Into the Gulch
Authors note: Part I of the story can be found at the link below. It is not necessary to read it to follow what is happening but it does provide some backstory and fill in content that makes part 2 presented here a bit more enjoyable in my estimation.
The long nightmare descent was over, sweaty and exhausted we had finally reached the bottom, we were officially in Coyote Gulch. It seemed a paradise compared to the barren desert from which we had come. A small river meandered down the center of the gulch and massive canyon walls towered on all sides. In places the walls were vertical and in others they arched back over the gulch enclosing it like a dome. I had never seen anything like it, it was both totally open and yet enclosed and claustrophobic at the same time.
I have included a few pictures taken at different locations that I hope give some idea of the beauty and massive scale of the place. The river was never larger than a few feet across and only rarely more than 2 or 3 feet deep. In the rainy season it can become extremely dangerous and runs very fast and deep but just then it was a calm, pleasant, peaceful stream. Evidence of it’s constant ebb and flow was everywhere. Debris was scattered about and water lines in the rocks suggested massive surges of very high water for extended periods. The river was our constant companion during the long treks that followed and it would be our savior in the trial that was soon to come. For now however, we simply walked downriver at a moderate pace, enjoying the scenery and marveling in awe and wonder at the many splendors, taking pictures where we could. Strange petroglyphs dotted the walls of the canyon in many places, areas of sand that seemed like beaches appeared around some bends in the river while thickets of trees and brush were dominant in other stretches. There was a well worn trail that ran along the river and it was also possible and in some places necessary to walk directly in and through the river. As with the desert there were long sections dominated by smooth and jagged rocks. The river always ran fastest through these parts and it carved deep holes in the floor and etched long gashes in the walls of the canyon. The peacefulness of the place is very difficult to describe in words. It was once sacred land to the Navajo and while there one can understand fully why it was considered such. Unlike the desert above which can be deathly quiet, the canyon floor was bursting with life and the noise of birds and crickets was more like what I was used to hearing in the midwest forests I frequent. The main difference was the echoes. A single bird call could sound like ten as the noise of it bounced back and forth down and around the canyon. Several times larger animals could be heard rustling through the underbrush. Given the abundance and diversity of tracks we were fairly certain black bear, coyote, and deer were plentiful. We even spotted what must have been mountain lion tracks, a large female and her cub by the look of them. Later coyotes and mountain lions would become an all too real threat but for now it was awesome to think we shared the same space as them if even for just a little while.
We were heading for a particular section of river known as Swiss Cheese falls. It got this name for obvious reasons as the force of the river had created a section of holes very reminiscent of swiss cheese through which various small waterfalls and rapids rushed and swirled. Beyond the falls lay Coytote Natural Bridge, another famous stone formation resembling its namesake, and some Native American ruins, both of which we intended to see if possible. We postulated that it was likely another egress point existed near the Natural Bridge and tried to use the GPS to nail down an exact location. However, we could find nothing in the topography that suggested a way in or out. It was at this moment that I said something which I would later regret greatly. I had noticed that my companion was powering on and off her GPS at each use. I was convinced that I had read or heard somewhere that it actually used less power to leave the device on at all times and I relayed that information to her. Unfortunately for us she took that bad advice to heart and the GPS would remain turned on for a very long time after. This one poor decision, based on stupid advice, reverberated with repercussions that almost doomed us.
Swiss Cheese Falls was a disappointment to say the least. The river ran fast there but the “falls” were really nothing more than a series of 6–12 inch drop-offs into deep but small pools. It did look like swiss cheese but, much like the cheese, it was dull and kind of boring. We moved on quickly hoping to find the exit we thought must exist near Coyote Natural Bridge and make our way out of the Gulch. As we drew closer and no exit point revealed itself I began to feel my first inklings of unease. Nothing serious yet but I was getting antsy and wanted out of the gulch. I had my fill of the place and it had been almost four hours of trekking at this point. Half the day was already gone and I was eager to move on to our next adventure in Arizona. I began to needle my companion perhaps a bit too aggressively about an exit. Naturally she responded in kind and a war of attrition began that would not see an end for a very long time. There were moments of truce where peace and calm dominated but these were dotted by explosions of anger and recriminations (mainly on my part) and long stretches of stony silence between us. For now we were both irritated and upset and we both wanted out. With no apparent way out forthcoming we continued pressing forward to the Bridge. At a place very near it we saw two persons approaching, a man and a woman. They would be the first and last people we saw for a very long time. They seemed relaxed and jovial. They carried only one small pack and a bottle of water between them. The woman wore no shoes and they both strode down the river toward us at a leisurely pace. Given their attire, attitude, and gear it seemed obvious that they had only just entered the gulch and did not intend a long stay. I was confident that they must have come down a fairly easy trail and my mind was put at ease as I contemplated that same way out for us. In retrospect we should have stopped them and pressed for details but instead all we asked in passing was “Did you come in by the Bridge?” The man responded by pointing back over his shoulder and saying “ten minutes that way” in a thick German accent. Later I questioned if he had even understood us but for now both of us were excited to hear his answer and did not think to ask for further clarification or details. We both had heard exactly what we wanted to hear, a way out, and only ten minutes walk ahead.
We made the Bridge approximately fifteen minutes later. It was evident within the first five minutes or so of our arrival that there was no easily visible or accessible entrance/exit point anywhere within 200 yards of it. I was extremely irritated at this point and threw a major hissy fit, stomping the ground and cursing. I slung additional recriminations at my companion blaming her for poor planning, for not knowing how to use the GPS, for anything and everything I could think of. Given the things I said, the language I used and my attitude she took it about as well as anyone could. I credit her with extreme self control for I could not have taken such abuse as calmly as she did. That is not to say she did not respond with anger for certainly she did and she gave as good as she got. After about five minutes of heated back and forth I stormed off exhausted and furious, vowing to find an exit no matter how difficult the climb.
I made it about 50 feet up what looked to be a path but turned out to be nothing more than an animal trail before returning defeated. Having regained some semblance of sanity we talked strategy and options for a bit before deciding on a course of action. We would try and find a route out here at the arch taking any available path. My first foray up had been a disaster but I had noticed at least two other possibilities on my way back down and it was toward one of these we headed now. We wasted close to an hour trying various routes up, all were very dangerous and difficult. An injury to either one of us at this point would have been disastrous but we pushed forward anyway so eager to get out of the gulch were we. Finally we admitted defeat and returned to the base of the arch from where we had started. Only two options remained at this point, return to where we had first entered the gulch and try to make our way back up or press ahead. Unfortunately the way forward led only to an exit climb which, according to the information we had, could not be completed without ropes and gear we that we did not have. There really was no choice and we decided to backtrack to our entry point and try to make the dangerous ascent out from there. It was now close to 2pm and the sun looked lower than I liked but at that moment sunset was not our worst enemy, a rapidly dwindling supply of drinking water was.
To be continued…..