Islands and waterfalls, round trip to Cascade Bay (Alaska episode 3)

We all landed at the Salmon stream across from East Flank Island on Sunday morning. With the tide out, many of the Salmon had been stranded or picked out and eaten, so the beach was pretty smelly, but still inhabited only by birds. Although the fish in the pool at the top were expiring through crowding and oxygen starvation, many more were fighting their way up the tiny stream, doomed to the same fate.

King Salmon fighting upstream to certain doom

After getting enough water to survive a day or so visiting only islands, we headed out into the Sound, aiming for Bald Head Chris Island, a crossing of about 2.5 km. We quickly passed this and continued SE, with a slightly longer crossing to Dutch Group. Here we landed for lunch and explored, looking for the “Abandoned Oil Tank” marked on our maps. It looks as though recent construction work has been in hand to remove all traces of such wartime installations, so there was little left to see except a rather scruffy road made of rafts of planks penetrating the rainforest. We soon headed on round the south side of these islands and noticed a lot of noise from a big skerry over to our right which had many sea lions hauled out. These guys can be a bit aggressive, so we chose not to make a closer visit, and headed for Axel Lind Island, passing another set of skerries on our left towards the end of this crossing, which was just shy of 4 km. There was now a little doubt over island identities and we paddled a little way along the north coast to be quite sure that our destination was not hiding out of sight just round the corner, but as soon as it became clear that we had correctly identified Eaglek Island, a break was made to cross to this, heading downwind. We aimed for what seemed like the biggest beach, and on landing, found that we could just about fit the three tents in gaps in the forest above the high tide mark.

Monday saw us off from the south-facing beach, rounding the east end of the island and heading west. The weather was threatening to deteriorate as we hit the next island and headed north towards Eaglek Bay. We followed the coast round, but avoided being fooled into paddling through the cut towards Ragged Point which would have taken us the wrong way. Instead we turned right again and headed north, taking another little cut between islands to visit an oyster farm (not much to see, as it happened, just buoys) by which time it had started to rain. However, by the time we were crossing Derickson Bay, it had cleared up somewhat, with visibility good enough to allow a choice between straight-lining to the next headland, or following the coast more closely and still remaining within sight of each other. We found a small beach with a little stream, and took the opportunity to fill up on water again. Another brief landing was made to scope out a possible camping spot where a small tidal lagoon drained out. I didn’t much like the look of this, as there were some very obvious trampled trails, and we would be very much open to being surprised by a bear emerging from the forest. Ahead, we could see the small wooded Cascade Island, which was on the far side of Cascade Bay, which was our immediate destination. Rounding a small headland, we could see white beyond some trees, and as we paddled into the bay, we soon got a better view of the biggest waterfall in Prince William Sound. We were able to paddle right up to this, where a sizeable river falls directly into the sea. The final drop, seen in the photo, is less than half the total fall, which is around 60m.

Andy getting a close view of the Cascade, Cascade Bay (Photo: Mary)

Back down the bay, we checked out an alluvial fan with a fine view of the waterfall, as a possible campsite. However, bits of seaweed strewn among the tall grasses suggested that there was nowhere for tents which was reliably above the high water mark, so we paddled back out into Squaw Bay and had a bit of debate. I favoured crossing the bay to where a number of beaches and grassy patches could be seen. However, a check with binoculars made these look less attractive and we decided instead to head south – a kilometre or two down Eaglek Bay, Derickson Bay opened and looked to have less steep slopes. We checked out a couple of small beaches at the entrance, but a short way into the bay a larger beach offered a definite camping opportunity, so we hauled the boats out. Examination of the ridges and seaweed lines here convinced us that as we were now at neaps, we could set tents on the highest level of the shingle and expect to stay dry.

Camping in Derickson Bay – at neaps we can afford to be on the shingle

As Tuesday’s route would, again, take us out to islands, we were keen to stock up with water as soon as any could be found. We could see a couple of small but steep valleys on the opposite side, and as we paddled out into the bay, could definitely hear a stream. But even as we got close to the far shore, no water was visible until we had almost landed, when a stream could finally be seen pouring over rocks under the trees and sinking promptly into the back of the beach. A bit of shingle moving dammed up enough of a small pool to allow us to work our filter pumps, with the added benefit of being able to work under the shade of the Alders.

We could hear this stream from across the Bay, but it was well hidden !

We now reversed our course of yesterday until we reached the narrow channel leading south west towards Ragged Point, which this time, we duly took, heading south down the west-facing coast of the island which it isolated. From the tip, we crossed back to Axel Lind Island at the point we’d briefly touched two days ago. Now we headed round the south west side, being stalked by a couple of sea lions on the way. This was an attractive coast with various small wildlife, and several beaches where camping would have been possible. However, still no large wildlife. We skipped past Jenny Islands and on to Little Axel Lind Island, paddling along its south east side. A tombolo beach might have provided a route across the island at a high spring tide, but there was no way without a carry today. Another narrow cut near the eastern end looked as though it would go, and did indeed continue beyond the large rock apparently obstructing it. However a couple of smaller rocks just beyond meant we’d need another 30 cm of tide to get through. We duly backed out and went right round the eastern tip of the island.

Rounding the NE tip of Little Axel Lind Island

The plan now was to head back to Jenny Islands, before crossing back to our camping spot of two nights earlier on Eaglek Island. A couple of skerries provided a channel to hop through, but Eaglek Island looked a little different from this angle and we couldn’t immediately identify the beach we wanted. As we got closer, however, a distinctive fallen tree at the west end of our beach became visible, so we changed course a little and landed at just the right place.

Half a moon – neaps on Eaglek Island

Heading west on Wednesday, we left Eaglek Island, passing the bigger island almost joined to Ragged Point, and hit the “mainland” again. Once again, we were in search of fresh water, and hoping to avoid the Salmon stream where we felt there was a real risk of meeting bears. A narrow bay contained another oyster farm, but didn’t seem to have a stream at the head, so we passed on, heading for Squaw Bay, where a river was marked on the map coming in on the west side at Papoose Cove. Reaching this was no problem, though we could guess from the number of Bald Eagles and Glaucous-winged gulls wheeling around that this one, too, had a salmon run. Unfortunately, arriving not far off the bottom of the tide, we found the sizeable stream cascading directly into the sea (into a pool full of salmon) and no freshwater pool. A rope offered a tantalising chance to climb up – but as it ended more than a metre above the current water level this was not going to help us today. A scrambling route did look possible, but there was nowhere close enough to land and reach this, so we reluctantly concluded that this stream was not going to supply our needs.

