Hiking The Gulch Outstanding Natural Area

We started hiking down Steep Creek and into The Gulch Outstanding Natural Area about nine in the morning. The sky was cloudless, the temperature would reach the upper 90's but I wasn't concerned. We had plenty of water, lots of good food and all of our normal survival gear. I was excited, looking forward to a great hike.

A half mile or so down the trail I noticed a few deer flies were beginning to buzz us. No problem, we had plenty of insect repellent. Another half mile and the deer flies had become a swarm. I knew it was time to break out the bug spray when my 12 year old, Chelsy, began to let out screams of pain as the flies started to bite her. I had made the mistake of letting her wear short pants on the hike and the swarm of deer flies found the back of her legs to be an easy target.

Bad news, the insect repellent didn't work. It actually seemed to attract the flies. The further down the canyon we got, the worse the deer flies became. Well, if 25% Deet didn't work, how about 100% Deet? Still no effect. Ok, how about a non-Deet repellent? Still the flies swarmed us.

Everyone cut willow branches and began using them like the tail of a horse to keep the flies off the backs of their legs. A swarm of several hundred biting flies followed each hiker like a living shadow. We began praying for wind, a storm, anything to knock the flies back, but it didn't come.

We couldn't stop to rest without being overwhelmed by the flies so we just kept walking. By noon we were between six and seven miles down the canyon. It hadn't been a fun hike and we hadn't taken the time to enjoy and explore the area like we normally would. The flies pushed us on and on. The only way to keep them at bay was to keep walking, so we did.

I suggested we stop for lunch but when we all came together in a small group we each brought our swarm of deer flies with us. Five people, a couple hundred flies each, over a thousand deer flies buzzing and biting us. It was maddening.

Maybe if we got up out of the creek bottom and onto the slick rock the deer flies wouldn't follow? It worked, the deer flies slowly left as we worked our way out onto the slick rock. There wasn't any shade and the heat was intense but the deer flies were gone. I had just broken out the food and started making sandwiches when I heard the first buzzing noise in my ear. I recognized it immediately.

The deer flies had been replaced by biting gnats, thousands of them. Soon they formed a cloud around our heads. They were in our hair, in and out of our ears and up our noses. We couldn't eat without getting gnats in our mouths. And their bite was just as bad as the deer flies — only there were more of them.

They began a systematic attack of my head right around my hat line. The bite was bad but the psychological problems caused by all those gnats buzzing in my ears, climbing around on the lenses of my glasses and trying to fly up my nose was just about all I could take. Lunch was over almost as quickly as it began. Again there was no rest, no chance to relax. It was either move on or be eaten alive.

We still had several more miles to go before we reached our destination, a section of narrows with a spectacular, corkscrew water fall. I decided that the hike had become too tough and that Chelsy should head back to the truck. My 17 year old, David, said he would accompany her. He wasn't too excited to keep on going down the canyon with all those bugs anyway. They both wanted to get out of there. As I found out later, they hiked the six or seven miles back without stopping once. Biting bugs are a powerful motivator.

Between the three of us we had packed in about eight liters of water, but it wasn't enough. Before David and Chelsy began their hike out, I checked their water supply and they only had about a liter left between them. I gave them another liter and a half. They would get a little thirsty but shouldn't have any problem getting out with that much water.

The problem was, it left me with only about a half liter of water for the next 12 miles. No problem, I was tough.

The further down the canyon we got, the more spectacular it became. There was a wonderful narrows section where the bedrock was exposed. The variegated sandstone cliff curved gracefully into the floor of the canyon, exposing massive crossbeds and a variety of colors.

The waterfall was dry so we lowered ourselves down it's twisted length and plunged into a narrow chasm cut into the sandstone. (A short piece of strong rope will come in handy here). The immense power of the water that had carved this sinuous course was evident everywhere. Massive driftwood logs and rounded lava boulders, rolled for tens of miles down the stream, had found a resting place here. I could have spent hours exploring the area and drinking in the desolate beauty but didn't want to make those back at the truck wait for us. Besides that, I was getting low on water.

I figured it was between eight and nine miles back to the truck. That added up to an 18 mile hike in one day in 90+ degree heat. It was going to be a long way back. I took a small drink of water and headed up the trail.

