June 21–26, 2003


map of utah     The San Juan River begins its 360-mile journey on the slopes of 13,150' Montezuma Peak in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. It is joined by the Piedra and Los Pinos Rivers in the reservoir behind Navajo Dam in northern New Mexico. It flows southwest out of the dam, gathering strength from the Animas, the La Plata, the Mancos, and the McElmo Rivers, before carving out a 1,000' twisting gorge through the Goosenecks in southeastern Utah. The river finally loses its power and identity when it merges with the Colorado at Lake Powell and dumps its sand behind the Glen Canyon Dam.

    Fly fishing attracts folks from all over the country to the upper portions of the river in search of brownies, cutthroats, and rainbows. But it is rafting through the quiet and unique scenery of southern Utah that brings others of all ages and levels of experience to the 87 miles between Bluff and Clay Hills Crossing on an eastern finger of Lake Powell (follow the blue line from Bluff to Mexican Hat and left to Lake Powell). In addition to scenery and serenity, one can explore Anasazi ruins, petroglyphs, abandoned roads and mines that each attest to a history of human contact in one of the most inaccessible regions of the US.

    Though we had never rafted this river, Judy and I often have driven through the area, camped in the Manti-La Sal National Forest and Valley of the Gods, visited Monument Valley, and spent a week house boating and hiking the side canyons of Lake Powell. However, here was a chance to share this area with my ten-year-old east coast urban grandson, Griffin. I signed us up for a 5-day raft trip on the last 60 miles of the river, from Mexican Hat, Utah, to the pull out point at Clay Hills Crossing. We joined another couple, eight-year-old David from California and his uncle who lives in nearby Moab, and two guides from Canyonlands Field Institute. In a short five days, Griffin learned to paddle a ducky solo: he learned to guide himself through light riffles and rapids, to read the river’s energy and main course, to avoid rocks, sandbars, and eddies, and to struggle against fierce headwinds; he hiked up trails and roads long ago abandoned by 19th century gold seekers and ancient hunters; he swam in side canyon pools to cool off from the searing heat of a cloudless sky; he slept on the ground and in the tent that protected us from blowing sand and thirsty mosquitos.

    He knew he was not in Boston.


    Griffin had heard of Moab, Utah, famous for its mountain biking and scenery. It was on our way, so we made it part of the trip. We drove west on I-70 across Colorado and into Utah, turning off I-70 at the Cisco exit (on the right side of the map above about where the "70" is to the right of Green River) and following the Colorado River past Fisher Towers to Moab on route 128. We crossed the popular Kokopelli Trail where thousands of mountain bikers annually make the several delicate arch day back roads journey from near Fruita, Colorado, to Moab. We didn’t mountain bike, but instead took a whirlwind tour of Arches National Park, just a short five miles north of Moab.

    With an extra day to get to Bluff for our orientation meeting, we stopped for the night in Moab, took a relaxing swim at our motel, and with several hours of sunlight, drove the full length of Arches, stopping only long enough to take the short hike to the Delicate Arch overlook. We decided we should hike out to the arch in the morning before heading south to Bluff, plus see some of the other arches up close. We returned to Moab for dinner and a stroll down the main street looking in the art galleries. We both were stunned by the overwhelming beauty of Tom Till’s spectacular photographs on view in his Tom Till Photo Gallery on Main Street. We also stopped in the Arches Book Company bookstore that was planning a Harry Potter Party that evening, beginning at 11:00 p.m., an hour before the latest Harry Potter book could be legally sold.

    In the morning we were up early for a return to Arches. We hiked out to Delicate Arch, one of the most recognized landmarks in all of Utah (it’s featured on one of the state’s three license plates). It’s an easy mile and a half to the site where those of brave hearts can walk to its base or stand under the arch itself. (We were brave.) We also walked to Double Arch, North and South Window Arches, and Turret Arch. It is an impressive place to visit: the winds have sculpted awesome sandstone walls, hoodoos, and more than 2000 arches in a tiny area in a region of many arches.


    We left the Moab area for the last leg of our trip, the hundred miles south to Bluff. On the way we took a bypass to the Needles Section of Canyonlands National Park, one of the least visited sections of this arid and wild park dominated by the confluence of the Green and the Colorado Rivers. Along the way we stopped at Newspaper Rock State Historic Park to “read” what the Anasazi, the Utes, and modern graffiti writers left behind. At the campgrounds in the park, we saw just one campsite in use and fewer than five cars. It’s a very remote experience for those hikers and backpackers who choose to come here.