Getting fresh water proved impossible in Papoose Cove at low tide

Back out into the bay, nowhere else looked a likely prospect, so we headed round the headland and visited the salmon stream for the third time. By now, the smell of dead salmon was oppressive, and fish skeletons were everywhere as the Eagles and gulls rose into the air from our disturbance. We hastened to the little waterfall to fill up. Most of the fish in the pool were now dead, so Mary and I climbed up the little waterfall to get to clean water. There were obvious game trails both sides of the stream, and with the noise of falling water and lots of vegetation we felt there was a real risk that an approaching bear would have little warning that we were there, so tried to make plenty of noise as well as being as quick as possible in filling up. John and Pete filled up in a little pool at the bottom of the waterfall and we escaped without incident, back down the beach and into the boats where it was less than a kilometre to paddle across to East Flank Island and the same beach we had used four days ago. There was still plenty of firewood, so a last evening was spent relaxing and watching yet another sunset from the beach.

Yet another perfect sunset on our last night – East Flank Island

Thursday was pick-up day, but not until 2 p.m., so we had plenty of time to tidy and pack up gear before Epic Charters arrived to take us back to Whittier. The boat, “Ellen J” is well equipped for carrying sea kayaks and kit, and even had a cooler with beer for us !

Pick up at East Flank Island for return to Whittier (Photo: Mary)

With the boat cruising at 29 knots, it was just about an hour through Wells Passage south of Esther Island, across Port Wells, and up the length of Passage Canal to Whittier, to meet Levi. Boats and kit loaded into the trailer, we still had half an hour before the tunnel would open in our direction, so had a wander round the general store (some buying clean tee-shirts) before piling into the truck and waiting for the tunnel to open. Back at Hope, we all had to shower in double-quick time to make it to the restaurant in time to eat, but Halibut and chips, and absolutely no shortage of beer made a definite return to civilisation. We had a day to get sorted and packed up, and a leisurely walk into Hope for lunch. Another fine meal of Sockeye Salmon on curried lentils followed, with rather less emphasis on the beer tonight. Up and off by 08:30 on Saturday, for the drive to Anchorage, where we put all our baggage into storage and took a cab to downtown, where we visited the museum. There are a number of baidarka frames, some definitely historic and weather-beaten, but one appeared recently built and noticeably different from the classic baidarka shape such as the Lowie Museum specimen which has been used as a base by so many modern baidarka replica builders (including my own Borealis project).

All trips must end, so we cabbed back to the airport, checked our bags in, and flew back, getting some splendid views over Greenland as we flew a slightly less polar route than on our outward flight. It was strange to look down on the snowy landscape below and realise that the shadows were on the south sides of the hills, as the midnight sun shone from the north. We also got a glimpse of the east coast of Iceland, but cloud covered the Orkneys, and we flew over the North Sea on our way to Frankfurt. A much shorter layover here soon saw us on the short hop to Manchester, and the drive home.

There is a page of additional notes for this trip. covering outfitting, watertaxi, maps, charts, tides, etc.

Harriman Fiord to East Flank Island (Alaska episode 2)

On Thursday morning, we lay in the tent listening to the rain coming and going. It eased off, then stopped, and I took the opportunity to get up, drop the food bags, and wander along the beach. Suddenly, a glint of sun through a gap in the clouds cast a shadow in front of me and this presaged a transition to glorious weather for the rest of the day. We put on and headed south west up the Fiord, pausing to chat to the occupants of the tent we’d spotted last night. Surprise Glacier continued to creak and crash, but as sound was taking 10-15 seconds to reach us, we never saw any ice fall. As we paddled on through almost flat calm, the curve of the fiord revealed the mile-wide snout of the Harriman glacier.

Heading SW up Harriman Fiord – the glacier face is a mile or so wide

However, we saw no ice floating ahead of us, and it was apparent that the bigger glacier was not actively calving. We paused for a snack and to take stock. We knew that if we waited until tomorrow morning to head down Barry Arm, we would have a strong tide against us (though we could probably eddy hop against this), but if we paddled all the way to Harriman Glacier snout, we would undoubtedly have to camp again within Harriman Fiord. As Surprise Glacier seemed more active, we decided to turn back and paddle up Surprise Inlet, then see how far out of the fiord we could get in a long day today.

Paddling towards Surprise Glacier which was calving noisily (Photo: Mary)

Turning the point into Surprise Inlet, we were still 3 km from the glacier face. Now there were icebergs to paddle among, and the reason for Cataract Glacier’s name became very apparent as a huge meltwater stream cascaded down beside and below it. Although we’d still not seen any large icefall from the glacier, the booms and crashes continued, and we kept a safe distance back from potentially large waves, paddling across the inlet to the north side before heading back between scattered lumps of ice.

Paddling away from Surprise Inlet dodging icebergs

Many long and steep streams were falling from the glaciers high above on the SE side of Mount Muir making this a spectacular stretch of paddling, all the more impressive owing to the vastly improved weather which enabled us to see the scenery !

Ann and Pete on our way back down Harriman Fiord (Photo: Mary)

We headed along, passing a couple of bays, one dotted with icebergs, and the second opening on to the extremely dirty snout of Serpentine glacier. We paused for lunch at the east tip of this bay for a late lunch stop. There were a couple of areas of the sea where bubbles constantly rose to the surface from the sea bed. I’m not sure what gas was being emitted here, or how it came to be here, but wading out and testing the bubbles with a lighter showed that the gas was not inflammable.

Andy threading between icebergs, Harriman Fiord (Photo: Mary)

From this point, we crossed to Point Doran (a little over 5km), picking up some tidal assistance, and seeing many groups of otters with kits in the water (at one point I could see six groups, one of which contained eight individuals). We were just congratulating ourselves on our timing and expecting to pick up an even faster tide down Barry Arm as we reached the shallows at Point Doran. However, it became apparent that the tide here didn’t quite conform to our expected timings – the assistance we had been getting was from the eddy on the end of the incoming tide and in Barry Arm the flow was still against us in two or three narrow streams, though mostly it seemed slack. We headed across to the east shore and paddled along this, intending to camp at least past the narrower part of the channel, to avoid an adverse tide tomorrow. We found a good beach another 5km on, Not all that far short of Pakenham Point, which was to have been our camp not tonight, but tomorrow night, so we were now well ahead of schedule, though it had been a long day. A noticeable feature of this campsite (and quite a lot of the coast west of Port Wells and College Fiord) was the line of dead trees right next to the beach. All of these look a similar age, and it became apparent with a bit of thought that all these are 52 years old. On March 29th 1964, the area was hit by a magnitude 9.2 earthquake (the second biggest on record anywhere) which produced changes in level of up to eight metres. All along this coast, the level seems to have dropped by a metre or so, flooding the roots of those trees nearest the shore with salt water and killing them.

During the latter part of the day, I had harvested a lump of ice into a ziplock bag, and now enjoyed the view back up Barry Arm whilst drinking whiskey on the rocks of freshly calved glacier ice.

