A First-Timer's Attempt at Packrafting Utah's Escalante River
Adventure photographer Thomas Woodson documents his first time packrafting on one of the Southwest's most iconic waterways
Canon 7DmkII with Tamron 11–16mm f/2.8 lens
Dropping off her boyfriend at the airport for his Denali trip, Jessica said, “I think I want to paddle the Escalante this weekend.” To which Sam replied, “Thomas has a boat, make him go. He might say no at first, but be persistent.” He knows me too well.
It’s not the first time my best friend has tricked me into challenging things. And though I didn’t know Jessica well I figured what better way to get to know her than an entire day’s drive across the west, plus a four hour bike ride back to the put-in to start everything off. All of this just to paddle 40 miles of the Escalante River in Utah. But hey, I knew it’d be damn well worth it. The flow right now is rare—a packrafter’s delight. Our little inflatable boats would do just fine.
With flow meters reading in the single digits and the ranger station telling us it was “low to mid thigh” depths at the Neon Canyon put in, the perfect recipe for a long weekend on the river was right in front of us. Plus the mellow pace was perfect for me to fumble through this new-to-me sport, playing bumper cars with rocks in the small rapids, and trying my hardest to match Jessica’s smooth, seasoned lines.
We paddled each day until the sun dipped low and the next soft beach revealed itself. I walked barefoot as my clothes dried, basking in the last warm glow before the cool evening overtook us each night. Sleeping bag in the sand, stove within reach and fast asleep by moonrise—this was truly the simple life.
Traveling only twelve to fifteen miles per day—with lots of floating—meant we always had time for detours. Side canyons provided splitter crack bouldering, beautiful reflection pools, and strange sounds echoing from deeper than we wanted to hike. A lifetime wouldn’t be enough to experience it all.
There is this gut sinking feeling I always get as a new chapter comes to an end. Realizing that soon, details will fade from present to past with lacking vividness. I live for the feeling of every sense being so engaged in the present, in experiencing. I thought this was something only achieved through great endurance or risk, but now I found it somewhere else. In the stillness and quiet, deep down in this little crack in the desert. Another new special place on my list.