Floating the Escalante

This is my family & our story. I knew it would likely turn up here & so many other places for scrutiny (especially after how the mainstream NEWS reported it!!). Hopefully as we hold these misadventures up to the light we are all better off and prepared for the roll of the dice we all enjoy taking.

My family is tough and we have been adventuring the Utah wild places (along with CA., CO., WY, SD, etc) since we honeymooned there in 1990. This was not our first rodeo. I had my 2 daughters & wife with me on this trip. The DPS had a press conference upon landing which blew up and we had press at our house when we got back to Colorado. We didn’t think it was such a noteworthy or amazing story except that our prayers were answered so blatently. Our plan was to quietly slip back home and get back to work/school. Hahaha!!!

I use these sites as an educational tool as well as I love hearing about your adventures. I appreciate your input. I’m not trying to proseltize or force my spiritual beliefs on anyone here (If you already know me you know I don’t roll that way). However, if anyone would like to have conversation with me privately I would be happy to go there. Thank you all for your time.

We had an emergency contact friend on our permit who is also our overdue alert person. He is outdoor saavy and not an amature. We had PFD’s & helmets (not required), 1 full day extra food, 3 emergency bivvy bags, water purification tablets for 10 days x 4 people. Also a GPS, map, and compass, wilderness first aid kit, gear repair kit. The girls all have dry suits and I have a wetsuit. I have WFA training.

Our trip PLAN goes as follows:

Day 1- pick up packrafts (shipped to us in Escalante) and spot vehicles at Egypt TH (hike in) and 2nd vehicle at Fortymile Ridge TH (for Crack in the Wall exit off of Coyote Gulch). Hike to river & camp.

Day 2- Run Neon Canyon

Day 3- inflate boats and head down river starting at mm 36.5 (Neon canyon area)

Days 4,5,6 on river

Day 7- hike out at Crack in the wall/Coyote Gulch. Arrive in Escalante for a burger & soft bed.

The weather report was all over the place as I followed it several weeks prior to our trip. But it settled down and actually looked very “pleasant” as far as desert camping goes. If only that was the case a few days into our trip. Everything changed drastically as a front came over the northern pass near Torrey and settled in over the Escalante area.

Here’s what went down:

Our first day went pretty close to as planned.

Day 2 we woke up to cloudy skies and eventually rain, so we skipped running the slot and just hiked in to the Golden Cathedral. We spent the night at the river there.

Day 3 We got a lazy start since it was cold & lightly raining. We put in about 2pm (first day breaking camp & packing boats took longer than I expected, but there is always a rhythm that eventually develops). Paddled/floated from mm 36.5 to mm 44.5, a very nice time.

Day 4 We got out of camp 11am and enjoyed the beauty of the canyon. Leisurely paddled from 44.5 to mm 51.5. It started raining as the sun went down.

Day 5 Cloudy & sunny off & on, leave camp and paddle from mm 51.5 to slightly past mm 59. Easily spotting the first mandatory portage. Evening the temps drop drastically and it gets very windy and starts raining/hailing very hard all night.

Day 6 Rain & snow/hail mix (our rescuer said he got 2 ft of snow in Boulder that day!), thunder, etc. Miserable so we stay in tent until noon when the storm breaks. I know we have a mandatory portage coming up again, supposedly mm 61.8 (according to this trip report: http://www.sierrarios.org/Articles/Escalante2.html ). We put in on some heavy, chocolately, angry water. But we want to keep our schedule somewhat and there haven’t been any concerns of being beyond our ability so far. We each do flip a time or two as navigating around boulders is a lot harder with the loaded packrafts and a super sonic current (steering like fat pigs today!). I looked later and our cfs spiked nearly 5x’s higher today (not totally accurate since the gage is at the bridge 60 miles away and there are several tributaries that regularly pour into the river, not to mention the seasonal drainages that flooded with the night’s storm). We pass mm 62 with no portage in sight. We are making good time but things are pretty hectic. After rounding a big bowknot type bend we are heading down a fast, straight channel, with my daughter leading and I’m picking up the rear to help clean up if they flip or get stuck on the rocks or sand benches. There is a sharp right hand turn around a giant boulder (blocking our vision of the upcoming boulder choked narrow section, our 2nd mandatory portage), the RL portage spot comes & goes too fast -I’m the only one who almost beaches myself- the outside current sweeps all of us straight into the rocks and topples us carrying us under the rocks and our paddles into Lake Powell. We all pop out the other side and after a moment of parental joy that I didn’t have any drowned family members I give a giant “Thank you Lord!” and we begin to retrieve the boats and make plans for “what next”. After retrieving our rafts (we didn’t lose nor abandon them as some news reports erroneously reported) we take inventory of our food and gear. We did lose some shoes and I lost a dry bag with all my clothes. But 3 out of 4 sleeping bags stayed dry, so tonight I’ll sleep in the bivvy sack with down jackets draped over my body. We build a “comfort fire” and eat dinner. Our meal count will last 3 more days with no rationing, longer if we ration. No one is overly shaken nor panic stricken, just serious. We go to bed at approx 9:30pm after a prayer for wisdom & thanks again that none of us was lost nor injured. I believe it rained off & on all night again.