Andy taking in the view whilst drinking whiskey over freshly calved glacier ice, Barry Arm

Friday morning after our long previous day, we were not off too early, but were soon passing over the tidal flat below a sizeable river. This provided one or two very shallow spots (John had to back out and try another route) but mostly we found a route through and any incoming tide was slowed enough not to impede our progress. A series of small headlands culminated in a spit with many birds, where we could round the corner into Port Wells.

Coming out of Barry Arm into Port Wells

With the sun shining brightly from the direction of the more open Sound, this was a pleasant place to linger, watch the birds and take photos.

Andy just after the exit from Barry Arm (Photo: Mary)

We decided that perhaps an even better view would be had from Pakenham Point (our original planned destination and camp for tonight) and paddled across the short stretch of water to reach this.

From Pakenham Point we had a distant view of the huge Harvard Glacier

Our route next was to reach Esther Passage, whose entrance lies on the SE side of Port Wells. We were also on the lookout for a source of fresh water. A stream is shown on the map just south of Golden, so we started our crossing aiming roughly for this. The big glacial valley we could see ahead was occupied by Davis Lake, but the river from this was behind an island, and we were hoping not to have to paddle the extra distance up behind this to find water.

Crossing College Fiord toward the glacial valley of Davis Lake

Before we’d started our crossing we’d seen the first of several huge prison ships heading up College Fiord and reflected that for cruise passengers, even with wildlife head-butting their boat, they were a more distant view than we often got from our kayaks. As we reached the far side of College Fiord, the outflow of the valley was far from obvious, but eventually we found a little waterfall crashing out of the trees. Landing was little problematical, as there was not much in the way of beach (and the tide was rising). Most got out and tied boats up, still afloat. I found a little beach a little further up the coast, hauled out, and scrambled along to join the others. We spent some time here pumping water through filters before heading down the coast looking for the entrance to Esther Passage. A bit of rock-hopping was to be had on the way, and we picked a beach just at the entrance, facing north, with a fine view back over our route here. The Trails illustrated map suggests a spot right on the point at the north side of the Passage entrance, but this had not looked particularly attractive as we’d passed.

Looking back to Barry Arm from camp on Esther Island

Our earlier stop for water was now proved a little superfluous, as the site we’d picked had a sizeable stream. Indeed, I’d paddled into this (under and over some interesting sweepers) to get behind the beach for an easier haul out. Mary, always obsessively wanting to be rid of sweat and grime, found this entertainingly cold for a (very swift) bath, but would not permit photographs (or video). We easily got a fire going here, so toasted treats were on the menu.

Toasting Marshmallows on the beach, Esther Island

We dithered considerably over a site to hang food, until I found that I could climb up and traverse to the back of a dead tree, where (when my foot didn’t break through into space between the roots) I could throw the line over a branch of a live tree overhanging the beach. This gave us one of our more convincingly bear-resistant hangs.

One of our better bear-avoiding food hangs, Esther Island

Saturday morning dawned bright, but with a bit of cloud, and some breeze. We put on and headed east, then south east, noticing quite a bit of traffic through the passage (another weekend) including a couple of jet skiers as well as numerous of the fast boats used by sport fishermen. For the most part these gave us a wide berth and we had little trouble with wakes.

John, Mary and Pete paddling down Esther Passage

We paused for lunch on the SW shore about halfway along the Passage. Whilst there, the “Klondike Express” (a big tourist boat) went past at speed, kicking up such a huge wake that our boats (fortunately tied on) were tossed about with water sloshed into the cockpits. Given the amount of traffic, I suppose it was fortunate that this was the only boat we saw driven in such a cavalier and inconsiderate fashion – in general we were pleasantly surprised at how many boats gave us a wide berth or slowed down whilst passing. As we reached the wider part of the passage, we knew we wanted to be on the east side, so set off to cross towards a small headland. I was keen to avoid mid-channel where the traffic passed, so took a slightly divergent route closer towards the shore. I noticed some splashing just off a beach to my left and steered a little more offshore. I was surprised by a big gasp of breath just behind me and wondered if I’d encountered a whale, but as I looked around, a head surfaced and took another breath. This was a lot bigger than the seals we are familiar with at home, but clearly not a cetacean. As the group came back together, this turned out to be a sea lion hunting along the shore, and popped up several more times, usually just a short way ahead of us. This last section of coast proved to be quite rocky with no landings or streams, and after we made the short crossing to East Flank Island, Mary was worried that we were a bit short of water, as she’d not been very successful in filtering water at the previous camp.

Evening view back up Esther Passage from East Flank Island

After camp was set up, we got back into our boats and crossed back to the mainland to find a small stream shown on the map, maybe a kilometre away. This proved elusive at first, and we got almost to the corner into Squaw Bay before being certain that we had missed it. On returning, we found it coming down a waterfall hidden in a corner at the back of a bay. Below it was a pool absolutely seething with big King Salmon. This felt like a place where we were quite likely to encounter a bear as it was nearing dusk, so we were very nervous. When the filter proved not to be working well again (we realised it needed cleaning rather more often than we’d expected), we beat a retreat back to the camp.

Sunset from East Flank Island on our first night there

There is a page of additional notes for this trip. covering outfitting, watertaxi, maps, charts, tides, etc.

Passage Canal to Harriman Fiord (Alaska episode 1) in three days of rain

First episode – fly from Manchester to Frankfurt, overnight at Frankfurt, 9 hour flight to Anchorage, a night at Hope, three days paddling from Whittier, down Passage Canal, out into Port Wells, up Barry Arm and into Harriman Fiord, in almost constant rain and low cloud.

Saturday 2nd July saw five of us (Pete Bridgstock, John Bates, Ann Jones, Mary and myself) checking in bags right on the weight limit for the short flight to Frankfurt. The amount of batteries and electronics in my hand baggage also caused a bit of a delay at security. At Frankfurt we had no need to collect our heavy goods (checked right through to Anchorage) and were soon in the bar at our overnight hotel. A quick shuttle back to the airport and a fairly easy check-in saw us with a bit of time to wait for boarding the nine-hour flight to Alaska. This took us not quite over the north pole – 87° north in fact, just the northernmost tip of Greenland. Since I didn’t have a seat anywhere near a window, this was somewhat academic. Landing in Anchorage, the time zone change meant that it was essentially the same time and day as when we had taken off at midday on Sunday. Levi from Turnagain Kayak met us, and shuttled us round to REI and Walmart, then the long drive to Hope. Going all the way round Cook Inlet was interesting – we saw a number of stand-up paddle boarders just getting on to surf the tidal bore. Cook Inlet is mostly very shallow and is notorious for fast tides – up to ten knots in places.

