The Desert Dawg Trail – Osprey Packs Experience
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The Desert Dawg Trail

Our friend Ace Kvale is one of the world’s top adventure photographers. For over 30 years his action photos, striking portraits and stunning landscapes have captured the essence of wild places and diverse cultures in the far corners of the globe. Recently, Ace has used photography as an opportunity to raise consciousness. Through his latest work with vanishing cultures and international philanthropic organizations, he’s discovered new inspiration and purpose by using his skills to help people at risk. He specializes in cultural, documentary, travel and outdoor adventure photography.


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The Desert Dawg Trail


In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll begin to see something, maybe. Probably not.

–Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

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The first time I read those words I was living in a small cabin in the woods in the San Juan mountains of Colorado. I’ve never forgotten them. Ed Abbey left a huge impression on me. Since then I’ve been lucky to travel, ski, climb and photograph on six continents. From mountains in Tibet to rivers in Alaska I’ve been one lucky dude.

But the words of Ed Abbey have always held a grip on me. Hundreds of desert climbing trips have in no way extinguished my insatiable curiosity for the beauty of the canyon wilderness. That’s the thing right there. Wilderness. That’s the word. So simple.

Glamping. Wtf? Seriously? Yet it exists. The other day I saw a piece on the best iPhone apps for camping. No shit. But, to be totally honest I have an iPhone. I have the topo maps app with all the maps I need downloaded in it. I can press a few buttons and have my position pinpointed with incredible accuracy. It tells me right where I am on the map I’m holding in my sweaty hand. You are here. Awesome.

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It’s not easy to disconnect. I update my facebook wall while I’m in the airport. Even my dog has a blog these days:

But to disconnect is to reconnect. Back to reality, back to basics. Chop wood, haul water, walk. I’ve always loved long walks. Backpacking seems to have gone out of style but it’s still the best. On expeditions sometimes the best part is the walk in and the walk out. The culture, the wildness. I began looking into the Sierra Crest Trial and other long distance routes but the problem was they are not here. Have to drive to get to them, organize caches, permits, the whole thing and what about my number one guy? The Desert Dawg? Then I came across the Hayduke Trail. This is it. I want to do that. But then on closer look it’s all about linking the national parks. Thank God for the national parks. They give the hordes a place to go. But they are not dog friendly and I agree with the policy. Can you imagine if all those peoples’ dogs were allowed to run around? It’s would be bedlam. And the thing is in the parks the wildlife is habituated to humans. The wildlife isn’t wild anymore, it’s tame. Don’t let your dogs off leash. Please.


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So slowly, I started to piece together my own route. Our own route. I pored over guidebooks and maps. Each spring and fall season I made longer and longer forays into the remotest areas I could find. I slowly, respectfully built up my skills and taught Desert Dawg how to avoid cactus, how to lower up and down cliffs in his harness. How to navigate the old fashioned way: with a map and compass and all the senses. How to see. How to feel, how to trust. We learned together dawg and I until the time was right. The time was right this last fall. I came up with a route. A beautiful route. It departed and returned to my house. No trails, no guidebooks, but 18 maps. Some sections I had done previously while others were unknown. But I knew there was a way, an old cattle trail or a Bighorn Sheep track. The challenge was to piece it all together into one big loop. One month, 300 miles give or take.


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I didn’t go alone. It worked out beautifully actually. Two friends were furloughed government employees. They were psyched to join me on the first 11 day section. Get away from the stupid government shutdown and walk through the monument where they work. Get to see it from the ground instead of behind a desk or the wheel of a truck. Alas they had to head back but where they went home I had 2 other intrepid friends come in and bring my 1st resupply.  Together we crossed incredible terrain. It was wonderful. A life experience. We saw 2 other hikers the entire time. Eventually they had to go home too but by this time we were really getting into the groove. The fatigue had passed and we were getting stronger everyday. We had their truck shuttled to the only road we crossed the entire time. Not only did they have beers and a dinner ready to heat up they had my 2nd resupply stashed in their truck. By this time Dawg and I had been on the move for 21 days. No rest days sadly but we were feeling good.


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A typical journal entry from somewhere around there: “Awesome day, fantastic, beautiful camp. 5 stars. Super complex navigation to head multiple canyons. Perfect. Nature, wild and untouched, raw, sublime, harsh yet soft and sensual. Breathtaking camp, beautiful stars, not a breath of wind, shooting stars and tired body. Crux day into unknown terrain.”


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We soloed the last section. Desert Dawg and I. Only 5 days. Never saw a soul. Hardly a footprint. I made some concessions I admit. We were asked by some to take a plb. A personal locator beacon or SPOT. While I certainly recognize the usefulness of such inventions I took along solid partners for the most part. Maybe if we had soloed the entire route I would have looked into getting one. I did bring a phone and had texting capabilities every few days. I kept in touch with our lovely postmaster / EMT / search & rescue / ambulance driver and cowgirl. She’s mainly a cowgirl. By keeping in touch with her every 4 or 5 days the whole town knew where I was. It’s kind of like an old fashioned party line living around here. Everybody knows everybody’s business. The great thing about keeping in touch with her was she came out to meet us on the last day. She rode out with an extra horse and took my pack that long, last half day. Naturally she brought lunch and a couple friends to join us.


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So we pulled it off, Desert Dawg and me. Accompanied by a small cast of characters we walked for almost a month through the canyon wilderness. I never felt so alive, so in touch with my surroundings. The never-ending search for water, for campsites and the satisfaction of putting together incredibly complex routes. We ran into 10 people total. We crossed about 20 canyons, wore out a pair of shoes, and came back yearning for more. The list only gets longer. The Wilderness out the door.


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