Category Archives: Outdoor Adventure

We Were Watermen, or, Why I’m Thinking About The Beach Boys, Part I

We were watermen.

Or at least we were the Utah equivalent of the Polynesian term for someone whose life, as surf legend Chris Malloy once put it, is dictated by the ocean’s moods.  A waterman swims, dives, surfs, and spear fishes.  He lives in and for the sea.

Our seas were the lakes and streams along the Mirror Lake Highway in northeastern Utah.  Each summer, a sequence of family camping reunions allowed my cousins and me to escape to our aquatic Shangri-La in the Uinta Mountains for days on end.  Matt, Adam, and I learned to swim at a young age in the frigid waters of the Upper Provo River.  Our older cousins Tommy and Josh taught us how to safely ford rapids and properly acclimatize to cold depths.  Eventually we learned to fashion rafts out of driftwood and catch rainbow trout with our bare hands.

By about age 9, we considered ourselves experts.  Each morning after breakfast we’d leave camp for the river, often not to return until sunset.  We navigated miles of the Upper Provo, charting swimming holes and naming landmarks.  There was Coney Island, a large rocky islet near the Soapstone Campground.  A particularly sandy shoreline earned the title “Waikiki Beach.”

Matt had a Sony Walkman with a pair of portable speakers.  The happy, surf-centric harmonies of the Beach Boys provided the soundtrack for our adventures.  We’d belt the chorus of “Surfin’ USA” as we tossed a Frisbee over the river between Coney Island and Waikiki.  Many of our landmark names came from Beach Boys tunes.

When Uncle Garth bought a power boat, our turf extended to Rockport Reservoir, an impoundment along the Weber River.  Time not spent water skiing was passed lounging on a wide beach on the lake’s north side.  Adding to my delight was the fact that our annual trip to Rockport coincided with my birthday.  Water, sand, campfires, and birthday presents—it couldn’t get any better!

One year, Tommy’s wife, Shanna proudly gifted me a New Kids on the Block album on cassette.  Later, Tommy pulled me aside and discretely handed me another album, The Beach Boys’ Still Cruisin.

“The New Kids are hot now,” I remember him saying quietly, so as not to upstage his wife’s gift, “But The Beach Boys are timeless.”

I don’t swim in rivers much these days, but I pine for my waterman days—for the loud rush of the Provo, the glow of a Soapstone campfire, the lazy days on Rockport’s beaches.  Those times epitomized summer for me, and so did the tunes.  That’s why every year around this time, I get an irresistible urge to crank The Beach Boys and head for the mountains.


Mystery of Kanaka Lake carp defies those fishing for answers

Mention Iosepa and most people think of the modern steel pavilion that dominates the site. For others, the tidy cemetery comes to mind. Few, if any, consider of the large, pear-shaped pond across the highway. That’s too bad, because it’s one part of Iosepa that remains almost perfectly intact—physically and maybe biologically.

Yep, it's there: Kanaka Lake at sunrise (photo by Clint Thomsen)

The following originally appeared, without tangents and nested tangents, in the November 11, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

It was still dark when Tyler and I rolled onto the banks of Skull Valley’s Rock Bottom Spring.  From here the rutted double track we had been following veered sharply eastward.  Our destination, an unassuming pool called Kanaka Lake, was another half mile due south.  We’d have to park and hike the last leg, but that was fine by us.  What better way to arrive at our favorite Hawaiian ghost town?

“Hmm, coats would have been nice,” Tyler quipped when we were met by the frigid, pre-dawn air.

Ah yes, coats.  Of all the things to forget.  I blamed this year’s extra long autumn for the lapse.  Note to self: the desert gets very cold at night.  The flannel shirt won’t cut it anymore.  Tyler, whose light jacket was also not cutting it, made a similar note.  At least there was no wind.

We hopped a wide ditch and trudged into the darkness, our limbs warmed by movement, our hearts by the prospect of adventure.  Tyler and I have spent a lot of time exploring desert places, but we had never seen this outlying corner of Iosepa up close.  As far as we were concerned, this was uncharted territory.

Though it existed for a brief 28 years, Iosepa occupies a revered spot in Tooele County’s history.  Its story of faith and resolve has captured hearts worldwide.  The town was settled in 1889 by Hawaiian converts to the LDS Church who had moved from the islands to Utah.  Built on a working 1,280 acre ranch purchased by the church, the new colony would become a cultural and economic sanctuary for the Polynesian pioneers.  At its peak, 228 people called Iosepa home.

The town was abandoned in 1917 when all but one family returned to Hawaii to support a newly announced temple there.  The ranch was sold and the buildings were dismantled.  The entire town site was later plowed.  Today, virtually nothing remains of the town that in 1911 held the designation of “best kept and most progressive city” in Utah.

Despite the interest Iosepa generates today, not much is known about day-to-day life there.  Not even the remarkably preserved cemetery can tell us much about how these extreme pioneers lived.  In 2008, archaeologist Benjamin Pykles and a team of New York anthropology students began an ongoing study of the town site.

Regular readers of this column know of my own efforts to help connect the dots of Iosepa’s past.  In 2008, Tyler and I located and documented what the old timers called Story Rock, a limestone slab carved with images of palm trees, sea turtles and sharks.  I often reflect on those petroglyphs and the Hawaiians that carved them.  Who were these people who traded their island home for an unforgiving desert?  What were their dreams?  How did they spend their spare time?

Mention Iosepa and most people think of the modern steel pavilion that dominates the site.  For others, the tidy cemetery comes to mind.  Few, if any, consider of the large, pear-shaped pond across the highway.  That’s too bad, because it’s one part of Iosepa that remains almost perfectly intact—physically and maybe biologically.

