"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," I lobbied my wife, Heidi, in an attempt to convince her to come with me down Desolation Canyon for eight days on horseback in mid-September.

My friend (and former Deseret Morning News staff writer) Jerry Spangler, now the executive director of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance, was planning an expedition along with the Utah Division of State History and the University of Utah to retrace the steps of a 1931 Harvard archaeological expedition into a remote area of Desolation Canyon. Guides and packhorses would be provided; I could even bring my own horses to ride. This sounded like my dream assignment.

Besides the pure adventure, there was a strong news angle: The research of the Harvard expedition, particularly in the nearby Range Creek and Nine Mile Canyon area, helped define the prehistoric Fremont culture.

The Desolation Canyon area is Utah's largest wilderness study area and is the largest geographical area in the contiguous 48 states that doesn't have a road through it. It is one of the most rugged sections in the country, as witnessed by the many who attempted to chase — and failed to catch — Butch Cassidy and his gang over the Outlaw Trail that runs throughout the canyon.

The heart of the area we would be exploring is only accessible from the Green River by boat, unless you have permission to travel through one of the large private ranches and hike or ride down into the canyon. For our expedition, one group of 19 rafters would travel down the Green River while the horse crew of nine would enter from the Tavaputs Plateau Ranch into Desolation Canyon through Rock Creek. The elevation change would be more than 5,500 feet — deeper than the Grand Canyon.

While each group would do archaeological surveying throughout the journey, we would rendezvous for three days at Flat Canyon, where the horse crew would be restocked with supplies. Flat Canyon and the adjacent canyons would be the most remote area and appeared to have the most promising possibilities for new discovery. Even the resurveying of previous sites would be important to monitor vandalism as civilization creeps closer along new oil and gas exploration roads that have provided access for all-terrain vehicle riders.

Before we left, Jerry called and asked if I could bring more horses. Because of elk season, they were having trouble securing enough.

Brad and Tina Barber had room for two extra horses in their trailer and I could tow four, so I volunteered to bring six.

Our adventure started with a meeting of the horse crew in the late afternoon at a supermarket parking lot in Sunnyside, a small town 25 miles southeast of Price. Our group consisted of historian Steve Gerber and his wife, Sandy, open space land consultant Brad Barber and his wife, Tina, Duchesne County Commissioner Kent Peatross and his wife, Susan, me and Heidi and archaeologist Bill Davis.

It was raining, and Butch and Jeanie Jensen, owners of the Tavaputs Plateau Ranch, left word at the store that we wouldn't make it towing our horses. After Sunnyside we needed to travel on steep switchbacks on a dirt road to Bruin Point, a climb of more than 4,000 feet in eight miles. If we were lucky enough to make it to Bruin Point, there were miles of nearly impassable mud roads.

We would be fortunate to get to the ranch at all, even with four-wheel drive.

We needed to find a place to leave our horses and come back for them when the weather dried out. Fortunately, we were directed to Walt Eyre's home in nearby East Carbon. He graciously let us keep all 12 horses (Kent brought four) and trailers there for the night. After a harrowing drive through mountain roads, mud flats and snow, we arrived around 10 p.m. at the Tavaputs Plateau Ranch to a warm fireplace and one of Jeanie Jensen's famous meals.

Anxious to gather the horses the following morning, we were advised to wait a few hours — it had snowed a few inches and we would have to wait for the roads to dry out. Just after noon we headed back toward Sunnyside. After several complications and most of the afternoon, we were again at the ranch, but this time with our horses and hopeful that we could start early in the morning.

We awoke to a freezing, windy and brisk morning, but the skies were clear and we were biting at the bit to get on the trail. It wasn't long before I came to the realization that this trip wasn't exactly what I was led to believe. This was no "guided trip."

Steve Gerber, whose father had once owned the Tavaputs Ranch decades ago, was our leader.

He'd been down the first section before, but never on a horse, and the "guiding" from the Green River on was just from information he and Jerry (who was with the raft group) had gathered from others. The packhorses were Kent's two extra horses, one of Brad's and Tina would ride one of mine. After a couple of hours of packing horses, it was evident we had too much equipment for three horses. Brad asked if we could use one of mine (which had never packed) and Tina would hike. Even with Max loaded as the fourth packhorse, there was no room for Heidi's and my camping gear, which we tied on the back of our saddles. Finally, long after noon, we were off — like a herd of turtles.

