I hate water. More accurately, I hate to get wet. This is why I don’t know what I was thinking when the idea came up to canoe down the San Rafael River through Utah’s Little Grand Canyon. In general, I pursue water sports with about as much effort as I lick asphalt. Rafting in particular is especially offensive. Past experiences such as frightening encounters with rapids, spinning in whirlpools of death, and getting stuck in an overturned kayak (in a swimming pool) have all contributed to scaring me away from any future aquatic pursuits.
Each and every time I’ve gotten into an inflatable boat and pointed it downstream, something has gone wrong, which also meant I got wet. Twice on guided trips, the raft has been tacoed around a rock, which resulted in an ice cold, near-hypothermic bath in water that was once snow in the not-so-distant past. Another incident occurred on the Colorado River near Moab when I flipped an inflatable kayak, ruining my friend’s camera. Turns out electronics also have an aversion to water.
With these experiences in mind, along with my desire to push away from the paradise of dry land in a boat at an all-time low, I must have been smoking pine bark rolled in college-ruled notebook paper to decide that floating the San Rafael was a good idea.
As it turns out, the trip idea sat up and punched me in the face when I was desperate for relief from sweltering weather while hiking with my friend, Vince, as we searched for pictographs in the San Rafael Swell. After a very hot day scrambling up talus slopes beneath cloudless skies, and fighting off biting flies with tamarisk switches, we descended a canyon that spilled down to the San Rafael River where at that exact moment, two guys and a girl were floating by at a high rate of speed on the snow-melt swollen waters. The ride that threesome was having while leaning back into the universal position made for tipping back cold beers as they let the flow take them through a spectacular Utah landscape on a furnace of a day was too much to bear.
As we wavered in our sweat-drenched boots, watching the trio paddle by, a plan was drawn up that we would seek relief by doing the same, and soon. At that moment, despite my phobia of water and the damn wetness, traveling through red rock country by boat seemed far better than trekking through dry, dusty land. A float down the San Rafael River through the Little Grand Canyon had now become a bona-fide mission.
About a week later, we rented a fiberglass canoe from a Salt Lake outdoor retail store, and loaded it up onto my Nissan Pathfinder. Even in northern Utah, the springtime heat wave continued. This fact only strengthened our thirst for cool waters in a sandstone canyon, despite my unspoken misgivings about the trip. After only a few hours drive along the Wasatch Front, we were caravanning onto the dirt roads of the San Rafael Swell, descending to the shores of the river near the San Rafael Bridge. This is where we dropped off the shuttle vehicle before driving to the put-in at Fuller Bottom.
The desert-heated air was muggy by the riverside as I bushwhacked through tamarisk thickets to get a look at the water. The San Rafael was still swollen and muddy from spring runoff, and it flowed quickly. My nervousness increased as I envisioned the canoe tipping me over into the dark as water, pregnant with sediment, filled my mouth.
As morning turned to afternoon, we unloaded the canoe and packed it with everything we would need for a two-day float down the river. Camping gear, extra clothing, food, and of course, a cooler filled with beer was wedged under the seats. With anticipation (and my apprehension) in the red, we slid the boat into the cold river. With a silent goodbye to dry land, I jumped in the canoe.
The San Rafael River, which is a trickle most times of the year, was flowing fast and smooth along muddy banks covered with dry vegetation. The current pulled us downstream toward the giant walls of Utah’s Little Grand Canyon as we fumbled with our paddles, trying to keep the boat pointed straight. The uninspiring flats at Fuller Bottom allowed me to relax, get practice at controlling the boat, and take in the view of the approaching San Rafael Gorge. With no rapids in sight, we drank a few beers and took pictures. My fear of water was pushed to the back of my mind (or was swallowed with my beer) as I laid back and decided this trip could actually be fun.
Soon, however, the wide section of river transformed into a red-rock channel where the water course sped along through narrow cuts. Startled by the increase in speed and lack of room, we sat up, grabbed our paddles, and concentrated on the task at hand. The river wove among hairpin turns of vertical banks covered in dead trees and boulders. The speed of the current pulled us into a collision course with dirt walls as we strained to steer the canoe. After clearing one corner, another would loom over us. Our novice efforts to steer were in vain as the side of the boat slammed into the walls. The front of the boat got tangled in exposed tree roots and bushes, scratching our exposed skin. We pushed away with our paddles, fighting against the current that kept us in place.
