Desolation Canyon River Patrol
Just as reliable as the change of the season, June brings the opportunity for another river adventure on the Green River for my husband and I. As in the past four years, we again volunteered to help with the BLM river program and do a river patrol trip down Desolation/Grey canyons on the Green. I've been floating this stretch of river since the mid-eighties. For a long time I saw Deso as a fixed landscape, always there and the same each time I came through. It's only really been in the past couple of seasons when I finally realized that this is truly a very dynamic and changing environment.
Last year it was just the two of us. This year the trip consisted of two other couples and a friend and the ranger. The ranger was Mick Krussow. Lee Larson had been the outdoor recreation planner with the BLM for the area back from 1976-1981. Larson had done many trips down Deso during his tenure in the Price BLM office and though now retired, was still involved with river issues though the River Management Society.
Larson invited Jim and Richie Clements. He had met them on a trip through the Grand Canyon years back. They had had many more adventures together through the years since. We brought along Marilyn and Dave Stolfa who we had met through a mutual friend and had done ski vacations with for many years. They volunteer for many BLM and trail projects in the Moab area and had just got off of another Deso trip four days ago. We all knew going in that this was a work trip and relished the opportunity to help out where we could.
Our trip began as we all congregated at the Price BLM river shed. As soon as the boats and gear came back off the river from the previous patrol, they were cleaned and we began putting many of the items back to use for our trip. Coolers were stocked with enough food and drinks for eight people and seven days.
Toilets (groovers) were cleaned out and stowed back on the boats with fire pans, cook stoves, pots, pans and dishes and fire sticks. We made sure our dish washing kit was ready with soap, bleach and a food strainer so we don't trash up the waters with food particles that just hang in the eddy's and wash back up on the beaches. Tents, tables, personal dry backs full of clothes, sleeping bags and folding chairs made their way on the truck as well. We made sure we had the first aid box, ranger box with maps, strap bag, shovel, bug hut and spray, throw ropes, life jackets, oars and extra oars for every boat and piles of trash bags for hauling out our trash and whatever we found as we cleaned camps along the way.
After many hours of coordinating and checking off lists several times we loaded up and headed off in a caravan to Duchesne to fuel the vehicles and grab our dinner at Subway. We ate as we headed off to Sand Wash Ranger Station. As always the talk was about previous trips, mosquitoes, rapids and politics.
It was evening when we arrived. One of the cars in our group was way behind us and got a flat along the way. It took them an hour to put the spare on and get to Sand Wash.We got to the boat ramp and quickly unloaded our boats and gear. We all had on long sleeves and pants and ample bug spray and the mosquito level stayed tolerable.
It was 6:30 a.m. when we regrouped at the Ranger station to drink coffee and eat some delicious breakfast burritos that Richie had brought for us. We left some for the ranger staying at Sand Wash for the week and for the one departing from his shift. The mosquito level was a bit higher in the cool morning hour and we quickly secured our personal gear and pushed off for the trip by 8 a.m. We all knew what a long day we had in store.
The upper portion of the trip is fairly flat and you do not get much help with the current. We aimed for getting 21 miles down on that first day. Our journey was a bit more unhurried than we planned. One of the boats was a bit slower and we made sure we didn't get too spread out as we headed down stream.
We actually found a nice beach to eat lunch at and there was enough wind to keep the mosquitoes at bay. The problem was that the breeze stayed around and got a bit stronger as the afternoon wore on. Upstream wind is a fact of life in the afternoon on most Deso trips and this one would have its share as the trip progressed.
We decided after chatting with a couple of commercial groups that floated past us, that the camps at Jack Creek were going to be full so we settled on one at the 19 mile mark called Turtle Beach. There was not much beach showing and the mosquitoes were waiting for us, but it was home for the night.
We unloaded the boats and got the kitchen set up quickly. We also put up the bug hut. It was a new purchase by the BLM and we were the first to try it out. It had a design flaw that left the bottom of the big double door open at the bottom and the mosquitoes found there way inside, but it was better than no hut. We squeezed our chairs inside and ate dinner huddled in the bug hut.
After dishes were done, many of us headed to our tents to escape the onslot of blood drinkers. I killed the few bugs that had managed to come into the tent with me and was settling in when I had to get up and use the groover. By the time I got back to my tent, I had about thirty bites in a place that usually doesn't see the sun. My feet had close to twenty welts on each. I sat in the tent trying not to scratch while smashing the new interlopers to the tent. Dennis came in and we had to do it again.
In the middle of the night it began to rain. Dennis had to get out and put the fly on. I offered to help, but he said to stay in the tent. I poked my head out and was swarmed and decided to listen to him. After he got back in the tent we had to swat a few more varmints before I could sleep.
We woke to rain and intense mosquitoes. We ate breakfast and broke camp as quickly as we could to escape the wrath. The rain gave way to a nice day and we floated on down the river. We soon shed the layers of long clothing we had on for bug protection. We headed to Flat Canyon and checked camps along the way. Everything was in pretty good shape.
