Story and Photos by Cheyenne Rouse, Outdoor Adventure Photographer
As we wound our way down the steep, death-defying, switchback-laden trail, I glanced down at my handlebars and noticed my knuckles were a lovely shade of white. I had the death grip goin' on!
We were mountain biking the 90-mile-long White Rim Trail, in the "Island in the Sky" district of Canyonlands National Park. The challenging trail meanders along some 1,000 feet below the majestic mesa tops, on a rim high above both the Colorado and Green Rivers. The trail was an old uranium-mining road until becoming part of the park in 1964.
Shortly after I decided to specialize in adventure sport and outdoor lifestyles photography, someone told me if I really want to capture the dramatic shots I should participate in the sports I shoot. Easier said than done! In my years of traveling and photographing the west, I never felt "remote" enough. A photographer has a good bit of gear to lug around, so backpacking has not been a good option. I be-gan searching for an organized tour into a remote area that provided some kind of pack support. I thought, "Horses smell, llamas bite - support vehicle it is!"
I searched for an outfitter that was somewhat sensitive to the needs of the photographer. Kaibab Mountain Bike Tours, out of Moab, offered the perfect trip. Four days and three nights of biking and camping with a self-contained support vehicle to carry all of the food and gear that we would need. I was assured I would be able to retrieve lenses and film from the support vehicle throughout the day and that I would have ample time to shoot. "This is a tour, not a race, and we like to label it 'vacation paced.'"
I started training for the big adventure. I rode up as many hills as I could find near my San Diego home, not knowing what to expect.
I wanted to carry my camera, extra lens, film and a monopod with me on the bike and I experimented to devise a comfortable system. I knew that whatever system I decided on would be "it" for the entire trip. I tried some of the front-strapped camera holsters. As a small-framed female, I found them too bulky and the straps did not cinch tight enough to hold my camera in place.
I remembered a simple strap that Dewitt Jones promoted during an outdoor photographer's seminar. I called around and ordered one, which arrived just in time. I tried it out and it worked perfectly. Using it, I could carry my camera around my neck and cinch it tight with the "Dewitt Strap." You can easily make a similar strap using two-inch wide elastic strapping or webbing. Sew three inches of Velcro to the ends. The strap needs to fit snugly but comfortably around your midriff area.
I changed the neck strap on my camera to a neoprene strap, which I call my "wonder strap." With it and the waist chinch strap I hardly notice the weight of my camera around my neck. I covered my camera with a plastic bag or bandanna while riding to protect it from the elements - dust, rain, smashed bugs (yuk!).
I used a waist pack to carry filters, film and an extra lens.
At the appointed time, we met at the Kaibab Mountain Bike Tour Center and loaded our gear into the support vehicle. There were nine people going on the tour, as well as our two guides, Chris and Becky. It looked like a fun group.
We piled into the shuttle bus and chatted during the 45-minute ride to the trailhead. Silently, I gave each group a "handle." We had the Boston Beans, three guys from Boston; the Sedona Studs, a couple from Arizona; Burl Ives, a look-a-like from L.A.; and the Portland Pair, a couple from Oregon.
We arrived at the Shafer Trailhead and were briefed about basic safety and ethics. We were told this was a "low impact" tour - that we would not leave anything behind as evidence of our stay. We were asked to deposit recyclables in a big duffle and leftover food scraps into a composting bucket to be brought out and dumped into an employee's garden. Now that's low impact!
Into the canyon
A cold spring wind was howling and I was ready to get moving. Into the canyon we went, one by one, disappearing over the edge. After a jolting, white-knuckle introduction to the White Rim Trail, we finally hit flat land and spun past incredible vistas, mesas and towers. This definitely was a land that time, or at least progress, had forgotten.
My legs and lungs screamed at me throughout the day, "What were you thinking!" The altitude of 5,000 feet was an ever-present factor on this, the first day of our four-day trek. Did I miss that paragraph in the trip brochure?
We set up camp that afternoon at Airport Tower in the shadow of Washerwoman Arch. We were treated to a light snow shower and I was not thrilled! Under normal circumstances I love snow, but with frozen fingers, aching legs and burning lungs I thought, "Three more days of this? What have I gotten myself into? Maybe I'm getting too old for this kind of thing."
I slowly set up my tent and crawled inside to get out of the stiff, cold wind. I curled up inside my cozy sleeping bag, loving my safe little tent. But it was time to psych myself up and have fun.... "Don't be a wimp!" I yelled to myself. "You can do this!" I burst out of my tent feeling somewhat better - but still freezing - and joined the group gathered in a circle on folding chairs, talking and laughing.
Our tour guides served a hearty hot meal of blackened halibut. It was delicious and just what I needed. After downing a huge piece of fresh-baked carrot cake (yes, with cream cheese frosting!) and washing it down with a cup of hot herbal tea, I stumbled off to my tent and fell into my cozy sleeping bag. I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.
