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Front Page » July 19, 2007 » Business Focus » Recreation Focus: Down the mighty river
Published 2,710 days ago

Recreation Focus: Down the mighty river


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By TERRY WILLIS
Sun Advocate reporter

The way to start off a river trip is not with a tragedy.

In the days before a recent BLM ranger patrol on the section of the Green River called Desolation-Gray Canyon, there was the first reported drowning in the canyon in many years.

And while the fatality was investigated by other agencies, it weighed heavily on everyones minds as they set out on their seven day journey down the Green River.

The group was made up of the ranger, Skip Edwards and seven others along as volunteers for a river clean-up trip. Everyone had some river experience under their belts, with the least being about one season's worth. Three people on the trip were associated with Carbon Recreation and the other three were friends of the ranger who were willing to get their hands dirty for the opportunity to float that stretch of the river.

This author was along to chronicle the week-long excursion.

Everyone gathered early on Wednesday morning to combine food and equipment into a semblance of a trip. Before noon the group was off, headed for the Sand Wash Ranger station.

As the gate way to Desolation Gray river trips, the Sand Wash Ranger station and boat launch is the point where all river runners converge before spreading out along the 84 miles of river into Swasey's Beach. During high use season (May 15-August 15) there are six launches that leave the ramp each day.

Typically, there are commercial trips averaging 17 people and guides and there are private trips with 6-8 people per trip. A normal day sees about 72 people head into the canyon to traverse the many miles ahead of them. Despite the fact onemay pass or be passed by a few of these groups during the trip, these are but fleeting encounters and for the most part individuals still feel like they are allowed their own chance at solitude if that is what they are seeking in a river experience.

The route choosen for the group was through Nine-Mile Canyon and across the Wrinkle Road. The other way in is just west of Myton and across the plateau winding across dusty gravel roads.

The going was slow and the traffic the group encountered was traffic consisting of industry trucks hauling their loads in and out of the gas fields. The team arrived in the afternoon.

No one had on a watch and so the group had already settled into river time. The one thing everyone was very grateful for was the lack of mosquitoes. There were a few biting, but in some years river travelers had to wear special clothes and drench themselves in DEET just to keep from going mad with the onslaught.

The dirt and mud boat ramp had only one other person rigging as the group pulled in, but in a matter of minutes six other cars arrived and boating gear began flying off of vehicles. The team garnered a spot at the top of the ramp that had no mud to wade through, but the trade off was that they had to carry gear through some brush to get there.

Slowly the boats were packed and gear divided among the four boats. There was also a kayak and an IK (inflatable kayak) as part of the flotilla.

As the group put the finishing touches on their rigging I wandered over to talk with one of the groups rigging their boats. It was three young men who had grown up in Russia and stayed connected by meeting to do a couple of river trips a year. They didn't have a lot of river experience and it was fun to answer questions about what was in store for them. They would be doing the same trip in only four days. They wanted to know if the camps had signs. I told them a muddy patch of dirt or sand and cottonwood tree would by the only signs of a camp from the river.

Our group launched at about three-thirty that afternoon and still had river miles to get under our belt before supper. The Green River is calm and flat water for many miles and boaters have to row to make many miles in a hurry. The group put eleven miles behind them before they pulled into a camp in Maverick Canyon.

Now the process of taking many of the things we had just put on the boats back off. The first order of business was to set up the kitchen. Tables, boxes with plates, pans and utensils had to go up. Also food for the night was pulled out of dry boxes and coolers and headed up as well. Clean drinking water was hauled up and river water that would be boiled later to clean the dishes was settling in a river bucket. This ritual would be repeated each night of the trip. In the morning everyone in the group would reverse it as we reloaded the boats for the next day's float.

After the kitchen was established then the groover needed to be set up. The groover is a metal rocket box with a special liner made to hold human waste. There is a toilet seat that fits on top and another metal box holds toilet paper, hand sanitizer and other various stuff. The name groover was a throw back to the old days when the rocket box was lined with a plastic bag and there were no toilet seats made to fit. If you were not quick then you could end up with grooves from the box decorating your back side. The key to a good groover spot is the view. No one has lived life to its potential until they have enjoyed their daily constitutional watching the river flow by and listening to the birds greet the morning.

Tents sites were the last order of business as the night's cooks went about preparing that evenings meal. We clustered our tents on the small clearing in the sand because the surrounding tamarisk bushes were full of mosquitoes waiting for our blood.

Taco salad was the entree and we got to know each other a bit better as we munched. The Russian boys floated by and Skip let them know about a camp just around the bend. Then as darkness floated in we drifted off to our tents.

The Green River is a place of solitude as well as excitement when rapids approach.