By Jack Creek Rapid the current picked up and we put our life jackets on. We began to make good time. We arrived at Flat Canyon in the early afternoon. Again we unloaded our stuff and set up camp. Mick headed up canyon in search of an archeological site that they had been trying to relocate. Dennis and I set up our tent and then headed up the canyon to see Cathedral Arch. I had not ever been to it. It was hot and once we were off the river bottom, the breeze was sporadic at best. We got there and then headed back because it was our night to cook dinner.
When we got back we were regaled with the tales of the great tent chase. A big blast of wind hit just as Richie and Jim were putting up their tent and pulled out the stakes and sent it flying up the canyon. Richie chased it and each time as she got close, another blast would send it airborne. Everyone left in camp joined the fun. She finally managed to grab it and bring it back to camp.
We had just managed to finish cleaning up after dinner and stowing everything away to keep our camp bear safe when the wind returned with a vengeance. I climbed into the tent and it folded up on me. I stuck my head out and called for Dennis to help hold the tent up and a branch came and punctured the side. After the wind subsided we were able to get some patch material from Richie, who seemed to have just about everything we might need, and fix the hole.
We were a little slower in the morning as we reloaded the boats. We were not driven by the whine of mosquitoes in our ears and it made for a more leasurly pace. We were also not headed too far down stream. Mick needed to check out some sites at Steer Ridge and so we stopped there and grabbed lunch stuff off his boat and left him behind for his explorations. We went another mile or so down stream and stopped at Log Cabin Rapid for the day. We ate lunch there and relaxed.
Having an entire afternoon ahead of us to hang out was delightful. I grabbed my wet suit to practice for my upcoming triathlon. It was an experience swimming in the river even though I have floated many rapids in my life jacket. I did start feeling a bit more comfortable with my face in water I could not see in.
After drying off and changing clothes, I joined our little group as we got to know each other better. We swapped river stories and talked about rapids ahead. Another cold front moved through. We could see big, dark clouds marching up the river corridor and the winds began to rip. We tried to put up our tent, but gave up when the wind tore it out of the ground. We took the poles apart and put a big rock on it to hold it down. It would rain long enough for us to put on our rain gear and then stop long enough for us to take it off.
Finally it cleared enough and Dennis and I headed off for a short hike up a narrow canyon. We didn't find anything exciting and we scrambled back to camp in time for snacks before dinner. Mick floated down river and into camp by dinner time with only a few reports of archeological finds from his day of searching.
We found a new tent sight for the night and the weather was exceptional for the rest of the evening.
Morning dawned coolly and we had an overcast sky as we launched. We continued to check camp sights as we meandered down stream. We decided to camp about a half mile above the new rapid at Joe Hutch. The wind made it tough for a few miles, but we pulled into camp late afternoon.
I headed up the beach to find a spot for the groover with Marilyn. We found a secluded little space, but it was close to camp. So we set the box down and went a bit farther. I was eying a place on the far side of a fallen tree when a snake startled me. It was a whip snake who was more scared of me then I was of him. He tried to stay very still and look like a stick. Then he headed to the upright tree close by and stuck he body out and tried again to look like a branch. I knew that this was not a spot I wanted so we left the box at the first spot.
We set up the rest of camp and set up our chairs in the shade of a young cottonwood tree. We talked about the rapid coming up and how it is continuing to change with each season. As the after noon moved on we got very good at group shade shifts. As the shade moved someone would call out "shade shift" and we would all stand up and move our seats accordingly so we would all be in the shade again. Mick headed out to hike again.
No wind problems that afternoon. Dennis and I were on dinner duty again and we made spaghetti, garlic bread and salad. Satiated and content we sat and watched the sun drop behind the cliff on the other side of the river.
The Fourth of July began with clear blue skies. We were off to hit the big three rapids. We floated down and scouted Joe Hutch rapid. In the year and a half since it formed after a debris flow, the rapid had continued to evolve. It still commanded respect, but this year the huge wave train and hole were much calmer. We quickly got into our boats and all had a fun, but uneventful run through it.
A few hours later we were at the head of Wire Fence Rapid. After getting out to do a camp check, I walked the trail and came out below the rapid and took pictures of everyone as they went through. They stopped and picked me up and we blasted into McPherson Rapid. The head wave broke high enough to get Dennis wet up to his chest. The laterals on both sides were rocking and I was soaked to the bone. I took over rowing because we had a long flat stretch to get to Range Creek rapid.
Sure enough, the wind came up as I began to row. At one point it was so strong I was making no progress at all. I could tell this because I was alongside of a tree and it stayed in the same spot. I finally turned the boat a little and pulled as hard as I could and finally began to move downstream again. We saw a couple of boulders in the river at a spot we had not seen then before. You could see where they had broken off from the small cliff above. We talked between each other about how the river changes from trip to trip.
I rowed until after we ran the rapid at Range Creek. I pulled into the beach and we all broke out the lunch. Dennis took the oars back after lunch as we headed into the section called Range Creek lake. The wind returned and it was worse than when I was rowing. Dark black clouds were bearing down on us from the north. We got behind the lead boats as a few of us were trying to spot a grainery that was supposed to be up on the cliffs.