    We arrived in Bluff in time for a swim and relaxing at the very comfortable Recapture Lodge. With few restaurants from which to choose in mexican hat put-in this town of 300, the motel manager recommended the restaurant at the Cow Canyon Trading Post, a collection of buildings we’d passed coming into town. From the outside the place looked nearly deserted: an early 1950s Buick sat rusting next to what looked like a former island for gas pumps. An equally ancient truck was permanently parked on the other side of the property nearly blocking the front door of the restaurant. It was one of those places most people would pass by without notice. Thanks to the manager of the Recapture Lodge, we met trading post owner Lisa Duran and had one of the finest gourmet dinners we never expected in Cow Canyon, Bluff, or anywhere. What a find!! We’ll be back and plan our trip around dinner there.

    Karla, the Canyonlands Field Institute representative, met with us after dinner to check out our gear and lead us on a walking tour of Bluff whose founding is near mythic in Mormon history. The same group that suffered a six-month trek across the Colorado River at “the hole-in-the-rock” and crossing Comb Ridge, founded the town on Brigham Young’s orders in 1880. The settlement lasted just 4-5 years before the unpredictable San Juan River flooded their attempts to irrigate and farming. Blanding and Monticello to the north, where farming was a surer possibility, were settled by those who left Bluff. Today Bluff relies upon tourism, outdoor adventuring, and art galleries.

    In the morning we rode the van 25 miles south to Mexican Hat where we began our journey down the San Juan.


    We arrived in Mexican Hat about 10:30. After a very brief safety review griffin at put-in (drink lots of water, wear sandals all the time, and slather skin with sunscreen) we were assigned our own duckies (self-baling rubber rafts big enough for two). We packed them with our dry bags and water bottles, donned helmets and life jackets, and were instructed to keep behind the equipment raft and in front of who was to be the “sweep” for the day. Not much instruction (in fact, none as I recall) about how to paddle, maneuver, approach riffles and rocks, etc.

    We put in at Mile 27. Griffin seemed to take to paddling easily, though he did fall out when the lead raft which he was following got hung up on a rock and he misjudged what to do and hit a pretty fair hole sideways. But he went back for his paddle and, with some help, got back in the ducky. End of excitement! He’d been very watchful, accepted some hints from Grampa, and did quite well for a beginner. We knew there were not many rapids on the San Juan; Lisa Kearsley’s San Juan River Guide (Shiva Press, 2002) notes only five between Mexican Hat and Clay Hills Crossing.

    We camped at mile 38, over 1,000' below Goosenecks State Park. In spite of Griffin’s spill, we had had lots of easy drifting, great scenery, and a good campsite. Griffin and David must have thrown a thousand rocks into and across the river before and after dinner (and at most every stop on the trip). No tent tonight; we put our sleeping pads and bags behind some tamarisk and slept very well.


four feet across 100 down     The weather has been stupendous. The sky was a cloudless Utah blue, temperatures warm to hot and no rain in sight. We did face some pretty fierce head winds in the afternoon which taxed everyone’s strength at the end of what was a very long day: We combined 20 miles of river with 3-4 miles of hiking.

    At mile 44 we beached the raft and duckies, put on our hiking shoes, and climbed the Honaker Trail about two miles up to a river overlook. To get to the edge of the overlook, we had to cross a four foot crack in the rock that was over one hundred feet down! The trail was constructed by gold seeker Augustus Honaker in 1894: a treacherous 1,200-foot path “not fit for stock, and supplies had to be lowered by rope near the bottom.” Honaker found very little gold in the river, just enough to make a ring for his wife. The view from the overlook looking down on the river was worth the short hike and the steep trail.

    Griffin continued to do well on his own. He took on his first bona fide rapid—Ross Rapid—just past mile 52. He could have chosen not to, but wanted to do it on his own. It was probably a class II, though with low water (less than 500 fps) it may have been riskier. We scouted it for several minutes before picking our route. That sort of thing heightens the excitement of running the rapid itself. While scouting the rapid we learned about WORMS: Water (where it’s running smoothest), Obstacles (e.g., rocks, holes), Route (decide where you’re going), Markers (a tree or rock that near an obstacle or where you want to begin your route), and Scenario (i.e., what to do if things don’t go as planned).