The deer flies were just as bad as before and this time they found my Achilles heel, just behind my elbows. I couldn't see them there and they bit me time after time until my elbows itched unbearably.

We stopped once in a shady spot and sat on a big log. I was really getting teed and the rest felt great, in spite of the bugs, until I discovered the log had been converted into an ant condo and I was being swarmed by hundreds of black ants. Again our rest was cut short.

Several miles later, I quit sweating. Now, if you are hiking in hot weather you should be sweating a lot. If you suddenly quit, you're in trouble because it means you haven't been drinking enough water. It also means you are about to get heat stroke. My water had run out about the same time I was attacked by the ants.

Now it was time for some hard choices. I could quit hiking, find a shady spot and try to cool down (and be eaten alive by the bugs). I could keep hiking, knowing I probably wouldn't make it to the truck before I passed out from heat exhaustion, or I could get a drink of water — from the creek.

The problem with drinking creek water is that it might make you sick. There can be several kinds of bacteria that will get you, or giardia (a protozoan) will turn you inside out. Generally speaking the bacteria will make you sick within 24 to 48 hours and it takes a week and a half to two weeks for the effects of giardia to show up.

It was an easy choice. I opted for the creek water. I was fairly confident that I could drink the creek water without getting sick for several reasons. First, I hadn't seen any signs of beaver or cattle in the drainage. They carry giardia in their intestinal tract and spread it around quite freely. Second, there had been a massive amount of water down the stream bed this spring and the bed had been scrubbed and scoured by all that water. Third, I picked a place to fill my water bottle where the water flowed for quite a distance over gravel. I figured a gravelly bottom would hold fewer pathogens than a muddy or sandy bottom.

I drank about two liters of water and within a minute or so, began to sweat again. It's amazing how the body's cooling system works and how the body knows when to turn it on and off. I had to drink another liter of creek water before the hike was over.

Hiking became a chore. The sand on the trail sucked at my feet. The sun beat down relentlessly. No longer did I enjoy the beauty of the canyon. I just wanted to get out of there. I put myself into walk mode (where the only thing I concentrate on is walking as easily and effortlessly as I can) and plodded the last several miles.

The relief that went through me as I rounded a bend and saw the big, red Ford truck sitting at the trailhead is hard to describe. And, let me tell you, I would have gladly paid $10 for the ice cold Dr. Pepper, Kim Stevenson handed me after we got back to camp. It could easily have been the best drink I have ever had. As I think back on the trip, the taste, smell and feel of that Dr. Pepper still brings a smile to my face.

So, do I suggest others hike into the Gulch Outstanding Natural Area. Absolutely. With a couple of cautions:

a). This hike is best done in the early spring or late fall. Plan your trip for March, April, or May or for late September, October or November. That way you will miss both the heat and the bugs.

b). Plan on spending at least two days in the canyon. It's way too long for a day hike.

c). If you hike in the spring plan on lots of water in the creek and at the waterfall. You'll get plenty wet as you lower yourself over the falls. A rope is a must if you want to negotiate the falls in the spring. A waterproof bag for your pack would come in mighty handy about then. Several big garbage bags inside each other should do the job if they are tied off tightly.

d). Take time to explore the side canyons' caves and overhangs. Ancient Indians spent considerable time in the canyon. Unfortunately, every cave and overhang we came upon had been extensively excavated. Pot hunters have destroyed almost every accessible site. If you do find artifacts, cliff dwellings or petroglyphs, look them over, marvel at the culture that lived in the canyon but don't take or destroy anything. Don't add to the carnage that these ancient sites have already seen.

e). If you hike in the fall, don't plan on any water for the last five or six miles of the canyon. You'll need to carry enough water to get you to the Escalante River or back into the upper canyon. Be sure to boil or filter any water you drink. No use taking any chances you don't have to.

f). Be prepared with the appropriate emergency supplies in case there is an accident. You'll be a long way from help. Always have at least one companion with you. I have a standing rule that I always take at least one person with me who is smarter and in better shape than I am.

This trip both Kim Stevenson and Scott Goddridge (Farmington) made the hike. Both are experienced backpackers and I knew that if there were problems, I could rely on them. Of course, neither of them may ever go hiking with me again if there is any possibility we will encounter deer flies or biting gnats.