A wilderness of rocks: Canoeing Utah’s Green River
“Wherever we look there is but a wilderness of rocks; deep gorges, where the rivers are lost below cliffs and towers and pinnacles; and ten thousand strangely carved forms in every direction; and beyond them, mountains blending with the clouds.”
– Major John Wesley Powell, July 19, 1869
When I told people I’d done a seven-day canoe trip on Utah’s Green River, they said, “Oh, wow!” envisioning the viciously roiling Colorado and Class 4 rapids. Then I told them we’d had to paddle only a quarter of the 54 miles, and the 4-year-old in our party was the only one who wore a life jacket.
In 1869, the one-armed Civil War veteran Major John Wesley Powell embarked on an exploration of the Green and Colorado rivers on May 24, with nine men and four boats. He hauled out on Aug. 30 with just six men and two boats. Boating the Green is much easier now.
Jodi and I met Harry, Tom, Kimberly and little Alexandra at a campground in Moab, a once-small town now overrun with Gen X extreme-sports fanatics and shiny rental Jeeps.
We assembled at Tex’s Riverways the next morning to load our mountain of gear into a truck with three 17-foot, fat-bottomed Grummans on its rack.
Dirk, our pony-tailed and bandana-wearing driver, gave us a safety lecture and explained the proper disposal of human waste. Canyonlands National Park has strict backcountry environmental standards. Dirk told us to urinate near the waterline, but for other business, we used a metal field toilet. The box is emblazoned with “TEX” in fluorescent letters, and all canoe parties promptly christen their little companion by that name.
The put-in, Mineral Bottom, was reached by steep switchbacks. We battened down our stuff with bungees, then shoved off into water like Mark Twain’s description of the Colorado, “Too thick to drink, too thin to plow.”
“We have a cool, pleasant ride today, through this part of the canyon. The walls are steadily increasing in altitude, the curves are gentle, and often the river sweeps by an arc of vertical wall, smooth and unbroken, and then by a curve that is variegated by royal arches, mossy alcoves, deep, beautiful glens, and painted grottos.”
Powell’s journal, July 31, 1869
Thus we began six days of gliding along at about 2 mph, staring up at the canyon walls, in awe and mostly silence. We took a big gamble on the weather by launching April 3, in order to avoid summer crowds.
I’d been told I’d freeze my buns off in slot canyons and battle headwinds every afternoon. Instead, ‘I slathered on sunscreen all day as I squinted into 75-degree sunshine, and practically the only paddling we did was when we realized we were in an eddy and out of the almost-imperceptible current.
Most folks run this river in five or six days. We stretched it out to seven in order to have a layover day. We spent hours drifting as a flotilla, hooked together by a loose bow line or a bare-foot leg draped over the gunwale.
The adults drank beer, snacked, chatted, and listened to Tom’s guitar. Allie “paddled” with a large plastic sand toy, dragged a beaver-chewed stick in the water, involved us in word games, or napped under an umbrella. I only heard, “Mommy, I’m bored!” once.
“It may be that it is was a watch-tower of that ancient people, whose home we have found in ruins. On many of the tributaries of the Colorado I have heretofore examined their deserted dwellings. Those that show evidences of being built during the latter part of their occupation of the country are, usually, placed on the most inaccessible cliffs.”
At a double-back bend at Fort Bottom, an Anasazi lookout tower commands a large point. We camped a mile downstream, then Tom and I eddy-hopped back up to it the next morning.
Two well-preserved, connected, round towers were built of flat, mortared stones hauled up to the promontory. They have stood perhaps 1,000 years; archaeologists take samples of ruins’ wooden lintels to precisely date structures with the carbon-14 method. Harry told me to look for hunters’ granaries – food caches behind stacked rock walls in crevices – with my binoculars from here on.
Evidence of beaver was everywhere: slides, sticks missing their bark, girdled cottonwoods, web-footed tracks. We saw two groups of bighorn ewes with lambs or yearlings. They started off, then turned to stare at us with beautiful, sardonic faces as we drifted by, snapping pictures.
Nervous great blue herons stood frozen, judging the danger we presented. They would suddenly lift off like pterodactyls, with 3-foot wings and long yellow legs trailing straight out behind them.
Powell had to be describing the evocative, descending call of the canyon wren when he wrote, “floods of delirious music pours from the throats of birds.” At dawn, a hummingbird investigated my freshly washed, bright-colored underpants hanging on a bush to dry.
“There is an exquisite charm in our ride today down this beautiful canyon. It gradually grows deeper with every mile of travel; the walls are symmetrically curved, and grandly arched; of a beautiful color, and reflected in the quiet waters in many places, so as to almost deceive the eye, and suggest the thought, to the beholder, that he is looking into profound depths. … We named this Labyrinth Canyon.
