Few things, if any, equal the beauty and excitement of canyon river paddling and camping. There is something special about being in remote places where few people ever go, and where wildlife easily outnumbers humans. Such is the case with Utah's Green River running through the high desert and sandstone canyons above its confluence with the Colorado River on its way to the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
In September, 2011, a group of 15 from California, Colorado, Texas and Missouri had a rendezvous at Green River State Park for a run of about 90 miles through the rough and tumble Desolation and Gray Canyons between Sand Wash and Swasey's Beach on a reach that has numerous rapids, at least six of which are in the Class III+ to IV range. We had an excellent flow of about 5,150 cfs, which made for fast moving water and really exhilarating rapids. And, the weather was about as close to perfect as one could hope to have in mid-September on the East Taviputs Plateau - gorgeous, warm days and cool, but not too cold, nights. In fact, we paddled in shorts and short sleeve shirts every day.
The Green River is home to many great petroglyph sites, and we visited a few along the way. Some were truly remarkable, but the two best ones were on the way to Sand Wash and at Nefertiti near the end of the trip. This ancient rock art pre-dates the arrival of non-native people in North America, often by hundreds of years. The etchings and paintings tell stories of the lives of early inhabitants of the East Taviputs Plateau. History is revealed in ways that amaze, and we spent some considerable amount of time photographing several petroglyph sites along the river. These must have enthralled John Wesley Powell and his band of explorers as much as they did us, one of the main differences being that we had better boats, gear and digital cameras, as well as the benefit of Powell's experiences and those of paddlers who came here before our trip. Ancient cultures are revealed in this rock carvings, and visitors are encouraged to look and photograph, but not touch or deface these rare and irreplacable antiquities.
Anybody who has ever paddled the Green River knows that mosquitoes, especially at Sand Wash, can be unwelcome guests by the thousands. It was late enough in the year that we had only a very minor problem with them, and it was easily remedied by a little DEET. In fact, the only day that I used DEET was the evening before we launched, when we arrived at Sand Wash to camp overnight and prepare our boats and gear for inspection the next day. Having survived the Yukon in July and August, these mosquitoes were nothing by comparison, and I cannot even imagine there being a realistic comparison at the peak of their activities, though they are a known source of irritation for visitors to this area.
Our motley crew consisted of trip leaders Harry Dundore and Leli Lani from Chico, California, Rick Stewart, Jodi Shepard, Jake Palazzo and Marty Dunlap, also from Chico, Larry Rice from Buena Vista, Colorado, Marty and Lynn Toyen and Aine Kresheck from St. Louis, Missouri, Jason Jones and Mike Maddox from Austin, Texas, and Tom Taylor, Walter Velez and me from Dallas, Texas. Harry and Leli were in an oar boat raft, as were Rick and Jodi. Marty and Lynn Toyen were in a tandem cataraft. Jake was in a solo cataraft. Marty Dunlap was in a kayak. Walter was in a 16-foot canoe. Larry, Tom and I were in solo 16-foot SOAR Inflatable canoes, and Jason and Mike were in solo 14-foot SOAR inflatable canoes.
We planned to eat well on this trip, and Harry assigned cooking teams, each responsible for one night's dinner. I volunteered to also cook dinner the night before we launched. To say that we ate well would be a major understatement. Our fare included a Dutch oven chicken pot pie, barbeque brisket, steaks, meatloaf, my award-winning Fricken Chickasee minus the chicken (I forgot to add it to the vegetables, so we had one vegetarian meal accidentally), and several other great entrees that escape my memory right now, along with an assortment of side dishes and desserts, not the least of which included Dutch oven peach, apple/raisin and blueberry cobblers, all made from scratch.) As usual, we gained weight on this trip.
All Deso/Gray trips require a BLM permit and an inspection by the local river ranger before launching. BLM publishes rules and regulations on their website, and we came prepared. Unfortunately, the ranger chose to inspect one other group ahead of ours, and by the time we finally got on the water it was nearing 2:00 PM. The group ahead of us was slower and planned a more leisurely trip, so we caught and passed them, and then did not see them again for two or three days. Essentially, we had the river to ourselves, and it did not take long for the excitement to begin.
As we were paddling downriver on the second day we saw an adult cinnamon colored black bear wandering down toward the river on our right. It dared not venture too close to us, but we got some decent photos anyway, especially using long range lenses and fast shutters. The following morning we saw a black colored black bear swimming across the river to our side about a quarter mile upriver from where we were breaking camp. To me, that just set the tone for the whole trip, and I knew it was going to be a memorable experience. I wandered up the beach on the shore side of a tree break awaiting a chance to get a closer photo, but the bear never made an appearance, so we departed without getting a better look at this one, which appeared to be much smaller than the one we saw the day before.
