San Juan River, Utah – May 2001

The San Juan River, a tributary of the Colorado River, wanders west from the Four Corners area, cutting its way through mesas and ancient flood plains, leaving a chasm that exposes ancient geological layers and fossils. The river runs through what was the heart of the Anasazi people’s homeland. The archeology is remarkable, with an extraordinary number of petroglyphs and prehistoric Indian sites along the way. The river drops an average of 8 feet per mile, making the San Juan the fastest flowing major river in the country. Flowing into Lake Powell, and then into Colorado River, the river offers beautiful class 2 water, spectacular canyons, and reasonably accessible remoteness.

This was a (gasp!) float trip, something I am usually quite reluctant to do. I envisioned myself sitting bored, as the boating equivalent of a truck floated lazily down the river. I was assured that there would be a few inflatable kayaks (known as “duckies”) – I had no idea that they would be so much fun!

This trip was organized by the Sierra Club and outfitted by Holiday Expeditions. I cannot possibly say enough good things about our guides. These three folks were not just deeply knowledgeable and well-trained; they were cheery and charming travel companions.

Twelve of us plus three guides set off for an 85 mile trip, putting in at Sand Island, 3 miles west of the town of Bluff, UT. We inflated the duckies and I immediately volunteered to start out the trip in one.

Day 1

It took me no time to get used to the ducky’s handling. The duckies were generally faster than the rafts, and we were able to run circles around them as we floated thru relatively fast water (around 8mph). There were few rocks to avoid; the only obstacles seemed to be the rafts and a few eddies. When a ducky hit an eddy, it would spin around – and around – and around — until the current finally spit it out or I had the presence of mind to paddle away. Once I got used to the spinning and became more confident, I usually just let the boat spin!

We stopped to explore the Butler Wash petroglyph panel and nearby cliff dwellings. Similar to Mesa Verde, CO, these cliff dwellings are remarkably well preserved – and remarkably cool. The temperature in the hot desert sun was beginning to be noticeable, but stepping into the sandstone’s shadow into the dwelling area, the temperature seemed to drop 20 degrees. Inhabited for close to 1000 years and abandoned circa 1200, probably during an extended drought, the ruins still had scattered artifacts – including potsherds, chert flakes, and cornhusks.

The Navajo (Diné) Reservation was on river left for most of the trip. As a result, we camped only on river right – but did enjoy some day hikes into the side canyons.

Day 2

This area has a wealth of stories-from the lore of the Navajo people as well as explorers, prospectors and determined Mormon pioneers. The area is rich in minerals, especially uranium. We saw evidence of these early inhabitants as we paddle down the river.

One of the things that a ducky doesn’t do well is to broadside a curler. After punching thru a few small standing waves, a crosscurrent spun me sideways – and I hit a curler at the worst possible angle and was dumped. Luckily, the water was warm. My PFD (Type 5 – which I despise!) rode up high on my shoulders, barring me from getting back onto the kayak. The other two duckyers were with me in seconds, but I was still unable to jump high enough to get back atop my boat. A throwbag missed us as we floated further downstream – the rafts had eddied out.

I had been swimming now for what felt like ten minutes, but in reality was about 3 minutes. The third raft finally came alongside and plucked me out of the water. I immediately got right back in the ducky, wet, but unfazed. I was a bit more conservative for the rest of the day, not wanting to be known as the “official swimmer” of the trip.

Day 3

There were a few white residents along the San Juan River before 1879. In April 1870, a group of 180 Mormon pioneers set out for Bluff from Escalante on a journey that was supposed to take 6 weeks. Six months later, they succeeded in reaching their destination, creating the famous Hole-in-the-Rock Trail. This trail was a treacherous route that resulted in the loss of much of their gear – but not any human lives.

In the morning, we made for Honaker Trail, a prospectors’ trail.

The river began to wind more thru the “Goosenecks”. At one point, we arrived at Mendenhall Loop, and hiked over a pass in the canyon walls thru a shortcut, while the guides brought our rafts around to the other side. This pass was the site of a Mormon family’s cabin. Why they chose to settle in this place was beyond me. While close to water, the surrounding area was an inhospitable arid environment.

Taking a break from the ducky, I watched as we passed Mexican Hat. It takes no imagination to understand how this rock formation got its name. What is truly amazing is how this precariously balanced rock stays put. It seems that a good gust of wind would send the hat plummeting.

Photo by Charles & Pat Kernan
The canyon walls generally rose about 1000 feet from the river level. Being deep in a chasm, the surrounding desert “gained” little from the nearby abundance of water – it is completely out of reach of everything except birds, deer, and bighorn sheep. The canyon’s visible life was dominated by reptiles and swallows, as well as a few sandpipers and flycatchers. We did see alligator lizards, a whip snake, and far too many biting red ants. I was bitten by 4 or 5 black ants – not very painful, but annoying. Late in the evening of the third day, Susan saw something move in the twilight – scurrying under her river bag. Almost instinctively, she knew it was a scorpion. Our trusty guide, armed with a shovel, relocated the frightened bug outside the camp area, rescuing us from the certain danger of a sleepless night. The scorpion was not the highlight of the trip as far as Susan was concerned.

The riverbanks were made up of sandy beaches leading up to talus slopes. The elevation of the canyon walls had been steadily climbing. A brief rainstorm the night before filled some of the smaller springs with water – and caused a few lovely waterfalls.

The ducky regulars (me, Antoine, and our Sierra organizer, Rebecca), all accomplished paddlers, had been pretty much monopolizing the duckies. We resolved to get some of the others in to the boats. This worked well… until Becky (not Rebecca) set out. She didn’t quite get the knack of the ducky before we hit a small set of rapids. Missing the call to eddy out, she proceeded downriver, thru rock garden. I went after her but got hung up on some rocks. She eventually made it to an outside bank as the river wound around a curve. Shaken, but stoic about her experience, she drew a round of applause from her trip mates.

We stopped at magnificent waterfalls – made possible by the last night’s brief rain. Although brown from the ever-present silt, the falls created a lovely scene as they cascaded over the high canyon walls and down into the shadows.

Day 4

After paddling thru some smaller rapids, we came to Government Rapid – a cl3 straight shot with big water – but no obstacles. I elected to skip taking the ducky thru, as I could see a side curler that had my name on it. The other duckies went thru without incident – other than getting very wet. Oh well… next time.

Day 5

he stop at Slickhorn Gulch was the highlight of this day. Slickhorn Gulch is a side canyon – with grottos, polished walls, and a narrow winding path that makes one wonder about flash floods.

The river slowed to about 3 mph as we made our way to Clay Hills Crossing, the takeout. This is the beginning of Lake Powell. We learned that the high river level that sped us thru this trip was a bit of an anomaly – usually the current here is close to zero. Our guides were not complaining, as the swift current made their job significantly easier.

Clay Hills Crossing is 84 river miles from Sand Island. A sign warns of a waterfall downstream. We learned that this was created by the changing water levels of Lake Powell, and by the changing water path of the river. One year, waterfalls appeared – the next year they moved a few hundred yards. Our raft guides were nervous about missing the take out in the swift current, but we landed, broke down the equipment, and began our voyage back home.

OC1/OC2: Some of the parties on the river were in kayaks (playboats) with rafts for supplies. While I didn’t see any open boats, the river could clearly be done in and OC1 or an OC2, although Government Rapid would require either a spray cover, portage, lining, or a desire to get swamped.


Information about reservations (required for river travel)

Sierra Club – the organizer of this trip

Holiday Expeditions – the outfitter

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