The “lake” is a pooling of one or more geothermal springs and part of the extensive wetland system that spans the length of Skull Valley.  Kanaka’s warm, brackish water never freezes and is suitable for livestock drinking.  Carp planted by the Hawaiians thrived in its shallows.  Modern critics who question the Hawaiians’ choice to settle in such a seemingly inhospitable clime need look no further than Kanaka Lake.

The lake was also a recreation hub for the Iosepans.  If Salt Mountain was their island, Kanaka Lake was their Pacific.  Summer days were spent swimming and basking on its shores.  In his 1958 BYU Master’s thesis, Dennis Atkin noted that the Hawaiians caught carp by sneaking up behind the fish, gently stroking them along their sides, then grabbing them by their gills.

SIDE NOTE/TANGENT: The notion that the Iosepans ice skated on Kanaka has been perpetuated in several articles through the years. Atkin mentions ice skating in the same section of his thesis that he writes about Kanaka Lake.  It’s likely that some lazy writer falsely connected the two and everybody else ran with it.  Kanaka Lake is a warm spring.  It does not freeze.  This is just one more example of myth perpetuated by lazy writers.

NESTED TANGENT: There is no documented evidence of the Iosepans ever referring to the lake as “Kanaka Lake.”  The term “Kanaka” is Hawaiian for ‘people’ or ‘person.’  Outsiders often referred to the Iosepans as “the Kanakas” and Iosepa was known to most people as “Kanaka Ranch.”  It’s likely only the surrounding white settlers called the spring “Kanaka Lake.”  If the Hawaiians had an official name for it, it is not known to history.

Last July, Professor Pykles and I stood at his dig site and gazed down at Kanaka Lake.  Are there still carp in there, we wondered.  If so, are they of the same stock planted by the Iosepans?  Pykles wouldn’t have time to investigate the lake before he left.  Neither would I until fall, but if I could catch a carp, somehow deflesh it, and send its bones to New York, Pykles would see if they match the bones he unearthed during his dig.

I secured access from the Ensign Group who now owns the land.  The pressure was on.  I’m a decent angler until an article depends on it, and then I can’t catch anything.  My bad fishing luck has become a running chuckle in the newsroom.  The fishing part of this trip, I assured Tyler, was secondary to the actual experience of being where the Iosepans fished and played.

“But how hard could it be?” I asked as we approached the misty lake.  The atmosphere was surreal.

After almost a century without human encounter, surely these fish were up for a glittery ball of Power Bait.  We cast in as the sun peeked over Salt Mountain, but Kanaka’s surface was as still as glass.  Three hours passed without so much as a nibble.  The sun was up; it was t-shirt weather now.

Tyler decided to consult Google.  “When angling for carp, develop a patient approach,” he read from his phone, then shook his head.  “That’s bogus!  Haven’t you ever spit in the pond at Lagoon?”

“Maybe the Lagoon carp are tame,” I postured.  “Iosepa carp are wild.”

Wild and very picky.  We moved to the lake’s outlet where massive two-foot carp taunted us by zipping back and forth in water more shallow than they were tall.  Our varied baits and techniques were useless here too.  But we had answered our first question:  there were carp in Kanaka Lake.  The second would have to wait.  Like other Iosepa-related quests, success rarely comes on the first try.  It’s ok.  We’re persistent.  Those carp can’t run forever.


Best adventures of 2010 offered laughs and life lessons

Many of this year’s episodes marked first-time experiences.  Some were as frustrating as they were enjoyable.  Others combined outdoor sport with investigative journalism in attempt to unravel forgotten histories.

King of the urban jungle: Me and my Heelys (photo by Meagan Burr)

The following originally appeared in the December 31, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

ON THE FLANKS of the Stansbury Mountains west of Grantsville stands a common U.S. Forest Service signboard.   Wooden and weathered, it marks the end of the 5 mile dirt road from town and the beginning of the 4 mile hiking trail that winds deep into West Canyon. A placard at the top reads “Travel Information.”  But ironically, save for a few staple-trapped shreds of bulletins long torn away, the signboard’s face is completely empty.

First-timers on West Canyon Trail no doubt bristle at the least informative information board in western Utah.  I chuckle, because it illustrates a certain recreational ambiguity in our neck of the desert.  Opportunities for outdoor fun here are countless, but despite commendable efforts by the Forest Service and other local agencies, most are poorly documented.  The purpose of this column is to highlight the unique experiences our vast back country has to offer.  I’m satisfied that 2010 saw a good number of tips, back-stories, and ideas tacked to the proverbial signboard.

Thanks for the info!

Many of this year’s episodes marked first-time experiences—like hunting for meteorites and handling live rattlesnakes.  Some– like getting skunked by carp in Kanaka Lake or by crawdads in Grantsville Reservoir—were as frustrating as they were enjoyable.  Others combined outdoor sport with investigative journalism in attempt to unravel forgotten histories.

Of the latter type, my favorite was an investigation of an old airmail beacon in the Oquirrh foothills above Lake Point.  The idea for the story was posed to be by a reader from Stansbury Park.  A pilot with a thing for historical recon, Brian Staheli often flew over the structure and wondered what it was.  Over the years I’ve come to realize that everything has a story, and this collection of concrete slabs shaped like a double-tailed arrow was no exception.

With a little research we identified the structure as Airway Beacon 61A, one of the last surviving remnants of the legendary U.S. Air Mail era.  The beacon, we discovered, was constructed circa 1923 and was a key point along two Contract Airmail Routes.  With the back-story mostly assembled, it was time for the real fun to begin.