    We spent much more time today than planned on the river. After Ross Rapid, (Mile 52.5) we took an hour or two looking for a camp site. The one our guide had in mind was taken and we finally came to John’s Canyon at Mile 58.5. We were dead tired; we fixed and ate dinner just before dark and then went to bed.

    Observations halfway into the trip:

    1. The food is good, though certainly not fancy. CFI provides plenty of snacks, fruit, and water. There are morning and afternoon stops in addition to lunch. No one could ever complain about being hungry.

    2. For an Elderhostel sponsored trip, we’ve had precious little “educational” focus. While the guides respond to questions, there seems little planned that would enrich our understanding of the geology or griff in ducky history of the area. The boys did learn two quick, keep ’em busy fun games, but we’ve both forgotten them. The guide-intern got the best education about rowing a large raft and reading a river.

    3. Insects have been not a problem (so far). We did sleep near the ants this evening (again, no tent) and fell asleep to the sound of locusts. A few pesky flies appeared this evening, but we slept through them.

    4. Griffin has small blisters on his feet from his Tevas. Wearing socks and loosening the straps has helped a great deal, but the general advice from experienced folks is that Chacos are superior and more desirable.

    5. Spare gear: an extra pair of dark glasses should be required. We also should have brought gloves—not for warmth but to reduce the blisters both Griffin and I have on our hands.


    What a day! Who’d have thought on the same day (1) Griffin would get flipped out of his ducky and wind up with a stone in his knee, and (2) the guide would get the equipment raft seriously hung up on 2-3 large rocks in the middle of Government Rapid?

    An hour out of camp the wind began to gust mightily, usually straight in our faces, but occasionally shifting to one side or the other when least expected. We estimated the gusts at +35 mph. Griffin approached the second “riffle” (a class I rapid?) of the day; he went straight in, nose first, but the wind gusted and shifted just enough to catch the side of his ducky and knock him sideways. He flipped before he could react and wound up underneath the ducky (“What did you do then?” I asked. “Got out from underneath,” he said, stating the obvious.) He hit his knees on some rocks while righting himself in the moving water. When he surfaced and saw where he was, he retrieved his paddle and waded to shore. One of the guides brought raft on rocks his ducky to him. When I got to him he still had a small pebble embedded in his right knee which I promptly removed. He was a bit shaken, shivering, soaked, and maybe a bit scared. He said he was worried about his knees, both of which were bleeding a tiny bit (and hurt). Some Motrin, a dry jacket, and encouragement got him back in the ducky and he successfully navigated the next riffle a half mile away.

    However, he was truly chilled and somewhat exhausted from fighting the head winds, so we paddled together all the way to Government Rapid, the “big” one, a rapid that looked especially tricky at low water. We scouted this short rocky rapid that may have been a class III (maybe IV?). The guide decided he’d take the equipment raft over by himself first so that we could watch and those who wanted to run it solo could choose our routes in the duckies based upon what happened to him.

    But he didn’t make it. Like running any rapid, things unexpected can happen, and quickly. He got wedged sideways in the middle straddling three big rocks. He was truly stuck. He pushed with an oar, he jumped up and down on the stern, but he was seriously hung up. Worse, he was taking in water to the point that he sliced the bottom of the raft making it suddenly a self-baling raft. After much head scratching, we decided to portage the duckies around the rapid and began unloading the raft. More than an hour later we had ferried, by ropes and pulleys, several hundred pounds off the raft. Thankfully, three members of a group coming behind us were able to pull the raft off the rocks and it floated down to where we’d beached the duckies and carried the unloaded gear. In all, we were 2-3 hours there on what was to be an early put-in, leisurely day.

    It was late by the time we got to our reserved campsite at Mile 66 (Slickhorn Canyon). The wind was still howling in our faces, and the sand in camp covered everything. Griffin had the good sense to suggest using the tent which we put up in spite of the wind. We were very comfortable and snugly protected as we relaxed before dinner.

