I pay no attention to river safety talks. Strainers, hydraulics, swift currents. I get it: the river wants to kill me. I wasn’t paying attention to the San Juan ranger either. It was hot. I had just totted 480 pounds of water. I was half-asleep when his voice buzzed inside my skull. I’ve slept with a dead body on those ledges. I snapped out of my reverie. Peeking at everyone from under the brim of my hat, I wondered if they’d heard what I’d heard. Everyone was still smiling amicably. So no, we were not his confessional. In that case he was playing the body recovery card. Where’s your last camp? Grand Gulch? Oh yeah, that’s where we sleep when we go down the river to pick up bodies. The subtext was: be careful or this could be you.
It’s hogwash, of course. He implies that the implacable drowned will be floating by at breakfast every morning. If they do, the newspapers keep it under wraps. Only one drowning is reported since I was here in 2010: a swimmer, not a paddler. (Alcohol and water don’t mix. Unless it’s fine bourbon and branch water.) Or he thinks we don’t know that Slickhorn is a better spot. Closer to roads. More rotor clearance. And his spiel ignores the fact that it would take a lot of work to get this river to kill you. There are no undercut rocks, no horrendous holes, towering waves, dangerous strainers. Leave powerful sequential maneuvering out of your bag of tricks. The rapids don’t quite peg the needle at Class III.
Still, the ranger makes a point. August is a fine time to be on the San Juan. But it adds the risk of flash floods, sunstroke, dehydration. And a desert that doesn’t sport a reliable water hole for 20 miles in any direction. Doesn’t matter where you’re standing at the time. Glancing around again, I figured we could toss in coronaries and aneurysms for good measure. In short, floating this river is as risky as living in a city. I went back to my somnolence. Survival is exhausting.
I didn’t have to worry about that stuff anyway. Heather was our trip leader. Worrying was her job. Heather is a natural-born trip leader. When she worries, it doesn’t show. She is organized, thoughtful, experienced. Her love of the outdoors borders on a fetish. She is adventurous without being crazy. Her lithe frame belies a sturdiness and tirelessness that is the envy of younger people. Most important, her buffered personality let’s her tolerate a wide range of people. She famously shows up at the put-in in a dress–as she would for any important event. And she can read a map. Any map.
The next six days were a testament to her talents. For a typical trip like ours, experienced boaters show up equipped, pool their resources, and float away. The ducklings she was leading to water this time was a family group. I’ll call them The Wingers.* They had come 1400 miles to do this. Heather put it together from soup to nuts. Down to the last strap, carabiner, and dry bag, no detail escaped her attention. With help from J, a member of the Winger clan, she divvied up the gear, got everyone into a boat, and we headed off.
(*I’ve changed the family name since they probably weren’t expecting this report to be on the Internet.)
Day 1: Archeology. The Bluff, Utah welcome signs have it established in 650 A.D. Swallow that whole if you will. It implies that The Ancients hadn’t wandered into the area until the time the English were developing poetry. When they did they must have thrown up some master-planned communities then hung out hunting, gathering, farming and fishing until the Anglos arrived. Happy with the newcomers, they deeded the place over to them and moved on. The truth is more fractured. Nomads used the area millenniums before fundamentalists place Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Dwellings appeared around the time the Israelites were packing for the wilderness. But The Ancients were attuned to the land. They didn’t stay where they weren’t wanted. They drifted in and out of the area with subtle shifts in rainfall or crop yield. Cedar Mesa was never permanently occupied in the way that we might think of Jerusalem or Paris or Pittsburgh. Whatever else happened, we know that a mass abandonment of the region occurred in the 16th century. When the bedraggled Latter Day Saints arrived in 1880, the Anasazi had been gone for three hundred years.
So Bluff was established in 1880 and not a moment before. But like most lies, the welcome signs hold a germ of truth. The middens of The Ancients are tucked away throughout the area. If you have a high tolerance for solitude, thirst, sunburn and blackened toenails, Cedar Mesa will yield a lifetime of exploration. I hope to get around to that someday. In the short term, I study our group.
J has been this way before. He is a competent boater who knows fluid dynamics. Whatever outdoor resumé he had before meeting Heather is even beefier now. He knows what he’s doing.
Then we have a sweetheart couple in a tandem boat. When they drew the straw for it, we made all of the usual jokes about tandem boats being divorce boats. But they are enjoying it. Before the end of the day they’ll dub it the Love Boat. No worries there.
