When to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em: On changing plans and canceling trips

Backcountry trips with multiple parties are hard to plan—and even harder to cancel.

My first mistake was scheduling back-to-back excursions during shoulder season on the Colorado Plateau. After a hot summer and (to that point) a mild fall with little to no precipitation, it was only a matter of time until the weather (and my plans) changed. And change they did… for both trips.

Gatlin and I had been watching the forecast for weeks before the trips were scheduled to begin. We knew that getting to our planned destination—Dark Canyon Wilderness, way way way back of beyond in southeastern Utah—would require a stroke of early October luck when it came to weather. When we arrived at our usual motel in Monticello, UT on Sunday night, we were greeted by a mean grey sky and temperatures hovering around freezing.

Pizza joint in Monticello. Dubbed “Ass19” by my eight year old.

Now, the problem wasn’t really the weather per se. We had the right gear to handle the cold, and we’ve gotten soaked many times during stormy Colorado summers. The problem was trailhead access. To call the network of Forest Service and BLM tracks that access Dark Canyon “dirt roads” is oversimplification. Most of the route is made of Bentonite clay, a rust-colored soil with the consistency of overcooked steel-cut oats when wet. To drive in truck-swallowing bentonite is to drive perpetually sideways, as the consistency of the clay somehow prevents one from going straight ahead. The steering wheel is always at 3 or 9, never at 12.

Fortunately, Gatlin had thought ahead and booked a backup permit. Instead of testing our driving mettle getting back to Dark Canyon, we’d be spending a comparatively civilized few days off trail in an at-large zone in Canyonlands National Park. When we woke up on hike-in day to several inches of snow on our windshields, we knew bailing on Dark Canyon was the smartest move. And it was an easy decision. There was no agonizing, no gnashing of teeth. On to Plan B.

We stopped at the Peace Tree in Monticello (the preferable Peace Tree location, for my money) for our customary day-of-trip breakfast: tasty breakfast burritos on whole wheat tortillas and lots of dark roast coffee. On our way out, we struck up a conversation with a man, a local who’d tossed down a cleaning rag before coming out of the kitchen at the end of a shift. He asked where we were going. “We’d been planning on heading into Dark Canyon,” Gatlin replied. 

“It hadn’t rained in nearly a year, and in the last week we’ve gotten that year’s worth of rain,” the man gravely stated. “You get back on those roads and you’ll never get out.”

“Yeah, we know,” I assured him. “We’re considering other options. Thinking of just going into Needles instead.”

He shook his head slightly and headed for the door. “I know you’ll make the right decision. Good luck.”

Dormant pour offs suddenly come to life after days of rain

And “the right decision” it was. Instead of battling the bentonite for the rest of the day, we made the easy hour-long drive to the Needles Visitor Center. Of course, the backup plan itself was not without challenges of its own. We spent four days getting soaked and drying out, including one memorable afternoon and night spent at Peekaboo Spring watching every sandstone pour off run, water traveling millions of years of geologic time in seconds and crashing to the ground. We thrashed through willows and scrambled along deer paths to avoid more willows, marveling all the while at the mountain lion tracks that accompanied us even in the smallest drainages. At one point, we climbed up and out of a side canyon when the roaring of the creek became louder than our conversation. Fortunately, the flash flood we feared never materialized.

As the clouds part, dry streams run again

The hike out was a pure soaker. I had water in places I didn’t know it could go. Gatlin and I covered six-plus miles of both off-trail and on-trail hiking in fewer than three hours. Not bad…especially compared to the red-mud horrors that would have awaited us had we stuck with the original plan. We changed into dry clothes at the Needles Visitor Center, said our goodbyes for a few months and headed in opposite directions: him south to Arizona, me north to Colorado. 

Making tracks… this cat and ourselves

As soon as I made it to US 191 and turned left towards Moab, my thoughts shifted to my second trip: four days floating the Colorado River between Fruita, CO and Westwater, UT. We’d done the fabled “Ruby Horsethief” float the previous fall, and I’d been looking forward to it for months. I powered up my phone to tell Julie that I’d made it out safely. But before I could call, I noticed a string of text messages and emails. Never a good way to return to civilization…

“Check your email,” read one text from Julie. “The Rutledges are out for the river.” 

That wasn’t what I was expecting to hear. Once I got close enough to Moab to make a call, I dialed Julie to get the scoop. While I’d been backpacking in the rain (and looking forward to a dry second trip), the forecast had changed. Highs were now dramatically lower, with daytime highs in the 30s and nighttime lows well below freezing. A classic Colorado River wind out of the northwest at 20 miles per hour were sure to make it feel even colder. The most experienced boaters in our group, the Rutledges had gone from gung-ho to staying home because of the weather.

