For the last several years now, I have been privileged to go on a seven day adventure on a stretch of the Green River known as Desolation Gray. I do it as a volunteer ranger/raft guide for the Bureau of Land Management. This summer was no exception. My husband, Dennis, and I did a solo boat patrol for the BLM when one of the regular rangers wanted some time off for his own adventure. Dennis is retired from the BLM and has managed the river program for many, many years.
Each season as my trip draws near, there has been an event on the river we all talk about as we get ready to launch. Two years ago it was the drowning of a boater at Jack Creek rapid. Last season it was the plane crash at Flat Canyon. Each gave us much to talk about with other river runners as we load our boats at the Sand Wash ramp and ranger station.
This year's big topic actually began unfolding last August as a heavy downpour concentrated its strength over an area that drains into Joe Hutch Creek. The sudden intensity of water sent boulders and debris crashing into the Green in a river altering event. In place of a small easily navigated riffle we all knew as Cow Swim, now stood a class four rapid.
It wasn't there when I went down the river last July, but Dennis was one of the first boaters to see it in August. The size of the debris flow and change of the channel spooked even the more experienced river runners among them.
As the water rose this spring, it continued to move things around and shape the dynamics of the rapid. Boaters were finding themselves in trouble and reports of boats flipping were common. The water was dropping and the run through the thing was continuing to evolve. I would get to see this for the first time on this trip. Dennis was taking a look at it for his third time and each time he has seen it, it has been different. He wasn't sure what to expect.
It was what we all talked about. The ranger who was just off his patrol at the time showed us his photos of the thing. We talked strategy but knew the water level would be a lot lower and we would have to wait and see.
The mosquitoes weren't too bad as we arrived at Sand Wash that Tuesday night. A beer and some good conversation with the rangers were the highlight of the evening. We were up by 5:30 a.m. and down to the ramp by six. I was fully sprayed with bug juice and wore long pants, but the blood suckers were not on high alert as we loaded up our boat.
Knowing that all we had was flat water and a 26 mile haul, it was a sloppy rigging. But we were on the water, floating by eight. Two other groups were rigging at the same time on either side of us. One was a commercial company that moved in a well choreographed flow. They had done this over and over again already this summer and it showed.
On the other side was a boy scout troop from the Wasatch Front. The chaos was funny to observe. The boys were reluctant to pitch in as most were still shaking off their sleep and moving in slow motion.
We left the chatter behind as we floated out on the still, barely moving river. Bug shirts and the bottom part of our pants came off and we applied our sunscreen liberally. Quiet engulfed us as we headed down river, barely speaking, enjoying the vista before us.
If you are going to do this trip with only one other person, it better be with someone you really like because you will be stuck with them in close proximity for a long time. I couldn't have picked a better person to do this with. It has been over 10 years since we did a solo trip together. We have both done this river with groups, but in recent years we hadn't even been part of the same group trips.
We stopped to eat at 11 a.m. on a sandbar. The commercial group motored by and waved. Back on the water we took turns rowing. My turns were shorter than his. The wind would come up in short gusts as we headed around bends and then let back up. Miles passed and we both reminisced about past trips we had taken before.
We had both drank pretty much all our water in our bottles by the time we saw Jack Creek Rapid and put our life jackets on. This is when it is required and they would stay on us the remainder of the trip when we were on the boat. Camp was just on the other end of the rapid.
Tired, cranky and thirsty we began unloading the boat. I made the mistake of sipping a cold beer and it just made me want to crash. Water, water, water was the answer as I prepared our tacos for supper.
The mosquitoes were making their presence felt as the sun drew long in the sky. We tried one of the mosquitoes repellent fan things and it actually seemed to help. I headed to the tent to lay down and read, but my eyes dropped shut and then it was morning.
I had to eat my cereal dry because my milk was frozen. We moved it to the other cooler to thaw. Our repacking of the boat took a bit longer because we needed to secure our load a bit better today. Small rapids would dot our journey. We broke up a fire pit left from previous boaters and headed out.
At Flat Canyon we stopped at the petroglyph panel and there was a group of four boats there that was supposed to be a party of eight boats. The regulations state that a group must remain within eye distance of their group at all times. Their boat tags confirmed that they had split up. Dennis hiked up to talk to them and they admitted to it, but seemed to dismiss the rule as they were "experts." Dennis reminded them to join back up and they assured him they would by the end of the day.