We got sorted out with boats, paddles, buoyancies, bear vaults and gas, packed things into dry bags and headed for Portage to find (it being July 4th) large queues for the tunnel to Whittier. Fortunately, the quarter hour slot that the tunnel was open in our direction proved enough to clear the queue, but we were a little dismayed to find the weather at the far end (only two and half miles away) rather inclement (“It’s always shittier in Whittier”). However, as we were changing into drysuits anyway, this was not a real issue. We seemed to have vastly more kit than usual to pack away (this would be for ten days paddling away from resupply) and anticipating cold/wet conditions, I had brought a rather bulky (new) man-made fibre four-season sleeping bag. This unfortunately took up enough space that I couldn’t get a bear vault in the aft hatch, and had to paddle the whole trip with this between my legs in the cockpit. However, soon enough, everything was in the boats and we were ready to set off.

Putting on at Whittier in the rain

As visibility was now pretty poor, and Passage Canal has a lot of traffic (especially on Independence Day), we crossed right over to the north shore to avoid being run down. This brought us neatly to some big, and really rather active, waterfalls down cliffs crowded with Kittiwakes. Every now and then a loud noise from across the fiord would set the whole lot screeching and wheeling about over our heads.

Kittiwakes nesting between waterfalls, Passage Canal

We made steady progress past Billings Creek (fed by a glacier only a mile or so inland which, somewhat bizarrely, is within Anchorage city limits). Another river entered at Poe Bay, from where we could just about make out the curve of the shore at Logging Camp Bay. The rain came and went, never particularly heavy, but fairly persistent. A navigation marker indicated that we were passing Point Pigot, and the shore now led us out into Port Wells.

Not being used to paddling with straight shafts, I was finding my right wrist to be getting a bit sore (not a promising sign on the first day of a ten-day route), and dropped the feather on my paddle to 30°, which did seem to help. We had a short crossing of the end of Pigot Bay to reach our planned campsite at Ziegler Cove. This proved to be a small neat circular bay with a number of possible camping spots. The one I chose to inspect (which looked like a nice flat area not fully infested with tall wet grass, as seen from the water) proved to hold a midge-infested pond. In the middle of the cove was an area which seemed to have been used before but wasn’t very flat. On the right, a tent was already set up, but with no-one about. Just next to this was enough space for three tents where we were able to get well above the high tide line and camp in the grass. Another kayak group arrived shortly after us, and picked the middle area, whilst the owners of the tent arrived later in a power boat and proved to be a fishing party one of whom had come all the way from Albuquerque just for the holiday weekend.

Typical second day paddling conditions, Port Wells

We were off before the other kayakers on Tuesday, just after the power boat group had departed. Our original plan was to continue up the coast of Port Wells and cross over the entrance to Barry Arm to camp on Pakenham Point. In fact, in the miserable conditions, progress seemed slow and we also realised that we would save two hours paddling today by camping at Hobo Bay, for less than an hour’s extra paddling tomorrow. This gave us a considerably easier day than our first, and my wrist gave me almost no more trouble after this “rest”.

Camp at Hobo Bay. Spring tide would come right up to the grass tonight

Tonight would be the highest spring tide – the overnight tide came more than half a metre higher than the daytime one, so were careful to set up tents as high as possible, well into the grassy area. The ground was wet almost everywhere, but one spot a couple of metres across under a big tree still had dry stones, so we picked this as our cooking area (some way away from the tents). I found a big fallen tree, the underside of which was crumbly rotten wood, protected from the rain and providing enough dry material to start a fire. In fact we found a surprising amount of wood dry enough to maintain a fire as a defence against biting insects.

We found a dry spot under some dense foliage for our fire

As the tide fell, a little tombolo linked us to one of two islands I had paddled between on our way in. Sunset was very late and the rain had stopped by the time people were going to bed. I had a wander around, as more of the coast was accessible at low tide, and heard a loon calling on the far side. Round the point, I got a fairly clear view of the island that we had been seeing on and off (as the visibility came and went) all day. After I’d walked along the beach for some distance, it occurred to me that it would perhaps be a bad idea to meet a bear coming the other way at this point, so I turned round and retreated to the tent. We’d managed to hang all our food in two enormously heavy bags earlier in the evening.

Cloud lifted a little at sunset – view up Hobo Bay from camp

Wednesday morning dawned very similar, but now our dry patch under the trees had also succumbed to the rain. However, visibility improved as we were on the water and it was not too long before we found ourselves past Harrison Lagoon and heading for a long spit which was not obvious on the map – or at least, at low tide it extended considerably farther than shown on the map. We paddled along parallel to this until gaps started to appear, when we were able to cross it and enter Barry Arm. Ahead I could see a white object which at first I thought was a boat. But it seemed a strange shape. Maybe some sort of wreck ? But as we got closer it suddenly clicked into place – this was, in fact, our first iceberg, despite still being a considerable distance from the calving glaciers in Harriman Fiord.

Our first iceberg, near the mouth of Barry Arm

Forty minutes on, and we stopped at a sizeable river flowing from Mount Doran, to fill up with fresh water, in what was now quite heavy rain. However, things looked up soon after we put back on, as we picked up a considerable tidal stream, which neatly conveyor-belted us for four kilometres up the fiord to Point Doran. Staying close to shore would have been a bad idea here, as there was a considerable eddy line, and no tidal assistance closer inshore.

John heading up Barry Arm where we caught a tidal stream

At the corner, we could see three tidewater glaciers – Cascade Glacier, Barry Glacier and Coxe glacier and perhaps some of the cloud was starting to lift a little. No peaks to be seen, though.

Pete and Ann dwarfed by three glacier snouts c 5 km away in the murk

We now started to meet small ice chunks in quantity, but not close enough or big enough to be a hazard. We stayed fairly close to the south shore of Doran Strait, as we headed up the fiord until we reached a tidal flat where another stream discharged from the slopes of Mount Doran. Landing here at what looked the most likely camping spot, Pete found the somewhat limited space already occupied, so we retreated a little way to a beach we’d glanced at earlier. This proved to be a suitable location for our third night, despite the almost continuous creaking and crashing of Surprise Glacier at the head of Surprise Inlet on the opposite side of the fiord, over five kilometres away. As the tide would be out throughout the evening, we put up a couple of tarps but failed to get a fire started – everything was thoroughly soaked. Once again, it rained heavily during the night.

A tarp helps when the rain won’t desist – camp in Harriman Fiord

There is a page of additional notes for this trip. covering outfitting, watertaxi, maps, charts, tides, etc.

Yellowstone Thorofare on horseback

Having survived being dragged across Iceland by pony (with only one day where I gave up and walked 40km), the family reckoned I’d love a six day trek through the remotest parts of Yellowstone… Have you ever tried western-style riding ? It’s not like you get taught in the UK – in particular, the stirrups are set very long and somehow at an angle such that you seem to spend the entire day with your feet at right-angles to anything remotely natural, which results in your legs being unscrewed at the hips, and your knees aching after ten minutes. It’s not as if you actually go faster or further than if you were walking, and horses are essentially what you’d get if Microsoft designed bikes. They second guess what you want to do (wrongly) at every juncture, won’t run continuously without frequent restarts, consume enormous amounts of resource, leave large piles of [manure] everywhere, and you can’t just switch them off and get on with the next task… They get viruses, too, although ours didn’t on this trip 😉 I did manage, however, to avoid giving up and walking on this trip.

