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Father-Son Bonding Deep in Utah Canyon Country

I stood there in silence, contemplating the next move. I knew at this moment, Aidan was reaching deeper than he ever had before. I knew he was thinking the same thing I was. The mid-morning sun reflected off the canyon walls, numbing my brain. The last two-and-a-half hours had only been uphill. We were almost half way to the top of the fin, our first real goal of our five days out here. Aidan had reached a psychological ledge, and I knew how deep he was digging. But I felt he was ready.

I stood behind him, spoke calmly, and said “Let’s getter done.”

At that moment he looked back at me with a look of determination and said. said, “Fine, you want to kill me or what? Here we go!” And off we went.

With that, he reached for a hand jam, placed a strong foot smear, and lunged forward. He made it through his mental crux of the day.

Whether Aidan will become a mountain traveler in his own life or not, this was the moment I came for, my son stretching for a goal further than he had ever stretched before. Yes, there had been some fear, but also lots of life reward, and really it was not too great of a risk. Constantly digging for the next level was a lesson handed down from my father.  “Becoming a man is not about money, fame, and consumables”,  he once said, “it’s about being a positive impact on whatever reality you call life.”

My dad was at the forefront of my thoughts on this trip. We had planned on heading into an area of canyons I had been to before. We were headed to the same spot where my usual canyoneering partner, Boulder-Utah denizen and famed outdoor photographer Ace Kvale and I had laid an urn of my father’s ashes to rest many years ago. It was a special place, under a giant stag tree, with a flask of whiskey and a box of matches. That’s how he rolled.

But with the touchy spring weather it was too early for that route. We would have to look to an area of lower elevation, much of it unknown to us. No big deal. I had been planning this trip to my dad’s last resting spot with my son and Ace for months. If we could not have a nip with the “Old Scot,” we had other options. Aidan and I spread maps out all over the table. And we were happy to honor my dad’s memory and life lessons by exploring new terrain in southern Utah’s canyon country.

The millions of acres of canyons in the Southern Utah desert are still one of the worlds least explored hideaways. Stand on a high point here and gaze down on them and they can all look the same. Once deep in a 400-foot walled canyon, you have no way to take a bearing or see around the corner. Much of the coming days would be down in these mazes, and the rest up high above on the fins. In canyon country, you always need water, you always need fuel and you are always looking for shade. Planning the route would be key.

It was this challenge, the chance to get lost, to almost lose ourselves, to test our planning and heart that was the draw. Aidan and I had done our homework and I felt that we brought the skills we would need. Aidan was the right age. We had an amazing leader, and one of my life’s mentors with us in Ace.

“Focus.” That’s the mantra that ticked through my head in the morning we woke, and headed into the canyons, “Must focus”.  We were not here to just walk, we were here to reach higher. I wanted my son to experience this as a teenager to help lead him into manhood.

Ace had planned this route for five days of navigation, He showed us the map and said “the plan is were going here, here and here” as he hit a triangle of three target zones finishing at our starting point. I asked him if he had been there. His answer was, “Some. And I have some good beta from friends. Lets go eat breakfast at the grill”.  We loaded up and set out.

We ate breakfast with a  group of friends and told them the area where we were headed. Oh, one thing about this particular area of canyon country. I can’t tell you exactly where we went. Let’s just say it was out there. It was a good few hours drive from our comfortable base and the flapjacks at Boulder Utah’s famed Hell’s Backbone Grill. We parked the truck, and immediately dropped into the hollows of the canyons on the way to our first nights camp. Ace had a camp strategically placed for our first night. Once set up and fed, we accessed the options for the next day, the sun rolled down behind the mountains and turned bright into the gold of the fire and stories of the past.

In the morning, our pace was calm and gingerly; we repacked and redistributed our loads. We chose to head up. Ace led, map in hand and ever-present, taking in every little feature, every little water hole. He made it perfectly clear we couldn’t afford to miss a pinch or a fin split out here, or forget where we were, even just once. Ace led. We followed. At the end of the day we camped, high on a fin, with a big pot of water.

There are plenty of slot canyons in southern Utah you can start at one end and finish at a take-out, or beginner hikes through slots and parks, but to navigate across little-known canyon country it takes a different skill. GPS isn’t much use. You have to read the map and terrain, and constantly search, because you never want to run out of water, and you don’t want to navigate into camp in the dark on fins. Navigating in the dark on fins is not a fun task. You don’t want night adventure unless you are solid on the skills needed. Even then, it can get spooky.

Aidan took it all in. By day two, we were on unfamiliar terrain. Aidan began to relax. Sure,  he accused me of almost killing him on that one move, but I could feel something changing. Ace and Aidan had started referring to each other as Cubby Broiler (a spoof on Bear Grylls) and Spade Balding.  It has started in the car and here they were, poking fun of each other, fine tuning their fake accents and making fun of crazy situations in the wild. It felt the way the wild is supposed to feel when you joke with friends.

Think back to when you were a teenager, contemplating who you were and what you wanted to be. Soon adults began to ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up.” As a child navigates their way through their teenage years, they pull from all their brief history, digging for what they think they want in life. This is our big chance, as adults and parents, to inspire them. Once they make that conscience (or unconscious) decision about who they think they should be, the main goal we should focus on is to help them learn how to “do it right”.

Ace has been one of my main adventure partners for close to two decades, He has been instrumental my life and in the raising of both my children. When Aidan was ready for his first multi-day off-the-grid-backpacking trip, there was no better person I could think of to join us on his first project in the wild. He does it right.

Aidan has been hiking his whole life, car camping, searching for Halloween candy with avalanche transceivers, exploring the globe with us. He has always been drawn to the outdoors and adventure.

On the last day of our trip, I held back my pace and walked behind my mentor and my son.  I just took it  all in—the walk through a deep canyon. In the soft light, I saw my mentor walking with my son. Cubby Broiler and Spade Balding walked in front of me out of sound, but not out of sight. And then it hit me—in this place near to where my father lay, my mentor had now become my son’s mentor. My mission was accomplished. Aidan had moved up and forward. I dropped my eye lids and let the picture of the two of them in the canyon burn deep into my brain. It was an image of inspiration and reassurance. We were on the right path.

–Ian Reid

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