Thursday morning arrived with a small chill in the air. Heads began popping out of tents, one by one. Several rafters huddled around the camp stove waiting for that first cup of coffee to be ready. With cup in hand I re-packed my tent, sleeping bag and clothes into my river bag. Bagels and cereal is the standard breakfast on the river and then we begin to reverse the process we went through the night before and pack up the kitchen and finally the groover.

By about 8:30 a.m. the group was back on the water. Keeping our eyes upon the task of scanning the bank we grabbed a bit of river trash here and there. Unlike a recreational river trip that would head down the river until they need to stop for lunch or night camp, we stopped at all the empty camp sites and checked for garbage. River runners are generally pretty clean campers. We had to look hard to find even minute bits of trash that we referred to as "pocket trash." It actually became a competition to see if we could find anything.

As the sun got higher in the sky and our stomachs began talking to us, we stopped for lunch at Stampede Flat. After chips and sandwiches we got back on the water.

At that point some of us spotted Big Horn sheep on both sides of the river. Transplanted back into the area in recent years, the herds are growing and all the ones we saw looked healthy.

By late afternoon the group was approaching the first of the rapids. Jack Creek rapid is considered the first major rapid on this section. Life jackets were required to be fully fastened on everyone for the rest of the way down the river. This is the rapid where the accident had occurred at less than a week before we left. It is not a difficult rapid and we were not worried in the least, but our mood was subdued as we each had our own introspective thought of what might have occurred that day.

Looking at the rock as we went past we were reminded that the river deserves respect even on the "easy" stuff and good practices make for old river runners.

I had just learned a lesson the weekend before at a river rescue class. I had a whistle fastened on my zipper to my life jacket. The whistle was for signaling if I or someone else was in trouble. The zipper seemed a handy place to put it. As we flipped our boat during the training, the whistle caught on something and my jacket came unzipped while I was in the water. I stayed in it and got the zipper back up after I was back in the boat.

But that week, while I was on the Green my whistle was now in my pocket.

After another flat water stretch the group ran the rapid at Flat Canyon. We had passed the Russian boys again and they were behind us. Often Skip would stop to talk with a boating party to see how they were doing. While he did this we would sweep a beach, pick up charcoal bits and some pocket trash. Then we would move on.

On the river again our group tended to get spread out over quite a distance and several nice camp sites were passed by as we tried to regroup. Spreading out can be a problem. First there is the communication with each other about finding good camp choices. Secondly if someone gets into trouble with a rapid or for any other reason, the rest of the group is not there to help.

In the fatality incident that took place the week before that may have been an issue because the boat in trouble was so far behind the rest of the group and no one was left to give them assistance.

Once we all caught up with each other we settled for a seldom used camp site on the left bank of the river. A sand island separated us from the other side of the Green. The Russians stopped at the end of the island and looked to see if it was suitable for camping, but move further on down the river. Light is fading by the time we settle in for a dinner of grilled hamburgers and coleslaw.

With everything a gray haze of dusk, we could see a light across the river from us. Soon we also heard hollering. We couldn't make out what was being said, but it was persistent. I called over to where the light is to see if someone needed help.

The light answered back. They said that they were just trying to get the attention of their group. We all figured it was someone waiting for the rest of a group floating late on the river before they camp. But the persistent calls then turned into frantic ones. Soon they became calls for help.

By then the evening had become inky black. We communicated back and forth with the person with the light and determined he was a young man who had gotten lost on a hike from his group. He said he thought he could walk the river bank down to his group but the bank disappeared into an impassible rocky ledge just below where he was. He was panicked and desperate.

Worried that he would keep trying to get back to his own camp and get hurt or worse, Skip took the IK over to the island and then over to the boys position. He drug him back hanging on the the rear of it guided by our flashlights. Safely in our camp we were introduced to 19 year old Bobby who was only wearing shorts and tennis shoes. He only had water and a head light with him. We scrounged up a tarp, sleeping bag and a dry shirt for him.

Our satellite phone could not find service and so we couldn't notify anyone we had him. It was close to midnight when we headed off to bed with Bobby sleeping safe and warm in the kitchen.

It wasn't too long after dawn when the first searchers appeared on the cliff line high above us calling out for their lost boy. We hollered back to each of the search parties that we had him and he was safe. I'm sure they were trying to figure out how he had managed to get himself on the other side of the river. We looked at the cliff and weren't sure what path he would have chosen to get down the steep and rocky terrain. Even in the light, it didn't look inviting.

We ate breakfast and packed up as usual but with an extra set of very willing hands to help us haul the heavy stuff down to our boats. The group from which the boy was separated was camped at the Dripping Springs camp site around the bend of the river. We first had to run a small rapid and then we deposited a contrite Bobby back to his group. As we left, his instructors were talking to him as he stood with his head down, knowing how lucky he was.

