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Of bears, graineries, archaeology and a magic river

A flotilla of boats slide down the river during the archaeology trip in Desolation Canyon.
One of the exploration party looks over a plane that crashed a few days before the rafts arrived. The plane has since been removed from the area by helicopter and the fire has been put out.
A BLM firefigher rests in the shade of a rock art panel in between stints of fighting a fire started by a crashed aircraft.
"Rosie" as the bear was called by the group, munches on some fruit under one of the trees near the old homestead.

(Editors Note: This is a journal kept by Terry Willis who is a sports and recreation reporter for the Sun Advocate. Terry worked as a boatman for the BLM on this trip down the Green River in Desolation Canyon in early July. This is the first part of a two part series, with the second appearing in the B section of the Sun Advocate and Emery County Progress on July 29).

It's late Tuesday afternoon and I find myself in a bustle of people at the Sand Wash Ranger Station on the banks of the Green River, preparing for a seven day working trip down into the depths of Desolation Canyon.

There are 21 of us loading boats with equipment and food for the journey. The trip is the seventh in a collaboration effort to begin to proactively locate, catalog and document the archaeological sites along the river corridor.

For this trip the Bureau of Land Management has teamed up with the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Association (CPAA) to take on this daunting task. The first trip went down in September of 2006 and the final one will take place this August. Trip leader and lead archaeologist Jerry Spangler is in the midst of the organized chaos as we prepare ourselves for an early morning launch on Wednesday.

Later in the evening, as we sit on the porch of the ranger station watching the last of the sun's rays dance over the cliff faces, we chatted about the project. Spangler is encouraged by the BLM's proactive stance on the project. In their statute for protecting the historic resources, most of the work that archaeologists are involved with falls under section 106 of the National Preservation act. That entails being called in to document items that fall in front of, or have been disturbed by on ongoing or proposed projects. Their time on any site is limited by deadlines of the proposals and instances it may be the last time a site stays intact before things move ahead.

But in Desolation Canyon the BLM is working under section 110 of the National Preservation Act and documenting the resources for the sake of trying to know just what they have.

We are facing a long day tomorrow to get to our first site. Some of the work that will be done is to relocate some sites that were previously recorded, but not fully documented. In 1931, an excursion known as the Clafin-Emerson expedition came in from east Tavaputs and down Nine Mile and over to Range Creek and then down the Green River. There are 17 sites that Spangler's project wants to revisit. Many have been located, but we were going to try and find the rest.

Also a 1975 group of archaeologist's came down and poked around and quickly recorded several sites but the locations were not documented up to today's standard and will also be revisited and redocumented.

The third and final component of the trip will be to explore the areas that had known sites to see if other new and unreported sites were close. This will help to establish patterns and roles that the canyon may have played in the migrations and settlement patterns of the early Fremont Indians.

With two very important drainages that come into the Green that contain many artifacts and remains of human settlement, it has remained a mystery as to why, despite the numerous graineries, there are few signs of long term settling in this river corridor. Was this just a summer growing season camp location? The information gathered from work down in Nine Mile, Range Creek and Desolation Canyon will be used to help archaeologists figure out how it may all tie in together.

Duncan Metcalfe; a University of Utah professor and head of the Range Creek Project; is along to help out. He has permission from current owners, Butch and Jeannie Jensen, of the Rock Creek property along the river, that we can camp for three days and work the Rock Creek area. That property is currently posted as off limits for camping and so we are privileged to be able to use the camp as a base for the work.

The next day we are up and finishing the loading by 6:30 a.m. and push off by 8 a.m. The mosquitoes have liberally sampled our blood and we are all glad to be on the water and out of the hoards. Forty river miles to make today. We have eight boats and 21 people to get on down the river so we gather up into groups, strap the boats into small flotillas and motor down stream.

We have four boats in our little pod. With 20 river miles of flat water, we have plenty of time to meet each other. I have Suzanne (Zan) Jones on my boat. Zan is the regional director of the Wilderness Society of Central Rockies. They have been partnering with CPAA and other groups to help document and save the important places on public lands.

She learned of this project when Spangler made a presentation in Craig, Colo. and found it a great opportunity to see and be part of this important project. Jones brought two of her staff along to assist. Alex Daue has worked with Spangler and others in slogging through the multitude of documents that are generated from BLM proposals and plans. His focus is called the BLM action center. He is also a boatman and will help get the group down the river. Phil Hanceford also works for the Wilderness society in the BLM action center. He is a legal analyst. He helps interpret BLM drafts and policy for the conservation groups and local governments. He has a special focus on National Landscape Conservation systems. For all three it is their first trip down the nation's largest unprotected wilderness in the nation.

I also chat with Joel Boomgarden as he relaxes on top of a pile of river bags. Boomgarden has been on all of the trips so far. Last fall he spent time walking 1,000 miles of charred earth in the aftermath of the Milford Flat and the Winecup fires. They had a small window of time before reseeding took place to locate and document hundreds of previously unseen sites that the fire had bared for the first time in a long, long time. As quickly as they were unearthed, they were recovered and hidden away again, maybe forever.

