San Juan River Montage

On the way…

Salt lake to Green River

Right now I’m sitting at Ray’s, but I am headed for water.

And as far as I’m concerned, I’m headed for the best kind of water—so silty you can’t see your hands or feet once they’re submerged—water churning thick with flash flood runoff, running cold with snow melt. Water that’s fed off sweet seeps decked with monkey flowers.  Water both public and secret, sluicing over the boat tops of hundreds of rafts and kayaks and at the same time lapping sensuously at sinuous walls of slick rock narrows, so tight no human has ever been able to slide between them.  I am headed for the river.

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I’ve invited myself along on this trip—begged myself a spot—and thankfully, my friends put up with my presumptions of place and belonging and love me anyway…well, at any rate, they let me come.  And so, together with Matt (driving “Ladore,” huge-ass old GMC truck—yes, named for the section of the Green) and Rachel (namer of “Ladore”—sleeping notatall peacefully in the little nest of sleeping bags and sleeping pads made for her by her fiancé) we’ve made our way this far; Green River. Next stop, Gooseneck State Park, where we’ll meet up with 12 shipmates for our trip down the San Juan.

At Gooseneck State Park in the dark…

I am not, as a rule, a big group person. Normally, crowds of 12 leave me slightly anxious. The desert means quiet. It means seeking out canyons where all I hear is water and canyon wrens and the only other people I see are actually bighorn sheep. Even the spring I went into Coyote Gulch for the first time, the most visited canyon down Hole in the Rock Road, the only person I saw during the entire trip was the BLM ranger; hiking out as I was hiking in.  So it’s with a bit of a shock that Rachel, Matt and I are greeted by the throng, the horde, the host of people waiting for us in the dark at Gooseneck.

Our first introduction is harmless enough; Isaac, wandering aimlessly along the road in the dark. Matt has known Isaac his whole life so they hug and grin a little at each other. Neither Matt nor Isaac, who has Down syndrome, are big talkers most of the time, so they stand around awkwardly for a minute, kicking up dust.  However, this affectionate and slightly clumsy greeting is soon devoured by the undeniable presence that is Steve.  A tall and looming figure, he lumbers out of the dark and right up into our faces where he’ll stay, making groan-worthy wisecracks, for every minute of the trip. With Steve come more people, a barrage of names and half-lit faces.  In response, I decide it’s a good time to flee to the restroom with Rachel.

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Upon our return, I’m introduced to more indistinct faces, shadowed by the severe light of headlamps directed right into my eyes. I smile; not that anyone can see. A few moments later, I’m asleep at the edge of the gorge, huge-ass truck acting as a windscreen, datura glowing slightly in the moonlight as it comes into full bloom at my feet.

Blown down river…

Days 1-2: Mexican Hat to river mile 48

Face first into the wind, whatever enamel is left on my teeth after a sandy breakfast of bagels grinds away as I smile into the storm.  The river is low; 900 CFS, making our already slow going slower. It can’t quite achieve white caps, buts it’s trying.  The sky is yellow with sand and dust thrown into the air by gust upon gust of wind.  Most of the group didn’t sleep. Instead, the night was spent chasing boats as they tried their damndest to launch themselves skyward, tying down tents more securely, uselessly wiping sand out of faces and ears, and generally huddling against whatever rocks were available as we were all blown to bits.

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I, however, somehow managed to be totally oblivious to everyone else’s sleeplessness.  I was blown to death too, don’t get me wrong.  But our beach-camp last night was edged with a deep purple layer of Hermosa limestone on which I happily found a flat and sand-free shelf to sleep on.  The only annoyance I suffered other than the perpetual rocking of the wind, was a family of geese and fuzzy little goslings toddling out from behind the bushes next to my head before first light. No sand, no chasing, just a ridiculously adorable disturbance.

The morning flits past in bi-polar spasms.  One moment the sun breaks through, gloriously illuminating the thousand-tiered walls of the river gorge.  The walls edge geometrically upward in fits and starts of crumbling green, purple, and brown as we descend slowly in elevation through what was once a vast prehistoric river, into what was an even more vast prehistoric sea. Prickly pear flames out from hillsides.  We follow the goose family downstream and I can’t help but make ooey gooey baby noises at them.  And best of all, far above us on the river’s left, a family of Desert Bighorn puts any rock climber reliant on 5’10s and cams to shame.

When the sun does shine, Rachel and I recline listlessly across the bench of our raft.  Then, just like that, we are rushing for our rain jackets, ponchos, and long underwear.  Once bundled, Rachel peers out from the hood of her jacket, all eyes, revealing no more skin to be scoured by the sand than she has to.  Matt, of course, rows stoically ahead.  His old raft Franny was welded together by his grandfather when Matt was a teenager.  When other people were getting cars for graduating high school, Matt got Franny.  He moves with her as though they were a continuous circuit, seemingly immune to the apoplexic gust trying to blow him back to Mexican Hat.