We then went back to the task of checking camp sites and running the rapids. The rapids in this area were small, fun and got us wet enough to cool us down as the heat began to set in. We stopped for lunch at the Rock Creek Ranch. There is a fresh water stream there and no camping is allowed. Solar showers were filled at the creek. A bright green algae was growing in the creek. I went to take some photos of it and I noticed smoke from a fire beyond the ridge. I told Skip and he called it in on the satellite phone. It had already been reported and was called the Buckskin fire.

Once back on the Green the river picked up its pace and rapids were coming every few miles. It's a good thing because the wind had also begun to pick up and it was blowing up stream.

I took over rowing one of the boats and found it was a workout. We were making good time despite the frequent forays to the shore to check camps and grab small bits of flotsam along the bank. We arrived at Chandler Falls in the late afternoon. Chandler rapid is one of my favorites because it is easy and has some fun waves to hit. We camped right below the rapid and because of our progress decided it would be a lay over camp.

Chicken fajitas were the Friday night fare. Even though we knew that there would be no pressure in the morning to break camp, we were all pretty exhausted from our rowing against the wind and the late night adventures of the previous evening. We scattered to our tents fairly early and the only sound that could be heard was the constant roar of the river as it tumbled past.

Kile Wetlaufer puts his kayak through a rapid during the clean up trip.

Knowing we didn't have to get on down the river the next day, many of us in the group took our time getting up. We broke out the eggs and had left over scrambled egg wraps for break fast with toasted English muffins. After breakfast was cleaned up we settled into sustained leisure mode for the first time on the trip.

Not being on the water, the heat settled on us like a stifling blanket as the day wore on. We alternated between reading and soaking in the river, clothes and all, to cool down. A few people spent a lot of time in the water. One went hiking up the canyon and the rest of us moved our chairs in a clockwise pattern, chasing the shade.

Skip watched the parties of boats go by. He called one group over to remind them they were required to have their life jackets on at all times. They probably took them off again after they got around the bend. He chatted with one of the Western River Expeditions Charters when they pulled in to the beach to regroup after the rapid.

By afternoon the kayaks were hauled up the bank to play in the rapid and see who could surf the wave. On the beach a partially decomposed bear cub carcass was discovered. We buried it deeper that it had been and speculated it may have been killed by the large cat that had been seen roaming this camp. Fresh tracks had been spotted earlier during a hike.

The Russians floated by and we waved goodbye for the last time because they would be getting off the river tomorrow and would be far below us by the time we got back on the water.

As the heat broke its oppressive hold later in the day I decided to head out on a little hike. I had camped here before, but never had much time to move very far beyond the edges of the camp.

A dirt road came down from Ouray and broke out of the canyon here and so I headed up the road a bit. I had left fresh human footprints behind and had been seeing the cat tracks on the road in the dust. They seemed pretty fresh. Suddenly there was a pile of fresh cat scat and a wet stain in front of it where the big cat had gone. As hot as it was I realized that this just had happened a very short time ago for it to still be wet.

As the hair stood up on the back of my neck and I thought about the bear carcass, I slowly turned around and began to head back to camp. I was in a side canyon and no one could have heard me if I needed help. I kept looking over my shoulder until I was back within sight of camp. I had made a stupid decision to head out on my own and was lucky enough to come back with no more than a scare.

The next morning it took us no time to get back into the swing of things and we were on the water early. We had enjoyed the break but were eager to get moving. That day we had two of the bigger rapids ahead of us. After a morning of checking camps, we hit Mc Phearson's ranch and had some lunch. By the time we got back on the water, the wind had picked up. When we stopped to check the camp at Wire Fence rapid we stumbled across a deer, laying to the side of the trail, shading up out of the heat.

We checked the camp and scout site for Three Fords Rapid. I stayed behind to take some photos of the group. We caught up with the rest of the team below the rapid and headed into a strengthening headwind. I took over rowing again and we ran through Range Creek Rapid. Then there was a long stretch of what many of us call the lake. It never seems to have any discernible current through that segment. Even when the wind isn't blowing one has to row all the way through it.

Just as it began to feel like we were making no headway, the current picked back up and we powered our way though the gusts toward our chosen site at Rabbit Valley. The beach looked like it had a sand storm in the Saraha desert going on as we arrived. We chose our kitchen spot where the least sand was blowing. The wind subsided and we had an excellent grilled chicken with pasta and pesto for dinner. Like at every camp we saw fresh bighorn sheep tracks in the sand.