The dean of the clan is a guy like me. He’s been around the block a few times. He’s observant, adaptive, a natural learner. He’s had a chance to hone his stoicism through long canoe trips and longer northern winters. He won’t say when he’s reached his limit. But this trip is probably well within them. He’ll be fine. That leaves the littlest and biggest Wingers.
The Littlest Winger doesn’t seem to have been outdoors much. She has never paddled before. This is a lot to chew and her apprehension is clear. Apprehension is fear looking through a keyhole. I get it. My first river trip was only eight miles. And I was scared stupid. She has to go eighty-four. So maybe fear will push her into bad decisions. But I sense a steely inner core. And there’s no doubt she’ll say exactly how she feels. She’ll probably be okay in a day.
The Biggest Winger is a tougher read. A man of few words, he sits in his boat like Buddha, contemplative, staring at the shoreline drifting by for long minutes on end. What’s going on under the brim of his hat is hard to say. Maybe he’s jamming as much of this as he can into his brain’s electro-chemical memory circuits. If he’s fascinated by the landscape, we’re on the same page. I’ve licked rocks in Utah just to see what they taste like. Maybe he’s like me, dreaming of being a turkey vulture floating high above this desert. Who knows? We’ll see what happens at Eight-foot, the first rapids. ‘Til then there’s nothing to worry about.
Meanwhile, I hate it. I have spent too much time in the office. Too little outdoors. My boat is heavy. It defies Newtonian physics. The water is slow. Somewhere ahead the river squeezes through Lime Ridge, gaining speed. Things will be easier then. For now, the air is tempered by gathering clouds. And we have some archeology to explore: River House and The Butler Petroglyph Panel.
Both are worth planning stops for. But they are unique only in that they are right along the river. On Comb Ridge you can’t swing a cat without hitting a petroglyph or a cliff dwelling. Heather, who is also a field archeologist, supposes that most of the east-facing drainages on Comb Ridge contain either of these. And Comb Ridge gets it’s name from being a series of undulating teeth on a ninety-mile long sandstone monocline. The gap between each tooth is a drainage. There are hundreds of drainages.
We meander along under lowering skies. The water speeds up. Along the shore, wild burros, mule deer, mustangs, and Canada geese drift past us moving upstream.
Cruising now, we hit a larger-than-usual riffle called Four-foot. The muddy river looks like chocolate frosting dancing and foaming in a peyote hallucination. After another mile we pull in, haul our dry bags far above the sighing river, and set up camp.
Day 2: This is a land of ghosts. I slept last night on fossils. My bed was an ancient sea bed–stone scored with the skeletons of long vanished arthropods. And it was not the top layer of rock in this canyon. Seas came and went, each one now a layer of stone in layers rising hundreds of feet above the river. Now those seas are a desert. Gone. The Basketmakers came and went. The Puebloans came and went. The Anasazi are gone. Ghosts.
You’d think that the Mormons would have toughed it out. Their journey from Salt Lake to Bluff defies belief. But things must have been even tougher after they arrived. They sent back for permission to return. The bishops denied them, of course. But to this day Bluff looks more like an encampment than a Mormon town. Blanding and Monticello have sandstone municipal buildings and tree-lined streets. The touches that show the solid, industrious core of the Latter Day Saints. Not Bluff. I’m not sure there are any Mormons there. And it looks like it could disappear from the maps any moment. On some maps it already has.
This is a land that will not be lived in. Mendenhall’s Cabin is a crumbling into a pile of rocks. The Honaker Trail is now just a curiosity, used only by river runners. The drilling equipment at Slickhorn Canyon rusts into the ground one iron oxide molecule at a time. A DNA study even has the enigmatic Everett Ruess’ footsteps ending at Comb Ridge. Ghosts.
Our little group is most transitory of all. We survive only because we carry everything we need in our small pneumatic boats.
Oops! We lose two Wingers at Eight-foot.
Heather decided we should scout this little rapids. Good idea. In three trips I’ve not had a solid look at it. After seventeen miles of riffles it is a bit of a surprise. You round the corner and there it is. The main drop isn’t the problem. The river skirts a cliff wall, turns right, and plunges over a boulder pile. It is short, straight, to the point. The problem is that swift water continues for another sixty yards beyond that. A flip could mean a long swim.
