“Black Box on Monday?” said Chris’ text on Thursday. It started simply enough, and though we didn’t do much planning together after that, everything came together nicely on Monday morning when Chris, Karin, and Katie met at my house and we got a late start driving into the San Rafael Swell. Karin and I parked our Jeeps at the end of the Mexican Mountain Road, where we all geared up and started hiking at about 12:30. After a short walk down the road and then down a small drainage, we arrived at the rim of the Upper Black Box. I could hear the San Rafael River below but couldn’t see the water due to it flowing under a huge rockfall that choked the canyon.
We spent some time searching for existing rappel anchors and found two sets: one high and easily accessible and one down low requiring a sketchy downclimb. We set up a 200′ rope on the upper anchor but couldn’t see whether it reached the bottom, so Chris came up with another plan. He tried and succeeded at climbing down to and back up from the lower anchor, so we set up a short rappel (double-strand rope anchored to a sling around a tree) to get everyone down to the lower anchor, then pulled the rope and fixed it single-strand at the lower anchor. Chris and I returned after the hike to retrieve the rope and tree-sling. It was Katie’s first time rappelling and she did well with amazingly no hesitation. For both raps, Chris went first, then Karin, Katie, and finally me. It had taken two hours since leaving the vehicles to reach the bottom of the canyon.
Once at the bottom of the second rappel, everyone switched from rappel mode to swim mode. Each of us had a PFD, but I’d accidentally brought my son’s instead of my own–they look very similar–so I hiked the canyon with it strapped to my pack. We made one last downclimb from the rockfall using a handline, but from that point on there were no real obstacles except for the occasional submerged, knee-banging boulder. We had to swim almost immediately after entering the water. After a short swim, though, we could walk while trying to avoid rocks and boulders hidden by the murky water.
Walking through the canyon was challenging at first. It took me a little while to learn to walk while leading with my toes instead of my knees. On average the water was knee- to waist-deep, but it also ranged from a few inches to probably a dozen or more feet deep. I carried my camera through about 95% of the canyon and put it in a dry box for the swimmers. Among the few items we found in the canyon were a broken canoe paddle and, of all things, a bolwing ball perched 12 feet above the current water level! 😀
Just before the end of the Upper Black Box was a lengthy swimming section several hundred feet long. Wedged between the narrow canyon walls was a large tree perhaps 20 feet above the water. The mud was pretty bad just before and after this section and I nearly got stuck a couple of times. We exited the river and I was sad to see it go–we’d only been in the water for just over two hours. Luckily it was a short hike back to the vehicles. Chris and I detoured slightly to find a geocache while Karin and Katie went ahead. Shortly after we got back to the Jeeps the girls left, then Chris and I retrieved the rope before starting our drive home. Along the way were some nice, hazy views of the cliffs north of the San Rafael River. A couple of buck deer surprised us, heading away from the road and toward the river.
The San Rafael had been flowing at between 12-14 CFS during our trip and the air temperature was about 85 degrees. The water temperature was perfect and none of us ever felt cold beyond the first immersion. Conditions were nearly perfect and I wouldn’t hesitate to do this trip again under the same conditions.