Camping at mm 64.5, about 100 yds down stream of the boulders.

Day 7- This should be our take out day. Early morning clouds threaten rain and then they do drop it in waves, but none very hard just chilly. At about 10am we eat breakfast and declare the obvious… our packrafting trip is now a backpacking trip, only 10 miles to Coyote Gulch. Just a minor paradigm shift and we backpack a lot anyway. We need to dry our our gear because it’s way to heavy soaking wet. That is what we decide to do and it takes us all day. The sun finally popped out at about 3pm and helped out for probably 2 ½ hrs before sliding behind the high cliff wall across the canyon from us. Before going to bed, we pack up everything we can and again give God thanks that we are all ok, all together, and He knows our needs/predicament.

Day 8- One day overdue. I roust everyone at 7am and we are hiking by 9am. I leave a note by the river portage spot asking if someone sees it (and exits the canyon before we do) to please alert the rangers that we are hiking out (not packrafting like our permit says) and that we’ll be 2 days overdue… but keep us on the radar. The river is still very high, swift, and angry. I try crossing in a few places to shortcut the winding river -no deal, it’s too deep & swift still (we don’t need a real accident!). The shoreline is crazy vegitated or steep boulder hopping, some boulders large as a small house and require 30+ minutes to grovel around. My kids are kinda whooped by 1pm so we stop to eat lunch and drop our heavy packs for a while. When we resume hiking we come to a crazy loose & steep slope on river left. We try to traverse and go over a 40’ boulder precariously perched about 50’ above the river. Large boulders are dropping under us into the water and this is just getting crazy grim. The penalty points are too big so I call us back and we need to look for a place to cross the river. I back track and attempt 4 different spots, no doing. We are nearly 2 miles from where we left. That is discouraging and troubling. At that rate it will take us 3 days to hike out IF we can get past this point and how many more spots like this will we hit again & again, ughhh! We head back to the lunch spot on a sandy beach area and sit down again. I need to think. I can see a bit of concern in my wifes face as she see’s the man who is always optimistic become very frustrated -almost like a caged animal. I really don’t see a way past this spot today. Maybe if I look at it all again I’ll see something I missed before, so I declare that I’ll stay out of the water, but I’m going to have another look at everything. I look at the map to see if there is any possibility of hiking out somewhere besides Coyote Gulch area. Nope, nothing new comes into view. I start to do the math about miles, food, when our emergency contact will pull the trigger and how long after that someone would come looking for us, etc. Then I have a raw moment with God. All I can really utter is that we are out of options and I relunctantly admit can’t figure things out, would He please let me know we’ll be OK and give us some help. I am about 50 yds from my family and I should be there with them to offer whatever a dad can offer in these moments. As I turn and start walking towards them, within 2 minutes of my weak prayer for help, a DPS chopper is blazing IN our canyon, upstream from us, low enough to see us EASILY. I flag them down and they drop off a deputy who informs us they are looking for a guy named John who was paddling the Escalante too, got separated from his party, and is now 2 days over due.

Short story, we tell them we can keep put if necessary (we have food, tent, etc) while they search for the overdue person, but that we are pretty much trapped until the water goes down. They decide to pull us out now even though they weren’t called in for us. They did and we got to alert our emergency contact before he called us in. We ate a juicy burger in Escalante and headed to Torrey for a hotel and that much anticipated soft bed. They found out about an hour after discovering us that “John” missed his take out point and went all the way to Lake Powell. I was in the chopper when that news came in.

My self evaluation:

-we did not have a SPOT, Delorme, SAT phone or other emergency device to communicate with the outside world in case of life threatening emergency (we will get one asap),

-I let down my guard on spotting the 2nd mandatory portage spot.

-The high, angry, flood water is not to be trifled with. RESPECT.

Thank you all for your adventure camaraderie & well wishing!


This is a great reply that was recently posted on the Canyon Collective website:

I rarely post on CC, and this one’s coming in late. However, since internet info remains forever, and this is under a “floating the Escalante” thread that’ll be easily Googled for the next decade or two, I think a few points about the Escalante might help future aspirants. As a quick CV: I’ve lived nearby for 30 years, am a backcountry guide, and had a former career as a serious kayaker. I’ve kayaked and packrafted from Alaska to New Zealand, and have solo paddled the Escalante at flows considerably higher than those pictured, without any capsizes or drama. So here are a few, hopefully useful, observations which are not necessarily targeted at the protagonists here.

[] The only accurate weather reports for southern Utah come from forecast.weather.gov. Weather.com and other commercial sites are ridiculously inaccurate. Type in several of the nearby towns to get an overall idea of upcoming weather. And it’s all just tea leaf prediction beyond 3-4 days in advance.

