Adventures from Back of Beyond

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Smoky Mountain


Smoky Mountain is part of the great Kapairowitz Plateau of southern Utah. It's sharp southern flank stands guard over Lake Powell, bone-dry red and buff cliffs dropping precipitously down to the blue water of the reservoir.

This was the approach we took one early October day, traversing a dry dusty road north of the Lake, from the allegedly polygamist town of Big Water, Utah.

We saw one other car on the road that day, briefly, near Big Water. After that we had the whole huge place to ourselves.

This was a corner of the Colorado Plateau I'd always wanted to explore but never had. Didn't have the time, or the right vehicle (high clearance four-wheel drive required), just never came together until now.

Viewed from the lake, the southern edge of Smoky Mountain looks all but impenetrable. Anticipating some excitement, I wondered how we'd get up this thing.

Soon the mostly flat road took a turn to the north and headed straight for the cliffs, much like the more well-known Moqui Dugway to the east, ending at a series of steep switchbacks right up the cliff face. This was the Kelly Grade. It turned out be to be a similar driving experience as the Dugway, though the Kelly Grade is more intense and challenging in every way.

Supposedly, the Kelly Grade was named after the only guy brave or stupid enough to first drive a road grader down those cliffs. And it must have taken some guts -- the Kelly Grade has enormous, scary dropoffs, with solid cliffs on one side, and nothing but hundreds of miles of vista to the other.

And quite the vista it is too -- Lake Powell is the incongruous blue foreground, followed by wave after wave of colorful cliffs to the south, ending near the Grand Canyon. In fact we could see the eastern edge of the Kaibab upwarp, and at least one of the interior temples from the top of the grade, some 75 miles away.

We droned up in 4WD low gear, and tried not to think about the possibility of a mechanical failure in this remote and precarious spot. Just short of the top, we spotted a herd of bighorn sheep clinging to the side of a sheer cliff. Clinging might not be the best word to describe their obvious ease in that location -- they seemed to be completely comfortable with the rocky ledges, and moved effortlessly from sheer point to point. A couple of males were festooned with the great big curved horns that give them their name, and one of them sported a radio collar. We stopped to watch them for a few minutes, and they warily watched us.

Although this region was historically the home of desert bighorns, they are today few and far between. An endangered specie. You just don't see them very often, especially from a car. This was quite the treat, and a very unusual observation.

We continued on top of the mostly flat Smoky Mountain, headed north. Having a good map, and knowing how to read it, is imperative for this area. Now part of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, this region was the last mapped part of the conterminous United States. The USGS has created their exquisitely detailed topographic maps, but for driving, this region is still today poorly mapped and signed. You could easily get lost out here, and far removed from even a hint of civilization -- or a cell phone signal for that matter.

Soon we came to the turnoff for the coal seam beds, a unique geologic feature I wanted to check out. Poorly marked road again, it was a bit of a guessing game where to go.

As we crept along an even rougher side road in 4 wheel drive, I began to smell an odor that I at first thought was burned brakes. I slowed down, checked gauges, checked the parking brake. Everything OK.

Soon it dawned on me that this unusual stink might be natural, from the outside. And sure enough, there off in the distance on yet another unmarked spur road I spotted smoke.

We drove over and parked. Several holes, literally holes in the ground, irregularly shaped but maybe 2-3 feet in diameter, were spewing smoke continuously. So that's why they call this Smoky Mountain!

These were the coal seam fires, where naturally formed coal beds present in the sedimentary rock caught on fire by spontaneous combustion eons ago. Nothing natural will ever put these fires out, short of running out of coal for fuel or oxygen to breathe. And since there are millions of tons of coal estimated to be below the surface, it may be quite awhile before these fires go out.

I peered down into one of the holes, smudged black on the sides, and couldn't see to the bottom. Too dark. I maneuvered downwind and stood directly in the path of the smoke. It burned my eyes a bit, but I inhaled slightly to experience it. The smell was a burned slightly sweet fragrance, moist and humid, especially compared to the dry desert air. It took just a split second for my hair and clothes to absorb that smoky smell. I stank, and didn't get that smell out of my clothes for the rest of the trip.

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