So we scout, pointing out the best route. I go first and park in an eddy just past the main drop. J joins me. The Dean drops through and wanders off downstream. The Love Boat bounces past. The Littlest Winger rounds the corner too far from the cliff wall, corrects, and floats through. She takes up a spot in the opposite eddy. Then the Biggest Winger paddles to the lip heading straight for a pour-over to the left of the rock splitting the channel. By the time I get back in my boat he’s flipped. He keeps his paddle and hangs onto his boat. Good. But the waves are pushing muddy water into his mouth with every breath. I paddle out, grab his boat, and he swims to shore.
J paddles up to assist. He peels off at a shout from upstream. The Littlest Winger had left her spot in the eddy. Not quite clearing the rocks, she went into the drink. Gripping her paddle, she threw herself across her boat’s bottom, righting it with the flip strap. A textbook self-rescue. J towed her the rest of the way in.
By the time we rearranged everything, the Biggest Winger came crashing through the desert willow. We continued on.
After lunch at Ledge Rapid the affect of heat and light became narcotic. I nearly fell asleep in my boat. The muddy water’s surface seemed semi-solid. Golden. The affect was more like gliding down a river than floating on it.
The Raplee Anticline, which we’ve been paddling through most of the morning, turns downward suddenly. We emerge without warning into open country. The river loops north then south again. The loop gives us time to admire the anticline’s sage and cinnamon swirls and Mexican Hat Rock. (My choice for the state symbol.) We pass yet another abandoned road to another failed drill hole, then an empty horse corral. Finally we drop through Island Rapid.
I love following other boats through Island. The duckie in front dances down the riffle then drops out of sight. It reappears bounding over one wave, then another. By then the drop sucks you in and grabs your attention. It feels like a much bigger rapids.
At Mexican Hat–gas station, church, motel and two cafes–we boost our water and beer supply. It is paltry Mormon three-two beer. But there’s nothing else. Pushing into the current again, we pass under the single-arch bridge and into Cedar Mesa.
The Wingers stop for a hike to Mendenhall’s cabin. I paddle across the river to nap in the shade. As they walk up the ledge, I am amused that only our second day in the muddy flow has already given us all the same dun colored clothes.
Of the ghosts haunting this land, the Mendenhalls, brothers, must have taken the cake. Their stone cabin decays in the saddle of the first of many loops traced by this stretch of river. The story has it supporting a gold claim. I think not. The brothers knew that there was only placer gold here. I think they liked the solitude and the view. They may have been crackpots. But they were my kind of crackpots.
The sound of the sighing river fills my nap. The lulling white noise echoes from the rising stone walls. I am reminded that Adam and Eve heard the voice of god on the afternoon breeze. The voice of god is in the breeze. It is in the sighing, lulling river too. And why not? Especially these desert rivers. After all, didn’t Yahweh find his chosen people in the desert?:
“He found his people in a desert land
In a barren howling waste”
The voice of god is in these desert rivers. But we plug them, dam them, divert them. Anything to quiet that voice. Anything to end the solitude that forces us to confront our existence. Anything to exert dominion, our illusion that we are the supreme animal on this planet. It doesn’t matter. The shadow I nap in creeps toward the water. When it crosses over and engulfs the rim I will be long gone. The darkness is coming. I am glad I will not be here. Why can’t we just leave some things alone?
The Wingers return. We float single file the final two miles to camp. Tonight we are on a set of ledges just out of the water. Behind us are some short cliffs. Heather and I look for escape routes in case the 1500 cubic feet we are paddling on becomes 9000 or 15,000 during the night. After all, it is August in San Juan County, Utah. Thunderheads have been boiling up, just in view above the canyon walls, all day.
Shortly after camp goes quiet, the first raindrops patter onto my sleeping bag. At first it feels like the tickling, teasing edge of a virgus. These light rains evaporate as they fall, sometimes never touching the ground. Soon it rains in earnest. At first I am annoyed. This is the third straight night rain interrupts my sleep. But soon that soothing smell wafts over me. Petrichor. The blood of gods flowing from stone. A bit much. What actually happens is that some plant oils are absorbed into the clay during dry spells. Rain releases it into the air along with geosmin. Geosmin is the bacteria that supplies the earthy taste to beets and catfish. Distant lightning adds ozone and the three combine into a soothing, primeval odor. Gary Nabhan’s words float in with distant thunder:
“One minute you will be smelling dust. The next, the desert can smell just like rain.”