There are several reasons for this rule. One is for the safety of the group so that if any one in the group runs into trouble, the rest of the group is aware and can hopefully assist. The other part is to keep groups from sending down someone to snag a camp away from other boating parties while the rest of the group meanders down river. A third reason is to keep people from using one permit to actually have two or more separate groups camping at different spots each night.
Camping spots are on a first come-first serve basis. Permits are also issued to keep the experience people can have as wild and uncrowded as possible. So breaking this rule negates what the system is trying to do for all boaters involved. This group wanted to hike and to assure they could camp at the site they really wanted.
By the time we finished our lunch down river a ways, the boy scouts had just passed us. We pulled into the current behind them and followed them through several rapids. Just above Stone Cabin Rapid two boys jumped off the rear boat and swam quickly over to the small cliffs on the right. As their boat floated on down the river they climbed up and one of them jumped off the cliff. I cringed, waiting for him to surface. He came up yelling to his friend not to jump as it was too shallow. The other boy yelled over to the boat asking what he should do and the leader told him to climb up higher and maybe he would land in deeper water.
The Green River is a very muddy river and you can not tell if you are in two feet or twelve just from looking at the surface. Higher up did not guarantee any deeper water. Dennis yelled over to the boy and told him to climb down and swim to us. He actually listened and we got him back to his group with no problems. No broken backs or legs today.
We pulled out to set up camp. After the long day yesterday we were in good shape for a short day. The scouts were already running low on water and filled up several of their jugs at the stream at Rock Creek Ranch. We could see them across the river. After a while they headed out; they had to make some more miles as their trip was shorter than ours. It was the last we would see of them.
We held up under a tree until the shadows from the cliff on the other side of the river hit the beach and then we moved down to the shade there. We could see smoke wafting over the cliffs below us and then some to the west of us. We had heard rumors of a fire high up in the drainages above the river, but were not sure where it was.
The wind really picked up as we cooked dinner. The chicken breasts were slow to cook as the wind pushed the heat from the coals away from the meat. Our tent strained against its stakes and filled up with a fine silty sand that was blown through the open screened window. Waiting for dinner, I watched the game of tag that was being played by the sunlight and shadows. Everywhere in this canyon the game is played twice a day. In the morning it is the sun chasing out the dark. By night shadows are the conqueror as we welcomed the cool air.
I had the camera out and tried to catch the game, hoping to capture some of the drama for a painting or two.
After dinner I retreated to the tent to escape the dust. I shook out the sleeping bags and secured the window except for a slit for the wind to pass through. Then suddenly the wind was done and the evening fell calmly into night.
Friday dawned with a coolness that is welcome. Since we were right down on the beach, we packed things up quickly and were back on the water by eight. The owners of the Rock Creek property erected a pole and there was an American flag waving in the breeze. It was a new addition since I spent four days there last year.
We came up on a group packing their boats for the day and pulled in to chat. They rescued a bottle of motor oil from the river and asked if we would take it so they didn't have to worry about it leaking on their boat. We grabbed it and added it to the trash bag.
We spent more time that day stopping to check camps. Mostly they were clear of trash, but we had seen an increasing trend of some groups to use the driftwood and fallen logs to build things. Mostly people had been constructing lean-tos and wood piles. These are structures that attract vermin and no one wants a camp site overrun with mice. So we took them apart and scatter the wood back to as natural a pattern as we could.
As we floated above Belnap Falls we heard the unmistakable sound of a helicopter. We were wondering if it was a fire chopper when around the bend comes a small black military looking thing. It was about 100 feet above the water and cruising fast. They gave us a wide berth as we were in an open stretch of the tight canyon and then they headed upstream. They were there and gone in less than 10 seconds.
Below at the Lion Hollow camp site we found that a group had way too much time and energy on their hands. We disassembled six lean-tos, an amphitheater of seating, and a huge wood pile. The deer flies were biting hard, which didn't make the task any easier.
The current and wind had been kind to us and we rolled into our camp above Chandler Falls at 1 p.m. We planned to stay until Sunday morning. After a late lunch, I grabbed my camera and headed out to explore. I have spent a lot of time on the other side of the river, but not on river right where we were now camped. I saw the group that had split up earlier in the trip was camped at Chandler on river left. I was way up on the cliff above them on the other side.