We lasted about 200 yards when a strap on Kent's packhorse came loose and Lacy started bucking her gear off piece by piece, which, of course, sent the rest of the horses into a frenzy.

Kent took it in stride and blamed his packing, saying, "If you haven't experienced a wreck, you really haven't had much experience with packing animals." Another half hour of repacking and we were ready to ride. However, Sandy was afraid to get back on her horse. After some coaxing, she agreed to climb back on if she didn't have to steer and Steve would lead the horse on a rope. Again, we were off, and although we were fighting a bitter wind, it seemed that we were making good time. If fact, maybe too good. Steve was familiar with the area, but he couldn't seem to locate the road that took us to Van Deusen trailhead. Tina, who was hiking, was having a hard time keeping up with the horses, so she and Heidi took turns riding and hiking. After an hour or so, Kent came back from the front and said he had hit the gate we drove in on. We had missed the road. We backtracked another half hour and found the turnoff, which Steve assured us was the right one.

Heidi's horse, Star, spooked on a dead deer carcass, and worried Star was going to start bucking, Heidi slipped off the horse.

By this point she was somewhat spooked herself and was having a difficult time getting back on the circling horse.

To make matters worse, her normally attentive husband (me) wasn't anywhere near as I was busy teaching Max to lead.

After some very careful encouragement, Heidi was back in the saddle and we were headed down the road, only to find a very worried Jeanie Jensen driving from the trailhead in her truck. She had not seen our tracks on the road and knew we had been lost. "What are you guys doing?" she asked Heidi, who simply pointed back at Steve and said, "Ask the one in charge. I have just one question: Are we on the right road?"

Around four o'clock we reached an old cabin site near the trailhead, and Steve questioned whether we should continue down the trail (which he estimated would be a two- or three-hour ride) or camp for the night. It wasn't much of a vote. Steve was the only one who had any idea what we were in for, and he made the call to set up camp. So far, the trip was an auspicious start the Donner Party could have related to.

The next day we woke to temperatures in the 20s. Kent's horses, two with hobbles on, started running up the canyon and appeared to be heading for home.

Kent chased them on foot, while Brad and I quickly saddled up and herded them back toward camp. After breakfast and moving the horses around for water and better grazing, we broke camp and tested our newly found packing skills, finishing in a less than stellar two hours.

It took only a few minutes of riding before Susan was having trouble with her 4-year-old mare, ironically named Faith. Kent (who is one of the best horsemen I've been around) traded horses with her, but the young mare got the best of Kent. The mare reared over backward, crushing Kent's legs, pelvis and smashing his face.

Insisting he was all right, Kent, bloodied and sore, simply got back on the horse.

Riding on the narrow Van Deusen trail, with steep canyons below and panoramic views in all directions, is breathtaking — especially considering that one misstep by your horse and you're a goner. Soon after we started on the section that had serious exposure, Brad yelled out from behind me to stop. We were in trouble. The panniers (packs) on Max had slipped and were hanging under his belly.

Fortunately Max froze on trail and allowed us to repack the gear. Had he started bucking, he would probably be off the edge.

Once we caught up to the group and had lunch, the trail left the high ridge and abruptly descended down the mountain over large boulders and loose scree. I remember riding across Dead Horse Pass with several horse skeletons off the trail in the Uinta Wilderness Area — this was more extreme. Not only was the footing critical, but the metal panniers on the packhorses would hit branches and rock cliffs on the way down, pushing the horses off the trail. It gave new meaning to the phrase, "between a rock and a hard place."

Where it was too dangerous to ride, the horses would slip down the steep trail, often without being able to stop, threatening to crush the person leading the horse from below.

We reached the floor of Rock Creek Canyon exhausted but relieved that no one was hurt, with about an hour of daylight left. Missing the road and choosing to camp early before heading down the trail was a godsend. Had we been on that trail in the dark, it would have been certain disaster.

We rode down the canyon until we reached a stunning Fremont shield pictograph panel — our first encounter with any sign of the ancient ones. Anxious to do some archaeology, Bill and Steve rerecorded the site and three pithouse structures, while the rest of us traveled down the canyon to set up camp before dark.

After breaking camp the following morning, we rode to the Green River and had lunch at the historic Rock Creek Ranch. This ended the "defined" part of our journey where actual trails existed on the topographical maps. We now ventured toward Flat Canyon based on word of mouth only. Crossing back over Rock Creek, Steve found a trail that headed up into the cliffs above the Green River. Later, Butch Jensen would tell me that the trail had no name. "We just call it the SOB trail," he said. This route to Steer Ridge Basin was about 4 miles long, most of it with hundreds of feet of cliff on the downward side dropping into the river.

