Friday, June 10, 2011
Labyrinth: The Fuel Incident
Words by Greg
Photos by Trina and Greg
Adventure comes in many forms, from mild to wild. On a scale of 1 to 10 most of our adventures are way down around the Fun-Not-Harrowing level. We aren't out making new discoveries. We don't boldly go where no one has gone before. We aren't going faster or higher or deeper or further. Only one of us does any pushing of the envelope. (Ha! Inside joke!)
Most of our "adventures" involve us discovering places where we've never been before. Or taking a fresh look at places we've been before or where we go all the time. Or just moving slowly enough through a place with our eyes, ears and noses wide open enough that we "discover" things we wouldn't notice at a faster, less attentive pace.
But there are times, despite our less-than-lofty aspirations, when we manage to get ourselves into a bit of trouble. Usually through the diligent application of our own stupidity. This time the fault was entirely mine. And my foolish neglect spiked the Danger Needle upward from This-Should-Be-Pleasant to That-Could-Be-Inconvenient.
The plan was to float down a river in small boats. Two of us. Two dogs. Two inflatable boats. The river was the type that flowed from a small outpost of civilization into barely inhabited lands, and then wound deeper and deeper into a desert stone canyon where there were no permanent inhabitants. It would be a nice escape from the rigors of the civilization that we like to pretend we can disconnect from.
Nearly 70 river miles. High, fast spring flow. We read that most folks take three or four days. We planned for six. Trina was busier than I was, so I packed all the food. Our boats were small but not tiny. We brought a tent, comfy sleeping bags, books, and plenty of warm clothes to get us through the expected wet chill of the first three days. Food was home-assembled backpacking-type stuff that would cook quickly or was ready-to-eat: small packets of granulated dinner, breakfast oatmeal, and -- most importantly -- Trina's morning coffee.
Since the boat was carrying the weight and not me, I decided to take my ol' highly convenient backpacking stove instead of the super-minimalist aluminum beer can alcohol stove I've been using for most trips lately. We packed everything into dry-bags for the river. And since we planned on camping for a few more days after getting off the river, we threw even more food and supplies into a tub that would stay in the truck.
It was late afternoon before we got to the boat ramp. By the time we had the boats inflated and the gear strapped in, dark stormy clouds were barging into the edge of the sunny sky. We parked the truck where Gil, the paid shuttle driver would pick it up and drive it to the end point of our river journey. Then we pushed off from shore into the wide river. High, swift and cold with spring meltwater. Thick with brown silt, floating branches and logs.
We bobbed in the water, fluttered our paddles, rocked our boats, getting used to the feel of having liquid beneath us. Zeek immediately found the front of Trina's boat, where he flopped down comfortably with his paws nearly in the water. Sprocket, however, was on his first boat trip and he was uncharacteristically anxious. He seemed fine with being in the boat and balancing on our gear bags or on the slippery curves of the inflated gunwales. But he seemed to want to be in whichever boat he wasn't in and spent his time squeaking and staring at the other boat.
The river's broad current carried us under two bridges to where empty beige hills and bluffs stretched away behind the brushy banks of the river. We paddled a little, mostly to keep ourselves away from the overflowing edges and off the drifts of logs and branches piled onto the peak of every island.
The pleasant floating ended as storm clouds boiled upward and over us. A shadow swallowed the sunshine and took the warmth from the air. Wind began to push our boats backwards and we had to paddle to make progress through the choppy water. Luckily we were almost to the first point of interest. We dragged the boats onto a strangely textured bank and lashed them.
The geyser was a man made phenomenon. Cold clear water spurts from a pipe where a test oil well was drilled in the 1930s. We took a look. There were orange terraces of deposited minerals overlaying older white mineral terraces. There was a rusty pipe where the geyser seemed to emerge, but wasn't spurting. Several well-used campsites surrounded the perimeter and a dirt road led away into the desert.
The dogs, happy to be on solid ground, were running rampant in the grey light. The wind shoved us around as we wandered. The river surface held the dark storm clouds in its choppy reflection. Trina studied the sky and said, "Why don't we just camp here?" I looked at the approaching storm. Scanned the wind patterns on the water. Four-and-a-half miles from our put-in. And plenty of time to do whatever we wanted. Why not, indeed?
It was spitting rain by the time we had the tent set up in the shelter of some scraggly tamarisk bushes. Soon we were inside listening to the rain pelt the tent while we read and played scrabble. Some people drove in on the dirt road to see the geyser and left again.
At dinner time we discovered our problem. The rain tapered off and daylight was fading when I got the camp kitchen set up, basically a pan, a stove, and... Um. Uh. "Darling, we may have a bit of a problem here." I had not packed the fuel canisters for the stove. Oops!
Six days ahead of us. No fuel. Getting dark. What to do? Things we knew: The fuel canisters were in the truck, but the truck was upriver and would be driven way downriver in the morning. No phones with us.
Should one of us hike to town? All of us? In the dark? In the morning? Along the river or on the road? If we missed the shuttle driver with our truck, would there be anywhere in the small town to find fuel?
After lots of hashing through possibilities we settled on a plan. We'd just do without the fuel. Why not? Humans have been traveling along rivers and cooking over firewood for tens of thousands of years. Surely we could do the same. It might be awkward, with the river full and no dry driftwood. It might be challenging to get rain-wet sticks to burn. It might be difficult to find safe places for a fire with all the sandbars and beaches underwater, and with stormy, windy weather expected for a couple more days. But what the heck. We had our legal fire pan and everything. No problem. Awkward, but no problem.
And we had a back-up plan. If anyone drove in to the geyser or came past on the river, we'd try to borrow a phone.
We slept snug while bouts of wind and rain rattled and spattered the tent. 5:30 a.m. We heard a motor. I stumbled out of the tent into predawn light. Two people in a skiff motoring past on the far side of the river, heading downstream fast with the current. I waved. They waved back and motored on. Oh.
Half hour later, I stumbled back out. Looked like the same boat coming back upstream and much slower. I waved again. They waved. Okay, time to get serious. I waved two arms over my head, feeling like something of an idiot. Is forgetting one's fuel really an emergency? They pulled to our side of the river. Two young men and a big black and white dog. They were working for the Utah Division of Wildlife, had a cell phone and were happy to help. I called our shuttle driver and woke him up. "The geyser?" he croaked. "I can be there in an hour."
"No, take your time, Gil. There's no hurry as long as we know you're coming." I said. He said he'd bring the truck at 9:00 and we'd get the fuel out of the truck and all would be good. Whoo! I was feeling pretty thrilled about saving us from the "disaster" I'd created. Until I realized that the true disaster was nearly upon us. Trina would not last until 9:00 without coffee.
Oh gol. What to do. The area was picked clean of firewood. There were plenty of scrubby sticks if they weren't too wet from the night's rain. Or... BING! Even though I hadn't brought my beer can alcohol stove, I had thrown in a little 4-ounce bottle of alcohol, thinking disinfectant or back-up or maybe we'd decide for the first time in our lives to get rip roaring drunk. (Would 4-ounces be enough for that?) I searched around (for about 12 seconds) and found someone's discarded beer can, then got to work on it with my knife. About four minutes later, working from memory of the simple can/stoves I'd seen pictures of, I had a stove.
About 4 minutes after that, Trina had boiling water. Not long after that, Trina had coffee. At 9:00, we had canisters of fuel for the "real" stove.
The day. The trip. Officially saved.