, and well worth it at CFS above 2.