Ahead of us, Steve’s diminutive wife, Kathy paddles a one-person inflatable catamaran with long, assertive strokes.  I watch her arms dip to one side than the other, the paddle arcing and dripping water as she moves.  Her arms are wiry and strong, brown against the brown water.  A cheerleader in college, now she’s a painter; gray-haired, almond eyed, and quiet. Compact and taut, even years after she flew through her last back-handspring.  Occasionally, I catch little slips of music coming from her direction; she sings to herself as she paddles.  Later in the trip, I hear her sing full-out as we all sit around waiting for dinner; the girls taking turns messing around on Steve’s guitar, trying to see how many Gillian Welch tunes we remember. When Kathy bursts out in song, I’m surprised at the playful and flippant voice coming out of this small, otherwise silent woman. Now, despite the tumbling water and wind, she moves peacefully; she never strains.

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Government Rapid…

Day 4: River Mile 64

The sound of tumbling, churning water fills my ears and I can barely hear Paul as he gestures to the river.  I’m hovering on a peninsula of rocks, scoping out Government Rapids. Paul, the trip leader, is pointing out how the current is pulling, where we should line up to enter, and talking with Matt about how to hit the three holes and mostly submerged boulders comprising this wily little obstacle.  Since the San Juan is a basically mellow float, I have to suck every last juicy bite from this one little stretch of class-3 whitewater. I love whitewater. Last fall, I paddled a two-person ducky through a good portion of the rapids in Cataract Canyon and have never loved anything so much.  But until today, I’ve never actually paddled alone through any degree of deluge.  I look at Kathy standing next to me. She and I are both paddling the inflatable catamarans today and she’s showing her usual self-possession.  I lean in toward her saying, “I’m a little nervous.”  I hate admitting it.  It’s a little rapid!  Tiny! Only class 3, it’s basically nothing! She smiles and laughs, “Me too” and I feel instant relief.  Most of the group saunter across the causeway, planning to meet us on the other side of the rapid.  I watch a small party of canoers portage around the chute from my little cat, as our four rafts take turns pushing off from the rocks and lining up.  Once the first two have gone through, it’s my turn.  Taking a deep breath, I charge in.

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Day 5: Grand Gulch to Clay Hills

Running behind the raft in knee-deep water, I call out for Matt to stop. Just as I get close enough to jump back in, a sandbar rises up and trips me.  I stumble forward into the water, landing on my hands and knees and get a face full of silt.  Paul laughs from across the canyon, “You’ll never catch up!” he jokes, “you’re gonna have nightmares about this!”  I don’t know about nightmares, but this sensation of running and running and getting nowhere is definitely familiar.

Since 1983, when “Lake” Powell reached full capacity and backed up nearly to Slickhorn Canyon, the lower San Juan has suffered drastic changes.  Already a richly silted river—it’s estimated that although the San Juan contributes only 15% of the water in Lake Powell, it contributes 30% of the silt—the change to its water course and speed have led to a siltation loop which is burying the lower part of the canyon.  In fact, it’s estimated that this part of the river could become impassible to boats within the next 10 years.  Tons of silt were deposited in the channel when the reservoir backed up, changing it from a deep gorge to a wide, slow, shallow, sandy bog.  As the river decreases in speed and depth, it also becomes less able to hold its usual capacity of silt, meaning it drops the silt and buries the channel even further.  It’s estimated that 40 ft of silt bury the waterway at Grand Gulch and Clay Hills Crossing is said to be buried beneath 80 ft of mud and sand.

This is why I am currently tripping alongside the raft instead of riding in it.  Since leaving Grand Gulch this morning, we’ve spent more of our time digging our boat out of the silt than we have floating. To alleviate some of the weight on the raft, I got out at lunch and have been floating down river, ass dragging across the river bottom—which is slowly making its way out of the river and into my pants—ever since.  Despite low water levels and higher levels of silt, the rafts still manage to quickly leave me behind; bobbing in my life-vest, a tiny head and sandal tips, between massive red walls.

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We’ve left the stepped contours of the Honaker and Paradox formations and entered Cedar Mesa Sandstone.  What used to be a wide technicolor expanse of canyon, broken by side-canyons and pour offs, the river lined with beaches spreading out like fins along the bottom of the gorge, has narrowed to bastions of impenetrable stone looming straight up from the river’s course.  For a moment, the rafts having all turned a corner ahead, I am alone in the middle of the river.  A canyon wren titters. The water sloshes gently against ruffous walls, moving so slowly I can’t hear the current.  A sand bar rises up below me, forcing me to push myself along the bottom of the river with my hands until the knoll drops away into a welcome trough.  Carried along, I give myself entirely up to the river; I’m not swimming, I’m not trying to navigate, there’s nothing between me and all the elements that make up this landscape.  Lying back, I look up at the blazingly lit sky, narrowly revealed between walls topping out several hundred feet above me and think, “I want to remember this.”

One Response to “San Juan River Montage”

  1. Love the pictures! Great article!! Wish we had places like these down South…I’m jealous of all of your adventures!

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