While most walked and led their horses, Kent, Susan and I needed to ride, as it was less dangerous to lead the packhorse from horseback rather then leading two horses on the narrow trail. While leading Max and riding Diva, I pulled out my camera to photograph the group in front of me dwarfed by the cliffs, but before lifting my camera, I watched in horror as the trail gave out under the back feet of my big gelding Moscow with Bill on top.

The horse rolled onto the rocks below but stopped before going over the cliff, crushing Bill underneath. Indescribable relief ran through my body watching Bill stand up while grabbing Moscow's reins; apparently, they were all right. I better worry more about the trail and less about photos for now, I thought. As terrifying as Bill's close call was, his scariest moment came a few minutes later while trying to hold one of Susan's packhorses, which started to panic and almost backed over the cliff. Steve, who was leading the group, kept trying to calm Sandy while leading both horses, reached a point where the trail seemed to wash out completely.

While trying to rebuild the trail, one of the horses wandered into the cliffs and cut up its knees slipping while trying to avoid falling off the steep rock ledges.

By the time we reached Steer Ridge Basin, we were all somewhat traumatized.

We quickly found a campsite, while I rode up to a nearby rafting group and asked for some water. Steve had a satellite phone and had been leaving messages with the other group, and they clearly knew we were in trouble. Bill had a large cut along his scalp and his leg was starting to bruise and stiffen. Susan cleaned and dressed the wound.

I told her that I didn't realize she was a nurse. "I'm not," she said, "but I've raised a lot of children and I can do this!"

A rafting group pulled into our campsite with supplies from the river crew. We weren't going to go hungry.

Despite the day's trauma, spirits were high. Steve assured us that the rest of the trail was a fairly easy ride, except for possibly one difficult area, maybe two.

After our morning packing ritual, we headed across Steer Basin toward Flat Canyon, and during a repacking break, Sandy found what might be the jewel of our journey — a set of wood panniers that had been abandoned under a large rock boulder. While recording the site, Bill and Steve estimated that they may have been from the Harvard expedition.

Riding along the thick wall of tamarisk trees lining the Green River, we reached a point where the canyon rock ledge met the river, with no sign of a trail. We took a break while Steve, Tina and I scouted the area. Steve found a trail that headed up through the cliffs that we followed for more than a mile. It was the most technical, rocky, brutal stretch we had encountered so far.

In several places there were 3- and 4-foot boulders the horses would have to jump over.

We had a short conference on the mountain. "Steer Ridge is impassable," said Steve. We had three options. We could go back to Tavaputs the way we came, try fording the river (although he had read many disastrous accounts of such attempts) or we could scout all the way to Flat Canyon before taking the horses.

To Steve's credit, he knew we were in a dangerous situation, and he wasn't going to take the horses on any more trails without thoroughly scouting them. We decided to scout the trail to Flat Canyon. As the trail worsened, Steve kept insisting that with a little time, he could rebuild the trail. I thought to myself, "We can probably build the pyramids, but this is crazy."

Finally we reached a point where the trail (if that is what it was) was completely taken out by a rock slide.

Returning to the group, we rode back to our Steer Basin campsite and regrouped.

That night we put on what Heidi referred to as our "men brains," and finally Brad stated what the rest of us were thinking: It didn't matter if it took us extra days to get out, the main issue was safety.

Steve finally reached the river crew on the satellite phone. They would meet us on their way out at noon and take whatever extra gear we had to lighten the load for the horses. Steve also called his dad, who informed him that we could ride out Steer Ridge. Word also came that trail work had been done there as recently as three weeks ago. The plan was to scout Steer Ridge in the morning and make a decision about how to get out the following day.

Brad, Steve and I would scout the ridge while others recovered, explored and tended camp.

I told Kent and Susan they were in charge of the prayers, to which Kent said, "We've been praying! It's the rest of you guys that need to get with the program."

At dawn, Brad, Steve and I rode up toward Steer Ridge, and although there were many spots we had to scout for the trail, we found fresh horse tracks and trimmed tree limbs. We traveled about halfway up the canyon but only climbed about one-third of the elevation to the high plateau, so we knew the hardest part of the journey was farther up. We needed to head back so we didn't miss the river crew. Being the first to ride back into camp, I was met by anxious stares. I glanced at Heidi and gave her a thumbs up, after which she burst into tears. Her emotions had been held in most of the trip but were now unleashed to the point that I shed a few tears myself. We all celebrated that we had found an easier way out.

