Kingfisher Solitude: A Week at Clear Creek

by Jay Hansford C. Vest

During the summer of 1979, I was deeply involved with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management wilderness review; my position as an outdoor recreation planner/ wilderness specialist gave me review duties for approximately two million acres of public lands in southwestern Wyoming; these lands were part of the Salt Wells resource area administered by the Rock Springs district and included eleven wilderness intensive inventory units. One called Adobetown was the largest in the state. A famed geological surveyor, Clarence King, had in the nineteenth century called it the most spectacular example of badlands erosion within the exploration of the fortieth parallel; it was home to wild horses, cougars and endangered species but to their demise it also held high oil and gas potential. The energy companies were fairly frothing at the mouth to access the area; indeed, the year before my arrival they had engineered an exploratory well violating all wilderness review sensibilities with its approval.

There were in addition several other units exhibiting much in common with the nearby Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area; colorful badlands, these were also under siege at the behest of the oil and gas industry. Having arrived only a few months before, it was into this cauldron of greed and exploitation that I then found myself; here I was at the very heart if an extraordinary wilderness controversy and its challenge to personal and professional integrity. With a hint of my land ethic emerging in a preliminary report, I was called into the district manager’s office and read the riot act. As I began to protest, the manager slapped his hand palm down onto the table. “Don’t quote your god damn regulations to me. Nine out of ten of your inventory units should drop!” His meaning was clear, I was being directed to dismiss virtually all my wilderness inventory units without so much as even seeing them. Notwithstanding this high handed approach to professionalism in public land management, the season progressed and in the end I chose based upon my intensive inventory to recommend eight of ten units for further study. My decision prompted a furor that lead me to the Grand Canyon and back; but it was one that affirmed wilderness and professional integrity at least on my part.

As the District Manager was intent upon suppressing my wilderness review reports, I became determined to put it all on the line. Having met a local reporter over the summer, I made public disclosure of the improprieties afoot at the District Office. It was soon a first page story running in the state’s largest newspaper at Casper and it stayed before the public eye for several weeks. As a result, I was given a two week suspension from duties that is for having spoken to the press about these matters. A wildlife technician seasonal, Dave, from the Big Sandy Resource Area was just going into a short lay-off. We had become friends over the summer and his boss was sympathetic with my wilderness review results. Speaking about my suspension one day and his coming furlough, we decided it would be ideal to take a wilderness vacation to the southwest. We made plans to hike in southern Utah and visit the Grand Canyon during this time off.

Early on the morning of the outset of my suspension, we packed our camping gear into ole Yellow Horse — my little Toyota pickup — and set off south into central Utah trending towards Arches National Park. Driving hard, we arrived in the night north of the park and took a side road into the Book Cliffs region. It was our intention to camp in the vicinity of some Fremont era petroglyphs that reflected the life of the aboriginal inhabitants of the region. Negotiating the frozen trail, we reached the site under the utter darkness of a chilly March night. Making our camp at an old site used from time immemorial, ghostly red painted pictographs danced in the firelight upon the canyon walls. Despite the little truck being parked nearby, there was an eerie effect invoking the ancient past within the firelight glow animating these ancient sacred figures through the long dark night. As the morning found them dulled by the bright light of day, there was less anxiety as we carefully studied the several images all about the cliff sides. In places, locals had illegally taken whole slabs of rock to adorn their mantels with authentic Indian images. Later I learned, these ghastly deeds had been previously reported in a vintage edition of the National Geographic Magazine, but their ugly handiwork was offensive in the glaring light of day as we sorrowed over the utter violation of nature and culture.

Cold and crisp with effervescent blue skies, the day invited a hike up the narrow canyon. In the shade there were skiffs of snow and moist earth balled up under our shoes. Climbing through the pinion-juniper forests we reached a narrow opening onto the plateau above. There a herd of sheep grazed about the rim line and a solitary wagon with puffs of smoke ascending from a little stove pipe stood isolated about the meadow. It was the camp of a Basque shepherd, we spoke without understanding each other but he graciously greeted us in broken English.

Following the brief interlude, we set off to climb down through another narrow canyon in return to our point of origin below. Afterwards we broke camp, loaded up and set out south stealing into Arches through a primitive dirt road while avoiding the formal entrance to the protected treasure. Finding no campsite, we parked along one of the pullouts near delicate arch and car camped under the topper as snow began to fall through the night. In the morning, the weather cleared and there was only a skiff of snow that soon burned off under the sun’s strong rays. A primitive slick rock trail beckoned and we set out overland to see a remote arch and a feature known as the dark tower. It was an exhilarating hike and we were not disappointed to find petroglyphs inscribed on the massive sandstone tower. Tramping through fins, we found Arches a delightful place in March but the Grand Canyon beckoned us onward.

