Mountain Sheep Canyon - August 2002


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Mountain Sheep Canyon
August 13, 2002
Lake Elevation: 3632’

Mountain Sheep, like many other canyons at Lake Powell, is formed from the signature Navajo Sandstone, rounded and salmon in color. Here we are near the top of the Navajo, and close to where it breaks into other, more crumbly red formations like the Carmel. Up on top of the thin Carmel lie other layers, some hard and vertical, others softer and eroded, all capped by the tough Morrison Formation, or as the Anasazi whimsically called it, the “MoFo.” That’s the rock that forms those mesa tops you see in Ford truck ads or old John Wayne movies.

A butterfly just flitted above the houseboat—odd to see one here at all—but now has floated somewhere up Mountain Sheep Canyon. It was tough to find a good spot in the low rounded sandstone, because there are very few beaches at this lake level. Higher water levels, even 30 feet higher, would make this place a houseboater’s paradise. But we had to settle for a marginal little nook, more like an uncovered garage than a beach. And though we are well-anchored on the surrounding rocks, the boat’s pontoons float freely. That means wind or passing motorboats kick up waves that could sink the Edmund Fitzgerald. Crash, boom, bang! The ropes slack, then tighten and strain. We look up, hoping the anchors hold, which we make sure they do, buried as they are in a pile of boulders.

Mountain Sheep Canyon begins without fanfare, but it sneaks up on you, if you let it. It’s one of the narrowest slot canyons I’ve seen here, and you’d never guess from its wide pimply rock outlet to the lake that it’s hiding one of the real gems of Lake Powell. You start by winding past docked houseboats, occasional jet skiers and stray tents pitched on the white sandstone shore, stained with Powell’s pervasive low water bathtub ring. But soon the walls close in, at times down to 10 feet, but the boat moves forward, on and on. Will this thing ever end? And will we be able to turn around and get out?

But the labyrinth finally does end in a convenient little beach. We continue on foot. The path remains a slot, 10-15 feet wide, a flat sandy bottom with a spring-fed trickle pushing to join the lake. Go back, there’s no hurry! But the little stream is relentless, just as stubborn as we are to move against its meager current.

The canyon narrows. Ten feet becomes 8, then shrinks to 5 in places. Then comes the real test. The canyon is filled, wall to wall, for an unknown distance, with dark, cold, brackish water. Depth: unknown. We continue slowly, in single file, carefully stowing cameras in a clear plastic float bag designed for this purpose. Nayyer goes first, and we take notes with our eyes. First the water laps at his knees, then his waist, which elicits a little gasp: “They’ve got Mr. Miyagi!” Sure enough, but we follow anyway, understanding the fate that awaits.

But the dank slimy pool soon gives up after about 100 feet or so. Not too bad, but not so fast—here comes another one. This second pool stops Nayyer in his tracks. Again, the water is murky and the depth unknown, impossible to tell its length either, because the narrow defile twists to the left after the first 10 feet. One thing is certain, though: this water smells like.... And for good reason—it is glazed with… the collective byproduct of all life forms upstream of this point. We hold our breath, and knowingly plunge through Nature’s Septic Tank. The consequences cannot be considered or the hike would end now. Thoughts of course turn to the worst—Mr. Miyagi’s inevitable sewer dip.

I go first. Follow the inside wall, I think, because that’s where’s the sand is deepest—and the water shallowest? So far, so good…then a drop! I push the scum away, but now I’m waist deep—too late! Water-walking bugs congregate in large numbers, oblivious to our horrified disgust. What I’d give right now to be one of those water walkers.

But we soon emerge into rocky dryness, and at this point the third pool in the chain is child’s play. Bring it on! We leave the shirts and backpacks behind, bracing for the worst, confidence building with every putrid plunge.

But the worst doesn’t happen. Instead, we start looking up rather than down, and marvel at the narrow twists, the walls taking the form and color of melting Neapolitan ice cream. Small boulders are underfoot, easily traversed, even as they steadily increase in size. Nowhere to go but forward or back—there is no left or right, just a path on which it is impossible to lose your way. The midday sun barely registers on the highest reaches of the narrow canyon, maybe 60 feet above us. Blue skies peak through at the top, which is a good thing too, because in a flash flood, we’re as good as dismembered, pulverized, pureed and possibly vaporized. Not good for us, but good for the next hikers, who will have the great advantage of a recently flushed septic system. The pools will be scoured clean, and our remains will have disappeared into the millions of acre-feet of Lake Powell...

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