By Lukas Brinkerhoff — I did my first triathlon.
Now before you start asking who I am and what I did with Moose, let’s just say this wasn’t your typical triathlon. There weren’t any aero helmets, one of us even went, “Gasp!” without one. The only shoes worn were Chacos and all of our water came out of a hose, but only after it went through a water filter. It also lasted two days even though we had planned for three.
There are places you go to because they are amazing. There are others that folks like myself go to because they are amazingly remote. When you combine the two, it’s kind of perfect. Dark Canyon, Utah is one of those places. Look at a map and there aren’t many ways in our out. It’s sandwiched by better known locals like the Dirty Devil, Lake Powell and Bears Ears. And, let’s be honest, the name has bit of a draw to it as well. There’s something mysterious about a canyon named Dark.
From the moment Mooseknuckler Alliance laid eyes on a map that had a canyon by this name, we have been intrigued with what was there and how to go about exploring it. We found a pack trail called Sundance that drops into the canyon about 8 miles above its confluence with the Colorado. We found some beta about some peeps hiking down and then using packrafts (the Alliance loves packrafts) down the Colorado to a takeout just downriver from the Hite Crossing.
This became our plan. The only problem is the 5 hour drive to the take out and the way they did it, is a shuttle. We don’t hate people who drive cars, but we certainly don’t like driving them ourselves so a double 5 hour drive was kind of out of the question. Good thing we have bikes. We modified the above trip to use our bikes to accomplish the 20-mile shuttle from the Colorado to the trailhead for the Sundance Pack Trail.
Depending on who you talk to, this is now known as the Dark Canyon Triple Threat or the Dark Canyon Packing Triathlon. I’m in the latter camp.
We arrived just after the sun had set on the horizon leaving us with the shapes of the cliffs that surrounded us but without any of the colors. Due to the forecasted 90+ degree weather for our start day, we decided to get up and get going. But first a couple of beers.
We awoke to the Colorado River flanked by the red cliffs of what is now Lake Powell. Had we been here a few years ago, this would be a lake and not a river. A quick breakfast, a few last-minute adjustments (note: you will probably have to adjust your backpacking pack for use with a bike so you can look up) and we were on the road a few minutes before 7. Our cycling leg of our triathlon was 8 miles of pavement and 12 miles of dirt. We expected it to be all climbing at mostly easy grades and outside of one exception, that was the case. During our highway experience that took us about 45 minutes, we saw three cars. Once we were on the dirt, we only saw one couple camped on the side of the road, still not sure what they were doing. We could hope for less people, but that isn’t bad for Memorial Day Weekend.
After a 3-hour pedal, we transitioned to bipedal mode. We certainly could improve on our transition times as this took us about 45 minutes. We stashed the bikes and began to walk into the canyon.
When you read “pack trail” on a map it’s a pretty good indication that the trail isn’t maintained and is what most would call rugged. The Sundance is just that. The first couple of miles are fairly straight forward except for a couple of drops that required butt scooting and route negotiation. And then there is the drop into the canyon. The sign at the trailhead says it 1200 feet in less than a mile, I have no reason to think that is not accurate. The trail comes to the edge of the canyon where a rock-strewn cliff drops off in front of you. There are routes everywhere you just pick your favorite and hope it gets you to the bottom. Don’t forget that you are picking your way down this slope with a 40-pound pack on your back. We used our hands at least, if not more, than our feet. That one mile took us about an hour to descend.
Once in the canyon, the trail meanders downstream. At this juncture, not only was it getting hot, but we were starting to reach our point of needing a break for the day. We passed the camp where the girls were sunbathing topless, the camp where it looked like way too many people had come down, and the one where the occupants peered out trying to not make eye contact so they wouldn’t have to interact with us. And then we found a spot with some shade, a big pool for swimming and procuring water and two flat spots where we could pitch our tents to keep the cedar gnats off us.
We spent the rest of the day getting fat off our supplies and enjoying the shade, the water and the animals poking about. We discussed in depth the unknown of the next day, the wind. The beta we had pretty much said there would be a headwind. The forecast called for a tailwind. There may have been thoughts and prayers for the latter.
We got an early start. From our camp, it was about four miles to the confluence with the Colorado. The canyon choked up multiple times forcing us up onto the benches above the creek and our short jaunt to the river turned into an exposed, loose trail that required 100% of our attention to navigate safely. Typically, we would finish that distance in just over an hour, this took us almost two, but we got through and stood on the beach of the river. We had seen no one all day long.
It was time for Transition #3. We pulled our packrafts out of our packs and rearranged everything to fit inside them before inflating our boats for travel. The confluence had a swirling wind and we ran into two motor boats finishing a river trip. The wind varied from head to tail to side to calm for the first 15ish miles. And then turned into a full on, you have to paddle to go downstream wind for the last three. We had planned on taking 8-10 for this section depending on the wind, the river and other things. We had knocked out half of it in three hours at which point we knew were finishing a full day early.
Right around 2 PM, our boats pulled up to the boat launch. The wind was ripping, our shoulders would take a few days to recover from the intense paddle, but we were done. We had seen Dark Canyon in all its glory. Done some paddling and some pedaling and finished in less the 36 hours. A full day sooner than expected. Not too bad for our first triathlon.
Lukas Brinkerhoff blogs about mountain biking and life at mooseknuckleralliance.org.