    Griffin’s knees got a lot better. The hole where the pebble was still Slickhorn Canyon showed—his badge of courage! Our blisters are obvious and his Tevas have stopped rubbing thanks to wearing socks, though the sides of his big and little toes are red and raw. No sunburn on either of us.


    We began the day with a short hike up Slickhorn Canyon. There were several good-sized pools, one deep enough for swimming and jumping into. Even in the morning it was warm enough to enjoy the cool water.

    Slickhorn Rapid, which the guide book shows just opposite our camp, was a non-event. It was as though the book was mistaken or the low water made it disappear. We therefore faced a day as quiet as yesterday was eventful. The river at this point and for the rest of the trip has succumbed to the “Lake Powell Effect:” the lake waters have forced the river to drain rather than flow. Sand deposits have built up bars causing us to tack from one side of the river to the other as we made our way downstream. Sometimes it was so shallow that we had to get out and push the duckies (and the raft) to a deeper channel. Our progress was slow.

    Griffin paddled with me in the morning. We listened to the canyon wrens, saw cliff swallows, a great blue heron, a mule deer, ravens, Canada geese, and a group of what were either quail or grouse. It was quiet and relaxing. Griffin could have made it solo, but I enjoyed the chance to chat and point out things he might have missed if he were concentrating on paddling. On the other hand, the winds challenged us and he seemed to be suffering a bit from sunburn on his shins. He walked around camp at lunch and dinner like an old man with achy knees.

    We pulled into Steer Gulch Camp (Mile 77.5) which we promptly renamed Mosquito Gulch. They were vicious and bloodthirsty. We sprayed ourselves, but they ate right through the Deet. Only the bats looked forward to dusk when the two species did battle. I hope the bats won. We were able to get the tent up which assured us a pleasant sleep.

    After dinner, we built a campfire, ate some s’mores and shared poetry and readings with each other. One of our fellow rafters (the uncle griff at take-out from Moab) read an edited selection from Edward Abbey’s Down the River, a collection of short stories of Abbey’s river travels. The account of Abbey’s rafting the San Juan perfectly describes our trip and provides unique Abbey insights on the river and the human history of the area. Griffin’s poem, “River/Roads” by Canadian Michael Crummy, contrasted highways and rivers. The poet spoke of “the earnestness of pavement (and) its insistence on leading you somewhere,” whereas “a river is less opinionated, less predictable.” It was a good choice.


    We were scheduled for a 2:00 pm take-out at Clay Hills Crossing, but we decided grampa and griff at clay hills that since we were so close, we easily could be there by noon, an hour before the next large group was scheduled for take out. So we were up earlier than usual, ate and packed efficiently, and were on our way by 8:30. Only six miles to the take-out and the river was calm and obliging. We arrived before noon after a gentle, breezeless morning. We unloaded the raft and manhandled it onto the waiting trailer and strapped the duckies on top of that. After a quick lunch, we took our group photos, piled into the van with the trailer behind and headed for the pavement of state highway 276. We carefully worked our way down about 30 hard miles of rough dirt and gravel across a typically desolate high desert landscape. The pavement felt good and we were back in Bluff by about 3:00. Plenty of time to make Moab before dark, have a much needed shower and a meal where we could sit on a chair and eat from a table.


    We returned the way we came: Moab to the Cisco exit on I-70 and due east to the Nederland exit. However, we made a short stop in Fruita (Colorado), home of Mike the Headless Chicken and to leave a note for our former neighbors who moved there a few years ago. We didn’t see Mike the Headless Chicken, but we did see the statue of him near the park, talked with folks who remember him, met the city manager who was at the courthouse when we went to buy a Mike the Headless Chicken Festival T-shirt. They think our Frozen Dead Guy Days is strange. Come on, Fruita. You celebrate a headless chicken!!

    By the time we returned home to Nederland, we thought another shower was in order. Griffin’s sunburn had moved to a strip of red on both biceps, his toes were still a bit raw, and both of us had three blisters on our hands. Griffin packed for his flight the next day to Massachusetts where he no doubt will show the dent in his right knee from the pebble briefly embedded and enjoy some bragging rights among his friends for having taken on the San Juan River solo!

    We both enjoyed a wonderful experience together and alone in our own thoughts as we floated down the San Juan. We both were reminded that there are always new places to discover and experience. And a river trip may be the best way to learn to take life as it comes to you.

Judy and Hughes Moir
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