July 19-24, 1999: Green River, Desolation and Grays Canyons, Utah

One of many trip reports by Alan Silverstein.
Last update: June 25, 2008


"You're in trouble when the mosquitos within two feet of you collectively outweigh you." Fortunately after the first couple of nights on the river they weren't so bad. Maybe they were eaten by the deerflies, when the deerflies couldn't find us?

It was still a great trip through 84 miles of a very remote stretch of river in northeast Utah. We started planning months in advance. Ultimately we ended up with nine people, two dogs, and four rafts.

Saturday, July 17 -- On The Way

One last login to work from home, then I hit the road in Fort Collins at about 9 am. My first stop was an annual ham radio swapfest in Loveland. At noon I met Cathie Grow in southwest Denver, and she joined me in my Subaru wagon. After a bit more packing and shopping, we headed west out of town about 1 pm hoping to make Moab by sunset.

We had a nice long lunch in Dillon, and another break in Fruita... About 8 pm and 20 miles from Moab, Utah, we detoured a couple of miles east off the "back road" to Moab to see the Fisher Towers. We ended up camping there for the night. Sweet! A five-site BLM campground, $8 for nothing more than tables and a toilet, but with a great view and few bugs. We did a short walk as it got dark, and called it a night.

Sunday, July 18 -- Long Way to the River

It was a gorgeous sunrise over the Colorado River valley. We repacked everything for the river trip just barely in time to depart when the sun cleared the cliffs to bake us. We filled water for that night's camp from the spring near Moab, shopped for fresh food in town, then checked my voicemail at the Arches NP entrance a bit after 11 am. Jeff Grove and Terri Bernath were going to be early into the town of Green River. It was too late to meet them there for lunch, and we had no time to drive into Arches, but we squeezed in a short side trip four miles up the road at Klondike Bluffs to see some petrified wood.

At the Powell Museum in Green River a little after 1 pm, we loaded my car and roof rack with Jeff and Terri's gear, and did the messages thing with trip leader Kathy Glatz at various phones. An hour later we took an ice cream break in Price. I thought we had lots of time, but the route northeast to Duchesne was both scenic and slow, going over a very high pass. We arrived about 5:30 pm at a cafe chosen by Kath, and ordered dinner. Kath showed up a half hour later coming east from Park City. It wasn't much of a birthday party for her, but we made do.

Between one thing and another, we didn't get out of town until 7:30 pm, not much more than an hour before sunset. At first the road south to Sand Wash was paved, but it got worse and worse. After about 25 miles, we noticed Kath's car had a flat tire, but we caught it in time to prevent ruining the tire. We enjoyed a pretty sunset while swatting skeeters and pumping in Fix-A-Flat. To make a long story short, this and a 12V air compressor got her car into the campground, but not until after dark, and overnight the tire went flat again.

Mohammad Salim, wife Gay, and Shirley Malin caught up with us along the road. Mho was right about the bugs at Sand Wash -- pretty intense! We put up tents and went to bed itching.

Monday, July 19 -- Life on the River

Three of the four rafts were arriving with Gene Ritzman from the Salmon River in Idaho. Skipping another long sad story, he arrived at about 7 am after driving all night!

We rigged and loaded the rafts. Kath and I drove in my car nearly 10 miles back up the rough road from Sand Wash to use Cathie's cell phone to get Shirley added to the BLM permit, and then to tell the car shuttle folks to deal with Kath's flat tire. Sounds complicated? It was.

Mho wanted to be on the river by 8 am, but in fact it was 2:10 pm, and thanks to headwinds we only made about five miles the first day! Still it was great to finally be underway. I had the honor and pleasure of rowing (with Cathie's help) one of Gene's boats throughout the trip. It was a lot of fun, and great practice in reading and running rapids.