My fear was nearly made manifest. We crashed the boat and were forced to extract it from a web of branches bleached by the sun. Somehow we got the boat out, but my goal to stay dry had to be sacrificed. Clearly this trip would not be a mere float down a lazy river, but a water-filled bobsled course navigated in a tippy, red canoe.
After a little bit of trial but mostly error, we figured out how to maneuver the canoe through the curves. Our sequence of survival went like this: expect a dogleg corner before it sneaks up on you, make sure the paddler in front lays off (paddling just speeds you into the bank faster) and the back paddler has to muscle his paddle in the water to swing the nose of the craft around to the desired direction. Unfortunately, too much swing allowed the current to twist the boat around, causing it to sideswipe the bank and tip over. Tipping over meant water got into the boat. Water in the boat meant less maneuverability. Less maneuverability meant a greater chance of hitting the next fast-approaching riverbank. And so it goes.
Despite the tipping, soaked clothes, and fear of what brush-infested wall lurked around the bend, I was actually having a lot of fun. Navigating through the ribbon of turns was an adrenaline rush and before long, every thought was focused on the task at hand. When we came out the other side where the river slowed down and became blessedly wide, a dome of cliff and sky revealed itself.
Before long, we came to the mouth of Virgin Spring Canyon where we planned on staying the night. The canyon is lush with cottonwood trees and other desert plants and has several good spots to set up camp. After a short search, we chose a cozy campsite in the sand beneath a protective rock overhang. Once camp was established, we enjoyed glorious cold beer far from any convenience store or road. One of the best parts of having the canoe was the ability to pack a cooler full of ice, and the payoff was heavenly.
After cooking up dinner and a restful night’s sleep, we took a morning hike up the canyon and found ancient pictographs on the canyon wall. Further up, the way terminated at an alcove where we knew of a spring to fill our water bottles. Much to our disappointment, the water was dismal and smelled like sulfur. Thinking it better than the silt water of the river, we pumped the noxious spring through a filter and hoped for the best.
Back at camp, we loaded up the canoe and pushed out for a late morning start. The sky was clear and the San Rafael Gorge opened before us into a dramatic hallway of stone. We were entering the Little Grand Canyon. Soon, the highest walls of the canyon surrounded us. We silently floated by as the Wedge Overlook loomed to the north. It was atop that overlook, one week prior to the trip, that Vince and I stared down into the depths of the gorge and made final our commitment to the trip. Now on the river, we were able to experience the canyon’s true scale. Our necks ached as we constantly looked up and stared at the red rock that enveloped us.
The river in the Little Grand Canyon was wider with only a few small rapids. We now had freedom to relax and take in the amazing view. The only problem we encountered was, as the river got wider, the water level got lower. Sandbars became our nemesis. It was impossible to see the shallow bands of gravel through muddy water, so our overloaded canoe scraped the riverbed, often coming to a complete stop. With frustrating effort, we shoveled through the sand with our paddles to free the boat. But the rocks were sharp and small holes soon appeared on the floor of the fiberglass hull. Again, we took on water and began to sink, creating an even greater chance of becoming shipwrecked on the next sandbar waiting for us downriver.
To keep the boat afloat, we had to pull to shore and pour out water by tipping the canoe. Other times we simply lounged and half-heartedly bailed water with cups as we sunned ourselves. Steering the canoe was impossible with all the water weight, so we allowed the current to take us where it chose.
Just after midday, the San Rafael River sped up again as it flowed into a lawn of reeds and thickets. Up ahead, we could see the San Rafael Bridge fast approaching. We hastily bailed more water, gathered our paddles, and maneuvered the swamped boat through a maze of canals until we reached the takeout under the bridge. Just like that, the ride had come to an end.
Soaked, sunburned, and covered in insect bites, the two of us pulled our battered canoe from the water, loaded up Vince’s truck that was shuttled to the bridge the day before, and toasted the voyage with our last warm beer.
We were back in civilization. Children splashed in a shallow eddy beneath the bridge. The roar of ATVs drowned out the sound of water on the rocks. Cars rumbled over the bridge and pulled over, so families could spill out to take pictures and eat ice cream. As I drank my end-of-trip beverage amidst the noisy landscape, I thought back to everything we saw and experienced. The sheer, smooth walls of the Little Grand Canyon, the haunting pictographs tucked away behind groves of cottonwood trees, and the image of a bright red canoe stowed alongside the green and brown river bottom all wavered like a memory in the heat. I was very glad for the trip down the San Rafael River. I was thankful for the solitude of the Little Grand Canyon. I decided that I love floating down a river as a means to explore the best Utah has to offer. But despite all that, I still hate to get wet.