Icy travel across the Dolores
GATEWAY, Colorado – It’s unusual for the high point of a hike to come right at the start, but perhaps that’s fitting for a placed called Gateway.Our destination to celebrate the New Year holiday was Juanita Arch, a bit less than two miles up Maverick Canyon off the east side of the Dolores River, starting about seven miles south of Gateway.Right away, we had to cross the river. It was not a pleasant prospect in 12-degree weather, but we gamely brought a couple of sets of hip waders and walking poles to be ready.As we parked the car, we could see the Dolores flowing through ice-rimmed rocks, probably just a few inches deep, but with a respectable current and lots of ice. We also knew there was a big gravel bar a bit upstream, so we headed that way until we found a path to the river hammered through the tammies by grazing cattle.From here, we were surprised to see a broad expanse of windswept ice, bank to bank and stretching upstream at least a quarter mile. Here was an easy crossing, but could we trust it?One by one, we stepped out on the ice, knocking with our poles and taking it one slow step at a time. The ice held all the way. It was like walking across pavement, an astounding experience in desert country. Nothing to it, really.Once on the far side, we dumped the pack holding the waders and headed on up into Maverick Canyon. This is deep canyon country, with tall cliff walls of red sandstone standing atop slopes of rock rubble, pion and juniper. The four inches of fresh snow highlighted the reds and greens beautifully and accentuated the slopes like a layer cake.We easily walked through the snow wearing winter boots. On the trail, we began to see the downward-headed tracks of a bighorn sheep. We also spotted the tracks of chipmunks and rabbits, and came across a summer bird’s nest in a small chokecherry grove at a seep. All bundled up, the four of us were warm as long as we kept moving.But crossing a frozen river and hiking in 12-degree temperatures weren’t the only odd things about this trip. We also had no maps. The evening before, at the home of our friends in Grand Junction, we scoped out the entire hike on Google Earth, using DeLorme’s large-scale “Colorado Atlas & Gazetteer” to get oriented. Although Google Earth provided a summertime view, we could see the gravel bar crossing, and we could see how Maverick split about a mile up the trail, and we would take the left fork to reach the arch.The trail up to the arch was also easy to follow, but having visually toured the hike the evening before lent a modern route-finding advantage to our journey into this age-old landscape.About the time we were ready for lunch, we spotted a perfect spot on a sandstone bench below a tall cliff. As we reached the bench, we crossed a swath of windblown, crusted snow on a smooth, level slab of sandstone. A plodding series of very round footprints crossed the snow. The last one was distinct, a mix of ice and snow, clearly the pawprint of a mountain lion. We stepped around it and took photos. Once we stood on the small bench, we looked across the narrow canyon and there was the arch, right in front of us, spanning the dry creekbed.As we wolfed our quesadillas and remnants of holiday fudge, we debated the arch vs. bridge definition. Juanita is more a bridge than an arch, as it crosses over a stream, but it remains labeled on maps as an arch.At 12 degrees, under a gray sky, the little heat we’d worked up on the upward hike quickly faded. We played around under the arch, looked for more lion tracks, and then headed back down the canyon.Back at the river, we lingered out on the ice, now trusting it. We posed for photos and goofed a bit, until a loud crack sounded from the ice. We never saw a crack line, but we scuttled off the ice and back over to the west bank.Bitter cold, an ice crossing, wild animals tracks in snow and ice, a broad bridge of rock, solitude and silence all made for a lovely destination to say goodbye to the old year and celebrate the new.
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