Ever since I ran the Green River from south of Green River to Potato Bottom outside Moab with some friends and my young children I was looking for another river adventure that I could do with family and friends that would be a bigger challenge with bigger rewards.
I turned my attention to the San Juan River in Southeastern Utah, a region where our family had found other great adventures. I bought a river guide book and started my research. Two class three river rapids spread out over a week with many smaller rapids sounded like a good next step in difficulty level for the paddling. We like exploring ancient ruins and the photos of the area looked like a wonderful desert to explore with interesting side canyons. I got online and found the filing instructions for a permit and registered for a launch date during the week of expected peak run off. Unfortunately that is when everyone else seems to want to run the river and we walked away without a permit. I tried again the next year with the same results. Still whenever I met anyone with any knowledge of the river I would ask about it and learn whatever I could. Finally our family’s schedule had an opening for a July trip. I checked the historic flow levels for that time of year and talked with an outfitter who rents rafts on the river. It looked like the flow would be sufficient to make the trip, but too much lower and the boulders in the river become very difficult to avoid. As long as the outfitter was willing to rent us the rafts we were willing to give it a go.
There would be thirteen of us on this trip. The eight from my family and five from my sister’s. I had done limited rowing on previous trips I had been on, but felt confident that I could handle what had been described in the different accounts I had read. My brother-in-law had guided on the Provo River in his youth so he was set. We figured we needed three rafts and a couple of two man duckies to get us down the river. The first day on the river there are no significant rapids so I figured my wife, sister, daughter and son could try rowing the raft and with a few hours experience they would be ready for the bigger challenges of day two. Handling the raft was a more daunting task than I had anticipated for all in this group except my sixteen year old son Ferdinand. He was big and strong enough to handle the physical demands and he seemed to quickly get the knack of steering and controlling the craft. He stepped up and rowed the third raft most of the trip. This was nice for everyone as the younger children gravitated to his raft when they were not paddling around in the duckies.
I have a tendency to pack too much rather than too little and this can be a problem on a trip like this. The water in the river is very muddy, so muddy that it would be very difficult to get enough sediment out so it could be filtered for drinking , so all drinking water needs to be brought along. Rule of thumb was a gallon per person per day and the outfitter said when it was going to be hot it should be increased by fifteen percent so 13 people for 8 days at 115% was 120 gallons of water. I neglected to count the twenty extra gallons of other drinks we had with us so we had lots extra. Because we didn’t want to scrimp at the end we were conservative at the beginning. We ended the trip with lots of extra water.
The mosquitos were pretty bad at the Sand Island campsite but otherwise the first night camping was uneventful.
On the first morning out, the river was a green color and if your glasses got splashed you could still see through them when the water dried. After the first storm on the river the river turned brown and stayed that way until the end of our trip. If the brown water dried on your glasses you couldn’t see out. Some have said that you have to learn to embrace the mud if you want to float the San Juan and we found that to be true.
We got on the river the first day with hope of seeing lots of cool things. Our plan was to stop at Butler Wash to see the pictographs on the canyon walls. We stopped and we found some pictographs, but as we floated further down river we became pretty sure that we missed the main panel. We did manage to pull off at the proper place to see River House Ruin.
It is a short hike from the river but is definitely worth the walk. Besides the cool ruins there were still pot shards and corn cobs to be seen in the dirt below the dwelling. Lucy and Calvin did the hike twice because Calvin left his hat at the ruin and they had to go back to find it.
Even on the first day we were feeling like we needed to push faster than we might have liked to in order to cover the planned distance. We hit our first named rapid, “Four Foot Rapid” later that day and made it to camp at river mile 13. I was glad the rapids were easy on the first day as it took some time to get used to rowing a raft again. I wouldn’t always turn the right way. I would intend to pivot right and would instead go left. I also found myself getting into trouble near the river bank when I wouldn’t give myself enough room to maneuver. With a little time these things came more naturally.
Camp was on a ledge above the river. It was a bit difficult to get the gear up to the ledge, but it was a nice campsite with few bugs.
The ability of a raft to carry loads of cargo makes a river trip more like car camping than like backpacking. On this trip we brought along our big three burner, self-standing, propane stove. Sure it was a hassle to unload and load, but it sure made the cooking more enjoyable along the way. Over the trip we ate jambalaya, hamburgers, fajitas and other good meals. Fajitas have become a family favorite on our adventures. We marinade the meat and cook it weeks in advance and then freeze it so that when it is time for the meal all we have to do is warm it up and serve it with warm beans, tortillas and the other condiments. Sure, on a guided river trip you have less work to do, but the food doesn’t get any better than what we fixed for ourselves.
