Paddling Utah’s Small Streams

rapids on the price - Copy

Scott Peters, my friend and college roommate, held on to the wall with white fingertips straining against the slippery wet sandstone. My paddle was jammed under a boulder in the frothy foam just at the edge of the precipice, and we both looked over the edge into the dim chasm, misty with the spray of white water. The roar made conversation nearly impossible, but there was no need to talk. We were committed, and sooner or later we would need to let go. In my mind I kept telling myself “You looked at this stretch from the canyon rim and there were no waterfalls”, but there was still a gnawing fear that we’d missed something.

I felt Scott punch my life vest and I turned to see him grinning. We nodded at each other and simultaneously released our grip from the mossy cliff face, and plunged into the gorge. In actuality, it was no gorge, but a slot canyon, at times no wider than the double bladed paddles we carried. The sedate little creek that we had been following for miles down the wide, meandering canyon, now turned furious at being contained. It bucked and fumed and suddenly dropped a half dozen feet at a time.

It was so narrow that we soon abandoned paddling. The creek spurt around giant boulders and crashed against the walls as its course changed direction. The only way to navigate was to push and punt against the walls and rocks as they flew past. It gave the effect of hand-to-hand combat with both of us fending ourselves off of the spurs of mossy sandstone as they hurled themselves at us. The clatter of the paddles hitting the sides of the wall was barely audible above the din of cascading water.

It was impossible to rest for even a second. Left, then right, then left again, the obstacles came at us. Like a metronome, we struck a regular rhythm as we fended one off and prepared for another. For the next two miles of river, we rode the gauntlet of water and adrenaline until, exhausted, we were spit out at the bottom of tiny, isolated Boulder Creek. Ahead lay the Escalante River, and the point where the free ride would end. From there it would be a long hike back to the road and civilization.

*********

The setting sun was just touching the tip of the pines as Connor and I pulled the boat up on the grassy bank. We had been on the gentle current of the Price River only a few hours, but this was the perfect spot to camp. That and the sight of the browns rising for evening mayfly hatches clinched the deal. This stretch always reminded me of a mini Madison River. The ancient course meandered in great ox-bows, deep and green, interrupted regularly with gravel bars and thick banks of aquatic vegetation.

It had been a sedate, late afternoon run down to this point with my oldest son, now eleven. This was his first trip down a river, and we practiced the various strokes he would need the next day, when the water became more challenging. We were carried eastward into the hills, and as the canyon enveloped us, we began to tune into the new sounds of the environment.

The south-facing side of the canyon we followed was a rugged, slanting cliff strewn with oak and sage, but we had pulled up on the North facing side and the pines crowded thickly behind the green meadows bordering the river. Grasses to our waists rustled as we dragged the boat to the base of the nearest pine, with huge overhanging limbs, heavy with pinecones. Without unpacking, we grabbed our rods and set out to catch that magic last half hour of fly fishing before dark. That night, there would be stories and laughter as we roasted meat on sticks over the fire and baked reflector oven biscuits. Then we’d drift off to sleep listening to the gentle gurgle of rolling water.
san rafel cliffs

*********

I had only been married a month and this was the first camping trip we’d ever been on together. It was spring, and the Manti LaSal’s were bursting with colors of every hue. Winter snows were melting in the early June sun, and the tiny creeks were swollen and murky with run-off. Between the sporadic light rain that had plagued us for two days, we ventured out early one afternoon on a dirt road into a lush valley hemmed in by dense pine and aspen forests. At the base of the shallow canyon was a creek no more than six feet wide, but with the augmented flow, it looked deep and inviting.

I stopped the truck and looked to where the river flowed. A mile or so down the canyon it banked to the right and disappeared behind the gentle slope of the hillside. “I wonder where that goes”. I said with no particular suggestive tone. “Let’s go find out.” was Christie’s reply, and I knew I had married well. Within fifteen minutes, we had readied the small inflatable kayak I carry for just such purposes. With no plan, and full of curiosity, we put in and let the flow carry us into the unknown.