– July 15
Camping spots were hard to find in Labyrinth, between the high, early-season river level and choking thickets of tamarisk, an invasive alien bush from the Asian steppes. At night, we could hear chunks of the sand bars on which our sleeping bags were spread fall away.
Jodi is a river guide for Mariah Wilderness Expeditions. One of her duties is to prepare quality meals for clients, and she volunteered to do so for us. With three ice chests and dry ice, we ate a lot of fresh food, dazzling to this minimalist camper.
Jodi is a master of the Dutch oven, which she used over briquettes in the fire pan issued by Tex’s. She turned out lasagna, enchiladas, cornbread, brownies, a pineapple upside-down cake – even a 40th birthday cake for Tom.
“We see a butte in the form of a fallen cross, note its position and name it ‘The Butte of the Cross’ … We are surprised that our butte is indeed two buttes; one standing in front of the other gave the appearance of a cross.”
– July 16 and 17
We looked for Powell’s optical illusion, just beyond Millard Canyon. We camped near the canyon’s mouth and hiked up its sandy wash. Next morning, we ran our only “whitewater,” about 100 yards of Class 1.
Red canyons streaked with black manganese began to narrow. I fell into the trap of anthropomorphizing about the walls as living creatures. They resemble the Ramses temple removed for Aswan Dam; indeed, we passed a rock formation called “The Sphinx.”
We hiked to the base of a beautifully preserved, two-story ruin maybe 100 feet up the cliff. Why was it so high? Many Anasazi structures were entered by ladders or by climbing down the mesa above. Also, modern viewers are standing on a river bed lowered by many ensuing centuries of erosion.
We noted Stillwater Canyon’s zigzags and 90-degree switchbacks in our river guide. We rounded Turk’s Head and pulled into the wash at the mouth of Deadhorse Canyon for our layover day.
Harry and I hiked four miles up the arroyo, photographing wildflowers and rock formations. Deadhorse is a “box canyon,” ending in a huge rock amphitheater, which felt downright holy. I was surprised that the broad canyon had been created solely by a pour-off of rainwater from the top of the amphitheater.
I sauntered back alone, exploring whatever side canyon caught my fancy. Climbing up a canyon’s pour-off, I came to a hillside glittering with thousands of fragments of volcanic, blood-red jasper.
Next morning, Jodi lead me to a petroglyph site Tom had discovered. Three boulders had panels of bighorns, bear paws, handprints and abstracts on a par with the finest rock art I’ve seen in southeast Utah. Some of the “anthropomorphs” (archaeologists’ term for “human” figures which may not always be truly human) had broad shoulders, tiny hips and huge feet with detailed toes.
“The river turns sharply to the east, and seems enclosed by a wall, set with a million brilliant gems. What can it mean? Every eye is engaged, everyone wonders. On coming nearer, we find fountains bursting from the rock, high overhead, and the spray in the sunshine forms the gems which bedeck the wall. The rocks below the fountain are covered with mosses, and ferns, and many beautiful flowering plants.”
– Aug. 9
Jodi and I started up Jasper Canyon, which turned into rock-hopping as we followed an increasing sound of water into an amphitheater. Up ahead, Jodi began yelling, “It’s awesome! Awesome!” I soon stopped dead, open-mouthed, at a large, green pool filled by a curtain of water falling off an overhang.
“There is a narrow lane between the river and the wall just here, and on the brink of a rock two hundred feet high stands an old house. Its walls are of stone, laid in mortar, with much regularity. … Great quantities of flint chips are found on the rocks near by, and many arrow heads, some perfect, others broken; and fragments of pottery are strewn about in great profusion.”
– July 29
Near the canyon mouth, we climbed up to an Anasazi ledge structure, big enough for two hunters to sleep in. Pebbles were pressed into the mortar above the lintel as a decoration. Crouched in the structure’s doorway, I contemplated the same view of the river bend the Indians did a millennium ago.
“Late in the afternoon the water becomes swift; an hour brings us to the junction of the Grand and Green. These streams unite in solemn depths, more than 1,200 feet below the general surface of the country.”
– July 17
After a week of lazy drifting, we became anxious at the sight of wind whipping up sand dervishes on a beach at the confluence. We had to dig in to get around the point; in his solo boat, Harry was glad for the ballast that the now-heavy TEX provided.
We fought our way down the Colorado about a mile to our final camp, a lovely sandy beach and an eddy. Across the river was a sign: “Warning: Dangerous rapids 4 miles downriver – “Cataract Canyon” – so named by Powell when it became his nemesis. We later learned that a couple we had seen earlier missed the sign and proceeded, running some Class 3 rapids in their open canoe before bailing out.
Next afternoon, Dirk arrived to load our canoes onto a jet boat. We shot up the Colorado 50 miles to the outskirts of Moab in 31Ú2 hours – almost the same the distance we’d taken a week to drift down the Green.
• Contact Pat Devereux at email@example.com.
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