The Cairn Foundation Logo

Adventure

Bikepacking Bears Ears:
The Backstory

By The Cairn Project

Ambassador Ashley Carruth is heading out in late April for an exploration of the Four Corners region and Bears Ears National Monument – bikepacking and packrafting her way from Durango to the Monument and back again. We caught up with Ashley to learn a little more about how she dreamt up this expedition, and what’s on her mind as she prepares to set out.

Why bikepacking/packrafting?

I love riding bikes.  To me, it’s not only an efficient and low-impact form of travel, but it’s fun! I’ve been mountain biking my entire adult life but didn’t get into bikepacking until two years ago, when I somewhat foolishly accepted an invitation to attend the “Heaven and Hell Tour” from my friend (and professional adventure athlete) Steve “Doom” Fassbinder. My parents wondered why on earth I’d willingly travel with someone named Doom, but I took the leap of faith anyway (and dragged my friend Cara along) because what else was I going to do during the hottest time of the summer but tramp through the desert?  The first day of the tour involved an all-day ride/push-bike fest through a virtually un-rideable canyon replete with biting flies, sand pits, tamarisk thickets and 110 degree heat in order to reach the Dolores River outside of Bedrock, Colorado. It was heinous; some may even say “hellish.” But then, just as Cara and I were about to stage a coup against Doom, we reached the shore of the Dolores River and leapt in to wash the mud and blood off our legs. The next morning, we strapped our bikes onto our packrafts and paddled downstream through a remote desert canyon without another human soul in sight. It was simply heavenly.

When you add a packraft to the trip-planning equation, the possibilities for adventure are seemingly endless. You start to read maps differently and really get to be creative in how you put together a route.

Why Bears Ears?

In May of 2017,  Doom and our good friend Jon Bailey took a group of middle and high school students on a bikepack trip in the Bears Ears. We camped in the shadow of the buttes, explored the sage, piñon and ponderosa forests within the Monument and ended our weekend with a fast-paced downhill ride through the Bears Ears buttes,  6 miles down a dirt road to Highway 275. Over the course of the weekend, we were all, students and coaches alike, humbled by the natural beauty of the landscape, which is aptly described in President Obama’s Monument Proclamation: “From earth to sky, the region is unsurpassed in wonders. The star-filled nights and natural quiet of the Bears Ears area transport visitors to an earlier eon. Against an absolutely black night sky, our galaxy and others more distant leap into view. As one of the most intact and least-roaded areas in the contiguous United States, Bears Ears has that rare and arresting quality of deafening silence.”

While I don’t have nearly the same historical, spiritual or cultural connection to the Bears Ears that Native tribes of the Four Corners do, I was drawn to that place and knew I wanted to come back to explore more of the monument. As I’ve begun to learn more about why the area was protected in the first place, and why certain groups oppose the monument’s original designation, I knew I needed to spend more time there to  fully appreciate the nature of the debate.

Bears Ears has been in the news a lot recently. How does your adventure connect with the coverage we’ve seen of the National Monument designation and its subsequent roll-back?

The Bears Ears buttes are less than three hours from my hometown of Durango and have been a source of political controversy since Obama signed the Monument’s proclamation in December of 2016. I think it’s super important that my students understand the entire scope of the debate and I want to expose them to multiple perspectives, but first need to wrap my own head around it, and what better way to do that then to spend as much time as I can in the original Monument itself. I suppose that a small piece of my trip is motivated by fear– fear that if I don’t go now, the Bears Ears as we know it today will not exist.

I would encourage anyone interested in the Bears Ears to read the Intertribal Coalition’s Proposal to President Obama, which can be found

Quick history lesson here, folks: The National Monument was made possible because of a somewhat unprecedented collaboration between five tribal nations – the Hopi, Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni.  And with a flick of a pen, Trump eviscerated the monument, effectively dismissing the years of hard work that went into establishing the monument, as well as the claims of indigenous nations to the sacredness of the Bears Ears and its geological, paleontological, archaeological, historical, cultural, and biological significance to all peoples. I know that I’m pretty ignorant when it comes to understanding these pieces, and am eager to fill the gaps. This bikepacking trip is just the start!

What are the most exciting and most intimidating aspects of planning this adventure, logistically and mentally?