A hike to the arrow gave us a close up look, but that wouldn’t cut it for either of us.  61A was built to be viewed from the air, and we’d do the old thing a grave disservice if we didn’t oblige.  So Brian borrowed a plane and I grabbed a camera.  We took off early and flew low and slow over the Great Salt Lake while we waited for the sun to hit the beacon.  After two passes, we realized we would need to fly even closer to get a decent photo.  This all-encompassing adventure reached its apex when Brian executed a brain-juggling maneuver called a “slip,” rapidly dropping us to 50 feet above ground level and giving me a square-on view of the arrow.

The money shot. Not the best photo in the world, but it was the best I could do given the circumstances.

Oh that I could take this full-on approach to every exploit!  Alas, exploring a concept from every possible angle is rarely feasible.  Fortunately, the simple, impromptu outings are often just as rewarding—especially when they involve the kids.  Each of my children has seen their fair share of back country, but my oldest sons Bridger, 9, and Weston, 7, have been my trustiest companions.

Of our adventures together in Tooele County this year, 13 made the column.  Aside from the comic relief, the boys bring a wide-eyed perspective to every excursion, allowing me to see the rocks and ridges the way I did when I was their age.  Nothing brings a smile to my face quite like a fireside conversation with them about space and dinosaurs and the icky girls at school.

Nothing breaks the ice like a campfire.  The boys and I build them whenever and wherever we can.  I like to think I’m planting seeds in them—nourishing, perhaps, that innate and symbiotic relationship between boy and wilderness.  I think they appreciate my efforts.  Both boys have sworn to be my buds forever—“even when we’re teenagers and we think you’re a dork.”

The boys

I may have already earned my dork badge last spring when I set out to master the art of skating in Heelys.  As it turns out, those hip shoes with removable wheels aren’t just for the youngins.  In fact, any parent willing to risk a little embarrassment can order a pair of adult-sized Heelys and join their kids on a glide through the urban jungle.  I wrote about my journey from crash course to semi-success in a March article and have steadily improved since.  I have yet to complete my outfit with a skull print hoody, but my wheeled wonder shoes are never too far from reach.

The Heelys saga highlights the varied nature of this year’s activities.  Looking back on this topical hodgepodge, no distinct patterns emerge, but several themes are woven prominently—though not deliberately—throughout.  For example, I’m apparently obsessed with the concept of technology in the outdoors.  This isn’t surprising, considering my devotion to both.  2011 will seriously test my ability to balance the convenience of tech against the exhilaration that comes from roughing it.  I’ll let you know how that goes.

Until then, I’ll close this retrospective by sharing a few handy tips I’ve picked up while afield this year:

15 minutes spent gazing at the stars does more for the mind and soul than four hours of yoga.  Take weather reports and online trail guides with a few grains of salt, but always trust your gut.  Dad was right—that ridge is steeper than it looks from the trail.  When old people tell you stories, pay attention.  And carry a tape recorder; they might not be around the next time you come calling.  Never back away from a rattlesnake that’s close enough to strike.  Despite your body’s relentless attempts to convince you otherwise, early morning is the best time to hike.  Always pack enough water—and don’t forget the bratwurst.

Thanks for reading, and have an adventurous 2011!


Video: Hike to South Willow Lake

Here are some clips from our recent hike to South Willow Lake in Utah’s Stansbury Mountains.  The angelic voice issuing from my phone in one clip belongs to Miss Zee Avi.  If you must listen to music in the wilderness, it must be hers.


Trail rider puts first love on hiatus for fling with ‘Des’

Ideally, a man’s bike should be like his cell phone—a device thoughtfully selected and customized for his needs, synchronized to his instinct, intuitively responsive in a crunch.  Such was not the case with Des and me.  Ours was an arranged marriage, so to speak, one based more on cold practicality than true love.

Des, with Oquirrh Mountains in the backdrop

The following originally appeared in the October 7, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

I don’t remember exactly when the hair on my neck stood on end, but it must have been sometime between the first lightning flash and my realization that I was the tallest object around for at least a mile.  One thing was for certain:  The modest storm that hung above Rush Valley ten minutes ago was suddenly a torrent directly on my heels.

Was it one mile per five seconds between lightning and thunder or one second for five miles?  I scrambled for the answer, but now was not the time for math.  Now was the time for pedaling.  Furious, superhuman pedaling.

“Des,” I might have called—but certainly didn’t, since talking to a bike would be weird. “Time to see what you’ve got.”

Ideally, a man’s bike should be like his cell phone—a device thoughtfully selected and customized for his needs, synchronized to his instinct, intuitively responsive in a crunch.  Such was not the case with Des and me.  Ours was an arranged marriage, so to speak, one based more on cold practicality than true love.

To be brutally honest, Des is a short-term substitute.  She’s a surprisingly worthy fill-in, but a fill-in nonetheless.  I hadn’t so much as looked at other bikes until my regular mountain bike broke down last year.

It’s a sad story, really.  The high-end model Marin was a noble of her day.  A friend, the vice president of a scented candle company, bought her new about 15 years ago.  After striking it rich during the scented candle bonanza of the late nineties, he sold her to another friend.  I bought her a couple years later.  Despite her age, the bike is streamlined, sophisticated, and light as a feather.  Together we’ve tackled many a trail.