We followed the nameless stream for an hour through beautiful and empty meadows and pasture land. Soon, the rain clouds again covered the sun and we began looking for a spot to end our journey and begin hiking back. Our course had described a slow bending arc of river, and I figured that we could cut across through the forest and intersect the dirt road we had been on.

Preoccupied with looking for a place to pull out, I failed to notice the sudden descent and nearly 90 degree right turn of the flow. We picked up speed too quickly to arrest and as I tried to pull the nose into the next leg of the rapid, we were both swept out of the boat by the over-hanging willows. Instantly submerged in the icy water, we desperately grasped at the passing branches to pull ourselves out. The banks were steep, but the creek was only waist deep, and we soon were shivering in the grass. “Now what?” my new bride asked, a tinge of challenge in her tone. The day was growing cool and we were now soaked with evening coming on.

Ever-prepared, I pulled out my emergency pack and felt for the lighter. It was there, dry and ready for use. Within a few minutes, we stood in a forest glade, stripped down to our skivvies, with our clothes steaming on a willow rack next to a roaring fire. We laughed and talked about our future together as we nibbled rations and warmed ourselves in preparation for a hike that would get us back to the road in darkness. We still giggle about the experience today.
floating the price
*********

Some of my fondest memories have been directly related to the small streams of Utah. Whether it was kayak runs down stretches of the Logan or Blacksmith Fork Rivers while in college, weekend fly fishing adventures with friends on Ashley Creek or the Duchesne, or multi-day excursions on the Escalante, Sevier, or Fremont, my life has always been drawn to these capillaries that feed the great rivers of the Southwest.

Utah has a huge variety of environments and elevations, and across all these terrains, the water flows. From the upper Uintah River, which descends from frigid, craggy canyons above 10,000 feet, to the Virgin River winding through sweltering deserts just 2500 feet above sea level, this state contains several major drainages in very different surroundings, ultimately ending in the Colorado River, Great Salt Lake, or other basins like the Sevier.

Precipitation in Utah is uncommonly localized. Huge areas like the Great Basin covering most of the state’s western border, as well as the Colorado Plateau in the Southeast receive less than ten inches of water per year and some average around six.

These vast tracts of arid land, dry as they are, have one thing going for them. This is the fact that over Utah’s geological history, tectonic action has wreaked havoc with Earth’s crust, throwing up several gigantic mountain ranges. The Wasatch, Uinta, Boulder, Manti LaSal, Deep Creek and half a dozen others throughout the state are the sole reason for the scores of life-giving springs, creeks and rivers distributed across an otherwise barren landscape. Some of these mountain regions receive over 40 inches of water per year, most of it as snow, making long term storage and distribution of the precious resource possible.

near death on the escalante

The result is that Utah boasts hundreds of year-round small to medium creeks, some running for just a mile or two before being swallowed up in another larger stream, and others which meander hundreds of miles, beginning in high alpine meadows and ending in lowland deserts. Many of these are in remote locations, begging to be explored. Scores are navigable by boat, especially in early summer when water levels are higher. For the dauntless adventurer, these small capillaries of Utah’s rivers offer boundless adventure and occasionally the chance to cast a fly over fish that have never seen an artificial lure.

With the advent of the Internet, there is a wealth of shared information regarding practically every nook and cranny of our state. One can usually find dependable intel regarding stream flow rates, fish species, terrain, and whether or not a stream is runable by boat. Quite often though, it is absent from any searches. This could mean it’s not well known, not worth pursuing, or it is and someone is keeping it a secret. One thing to remember is that even well known streams, like the Price or Strawberry, have large sections which are completely cut off from roads. Whether accessed by boat, or a great deal of walking, they’re always worth the effort.
flyfishing  the price