I spread my sleeping bag, covering my pad so at least it stays dry. After awhile the clouds scud away revealing a moon already arcing below the canyon rim. Scorpio looks like it is crawling after it. The waxing moon is unusually bright. I watch some meteors streak across the sky before drifting to sleep.
Day 3: The river is older than the mesa. Cedar Mesa is a recent development in the evolution of the Colorado Plateau. At some point, the San Juan River drained out of the Uncompahgre Uplift, the ancestral Rockies, onto a plain. Like all plains rivers it meandered. Where Cedar Mesa now stands it had sinuous looping curves, like a sidewinder slipping down a dune. Then, as just one more feature in a spectacular plateau, a large anticline, the Monument Upwarp, rose. Within that formed the bowed, bent rock of Cedar Mesa. As Cedar Mesa lifted, the river remained where it was. The layers of the mesa rose past it, like pushing cake up through a knife blade. That left the feature that we will paddle through today: The Goosenecks.
The Goosenecks is the finest example of an entrenched meander on the planet. If it were on the Missouri or Mississippi, passing through a set of low bluffs, we would not notice it. But this incised meander is in a deep desert canyon. We will paddle over ten miles today and go less than five in a straight line. Impressive.
The canyon squeezes the river into a narrows. The flow is swift and smooth. For us the river doesn’t move at all. We sit on the waters’ surface–a reflective mosaic of rock and golden light–while the world moves around us. The canyon walls flow past. The sun makes circles around us. But we don’t move at all. The effect is mesmerizing. I notice that everyone has stopped paddling. The current bears us through a holy silence. There is no wind. No water gurgling around rocks. No birds chattering. No voices. I can hear only the tympanic plop of droplets falling from my paddle blade. The moment reaches out and touches the edge of eternity. I don’t even want to breath.
But we must. We must breath. We must paddle. We must direct our duckies downriver to where crazy old man Honaker forced a trail down into the canyon.
When we arrive, the clouds have evaporated and it is hot. On other trips I crawled into the shade of a tamarisk and waited for the bighorn sheep to come to drink. But the tamarisk are dead. Their spindly branches are brown, dried, lifeless. Their wholesale demise is no accident.
Tamarisk is a Middle Eastern exotic, an invasive species. Within a century of its arrival here you could find it in every river bottom in the southwest. People grew to hate it. Even the laconic Edward Abbey called it a plague. But why? It provided greenery, prevented river bank erosion, created bird habitat.
The story of the arid west is a story of water. A story of reclamation. We need water to drink. There is plenty for that. But we want water to farm. To mine. That stretches the supply. So the agricultural and extraction industries saw a competitor in tamarisk. If it was thriving then it must be drawing huge amounts of water from the river. And if that’s so, then eradicating it leaves more water for farmers and miners. We turned it into a monster onto which we could heap the ills of our existence.
The bureaucrats and managers cut and burned and bulldozed. Every effort just made more tamarisk grow in its place. Then someone discovered Diorahadba elongata, the Mediterranean tamarisk beetle. This beetle seems to feed only on tamarisk leaves. So they loosed it on the southwest. The logic was that it would control, or (hopefully) eradicate, the tamarisk and nothing else. Some held that defeating the noxious weed would return cottonwoods, willows, box elders and hackberry to their rightful spots.
More hogwash. First, no one ever proved that tamarisk, regardless of its density, ever sucked up more water than the natives. Then there is this hot beach. The willows grow right along the water. Hackberry grows in the shade. Cottonwoods will not grow in the sandy beach soil. The tamarisk did, and provided shade, greenery, screening for the port-a-potty. Now every single one is dead. We string up tarps for shade. We tote the potty one hundred yards from camp. We sit in the river until the sun creeps behind the rim because the beach is a furnace. I’m not sure just what the tamarisks were hurting.
But at least the monstrous weed is gone. Or soon gone. What happens to the beetle then is anyone’s guess. Maybe it dies with the last tamarisk leaf. Maybe it evolves. As everything has for millions of years. We’ll see. Meanwhile, I rig a tarp of my own. My personal tamarisk is gone. I want some shade. And I’d like not getting rained on again tonight.
After awhile I rejoin everyone in the cool river. They are sitting in the water playing Drunk Geology.
