Sunday, November 30, 2014



Although I’ve run a lot of rivers it has been many years since I’ve been on one, so it was such a treat for Nori and me to be invited to go with good friends down the Stillwater Canyon on the Green River. Our friends Al and Roze are experts and have a huge garage filled with canoes, kayaks, rafts and boats.  They had done the Stillwater several times before and were the inspiration for this trip.  Tom and Sandy, and Dave and Judi had floated the White River with them a short time before, so we were delighted to be part of the group for this adventure.  Nori had paddled the Grand Canyon years before, but this would be our first river trip together.  I prepared for weeks, going through my gear, and even buying a Yeti cooler especially for the trip.

One of my preparations was to read John Wesley Powell’s “Exploration Of The Colorado River And Its Canyons”.  He named Stillwater Canyon which starts at Mineral Bottom at the beginning of Canyonlands National Park in eastern Utah, just north of Moab.  It runs for about 54 miles south to the confluence with the Colorado River at Spanish Bottom. Compared to the huge rapids he had already encountered and what he was still to find in Cataract and Grand Canyons, this must indeed have been a still water experience for him and his crew.  We planned for an eight day trip, leaving Ridgway October 17th, spending a night at the Red Rock Motel in Moab, so we could be ready to load up at Tag-along Expeditions at 8:00 am the morning of the 18th.

Oct 18, Saturday.
Up and atom at 7:00 am, coffee and breakfast on the corner. The pancakes were perfect! The cars were loaded, so we drove up the street to Tag-along Expeditions where we were to meet our outfitter at 8:00.  I didn’t know exactly what to expect.  After leaving our valuables at the front desk, we loaded all our gear into an old Bluebird school bus hauling a trailer.  Our 16 gallons of water per couple and heavy stuff went in the old funky trailer on top of which is a rack for carrying up to 8 canoes.  The crew helped us load and lashed the canoes on with bungee cords.  

Our driver slowly drove the ancient conveyance up into Canyonlands National Park and turned off onto the White Rim trail to Mineral Bottom, a 45 minute drive down a dusty dirt road. Suddenly the road drops down a cliff in the most exposed road I've ever been on. It was our driver's first trip on the road, and she was hauling a rattling trailer and negotiating hairpin turns, but she was great. The trip to the White Rim is an experience in and of itself and well worth it’s own expedition at a later date.  Along the road we encountered dozens of mountain bikers using every bit of energy and expertise to grind their way up the road.

We loaded the boats; quite a feat just to get all the gear balanced and lashed in place.  Heavy water bottles sat on the bottom and were not lashed in, because according to Al and Roze, if the boat capsized, the weight would pull out the D-rings glued to the bottom and we’d lose the rest of the gear. The heavy gear on the bottom and light stuff on top like a pyramid in the middle.  At 12:45 exactly we launched and headed down the river. There was an Outward Bound group ahead of us moving two large rafts, then a party with two canoes lashed together like a catamaran, also ahead.  Today we still had a 12 Mile paddle to our first camp just around the corner from Fort Bottom ruins.
Roze and Al riding their new Esquif 'Canyon'

Tom and Sandy in the Mad River

Dave and Judi

As we neared the campsite across from Fort Bottom, we pulled over to hike.  An old cabin still sits overlooking the river. We spent a few minutes then marched up a hill and investigate a tower ruin at the top. Although it looked like a fairly long hike, we were up to the top quickly.  The view is spectacular.

The tower ruin atop the hill at the Fort Bottom gooseneck.

The camp, a narrow band of fine sand up from the mud shore, gave on a river view to the north. Here we met Rich from NM, who had canoed here 10 times over the years on his way to California.  He generously allowed us to share his site, making it a tight squeeze on the narrow sand bank.  Although I knew that sand and dust would be everywhere, the sheer volume of mud and dirt was quite a shock.  Each of the four couples contributed one dinner, then for the next four nights we were each on our own.  Every dinner was fantastic; each couple must have tried to out-do the other!

Sunrise on our first camp

Oct 19, Sunday
After breakfast we repacked the boats and paddled 14 miles to Tent Bottom (or the 'Heron Rookery').  The river was more mellow and smooth than I had imagined.  It was probably running about 2 miles per hour, and we paddled another 2 mph, so we averaged about 4 mph on the trip. I watched Al and Roze paddle effortlessly down the river in their new Esquif canoe.  We could tell they had the sport mastered!