There was also the matter of the kids to consider. Ranging in ages from five to nine, the youngest members of our group would surely dislike rafting into a stiff headwind on a cloudy mid-30s day. As a firm believer in “banking good experiences” for kids, I strongly disliked the idea of my boy Colin forever associating rafting with cold, wet and windy days on the Colorado. And a wet Hypalon slip would raise the specter of hypothermia for all members of the group.

After an hour of Tecate-fueled deliberation at the Super 8 in Fruita, I came to my trip-leader senses. Ruby was off. Calls were made to announce the cancellation to all. 

Super 8 = super foggy as I make the call. And the calls.

Where the trip with Gatlin was two dudes and two backpacks, the Ruby trip was six adults, four kids and three fourteen-foot rafts loaded with all the gear and beer we could muster. Changing plans with Gatlin required no psychological heavy lifting, as there’d been little or no effort to start with. But for Ruby, we’d meticulously planned launch days, campsites and mileages. We’d all cooked communal breakfasts and dinners—standard river practice. We’d all bought new gear, taken time off from work and paid to have our cars and trailers shuttled from the put-in at Fruita to the takeout at Westwater. We were invested. And now that investment was crashing.

Lamenting the loss of the last planned trip of 2018, I decided to hit my favorite Fruita joints. The early evening was cold and foggy—confirming the veracity of the forecast for once. A quick pint at the Copper Club went down with little impact. A calzone and a few IPAs at the Hot Tomato was a somewhat more effective salve, but it was going to take time to come to grips with the change of plans. I hated abandoning all that prep work. Hated being the trip leader who was responsible for making the call. Hated my overly cautious side, especially when there were kids involved.

As I was finishing up, a fifty-something woman took the bar stool next to me. She was talkative and outgoing in a way that I couldn’t emulate on my most charming days, much less on a dour Thursday like this. More beers flowed, and she revealed that she was a kayaker and had run the Ruby Horsethief section of the Colorado just a few weeks before.

“I was supposed to launch tomorrow,” I glumly revealed. “Six adults, four kids. Three nights. Got the permit months ago.”

“Kids? In this wind?” She was incredulous at the thought. “That’s a bullshit idea. They’d hate it. Hell, I hated it. I got so tired of battling the headwind that I tied in with a motorized group after the first day. That was totally the right call, man.”

And there it was. Sweet validation. 

Amongst the Herd

I wander a lot, though not as much as I’d like. And I read a lot, though not as much as I should. These hobbies often collide, and it’s not unusual for me to recognize places I’ve been in the things I read. So when I saw Paige Blankenbuehler’s recent High Country News piece about the intersection of wildlife management and domestic sheep grazing in the Weminuche Wilderness of Colorado, it took me back to an evening in the far northern Weminuche in July of 2017. I didn’t think too much of it at the time, but in retrospect what I saw (and documented) that night tells a big part of the story of land management in the Colorado high country.

Brian (my usual hiking cohort) and I were about halfway through a weeklong trip from Weminuche Pass to Spring Creek Pass along Colorado’s Continental Divide Trail. We’d started the day at Kite Lake, where early-morning storms had kept us off the trail until late morning. The hike to Stony Pass was only eight or nine miles—a mild day compared to the rest of our itinerary—so we arrived mid-afternoon with plenty of time to relax.

We pitched our tents right below Stony Pass Road in a broad meadow filled with both wildflowers and mining-era detritus, including the battered remnants of some century-old cabins. OHV traffic on the Stony Pass road was mercifully light, perhaps due to the threatening clouds that had begun to gather again to the west. In spite of the gathering storm, we were hoping for a pleasant, low-key evening.

The gathering gloom

We heard the approaching herd before we saw it. In a matter of moments, our quiet campsite was invaded by several thousand bleating sheep, their bells ringing like a tour bus full of edgy Midwesterners emptying out into grizzly country for the first time. A single dark-skinned sheepherder watched from the ridge above as four sheepdogs worked the herd back and forth the formerly serene meadow. I’d encountered plenty of sheep in the Weminuche backcountry before, but the sheer size of this herd was something new.

So many sheep!