We started on the east shore of Yellowstone Lake, where the road leaves the shore at the nine-mile trailhead. There was quite a lot of faff as we met up with the rest of the group and sorted out kit, what beast we were each to ride and the usual briefings that always precede any action on a trip like this.

There was no messing about with amateur horse-boxes – these were herd-sized

Then we mounted up and headed south on an easy trail through burnt Lodgepole forest. With the lake on our right, we weaved in and out of forest, variously burnt (mostly the 1988 fires) and in full growth, so views came and went. Eventually, near Columbine Creek, we turned off the main trail and went a hundred metres or so down to the lake shore, where we set up camp. This is where travelling on horseback shows its greatest advantage over backpacking, as great coolboxes of fresh food came out (despite the heat, we had fresh rather than dehydrated food, some still needing defrosting, for the entire trip).

Shore of Yellowstone Lake, campsite, first night

On the Iceland trip, we were mostly responsible for saddling up and organising our own ponies (and the cooking stuff travelled separately, so we didn’t have to hang around whilst it was packed up), giving us long days actually riding. Here, the folk leading the trip did all the packing up and organising horses, which made for much later starts in a morning, leaving us the job of packing up the tents and our own kit (which then had to be loaded onto mules).

Campsite locations allow for decent fires, despite forest fire risk

Unlike National Forests, managed with an eye to the value of the timber, National Parks are supposed to be more natural. Although forest fires were assiduously fought in the early years, it became apparent that this was changing the forest ecology and policy changed to let fires burn where they didn’t threaten infrastructure. The build up of brushwood from the early years resulted in these uncontrolled fires being fiercer and burning larger areas until in 1988, huge fires burnt a large fraction of Greater Yellowstone. We’d seen the results of this on our visit in 1992 when scars were fresh, but there are still large areas with standing burnt timber and young lodgepole pines growing up between. These are by no means all from the 1988 fires, as areas burn every year, though its unlikely that such an extensive burn will occur again. The area just uphill from our first night campfire was struck by lightning a day or two after we’d passed, and the Columbine Fire, as it was known, burnt for about three weeks, heading towards buildings at the east edge of the park, where the fire was fought. Mostly the flames were fanned by westerly winds and the area along the lake shore where the trail passes was not burnt.

The trail follows fairly closely along the east shore of Yellowstone Lake until well into the second day

To the south of Yellowstone Lake, the Yellowstone River flows through a wide flood plain at about 2400m, with wooded slopes above, rising to bare peaks at around 3300m. The second and third nights’ camps were both on this floodplain, which provides rich grazing for the local wildlife, and for a limited number of livestock on treks like ours.

Tethering the horses in pairs stops them wandering off until they are dekitted and a temporary corral is set up

We camped away from trees and the river, but had the cooking area on the riverbank, and used trees to hang food against raiding by bears. The silty shores provided ample evidence of use by wildlife – we found wolf prints as well as bear. The prints we found on the third night seemed to be fairly fresh – made earlier in the same day.

This is certainly bear country – and don’t grizzlies have big feet ?

The third night camp was also haunted by a lone Mule Deer, which seemed to be an outcast from its herd and circled the camp at a short distance, giving us some photo opportunities, but in frustratingly low light. The river banks were also home to a variety of wading birds.

Camping in an open area by Thorofare Creek gave plenty of space to
see wildlife approaching, as well as grazing for the stock – site 6T1

The late starts and early finishes meant we had fairly short days in the saddle (very welcome for those of us who don’t do a lot of riding), but did mean that distances were quite short too. I suppose that was part of the point of the journey – to spend time in the park away from the tourists and roads, rather than to travel long distances each day. It did give us plenty of time to wander about the camp areas and socialise around the campfire.

The cooking and eating area was away from the tents, by the creek, just left of centre in this photo
In the distance, the dip in the horizon is the Lynx Creek drainage – tomorrow’s route

The camp at Thorofare Creek was about as far from a road as it is possible to get in Yellowstone. Indeed, it is close to the remotest point from a road in the whole of the 48 contiguous states. At 2400m this far from civilisation, the night sky is fabulous and brings home how much we are deprived of such views by light pollution at home. Clear skies at night not only gave us splendid views of the Milky Way every night, but also gave us some very hard frosts in the mornings.

The Trident Plateau forms a backdrop to our trail across the floodplain of the Yellowstone River

The fourth day of the trek saw a start back towards the road system, using trails not far from the park’s southern boundary. We first crossed the floodplain, from Thorofare Creek, and across the Yellowstone River, heading up into the hills to the west.

On the east side of Yellowstone River, heading north to find a fording point.

We retraced our steps a short way and headed north along the river where it was fairly deep with peaty banks, but soon found a place where it was wider and more silted. Although this area is very flat, it is surrounded by hills rising up to 1000m above the plain, giving us panoramic views all around.

In places, the Yellowstone River flows wide and shallow making crossing easy

Once over the river, the trail became very vague, but bright orange diamonds on posts at intervals make it not too difficult to relocate among the low scrub. Having a raised viewpoint on horseback does make these trailmarks easier to see !

On the west side of Yellowstone River, about an hour into the fourth day, heading for Lynx Creek

The changes in vegetation were very noticeable throughout the trek. Burnt areas of Lodgepole forest are quickly invaded by Rose Bay Willow Herb, making large areas very pink among the blackened timber and giving rise to its American name of Fireweed. We were a bit late in the season for the main flush of flowers which follows soon after snowmelt (giving the plants maximum time to ripen their seed) but there was still plenty to look at, especially in the damper areas where various species of Indian Paintbrush made bright splashes among the plants that they parasitise.

A short distance down the west bank of the Yellowstone, we cut west up Lynx Creek and were quickly back into the forest with our views restricted. The trails are much more well-defined in the forest, so our guide was able to relax, sit back, and read the newly-published Harry Potter book. He did have some work to do, however, since timber which has been burnt takes years to fall, resulting in a constant addition of dead logs to the forest floor. We’d passed a couple of rangers (on horseback too) with chainsaws heading for this same trail to do trail maintenance, but as we were now ahead of them, we encountered quite a lot of deadfall, meaning that Jett had to lead mules individually through the densest areas.

The guide, Jett, has seen it all before, the pony knows the way, he can get on with reading Harry Potter!