At some flows, the San Juan is one-third solids by volume. This is one of those flows. The San Juan itself is dammed. Half the flow we have comes from the bottom of the dam, cool and clear. The other half comes from the Animas, still undammed. The monsoon has been dumping rain around Silverton and Durango for a week. So mud is coming down the Animas. Added to the San Juan flow, we have enough water to float our little boats. But it’s thick.
So the first question in Drunk Geology is: could you filter this to drink? The answer is in our boats. There are eleven gallons strapped into mine in two containers. Ninety pounds of water. In all, we began with ten gallons, for each of eight people, for each of six days. 480 pounds. The answer is: you can’t filter it. The solids would clog the filter before you got a quart.
The next question is: could you settle it, and then filter it? Probably not. After a day or so you would have two layers of liquid. The heavy bottom layer would be silt. Not the top layer. Clay particles are tiny, smaller than 4 µm, small enough to carry a charge. This is why they won’t settle out. The top layer would be a colloidal suspension of aluminum silicate: clay.
Clay results from chemical weathering. Water carries carbolic acid into rock leaching out aluminum silicates. The clay flowing through our shorts came from silicate bearing rock on the Rockies’ western slope. For now it ends up in Lake Powell. Powell will completely silt over in time. Then the Colorado will run over the dam, eroding it, just as it did with the larger volcanic plug that is now Lava Falls. What will happen after that is anyone’s guess. From there the clay may make it to the sea, forming layers on the bottom. It may be compressed into shale or slate. In a million years it may have risen into another desert, cut by another river, explored by other blue-eyed bedouins.
So water erodes clay from rock and transports it to form rock somewhere else. At this point the Biggest Winger speaks up. So which came first then, clay or rock? Ah, so he hasn’t just been drifting along dozing like me.
The geologists debate the order. But they are thinking on a macro level–at the chicken and egg level. The answer is that rock came first. Our planet’s building material came from stars no longer burning. A stars’ thermonuclear furnace fuses light elements, helium and hydrogen, into heavy ones. These eject into space when the star collapses into a white dwarf. If a star goes supernova, even heavier elements form and are ejected. Either way, these elements–silicon, carbon, iron–clump and cluster in space over epochs forming planets. Planetary gravity attracts hydrogen and oxygen. In the case of Earth, the right temperature let’s those combine to form water. The planet, the stone, came first. Then water. Then clay.
Drunk Geology concludes with my favorite conversational snippet from the trip. Half of the Love Boat couple says: “This water is drying out my skin.” The other half replies: “It’s a 2:1 clay silicate.”
The sun sails over the rim. The bighorn sheep do not appear. Heather lights a stove under a huge pot of water, starting dinner. I realize that I am famished. The darkness gathers. We eat. I slink off to my camp. The stars appear. I won’t need my tarp tonight.
Day 4: Once again into the dreamscape. Now we meander through the canyon with an incredible lightness. There is joy and solemnity in every paddle stroke. We pass miles of tortured, twisted, fractured rock. The rarest of Utah treats, a cloudy sky, shades our passage. Bighorn sheep graze just off the water. Canada geese plod the silty banks. We spy occasional beaver slides. A beaver swims alongside me at one point. Gliding down the river seems reason enough to exist. My reverie is broken only twice. Once, The Dean, maybe in a dream state like mine, missed seeing a barely submerged rock and flipped. Another time we pulled in, scouted, and ran Ross Rapids.
But the walls of the canyon are lowering. Our days here are ending. We arrive at our camp at Johns Canyon in time for shade, and reflections of the sky in mud and water.
Every group on the San Juan wants to stop here. The beach is large and accommodating. A riffle makes a soothing background noise. Johns Canyon ends in a cliff. If the creek is running there is a waterfall. That falls once began flowing in the middle of the night, waking us up to play until the small hours of morning. And, with a short, slightly tricky hike, you can get to the pool above the falls. Filter drinking water. Rinse silt from your hair. Lay in the shade and dream. Your choice. It is a wonderful pool.
Today, though, no one else is here. Three groups put on with us on Sunday. We never saw the first two again. We passed the third at River House and have not seen them since. We are the only group on this stretch of river. For the first time ever we have this spot to ourselves.
