Conquering Middle Parker Creek Canyon
Part I – "Chances of Survival are 725 to 1"
By Matt Marine, with Todd and Kenlynn Rijken, and Angel and Mike Lineberger
It Could be Worse
As I pushed my way through a thicket of tangled reeds, hip deep in black water, I couldn’t help but think of the “Trash Compactor” scene from the original 1977 Star Wars movie. For those of you who don’t remember it, Luke, Chewbacca and Han Solo had just rescued princess Leia from her prison cell and were trapped in the Death Star’s trash collection system. Locked inside a narrow (soon to become much more narrow) magnetically sealed room full of putrid junk and murky water, I remembered Leia’s iconic statement, “It could be worse.”
Then, after hearing something moving through the scrap heap, Han Solo turns to Leia, “It’s worse.”
Almost forty years later, I stood in the deep, black water and used my trekking pole to check the depth in front of me. The pole didn’t touch bottom. Yep, it’s worse.
I just hoped nothing slithered against my leg and pulled me down into the water’s murky depths as it did Luke in the movie. I moved forward, choosing to live in ignorance since I didn’t really want to know what was hiding beneath the water, living among the almost impenetrable reeds.
For those of you who don't remember it, I've included the trash compactor scene from the original Star Wars movie below.
Original 1977 Star Wars Trash Compactor Scene
Into the Canyon
At this point, the five of us, Mike, Angel, Kenlynn, Todd and I were only about a half-mile into what I am calling Middle Parker Creek Canyon. I was beginning to think this was a bad idea. Really bad. A little over a month ago, Mike, Angel and I had hiked Upper and Lower Parker Creek Canyon and those had been some of the best hikes I’ve ever been on. My brilliant idea was to head into the middle section of the canyon and hike back to the Sleeping Dog’s Grotto where we had to turn around during our trip along Lower Parker Creek Canyon. On that trip, we had been stopped by a 10 foot waterfall just beyond the grotto, but this time we would be going downstream and I was hoping we could climb down it.
That was the plan. As many of you know who have either been out with me (or read about) my previous adventures, for some reason my adventures usually don’t go as planned.
It had started out easy enough as we drove our Jeeps to a small clearing where the road meets Parker Creek. The drive was beautiful as the hills along both sides were a carpet of purple spring flowers. Once to the clearing, we parked and everyone grabbed their gear.
“How long do you think we’ll be gone?” Todd asked.
“Three hours,” I told him confidently. It was only about 2 miles round trip.
This was the first adventure Todd and Kenlynn had been on with me. I guess I didn’t do a good job at telling them about how I seem to routinely get in above my head on adventures like this. They would see this firsthand today. I had told them expect to get wet, we may be climbing down some waterfalls and not to bring their dog (I had left Cat-dog at home too), but I don’t think they really understood what we were getting ourselves into. Neither did I.
We headed into the rocky canyon and began our descent downstream. At this point, the creek was dry and we were in a shallow, open canyon. We would have to hike about a ½ mile to get to the narrows. I believed this section was going to be easy and a little boring. I was wrong.
Only after about 200 yards into the hike, I asked Mike if he had brought his rope with him. He shook his head. In one of the few smart decisions I made all day, I asked if he could go back to the Jeep and grab it. I wanted to have it just in case. In about two hours, we would all be very glad he did.
While Mike was retrieving the rope, we spent some time photographing a pale toad hiding among the rocks. He was a handsome creature and we would be lucky enough to see a few more of these little guys during our hike.
What a Swampy Mess I’d Gotten Ourselves Into
Mike returned with the rope and we continued downstream. Not too far away, we began to hit small patches of reeds and cattails. When someone mistakenly bumped a fully loaded cattail, it would send its snow-like seeds into the air creating a cattail snowstorm. In some places, the air would become thick with these floating seeds and you had to be careful not to inhale them.
Making our way through the reed and cattail swamps
At first, these patches were little more than a muddy nuisance. But as the canyon began to narrow, they became almost impassible thickets of vegetation that hid pools of deep, black water. I was wishing I had Luke’s lightsaber to hack my way through the thick mass of reeds.
