It was easy to ditch out on the tail ends of a desiccated April in the Sierra’s. Winter was in disarray and we were frothing to load up our sensory receptors on a Utah desert buffet. We kicked out of Tahoe City at dawn for the 13-hour push to Moab.
Our caravan filed across the dusty, tired, and defunct towns on Highway 50. The journey would beget six days and sixty-odd miles of floating the Green River, the chief tributary to the Colorado. We would overlap a short section of the adventure that Major John Wesley Powell carried out in 1869, the first of its kind. Only difference being that his crew covered 900 miles of the Green and Colorado River, they lost three men, and it took them three months.
Eight friends, six days, and four canoes. Erinna, the organizer and chief motivator and her boyfriend Hazen had done the trip before and recruited the others. I and girlfriend Lily, as well as friends Katy, Meg, Daniel and Sam were all green as the Green. Except the Green was a cloudy brown as we would soon learn. Our stretch was Crystal Geyser to Mineral Bottom, a rapid-free consortium of bends and twists.
Without any whitewater, we would epitomize the non-extreme. We brought petite syrah. A glance through outdoor mags or Facebook profiles reveals the worship of sending bigger, paddling faster, running longer, or climbing higher. The outer limits of progression has its place and is an admirable feat to even attempt, but to approach a trip with no pressure and to revel in the interconnectedness of a tight group of friends is pretty damn fun too.
Down by the river, we load our canoes with BB and squirt guns, a sound system, horseshoes and so much more, the piles of gear nearly reaching our waists from bow to stern. Our van driver, in genuine service-driven tone, reminds us to “take a left” off the shore so as not to paddle north and upstream for six days straight.
We push off at nondescript Crystal Geyser (I saw neither crystals nor geysers) and are loose to our own devices. The rolling hills, scrub brush and silt-strewn river banks introduce us to a plain landscape, but we know the incredible lies not far ahead. The river is a deep brown and snow-melt cold. Dipping a hand in the water leaves a fine film of sediment on the skin.
We are soon blasted with a hot headwind, spinning the crew sideways and backwards, to the shore and into the shallows as we adjusted to the hunched form of canoe ergonomics. The wind tests us, but the beer cools quickly as it is dragged from behind the boat in mesh bags, and we are warm and dry and reveling in the outdoor playground.
After a few hours, I decide my duties are to mostly keep the boat pointed straight and to let gravity pull us without trying too hard to paddle. The battle of the elements on display reveals that the river flow outmuscles the wind for net momentum, and paddling hard would yield minimal speed improvements. Do less, lesson one.
In the evening we find shelter among a grove of wind-blocking oaks and make camp. Free to roam, to eat, to sip, and to wander, we slide naturally into river time.
The next day the tongue of the Green draws us into the open mouth of Labyrinth Canyon. We are absorbed into the steadfast walls with their deep streaks of reds and browns and all the shades and cousins and in-laws of reds and browns splattered across the smooth and sheer slabs.
We had loose plans to meet up with a group of six friends on a different trip and were hoping to cross paths.
“But how will we find them?” someone posits. “Dicks. Look for the dicks,” replies Erinna, not skipping a beat.
“We will communicate along the river via penises!” she replies loud and proud, referring to drawings in the sand, or statues, and so went the search for our comrades via phallic imagery.
Near the hour when the sun dips behind the walls, we find our friends camp in Trin Alcove, a confluence of inlets plush and lush with green riparian shrubbery. We set up our tent under a huge concave wall, reaching over us like the crest of a 500-foot sandstone wave. Beautiful certainly, but precarious? I couldn’t be sure.
We greet then walk west to chase the fading sun. My good friend John was part of the new crew and he, Hazen are on the hunt for washkour venues. Washkour is the unheard of and totally invented river wash counterpart to parkour, the high-flying urban activity of jumping around cityscapes. Washkour offers more forgiving but equally creative terrain. We messed around, hitting sand cliffs, finding ramps over the willows, and getting hung up in tree branches. I felt downright geriatric from a disc issue in the lower back, but had to try. John sealed the unofficial win with a flippy spinny thing to a clean landing off a sandy berm.
We eat Thai noodles and relax with a small fire built against the wall, creating a lashing, dancing flame illumination a few stories up the rock. We catch up on summer plans and winter highlights. Some stumble off to bed, some spin tales, and some are flies on the wall. We don’t check the time or set alarms, it really just doesn’t matter.
The weather hits a crescendo on our third day. The wind evaporates, the temps go up, and the canyon walls grow in height as we drop deeper into the belly of the beast. Fields of talus debris harbor clusters of VW-sized boulders, having dislodged and tumbled hundreds of feet to explode over the canyon floor, sprinkling the riverbanks in sandstone shrapnel.
We screen up to protect our fair skin, and spend most of the day roped together as a barge, often splayed across the canoes like seals on a sunny shore. We watch Great Blue Herons soar over us and lizards dart around on the scalding rocks.
Between infrequent paddling to keep on course, Hazen makes his goals clear. “A casual observer, that’s what I consider myself,” he says, indicating a desire to find and point out interesting sights, but not hold anyone at great lengths to seek them out, should they not desire.
Do less, lesson two.