The high point of the trail, a little over 2800m, took us out of the catchment of the Yellowstone River (which eventually drains to the Atlantic) and into that of the Snake, which drains to the Pacific – so this was the great continental divide – not particularly noticeable in the forest amongst rounded hills. We dropped down Plateau Creek to meet another trail at the confluence, and a short distance later made camp on the left bank of the Snake River itself.

The fourth night campsite was quickly shady as the sun dipped below the clouds and hills

Now that we were among the hills and in a narrower valley, it was noticeable that we lost the sun quite early as it dipped first behind a bank of clouds and, soon after, below the horizon. We weren’t woken by warm sun in the morning, either, and seemed to take a long time to get going from this campsite, though this did give me time to wander around taking photos of more flowers. We now followed the young Snake River downstream, crossing occasionally, mostly through forested areas. As the valley opened out a little, the river took a turn to the south, where it makes a large loop. Our course at this point, however, lay north towards Heart Lake, an area with a reputation for a lot of bear activity early in the season, but supposedly much safer by late summer. We climbed gently for about 5 km, passing a site where a lot of trees had been felled by beaver (none of who were in evidence) and then to a wide fairly level area with a meandering stream and an extensive grassy clearing.

Finishing early to give time to sort the horses meant lots of campfire sociability for those not involved

The meandering stream provided some chilly bathing whilst some of the group went for a short walk to a thermal area across the valley. As we’d already seen a lot of geysers on our sea kayaking trip to Shoshone Lake, this side trip didn’t appeal to us greatly, and we were soon established at the camp fire getting warm. I think this was the coldest night on the trail, although it was actually the lowest altitude camp of the trip at under 2300m. There was a clinging mist in the morning and a hard frost on the grass and leaves making us reluctant to venture out of the tent until the sun came out.

Some of the morning mist at camp 8B5 was radiation fog, but some was from a thermal area across the valley

Frost on the leaves provided more fun photography but lasted only a short while as the morning warmed up, and breakfast called.

You don’t get bacon fry-ups and real coffee on the sixth day of a backpacking trip…

We continued NW climbing away from the Snake River, but turned off left before reaching Heart Lake, to cross a divide and drop into the drainage of Red Creek, flowing over very dinstinctively red rocks on its descent back to the Snake River.

Some steep descents as we drop into the Snake River basin

Red Creek occupies a steep-sided Vee-shaped valley, so we found ourselves on easier slopes high above the river, often in burnt forest. Reentrant streams gave us some zig-zags and steep descents, as well as climbs back up, before a long descent on the right bank took us down to the confluence. We crossed the main stream immediately – by now a considerably bigger river than when we had left its banks the previous day.

Our route now took us through patchy forest and grassy clearings to the south of the river, with some sapphire lakes and the occasional bog. The forest got denser as we descended, and views became more restricted.

Dropping back down to the Snake River basin via Red Creek (Photo: Mary)

After what seemed a long stretch on a well-defined track through dense forest with no views at all, we emerged suddenly onto the left bank of the Snake River, below its confluence with Lewis River. It was now quite deep but still not too fast flowing, as we crossed to the NW side and in only a very short distance we were back at the main road just at the Park’s south entrance. Noise, traffic, and goodbye to the horses as they were tidied away into their fleet of giant trailers.

Sea kayaking – at 8000 feet ?

Yellowstone National Park, ranging between 7000 and 10000 feet above sea level, is centred on one of the world’s biggest calderas, and still shows plenty of evidence of the hot mantle plume responsible for the volcanism, with many geysers and hot pools, including the world famous Old Faithful. It is the USA’s oldest National Park, well known for its bears, bison and huge numbers of visitors. It certainly isn’t the first place you’d think of to go sea kayaking…

Picking up boats from Jackson, some distance to the south, we drove through the magnificent mountain scenery of Grand Teton National Park to reach the southern boundary of Yellowstone and were soon at Lewis Lake. Here we packed up and put on, to paddle across. Keeping close to the shore, we passed bald eagles on some of the burnt trees still standing after the 1988 fires.

A bald eagle flies off its nest, Lewis lake

Some way across the lake, we came to the Lewis River channel, which flows into it and is the only bit of river in the Park on which boats are allowed. It’s not steep and certainly isn’t fast-flowing in summer, so we were able to paddle upstream until the low level meant that we needed to get out and wade, dragging the boats for the last mile or so to Shoshone Lake.

Cold water meant that not everyone was keen to wade towing boats. Guess who lost out ?

Here we had a relaxing half hour before paddling along the south shore to make camp on a sandy beach in the forest. The evening brought three river otters, but a walk revealed no moose (and, fortunately, no bears).

Evening at camp on Shoshone Lake

On the middle day of this three day trip, we crossed the narrowest part of Shoshone Lake to the north shore, and paddled west (passing a very laid back marmot).

Setting off from camp, second day

Towards the Northwest corner of the lake, we reached the Shoshone geyser basin – an undeveloped wilderness site without all the boardwalks and signage (and crowds) that characterise most of Yellowstone’s thermal areas.

No crowds or fences in Shoshone Geyser Basin

Back along the west and south shores (being buzzed by Osprey) to the camp, where the recent drought and sunshine had made the normally chilly lake quite good for swimming, as long as you didn’t dive down through the thermocline. There was lots of wildlife, and the ground squirrels reminded us that it’s not just bears on the look out for food to raid.

The final day involved rising early to avoid afternoon winds.

Jet lag made early rising easy (it was after lunch in the UK:)

Back to the eastern end of Shoshone Lake, we were soon paddling down to the river channel where the low summer level made getting down without exitting the boats something of a challenge, even though the boats were a little lighter after our hearty eating. Michael and I made a determined effort (plastic boats are the only way to do this) and stayed in the whole way – others had a bit more respect for the boats and paddle tips. The sound of a loon greeted us on arrival at Lewis Lake, and we were early enough (before afternoon winds picked up) to take a direct route back to the take-out. Not the most exciting of paddling (the Necky Amaruk doubles we hired would perhaps make better bathtubs) but unique for the scenery, wildlife, altitude and distance from the sea !

Retractable skeg

My first wooden kayak, Geyrfugl, has shown a definite tendency to be blown off course when paddled by its intended paddler, who is very light, leading to a lot of windage and not much boat in the water. She is fine with a heavier paddler (and would probably be OK with a lot of cargo, too). My second boat was also being built as a low volume kayak, and whilst I intended to paddle her, it also seemed likely that smaller members of the family would get to use her at sometime. Since almost all of the typical “British sea kayak” designs come with a skeg, and I had a lot of (positive) experience using one, I decided to build a skeg for my Hybrid Cormorant. In fact, during her maiden paddle, before the skeg was fitted in its slot, the boat proved to be very strongly tracking, and I began to wonder if I had wasted a lot of time and effort on this part of the construction. However, using the boat in bigger waves and windy conditions, and especially when paddling downwind or surfing, has shown the skeg to be a valuable addition.