Usually I'd continue here with a typical day-by-day story of the next six days. Instead I'll offer a numeric overview, then describe how life on the river flows through a typical day, with a few highlights from this trip. In the following summary, hours are approximate from leaving to arriving at camps, including lunch, scouting, bathing, etc. Mile 0 is the town of Green River on I70.

date      mile miles hours   MPH  where

start     95.7                    Sand Wash landing
990719    91.1   4.6   2.8   1.6  sandbar river right just upstream Duchesne
990720    69.6  21.5   9.8   2.2  just downstream Jack Creek, same side
990721    53.3  16.3   9.0   1.8  Rock Creek Ranch ruins
990722    40.4  12.9   9.2   1.4  Cow Swim, river right
990723    20.8  19.6   9.5   2.1  island
990724    11.9   8.9   3.5   2.5  take-out below Swaseys Rapid
          ----  ----  ----  ----
net/avg   83.8  83.8  43.8   1.9

A day on the river is like this:

You wake up in your tent when it gets light. If you were up late the night before enjoying the moon and stars, you're tired, and you roll over to try getting more shut-eye. When the sun rises above the cliffs or peeks out from clouds to broil you, or if you hear the rest of the group rattling around, you get up and start your day.

No more mosquitos are biting in the tent; how are they outside? (Early in the week this was annoying, but later it was blissfully bug-free.) Put on nylon shells and DEET if necessary. Sneak out of the tent, don't let any bugs in. Walk down to the river to pee, or maybe over to the "groover" (portable toilet) if nature calls, and someone else didn't beat you to it.

Cathie and I got better at the routine each day. Most mornings we got ourselves dressed, then packed up the tent and sleeping gear -- a time-consuming effort to make it all waterproof -- and hauled loads to the rafts down by the river, before having breakfast and so on.

It took a surprising amount of time from awakening to floating away. Our earliest morning launch was 9:10 am; the latest, about noon. You watch the rest of the group, and try to be sure you're not the last one ready to go. Pump up the raft if necessary. Load the cargo, lots of it, into the raft, carefully, thinking about weight and balance, and securing it well and out of your way. Bounce around on the raft in the hot sun lifting awkward heavy objects. Tie down the cargo net if you have one, clip your ammo cans and daypacks to the carabiners, and declare yourself ready. Now for a quick bath, sunscreen, and breakfast if you didn't already eat.

The group comes together. Untie the boats, lift and push their bows off shore with a grunt. Four rafts depart within minutes of each other.

Now to read the water, check the map, enjoy the scenery. The bugs are least annoying in the middle of the river, away from the tamarisks lining the shores, but there are still occasional deerflies to swat. They have a mean bite, but at least it doesn't itch later. If you pay attention to them, you can pre-empt them with a slap, they're big and incautious when they settle in to feed. Often the river is wide, flat, and slow, so you follow the current wherever you can find it, close to the shore and bugs if necessary.

More or less often you encounter a riffle or a rapid. You can usually hear them coming a ways off because it's quiet on the river. Some you just ride, some you stand up to study, a few you stop to scout first by walking along the shore. Then comes the thrill of the run. One raft after another bounces and slides through the whitewater. You watch the paths, bouncing, and maneuvering of the raft(s) ahead of you for an idea what to expect.

Piloting the boat from the oars is great fun once you know how, but it has its scary moments. You must read the flow and try to avoid isolated rocks, or being swept into walls or "holes". A few strong strokes suffice if you see the situation soon enough.

If the waves are large, you can't just turn sideways (facing the obstacle) to row away backwards -- you must hit the big waves straight on to avoid flipping. Timing and control is everything. It's interesting trying to learn grace, efficiency, and precision while maneuvering a heavy, awkward rubber boat. Sometimes you can dodge the biggest waves, but it's more fun to ride them down the middle. It's even more fun if you stroke hard forward into the standing waves -- and sometimes that's what gets you through them unscathed.

Just beyond each rapid, the water settles, but gets squirrelly. It breaks into boils and eddies. Care and kinesthetics are needed here, feeling your way through the water to stay in the flow and not be caught out, forced to drift upstream as other rafts speed past you.

It's hot on the river. We jump in or wet our clothing to stay cool, and apply lots of sunscreen.

We break for lunch each day, often late like 2 pm, looking for a shady spot. We have lots of coolers and ice, which is nice, the food and drinks are cold. Some like to take their baths (or even solar showers) now during the hottest part of the day.