Clouds billow up here and there in the backcountry. Their tops peek just over the rim. I grub into the bottom of my big blue dry bag and drag out my tent. The guy chords are still white. In three dozen days on Utah rivers I’ve pulled it out only twice. I’m hoping I don’t need it tonight.
Here I must make a confession. Like most, I have a carnal lover. Mine is a delight. Passionate and sensuous, after 35 years I cannot keep her from my mind through the course of a day. The moonlight infuses her skin with an ethereal glow. And her caress is a maddening pleasure. As with anything so wonderful, I aim for fidelity. But I have another love. I sneak out at night. I use camping and backpacking and river trips as an excuse to see her. She is the desert night sky.
My river companions no doubt think me a dolt. I know I appear antisocial. I slip away after dinner foregoing tequila, songs, conversation. My goal is to get a nap. If I can stay hydrated, then between the nap, my aching back, and an urge to pee, I’ll wake in the middle of the night. And there they will be. Stars like you cannot see anywhere else.
This trip is particularly good. The moon is waxing. In a few nights it will be full and occupy the sky all night. But now it sets below the rim sometime during the night. When it does, the Milky Way brightens almost enough to read by. As we glide down the river, the planet has glided into an asteroid field. Our gravitational pull tips their delicate balance. They leave their place in space. They accelerate. They ignite in the mesosphere. Tonight there are lots. They take on a musical rhythm. They are a symphony of light. Staccato. Staccato. Glissando. Attacco. Crescendo. This is spiritual, not carnal. A delight nonetheless.
Last night the Milky Way aligned with our tiny section of canyon, running right between the rims. Tonight it crosses at an angle. Tonight I face west instead of east and some new constellations appear. Maybe I am just nosy. But a tent gets in the way of this. Rain and insects send me into a tent sometimes. I prefer the open sky. And here it is especially wild. There are no cities close by. The night sky is velvety dark. One trip years ago ended on Independence Day. We camped in The Valley of the Gods. As we lay awake watching the stars, the Milky Way burned brighter than the fireworks in Kayenta forty miles south.
I drift to sleep infused with a sense of wonder.
Day 5: Government Rapids. On our track north, we passed trailer trucks carrying inflated Grand Canyon rigs, bound for Page. Banners at both ends of the vehicle declared: OVERSIZE LOAD. Rigs this size carry the busloads of tourists that float Grand Canyon. And sometimes they come in handy for the house-height waves encountered there. On the San Juan we need nothing like that. Our duckies are enough. Government is the biggest rapids we encounter. There are some large boulders blocking the current. And some paddlers rate it Class III. But on many rivers Government wouldn’t make a ripple. And the correct line through it is straight.
We stop and scout anyway. First, it’s nice to get out of the boats. To ambulate. To view the scenery from a different angle. Next, it helps build anticipation. In lovemaking and river running anticipation means as much as anything. Last, our gear is critical. We are still carrying water and food. I have expensive cameras. Sending this stuff into the thick brown water through carelessness or inattention would be stupid. So we scout.
The Littlest Winger skipped Ross. But Government looked like too much fun to miss. She decided to tail Heather through the waves. Heather briefed everyone on the hazards, the correct line, the way to triangulate the entry. I knew what I wanted to do. Stashing my camera boxes under a rock, I stumbled off to run it first.
By the time I ran it and set up my camera, the Love Boat appeared at the top of the drop. They scooted through clean with synchronized strokes. The Dean dropped in next, smooth as you please. J made his run with just a few paddle strokes. The Biggest Winger hit the tail waves without moving his paddle at all. Heather dropped in like a feather. She got swung to the right, almost did a dosey-doe with The Rock, and continued on.
The Littlest Winger saw the bobble. But she had no time to correct. She didn’t brush The Rock hard. Had she been a bullfighter performing a veronica, the bull would have just popped a button on her traje de luces. But it was enough. The boat careened. For a moment she hung on, poised between paddling and swimming. Swimming won.
She grabbed her boat and floated into the pool. Short, sweet Government Rapids spit her out unharmed. Everyone posed for photos of the survivors and we continued down the waning canyon.
The afternoon sky won’t float a cloud. The dryness turns it an intense blue, sapphire above, cerulean at the edges. Passenger jets pass forty-thousand feet overhead. I would swear that you could count every rivet. We pull in at Slickhorn Canyon. I found myself looking forward to the big plunge pool there. True, our days in mud are almost done. One more day in clothes stiff with silt and salt won’t make a difference. But a little relief would be nice. We could have a swim in something akin to fresh water. We move without haste, hugging the shadier east wall, looking for fossils in the shale layer. My mind races ahead to the cool green pool.
