Adventure 2017: Ben and Helen Beall — Pack rafting Canyonlands
March 29, 2017
Call it an "Adventuremoon."
That's the label Steamboat Springs newlyweds Ben and Helen Beall bestowed upon their six-day hiking/pack rafting trip last spring traversing Utah's Canyonlands.
In a way, it was fitting, seeming how they got married outside a snow cave on Gem Mountain in north Routt County, Helen skiing freshies in her wedding dress. But this was the desert, something as foreign to them as their nuptials.
"We're not really desert people," says Helen. "This was the first time we had ever tried anything like that."
The freshly vowed duo started in the Needles District, discovering they had to hike — carrying 60-plus-pound packs, complete with food and water for six days, as well as rafts, paddles and PFDs — the final four-wheel-drive road over Elephant Hill into Red Lake Canyon, eventually overnighting in the "crazy valleys" of an area known as the Grabens. The next day, they hiked down to the Colorado River, inflated their pack rafts and paddled across to Spanish Bottom. "That was the point of no return," Ben says. "We knew then we weren't turning back."
They then rolled up their rafts and hiked up into the labyrinth canyons of the Doll House and the Maze, breakdown paddle blades extending high above their packs. "It was some pretty interesting route finding," Ben says. "The trail was marked by cairns, but they were hard to find."
A lynchpin to the journey, they found, was a 30-foot piece of rope, which they used to lower their packs down cliffs. "It was like a giant, human puzzle," Ben says. "It was like being in those Chocolate Drop canyons of the game Candyland."
While water remained an issue — they brought five liters each — they found it when they needed it, night two in a remote canyon in the Maze. "That was a huge, huge day," Helen adds, likening it to including a bit of everything you'd learn on Desert Hiking 101 orienteering course.
Day three involved venturing off trail and relying on more route-finding skills as they continued hiking north through the Maze and its winding, sand-filled canyons. Eventually, they found an oasis to camp at in Horse Canyon, complete with a fresh water spring.
Day four saw them follow the canyon down to the Green River. "We had read a pack-rafting blog and saw that someone else had done it," Ben says. "But that's all we had to go on. We did a lot of guessing and route-finding on the topo."
Almost at the river, they still had to negotiate a 25-foot cliff to get to the water. Once they figured out that hurdle, they inflated their rafts and put in for a 23-mile float down the Green. "It felt awesome finally taking off our hiking boots and letting the river carry the load," Helen says. "It was a big moment for us. We had done it. We were now officially pack rafters!"
The wedding Bealls then floated to their next camp at Water Canyon, where they took a great side hike and even bummed some beers off of a rafting party. Then the tides shifted.
"All hell broke loose" the next day with a shift in the weather. Forty-mph winds upstream disrupted their planned leisurely float, pinning them to cliffs and making progress agonizingly slow. "We had to huddle on the side, hiding out wherever we could," says Ben. "Pack rafts don't handle so well in the wind. We got pretty beat up."
"It wasn't quite the easy-going, flatwater, pleasure trip we had in mind," adds Helen.
In all, it took them six hours to go six river miles, "being punished the whole way," before they finally made it back to the confluence of the Colorado and Spanish Bottom. From there, they packed up the rafts again and hiked back up Red Lake Canyon. The silver lining: a beautiful, windless camp overlooking the Doll House, with a mesmerizing sunset and their last ration of whiskey.
By the time they made it back to their car the next day, they were left with 16 almonds each, one and a half tortillas and two Honey Stinger gels.
Would they do it all again? Absolutely. "It was a great trip for us to do together after getting married," says Helen. "As a team, we made it happen. Our vows included doing adventures together, so this set a precedent for that."
And this winter they followed it with a more conventional honeymoon in New Zealand.