The trouble started early last year when despite my careful nurture, the Marin’s original components began to surrender to the ravages of wear and time.  First to go were the handlebar grips, which wasn’t too big a deal.  Neither was the wobbly, untruable front wheel.  But then the derailleurs failed, followed by both shifters.  I continued to ride the Marin in one gear until her worn crankset teeth could no longer grab the chain.  Finally, during an ill-fated ride to Jacob City, the chain snagged and jammed, and the old Marin finally succumbed.

First love - the Marin

That’s not to say she’s beyond repair.  Her frame is solid as ever.  It’s just that getting her trail worthy again will mean replacing nearly all of her components.  And that would require funds that, at this juncture, would be more wisely allocated to things like diapers, milk, and car repairs.  The Marin was essentially down for the count, and I was a man without a bike.

That changed a few weeks ago when my wife called me from the Deseret Industries thrift store.

“I’m at the D.I.,” she said.  “I think I found you a bike!”

“Awesome!” I responded, feigning excitement.  I’ve never been an only-the-best-will-do type, but a bike from the D.I.?  I wasn’t optimistic.

When she returned home with it I realized I should have had more faith.  My new bike was an older model Mountain Tek with.

“I don’t know anything about bikes, but I had to fight off a bunch of people once I grabbed it,” she said.  “I figured it must be worth twenty five bucks.”

Indeed.  While it was by no means a perfect bike—its frame is slightly small for me and weighs roughly a ton—it sported solid components and nearly new tires.  Judging by its relatively good condition, its previous owner kept it safe in a garage and only rode it to the library once a month.  I was back in the trail riding business.

I named the bike Des in honor of its humble origin, and in keeping with what Google says is biker tradition, “it” officially became a “she.”  I took Des to local bike whisperer Curtis Beckstrom for inspection.  Beckstrom, a retiree who spends most of his days building and donating bikes to the homeless, was quick to praise my wife’s find.

“Twenty five bucks? She did well,” he exclaimed.

Beckstrom replaced both tire tubes, lubricated the shifters, and adjusted the rear derailleur.  Des was now ready for a shakedown ride.  The next day we rolled onto a dirt double track at the intersection of  Droubay Road and the railroad tracks in Tooele.

Cove Trail is the newest on the Tooele County Trails Commission’s roster of public trails.  Originally named for the Erda developer who donated land for the parking lot, Cove Trail derives its current name from the unique geologic formations crafted by the ancient Lake Bonneville.  The trail provides access to a mountain biker’s paradise on the BLM managed Oquirrh foothills.

Des rode smoothly, effortlessly sinking into and climbing out of ruts in the dusty road.  I ignored the looming storm as I glided along a 10% grade into the foothills and curved south toward Pine Canyon.  Arranged marriage or not, Des and I were syncing well.  The small raindrops that preceded the storm made a thick mud to test her tires.  I photographed my new bike against an Oquirrh backdrop.  The air was heavy.  The sun’s diffuse rays cast a soft light on the strange rock formations above.  I was thrilled, and I imagined Des was too.

Her real test came when the lightning started.  Raindrops had yet to fall, but the strikes were coupled almost simultaneously with deafening thunder claps.  I put boot to pedal and raced at 16 miles per hour toward a lone tree near the trail head.  My trusty transport and I were soon overtaken by the deluge, which hampered visibility and rendered the road a muddy mess.

The rain continued, but the lightning retreated along the final stretch of trail.  I reduced speed and played in the ruts before ending the ride.

“You’re growing on me, Des,” I might have said if I were weird enough to talk to a bike.  “Just don’t tell the Marin.”


Return to South Willow Lake takes the measure of an underestimated trek

Boo and West are like child versions of TV naturalist Jeff Corwin and survivalist Les Stroud.  In many ways, my boys are complete opposites, but when it comes to adventuring theirs is the perfect alliance of wide-eyed idealism and practical grit.  Wilderness is one place their personalities converge.  And though they’ve only done it once before, they consider the 12 mile round-trip trek to South Willow Lake the ultimate wilderness adventure.

What a view! Boo and West stand atop a ridge above South Willow Lake in Tooele County last weekend

The following originally appeared in the September 23, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

I didn’t want to jump into the lake. I really didn’t.  Not just because I find the idea of blindly submitting oneself to strange waters generally disturbing—or that my last encounter with this lake resulted in a bloody foot laceration.

No, it was much simpler than that.  Truth is, South Willow Lake is cold.  Freeze-your-tuckus-off cold.  No matter how long you’ve been hiking or how parched you are when you reach the lake, a dip in South Willow will always be several shrill notches past refreshing.

So what compelled this wary father to take the plunge?  Only the resolute declaration of his 7 year old son: “I’ll do it if you do, Dad.”

The internal debate ended there.  West and I waded out, counted to three, and dove in.

“I think you’re both nuts,” said 9 year old Boo as we climbed back to shore.  He was crouching intently over a puddle at the lake’s south end.   “Check this out,” he called, unwittingly stealing our thunder.  “This has got to be the weirdest bug I’ve ever seen!”

Boo and West are like child versions of TV naturalist Jeff Corwin and survivalist Les Stroud.  In many ways, my boys are complete opposites, but when it comes to adventuring theirs is the perfect alliance of wide-eyed idealism and practical grit.  Wilderness is one place their personalities converge.  And though they’ve only done it once before, they consider the 12 mile round-trip trek to South Willow Lake the ultimate wilderness adventure.

By strict geographical standards, the lake is small and rather unremarkable.  But like most alpine lakes, South Willow’s beauty is defined by its surroundings.  The lake is partially encircled by tall limber pines.  It lies at the foot of a sheer 10,685 foot glacial cirque in the heart of the Deseret Peak Wilderness.  Aesthetically, South Willow Lake is the crown jewel of the Stansbury Mountains.