Entering the Dinetah — Navajo land — we travelled across the reservation through to Flagstaff and northward into the Canyon. The plan called for a week in the great chasm but we had not decided on a destination. After some study, we settled on Clear Creek, which after reaching the bottom was a ten mile hike off the Bright Angel Trail. Trekking downward, we walked through time passing eons of creation as the earth made and remade herself. In the bottom, there was a pretty blonde woman reminding me of Crazy Sharon whom I had taken up with during a summer’s visit to Jackson Hole; she was seeking tweezers to pull a cactus thorn from her delicate foot. More than happy to oblige, I located a pair stowed in my pack and handed them to her forthwith; pity she was on her way out and we were just half way to our destination.

Tarrying by a creek, we soaked our feet and filled our canteens. Our journey required us to now climb midway up the north rim and traverse across this level to a point of descent at about ten miles distance. It was growing increasingly hot and the climbing was taking its toll so I was hitting the water hard. Soon there was little remaining in my quart canteen and I had not thought to bring a second one along despite the plan to hike through the hot dry desert. Reaching the traverse line, I had swallowed the last of my water, yet the bulk of the trek remained ahead. Soon I found myself dying for water and there was the odd torture of white gas sloshing about in my stove canister. Repeatedly the liquid gas sloshed about; it made me delusional in wondering if I had indeed drank all the water. But there was no question, the water was gone and Dave was far ahead. Nearing the descent into Clear Creek, my skin was growing clammy as I decided to rest in the shade of a large boulder. Five, ten, fifteen minutes passed but I felt no inclination to get up and begin my descent. Suddenly there was a savior, Dave had been to the creek, filled his water bottle and some plastic bags and now he was at hand to save me. He had known, I was hurting for water, he even expected it was heat exhaustion and like the good soul he was, he returned to my rescue. Hydrating in the shade of that boulder, it was good to have a true friend. Soon I was able to make the descent and view the Clear Creek basin for the first time.

Preparing camp that night, I was content to rest by the creek during the next day while Dave went out exploring. During the afternoon, a Frenchman who had crossed the traverse from the Bright Angel Ranch early that morning surprised me. Dropping into our camp, I offered him tea and we enjoyed a pleasant conversation that explored many stereotypes of French and American behavior. He had learned his English from listening to radio and other informal scholarship so that he was not too proud to speak it with me. Bidding me adieu, he was intent on returning the way he had come that very afternoon.

Next morning, I began my exploration of the basin ascending the stream toward the north rim. It was a fresh, clear, cool creek that made a vibrant oasis amid the desert. Selecting a secluded locale amid the brush and along the singing creek, I watched a kingfisher at work making his living and I thrilled to his song filling the quietude of this lovely setting. Following one of his dives into the stream, he emerged immediately across from me. In that moment, he appeared to look directly at me and it was a moment paused in ten thousand droplets of water suspended in time as I felt the world halt with a presence of awe at the sight; it was a moment of magical empowerment that would frame my soul forever.

Later that night Dave reported finding pottery fragments along the basin rim, so I decided to explore the creeks early cultural history during the next few days. While there were ample lithic scatters and pottery shards, I made no astonishing finds announcing the ancient Native civilizations who had inhabited the little basin; still I could imagine their way of life in this place. As such you could not help but be impressed with the place and the indigenous habitations that it had nurtured. On our last day along the creek, I set out to explore its rendezvous with the Colorado River. There were great boulders and a rugged shore line as it approached the river below. As I reached the confluence, there was a sense of power where nothing was tame about the setting as great surges roared past and singing little Clear Creek stirred itself into an angry dispatch from its gentle basin.

Hiking back with a refreshed sense of being, I made sure to hydrate thoroughly by the creek and I carried extra water in small sandwich containers. Reaching the Bright Angel Ranch before noon, I felt good but still I soaked awhile there in the creek before attempting the great climb out. Steady, one step at a time, we made a good pace. Following a mid-rim level stop, Dave helped me to fashion a bandana into a pirate like shield from the hot sun. As we neared the south rim, Dave perhaps a switchback above me was impressed that I never stopped and reached the summit in good humor. It had been a walk for the ages — freeing me from my professional worries and other cares. At one of the gift shops, Dave addressed a post card to his boss saying I had survived my suspension rather well there in that timeless journey to the center of the earth, so I was prepared to return to Rock Springs confronting the ruse of wilderness review that faced me. Acknowledging the gift of the little kingfisher, I knew in my soul the answer to the wilderness solitude question and I was fortified to do my best on behalf of the nature as so revealed to me that day on Clear Creek.

(Kingfisher Solitude PDF)

Jay Hansford C. Vest, Ph.D.
Enrolled Member Monacan Indian Nation/
Direct descendant Opechcanough (Pamunkey)
Honorary Pikuni (Blackfeet) in Ceremonial Adoption (June 1989)
Professor of American Indian Studies
University of North Carolina at Pembroke