[] Escalante flows are all about what happens on the south side of Boulder Mountain at elevations well above those noted on weather reports. Most flow comes from Boulder Creek, which enters at mile 8 below the Escalante bridge. Every other feeder is minor. Boulder usually triples or quadruples the flow at Escalante River bridge, where the gauge is located.

[] In any high water (say >300 cfs, which happens often, albeit briefly, after storms and during high spring runoff) this trip is best for experienced whitewater paddlers only, not backpackers or desert creek packrafters. Why? Because the lower 10 miles become Class III-IV eddy hopping where ferry capability, solid eddy turns, eddy-hop scouting, and party management are all important. High water also erodes outer banks, dropping cottonwoods and trees into the flow, creating random ‘sweepers’ every bit as dangerous as the one mandatory portage described above. (There’s a 6-foot waterfall higher up that’s regularly run). At high flows, you can’t just float down the wave trains, then all go scrambling for a bank once obstacles appear. It’s one at a time, from eddy to eddy, never stacking up. Many people launch thinking (per low-flow trip reports) that the Escalante is easy Class I-II. Yeah. Sometimes. But when it’s low, you can fracture your tailbone or pelvis easily by butt-bouncing off rocks.

[] Packrafts are cool (and oh-so-fashionable now) but they’re specialty tools, and few people have experience in them above Class II water, especially in obstructed, technical creek conditions. Packrafts have poor hull speed, which makes ferrying difficult in high flows. They’re doubly cumbersome if loaded heavily, so keep your gear as UL as possible. They eddy turn OK, but since they lack edges (aka chines) they tend to spin without carving into the eddy, then bounce back into the current.

[] If you’re buying or renting for real whitewater rather than combo pack/paddle trips, consider a Thrillkat. They’re more comfortable than either packrafts or inflatable kayaks, carry payloads better, surf quite well >:), and are much more maneuverable in real whitewater. Weight: 16lbs. I found it easy to roll mine up and hump it out Crack in the Rock to Fortymile Ridge, which is the best Escalante takeout.

[] The boulder pile portage is very easy to locate if you’re paying attention. The river goes CCW around a sweeping bowknot bend (as noted) which rounds A HUGE CANDLESTICK TOWER THAT’S VISIBLE WELL IN ADVANCE. This is the only such feature on the run. As soon as you pass the tower, keep hugging the left bank, rounding any boulders reluctantly, one at a time.

[] A GPS is even more useful for paddling than overland nav. The screen’s easy to read continuously if hung near footrest level. With a topo map loaded, and bombsighted waypoints, you can accurately track progress, and locate side canyons, bays, or obstacles obscured by vegetation, river bends, and high banks.

[] Satellite beacons like SPOTs and DeLorme Inreach (two-way satellite texters) are cheap these days, and they work spectacularly well…especially if you practice sending OK messages or texts until you know their signal/terrain capabilities. Again, note that “practice” thing. Don’t rely on cell phones. Sure, give 'em a try, but I’ve regularly had two people, with the exact same phone and carrier, wave them around with towers visible. One connects; the other doesn’t. Go figure.

Now here’s the important stuff:

[] The Escalante’s only easy for experienced paddlers (high water) or physically fit boat-draggers (low water). Solid flows are NOT easy for inexperienced paddlers.

[] Always distrust internet beta. Most Escalante reports describe low-water, slog-and-drag flows. And posters tend to downgrade the difficulties in their internet reports due to: Rose-colored memory; trips they’re intimately familiar with; being ‘guided’ by someone else; to keep from sounding novice among their peers; or to polish one’s guru status. I see this phenom all the time with canyoneering trip reports and websites. Same with the Escalante.

[] Never undertake a committing trip that requires skills you haven’t mastered in a more controlled setting. It’s a smart guideline that’s routinely violated in this era where social media photo envy leads to a ‘let’s go too’ scramble. There’s always someone out there having more fun than you. Just accept it. Do day trips until you’re comfy with the skill set. Evac’s easier.

[] If your group’s getting flipped and taking swims -even before the hard part- then getting swept wherever by high-flow currents, that’s a solid sign that skills are not up to the task. And that’s the time to be looking for potential exit routes. Always have a Plan B in place and agreed upon. This makes it easier to switch channels and steer a group to safer activities.

[] People get trashed all the time down here, and most incidents never make the news feeds or comment boards. The reason rescue authorities are now doing press releases is to get the word out that all this ‘easy’ stuff isn’t easy for everybody.

Have fun. Be prepared. Don’t get complacent.

Steve Howe
Redrock Adventure Guides
Torrey, Utah

Thanks for posting!!

I think its really valuable for the packrafting community to hear of mis-adventures, potential incidents and serious accidents and particularly to hear it from the source rather than simply via the media. Hopefully more packrafters will recount their own near misses so that others may learn.

As always lots to learn on reflection and in analysing others’ reports.

Stay safe.