We all tried to keep our feet from getting wet, but that soon became impossible. Angel was the first to succumb, the rest of us following shortly after. Then as more water flowed into the canyon and the walls began to narrow even more, the pools became deeper still. Soon, more than our feet were getting wet. This experience is fairly unusual for Arizona, especially as the water was numbingly cold, one I don’t think any of us were really prepared for.
Climbing over small obstacles
Those of us with longer legs were at an advantage here.
"As we waded through the waist-high deep water, I couldn’t help but wonder what else lay underneath the surface of murkiness after seeing large spiders crawl their way through the reeds. I secretly hoped I wouldn’t feel a slithering up my pant leg."
“It’s only a little over knee deep over here,” I would call back to the group and receive well-deserved moans from those who knew the water would be up to their waist. As most of you who have ever experienced cold water before, you understand that getting wet up to one’s knees isn’t too bad, but cold water hitting your nether regions is a different matter all together. I am so proud of everyone in the group who met this challenge head on and with good spirits and humor. It took a lot of guts to be waist deep in dark water, with reeds, rocks, mud, sand, slimy branches and who knows what swimming around your legs.
I looked at my watch. We had spent about an hour and a half traveling less than ½ a mile. This was not going to be a three hour hike. But I refused to believe that it wasn’t going to get better and easier going downstream. I did a quick poll. Continue on or head back the way we came? It was a unanimous decision to keep pressing forward. No one wanted to slog our way back through the reed swamps behind us.
We continued on. The canyon walls gradually became steeper and higher. Options for going around obstacles became less numerous to non-existent. We moved forward, one slow step at a time. After another 30 minutes or so, Mike, who was leading the way through one particularly dense and deep reed pool, called out, “We’ve got a problem.”
Not only did he have the wrong movie script (Apollo 13 vs Star Wars), but my heart fell as defeat seemed likely. I passed the others and made my way as quickly as I could through water up to my belt line.
We had reached a 15 foot waterfall that fell off into a deep pool. It was most likely chest deep for me, which meant it might be swimming depth for some of the others in the group. If that wasn’t bad enough, getting down would require using the rope Mike had brought. But getting down wasn’t what I was worried most about. It was getting back up. If we ran into something like a 30 foot waterfall downstream that couldn’t be negotiated, we would have to backtrack and find a way up the waterfall. We would have to leave the rope there to ensure an escape route, leaving us without it for the rest of the trip. Even so, I wasn’t too confident in our ability to climb back up the waterfall even with the rope’s help.
We talked about options for a while, finally deciding we would send the always dependable Mike down the rope and he would survey the route ahead of us to see if there were any un-climbable obstacles (bad) or possible canyon exit points (good). Mike took off his back pack ran the rope around a well-placed tree and repelled down into the water with only an FRS radio and knife on him. He attempted to look for other ways for us to get down without having to swim, but it didn’t look good. Checking radio signals, we sent him alone through the water, around the canyon’s narrow walls and into the unknown. I felt as though he were Han Solo heading off to find Luke on the frozen world of Hoth in the Empire Strikes Back. I imagined C-3PO and R2-D2 standing next to me watching him leave, with C-3PO stating, “Artoo says that the chances of survival are 725 to 1.”
Mike climbing down the waterfall
Click here for Part II
Click here for Lower Parker Creek Canyon Adventure
Click here for Upper Parker Creek Canyon Adventure
Click here for Tale of Two Canyons feature story
Additional and Full-Sized Pictures From the Trip
Although the reeds and cattails along the canyon's bottom were beautiful, they were tough to hike through
Trying to stay dry during the start of the hike. This didn't last long.
Todd and Mike keeping a sense of humor while slogging through the reed filled canyon
Fields of yellow flowers along A Cross Road
Flowers and Cactus
Our friend the toad of Parker Creek Canyon
Todd and Angel negotiating the canyon bottom
The canyon near the beginning of the hike
Kenlynn and Todd making their way through the reeds and cattails
What we hiked through. The water could be inches or feet deep under the reeds. You didn't know until you got there.
Angel, standing on some firm reeds
Kenlynn climbing off a boulder into the water. Todd, waiting his turn.
A water bug with eggs covering her back
Looking into Upper Parker Creek Canyon
The purple flowers next to the road
Grassy parking area
Have you been on this adventure? What did you think? Comments and updates welcome by clicking here.
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