LittleBookCliffs water

“These twisting canyons contain trickling desert streams graced by cool cottonwoods and Douglas fir in their upper reaches.  Plunge pools and waterfalls frequent the canyons.”

I brooded on the description from our guidebook as I slowly climbed up the canyon.  I glanced again at the “stream bed” in the valley to my right- still nothing but sand.  We had enough water to last the afternoon, but not enough for dinner, or for the hike out the next day.  If we didn’t find water soon, in this land of so-called “plunge pools and waterfalls,” we would have to turn around and return to Main Canyon to drink from its inch-deep tadpole-infested pools of alkaline water.  Our planned loop hike would need to be abandoned.

LittleBookCliffs water 2
Stream bed crossing. Note the distinct lack of plunge pools and waterfalls.

The trip so far had been a lot of fun.  Laughing the day before, we had jokingly come up with a forbidden Word That Must Not Be Spoken.  The rules were clear- say The Word That Must Not Be Spoken, and you had to carry the group garbage bag.  Needless to say, we had spent the day using The Word That Must Not Be Spoken at every possible opportunity.  I was the current owner of the garbage bag.  Now we were no longer laughing.

The map showed a spring, imaginatively named “Spring Creek Spring”– this gave me some hope.  But the map also labeled the sandy ditch beside me “Spring Creek,” so I didn’t have as much hope as you might expect.  Tired and discouraged, we dropped our packs to rest.  As morning gave way to afternoon, we were running out of time, out of options, and out of water.

Dispirited, I announced I was leaving my pack behind.  I would walk up without it in a last-ditch effort to find water.  Freed from the weight, I moved much faster up the trail.  Still, I was running out of energy and enthusiasm when I hit the side trail coming in from the left.  Curious, I followed it excitedly into a small ravine.  I was very near where the alleged spring was marked on our map.  Looking down, I saw wild horse tracks.  “They have to drink!” I thought to myself as I hurriedly followed the trail.  The tracks, now in hardened mud (mud?!) became easier to follow.  A sharp scent caught my nostrils.  It smelled like… clay?  Wet clay?  I rounded the corner to a tableau of mud.  The clearing was filled with it, patterned with hoof marks, each indentation filled with gray water.  And in the center of it, rising up from the middle of the mud, was a shiny metal tank.  And inside… inside…

Well…

There was an awful lot of green algae.  An awful lot.  The putrid green mass filled the tank.  But underneath it was unmistakably water.

LittleBookCliffs water 3

Water!

Our trip was saved!

There was plenty of water to fill our packs for the rest of the trip. No retreat to the hot openness of Main Canyon.  No need to cut short our loop.  

Water!

I rushed back to the packs and gathered up the dispirited group.  I eagerly re-climbed the trail up the hill, no longer caring about the steepness or the heavy pack.  My sour mood had changed for the better.

Water!

Water!

Back in reality, we all looked skeptically at the emerald froth in the tank, before pushing it aside to make room for the water filter.  The algae was not just on the surface– brown, green, and red tendrils filled the trough, but we had confidence in our water filter.  After pumping a quart of liquid refreshment, I raised the water bottle triumphantly to my lips, tilted my head back, and drank greedily.

LittleBookCliffs Water hero

Gulp

Gulp

I chugged down the water, eager to quench my daylong thirst.  As I continued to drink, I watched from the corner of my eye as Kevin led Sky, one very thirsty dog, over to the water.  Sky sniffed, turned her head aside.

Gulp

Gulp

Gulp

I kept drinking as Kevin coaxed Sky back to the trough.  “Drink up Sky, drink up,” he instructed.  But the dog would have none of it.

Gulp

Gulp

Wait a minute– why wasn’t the dog drinking?

Gulp

Gulp

And then I noticed the taste.

I’ve never been that good at describing tastes or scents.  Acrid?  A funny taste on the roof of my mouth and the back of my tongue?  Cloying?  Simultaneously sharp and greasy?  A putrid tang?  All that I can tell you is that it’s been two and a half years since I’ve drank that water, and although vocabulary fails me, the memory alone makes me retch.

And retch I did.  With three-quarters of the quart down, I gagged once, twice.  I brought the bottle back up to my mouth, and found I could not drink another swallow.

We finished filling up the remainder of our bottles, choking down whatever quantity of the foul-smelling liquid that we could.  We were finally able to coax Sky into drinking.  Joking around at how bad the water tasted, we hefted our packs, weighted down even more with over a gallon apiece.  

“This water tastes like ass!” Kevin exclaimed.

In one smooth motion I swung the backpack off my shoulders, opening the top zipper before it even touched the ground.  In less time than it took to gag, Kevin’s pack held the garbage bag.  

The Word had been spoken.

And the name stuck.  We tried Gatorade and other drink mixes, but nothing nothing could remove the taste.  And there were no plunge pools.  No waterfalls.  In the desert of the Roan plateau, there was nothing else to drink.

For the next two days, we drank Ass Water.

LittleBookCliffs water 4
How thirsty are you, Kevin?

LittleBookCliffs water 5
Making the best of it

LittleBookCliffs water 6
Ass Water – bad enough to make a Golden Retriever cry