I guess I’d always imagined that a moving herd of sheep would… you know, move. Like they’d have someplace to go and would be intent on getting there. In reality, there was very little forward progress, as successive waves of mutton surged around our tents and our cookstoves for well more than an hour. We’d think the herd was finally moving up the hill and over the ridge, but all of a sudden the sheep in the rear would turn around and surge towards us again. The dogs kept things orderly, but the shepherd made no effort to coax the sheep away from Stony Pass for the night.


Scanning the horizon for a hopeful break in the throng, I noticed an extended cab Tacoma parked just east of Stony Pass itself. Leaning against the truck was an older gentleman with his arms crossed, calmly watching the scene unfold. I wasn’t sure if he as a sightseer waiting to make his way east to Lake City or west to Silverton, a fellow hiker who identified with our predicament due to past experience, or someone somehow connected to the sheep operation. Whatever his business was, he just stood there watching us flail around in the sea of sheep. Admittedly, it was probably pretty entertaining.

As night began to fall, we were faced with a choice: stay where we had established camp and hope the sheep moved on (or at least didn’t trample our camp in the darkness), or move our tents to the next available spot we could see: a gravel pull-off about a third of a mile down the road. To complicate things further, the dark clouds to the west were becoming more organized and more menacing. Thunder sounded in the distance—it was almost certainly raining in Silverton already, and it was coming our way. We had to decide, and quickly.

It was then that I noticed the bighorn. Among the throng of domesticated stock, one wild bighorn was trying to blend in with the herd. The whole thing was like a time-lapse sequence from a Benny Hill episode. Every time one of the sheep dogs noticed the bighorn, a chase would ensue. The wild sheep would easily outpace the canine and range out of sight, only to reappear once the dogs were preoccupied with other duties. I’d never witnessed a bighorn sheep commingling with a flock of their less wild cousins… but then again, I’d never been in the middle of a several thousand animal-strong herd. It was oddly compelling to watch. Of the photos I snapped with my phone, only one was clear enough to capture the whole scene.

Bighorn among the herd

Curiosity quickly gave way to practicality. I decided at last that I had no interest spending the night listening to the vocalizations of the sheep—or the constant sickening splats of sheep shit hitting the ground. At my urging, we very quickly broke down our tents, stuffed our gear in our backpacks and ran towards the possible other camp we’d seen. Rain was starting to fall, and I loathed the thought of re-pitching our tents in the middle of a Colorado summer squall.

Apparently, the shepherd had also decided that enough was enough. He shouted several commands to the dogs, who magically worked the herd and got them moving south up and over a ridge in a matter of minutes. As the bleating and the bells receded, shepherd then quickly made for the road. He reached the older man and his pickup just as the rain began to intensify. Both men jumped in the cab, the headlights gleamed and the engine came to life. They edged down from the top of the pass in the direction of Lake City.

As the truck reached us, it suddenly stopped. The driver jumped out and approached us, waving his Western hat as if to beat off the rain. “Sorry about that,” he said slowly. “I’d have had him bed down the sheep earlier if I’d known you were going to pack up and go.” 

“That’s OK,” I replied wearily. I gestured towards the dark man in the passenger seat. “He was working,” I said, seeking some sort of way to bridge an obvious gap. “We’re just out here walking.” 

“That’s true,” muttered the older man. He thought about it, then added strangely, “I am the pastor of this flock, after all.” 

We waved a final curt goodbye and quickly made it to the gravel pullout just as the skies opened up. This second campsite was comparatively poor. Tent stakes did not willingly find purchase in the road base, and the slope of the pullout dictated that we pitch our ultralight shelters with their openings towards the incoming storm—a less than ideal situation. Lightning blazed trails through the dusk all around us as the rain soaked us, our half-pitched tents and all of our gear. Within about ten minutes we’d finished erecting our tents and crawled inside, but the damage was done. I’d spend much of the rest of the night futilely trying to contain the lake in the middle of my tent.

Wet and cold from the night’s trials, I found sleep elusive. I wondered about the old man, the shepherd and their Toyota. They could have moved the sheep at any time, making the driver’s quick apology ring less than true. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the way we’d been disrespected was a microcosm of the issues associated with high country land management. And I thought about that single bighorn who so badly wanted to join the flock that we so badly wanted to escape. What would come of her? Would they begrudgingly accept her, or would the dogs chase her off day after day? Did the sheep bosses even know she’d temporarily joined their herd?

Morning came slow and cold, and the usual coffee and granola had no power to improve our mood. We were on the trail by 6:30 with fifteen miles to cover. As we navigated across the headwaters of the Rio Grande between Canby Mountain to the west and Sheep Mountain to the east, our gear and our persons were soon dry. But our spirits remained dampened for the rest of the day.