There are a number of possible skeg configurations out there, such as the one sold by Chesapeake Light Craft for their kits. British boats tend to have either the NDK style of skeg (which is pulled up by a string and cleat arrangement opposing a bungie-cord which tries to deploy the skeg) or the type fitted by Valley Canoe Products, North Shore and others, which is controlled by a stainless steel cable running in a small diameter nylon tube. I’ve never liked the NDK style, and the CLC style involves a big deck penetration which I don’t like, as much of the work must be done after the deck is attached to the hull.

Skeg deployed

I went for a skeg very similar to the one I already use which is fitted to my North Shore Mistral boat, operated by a slider control next to the cockpit, and dropping down as a triangular shape near the stern.

Skeg box with skeg (outline yellow), pivot cut out (red) and slot for wire (blue)

The skeg box was made from two pieces of 4mm plywood (glassed both sides with 4 oz glass), spaced apart by 6mm ply strips. The skeg blade was also 4mm ply, again glassed both sides. The thickened epoxy used to assemble the box added a little extra spacing, so that the skeg blade has maybe half a millimetre clearance each side within the skeg box. This is a lot less than the clearance seen in commercial skeg designs, and I hoped that my careful assembly would ensure that this was not a problem. Keeping the clearance low would mean that there was little space for water to circulate when the skeg was up, which would avoid creating a lot of turbulence and drag.

The stainless steel insert for the skeg pivot point

The pivot would be a piece of stainless steel bar cut off from a chunk I found lying around – this is quite a large (12 mm) diameter so that the radius of the cutout in the skeg blade should not produce too much stress concentration as would be expected with a small diameter pivot. The bar was cut 14 mm long, so that it would penetrate both skeg box walls, but be covered by glass and epoxy at the sides.

Skeg box view up inside

The skeg slot, initial cut

Skeg box fitted inside hull

The slot for the skeg box was cut in the keel of the hull after the inside was glassed and the box itself had been assembled. This was quite scary since the cuts must be made at a steep angle to the surface of the hull, keeping the saw blade vertical. I cut the slot undersized and then sanded it out to size using coarse grit paper wrapped round a small piece of wood. This produced a very thin edge, prone to splintering, but as this would later be covered by glass and epoxy (and inevitably some fairing compound), I did not foresee a problem. The box was fitted with a few blobs of hot melt glue, and held in the centre of the boat by a temporary brace.

Skeg slot taped over

With the skeg box temporarily fixed in position, I taped over the outside to stop epoxy running down, then poured a runny mix of epoxy and micro-balloons into the groove either side of the box inside the hull. This epoxy mix flowed nicely into the sides of the box and formed a good fillet in the tight V-shapes each side.

Skeg box fitted inside hull

Skeg box top edge taping

The top edge of the skeg box had been epoxy sealed, but now needed a layer of glass to protect it. This was easier to do after the box was in place, and was achieved by wetting out a piece of one inch tape, covering it in a plastic film and clamping it so that the tape wrapped down the sides of the box (the poor man’s vacuum bagging approach:). The edges of the skeg box which stood proud at the keel were then sanded fair with the hull, and any gaps where the runny epoxy mix had not filled from inside the hull were filled with a thicker fairing mix. When the outside of the hull was glassed, the open skeg slot was simply glassed right over with both layers of glass (and was not actually cut open again until after the first launch).

Shaping the skeg control slot

With the skeg box fitted, work could now shift to completing the hull glassing and building the deck, which, being stripped, was a much longer process than building the hull. In parallel with the deck stripping, I made the components for the sliding hand control. First, I cut a square piece of sycamore from a straight branch fallen from one of our own trees. I then routed a deep groove into the centre of this, and sanded the bottom out by using sand paper wrapped round a piece of dowel.

The skeg slider in its channel before epoxing

Then with this piece in the vice, I used a block plane to take down the corners to produce a piece of channel with a side thickness slightly more than that of the deck strips. I sealed both surfaces with epoxy, but decided that glassing the inside was going to be too difficult. This was an error – the epoxy sealing was not sufficient and I now have to remember to varnish the inside of this channel rather frequently on the finished boat. The actual slider was cut from a piece of walnut (which didn’t turn out as dark as I had hoped). There are two holes drilled in this along the axis of the control. One is to fit on a thin stainless steel rod to keep the slider in place, the other contains a brass cable clamp which locks onto the control cable via two small screws which are accessed by two more small holes drilled in the top of the slider.

Fitting the skeg control recess

The ends of the slider recess were filled in with marine ply, also drilled with holes to take the stainless steel bar and the control tube. A hole was cut in the deck (after glassing both sides) slightly smaller than the inside of the assembled recess. This was sanded to remove all sharp corners and epoxy sealed. The recess was then glued to the inside of the deck with thickened epoxy made into a fillet, which was then covered with glass tape. After a certain amount of sanding off projecting bits of glass fibre and a further epoxy fill coat (the control would be quite near my knee inside the boat, so I wanted a good finish), the remaining assembly would wait until after the deck had been fixed to the hull (and indeed, until after the maiden voyage).

The skeg control as fitted to the boat – I chose to fit this left of the cockpit

After the kayak was basically seaworthy, with hull and deck assembled, cockpit complete and bulkheads and hatches installed, the final job was to install the control tube and slider control, then cut open the outside of the skeg slot and fit the skeg blade, which had meanwhile been attached to a length of stiff 4mm stainless steel wire obtained from my local boat chandlers. The control tube itself is a standard VCP skeg control tube obtained from my local sea kayak shop. First I had to drill out a suitable sized hole in the top of the skeg box – there was a gap in the filler strip for this, so all I actually had to do was cut out a small amount of the glass tape. Getting at the skeg box was easy, since I had built in a small Kajak Sport hatch far aft above the skeg box to provide access to this part of the cargo space – this makes loading and unloading the kayak through the aft bulkhead hatch a lot easier and avoids losing small items permanently behind the skeg box ! Drilling a hole in the aft bulkhead was a little more awkward, since I wanted the hole as close as possible to the hull, but didn’t want to accidentally damage the glassing on the inside of the hull. The tube was then fed through this hole, along the inside of the sheer, and down into the skeg box, held in place along the inside of the hull by a few blobs of holt-melt.