The chameleon waters of South Willow Lake

Judging by various online trip reports, most people reach the lake by following the Mill Fork Trail from Loop Campground in South Willow Canyon.  Last year we took the more direct route from the Medina Flat Trail Head further down the canyon.  This route follows the Stansbury Front Trail to its junction with historic Mining Fork Road, which leads to the wilderness boundary and a final trail to the lake.  This is the steeper of the two options, but it covers more varied terrain and offers striking views.  We decided to take it again this year.

Most trail literature list a 6.8-7 mile round trip distance for the Mining Fork route.  I was skeptical of those numbers after last year’s hike, so I decided to measure it myself this time.  Using a GPS mapping app on my smartphone, I would record our entire track.

We began hiking late in the morning under clear skies and an uncommonly hot sun.  Boo took the lead and set the pace.  It’s his usual role, and he does it well.  The boys had resolved to carry their own gear the whole way.  A clear departure from the norm, it was yet another reminder to me that they’re growing up fast.  I hung behind and to listen to their trail banter.  Among other priceless tidbits, I learned that West is the best basketball player at recess and that Boo is now just as flexible in P.E. as his toddlerhood friend, McCall, who, amazingly enough, becomes less and less icky as time passes.

“Me and her are getting along a little better these days,” he said.

By the time we reached Mining Fork, I regretted packing our jackets.  This is my favorite section of the hike.  The narrow road is believed to have been built during World War II.  It traces the canyon bottom at a steady grade beneath a thick canopy of fir and spruce, passing the remains of collapsed mining cabins along the way.  At times, this road has certain aura that I’d describe as eerie, but that I’ve never been able to pin down.

The road eventually opens into a stand of aspens and a single track trail picks up at the wilderness boundary.  The cirque, which is unofficially referred to as South Willow Peak, looms constantly from this point.   At its foot, the lake is surrounded by a ridge; it isn’t visible until you’re standing on its shores.

The stretch from the wilderness boundary to the lake measured 2.4 miles with a 1,555 foot elevation gain.  It’s the steepest leg of the hike.  We rested often on this stretch, but stops were short—the boys were eager to reach the lake.  When we rounded the last ridge, they tossed their backpacks and waded in.  I checked my phone.  We had hiked 5.8 miles—nearly two miles further than the listed distance.

Our route to South Willow Lake. The push pins represent cool spots along the trail. Total one-way distance measured 5.8 miles (measured using My Tracks for Android)

West and I didn’t swim long.  There was no need to loiter in the frigid depths.  After a letting out the requisite victory howls, we moved onto the very important tasks of drinking warm Gatorade, eating smashed peanut butter sandwiches, and watching Boo’s weird bug drag lines in the mud.  Later, I taught them how to skip rocks.

With evening coming, Boo gazed up at South Willow Peak.  “We need to climb that sometime,” he said.  “I bet it’s cool up there.”

We reluctantly packed for the return trek.  Our legs were sore.  It was a sweet sore, the kind of sore you get from a good, long hike.  The boys were hesitant to leave, as they always are when it’s time.  Nothing’s better than hanging out lakeside after a hike, and nothing’s worse than the prospect of leaving.  In my mind, the end of this hike marked the end of summer.  Yellowing leaves on surrounding trees reinforced that notion.

I reset my GPS app.  When we arrived back at the trail head, the readings matched up—5.8 miles with a 3,364 foot cumulative elevation gain.

“How deep do you think that lake is?” West wondered on the way home.

“I don’t know, but I think I’ll try swimming next time,” Boo answered.

I think they’re both nuts.


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Martin Fork hike makes ideal prep course for tougher challenges

I finally understood the purpose of Dad’s conditioning hikes the first time I climbed Hades Pass with him.  I was exhausted by the end of that ascent, but the view of Grandaddy Basin from the top was breathtaking.  Making the moment even more poignant was the later realization that not only was Dad packing his own gear—he had been carrying most of mine, too.

Happy trails!

The following originally appeared in the September 9, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

For the analytically minded, there’s nothing more satisfying than being able to break down a complex circumstance into tidy causal chunks.  Of course, the impulse to dissect each and every condition can be maddening, especially when it comes to those that aren’t so cut and dry—such as love for the outdoors.

And yet I continue to try.  When I describe it here, I tend to illustrate those specific moments of actualization, like reeling in that big fish or watching that incredible sunset.  What’s sometimes overlooked—at least when pen hits paper—are the outwardly mundane, laborious processes that make such moments possible.

Nobody understands the principle of work before reward like my dad.  An avid backpacker, Dad lived for his summer treks to the High Uintas.  He’d begin preparing weeks before each trip—carefully organizing gear, transferring food items from their bulky retail packaging to Ziploc baggies, pitching his tent and taking it back down again.

Most curious to me were the walks he’d take around the neighborhood wearing his boots and fully loaded pack.  When I was about 10 years old, he gave me my own external frame pack and invited me along.  We’d tread for what seemed like miles, waving to amused neighbors as we passed.

I finally understood the purpose of these conditioning hikes the first time I climbed Hades Pass with him.  I was exhausted by the end of that ascent, but the view of Grandaddy Basin from the top was breathtaking.  Making the moment even more poignant was the later realization that not only was Dad packing his own gear—he had been carrying most of mine, too.  It was one of the more memorable adventures of my childhood.