It was not to be. Like the air around us, Slickhorn is bone dry. Heather and I stare into the circular stone pit. The cattails on the downstream side are drying. Going to seed. And it’s August, not September. Our dejection must have been palpable. On the way back we pass a puddle. The tadpoles in it cluster toward the deep end. The water just covers their backs. They are too young to breath air. If a storm in the backcountry doesn’t come soon, evaporation dooms them.
We trudge back to the river, past the rusting drill rig. Another ghost. Another dream the desert did not take part in.
We dawdle. There is no sense arriving at Grand Gulch ahead of sunset. Heather times it with perfection. We unload our boats, sinking our sandals into the viscous silt for the last time. I can’t believe it’s over. I’m not ready for it to be.
It’s Heather’s birthday so I try being more helpful than usual prepping dinner. As the pasta boils, someone passes around the last flask of tequila. The conversation is interesting. But I find myself distracted by Grand Gulch behind us. It twists and rises for fifty miles to the crest of Cedar Mesa. Archeologists tell me that cliff dwellings and petroglyphs line its length. I know only the first half mile beyond the river. It is enough for now. There is a cliff there. There is a seep in the sandstone. There is a cottonwood tree. A spirit inhabits that spot. It is one of three places I’ve ever been where a spirit was active the moment I was there. I am not asserting belief in sentient invisible powers. Such things don’t exist. But something was there. I felt it. It draws to me to see more of Grand Gulch. Someday.
Dusk. I sneak away for my nap. I awake to a brighter moon. The Milky Way is paler. But the shooting stars are more and brighter. I lay awake watching. And listening. The river sounds spent here. Under the surface it builds piles of sand and then gurgles, like a delighted baby, when it pushes them over. Nearer, water laps at the ledges we sleep on. Maybe one of the implacable drowned floats by in the moonlight. Maybe a helicopter will come whirring over the rim, its klieg lights scanning the river. But I doubt it. The river is no threat to us. Not in the way that we are a threat to it. I drift off to dream of a country filled with free flowing rivers.
Day 6: Oljeto Wash. If you think Government Rapids is the last gift of a slowing river, of a waning canyon, you’d be wrong. Slotting innocuously into the main canyon from the left is Oljeto Wash. From the maps it is easy to ignore. In the parlance of the west, wash usually means shallow and sandy. And dry–though they may sport an ephemeral stream in the rainy season. And perhaps up on the cap stone, up in the Navajo Nation, Oljeto is just that. But here at river level, it is anything but. Here it is a sinuous sandstone canyon with curving vertical walls. And it has the best dried mud anywhere.
While The Wingers tie off their boats and pull out lunches, I unclip my Pelican box and dart off. The light I need is only going to last another hour. And there it is. Golden light glows on the underside of the final layer of sandstone. Sandstone has a natural warm tone. Desert varnish enhances the warmth. Here, the manganese content is low and the varnish is orange. The final affect comes from the curve itself. It keeps the light from going flat, letting me play with color, texture, intensity. Where the walls are dull, I turn my attention to mud.
Clay saturated water flows here over sand and stone. On the sand it dries in thin layers. On the stone it dries in paper-thin layers. On the sand it dries in full curls, like a child’s fingers clutching a quarter. On the stone it peels up in delicate radial onionskin patterns. It is wonderful mud.
I reach a wide spot in the canyon where the light no longer works and start back. Heather has five of the Wingers stashed in the shade along a sweeping north wall. I pause and chat. Further on the sixth Winger is dreaming under an alcove. I don’t linger. People who peel off from the group usually want some time alone.
Soon we are back in the heat and brightness. Clay Hills isn’t far. But we will skirt sandbars all the way, doubling the distance. If the west had been wet for the last two decades, we’d also be paddling on the flat water of Lake Powell. But the west is drying out. The lake is far away. So there is flow. But the dropped load of sand from wetter times remains. We must dodge the bars, find the braided channels. The Biggest Winger leads us down, reading the clues on the surface just right, keeping us from doing an amphibious hike.
The best flow is sometimes right along the cliffs. I love skirting along the smooth stone, reaching out sometimes to brush my hand along it. Not much stone remains above water. In the last several miles hundreds of feet of rock have gone under the river.