I wanted to see what was up the side canyon and headed off the trail to the west. I didn't get too far when I came to a clearing in the junipers and brush and saw some tracks across a spit of bare sand. I walked over and realized they were fresh, sharp cat tracks. They were as crisp as my shoe prints were. As my hair stood up on the back of my neck I quickly retreated back to the trail and camp.
About an hour later Dennis headed up with me to see the tracks. He thought they might be a bear, but I knew differently. He saw them and agreed. They were no longer fresh and the wind had softened them enough to confirm that the lion and I had just missed each other. No solo hikes at this camp.
Dennis and I bushwhacked our way over to the canyon until boulders and brush turned us back. We retreated back to camp but not before I had a small encounter with a young prickly pear cactus. I had to take out the hairlike spines from my foot and finger.
Sitting in our folding chairs and watching the river go by, we saw a family of bighorns drinking at the rivers edge across from us. This entertained us for quite a while. No other boaters floated past and it felt like we had the river to ourselves. The only thing that broke the quiet was the white noise of the river preparing itself for the rapid around the bend and our light conversation as we moved around camp.
That night we feasted on pork chops, rice and wine.
Then we secured the food and garbage back on the boat so we didn't temp unwanted visitors into camp in the middle of the night. We had not seen any signs of bear, but it is not good to take the chance.
I headed into the tent to read by the light of my headlight and soon drifted off. Dennis shoved the boat out farther from shore as the water level had been dropping and we didn't want our boat grounded.
On Saturday morning there was signs that we might get rain. Dark clouds kept building in the southern skies. Since we weren't leaving camp that day, we splurged on scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast. I broke out the rain fly and put it on the tent to be safe.
While we were in camp it sprinkled on us. Every time we headed out to explore, the clouds parted and the sun beat down on us. Throughout that day we took three hikes. On one we went up river, trying to follow an old trail. We also took one downstream along the same trail. We encounter somewhat fresh cougar tracks on that excursion. I followed along these trails until the path is too "edgy" for my tastes. I try and suck it up, but I hate cliffy kinds of trails and I started to whine. I didn't want to go back alone because of the possibility of encountering the cougar. Dennis finally and reluctantly turned around and we headed back.
Late in the afternoon we headed up the bottom of the wash into the canyon to our right. This time we got up into a box canyon. We smelled smoke quite strongly, but saw little evidence of where it was coming from. There was a hanging garden on the canyon wall, but the brush was too thick for us to get over to it.
It took all our concentration to descend back down the dry creek bed. Lose rock and sand gave way unexpectedly causing us to lose our balance. I miscalculated one step and sat down hard on my amply cushioned back side. No harm done.
Our little band of Big Horns traversed the cliff across the way and a pair of sea kayakers scouted the rapid below before heading on.
I wanted to strip down and take a bath in the river. We hadn't seen anyone most of the day. You could see upstream for a long way so you had time to cover up if any one came. Once I had done that sure enough, here came a group. I waited for them to pass and they actually hung out above us for a while to practice their kayaking before the rapid.
Finally after over 45 minutes they came down stream and then hung out across from us while they decided to run the rapid. After over an hour they were gone and I got cleaned up and washed my hair. I felt so clean even though the water was not clear. Then I donned some clean clothes and I was set. Layers of sunscreen, sand and bug spray were gone for now. I would soon have to reapply the sunscreen however.
After dinner the black clouds were back to the south and heading toward us. This time they were accompanied by the deep booming sounds of summer thunder and its light show. Dennis was convinced it wouldn't rain on us and threw a tarp out in front of the tent to sleep on.
Just as I really dozed off the rain hit. Dennis scrambled to get his sleeping bag inside and I closed up the window and door. It rained hard for a while.
Sunday dawned bright and clear and we kicked back into river mode as we loaded up the boat and headed on down the river. That day was the day we would encounter all three of the big rapids on the river. We started with Cow Swim. We talked about it a bit and Dennis was hoping to have another group there when we went through for safety sake. He seemed a bit more cautious about this rapid than I have seen him in a long time and it added to my anxiety.
One last show by our Big Horn friends and we were off. We had taken extra care to tie every thing down that day. We easily navigated Chandler Falls. Then we passed and checked a few campsites along the way. Early that morning we found ourselves above the rapid and joined a large group pulled off to the right to scout the thing out.
It was big. The boulder field made it look like there was no river beyond it as it funneled the river through some small openings. The big waves were on the left and if you ran those they would pull you into an undercut cliff line. That is where people had been flipping as they tried to stay off the cliff.
