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.