The skeg control tube fitted and epoxied into the skeg box

The tube was carefully cut to length and the other end inserted into the hole in the slider recess. At this point, the stainless steel guide rod was also inserted into the end of the recess, threaded onto the slider knob, and passed through the other end of the recess, where a second piece of tube was also added, to allow room for the end of the control wire to move. The rod and both pieces of tube were then fixed in place with thickened epoxy, being careful to seal all the drilled holes and the end of the short tube. I had also epoxied over the end of the control wire to be sure that it would neither fray in use, nor scratch the inside of the tube as it was fed through. The end of the wire was fed into the skeg box, carefully inserted into the tube and pushed until it popped out in the slider recess. It was then fed through the cable clamp in the slider knob, and fed into the other piece of tube. At the appropriate point as the amount of spare cable at the skeg end disappeared, the skeg blade was hooked over its pivot so that when the cable was completely absorbed into the boat, the skeg was in the retracted position. The position of the slider knob was adjusted and the cable clamp tightened. The position of the slider knob was chosen so that when pushed as far aft as the recess allows, the top edge of the skeg is still just within the box, so that the skeg is not too vulnerable to breakage if it is caught a sideways blow on a rock.

Problems – well, there were bound to be one or two. Firstly, the slider knob is just too tight a fit on the thin stainless steel rod which guides it along the slider recess. This makes it a bit prone to jamming, requiring a bit more care to operate than ideal. Given how the thing was put together, fixing this is difficult, but I have lived with it for a season and reckon I can live with it permanently, or at least until the control has to be dismantled for some other maintenance job… But in fact, over the ten years since the initial build, this has loosened off and has never been a problem in actual use.

Skeg box edge damage – needed a much tougher finish

Secondly, the narrowness of the skeg box was continued right to the hull of the boat, and this made it extremely prone to getting jammed by sand on beach launches. I tended to test the skeg as soon as I had got through any surf, but this then meant a surf landing and another launch from sand to fix it. In the course of unjamming the skeg several times, using a borrowed knife, I damaged the edge of the skeg box. The rather thin edges also took damage from my rock-hopping games when the skeg was up, to the point where bare wood was exposed. Obviously this needed urgent repair. I sanded the edges down to a much more rounded outline with a lower profile than the rest of the keel. I also sanded out the inside of the skeg box near the keel, so that the

The skeg retrieval loop

internal shape was somewhat flared. I then added glass tape to both sides of the slot, standing proud above the wooden edge, and filled the angle between the wood and the edge of the glass tape with thickened epoxy. I also drilled out two holes into the lower edge of the skeg itself, and inserted a bent piece of stainless steel rod to form a small loop into which can be inserted a piece of wire or similar to get a grip on the skeg and pull it down if jammed. As it happens, the changes to the shape of the skeg slot have meant that jamming has been far less frequent since making these repairs.

The skeg retracted – after slot repair

With the skeg retracted, the keel profile is not now quite so smooth, but the skeg jams much less readily, can be unjammed easily, and there is still no great open slot to cause turbulence and drag, so this is basically the shape I would aim for in building another skeg system.

Since building this skeg, I have seen one or two other boats that illustrate a bit of lateral thinking. The purpose of a skeg is to increase the lateral resistance of the stern to sideways (fishtail) movement. But there is no real reason why the skeg has to be exactly on the keel line. It is possible to put the skeg box off to one side, so that the skeg emerges from part of the hull that does not drag in the sand on beach launches. At least one commercial design uses this offset-skeg idea and it seems to be quite successful. It’s definitely something I will try on the next boat, and should, as an extra bonus, make the far aft cargo space more usable. I will aim, with that design, to make the outer rim of the skeg slot of a hardwood (indeed, probably simply substitute two or three sections of strip with hardwood ones during construction, then cut the slot through those).

A Dawn walk to Delicate Arch

One cannot have read Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire” and not want to visit Arches if you’re in the area. In his first season there, he was the only NPS employee, and only from April to the end of September. In those early days, visitors were rare except at weekends. Even as long ago as 1995, the tarmac roads and handy access meant that the Park (upgraded from a National Monument since Abbey’s seasons there) was uncomfortably crowded. Guides you read now (2015) suggest that it is hard to get photos of the major landmarks without other people milling about – even in the summer when you’d think the heat would deter most people. We were fortunate enough to be there “off-season” and chose to visit Delicate Arch early enough to see the sun rise. That meant that we met no-one on the walk in; we had the arch to ourselves for the whole time we were there, and I don’t recall meeting anyone else on the walk back to the road, despite this being a Sunday.

It’s a very short walk from the road (less than an hour, even carrying Sarah, aged thirteen months, or (in my case) a heavy tripod and other photographic kit). It was also pleasantly cool (not to say chilly on the uphill walk, a bit warmer on the way back down) which made a change from the previous day when we had baked on our visit to other parts of the park. Because the walk was quicker than we’d been led to expect, we had a bit of a wait for the light. The sky was clear, so we didn’t get the sort of pink clouds I’d have liked, but the sunrise was spectacular nonetheless with the sun lighting up the distant cliffs well before it hit the arch itself. It is supposed to be possible (I’ve later learned) to climb down the cliff for a view of the sunrise side of the arch, but as this is something like a 150m drop-off, it didn’t appear possible/sensible in the dark.

We were nearing the end of our trip by this point, and spent the rest of the day driving back nearer to Salt Lake. In my usual fashion, I was not wanting to stop for fuel until near the bottom of the tank, so when we found signs indicating that our chosen route was unsurfaced for some considerable distance ahead (I had failed to appreciate the significance of the dashed lines in our road Atlas) we didn’t really have enough fuel left to go back and fill up at the last gas station we’d passed. This generated some earache and some interesting driving (we weren’t supposed to take our hired RV off the tarmac surfaced roads…). Being an automatic, I couldn’t just turn the engine off and coast down the far side as I would at home, and the first town didn’t have the gas station I had confidently expected. There were a few anxious moments running on “empty” before we found fuel. This then took us into the Wasatch for some very different scenery for the last couple of days of our trip.

Little Wild Horse Canyon

We knew we weren’t supposed to take our hired RV off the paved roads, and, at 8m long it certainly felt a bit exciting when we needed to do so, but this wasn’t going to deter us from getting to a parking place as near as possible to Little Wild Horse Canyon in Utah’s San Rafael Swell. There was a moment crossing a draw when we feared we’d get stuck in soft sand … but it was OK. Phew !

This is not a place to visit if there’s any chance of a sudden downpour – it’s normally dry, but from its confines you’d never see gathering clouds, and its narrows, cut in slickrock, would offer no escape from a flash flood. It is never too narrow, however that you can’t get through with a small daughter in a backpack, as we discovered, though some climbing up and traversing ledges was needed in the narrowest section.

Fantastic rock sculpture

At the top of the narrows, the canyon opens out, reached by a couple of short bridging climbs, and becomes a wide sandy draw below a desert-varnished cliff.

The water table is near enough to the surface to support shrubby vegetation like Cowania mexicana and Fraxinus anomala in the shade of the cliff, from both of which we collected seed. We grew several plants back home – but they didn’t really like the Pennine climate (no real surprise) – the Rockrose have all died though we still had a couple of the Single-leaf Ash in the greenhouse in 2012 and rather to our surprise they have survived being left outside over the last two winters to 2014.