The number of miles we would row in a day was often influenced by the availability of campsites and points of interest. Day two was a day like this. We only rowed ten miles and stopped near mile twenty-three because we didn’t want to pass Mexican Hat and we needed a campsite. In spite of the shorter mileage, it was still eventful as we ran our first class III rapid, Eight Foot Rapid.
The river ranger had warned us that we would come across three wrapped canoes in this rapid, but actually paddling past these destroyed and stuck boats was disconcerting. These boats belonged to a boy scout group that had paddled the river earlier in the year. As a scout leader I can only imagine the discussion that must have ensued as the boys were taken home after the trip. “Here is your son, but you will never see your canoe again.” That is just a conversation that I wouldn’t want to have. At our water level the rapid was a pretty straight shot with some big waves, but not too difficult.
Ledge Rapid was the next rapid and it shouldn’t have posed much of a problem, but my daughter Barb was rowing a raft and didn’t clear the rock at the entry to the rapid and got hung up on the rock. My sister Katie was behind Barb in a ducky with her son Keith and I was following them in my raft. Katie spilled her ducky and got sucked under Barb’s raft. She came out the other side yelling for Keith. Fortunately Barb had been able to grab Keith and hold him above the water. I was able to run the rapid, quickly get my boat to shore and run back upstream to Barb’s boat. With everyone accounted for we got the boat off the rock and finished the rapid. It was unfortunate that we had this harrowing experience because this rapid would have been fun to run multiple times in the duckies.
Our camp that night was our least favorite campsite of the trip. We were only four river miles from Mexican Hat in an area was clearly accessible to those who come down to the river to drink. We deliberated whether or not to stay at this place, but rather than risking having to set up camp and cook in the dark we stayed. Before long we started seeing these remarkably large purple and orange wasps flying through the area which were troubling because one of our party had an allergy to bee stings. Before long Lucy was calling them Sand Daubers and then she would say” I’m going to call them that until someone proves to me otherwise. That way we will have learned two things, what that bug is and what a Sand Dauber is.” This became a quoted line through the remainder of the trip.
For several years our family has kept bees in our backyard and we have become familiar with the song they bring to the yard. We walk near the hive without worry. My daughters will even pet a bee if it lands on them. With this relationship to flying insects Barb even helped one of these wasps out of the mud. Fortunately nobody got stung. When we got home we were able to prove to Lucy that they were not Mud Dauber, but Tarantula Wasps, which are recognized to have the second most painful sting of any known insect. One sting could have really changed the mood of the trip. I’m so glad that didn’t happen.
While working with youth groups we often have what we refer to as reflections after the activities, which are often metaphors for life and this trip had many experiences that could be used in this manner. Many evening during the trip we would get wind and rain which would send us scurrying to get the rain flies on our tents before everything inside got wet. It seemed an annoyance but later in the trip at Slickhorn Canyon when we had no rain we were thankful for the earlier rain we had that had cooled us down and made sleeping more pleasant. We need to keep these things in perspective. Annoyances in life may actually be making things better, not worse.
Gypsum Creek Rapid is just before the bridge at Mexican Hat and one of our favorites on the trip. It has some pretty big waves which were fun and after we got the rafts through and parked everyone wanted to run the rapid again.
At first we took turns carrying the duckies back upstream and running the rapid again. After people tired of that we would walk upstream and simply jump in and float the waves.
It took awhile, but eventually the kids tired of this ride and we got back in the boats and floated to the takeout just above the bridge. We walked up to the hotel, bought ice for our coolers, ice cream and Gatorade. This is the last chance to get any needed supplies for the remainder of the trip. Soon we were back on the river.
It wasn’t long before we stopped at the Mendenhall Loop to climb up to see the prospector’s cabin that was built above the river. The fireplace is still standing. It sure seemed like a harsh place to set up a home. I wonder if he ever found anything there other than solitude. Ferdinand and I walked back down to the boats where Eric was waiting on his boat. Lucy, Katie and the kids walked down another trail that led down river and waited for us to pick them up. I think we floated a mile down the river before we picked them up. It took longer than they had expected. We floated a few more miles deeper into the canyon before setting up camp. By now the river had turned to mud.
The next day we floated through the Goosenecks where the river meanders back and forth through an impressively deep canyon. We stopped briefly at the pull out for the Honaker Trail, but decided it was too hot to hike to the top.