Too soon we come again into open country. The Clay Hills, a mile away, swings into view. The Dean wants to press on. I understand. If there were still a Glen Canyon I might go on. But there are drownings on rivers. Glen Canyon lies under the cold deep waters of Lake Powell, drowned. Maybe the depth muffles the roar of jet skis, and the whooping of sunburned rednecks. Maybe beautiful, drowned Glen Canyon doesn’t know the travesty foisted upon it. I doubt it. By now, thousands of crushed Pabst Blue Ribbon cans have floated down into the darkness from the sun dappled surface above. We leave the river and roll up our boats.
It is 8 PM. The Twin Rocks Cafe almost has a Friday night buzz. The Wingers need to be on the road, rewinding 1400 miles of highway to get home. It already seems like yesterday since we deflated our boats and bounced up the dirt road from the take-out. We descended the plateau at the Moki Dugway–a controlled plunge–pausing at Goosenecks State Park to reminisce. But now at Bluff the clock has picked up speed. Its time to wrap up dinner. The waitress brings boxes for leftover Twin Burgers.
We send them off from the parking lot. For Heather and J and I the trip continues. We will do some exploring at Comb Ridge: Procession Panel for me; new sights for Heather and J. From there it’s up across the mesa. Maybe I’ll join them up at the Bears Ears. The camping will be fragrant and cool at 8500′. From there it will be an easy downhill run home to Tucson.
For now the thing to say is that I am proud of the Wingers. Running rivers in little boats is uncomfortable. Uncomfortable, but worthwhile. Rafts mean bacon, eggs, beer, ice, fresh vegetables. Rafts mean stoves and Dutch ovens for cooking. Rafts mean shading umbrellas. It means passengers who ride along in complete leisure. We get none of that. Every mile is work. We bring only what we need. (Though sometimes we have guitars and banjos.) We eat well, but only with careful planning. We don’t go thirsty. But our hats are our only shade. We must plan every detail; we must husband all we carry. Yet there is a certain satisfaction in that. There is satisfaction in the effort, in getting out of our comfort zone. I think of the words of Mary Austin:
“No doubt the labor of being comfortable gives you an exaggerated opinion of yourself, an exaggerated pain to be set aside.”
The Wingers took it all in stride and added long automobile trips as bookends. So I am proud of them. I am proud of everyone who has paddled with me in little boats. It is a group I’m glad to be part of. At some point rafts will not get beyond Slickhorn Canyon. There will be too much sand. Only duckies will make it through. But not long after that no one will. We will not have dammed it; we will have plugged it with sand. For now, the river of water and stone, of dryness and storms, of celestial lights, lets us past. For a price. But it returned more than it took. Under the stars at Comb Ridge, Mary Austin’s words stir in my mind as I fall asleep:
“For all the desert takes of a man it gives compensations; deep breathes, deep sleep and the communion of the stars.”
When you go: Many sections of the San Juan are runnable. The section described here goes from Bluff, Utah (Sand Island) to Clay Hills. A BLM permit is required. There are six named rapids, some rated at Class III. The 84-mile run can be done in five days by determined people. But six or seven days is better. Water from the river cannot be used for drinking and water in side canyons is unreliable. Carry all that you need. The last section of road to the put-in is 14 miles of dirt. It is well maintained and can be used by passenger cars with good tires. Like all dirt roads in Utah it may be impassable when wet.
Photography: Inflatable kayaks are a horrible photographic platform. By the time you clean your hands and remove your expensive camera from its dry box your duckie will have rotated 90 degrees. If doing photography with an expensive camera is important to you, you should hitch ride on a raft. Otherwise carry something small like a Nikon CoolPix and put it in a dry box clipped to your PFD.
Bluff: There are a number of motels in bluff and an RV park. The BLM maintains a campground at the put-in. There are two restaurants and a coffee house. We usually eat at Twin Rocks Cafe. No place will let you use a shower unless you stay there. The BLM campground has running water but no shower. Some places have wi-fi. But cell coverage is sketchy. If you use a GPS consider downloading maps ahead of time.
The Area: There is a lot to explore in Utah. The number of dwellings and petroglyphs left by the ancients around Bluff is staggering. Monument Valley is less than an hour south; Moab is little more than two hours north.