The most exciting part of the planning process for me is seeing the way in which it has fostered a seemingly contradicting union of self-sufficiency on the one hand, and a stronger connection to community on the other. I’m gaining so many skills in this planning process, from bike maintenance skills to map reading and route planning to trip logistics and interviewing.  However, I have also been grateful for the amount of community support I’ve received from local businesses, gear companies, friends and family.

Logistically, the most daunting part has been trying to balance structure with flexibility in my route plan.  I want to provide my friends enough detail so they know when and where to meet me but also allow myself enough flexibility and freedom to explore along the way.

I would say that my two biggest fears are ironically both the fear of being alone and the fear of other humans. There have definitely been moments when I’ve doubted whether this is a good idea.  While I’ve never thought about bailing all together, the logistics of certain legs of the trip have for sure intimidated me and I’ve considered loosening up on my personal goal of doing the entire route by my own power.  For instance, I am particularly worried about being alone as a single woman on certain legs of the journey and almost asked to get a ride from a friend for that leg. However, I am committed to not letting my fear drive my decisions in this type of way; there’s a difference between being foolhardy, taking calculated risks, and being paranoid. Definitely don’t want to be paranoid.

A month mostly off the grid is a long time. What’s your favorite part about getting out there and disconnecting?

Exploration:  I love getting off the grid and having the freedom to explore.  What’s around the next turn in the canyon; over the next ridgeline? Those curiosities are what fuel my forward motion in the backcountry!

Getting in sync with a rhythm attuned to nature: I’ve learned in my adult years that I actually like, even thrive with, routine and structure. I don’t like admitting that because it proves my astrological sign (Virgo) right, when all I’ve ever wanted to be is an Aires even though I actually possess a healthy amount of scientific disdain for astrology.  However, I’m eager to get off of mechanical time and into a more natural rhythm based on the flow of waking up with the sun, eating when I’m hungry, drinking when I have or find water, sleeping with the stars and being in a routine that is stripped down to the bare essentials.

Simplicity: Like most outdoor enthusiasts in a mountain town (and perhaps like most Americans, period), I have too much stuff. I can’t wait to ride away from all that stuff with as few of belongings as possible.

Being present: Nothing like stepping away from our phones, computers, and daily to-do lists to become fully immersed in the present moment. I love being able to be more aware and appreciative of my surroundings, and be more engaged with my friends that join me along the way without the normal distractions of everyday life.

You’re a high school educator in Durango. How do you hope to bring your experience on this adventure back to the classroom?

In my roles as an educator and coach, I am deeply committed to developing and implementing a holistic approach to sustainability that encompasses environmental, economic, /cultural and personal well-being. I am currently on sabbatical to explore ways to better achieve this mission for my students and community. Thus, this Bears Ears trip is one component of a broader research and professional development project I’m undertaking to try to answer the following questions for myself, so that I can better serve my school community.

What does a holistic approach to sustainability mean? In what ways are sustainable environmental, economic, social/cultural and personal practices at play in the Four Corners region?

I’ve devoted my career to rethinking traditional education paradigms that do not advance sustainable development goals. For instance, when it comes to personal sustainability, schools tend to focus on students’ intellectual development and pay cursory attention to their physical and mental health. Even my school, with its emphasis on strong faculty-student relationships and individualization, lacks sufficient holistic and preventative wellness programming.

I believe that to live sustainable lives as individuals, we need to be mindful about what conditions enable us to thrive. A critical examination of those conditions will reveal that we cannot thrive as individuals unless our communities, economies and ecosystems are too. My goal with this broader research project is to explore what sustainability means in each of these domains as well as the ways in which success in one impacts success in others. Within the Bears Ears controversy, you can clearly see the tension between how various people conceptualize of and value sustainability, thus it serves as an excellent case study: How can and should we balance economic, environmental, cultural and personal sustainability with regards to the Monument?

This trip will also give me the opportunity to practice environmental and personal sustainability (non-motorized travel, connection to the land, developing a rhythm attuned to the natural world…) as well as deepen my understanding of and help raise awareness on the Bears Ears controversy.

Through my research and travels through Bears Ears, I’m working to forge community partnerships to expose my students to diverse perspectives and the opportunity to develop their own theoretical and ethical framework around sustainability. Ultimately, I hope to bring my learning and new perspectives back to work as a high school teacher and outdoor educator, helping my students connect with wild spaces, inspiring environmental stewardship, a stronger sense of community, and fostering personal well-being.