Soon our group was spread out as the wind continued to howl. We were in the middle of the five boats. Dennis asked me to hand him some water as he finally rounded the top of the rapid that was before where we were camping. I threw mine to him instead of taking the time to get his untangled from the stuff at the front of the boat. He sipped quickly and resumed rowing.
The wind shifted to a downstream blast as we approached the top of the rapid. We just cleared the hole in the middle and saw the other two boats pulled on the rocks short of the camp sight. As I was speculating about why they stopped there, we heard a crack that we thought might be lightning. Our group pointed across the river and up.
I thought there might be big horn sheep on the side so I looked over. What I saw was not big horns, but a VW bus sized boulder rolling down the cliff coming straight at us. I started screaming at Dennis to get us out of there. He was pulling on the oars as hard as he could and we seemed like we were in slow motion. I could hear our group yelling at Dennis to row hard.
The boulder hit a fan of dirt and rock and changed directions before landing in the river 100 feet behind us. It flew off the shore and plunged into the space we had vacated only seconds before. The wave it made sent a wall of water 10 feet high across the entire river.
I grabbed the camera out of my ammo can on the boat and took a picture of the dust cloud. We went down to the camp and I was shaking so hard Dennis began laughing at me. I pulled the boat up and ran up shore to see where the rock was. To everyone's surprise it had disappeared into a deep hole in the center of the rapid. The next boat in our group came around the bend and all they saw was the lingering dust cloud to tell them anything had happened.
For Dave, Marilyn and Mick it had been almost as terrifying as they saw the boulder break loose from 800 feet up and then saw us round the corner and could only stand and watch it all play out. I wonder if I had taken the extra time to dig out Dennis' water bottle instead of handing him mine, if we would have been crushed instead of escaping.
It was the talk of the camp for the night. I needed to get my head straight so I headed out for a short hike up the canyon behind camp. I got out of sound of the river very shortly and climbed a bench and sat, soaking up the quiet for a while before heading back to the group.
I walked down the dry creek bed to the river and watched a group go through the rapid. They had no clue what had transpired just a short time before and they probably never would. I pondered how often those things happened in this canyon and we have no awareness of them. Kind of like the question about the tree falling in a forest and there is no one around to hear it-does it make a sound?
The group pulled into the Rabbit Valley camp on the other side of the river. Later as we were doing dishes after dinner we looked down from our camp up high on the beach and could see them getting into red, white and blue clothes and lighting tikki torches and parading around the beach. We clapped and cheered. A short time later they had a bear amble through their camp as it headed down river. We never saw it and it did not bother any of them. Many of them slept out on the beach that night in just their sleeping bags and were not bothered.
Monday was our final full day on the water. We hit it early because we had many camp sights to stop at as we headed toward Swasey's beach. Coal Creek Rapid was the last big water and it was at a pretty friendly level. The big rock that defines the hole was barely showing. We all pulled into the camp below the rapid and we discovered that someone had thrown bacon grease in the water and it was now lining the waters edge in congealed clumps. We broke out the shovel and used our hands to scrape up as much as we could before we left.
We flew down river and bounced through Rattle Snake rapid and by 10 a.m. had hit Nefertiti Rapid. Now our cleanup efforts geared up as we swept the beach. It was actually fairly clean and Mick reported it was because many boaters are taking time after their Deso trip to stop and do a clean-up. It is a kind of informal adopt a beach program.
After a final river lunch we headed down stream and hit the small rapids and camp sites along this final stretch. Dennis and I stopped at Short Canyon and had a fun chat with a couple who were doing the daily section. They had a "friendly" rescued dog that kept growling at me. I jumped on the boat and stayed there.
We pulled into Swasey's beach and unloaded just enough stuff to camp. We put in several hours cleaning the camp area, beach and boat ramp. I took toilet duty and restocked all the toilet paper. The bathrooms were not too bad except for one that someone had left a plastic bag full of human feces on the floor. It took me three attempts before I could hold my breath long enough to get in an throw it down the hole.
After we regrouped and sanitized our hands we loaded up and headed to Rays for a burger and beer. They tasted delightful and was a great final meal for the trip. Back at the beach, the boom box resonating bass beats late into the night did not add anything to the experience though.
In the morning we had a casual breakfast and then did another sweep and clean-up of the area. We filled the dumpster a quarter of the way full with the trash we picked up. As I was sitting in camp a teen boy walked by with a pop can in hand. As he headed up the short trail into the rocks he pitched it. I hollered at him. He turned and looked at me and I told him to get back and pick up the can. He hung his head and did it.
We pulled the boats onto the boat ramp for the task of breaking it all down and hauling it home. Richie asked if the water was pink this morning. We thought it was just the reflection off the cliffs in the morning light. Soon we saw the water turning the color of rust and we knew another river changing event had occurred somewhere up stream. Some side canyon had probably flashed a few days ago. We did not know whether or not it would be a change we would be aware of next time we floated the canyon or not, but something had changed somewhere.
In the rhythm of the final derigging, we recapped our adventures as we loaded gear.
We, like the river, were changed by the experience whether or not anyone else noticed. We knew and it was good.