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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Fortitude Overcomes Folly In Southwest Utah

The lead photo was taken from our first post-Colorado boondock site. Camped less than 20 feet from a precipice along the Virgin River Gorge, we indulged two extremes: a magnificent canyon right out the doorstep, and the distant stately walls of Zion. Out Goldie's Imax Window, mountain bikers ground away on the gnarly Hurricane Rim Trail cross canyon. The trail affords breathtaking-to-heart stopping glimpses into the Virgin's chasm, flirting within spitting distance of certain death. I had the distinct privilege of letting this trail ride me into the ground a couple of years ago; twas a sadomasochistic experience in self-abuse that's right up there at the top with other fond, but grueling memories. It was on that bike ride that I noticed a seemingly impossible manmade canal etched into the cliff face about midway down, and an apparent pathway along its edge. This posed four burning questions to my inquiring mind: Who? What? When? and for Christ's sake, Why?

On our first morning out, Bobbie and I decided to get to the bottom of the canal story—literally. We donned packs on a gloomy grey day and struck out from camp, probing the canyon's edge in search of a way down. After several false starts we finally found a steep but doable entry, and scrambled helter-skelter on marbles, through desiccated cacti and thorny bush, all the way down. 

Once in the bottom, there was the obligatory wrecked vehicle—crumpled beyond recognition by a wild and woolly free fall to its final resting place. Thelma and Louise would be so proud.

We found another canal opposite the main one on our side of the canyon; it was smaller and looked more recent, but quickly succumbed to a landslide impasse. So we crossed over the Virgin, a mere trickle this time of year, to have a look at the ditch on the other side. 

Hiking on what likely was some sort of long ago service road was easy enough, but it soon ended, cut off by sheer canyon walls of rock that forced us back to the north side. As we hiked along the Virgin I noticed flood debris in treetops some 20 feet overhead… a testament to frequent flash floods that ravage this canyon.

We knew from prior boondocks that there was a small dam upstream. Sure enough, a gate soon blocked our progress. "No Trespassing" and "Keep Out" signs decorated a chain link fence topped with a crown of razor wire for "good measure." We spied a trail and sign on the other side that appeared to extend upstream beyond the beginning of the main canal. I pulled out binoculars to get a better look at the sign. It read that the trail was built by Americorps… nothing about where it went or why it was there. We crossed back over the Virgin in to investigate, something that proved difficult due to dozens of house-size boulders littering the river bottom. 

Once across, we scrambled up to the main canal; it had a narrow come-and-go path along a rather thin-walled outer edge that was intermittently supported by Anasazi style stacked rock. It was only then that the magnitude (stupidity?) of this seemingly dubious, over-zealous water diversion project hit home. Even to un-keen minds, it was obvious that the intent was to divert water from the Virgin at the dam and maintain a slighter grade than the river bottom—probably an effort to irrigate croplands higher in elevation around La Verkin and Hurricane. This later proved true, backed up by several articles I found on the internet. 

It seems that Mormon settlers tired of yearly flash floods that wiped out bottomland crops along the Virgin. There was plenty of farmable land higher up on mesas, but how to raise irrigation water was a big problem in the pre-pump/electricity days of 1850. 

After several feasibility studies, it was concluded that pulling off the monumental task of constructing a canal along a sheer-cliffed, unstable canyon—one prone to landslides and movement and rockfall—would be folly. But, as always, one mans folly is another man's "challenge." 

It was easy for some 20-20 hind-sighted person like me to ridicule the idea of building a canal in such an unstable place. Why didn't level heads prevail? Who would fund such folly? Well, greed is a funny thing indeed…ask any po-boy looking to get rich quick. Share's sold like hotcakes and the project got off the ground in 1890.  

Rockfall detour

As one might expect, the project was hampered by acts of nature. The diversion dam was flash flooded to smithereens a couple of times and had to be rebuilt, and rockfall and slides regularly wiped out as much as a year or two's worth of progress in an instant. Even when the canal stayed in place, it was plagued by blowouts and leaks. With setback after setback, the project was taking way longer than expected… which cost money. Funds ran dry as the surrounding desert, but it didn't deter the determined. An emergency funding appeal was made to the LDS Church in Salt Lake City. After much deliberation, a grant of $5,000 dollars was given and the project stumbled to conclusion.  

It took 11 years and 60,000 dollars to get water to the highlands around La Verkin and Hurricane—cheap by today's standards. The shocking part to me was that the canal continued to operate into the 1990's. I would have lost that bet for sure. As we walked along the edge of a canal riddled with rockfall and blowouts, I assumed we were looking at Mormon folly—a failed pie-in-the-sky dream, a big fat stupid mistake. But somehow it worked, in spite of gravity, setbacks, and "high-water," gritty pioneers kept the aqueduct flowing against all odds for nearly 80 years. 
My partially eaten hat is off to them.

Here are a couple of links to the complete story:


  1. Mark, great photo's as usual. Your comment about a trail getting the best of you brought to mind two such rides for me.
    The first is Deer Creek in Crested Butte, a death march if there ever was one, the second being Mingus Mountain outside of Sedona, a muddy and thorny descent.

  2. We tried to ride up Mingus mountain from dead horse camp ground to Jerome, Via forest service roads. It was about 85° and needless to say we didn't make it all the way to Jerome. But the ride back down to cottonwoods Dairy Queen was effortless. I overindulged to say the least.

    1. Ahh, the Dairy Queen completely slipped my mind. I do recall riding back Sedona with a belly full of Soft Serve though!
      Jerome is a magical place, there is a great Mexican eatery on the road from Cottonwood up to Jerome,

      Only a little while longer and we will be on the road back to the Southwest.

  3. Hmmm, only you and Bobbie would attempt a descent into that gnarly canyon in search of a story. Great story, reminds me of all those ancient canals that are seen in the ruins of long gone societies. I am sure we will be there someday as well if we keep up stupid at the rate it is going.

  4. I am always intrigued at the tenacity of early pioneers. Can you imagine how much actual pick and shovel work that took, through more rock than soil? I suspect that that "trail" alongside the canal was more a roadbed of sorts prior to digging the canal. This would have possibly allowed a horse to "plow" the canal...maybe.

    Thanks for posting. BTW, do you ever publish, or otherwise provide exact boondocking locations for the less fortunate? :)
    BTW II...the solar project is done enough to undergo testing AND we're actively looking for a updated TOAD.

  5. Great story and as always...the pictures are too!

  6. A great post, and very interesting. It prompted me into reading up on the town of Hurricane and its history, so many thanks.

  7. Remarkable research on a remarkable project.

  8. Between the 7th and 14th centuries, the Hohokam built and maintained extensive irrigation networks along the lower Salt and middle Gila rivers that rivaled the complexity of those used in the ancient Near East, Egypt, and China.

    The Mormons just picked up where they left off. Almost every Mormon settlement in the West had some canals and irrigation networks. My father would say that you could always tell it was a Mormon farm if it had water running up hill.

  9. They certainly were gluttons for hard work, i.e. punishment.

  10. So nice! By the way, I love your back and whites so much that I have been practicing and am entering one of my own of Zion in the photo contest here at our winter park in AZ. Wish me luck!

  11. Such an undertaking, and a very interesting story. You two are like mt goats.

  12. This is an interesting hike. We did that trail when we were staying in Hurricane. It's hard to imagine that the canal ever was completed and used for so long. I recognize several of your photos:)


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