“Who wants a tequila shot?” says Lily a few minutes later, and Erinna’s hand goes straight to the cloudless blue sky. She had connected our plastic-bottled tequila ration to the squirt gun and was serving up free samples. From about two feet out, she shotgun-blasts a stinging mist of reposado across Erinna’s face. Laughter ripples though the canyon.
Hours later, our lackadaisical nature catches us off guard as we become casually entangled in a nest of sticks and reeds in very shallow water. No one even saw the thing coming. Our beer-bag rudder keeps us tethered to the sticks after the canoe wiggles through but I fear deep in my soul a slashing of the thin mesh webbing and our drinks hemorrhaging into the cruel river. But somehow the cheap Wal-Mart laundry bag holds true without so much as a frayed strand against hundreds of pounds of resistance. “We all know who the real hero is here,” I say, holding up the pristine bag as we slide back into the flotilla.
We deem our campsite that night Friendship Landing. The campsite frames the willows, the wildflowers and the sculpted rocks in a dead ringer for a postcard for the Utah tourism board.
Day four brings some light urgency as we discuss logistics. The day after this one is supposed to be poor weather, and the day after that is when we meet our pick-up van at Mineral Bottom.
Therefore we need to make some miles. We labor for hours on end, the efficacy of the team on the ups. We overcorrect the boats less, match paddle strokes with our partners better, and waste minimal energy. Also, like maritime geniuses, we realize that if we pull up the 30-pound bag of beer that incessantly pulls us the wrong way and creates drag, it makes a big difference. With the bag up we cut downstream like a Ginsu.
After a hike to Bowknot Bend we coast, over ten miles already done in about half a day, fine work for our team. Someone announces they think it’s “a good night to get properly pissed,” and Sam and Daniel’s ears perk up as if they’ve only been hoping someone would say that. Our jug of whiskey is passed around. And then passed around.
We find a wide open camp and revel in our remaining daylight. Blooming cacti and a smattering of purples, yellows and greens light up the landscape. We set up horseshoes and clink and clank until dinner.
The light dies out but the whiskey does not. Sam and Daniel are on dinner duty, providing a gooey sausage Mac N’ Cheese in fatty delectable glory. Talking Heads live masterpiece “Stop Making Sense” plays through our mini-speakers and limbo is underway. Daniel wins the game but loses his glasses, finding them lensless and nearly destroyed under the sand. The campfire grows, the tunes carry through the desert and we are merry souls in our own world.
The dawn light breaks up the pitch black sky just as the patter of rain hits the parched earth. In a great bleariness I hook on the rain fly and ponder if today will be the day that we chalk up one care in the official ‘Cares Given’ tally, having so far held strong at zero?
With a late morning break in the rain we pack up and leave, but the skies are still swirling with cold, silvery clouds, giving us pause about the stability of the nimbus and nimbi. Erinna thinks we are close enough to Mineral Bottom (a gutting thought to the soul) that we could make it there today, but wants to find an earlier campsite for scenic reasons. We agree, and as we approach our first potential spot, the rain comes fast and strong. “I hope this is the definite spot now,” I mutter, and a silent decision is made. The rain turns to hail, as though nature is firing back its own pellets for the BB’s we shot it with. We fling our stuff to shore and whip up tents.
The hailstorm subsides, and our short travel day now leaves a clean block of daylight hours. We decide to hike, and head up a primitive trail that weaves through a shallow creek. Thousands of purple flowers pepper the hills.
Dwarfing even the towering rocks are a churning sea of clouds. The maelstrom of gray blobs whip over the sedentary rocks, and sometimes light up with a golden iridescence as the sun tries to burn a hole in the vortex.
We are well prepared to get caught unprepared in the rain for the third time today, but only receive a drizzle before returning to camp. To be sure, later into the evening the rain and hail returns. Hazen, Daniel, Sam and I, aka The Men, try to stick it and Sam’s previous proclamations that the storms “were going to miss us” seem less believable. We shoot at cans before fleeing for cards in tents.
And once again it clears to allow us our final river feast, a steamy pot of chili a la Erinna and Hazen with crunchy cornbread. We cheer and lament the finality of the event, and conclude that we had succeeded in losing ourselves in the alternate universe of river life.
We get up early and vacate on our last day in Utah. Crew #2 catches up and escorts us to Mineral Bottom, our exit point. They have another five days of adventure to soak in.
We reach the takeout point and Lily sits arms-crossed, echoing a stubborn child. “I don’t wanna go” she says. I concur. I look at the new pod of rafters getting in, fluttering about, vans shuffling equipment, and the whole thing stinks like a real-world pace.
We get in a big steel van and cover the ground we did in six days in about an hour. Back in Moab we eat lunch and enjoy fresh ice, but it’s disbanding time. There isn’t a lot to say except we hope to do it again next year.
But do we drive back to Tahoe and endure a 13-hour drive through the night? Or do we book a room in Wendover, the odd Utah/Nevada border town and relax among creature comforts? It was all too obvious and we close the night and the voyage down by watching a funk-laced Motown band throw big city energy to an empty crowd amid fluorescent lights and purple carpets.
Readjusting to life off the river sure is weird, especially doing so in a Wendover casino while still caked in river dirt, but it turns out just about anything can be a great time, when with the company of great people.