My sons feel the same way about the climb to South Willow Lake in the Stansbury Mountains, which they’ve spoken of frequently since we made it late last summer.  Interestingly, their memories center on the few hours we spend at the lake itself, rather than the encompassing 6.8 mile round trip hike.  Yet were it not for those punishing miles, they wouldn’t recall the lake with such enthusiasm.

Since the two older boys and I will be returning to South Willow Lake in two weeks, I thought a short conditioning hike was in order.  A moderate climb in the Stansbury’s would reacquaint the boys both with the work and the reward that would ensue.  The 2 mile Martin Fork segment of the Stansbury Front Trail would be the perfect practice route.

The Stansbury Front Trail stretches 25 miles along the eastern face of the Stansbury Mountains between Clover Creek Campground and West Canyon, bordering the Deseret Peak Wilderness Area along most of its route.  The narrow single track dips into and climbs out of canyons like a roller coaster as it traverses rarely seen areas of range.  Though the more remote sections of the trail see mostly mountain bike and motorcycle traffic, day hikers frequent the mid-course trail heads at Big Hollow, South Willow Canyon, and North Willow Canyons.

We caught the trail at Boy Scout Campground in South Willow Canyon on Saturday evening.  The path rose sharply under a canopy of pines as we wound our way up to the canyon’s eastern ridge.  Boo, 9, and West, 7 scampered ahead while I nudged 4 year old Coulter along behind.

Coulter loves the mountains—he called the Stansbury’s “my mountains” when he was a baby—but he’s usually averse to hiking any further than about 20 yards.  The boy was kind to me that night; he walked a whole half mile before begging me to carry him.

“But I’m already carrying Deedle,” I told him, pointing to the 1 year old mini linebacker who was enjoying the ride from the comfort of his baby backpack.

Deedle’s presence served two purposes: conditioning weight and comic relief.  He squawked something unintelligible to his brother, which Coulter correctly interpreted to mean “back off, pal!”

From the ridge top, the trail bent southeast, offering a sweeping view that included Tooele Valley, Mining Fork Road, the glacial cirque that looms over South Willow Lake, and Deseret Peak.  Still visible below were The Narrows portion of the canyon road and the historic U.S. Forest Service cabin.  I had hiked this section of the trail before, but had never noticed that most of the canyon’s gems were viewable there in a single panoramic glance.

The glacial cirque above South Willow Lake, taken during last year's hike

When we caught up with Boo and West, they were chasing a snake through the brush.

“I got a good look at the tail,” Boo assured me.  “No rattle.  We’re good.”

A group of motorcyclists passed just before the trail dropped 400 feet to the bottom of Martin Fork.  By that point, the boys had managed to stow their sweaters and water bottles in the cargo pouch of Deedle’s pack.  Bring it on, I thought.  Conditioning.  I’ll end up with most of their gear on the big hike anyway.

The boys had mastered pacing by the time we headed back.  The lake hike will be longer and steeper, but they’d be ready to take it on.  Coulter, having finally realized that riding in my arms was not an option, made the return trip in good spirits and at decent speed.  We finished the evening off with snacks and a campfire at Boy Scout Campground. The cold front that had kindly waited to approach until we were done finally began to blow in.

“Man,” West said as he coaxed the a few last sparks from the dying embers.  “Nothing like a good hike, some pepperoni and a nice fire.”

Profound analysis from a young outdoorsman.

Martin Fork segment of the Stansbury Front Trail is accessible via posted trail head at Boy Scout Campground in South Willow Canyon.  Distance to the fork and back is approximately 4 miles.  The trail is narrow, featuring sharp rises and drops over non-technical terrain.  Trail head parking is available at the adjacent Medina Flat trailhead 1.7 miles from the Forest Service gate.  No fee is required.


Elusive crawdads provide good sport at Grantsville reservoir

“I say we get the hot dogs started,” Recommended Weston.

Cue the soundtrack’s dramatic measures.  The hot dogs were supposed to be the last resort.  To break them out now was to essentially admit defeat.  I resisted, but Coulter and Dillon seconded Weston’s motion, and it wasn’t long before First Mate Bridger joined his mutinous brothers.  I caved and lit the stove.

Weston, 7, wades into the choppy waters of Grantsville Reservoir during a windstorm on Aug. 7 while fishing for crawdads.

The following originally appeared in the August 12, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

“Anything, Dad?” asked 8 year old Bridger as I lifted my crayfish trap from the shallows of Grantsville Reservoir last Saturday.

“Empty again, pal,” I shook my head in disbelief. “Sheesh!”

A stiff wind swept northward across the lake’s geometric surface, sending white-capped waves tumbling erratically toward shore.  This was somewhat expected—Grantsville Reservoir’s location makes it a perpetually windy place.  But that evening’s winds came on the tail of a thunderstorm and were unusually harsh.

The normal weekend crowd had apparently taken note.  Our closest neighbors were a lone fisherman about 20 yards down shore and a black gull that hovered above us in passive flight.  I sunk the box-shaped trap again, too frustrated to notice the pleasant marriage of breeze and humidity, or to contemplate the way the both the lake and the distant Oquirrh Mountains reflected nearly the same deep blue hue.  The clock was ticking, after all.  There was no time for contemplation.

The sense of urgency reminded me of the Discovery Channel’s reality series, Deadliest Catch, which documents crab fishing in Alaska.  The show features scene after scene of cranes hoisting box-shaped traps called “pots” from the depths of the Bering Sea onto the decks of various crab boats.  Sometimes the pots emerge chock full of king crab.  Other times they’re nearly empty.  In the case of the latter, footage of the skipper’s disappointed grimace is accompanied with a somber narration from voice artist Mike Rowe.