Sometimes you're in the lead boat. Other times you're trailing and working a little to keep up with the leader. Mho is very good, and hard to catch when he's motivated to get somewhere.

The miles flow by slowly but steadily. It's easy to lose track of the time or the date. Landmarks are over the horizon ahead of you, then a part of your world for minutes or hours, and then irretrievably lost in the canyon twists behind you. More than once I turned on my GPS to ascertain where I was.

Towards evening we begin to calculate our campsite against the sun, the rapids, and the shoreline. Mho knows the river well and has favorite spots. We're choosy, and we often don't get to camp until after 7 pm. At least the first few days, the first order of business is to put on nylons and DEET and raise a tent. (Mohammad, though, has a very nice system with long white clothing, and a kitchen in a box, so he deals with that first.)

Everyone's hungry. Most of the group shares group meals, but Cathie and I eat simply from low-carb rations. We probably have twice as much food as we need... We brought a propane stove, but only cook once.

When it gets dark at about 9 or 9:30 pm, or earlier if the bugs are bad, we retire for the night. Later in the week we stay up later enjoying the cool air and gorgeous skies. One night it rains hard, briefly, sending us all to bed. One beautiful night at "Cow Swim," we are very close to a loud rapid and we stay up very late. Most nights we build a small campfire.

Some other recollections...

Upstream winds some afternoons, even one morning, fighting the wind to let the river carry us downstream. The first afternoon, walking on the bottom of the river dragging the raft behind me into the wind. Mho finds a mudbath. "Barging together" the four rafts in calm water, and sharing a whole watermelon.

On the second day, the exhilaration of the first rapids. Later one raft crashes into a wall in a rapid, crushing and detaching an ammo can, found two miles further down in an eddy, still floating, but wet inside. The few but various ranch and motel(!) ruins along the river; some petroglyphs. Going 20 minutes ahead of the group for one hour one day after lunch, just the two of us all alone on the river, to hunt for an inscription before the rest arrive at Chandler Falls; finding petroglyphs as well. Several clear, cold side-streams flowing into the river.

One afternoon the collective drone of millions of unseen mosquitos pierces us from both overgrown sides of the river, loud and eerie. The youngest rocks on the Colorado Plateau make nice cliffs, but are boring close-up. Swimming one big rapid on purpose, but too far off center, banging off rocks, struggling to keep feet downstream. The last evening, rowing past a decent campsite and then finding four others already occupied, persevering seven miles and two hours through some big rapids, to land on a very nice island just in time at 8:15 pm.

Sharing the trip with Cathie...

Saturday, July 24 -- Back Off the River

After lunch we reached Swaseys Rapid and the take-out at 1:15 pm. Our cars were waiting for us. I was pleased with the shuttle service, River Runners. Judy (driver) left me a note thanking me for the "nice ride", and she even replaced the cover on my car at the take-out though the note I left I said not to bother. My car seems none the worse for wear. It covered 190 miles to join me 84 miles down the river, and only about 50 miles away as the GPS flies.

It took us until 4 pm to get cleaned up, loaded, and ready to depart. Terri rode back to Denver with Kathy, and we gave Jeff a ride to his car in Green River.

Cathie and I decided not to rush home. We spent some time at the Powell Museum, then drove to Arches NP and hiked up the 1.5 miles to Delicate Arch for sunset. This took about half an hour, and we got there around 8:15 pm, just in time. It was hot, but awesome.

We watched lightning storms from the far-side vantage point until 10 pm, before making the long walk back out in the darkness. We were tired, but we stumbled around Double Arch a while anyway, shadowy and monumental, we had it all to ourselves. Then we found a motel in Moab after midnight.

Sunday, July 25 -- Return Home

We got up late and meandered home through Aspen with a side-trip up to Maroon Valley in the rain about 5-6 pm -- quite spectacular. I didn't reach home in Fort Collins until midnight after dropping off Cathie in Denver.

(Postscript, 2008: Cathie moved to Fort Collins in 2000, and we were married in 2003.)