Saving Handbag Sister (Hiking the Narrows)

When we came to Zion, we were told that one of the must do hikes is the Narrows. Everyone, just everyone says to to do the Narrows if you do no other hike. So we did.

The Narrows is a trail that follows the Virgin River, which is responsible for the formation of the Zion Canyon. Most of the hike takes place in the river as it cuts through the canyon walls with no banks on either side, hence the name “Narrows.” At some points in the river, a person taller than me (Ben) can just about touch the canyon walls on either side. Because of this, there is always the risk of being caught in a flash flood, so wise people check the ranger station before embarking. In addition to weather reports the NPS has a flow rate report they publish to give you an idea of how hard the water will push back as you walk. The day we hiked, the flow rate was 46–classed at the high end of easy. One can hike bottom up, (upriver) as a day hike, or top down, which is a multi-day hike from the top of the canyon and requires a backcountry permit.

When you come into Springdale, signs on all the outfitter stores blare “Rent Narrows Equipment Here!” Narrows equipment consists of a pair of neoprene socks, shoes that look like a cross between rain boots and running shoes, and a wooden hiking stick. We rented ours from Zion Adventure Company. We sat through a 15-minute river safety movie, signed disclaimers and releases, and then we were fitted for our gear. It was a lot like the bowling shoe experience–the guide sized me up visually and tossed me socks and boots that fit at the first try. I tried not to think about how many cooties were in the neoprene socks as I crammed my naked feet into them, and hoped my immune system was up to the job of protecting me from trench foot. I mentioned that we had metal hiking poles, and the buff young guide told me I was better off with wood, because if my pole got caught in a boulder underwater it would crumple like a pipe cleaner.

The start of the Narrows is actually a mile-long paved path to the place where the canyon walls close in on the river and increase its flow rate. You could tell the causal hikers from the others because we were all toting wooden sticks with the name of the gear company burned on and wearing variations of the same footwear. Casual folk pick their way through the first few riffles, and the crowd thins considerably with each passing turn in the riverbed. It was one of the most spectacular hikes I’ve taken. You can look at my pictures; I’m not even going to try to write about what I saw.

There was a little knot of people we kept pace with, and then groups of younger more nimble hikers tromping through the water. A group of high school kids with a very patient guide frolicked in the water, climbing fearlessly to leap into deep pools and drowning their iPhones taking selfies. Every now and then we’d pass a top down hiker, loaded down with gear and grinning from ear to ear.

I have always been a loop kind of a hiker–I don’t like to backtrack where I’ve been. On the Narrows day hike, you don’t have much choice but to backtrack, which requires self-discipline. I’m convinced that the best scenery is “just another mile” or “just up the trail” and so inclined to turn what was supposed to be a 5-mile walk into a 7 or 8 mile hike. Fortunately, Ben is made of sterner stuff, so after two hours of hiking we only did a quarter mile more before we turned around.

The hiking wasn’t difficult in the climbing sense. We hiked upriver which is a different kind of energy drain. The river goes from water bubbling around your ankles to class 1 – 2 water over your knees that is trying to push you downstream where you belong. Moving and placing your foot securely among slippery river rocks when you can’t see below the surface of water that is pushing back at you is work. Turning downriver presented a new challenge; combine a little tiredness with a stubborn current that wants to push you off your feet and that’s when you start to see people fall in the river. I am proud to say that neither of us went swimming, though we both did the river Cha-Cha a few times.

As we hiked down river, the closer we got to the trailhead the crowds increased. People had all kinds of ideas about appropriate hiking attire. One guy was hiking in Chuck Taylors and carried a big jug of Mountain Dew. A whole group of Europeans was hiking barefoot. A girl picked her way along wearing really cute striped ballet flats. A couple plump sisters were hiking together; one was wearing tennis shoes, but her sister was wearing pink flip-flops and carrying her blue leather rhinestone encrusted handbag on one shoulder and her belongings in a plastic shopping bag on the other. They had hiked a surprising distance up river. Ben, gallant soul he is, lent them his hiking pole to help them through a tough patch. Handbag Sister kept saying “muy fabuloso,” with every picture she took. Then tragedy struck in a deeper patch of swift water. I was behind her and noticed a pink flip flop had popped up from below the murky water. She bent over to retrieve it, and the river seized its opportunity and pushed her over. She bobbed like a cork with her feet up in the air and for a second I thought she’d sail away downriver, then her purse filled up with water, sank like an anchor and she started to go under. Everyone nearby jumped into action. Hikers fished her shopping bag out of the water, I used my rudimentary Spanish to tell her to hang on, and Ben fished her out of the water. Her sister was down river on the bank, her mouth a big O of horror. Handbag Sister poured about a gallon of river water out of her purse, and I imagine her camera and iPad were toast. We got her safely to the bank, and moved on.

A few minutes later we were back at the trailhead, dumping silt and pebbles out of our neoprene socks. On the advice of the guide, we’d brought sandals to walk the mile back to the shuttle rather than in the squishy river shoes.

There you have it, scenery, human drama and comedy. Best. Hike. In. Zion. You must do it.

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