Diné Youth Go Bikerafting!
This story by Jon Yazzie will appear in The Bikeraft Guide, but is also the final installment of his series of articles on the Dzil Ta'ah Youth Bike Pack Series, published in various places. Read the intro to the series on Bikepacking.com, this article on The Radavist, and this broader article about Jon's goals to expand bikepacking opportunities on the Navajo Nation. Photos by Steve "Doom" Fassbinder.
It was a quiet dusty drive up the Moki Dugway. We passed Kane Gulch Ranger Station with the last of the evening’s sun thrusting the Bears Ears in full view when it dawned on me that I had no idea what we were about to embark on for the weekend. Caravanning with Nadine and our three mentees, we were headed north to Hite, Utah for a weekend with Doom. I know the guy, but I have never ridden with him. A quick Google search mentions a three-time 24-hour solo single speed champion, a brutal ride in the Karakoram Mountain range in Pakistan, a cool beer commercial that sums up years of other inconceivable things. Now I was a little worried about my team. Did I do enough to prepare them for this venture?
The three siblings, Nadine and I were on our way to bikeraft the Colorado River into Lake Powell, camp somewhere cool and then more of the same the next day. These three youth participants had four bikepacking trips under their belt, all hammered out in six weeks--the shortest of those trips, a quick six-mile loop to a sandstone location next to our only single track in Kayenta, and the longest a 45-miler into Johns Canyon in Southern Utah. I hoped they learned enough for what Doom had in store for us. Despite my apprehension, I knew we were in good hands.
Just before sunset, we crossed the Colorado River, then the Dirty Devil River and found the location for camp, a wild, stunning spot with pristine natural surroundings. Not long after Doom and Liz showed up. Introductions were made, then the girls pedaled in the dark on their loaner Surly ECR’s while Jaron set up camp. They have been using our spare bikes for the series, Dine Comp inventory for their NICA races and now these beauties for the next couple of days. Both bikes with Rohloff hubs, carbon Jones loop bars, plenty of extra cages and more goods. I was a little jealous.
After a bit of food, and some catching up we went to bed. My worry eased up a little after getting the scoop on the route Doom planned for us for the next couple of days. We would ride a 17-mile double track, cross the Dirty Devil River and pedal just over a dozen miles to reach the Colorado River to put our packrafts in, and paddle five miles down to camp. In the morning, we would paddle three miles up a canyon, where we would break the rafts down and reload our bikes for a big ride back to our vehicles.
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The cool, brisk morning of day one left condensation and a little ice on our tents, and in our case, the overbed camper windows. Nadine cooked up some bacon and eggs and coffee for the crew, while I started loading up our gear and packing food. After reading a few articles on zero-waste bikepacking, I figured I would give it a try on this trip. Our sleep systems were in place, rafts and paddles deliberately attached to our handlebars and bike racks. Next we helped the youth group get ready, fishing poles included. Soon we were on our way, riding extra loaded, but with immense smiles that seemed to lighten our loads.
We spent the afternoon pedaling a gorgeous double track, doing a big loop until we got to the Dirty Devil. Jaron went first and tested the crossing for us. Hearing weeks prior the water level was rim height, Jaron instead plunged about waist deep. This was exciting for us and a little bit of a bummer for him. We almost changed our trip and floated the Dirty Devil instead. My buddies back home always talk about its lore, and if a full-on paddle happened here this trip, I would have been all in. But after Doom checked with friends on the current water flow, we decided to continue with the original plan. After just under an hour of hard pedaling we got to the Colorado and started breaking down bikes. While setting up our rigs, a half dozen rafts pulled in from Cataract Canyon and several in their group came over to see what the heck we were doing. Bewildered by the bikes on our boats and liberal with their spirits, they kept us entertained until we launched.
After three hours of idyllic paddling that bounced us in and of canyon wall shadows and shorter stretches of welcoming warmth of the sun, we arrived at our camp spot. I started to feel a little out of sorts. A few days before our trip, six inches of snow blanketed Kayenta. Instead of being in the moment and focusing on my traditions, I let anxiety about postponing this trip rock my amygdala. And when you have anxiety, the whole world can be against you. The weather forecast and gear choices for our entire group immediately consumed all my attention.
Traditional Diné people are supposed to take a snow bath on the first snow of the year. I should have gone out in the backyard in my bathing suit and rolled in it. An alternative is to take a snow shower by standing under a tree and shaking the branches. Our elders tell us they did this to build immunity before they proceeded into the long cold winters. I don’t remember what obscure passage I read this from, but I will occasionally wrench the handle to cold on the last minute of my shower. That wouldn’t help me though.
That lack of honoring my traditions caught up with me. In the last hour of the river pull, I ended up getting the lower half of my body soaked. My feet started to lose feeling, and worse yet my 2.5-year-old broken ankle started seizing up. With so much good going on around me, I refocused and did my best to not worry about that until we reached camp. As soon as we arrived at the overnight location, I immediately got my tent up and my sleeping bag out, just in case. I was right. I could not shake the shivering and discomfort. I crawled into my bag to warm up and eventually fell asleep listening to the kids excitedly pull catfish after catfish out of the lake 10 feet from my bed using beef jerky from their snacks.
Going to bed too early had my back aching by 3a.m. I eventually crawled out of bed before dawn and took a short hike up to the base of a southern cliff to witness the genesis of our holy people and look for an ancestral Puebloan structure that existed here before Glen Canyon Dam flooded all these canyons. I didn’t find it, but I did enjoy watching the sun bring No Name Mountain (Diné name for the Henrys) to life. I imagined how my ancestors used these mountains for bearings and migration. It seems like it is only getting hotter in Kayenta every year. And, when we ride to our favorite lookout spots, our sacred mountains lack the all-year round snow I remember. And strangely there was no snow on No Name Mountain for this time of the year.
Not long after breaking down camp and reloading our packrafts, we started the last leg of our trip. The paddle up White Canyon didn’t take us long. Breaking down rafts and reloading our gear did. Doom ended up showing us how to pack the rafts more efficiently, which would play to our strengths as we put the hammer down on the ride back and arrived at our vehicles earlier than expected.
With so much to mull over while head down, pedaling for several hours, I reflected on my pride in the mentorship team. In early September, they had no bikepacking experience and all shared their older brother’s bike. By December, they could all pass as seasoned bike adventurers. Hopefully they co-lead the series of three bikepacking and bikerafting trips we wish to run each spring and fall moving forward. And, just maybe they’ll eventually lead their own adventure programs, igniting a bikepacking fire across the Navajo Nation.
Note: Jon and Nadine pulled off the series with no COVID issues. They required the kids wear masks and disinfect their gear after each adventure.
Jon Yazzie and Nadine Johnson, owners of the Navajo bikepacking guide service, Dzil Ta’ah Adventures, created a three-part youth bikepacking series, fall 2020. They developed a model, reached out to several youth organizations across the Reservation and recruited six participants. Tribal COVID mandates kept changing the course of the program such that most kids couldn’t participate. So, Jon and Nadine started a youth mentorship program instead, training a small group of NICA-affiliated Dine Composite riders to help teach the remainder of their team and other youth groups when the virus dust settled. The first mentors were siblings: Jojo (12), Nessa (13) and Jaron Segay (18). This story is the recap of the final bikerafting trip, done in conjunction with Four Corners Guides in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. For more info, please email email@example.com or follow @dziltaahadventures on instagram.