Trip Report - San Juan River
The first overnight raft trip of the season is always something special. People enter lotteries in December in hopes of scoring permits to raft the rivers they’ve put in for. Permits help limit the number of people on a given river at any given time to cut down on crowds. Permits also help to protect the river and surrounding environments from overuse. One waits for a month or longer and if they’re lucky they receive notice that they have won a spot on the river and then the planning begins. This season I put in for permits on the San Juan River (from Sand Island to Mexican Hat), the Green River for the Gates of Ladore section, and The Middle Fork of the Salmon River. In February, I received an email letting me know I had scored a permit for the San Juan River for May 6-8, 2017. I wasn’t lucky enough to get permits for the other two rivers but friends snagged trips on both.
Once the permit was secured, the work to assemble a group for the trip began. Emails and texts started circulating and friends began to arrange time off work. As the trip drew closer we planned meals and prepare gear and boats for the three-day trip.
By Thursday afternoon my boat was packed into the truck and I was ready to hit the road. I planned to drive to the Spiral Jetty about an hour northwest of Salt Lake City to camp for the night. The Spiral Jetty is an earthwork sculpture jutting off the bank of the Great Salt Lake. I arrived just before sunset, setup camp and took in the view. The lake was completely smooth, glassy and made for a great backdrop to camp for the night.
The next morning I broke camp and hit the road. When I was getting closer to I-70 I reached out to a few of the others in the group. As luck would have it, most of the group was close. We were all starving and decided to meet at Milts Burgers and Shakes in Moab. It was hot and there was a huge line but we waited it out and were rewarded with greasy burgers and cold shakes that we ate under a huge shady tree for some relief from the blazing hot desert sun. Next time you pass through Moab I highly recommend making a stop at Milts. It’s worth the wait.
With full bellies, we hit the road again. Rolling as a convoy now, we fueled up the trucks and filled water jugs. A good rule of thumb for extended backcountry travel is a gallon of water per person per day. Two hours later we pulled into the Sand Island campground where we would be launching from the following morning. In proper Cinco de Mayo fashion the tequila and cervesas quickly made their way out of the coolers.
On the morning of the sixth we built the boats and ran the shuttle. Everything was secured, rigged to flip, or in this case at least rigged to not fall off. Our trip on the river would cover 27 miles, so the pace was leisurely. The day we launched the river was flowing at 2,100 CFS. 1 cubic foot is about the size of a medium turkey so imagine that there were 2,100 turkeys flowing past the gauge every second. For our first day on the river we planned on floating six miles to the River House Camp to hike into the River House ruins and camp for the night.
At the higher water level it didn’t take long at all to get to our first camp. We secured the boats and got lunch going. We setup a sun shelter and got it lashed down just in time for a torrential downpour. The dry desert was instantly saturated. Small waterfalls formed off the red sandstone cliffs on the opposite shore and we even saw one blowing back upward destined never to reach the ground. It was the Kentucky Derby so naturally we broke out the Bourbon and let the storm pass.
Rain never lasts long in the desert and as quickly as it started the storm broke and we prepared for our short hike to the ruins. Trails from the back of the campsite lead us through Sage, Juniper, Tamarisk, and Russian Olive to the ruins.
As we approached the base of a massive sandstone cliff we could see a huge shallow cave and in the cave the remains of walls, rooms and structures built by Ancestral Peubloans between 700 and 1300 A.D. We explored the area and found a number of pictographs. The rock art depicted everything from mountain sheep, snakes, handprints, spirals and human figures. After our visit we decided we would return that night to explore the ruins again under the light of a nearly full moon.
We hiked back to camp and much to our surprise there was a horse investigating one of the boats; we named him Don Juan. He had no shoes and from the looks of it had been living on his own for quite some time. That sure explained all the horse shit around camp. He let us pet him and we fed him some carrots. The rest of the afternoon we lounged, drank beers and played Bocce. Soon enough it was time to eat again and we cooked up a huge batch of fajitas that had been marinating for days. After dinner a few of us hiked back to the ruins where we sat and watched the clouds and the moon dance across the sky for hours. Returning to camp sometime after midnight we bedded down for the night, some of us in tents and others under the stars, sleeping on Paco pads or paddle boards exposed to the elements, soaking in the night sky.
Bright and early the next day, the coffee was on the stove and the bagels were served. We packed up the boats and prepared for our longest day on the river. That day the plan was to float around 14 miles to the Lime Creek camp at river mile 21. With the rain the day before the river had come up quite a bit and was really moving. We floated through three minor rapids. First we came to Four Foot rapid. This class II was nothing, some fast moving water and a few small waves.
We were expecting about the same at our next rapid Eight Foot rapid but were pleasantly surprised when we rounded a sharp right hand bend to find a larger wave train. We continued a little ways down river where we found a good spot for lunch and enjoyed some excellent curry chicken wraps and did a little exploring. After lunch and some swimming, we floated on. The eddy at Lime Creek was large and easy to catch. Once again we setup camp and got the sun shelter up just in time for another desert rainstorm. The camp at Lime Creek was the group’s favorite. We were able to spread out the tents, had a premier riverfront Groover spot and had a large flat are for the kitchen and fire pan. We hike around and ended up climbing up for a great view behind camp. More fajitas were cooked up and we really started to do some work on the beverage supply. Stories and jokes were told as the bottle made laps around the fire.
The next morning was bittersweet. We all knew this would be our last day on the river and many of us would be making the long drive home later that day, back to reality, back to work, back to loved ones who couldn’t make the trip. The ritual of breaking camp, packing up the groover and loading the boats had become routine after just a short time on the river. Life was simple. Distraction free. Pure. We floated the last six miles of the trip to our take out at Mexican Hat. The geology of the last few miles was some of the most interesting and we gazed upon a landscape that looked as if it were moving, constantly changing. After a short float we pulled into the eddy at Mexican Hat and packed up the boats and all our gear.
Reflections on the Trip
We parted ways in the parking lot. Most of the group headed back to Colorado while a few of us stuck around for another night to check out Valley of the Gods, a BLM site near Mexican Hat sporting large sandstone sentinels similar to Monument Valley but without the crowds and expensive camping. The next morning we stashed the tents just before it started to rain again. We drove the 17-mile loop to explore the area and headed north.
Every river trip offers a chance to learn something about yourself, to make new friends and strengthen friendships with the ones you already have. Life on the river slows down. A river trip lets you see an area in a way you never could from a car, on foot or by any other means. If you are reading this and have never been on a river trip, get out there. Find a friend with a boat and invite yourself or find an easy river and rent a boat but be sure you’re with people who have the know how to make it a safe experience. Every overnight float I’ve ever been on has been a life changing experience and I hope to share that experience with as many people as I can.
I am back home in Driggs now, training as a river guide for my first season on the Snake River in Wyoming. I can’t wait for what lays ahead for this season and where the river will take me next.