Jamie Stott

Guest Post: Wilderness Volunteers in Dark Canyon

October 20, 2015, by Ralph Burrillo, category Ramblings

Have you ever tried herding cats? Very loud cats? Working with volunteers can be like that.

So you’ll appreciate my sense of inflated, almost explosive joy at getting to lead a volunteer crew of some of the coolest people I’ve ever met on a week-long expedition into the foreboding backcountry of Dark Canyon – for the second time in as many years. And it just keeps getting better.


Wilderness Volunteers (WV) is an enormous, non-profit organization operating out of Flagstaff, Arizona (not surprisingly – that’s where all the best things operate out of) that orchestrates upwards of a couple hundred volunteer trips per year in a variety of wilderness settings across the US. Each trip consists of one or two trip leaders and up to ten volunteers. They work closely with federal land management agencies, and it’s usually a representative of the agency that decides what the crew is going to do and how they’re going to go about doing it. On one trip, say, a crew will be working in a national forest in Alaska while the local ranger and his/her cadre direct them on how to rebuild rotting log bridges while fending off bears. On another trip the gang will be on Bureau of Land Management lands in Colorado building or reconstructing trails. Most of WV’s trips are like that: outdoor labor, manual if not back-breaking, in spectacular wilderness settings.

And then there’s the Dark Canyon trip. Once a year, in the fall, two trip leaders and ten lucky volunteers get to spend seven days and six nights in one or another impossibly remote stretch of high-desert abyss somewhere in Dark Canyon. The sorts of places that would make Thoreau cry over his oatmeal. Abbey’s country. And there they get to survey areas that have never been surveyed, and record and/or monitor sites of nearly every Southwestern persuasion. So far as I’ve been able to ascertain – from menacing the trip leaders with a barrage of questions – it’s the one and only WV trip in the country that consists of participating in the act of archaeology rather than manual labor, except the obvious labor involved in schlepping heavy backpacks and gear over rocky terrain into a place most people don’t even know exists. It is also, always and invariably, an incredible experience for all involved.

A little about Dark Canyon: set in the northwestern corner of the Monticello District of Manti-La Sal National Forest, in the center of a geographical triangle formed by Natural Bridges and Elk Ridge and Canyonlands, the Dark Canyon Wilderness is about as close as you can get to Conan Doyle’s Lost World this side of Venezuela. The closest town of any size is Blanding, from which it’s half an hour by paved road, followed by almost two hours on dirt roads, followed by anywhere from two hours to two days hoofing it to reach the bottom of Dark Canyon itself – and that’s from Blanding. To get there form anyplace civilized is considerably harder. Add into that how roads leading to the trailheads from Elk Ridge or Canyonlands are often impassable for mud during monsoon season (July and August) and impassable for snow for almost half of the rest of the year, and the logistics of conducting archaeological investigations there become nightmarish. Add into that the epic size of Dark Canyon and its equally imposing tributaries, along with the fact that none of this considerable area has the slightest trickle of running water, and the logistics of doing practically anything down there become downright laughable.

Which is what makes it so appealing. Unfortunately, it also means that archaeological investigation simply doesn’t occur there. For even a modest crew of five field archaeologists to spend a week conducting survey down there, no less than 70 gallons of water has to be either helicoptered or hauled by horses into basecamp, unless everyone feels like crowding around a meager spring purifying that much water over a week’s time with hand-held filters (more on that in a moment). They also need food, a week’s worth of fuel, all the usual sundries of backpacking, and of course archaeological field gear – GPS’s, compasses, clipboards, cameras, and forms and forms and forms. The remoteness and ruggedness of the place means the first and last days are for travel only, and federal agencies are often loath to approve overtime, leaving three out of five working days during which our intrepid archies can investigate and record. And then only during three or four months out of the year, depending on the weather.


My supervisor and I globbed this all together just for fun, one afternoon, and given all these constraints we surmised that the Dark Canyon Wilderness could be adequately, systematically surveyed by a competent crew of field archaeologists starting today and ending in about AD 2300, +/- about 100 years.

That’s if anyone was doing it, of course. Nobody is.

The Forest Service does their best, and far be it from me to criticize the institution that pays and treats me so well; they simply have neither the budget nor the manpower. That’s where volunteers come in. I’ve heard that if it wasn’t for volunteers, management of National Parks alone would fall apart. I worked for the NPS in Glen Canyon for four years, and although I think the aforementioned sentiment might be just a tad extreme I’ll also be the first to admit that without volunteers there would have been one hell of a lot of work not getting done.

And so, many a year ago, WV teamed up with the Manti-La Sal district archaeologist and together they decided that, for one week out of the year, a crew totaling fifteen people (including three USFS archaeologists) would descend into the depths of Dark Canyon and take ever so many tiny slices out of the impossibly large imminence of its archaeological potential. And what potential! You’ll see none – or very little, anyway – of the eye-catching architectural opuses characteristic of places like Mesa Verde or nearby Cedar Mesa, what my supervisor calls “braille” sites, but the wealth of intriguing archaeology there is positively Scrooge McDuckian. You could drown in it. Lithic scatters with unusual Archaic components, ceramic assemblages with sherds that look like one style and are decorated with another, granaries in places where corn would scream and run away… it’s a giant puzzle. And for one week we get to see just a fraction of a piece of it. It’s enough, believe me.

This year we arranged base camp near a spring known to be pretty reliable. We approached it from two angles: myself, my supervisor, and our seasonal tech hauled all the heavy equipment about halfway along the canyon bottom by ATV until we reached the non-motorized zone, then hauled it the rest of the way on horseback with help from a couple more Forest Service folks. I rode a horse part of the way, a wily equestrian swine of a thing name Tazz, but mostly we walked and led the horses. We had heavy backpacks on and they made it difficult to sit upright atop a horse in any event, especially atop one such as Tazz. On the other hand, one of our helpers got to ride a gorgeous young Arabian from Moab – I forget its name – and after meeting that one I kinda want to buy a horse.

