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Forty Days in the Wilderness:
A Trek Around Southeast Utah
By Brett LeCompte
Reprinted from The Leader, Summer 2001, Vol. 16, No. 3

Every once in a while, I just gotta go it alone. Even though my job as an outdoor trip leader for NOLS and other organizations keeps me sleeping under the stars for one hundred nights each year, I also need solitary excursions into the wilderness. When I guide a group through the backcountry, my attention is often absorbed by logistics and social dynamics at the expense of appreciating the natural grandeur around me. So, this past fall, I went on a walkabout.

My route was a 375-mile circle that connected the three prominent mountain ranges of southeast Utah: the La Sals, the Abajos, and the Henrys. These laccolithic mountains are cloaked in thick forests of aspen and fir with strips of alpine tundra on top, a sharp contrast to the fiery redrock canyonlands which they rise above-perfect country for an extended adventure.

I left Moab on Labor Day, winding past slickrock domes and petroglyphs as I traced the north fork of Mill Creek to its source on the northern flank of the La Sals-Utah's second highest range. Pushing through the trees to the talus, I spent three days tundra-cruising between skyline peaks, eventually tagging 14 named summits. It was an amazing ridge walk with views from deep in the Colorado Rockies to the heart of Utah's slickrock fantasy lands. Dropping back to piñon-juniper mesas, I continued south past gas wells, cow pastures, and bean fields to my first resupply in Monticello.

My friend, Tom Stallings, drove from his Jackson, Wyo., home to join me for the next 10-day leg to Lake Powell. I welcomed the company while we humped heavy packs up into the Abajo range. These mountains proved less dramatic than the La Sals, especially when late-season wildfire smoke from California obscured much of the view. From the forest plateau of Elk Ridge, we dropped into the head of Dark Canyon, which is also known as the "Grand Canyon of Utah." In April, I had walked a section of this outstanding wilderness area with a group of NOLS spring semester students. This time, Tom and I traveled the entire 40-mile length between towering sunset-hued walls, often alongside a paradise of dancing water sluicing through sculpted stone. Moreover, we had this vast Eden to ourselves.

After climbing out of lower Dark Canyon via the rugged Sundance Trail, we soon reached White Canyon which proved to be less hospitable. We crossed this formidable barrier near the technical "Black Hole" slot section. Only by unexpectedly swimming an icy, murky pool with our packs were we able to escape this gloomy narrows. As is so often the case in wild country, one day we reveled in its glory; the next we struggled to survive its challenges.

At Hite Marina, I bid Tom farewell and continued northward alone after bumming a speedboat ride across Lake Powell. Swett Canyon led me to the southern flank of the Henry Mountains. An epic 4,000 foot bushwhack up Mt Hillers began a roller coaster ridgeline traverse of these remote peaks which didn't appear on the United States map until after 1872. Once again, I was inspired by hundred-mile vistas that stretched from Arches National Park to the Kaibab Plateau near the Grand Canyon. A long day across the bland expanse of the Burr Desert brought me to my final resupply in Hanksville.

The final 12-day leg back to Moab was the most remote and arduous section of the trek. Once again entering terrain traveled by NOLS canyon sections, I crossed the Dirty Devil River and ascended Robbers Roost Canyon. Nearby, I camped at a spring near a ruined cabin where Butch Cassidy and his gang hid through the winter of 1896-97. Next stop was The Great Gallery, a prehistoric Louvre of archaic culture rock art where 30 life-sized "ghost figures" stared back at me from a sheltered overhang in Horseshoe Canyon. Crossing the Green River in Labyrinth Canyon was the final technical challenge of the journey, but I managed to wade across the sluggish river with a dry pack thanks to height, luck, and low water. Once across, I switch-backed up onto the Island in the Sky plateau in Canyonlands National Park where I camped near desert bighorns and a 1,000 foot cliff. Lastly, a tromp down the Shafer jeep trail closed my circle.

I lingered an extra day at my last camp which overlooked the Moab Valley and the La Sals. Up on the mountainside, I saw that aspen groves which had been tinged with gold six weeks earlier now stood gray and bare. As I recalled the quiet epiphanies, unexpected adventures, and soul-stirring beauty that so filled my life for the last 40 days, I knew I was also undeniably changed. I'd found what I'd sought: a physical and mental challenge to sharpen my skills as well as a deep immersion into the natural environments I consider my truest home. Although I shall soon resume my role as outdoor leader, I'll always be a student at the powerful "University of the Wilderness."

Brett's next big adventure will be his marriage to Shaine Gans this coming fall. His book, Southwest Circle Quest, A Walkabout in the American Outback, about an earlier adventure in the Southwest was published by Canyon Country Publications in 1998.


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