Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

A long drive to massive hydroelectric energy in Canyon of the Dammed

Posted in California & Nevada by canyoneering on September 29, 2014

Canyon of the Damned.

Big Creek, aka Canyon of the Dammed, 3CIII
Sierra National Forest


According to google maps it is a 10.5 hour drive to Canyon of the Dammed, this first stop on our whirlwind Sierra-Nevada canyoneering tour. We actually picked this canyon because it has a shorter drive time than the pièce de résistance of the trip, Lower Jump Canyon. Leaving Phoenix after a full work day we know we have a nasty drive in store for us. With overheating issues those 10.5 hours become 12 and we pull off to the side of a dirt road to bed down for the night at 4:30 AM, just a few miles from Canyon of the Dammed. Three hours later we are getting our gear together. In an exhausted state I attempt to acclimate to my new surroundings. During those 679 miles we have left the desert and entered into a world of mountains, pine trees and massive granite features.

We set up our lower car shuttle in the town of Big Creek. The town has been built around Southern California Edison’s Big Creek Hydroelectric Project. We park a car not far from the powerhouse that creates hydroelectric power from the drainage that we will be descending. The structure is enormous and is one of 9 powerhouses generating a total capacity of 4 billion kilowatt hours a year, serving 4.3 millions customers in Southern California. It accounts for 12 percent of all hydroelectric power in California. It is fascinating to think we will be traveling through and be surrounded by the water and geography that makes all of that energy possible. We continue our drive through the town of Big Creek, not a person in sight at this early hour. The town appears to exist purely to serve the Big Creek Hydroelectric Project. We switchback on a paved road up over two thousand feet to Huntington Lake, a reservoir, also part of the Big Creek Hyrdroelectric Project. In California’s historic drought, the lake is frighteningly low. The lake is at a third of its normal level. Tree stumps from when the lake was created in 1912 are exposed and docks lay in dirt far from the shoreline. Check out this story from the Los Angeles Times with amazing photos showing the retreating Huntingon Lake. I begin to wonder for how much longer will the Big Creek Hydroelectric Project be able to provide electricity to charge all those smartphones and run all those air conditioners. In the more immediate future is there go to be all that much flow for our descent.

At the start of the approach, Cody walks by Huntington Lake. With the extreme drought in California you can notice how low the levels of the lake are.

At the start of the approach, Cody walks by Huntington Lake. With the extreme drought in California you can notice how low the levels of the lake are.

We throw on our packs and walk alongside pipes, rails and other various infrastructure, of the hydroelectric project. Much of it appears to have been long decommissioned. As we work our way down a steep slope into the Big Creek drainage we are pleasantly surprised to see it is flowing considerably higher than from what we could see when we parked our bottom car. We now suspect that what we were seeing was after much of the water had been pulled out of the drainage for the powerhouse. Two thousand feet above there is enough water that I am second guessing my decision not to have brought my additional neoprene vest.

We get in it and begin to work the down climbs, rappels and slides. It is a place dominated by granite, way slicker than the sandstone we are more accustomed to. The canyon itself never really tightens but the adventure is exciting just the same and the scenery magnificent as we work our way towards and then past the massive granite feature known as Kerchoff Dome. One rappel is particularly exciting with the line right through the water course. As the descent nears its end we move past more pipes, wires, bridges and a small dam. A few more rappels past this and we can begin to hear the loud hum from the powerhouse. As I change out of my wetsuit studying the imposing quality of the powerhouse I am buzzing from an exciting Class C descent. I can’t help but wonder if the drought could put an end to what I just experienced and make the entire Big Creek Hydroelectric Project irrelevant.

A summer full of canyon fun with the family

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim, Southern & Central Arizona by canyoneering on September 22, 2014

Wyatt clings to David to stay dry in Pine Creek in Tonto Natural Bridge State Park.

On this first day of Fall (even though it is sill triple digits here in Phoenix) it seemed like a good time to catalogue all the family fun we had these past four months in various drainages, canyons and lakes that until they were damed were free flowing rivers in canyons. Many hikes and strolls in the desert southwest will make their way into some form of canyons, drainages or washes. They are a dominant feature of this terrain. This summer’s family outings were no exception and it was such a joy to watch Wyatt experience and enjoy this quintessential part of our landscape.