The volunteers and trip leaders came down via a connecting trail, hauling their personal goods on their backs, and we met and set up basecamp in a spot as close to the spring as possible that would also accommodate so many people. Which is to say: we set up base camp about half a mile from the spring. The dirty, muddy spring. By the end of the second day we were already sick to death of using hand-operated filters to purify gallons upon gallons of water and haul it back to camp in bottles and cooking pots. By the third day, mud and silt had infiltrated our filters to a point far beyond the recommended specifications, and most of them failed. Our primary trip leader had with him some advanced water treatment chemicals, along with his personal MSR Vioxx, and with these we managed to get by the rest of the week rendering the brownest “drinking water” you ever could imagine.

Meanwhile my supervisor split the gang into two crews – a large, primary crew that would accompany he and the tech recording sites that had been identified on previous trips, and a smaller crew consisting of the heartiest members that would accompany me on remote survey into the savage backcountry. He dubbed our team The Explorers.

I’m not sure what he dubbed his own team. So for a total of five days I led a crew of four, including the two trip leaders (one of whom is in his 60s, the other in his 70s, and my good god almighty are those impressive specimens), up slopes and across benches and down cliffs and around pour-offs and through tangled stands of scrub oak and manzanita until we all looked like we’d resigned our given professions to become a team of badger wrestlers. We couldn’t get enough of it. And we came across some rather arresting finds.

The highlight for me was on “free day.” During the middle of the week, the trip leaders customarily designate a day off in which the volunteers can wander around, be lazy, or work on an ongoing project as their whimsy dictated. The only rule is you have to be in a group of at least three, unless you’re going to sit around camp reading; and you have to tell them where you’re going. My supervisor and the tech decided to keep recording sites, and several eager learners went with them to continue lapping up the trade. A few smaller teams broke off to go on photography hikes and to see if they could find any slightly less-muddy water sources. Myself and two others, including the primary trip leader, decided to climb a nearly sheer cliff to investigate what looked like a cave set into an even sheerer cliff at an impossibly high remove from the canyon floor.

It took us almost half the day just to reach a bench directly underneath the thing, from which we discerned that we couldn’t possibly access it from beneath, although on that bench we found an unmistakably mid-Puebloan potsherd and a sandstone grinding slab. So we knew there must be something inside it.

We spent another hour or so clambering around the front of the battleship-shaped landform in which the high alcove was set, then up on top of the landform itself using a lot of leaning tree trunks as ladders (and getting a lot of pine sap in our faces as a result). From there, we edged our way back along a ledge until we were just over where we guess the cave to be, dropped down onto a single jutting slab of rock, and halted. About twenty feet to our right was the cave, and indeed there were the remains of tumbledown walls and even some upright posts still in place. Separating us from it was a ledge that began about two feet wide, narrowed down to about six inches for nearly a yard, and then widened back out into the cave’s mouth. And bracketing that yard-long, six-inch-wide segment of ledge: sheer rock wall on one side, and a sheer 100-foot drop on the other.

We were downcast. Sort of. Actually we were delighted even to have made it that far. My GPS told me we’d ascended no less than 1,500 feet from the canyon floor at a nearly vertical climb, and the views from where we stood attested to that most gloriously.

Still, we all wished we could have set foot inside the cave and seen what was in there. Nobody had entered it since it was abandoned over a thousand years ago, of that we were certain. The area was surveyed by helicopter in the 1970s, with the result of a bunch of dots on a map representing architectural features that may or may not be reachable by future archaeologists, and even they hadn’t spotted this cave. But there was no getting into it, and no getting nearer than where we stood on a high and windy sandstone outcrop. I stripped some of the duct tape that was holding my boots together and used that to lash my camera to the end of a long stick the trip leader found for me…

…set the 12-second delay, and then leaned as far as I dared out over certain doom to try and angle the camera into the cave. Using this method I was able to see deeper into the cave than any of us could safely see from where we were – at least without taking a running dive off the slab and getting a fantastic  look for the last half-second of mortal life – but that still only captured roughly the front one-third of the whole. The rest was a mystery, and so it shall remain. At least until my supervisor gets those jetpacks he’s been talking about ordering since last year.

And that’s Dark Canyon. That’s why we were there. That’s a tiny glimpse of what my Explorer team saw; the other team recorded some jaw-dropping assemblages that included one or two of the most exquisite projectile points I’ve ever seen. Then we packed our gear, buried the slit trench, scattered and dispersed the fire ring, and – by hooves both human and horse – made our way back to our vehicles and home.

So maybe Wilderness Volunteers thinks they owe us for taking a week out of our busy Forest Service schedules to herd a team of cats into the back of beyond for a week of on-the-fly training and gritty water, but I certainly hope not. The reality is that we owe them. The agency owes them for their being available to help survey one of the most un-surveyable places I know of, and I owe them for giving me an excuse to spend an entire work week being the sort of “archaeologist” that limps home with stories of genuine adventure. Either way it’s an ideal partnership that I hope never to see divorced.


This was a guest post by my colleague, and good friend, Ralph Burrillo.

Ralph Burillo

Ralph has spent a majority of his time working down in the four-corners region, and is an avid seeker of remote Fremont and Puebloan sites. He takes some amazing photos of things some of us have only ever dreamed of seeing. If you have any questions or comments for Ralph, you can reach him at rburrillo@gmail.com. 

So, what do you think ?