“For Captain Clint and crew,” Rowe might have read from Saturday evening’s script, “Harvesting the elusive Orconectes virilis has proven especially difficult.”

Empty. Again.

Unlike Deadliest’s skippers, I wasn’t facing rogue waves, frigid subarctic overspray, or even foul-mouthed deckhands.  But what loomed for me was no less terrifying: the prospect of writing yet another column about getting skunked at Grantsville Reservoir.

Call it musings of a failed outdoorsman, I thought.

The boys and I had come to the lake hoping to net a bucketful of Northern Crayfish for some shore-side surf and turf.  That may seem odd, considering that ninety-eight percent of all crayfish harvested in the United States come from Louisiana bayous.  But the Cajun delicacy flourishes here too.

Crayfish—or crawdads, as I grew up calling them—can be found in many Utah lakes and rivers that don’t freeze to the bottom during winter.  The buggy crustacean prefers rocky, clear water bodies at elevations lower than 8,000 feet.  If I didn’t know better, I might say Grantsville Reservoir was created especially for its crawdad population.

But I do know better.  The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources considers crawdads an Aquatic Invasive Species because they eat fish eggs, displace native organisms, and otherwise wreak havoc the lake’s natural ecosystem.  As an eco-minded outdoorsman, subtracting a bucketful of the pesky crustacean from the habitat every now and then is the least I can do.

And I’m not alone.  Hordes of eager harvesters descend on the lake each summer to net the “poor man’s lobster.”  Most people catch them by combing the rocky shallows with fishing nets or angling for them with raw chicken parts tied to a string.  The box trap method is less prolific, but it’s catching on.  Most people boil them on the spot, since it’s illegal to remove live crawdads from the vicinity and dead crawdads only keep for about 10 minutes.

A wildly successful outing last summer left the boys and me with high expectations, so I was especially bewildered when we pulled into a nearly empty parking lot Saturday.  I stuffed the trap with plenty of chicken and a hot dog for good measure, then sank it in last year’s hot spot.  Bridger and Weston, 7, walked the shoreline.  4 year old Coulter pretended to be a pirate, as he normally does when he’s around water.  1 year old Dillon threw rocks.

Crawdads scurried visibly from crag to crag but were too deep to reach with nets.  Closer to shore, aggressive wave action blurred our view of the bottom, making the chase maddening and near impossible.  Bridger dove at a large crawdad and grabbed it with his hand, only to lose it with an incoming wave.  It was becoming quickly apparent why the usual crowd had stayed away.  Our last hope was the trap, which was consistently coming up empty.

“I saw a bunch of people here last week catching those things like crazy,” the lone fisherman commented as he reeled in for the evening.  The gull, having danced on the wind for two straight hours, decided to call it a day, too.

“I say we get the hot dogs started,” Recommended Weston.

Cue the soundtrack’s dramatic measures.  The hot dogs were supposed to be the last resort.  To break them out now was to essentially admit defeat.  I resisted, but Coulter and Dillon seconded Weston’s motion, and it wasn’t long before First Mate Bridger joined his mutinous brothers.  I caved and lit the stove.

“As night falls,” I could almost hear Mike Rowe say, “Captain Clint raises the white flag.”

Ironically, that was the moment my spirits began to rise.  With the burden of the catch lifted, I was free to notice the water’s darkening blue, and that it actually felt warmer than a swimming pool.  My pace slowed.  I smiled.  Perhaps I wasn’t a failed outdoorsman after all.

Naturally I hadn’t thought to pack buns or condiments, so we devoured our hot dogs plain.  After dinner, Weston waded down the boat ramp until he was in waist-deep—sweats, shoes, and all—then he stood and let the waves wash around him.  Bridger fashioned a makeshift fishing pole from discarded parts he had scavenged from the banks.  Coulter continued his pirate ways.  Dillon threw more rocks.

As the sun dipped behind the Stansbury Mountains, I pulled my trap for the last time.  Nothing.

“Those were the best hot dogs I ever had, Dad,” said Coulter, breaking character just long enough to reassure the ol’ skipper.  “And it’s ok—we can catch plenty of crop-dads tomorrow.”

Best hot dogs ever.


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A hike in the Uintas

The family and I spent some time last week in the Uinta Mountains.  Here are some video highlights from a hike between Washington and Haystack Lakes that I took with Boo, West, and Deedle (the hefty mancub rode on my back).

A storm turned us around just shy of Haystack, but you’ll see some decent footage of Washington, Tail, and Shadow Lakes.  Ever wonder why fathers and sons need these kinds of hikes?  Listen closely to West talking about his “best dream ever” in the final clip (transcript below the video box).


WESTON: Once I had a best dream ever.

DAD: Tell me about it, West

WESTON: There were these kids that- they didn’t have a house or a mom and they had to cry themselves to sleep.  And I came walking along and saw them, and then in a couple of days I helped them out.


Here’s  a map of the Washington-Haystack area:

Click to see interactive map of the area on ACME Mapper

By the way, I shot this video with a refurbished Flip Ultra HD camcorder that I bought cheap online.  Video quality is pretty good, though the editing tool for it leaves quite a bit to be desired.  I have yet to figure out how to convert mp4 to a format I can edit with real software.  Until I do, you’ll have to live with the oversized titles and simple cuts.


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Skull Valley springs spout from marvel of desert geology

The scale of Skull Valley’s secret water world is quite evident when viewed from the Stansbury foothills.  It’s much less apparent at ground level, where sporadic mirror-like surfaces visible from the highway are often the only hints of its existence.  The closure of most recreation roads on the east side of the highway for post-wildfire restoration offers an excellent opportunity to pay this unique ecosystem the attention it deserves.