With the number of people who run the rivers it has become mandatory to carry out all human waste. Over the years river guides have used old ammo boxes to carry gear on trips and they have also been fashioned as containers to carry out human waste. These boxes became known as groovers because of the grooves that are left on your backside after relieving yourself. Modern incarnations of the groover attach a standard toilet seat to the box so the grooves aren’t really a thing anymore, but the name stuck. Somewhere along the trip Ferdinand made up a song about the groover It went something like this, “I’m groovin’ on the groover. It’s better than a church pew, because it has a great view. Others added more verses. “The poo I force when it’s coarse. The flies I shew while I poo.“ After Markus picked us up at the end of the trip we sang the song for him. I think he was amused, but he told us that we weren’t the first group to make up a song about the groover. Then he sang us a song another group had written to the melody of “Proud Mary.” We all got a pretty good laugh.
The muddy water also lent itself to other fun. Ferdinand thought it was fun just to have his head sticking out of the water so he looked like a bodiless head in the water.
Later the kids worked on other photo poses where one child would be the head and another would be the legs and so on.
At one point Ruth was lying still in the water and Katie yelled at her, “Ruth, I don’t like it when you look dead in the water.” My kids thought this was hilarious and repeated this line many times during the remainder of the trip.
At camp one night we had a torrential downpour which caused a stream to form behind one of the Patten’s tests, so we were hurriedly moving tents during the storm and anyone who wasn’t in a tent got drenched. I was getting cold in the rain, but Barb really liked the rain as she ran around in it. There was a waterfall that formed on the far side of the river from us that was nifty. Frogs appeared and started hopping around.
Eventually we sought shelter under the cliff where someone noted that the water falling off the cliff was much warmer than water falling from the sky, so I stood in the warmer water. Finally the storm passed, we dried off, got in our tents and went to sleep, grateful things had cooled down.
Years earlier when we had floated the Green River, we were on the river on Lilly’s birthday. On that trip I brought her Hot Tamales as a surprise, but they had gotten wet and didn’t turn out to be a very good surprise. On this trip on Lilly’s birthday we wished her a happy birthday and then I told her I was going to try to fix the disappointment from years ago. She gave me an odd look and then I pulled out three boxes of Hot Tamales. She seemed really pleased with the present and the gesture. This time around it was much better.
We had anticipated Government Rapid from the beginning of the trip as this was to be the most difficult rapid of the trip. Government Bird Rock sits over the canyon above the rapid, which is easily identifiable as a bird. It is a really cool formation. We pulled out before the rapid to scout it. Ferdinand and I walked farther downstream than the others and took plenty of time to scout the rapid. We devised a really good plan for getting through and I practiced the maneuvers in my mind that I would need to run it cleanly. Eric ran his boat through even before Ferdinand and I got back from scouting. He hit some rocks but got through alright. Likewise Ferdinand hit some rocks, but managed to get through alright. The two duckies were next. Barb and Ezekiel were in the first and they got through. Lucy and Calvin were next. I watched as they got thrown from their boat. They both popped up and were floating down the river. My scouting paid off and I was able to make it through without hitting a rock. When I got to the side of the river where everyone was pulled out except Eric who was in the river looking for a lost paddle, everyone was gathered around Calvin. He had a pretty big goose egg on his head and he seemed pretty shaken. We gathered around and prayed on his behalf. He seemed to be at the edge of shock which was concerning. It took him a bit, but he eventually came out of it. We knew he would be fine when Ferdinand noted, "Calvin’s doing better now. He is mispronouncing words again.” I don’t think anyone in the family will forget Government Rapid.
We only had a few more miles to our camp at Slickhorn Rapid. Unfortunately we didn’t get to run the rapid because it is gone, completely filled up with sediment. However, we were excited to get to explore Slickhorn Canyon. We had watched YouTube videos of people jumping into clear pools in this beautiful side canyon. We set up camp and hiked up the canyon where we found a ledge full of fossils.
We dug out fossils and for a while and then walked further up the canyon.
We found a Collared Lizard that was willing to pose for photos. Unfortunately the canyon was pretty dry. The large, clear pools were small, muddy and shrinking.
There was a seep on the side of the canyon that supported ferns and greenery. We used it as a shower to wash our hair. It was a beautiful canyon and worth the exploration even without the hoped for swimming hole. Unfortunately we didn’t get any rain that night and it was blazingly hot leading to the worst night of sleep during the trip.
The next stop was planned to be Steer Gulch, but when we got there we didn’t like the accommodations and decided to row the rest of the way to the take out. This stretch of river is very flat due to the sediment that has filled the channel.
The canyon walls are still beautiful, but the rowing is more work. The highlight of the day was stopping on a sandbar and digging trenches and building towers out of sand. I was quite tired and fell asleep lying mostly in the water.
We were relieved to get to the take out that night. We called and asked for an earlier pick up.
I enjoyed the ride back to Bluff talking with our guide Markus. I learned that the Navajo point with their lips through some funny stories that he told us.
We got into our cars at Bluff and headed home. The Suburban quit on us two different times on the highway, but we made it home.