Two good friends and I, all Large Format photographers from Connecticut, planned a trip to the Canyonlands National Park for the express purpose of hiking the Salt Creek to photograph Angel Arch. Park Rangers explained the beginning of the excursion would be down the Salt Creek via a 4WD vehicle to a locked gate. To open the gate we were given a code, which would expire in three days at the limit of our permit so we needed to keep an appropriate time line in place.
We rented a Ford Explorer in Grand Junction, CO and made our way over to the Moab area to take in supplies and necessities for the 26.7-mile round trip hike from the Park Service locked gate to the Angel Arch viewing area. As my good friend Glenn Curtis, several years my senior, said upon our return, “I just turned 50; what the hell was I thinking!”
The three characters: Tim Jones, a professional photographer, as was Glenn, both of whom I had met in 1981. Tim is level-headed and a seasoned outdoorsman, who has summited Mt. Rainier several times and Alaska’s 20,000+ ft. Mt. McKinley at least once as I recall. Both Glenn and I looked to Tim for all things camping and back country travel. Glenn, a retired FLA police officer and now a busy studio owner, was along for the adventure more than the at all costs photograph of Angel Arch. Yours truly, I am more stubborn and put-your-head-down stop complaining and let’s make things happen type – not a good mantra when taking on the back country and the toll the elements can exact on the unprepared and unknowing. Nevertheless, as it turned out had either Tim or Glenn not been on the hike, well, this adventure for me could have had a much different ending.
The plan, put in place long before we were on the ground in Utah, was an early morning start to the 13-mile hike to arrive at Angel Arch in time to photograph at the end of the daylight, retreat a few miles and set-up camp. We’d get up early the next morning and go back to the Arch for an early light shot and then make our way out to the car by dusk. With an extra day on the permit, the plan seemed perfect and the most logical and efficient course of action.
After a morning shoot around the Moab area, we set about getting the necessary supplies for the trek. Tim insisted we each carry a gallon of water during the hike (7 lbs. ). We purchased 7 or 8 gallons of water, a cooler full of ice and beer for our return and a host of energy snacks and freeze-dried edibles we could consume along the way. Only a tent, sleeping bags and ground pads would accompany us, no means to cook anything. Each of us would economize on camera gear by sharing lenses and other equipment to cut down on the weight of our packs. I believe each of us carried in excess of 40 lbs. not counting 5-6 lb. tripods each.
The well-planned hike started to unravel when all the supplies were in place by 10 a.m. It has been said about me that I try to cram too much into one trip and sure enough I talked the other guys into getting to the trailhead after an early lunch and making our way down Salt Creek a day ahead of time to have more photography opportunities later in the week. It’s a one-hour drive from the main highway just to get into Canyonlands NP and probably another 1.5 hours traversing the Salt Creek with the 4WD – an adventure by itself where we traversed rocky, uneven back country roads, with areas of standing water up to the floor boards. We got to the trailhead by 2:30 pm. While we organized and economized the gear for each backpack, Tim insisted that we each consume 1 gallon of water before setting out on the trail – better to carry the water inside the body then have to carry in a pack or water bottle he explained, proper hydration was key to our hike.
We set out about 3:30 p.m. in cool, dry temperatures. I was out ahead of the pack for almost the entire 8-mile hike and remember feeling full of energy and plenty hydrated- the typical Hare and the Tortoise tale. We stopped every so often for water and a snack. We ended up setting up camp on high ground around nightfall – 7:30 p.m. as I remember. We figured we covered about 8 miles. That left us with another 5+ miles to the Arch in the morning. As I look back now, my suggestion to leave ahead of time took away the two times of the day that I find most rewarding to make photographs – either dawn or dusk light is best for film photographers.
A plan was put in place for the next morning: Glenn would stay behind and pack up the tent and supplies and wait for our “guaranteed return time”. Tim and I would hike towards Angel Arch for 2 hours and at that point, regardless of where we were, turn around to get back to the campsite 2 hours later. We left at 6:30 a.m. with much lighter packs and 2 liters of water each. Tim and I hiked most of the way together yet never spoke of what our intention was with regard to photographing the Arch. I remember Tim saying to me at 8:25, with the Arch in sight but still at least a ½ mile away, “Are we turning around here?” I said hell no and we trudged on and got to the Arch a bit before 9 a.m. We made one composition of Angel Arch, packed up and hurried back to Glenn since he was expecting us by 10:30 a.m. There is wonderful video about the two photographs that Tim and I made and are well worth the time listening to the two of us remembering the experience, with the added benefit of each of the finished photographs on display and discussed by Paul Paletti, the gallery owner in Louisville, KY, who represents my work. See this video link or the same link at the end of the story: Angel Arch Video
We got back to the campsite a bit before noon and found Glenn waiting patiently with everything packed and ready to go. Glenn had every right to be angry with us but never let on to that effect. Fortunately for me, Glenn had struck up a conversation with some passing hikers early that morning who wondered if we would have sufficient water for the remaining 8-mile hike back to the car in the heat of the day. Fortunately the young hikers gave Glenn an iodine pill to guard against the Giardia virus, commonly found in standing backcountry water, on the chance our water supply ran out…one pill mind you ! Glenn’s gregarious nature and outgoing personality would become critical to our survival – at least for Glenn and me.