A tributary runs through Skull Valley near Horseshoe Springs. Looking down on Skull Valley from the Stansbury Mountains shows a secret water world in the desert (photo by Clint Thomsen).

The following originally appeared in the July 27, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

Nothing says “desert” like a mouthful of dust.  Or an eyeful or a couple nostrils full, for that matter.  You might say I should have known better than to get out of my car so soon after stopping along a dirt road in the dead of summer—that I should have considered the mile-long dust wall that was cresting behind me like a giant breaking ocean wave.  I blame the lapse in judgment on curiosity.  Curiosity and the genius who posted a road sign typed in an 8-point font.

The sun had barely risen above the Stansbury Mountains and Skull Valley was awash with soft light.  I was about a mile out on the road that bisects the valley and leads to a place called 8 Mile Spring on the flanks of the Cedar Range.  No sooner had I shut my car door than the raging wall of alkaline particulate swallowed me whole.

Call it evidence of the desert’s endless ability to overwhelm the senses—a poignant reminder that out here things are rarely as they seem.

Take the landscape, for example.  At first glance, Skull Valley can appear to be completely desolate.    But a closer look reveals an array of natural oases where unorthodox fauna abound.

The scale of Skull Valley’s secret water world is quite evident when viewed from the Stansbury foothills.  It’s much less apparent at ground level, where sporadic mirror-like surfaces visible from the highway are often the only hints of its existence.  The closure of most recreation roads on the east side of the highway for post-wildfire restoration offers an excellent opportunity to pay this unique ecosystem the attention it deserves.

At the heart of Skull Valley’s wetland system is a collection of geothermal springs that issue warm, brackish water.  Though understated, these springs are a major component of Skull Valley’s geology.  They’re also the source of the valley’s original namesake—Spring Valley.

Historians haven’t definitively concluded on the reason for the name change, but it’s possible that “Skull Valley” also derives from the springs.  According to legend, Spring Valley became Skull Valley upon the discovery of an inordinate amount of buffalo skulls on the valley floor near the springs.  Local historian Don Rosenberg thinks an unusually harsh winter was to blame.

Rosenberg theorizes that heavy snows drew herds away from the mountains and down to the springs, whose warm surrounding terrain remains snow-free all year.  Once the all the exposed grass around the springs was eaten, the herds had nowhere else to turn and died where they stood.

Understanding the science behind these springs can be daunting—especially since no exhaustive study has been conducted on them.  Worse yet, geology is yet another facet of real life where my Political Science degree has proven less than useful.  Terms like “forced convection” and “Quaternary fault scarps” make me quake in my boots.

An unnamed pool near Iosepa. Look past the moss lining the pool-- that's crystal clear brackish heaven in there (photo by Clint Thomsen).

Fortunately, the guys at the Utah Geological Survey regularly make painstaking efforts to demystify these concepts for me.  UGS geothermal expert Robert Blackett described the recharge/discharge cycle to me as a function of precipitation, gravity and pressure.

The process begins in the mountains with rain or snow melt.  While much of this precipitation travels down toward the valley in streams, Blackett said a certain percentage percolates into the ground and seeps slowly downward through the bedrock via fractures.  When the water hits a geologic dead end, it’s forced back upward and is discharged from the ground as a spring.

In the case of thermal springs, water is heated by the earth’s interior as it travels.  A thermal spring’s discharge temperature depends on distance traveled and obstacles encountered along the way.  Deep-reaching water that rise quickly without mixing with cooler water discharges as a hot spring.

The Skull Valley springs are believed to mix with cool ground water before discharging as warm springs.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) defines a warm spring as any spring ranging in temperature between 68 and 122 degrees Fahrenheit.  The average temperature of the Skull Valley springs is 70 degrees Fahrenheit—about 8 degrees cooler than the average swimming pool.

The temperature and water chemistry differ slightly from spring to spring, but some are probably interconnected and all are brackish from the minerals they’ve picked up along the way.  Several support populations of planted fish.

According to UGS documents, Skull Valley’s 8 major thermal springs collectively discharge 30,000 to 50,000 acre-feet of water per year.  Discharge flows northward and eventually drains into the Great Salt Lake.  Blackett said the recharge cycle for thermal springs tends to much longer than that of cool springs.  Citing the lack of study of the area as a caveat, Blackett said it’s possible that the warm water discharged from the Skull Valley springs fell as precipitation as far back as the last Ice Age.

If you’ve been to Skull Valley, you’ve probably stopped at the twin Horseshoe Springs, which flow together to form a distinctive inverted “U.”  I grew up swimming in the deeper north spring.  Diving to the source with goggles was always an eerie endeavor, as it very literally is a portal to another world.

The Horseshoe Springs were designated a Federal Wildlife Management area in 1990.  The pools sustain a small population of carp and largemouth bass.  Fishing is permitted, but good luck catching anything.  This hole is famous for its belligerent fish.  Many an angler wonders if the bass there haven’t simply caught on to our hook-and-bait scam.

On my way home that morning, I stopped at Horseshoe Springs to pay regards to the elusive bass.  I considered jumping in for old time’s sake, but didn’t.  Hearing the gurgle of water against this barren backdrop was satisfying enough.


Some of Skull Valley’s springs are visible on the valley floor west of SR-196.  Some are located on private property, others on BLM land.  Horseshoe Springs is publically accessible year-round.  Bug repellent is a must. For more information, contact the BLM at (801) 977-4300.


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