The sun hit my tent early. By the brightness of the light I knew it had to be a beautiful day. It better be! I stuck my head out of my tent - it was glorious! Sunny, warm and not a cloud in the sky. There is a God!
After a light, healthy breakfast of bagels, granola, fresh fruit and "cowboy" coffee, we all scurried off to prepare for our second day on the trail. Tents put away, sleeping bags rolled up and all gear stowed, we were on our way. I felt like a new person. My legs were energized and my lungs felt great. Funny what a little sleep can do. With every turn of the pedals, I knew I could conquer this trail.
I was spinning and dodging rocks and ravines on the roller coaster hills, having a great time, when Chris rolled up next to me and asked, "How ya doing?" "Great!" I replied. He said, "Ya know, today is our hardest day." I didn't say anything. I just thought, "Should I push him over the rim now or later?" Nothing would dampen my spirits today!
We stopped for lunch at Monument Basin - what a view! I inhaled my turkey sandwich, then grabbed my camera to shoot the incredible scenery around me. The distant La Sal Mountains were topped with snow, making a sharp contrast between the rust towers and mesas in the canyon. Back on the bike, spinning and spinning, the hills were getting steeper and the trails rougher. I was riding solo at this point because the group had spread out a bit. I didn't mind, it really gave me time to appreciate the beauty and solitude of the canyon.
Since I was alone I got a little braver on my bike and tried out different maneuvers. I "cleaned" one hill, it was very steep and rocky. Proud of my achievement, I scooted back on the seat, got into the "downhill" position and let go of the brakes - WHOOSH! I was flying.
Remembering an old rule of mountain biking - don't look at what you don't want to hit! - I found myself staring at a small but deadly ravine right ahead of me. I couldn't take my eyes off it. It's as if some unseen force had taken over. I was barreling towards this thing at the speed of sound - the sound of my screaming!
I flew to the left, my bike to the right. Silence . . . was I still alive? Luckily my fall was "cushioned" by a prickly, dead sage bush - ouch! I quickly spun my head around to make sure that nobody had seen my acrobatics. What would they think? I surveyed my wounds and I had a few nice souvenirs to take home and wear with pride. I had to laugh, even though it hurt. I had drawn first blood!
The ascent was getting progressively steeper as I caught up with "Burl Ives," a jolly middle-aged man from L.A. He was an animal, determined (more than I) to finish the trail. I proudly showed him my battle wounds and shared my war story. We laughed and rode on.
We couldn't imagine that the trail could get much worse, then we came around a bend and saw it - Murphy's Hogback, a mesa rising 600 feet above the trail. As luck would have it, we were making our camp "up there tonight." "Are you kidding me?" I said in disbelief. We stared at it knowing that there was no way up expect to push our bikes. I noticed a neat ribbon winding up the side of the monolith. "Oh look, that must be the trail!" I said as my eyes rolled back in my head. I was losing my sense of humor real fast. "Let's go!" he said. I started to wonder if this tour was some sort of boot camp in disguise. Our physical abilities were certainly being challenged.
I wrestled my bike to the top, cresting the last "up-age." A cheering section was waiting for all of the survivors. Again, I shared my war story and all quickly surveyed my wounds. We were all deliriously happy - oh, the little things of life!
We made camp on top the "Hog," everyone choosing the perfect spot with a view. Then we all gathered around the evening's hors d' oeuvres in our little wooden chairs and compared notes from the day's ride. Of course, no one could top my day - I had "drawn first blood," a prestigious honor on such a tour.
As we watched the crimson sunset and ate dinner, we laughed and carried on. One by one, the road warriors disappeared into their tents for the night. I decided to fight fatigue for a while to stargaze. The Boston Beans stayed up as well, faced with a problem. They were discussing plans to ration beer. One more night to go and party supplies were in short supply. My lids were starting to get weighty so I said goodnight and was off to slumber under the stars.
We rose to another spectacular Utah day. We all emerged from our cocoons walking a little slower, sore from the brutal workout the day before. Since we had no modern facilities on this trip, a mirror was not present and, with no showers, that was probably a wise choice. I had not seen my face yet and was getting some strange looks from my tour pals.
"Cheyenne, what's wrong with your face?" Chris asked. I stuck my face in the mirror on the support vehicle. It looked like I was wearing white sunglasses and my bottom lip was swollen from biting it. I hadn't realized I had done that. It must have happened during my fall - another war wound. I assume also that my number 15 sunscreen was not strong enough. It was brutal out there and I loved it!
As Chris and Becky flipped flapjacks and poured "cowboy coffee," everyone started organizing and stowing their gear, eager to hit the trail.
I knew that what goes up must come down and down it was. The other side of the "Hog" was pretty hairy. I chose to walk down the steepest part of the trail. I thought I would save the honor of drawing second blood for someone else.
Everyone was really energized on the trail and we were becoming camp buddies. I guess the challenge of the "Hog" brought us all closer together, like one big happy family.