When scouting for a new creek to kayak, I look for several things. Factors like river flow, terrain, accessibility, clarity, change in elevation, and many others can help determine if there are hazards, whether the fishing might be good, or whether one can hike out if needed. While a hard shell kayak works well in bigger creeks, I have become fond of inflatables for situations where the river is unfamiliar. Many are the times I have enjoyed a few miles of runable water, and then come to a section that requires portaging or abandonment of the endeavor. This is often in rough terrain where dragging a rigid kayak is nearly impossible. However, with a good inflatable, I can, in minutes be out of the water, and hiking with the craft on my back, none the worse for wear. I usually carry set of backpack shoulder straps and extra webbing in my boat bag for such purposes.

Speaking of boat bags, let me also emphasize that special care must be taken when venturing onto smaller, unfamiliar waters. Little streams are highly affected by runoff from year to year. It’s a common sight to run a stream in April and then again in July and find two completely different rivers. New bars, deadfall trees, log jams, beaver dams, or alterations in the entire river channel are just some of the hazards which water trekkers face. While a few precautions can avoid serious physical injury, it is also common to lose equipment. A sedate stream can lull one into a sense of ease, where fly boxes, sunglasses, and even rods can be set in one’s lap. Within seconds, an unseen rapid or overhanging limb can have one cursing as he sloshes ahead of an overturned boat while “bobbing for gear”. Be sure your equipment is secured with straps and bags while running.

For those who prefer walking, the laws regarding waterways of Utah have undergone some ground-breaking (no pun intended) changes recently. To quote the Utah Supreme Court ruling, “the public has a recreational easement to walk the privately owned bed of state waters while engaging in lawful recreational activities that utilize the water.” This basically means that because all water in Utah is owned by the public, a person has the right to access that water by walking stream beds- even on private property.

This is delicate territory, and much has been said on both sides of the issue regarding the rights of land owners and the rights of citizens to access their own natural resource. While I won’t attempt to express an opinion on the propriety of this ruling, I will say that some of the best fly fishing I’ve ever had is on the private property of friends and people I’ve obtained permission from. This is doubtlessly the result of the stream being left alone. For all their good intentions, even “catch and release” fishermen do much more damage to the health of a river merely by the way they walk through it than good by releasing the occasional trout. Ignorant anglers will think nothing of trampling through pristine spawning gravel beds to sneak up on a hole, or dislodging huge amounts of mud by churning up a bar at mid-stream. Such activities will lead to the death of that creek as surely as putting up a factory next to it.

When walking a creek a conscientious fisherman goes where there will be the least sediment thrown up. Wading on larger rocks or stepping from dry boulder to dry boulder is a much less invasive way of traveling a river. Keeping off river banks protects natural cover for fish and prevents erosion. Making sure one’s boots are washed and dry for several days between trips prevents the transfer of non indigenous snail or insect larvae or microbes that can cause ailments like whirling disease to new streams.

strawberry river browns
Sportsmen can go one further, and actually improve a stream as they go. As a foolish youth I was once caught trespassing by a patrol man while fly fishing East Canyon Creek (which was private property at the time). “What is in the bag?” the officer asked as I stepped up from the river to the dirt road he was on. I opened the small garbage bag I had tied to my wader suspenders and showed him the beer cans, 2 liter bottles, and other detritus I’d picked up along the way as I fished (a practice I still do). As he sent me on my way without a ticket, he said “If it were up to me, I’d let you stay.” To summarize, land owners wouldn’t have nearly as many concerns about sportsmen if sportsmen weren’t so intentionally and ignorantly destructive.

Setting the soap box aside, it’s a practical fact that most of the smallest streams must be walked because there isn’t sufficient flow to support a boat. The good thing, is that there are hundreds if not thousands of miles of these creeks on accessible national forest and BLM property. Utilized in the correct way, these gems that give life to the land and beauty to the landscape can remain pristine. They all have a unique personality and feed a distinct ecosystem. The question and challenge is whether we can love them without loving them to death. I believe we can.

Leave a Reply