Sin City weekend in Ice Cube Canyon

Posted in California & Nevada by canyoneering on September 15, 2014

Beautiful hallway.

Ice Cube Canyon, (The Maze) 3BIV
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area


Vegas, it’s where two swinging bachelors run away to for the weekend. Well, we aren’t exactly swinging bachelors and this isn’t exactly your typical Vegas weekend. No Blackjack, strip clubs, Penn and Teller and all you can eat buffets on this 48- hour romp in Sin City. Well actually, there was not one, but two all you can buffets that were hit up, but the marquee event of the weekend was a descent of Ice Cube Canyon, also known as the Maze in the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, just 20 miles from the Strip.

Its late on a Friday night and Eric and I roll into a second rate resort and casino, on the outskirts of Vegas, not far from the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Despite my online reservation we are given keys to a smoking room. I object, but am told it is all they have available. I try to guilt them in to giving us some sort of comps. I am told this isn’t the Strip and they don’t do comps. I walk away with keys in hand and tail between legs. I am a real high roller. We enter our room and it smells almost as bad as the casino floor where at midnight droves of senior citizens are smoking Pall Malls while playing the slots. I am annoyed but know in less than 8- hours I will be a world away.

Also not living.

No car shuttle for us, so we will have to make the 3500 ascent by foot. We hit the trail early to beat the worst of the heat. By the time the sun gets to us we are at elevation and the temperatures are quite manageable. The scenery is vast, really giving a sense to the size of wilderness in Nevada. We top out and cross the ridge, the entire Strip and its one of a kind skyline clearly visible. We drop into Ice Cube Canyon and immediately encounter an enormous group. I don’t recall their exact numbers, but it was approaching a baker’s dozen. Eric and I decide to delay putting on our wetsuits so we can get a jump and get in front of this group. When we wade into the first pool of water it is entirely comfortable. We reach a swimmer, submerge, exit and not a single chill in the body. We keep moving and soon realize the wetsuits we brought are unnecessary. We turn a few rappels into challenging down climbs and that group is long behind us.

It’s just us and the canyon now. Its spectacular and way skinnier than I was expecting. The down climbs keep coming and they are not easy. Normally water this clear and fresh is bone chilling. Recent monsoon rains and warm temps have created the perfect conditions for dark, slotty, Class B canyoneering. The canyon opens up for awhile affording outstanding views of the surrounding countryside. The canyon narrows again with more swims and rappels. We pass the keeper of Ice Cube Canyon, a massive skull and horns of a Big Horn sheep. It sits on a ledge and may weigh 40 pounds. Its size and weight keep it in place and deter it from becoming a Vegas souvenir, just the way it should be. A rappel, hallway, rappel sequence brings us to the desert floor. We boulder hop to pavement, stash our packs under a tree and jog the approximately two miles in the stifling triple digit temps. That is Eric’s idea, but I was all on board. It is an agonizing 20 minutes

Back at the resort, a shower, a few pre-game cocktails and these two bachelors are ready to hit the town. An all-you-can-eat buffet, some poker and a few laps around the casino floor and we are in bed by 11pm. Like I said not your typical Vegas weekend.



Posted in Uncategorized by canyoneering on September 1, 2014



As professional photographers Laura and I are both used to seeing our images published in print. From the pages of the New York Times to the Arizona Republic to USA Today our photojournalism and portraiture is printed on a regular basis. Our canyoneering photography has always been more of just a weekend warrior labor of love, so when we get these images published its kind of exciting. In the last four months we have had quite a few of these photographs published in various publications, including Arizona Highways, Red Bulletin magazine, Phoenix Magazine and the Arizona Republic. Check out the slideshow and in the captions you will be able to link to the trips these images came from.

One footnote, the story in the Arizona Republic was about the 50- year anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act. Arizona alone has 90 wilderness areas at over 4.5 million acres. Arizona Republic reporter Ron Dungan and I explored what lead to the United States becoming perhaps the first nation to designate land to preserve it solely for its wild character. We also looked at the conundrums of wilderness today and why wilderness is important for future generations. To read Ron’s story, a video I produced on four perspectives of people deeply connected to wilderness and a slideshow of my images highlighting Arizona’s magnificent wilderness click here.