After riding awhile it was time to stop for a scenery break at a canyon overlook. Off in the distance we could see glimpses of the "Maze" district of the park. The park is divided into three distinct districts, the Island, the Needles and the Maze. They are all aptly named for their unique geological formations.
Our next stop would be at Holeman Slot Canyon. Everyone was looking forward to the shade so we rode quickly. We hiked and slid through this labyrinth of light. Slot canyons are scattered throughout the southwest and are filled with beautiful shapes and mystical light that make them a great escape from the baking sun.
The rest of the day was spent riding to our last camp, Potato Bottom. Personally, I think this camp should be renamed "Dusty Bottom," and to help matters the wind was kicking up pretty good. Everything, including us, was covered in a thin layer of brown dust. The name of the camp comes from the fact that potatoes were once grown there.
The camp was situated on the shores of the Green River. A few of the riders braved the chilly, fast-moving water of the river. "Not I, thank you. I enjoy being filthy. I want to experience this remoteness thoroughly," I said when asked if I was going in. The Portland Pair seemed to enjoy the chilly water; I guess they were use to that. I did manage to dip a washcloth into the water and take a birdbath. It was very refreshing.
We were gathered in our traditional nightly circle, chatting about the tour highlights since this was our last night, when from the cooler came a horrible noise. The sound of a Boston Bean that has run out of beer. I guess their plan to ration didn't work. After another meal to delight the senses, we managed to have a fun-filled evening. Then, feeling full, fit, happy and tired, it was bedtime.
I didn't want it to end
Need I say that we awoke to another glorious day? Well, we did! Surrounded by red rock walls with cottonwood trees rustling in the wind and the gentle gurgle of the Green River in the background. What could be better? I was reflecting on the first day of our trek and how I loathed just about everything about the trail. Now, on our last day, I didn't want it to end; I had a real sense of sadness deep in my soul. It was a feeling that I certainly didn't expect to have.
Since it was our last day we got extra special service from our tour guides. With pen and paper in hand, pretending to be a waiter, Chris asked, "How would you like your eggs prepared, Madam?" I replied, "Over medium, please." I could get used to this! The best part of the trip - well, one of them - was knowing I could eat as much as I wanted and I would burn it off riding all day. It was great!
Time to break camp at Dusty Bottom and get the group photo. "Smile, you guys," I said, then pushed the auto timer on my camera and rushed in for the picture. In unison we all replied, "Dillinger!" Snap! A little White Rim humor that can only be appreciated after three days on the trail.
None of us were prepared for what lay ahead; with full bellies this would not be fun. "Hardscramble" was its name, steep and rocky was its game. The idea was to climb, on bikes, 400 feet in a very short distance. My legs weren't even warmed up. Their message to me was, "I don't think so." There were a few studs in the group that made it to the top, a nice morning hike for me. We all converged at the top and most of us decided that our bodies had tired much too early - we were ready for the finer things - a bed and a shower.
Gotta push on, we were on the home stretch. Most of the day was spent riding along the Green River. It was very relaxing and not too strenuous. Again, we all got spread out a bit. Some of us were in more of a hurry to get to the end than others; I took my time. I knew there must be a pretty good climb out of here up ahead, but around which corner?
I caught up with the Sedona Studs, who were friends of mine from Arizona. They were telling me how much fun they had on the trip and thanked me for telling them about it. I was glad they came along - it made the trip more fun for me.
We started seeing more vehicles and riders so we assumed the end was not far ahead. We stopped and looked at what was ahead of us; I had the same dumbfounded reaction as when I saw Murphy's Hogback for the first time. The trail wound straight up to the top of the canyon - what a way to end the trip! The Sedona Studs left me in the dust and rode all the way up the trail. "See ya at the top," I yelled as I began pushing my bike up the steep hill.
Everyone else passed me except "Burl Ives." He decided he would hike this one too. It was way past our usual lunchtime and were did our share of whining about how hungry and tired we were. Hey, we were allowed a little whining, we had just ridden 90 miles! Finally cresting the last hill, we pushed our bikes over the top and gave each other the "high five." We made it! I made it! It felt good to be done!
We all ate a quiet lunch at the trailhead and then climbed into the waiting shuttle bus to be taken back to civilization.... GRR! I had a great trip and made some great friends. Wow, that shower and bed felt great!
The trip had presented me with many challenges. The physical challenges were ever present. It was the mental challenges that took me by surprise. The trail was steeper, rougher and more technical than I had anticipated. In some spots it was mind over matter and I had to keep chanting to myself, "I can do this." My legs, lungs and willpower grew stronger with ever inch of the 90-mile trail. It turned out to be a trip filled with extreme personal satisfaction and I discovered a level of self-discipline that I never knew I possessed. The sheer beauty of this remote area more than made up for the pain of the rough ride.
I can't wait for my next remote adventure. Where should I go?
About the author: Cheyenne Rouse is an action/adventure and outdoor lifestyle photographer based in Park City. She has a large inventory of stock photos and is available for assignments. Check out her website: www.cheyenerouse.com