The next day was Monday and the last full day on the River. We had one big rapid left to go, Coal Creek. We climbed up the cliff on river left to get a bird's eye view of it. It changes in appearance with the water levels. At high levels it is an easy bounce through a field of waves. As the water drops a huge hole is formed by the water rushing over the head rock and the run is usually around the hole to the left. I went in the hole once before when I was running the river and swear I saw the river bottom before being swept off my boat as I was sitting upside down.

As the water level continues to fall, the rocks all start popping out their ugly heads and then one just has to watch to keep from pinballing their way down the stream. This day the rapid was somewhere in the middle of the raging big hole and the pin ball machine. The box car size head rock was showing from below the hole. An easy run unless someone got careless. We left the high sandstone cliffs of Desolation and entered Gray Canyon. Chuckars and geese populated the shoreline. The geese stand in the eddys preening and showing off their young while the chuckars hide and laugh taunting insults from their safe refuge in the willows.

After Rattlesnake Rapid we hit the beach again. Huge piles of driftwood lined the shore and we speculated what high price foo-foo furniture could be made out of the pieces by some talented artisian willing to carry them out.

By noon we hit the section called The Daily. There is a road at that spot that carries people and their boats to launch at the boat ramp. A rock formation that older river runners call Nefertiti stands guard at the top of this section. On the other hand kids see Bart Simpson in the formation. We stopped on the beach below the ramp for lunch. For the first time since we set out we had more than just pocket trash to pick up. One fire ring was still evident on the beach and lots of charcoal from previous fires. River runners who launch from Sand Wash are required to carry a fire pan and cart out all their ash. This helps keeps the camp sites clean and pristine for the next group. But the daily section does not have a way to enforce that requirement with the fishermen and daily boating groups and local residents that frequent the area and so it takes constant work to keep the impact down.

As we proceeded we were stopping often to pick up trash and beer cans along the side of the river that has the road along it. In a few short miles we picked up more trash than the whole rest of the trip. We pulled over above where the Price River enters the Green and made the short walk up to the petroglyphs on the right bank of the river. As many people who stop by to see them each season, they have still been left untouched by vandals.

We choose to spend our last night less than a mile from the take out instead of camping at the boat ramp. We pulled into Short Canyon camp on river right early in the afternoon. Faced with an early morning to get to the ramp and have our boats derigged before our shuttle trucks came to get us, we pulled the minimum off the boats. I set up my solo tent one last time and took advantage of the time before dinner to stretch out and try to finish my book. A movement at the end of my tent caught my eye and I looked up to see a silver fox try to sneak past the end of my tent. I whispered to others sitting close to look as he disappeared into the brush away from the river. Many in our group chose not to set their tents up for the final night and slept on tarps under the stars.

Our last meal was a grand spaghetti dinner and we spent the time recounting adventures from the trip. Several of us turned on our cell phones and recounted news from the home front. Night seemed to stalk us quickly and we headed to bed for the last night. Despite being one mile from the finish, a trip is never over until you load the last boat on the trucks. And we had one more adventure in store for us.

About 4:30 a.m. one of the guys laying on his tarp woke up to a snorting sound in his face. He opened his eyes to see a black bear snorting and sniffing. As he bolted upright, the bear backed off and the two stared at each other. He began to yell "Get out of here!" as the bear began to move toward him. The bear turned and thrashed off through the bushes. Skip heard the commotion and headed to the boat for the air horn, but by then it wasn't needed.

We all woke up and most of us drifted back to sleep. In the morning we learned of the close encounter and saw the foot prints right next to his tarp. Energized we finished eating and cast off.

Quietly we slipped onto the normal busy boat ramp and pulled up the boats and unloaded them for the final time.

Even though there is someone hired to keep Swasey's beach area clean, we grabbed bail buckets and split up into teams and headed from the ramp to the beach and back picking up garbage. Broken glass in the sand, motor oil containers, and tampax wrappers were among the garbage that littered the beach where the week before my grand kids had frolicked bare footed.

We were pouring our buckets into the garbage bins as the first of our shuttle trucks arrived. As we recounted the run in with the bear, our driver filled us in about the American Fork bear attack and death. We were sobered right up; it wasn't quite as humorous as we had made our encounter out to be.

As we finished loading one truck, the other arrived. We left to head back to Price to unload and clean up the gear. We pulled into a convenience store to grab a cold drink before hitting the road. We all climbed back in the van vocalizing the fact that we had resisted the urge to pick up the trash that was littering the parking lot.

Soon we would be home to our TV sets, hot showers, soft beds and daily tasks, but for one more hour we would bask in the feeling of leaving one of the special places in the world just a bit better for our passing through. With at least 50 miles of it flowing right on the edge of Carbon County, its nice to know we have this right in our own back yard.


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