Dennis seemed a bit relieved as he surveyed the run. There was a smooth tongue of water to follow in. You needed to be in that tongue on the right of center, but not too far right. If you did that you would encounter the "tooth" rock. That is a jagged rock that you couldn't see too well from the upstream side.
We watched two boats run the rapid and they were fine; wet, but fine. I was ready to get the stress of the wait over and we went back upstream and boarded our boat. We drifted slowly toward the thunderous fall. Dennis was going in backward to what the others had done. He knew what he was doing and as soon as we missed the tooth rock, the current caught the front of our boat and swung us around. We missed the big waves, the huge hole and it was over.
Several boaters who had watched our run through were impressed. We were the only ones who didn't get pulled into the hole of water and waves. We stayed eddied up below as some kayakers snuck through the rocks on the right. There was only one boat left to go. There was enough help if they got into trouble so we went on.
Downstream, we pulled off on the beach at Florence Creek ranch to have lunch. The group we were with at Cow Swim joined us as we were finishing. We exchanged stories and they asked Dennis questions about the rules and regulations. We then said goodbye and headed off.
I rowed and decided to take on the next big rapid, Wire Fence. I remembered when that rapid formed right after I started running the river. It had thrown me out once when I was in a small inflatable kayak. I had to swim the next rapid too as the current was really strong on that trip.
Ah the memories.
I was shaking as I approached it. A big drop down the tongue and then huge waves make up this water feature. I made it and I am sure I had a stupid grim on my face. We pulled out and did some beach clean up. I found a cheap plastic toy ring. Dennis pocketed it for one of our grand kids.
Just around the next corner was the next big drop called Three Fords Rapid. I was down in the front of the boat as we dropped in. All I could see was a wall of brown as the wave covered me and hit Dennis in the chest. It was refreshing!
Now the excitement was over for the day. We took turns rowing and chatting. I couldn't find my sunscreen and waited until I was looking a little like a lobster before I asked Dennis for his bottle. I paid the price the rest of the trip.
I rowed through Range Creek rapid and ran out of stream about the time the afternoon breeze joined us with the lifeless stretch of water below the rapid. Dennis got the chore of rowing through the stretch we river rats call Range Creek Lake.
We took the camp at Rabbit Valley right. It was a long haul for our stuff up the sandy hill to get under the tree. But the alternative was a long wait on the beach to feel any shade and it was way too hot for that.
We hiked up the hills after dinner and Dennis showed me a rock shelter from the Fremont Indians. Remnants of the rock wall are still evident as well as the soot from their fire on the boulder face. I got some good shots up and down the river from there.
It was clear skies when we headed into the tent to sleep. Dennis tried to sleep out on a tarp again. About 1 am it started to rain and I had to get the rain fly and put it on the tent. Just about when we got it attached, the rain stopped. Because of the high wind that was blowing through, Dennis got up a few times to head down to check on the boat. He left the screen open and I was munched on by a mosquitoes. Neither of us slept well that night.
I was cranky as I climbed out of the tent around six in the morning on Monday. I suggested we hit the water as quickly as we could because we had a lot of miles to go. I knew if we were on the water late I could be really crabby by that evening.
Coal Creek Rapid came up quickly. The big rock was barely showing and we cruised past it fine. Just below that we stopped in as a group from Denver was leaving. They had to be back to Denver that night and back to work on Tuesday.
We stopped to check out the camp at Poverty and the deerflies were so thick you could kill several with every swat. They stayed with us as we headed down stream. It took me a while to realize the more I swatted and waved at them, the worse they were. I finally sat still and they became fewer in number.
Soon we were at Nefertiti rapid. I was rowing and I drifted close to the cliff wall. At that point I was startled by two young Bighorn Rams not more than an arms length away. I caught the eddy and swung around to pass them again as I get Dennis to grab the camera and get a few shots. They looked at us a bit warily, but refused to concede their spot at the waters edge.
The following four miles of flat water seem to take forever. Finally we got to Butler rapid and the current picked back up. We camped just shy of the take out at Short Canyon. It was the last night on the river. We watched a group of teen boys float past us on tubes, floatees and just in the water. None of them has a life jacket on. Not smart, but I guess they all made it without incident.
The next day we were off the river before 10 a.m. It was a day of sorting gear, cleaning and looking forward to a shower.
But that final evening before, I enjoyed one last night under the stars and nothing but the sound of the river to keep us company as we savored a good steak and a glass of wine.