As I recall, Glenn and I had less than a half-gallon of water each while Tim had over a half-gallon. We decided that we would each manage our own water supply and make the best of the circumstances that essentially I created. We divided up the common gear and headed out expecting a 3+ hour hike to the car. Hiking in the middle of the day in an open canyon wash with no protection from the sun and soaring heat would be much more difficult than the previous day, especially given that Tim and I had already hiked 11 miles that morning. We would hike for about 40 minutes, stop for a break and some water, and while we didn’t say much, it was clear Glenn and I would run out of water. After a few more stops and tiny sips of water, I found my mouth becoming very dry and uncomfortable. I could no longer make saliva, a bit alarming at the time, and I had a low-grade headache that would grow worst as the hot afternoon wore on. I remember stopping for a break one time and laying on the ground with my head on a flat rock and falling fast asleep in a very short order, my two friends had a pretty good time ribbing me about snoring on the desert floor.
At about the halfway point Glenn’s water and mine were all but gone. Tim continued to ration his supply and had more than we did. We came upon some standing water and realized it might be our only hope for more water. Glenn filled a 1.5-liter clear water bottle from the pool of standing water, the color of strong tea, given the red rock that it was sitting in. A lot of sediment had made its way into the bottle due to disturbing the pool of water, but this was our only foreseeable option. Glenn put in the one iodine pill we had and then you’re instructed to wait 30 minutes for the pill to negate the potential Giardia virus. The virus can affect people in different ways, with some affected to the point of doubling over in intestinal pain with the effects staying with you for several days. We barely waited 10 minutes before Glenn took what I still remember as being too much water in one gulp since that 1.5 liters was to last the two of us for the remainder of the hike. I remember drinking some of the dirty, gritty water, but not nearly enough to quench my thirst or remove what was becoming the most uncomfortable feeling I could remember, but we needed to ration what remained and the thought of the sediment filled water was of no real concern to either of us.
At this point in the hike the canyon wash opened up and around every corner you could see the trail for at least a 1/2 mile ahead. I knew there were two black and white barricades just before the area where the car was parked that could be seen from the open canyon, probably at least ½ mile away. With every twisting turn of the canyon my hope was to finally see the barricades, knowing we would still have 20 minutes to reach the car at that point. The anxiety of not knowing how much longer the hike would last and the growing discomfort of dehydration played games with my mind and I began to think about being out in front and that maybe we could have gotten off track into a small side canyon ?? I never shared that concern with either Glenn or Tim but I remember thinking we should be to the barricades by now !
The hike probably took another 1.5 hours from where we found the standing water, nevertheless the barricades finally appeared in the distance. Still out in front I stopped and couldn’t wait to tell my friends we had made it! I remember finally getting to the car and paying no attention to the ice-cold beer and heading directly to one of the unopened gallons of water stored in the car that was clearly above our body temperature. I drank ½ of the gallon before pausing for air. As an aside, Tim had barely a mouthful left in his hiking water bottle, Tim had rationed correctly whereas Glenn and I were ever so thankful for the Iodine pill and some “Salt Creek standing water” !
As I look back on many of my adventures, there are always unusual events that happen and this one was not done yet. Once packed up and late afternoon we headed towards the gate about a ½ mile up the creek. We arrived at the gate to find it closed and locked, with two college-aged girls in their 4WD Jeep just sitting in the shade of a large boulder, but on the wrong side of the locked gate. They were clearly distraught over being locked inside had we not come along with the code to unlock the gate it’s hard to say when they would have returned to safety. We explained how the Park Service regulated the area and stopped and had a beer with them before unlocking the gate and returning to civilization. We learned the girls were on a day trip with no knowledge of how the Park Service managed the gate, they ventured beyond it and apparently someone unknowingly locked the gate with them on the wrong side. I still remember one of the girls suggesting we get another drink when we were all back in Moab later that evening. We declined since our adventure had left us exhausted, not to mention we were old enough to be their dad’s and had better act like it!
If you’ve gotten to this point in the story, thanks for taking time to hear my tale. One last thing I find noteworthy – there is the rule of 3’s of survival in the wilderness before a person may die: 3 Minutes without Air, 3 Hours without Shelter ( extreme heat or cold ) 3 Days without Water ( if sheltered ) and 3 Weeks without Food ( if one has water ). Clearly we were not in danger of dying of thirst, yet it remains the most uncomfortable feeling I have ever experienced in my life, hands down!