Finally we get to Jack Creek and the boats are untied and our life jackets are zipped up and buckled and we set forth for the final 20 miles. We are in the faster water now and begin to float faster. In short time we are just above Flat Canyon, where days before a plane had tried to land in a boulder field. Smoldering trees line the river and we spot the wreck of the plane.

We pull into the shore and chat with the firefighters who are taking a break. We work our way up to the plane, stepping carefully through the hot spots on the ground, making sure we don't scuff up some hot embers with our sandaled feet.

There are several panels of rock art below in Flat Canyon and we can see the fire has swept far down the curve through the canyon bottom. BLM Ranger Jim Wright and I head our boats down stream to go walk to the biggest panel to survey for fire damage. The tree that once sheltered the panel is gone, but the panel itself is unscorched. There is another fire crew resting at its base and we spend a few minutes talking with them about the other panels up the canyon.

With miles to go we head out and catch up with our other boats.

The rapids get a little bigger and it gives us a bit of fun to end the long day. Finally, our camp is in sight and we move into a new mode of operation as camp set-up begins.

Fresh bear scat is all over the trails and tent site areas so we pay attention to making sure we use good bear country principles from the moment we begin to unpack. After a wonderful dinner, Daue and Hanceford break out a guitar and mandolin and play for the group. It is a short evening after the long day. Tomorrow is a work day and it will start as early as any. The groups plan to head out for sites by 8 am.

The next morning after a quick breakfast of yogurt, cereal and bagels, people divide up into three groups. Andy Yentsch is one of the group going up several miles to the forks of Rock Creek. He has worked for several years with CPAA and has spent time with Metcalfe on the Range Creek Project. He has also worked on projects in Cedar Mesa. He floated the canyon about 10 years ago, but never had the time to stop and look. He is working on funding to be able to come down and do a tree ring study next year to date some of the large Douglas fir trees that are growing up in the higher elevations along the river.

Melissa Reddell headed up with them as well. She works for the BLM as a river ranger on the upper Green River below Flaming Gorge. This is her first time through this section of the river and the first time working on a project like this. One of her focuses is to take back an appreciation of the need to understand the cultural resource sites along the stretch of the river where she works and incorporate that into what they are doing along the upper Green.

"It's very cool to be able to help with the hands-on work," she said as she headed up for what would be a long, hot day in the field. She came back into camp almost eight hours later with the same big smile on her face as when she left.

Rob Edwards also came down from Flaming Gorge to be a boatman on this trip. He works for the U.S. Forest Service and is dealing with similar issues on the stretch he runs. He is very interested in getting a similar inventory started up north.

The group led by Spangler started at the mouth of the creek and worked their way up toward the other group. His wife, Donna Spangler, is part of that expedition. She comes as often as she can to be part of the project. She works in Salt Lake with the air quality department of the DEQ (Division of Environmental Quality). She believes in her husband's passion for the work he does and is there beside him as he thrashes through the brush and trails scanning the cliff sides trying to locate the remnants of another civilization.

She and Spangler come back to camp every evening to coordinate the camp duties and cook. They make sure that the paid and unpaid volunteers are fed and satisfied at the end of each day.

I stay at camp and set my easel up to paint in the field away from the remnants of the stone house and orchard. Metcalfe and Francis Banta stay behind to document the old homestead. Banta had worked for nine years as a camp cook on the Range Creek Project. She is a counseling assistant for a school in Bicknell during the winter.

We are shading up back at camp when we first spot a bear. We decide it is a she. She wanders over to the fruit trees and begins to munch. Several other river groups from both sides of us came down the trails to check out the house and orchard. We head some off. The group coming up from below stays their distance for a while and then a pair of them decides it is a great photo opportunity and begin to flank the bear, who is now on one side of the stone cabin.

One man comes face to face with her and startles her. After a brief stand off, the bear runs away into the boulder field. I go over and tell them there had been a previous siting from another river group of a bear and a cub so they might not want to harass this bear in case she had a cub stashed near by. They tell me they aren't harassing it. So I leave them to their own fate. The bear had her fill of obnoxious people and remained in hiding until they had long left the area.

I pack things up and head up the creek, looking for the groups with my camera in hand. I run into Spangler's entourage coming out, driven to shade by the unrelenting heat. They had cataloged several sites, but were looking for a previously documented grainery. It was time to call it a day and get some paper work done.

I head up the trail, but come to a place where the squaw berry trees block the passage and there is fresh bear scat. I don't feel comfortable walking through it alone and turn back to camp.

It wasn't too long before the upper group struggle into camp; tired, dirty, and happy about their day. They have made a few new finds and documented a couple of previous ones. So all in all it was a good day.

We refresh ourselves with floats downstream to the beach where the toilet is set up. We dub it the groover float. After several floats downstream we dry off and go into camp to help with dinner.

Evening is spent with some great discussions of the day's adventures and a wide array of view points about wilderness, environment and all things political. We have such an array of personalities and ideologies in the mix that you can't help but take away a broader understanding of things.

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