Soon after, seven rafts pulled into camp carrying our river contingent.

As they pulled up, Heidi again burst into tears and was joined by Sandy and Susan (Tina already had her cry). It was an emotional gathering, with more than several worried glances coming from the river crew. A shaking, cold, wet and nervous Jerry hugged me with a somewhat sheepish grin, but few words were exchanged. The river crew's excitement over discovery of new Fremont sites and the excavation of an intact basket soon had the group in broad smiles.

Keith Kloor, a New York-based writer who was doing a piece on the trip for Science magazine, had been taking horseback lessons in anticipation of riding out with us in Sandy's place. He had been concerned that trotting might be involved and asked me what I thought. "If you are game, we will get you out, but if you are afraid, don't go." The father of one child and one on the way quickly evaluated the situation and opted to continue down the river.

After a quick lunch, hugs were exchanged and the river crew was on its way with the parting words of "be safe."

Packing the final morning was a somewhat solemn occasion. While Brad cleaned the kitchen, he could see Kent and Susan, true to their word, kneeling in prayer inside their dome tent. A group photo was taken, and we were off. The upper part of Steer Ridge ended up being the most technical ride of the trip. Two of the horses fell while trying to climb a set of rock ledges during a steep long stretch, but the exposure to the cliffs wasn't as extreme as the other routes. With careful scouting we slowly made our way to the top, where we reached a jeep road.

After a brief celebration, we starting riding hard — it was getting dark and we weren't certain where our trucks had been dropped off.

As the light started to fade, a winter storm blew in, decreasing our visibility to about 25 feet.

The horses in front left the road, and I couldn't understand why they were leading us into such danger at dark.

After a small panic, we saw the silhouettes of trucks and trailers poking through the snowy horizon where they had been shuttled. Quickly we unpacked and made a run up the canyon, sliding over about 6 inches of snow. When we reached a hill we could not climb, we unloaded the horses and led them up the hill and discovered we were next to the Hunt Oil corrals. We fed the horses and left them for the night.

About 11 p.m. we stumbled into the Tavaputs Plateau Ranch and Jeanie's arms. "Welcome home to the Tavaputs Ranch," Jeanie said. "We were worried sick about you."

A few stories were told around the fire. Butch and Jeanie's son, Tate, told me that he told Jerry not to take us down there on horses. "We lose animals down there. All it takes is one knucklehead horse or cow and it is over the edge, but he didn't want to listen to us dumb cowboys." They don't take their guests down there — it is just too dangerous.

Waking up to a foot of snow, we had to wait to drive back down the canyon.

On the way out, we hit a steep area still covered with snow, and the trucks started to slide off the road. Kent drove his truck first and opted to let it ride at a high speed down the snowy mountain without touching the brakes while Susan sat terrified in the passenger seat. "It was the tenth scariest thing I had done all week," she later joked. My trailer started pushing the truck down the hill. We unloaded the horses, and soon after, the trailer jackknifed. It wrecked the front of the trailer and the back of the truck. Using Brad's winch, we pulled the rig back on the road, and Bill drove it out. I ended up riding Diva along with my five horses back to Bruin Point, where Heidi joined me and we rode down the steep Sunnyside Canyon, letting the other four horses run free. It was the best ride of the entire trip.

In saying goodbye, we shared hugs and good wishes. We'd had a frightening journey, but we shared it with a wonderful group of people.

Susan looked me in the eye and said, "Tom, there was only one thing that got us out, and that was God." I couldn't argue the point, but Brad's winch, chains, great horses and some serious scouting had helped considerably. Heidi shook Steve's hand and only had eight words. "I'm just glad we all got out alive."

Later at dinner with Brad and Tina, we tried to get some perspective on our experience. Finger-pointing about whose fault it was that we were put at such risk wasn't important, because in spite of the high probability of injury to a person or animal, the only injuries sustained were cuts and bruises. (All of the horses had cuts.) Brad shared the thought that he would like to look back on the experience as one of our greatest accomplishments, to get everyone and all the horses out safely.

As for me, it wasn't close to what I expected, but it was what I promised Heidi: "a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

E-mail: smart@desnews.com