It was mid-afternoon on the third day when the real fun began. Until then, the ride had been a flatwater paddle with occasional small riffles that barely got our attention followed by a few small Class II to II+ rapids that were not particularly challenging, but much more exciting than flatwater. Steer Ridge (Class III) was the first big one, and it was only a warm-up for what was to come later that afternoon. We all ran it without incident and had a great time doing it. Now, we were finally paddling! Then, on Day 5 of our trip, we arrived at Joe Hutch Rapid where our fearless leader decided that we would scout, and scout the rapid we did! In fact, I thought that we spent way too much time looking at it, especially since it looked nothing from the shore like it did from mid-river.
I was the second to last to go, followed by Marty in his oar boat cataraft. I strapped on my helmet, packed away my camera and secured my Pelican case, then headed for the line I wanted to run. Suddenly, I was pulled right into the teeth of Joe Hutch. I saw that boulder, but there was nothing I could do about it. I was lifted up into the air and then down the back side, looking down into a hole about 9 feet deep with crashing waves coming in on me from the front and both sides before starting a run-out of large haystacks that seemed to go on forever. When I came out of the hole Larry said the only thing he saw was the bottom of my SOAR S16, and he thought that I had bought the farm. In fact, that beautiful boat ate the hole and the standing wave, and then spit us out upright and intact, wet from head to foot, but still sitting, grinning and paddling.
At the end of the run I was exhausted, but thrilled to have made such a good run instead of facing disaster, or at least some embarrassment. I would have never heard the end of it had I flipped the boat or become a swimmer. I cheated my friends out of an opportunity to remind me of it for the rest of my life. And, I loved every second of it! Had a portage back to the top not been so difficult and time-consuming I would have gone for a second run.
Second only to the deep canyons of the Rio Grande along the Texas-Mexico border, the canyonlands of Utah offer an amazing view of nature and geology of our planet. Trees growing out of what appears to be solid rock, various brush and shrubs blooming in a desert environment that gets precious little annual rainfall, mountains rising out of the river to form valleys through which we paddle, bears, bighorn sheep and other seldom seen animals, and a very dark night with billions of stars are all part of what makes wilderness canyon paddling so special. It is what constantly draws me to these areas for multi-day with close friends who are acccomplished whitewater paddlers, wilderness campers and excellent cooks, the latter being as important as the first two.
From our third through sixth day we encountered serious rapids that required whitewater skills, keen observation, a lot of guts and a sense of determination, the latter of which has been defined as "the feeling you get just before doing something incredibly stupid." Most of the river was a typical flatwater paddle, and we were slowed by keeping pace with the heavily-loaded rafts in our group, but when we got to the rapids the fun began in ernest. Steer Ridge (III), Joe Hutch (III to IV), Wire Fence (III), Three Fords (III), Coal Creek (III) and Rattlesnake (III) all presented challenges and adrenaline rushes as we fought through them with some difficulty, but only minor problems.
Wire Fence was the only one that really challenged Joe Hutch for being the toughest, and that was a toss-up. Most of our group chose to run lines that avoided the meat of the big drops, but I took my boat right into the heart of the beast, and it was not always my choice that got me there! At Joe Hutch I was packing away my camera as my boat drifted into the start of the rapid, and by the time I started paddling it was too late to avid the golf ball boulder over which I went just before dropping into a 9-foot deep hole. I would be lying to say that I was not very apprehensive, but I came through it wet and happy. Best of all, I came through it upright and in my boat! Having successfully run Joe Hutch, I had the confidence to head straight into the big waves at Wire Fence, and it proved to be a great choice packed full of fun, excitement and speed. The normally placid river really picked up steam in those big drops. I was sad to see the big rapids end because they were so much fun, but all rivers eventually flatten out and get tamer, and so it was as we neared the end of our Deso/Gray trip.
The last two days down to Swasey's Beach Public Access were easy and uneventful, though we did get a report of a bear encounter that recently happened near Nefertiti, where we camped our last night on the river. We had a bear fence inside which we placed all our stuff that might be considered food by a wild animal, but the only casualty was the guy who brought the fence and shocked himself setting it up one evening. I can assure you that we all got a good laugh out of that event! And, while it may not have seemed funny to him at that time, later he was also laughing about it. I got the impression it was not the first time he got zapped by his own fence.
We could have paddled all the way back to Green River State Park, but a diversion dam a few miles below Swasey's Beach made ending there a logical choice for our heavily-loaded rafts, and the trip down to the park is all slower moving flatwater with much lower canyon walls, so we ended our trip after 8 days on the river and headed back to Green River for hot showers and restaurant food, which was not as good as what we had eaten during our trip, but which we did not have to prepare or cleanup afterward. It was our last night together, though some had departed immediately from the take-out, but the rest of us got to enjoy one more night as a group before heading our separate ways home.
It had been too many years since I paddled any part of the Green River, but it will not be as long before I go back. I paddle the Rio grande at least twice a year, and the Green River is very similar in almost every way except that it is about three times as far to drive getting there and back. But, if you ever get a chance to paddle the Green River, then take it. Just be sure that you have the skills necessary for the reach you are running and are properly equipped and in the company of like-minded paddlers - and make sure that you have that elusive BLM permit, because getting caught without it will result in a huge fine and possibly free room and board courtesy US taxpayers.