The Utah State Fish and Game was on the river running two boats equipped with submersible shocking electrodes and two John boats doing a fish survey.  They showed us a native razorback chub, a humpback chub, and a walleye, (a vicious exotic).  I asked about the catfish and was told they were also not native.  Farther up river below the Flaming Gorge dam and below the Glen Canyon dam, rainbow trout have been planted and are thriving in the clear water.  The water here looks horrible: a greenish scum with a variety of floaters, sinkers, and swimmers make it unfit. Each night Al would scoop up a few gallons in his collapsible bucket and let it settle overnight for boiling and dishwashing in the morning.  

Nori and set our tent I on a protruding ledge overlooking the river.  I've always admired scenic campsites, and this ranked with the best ever.  The only concern was getting out of the tent to take a leak in the middle of the night.  You wouldn’t want to go over the edge! The group gathered around the only flat spot, lined with huge boulders and enjoyed a beer or glass of wine while Tom serenaded us on his ukulele.  

Judi had spent time in Africa working with the ebola outbreak a few years ago.  We were all interested to hear her experiences there working with such a grim disease.  She was reading David Quammen's "Spillover", the story of how animal diseases have spilled over to humans, and ebola was the central figure in the story.  It was timely, because the present outbreak in Africa had been in the headlines daily, and Judy was our expert bringing it home to us from personal experience.

Al hiking up to the viewpoint with Cross mountain in the background.

 The overhanging white rim above the river.

The Outward Bound group.  We chat as we pass by.

Tonight Tom played the ukelele and we all tried to sing along.  Afterwards I read from Barry Lopez’s “River Notes” about a heron, a very poetic and mystical tale.  After reading we turn off our headlamps to see the stars explode out of the suddenly dark night sky.  Shooting stars were a big hit, as was the Andromeda galaxy, and a dozen or so satellites.  We are fortunate to have no light pollution down here in the river bottom. Tonight the Milky Way lies directly in line with the river at Spanish Bottom, so we see Cassiopeia up to the north and Cygnus and Lyra directly overhead We all wander off to bed at 8:30, way too early for me, so I sit a while longer and stare at the heavens trying to make out some old familiar friends.  When I was a young boy I would read “The New Handbook of the Heavens” and memorize the star charts, Messier objects, and first-magnitude stars.  Those lessons have never left me.

Sunrise at the second camp

Dave photographs the pictographs on the giant boulder.

Dave and Roze are both excellent photographers and members of our local photography club. Roze had just won a photo contest for the best wilderness photo at an exhibit in Grand Junction, so I watched them trying to pick up a few hints on their technique.  Dave was omnipresent.  The camera was everywhere.  He was on his knees, above us, below us, in the bushes.  

Oct 20 Monday
In the morning we were out of camp by 10:00 and on our way down the river.  We made a lunch stop at a broad valley where we hiked up looking for an ancient stone corn cache.  It was the site of an old sugar cane farm, but we saw only the modern steel door covering a hole in the cliff. When I got back to our canoe, a raven had found my loaf of bread and devoured half of it.  Good lesson! On our way down the river on the right bank we passed a ferry where the bolts and iron still protruded from the rock (maybe old 20th century).

The highlight of the day was a stop at the Turks Head, an odd formation with a thick top.  We hiked to the boulder cliffs, meandered along the cliff looking for granaries above.  We wound our way around and up a path to the top where we found that the entire mesa was littered with flint/chert flakes, arrowheads, scrapers, knives, microblades, and axes. Passing ancient granaries and cliff dwellings I think back on the lifestyle of those ancient people who made them. As I stood on the flint knapping mesa and looked out on the river I imagined what it would have been like for someone to sit on the rock produce scrapers, knives, arrows, axes, microblades. The place was so littered that likely several thousands of years of work was done here over many generations. Below the rim we discovered several grain storage bins constructed under the lip of the cliffs from the flat red sandstone, shored up with mud mortar. The handprints and fingerprints of the builders were still fresh in the hard mud, and the wood still strong and study at least 600 years later.
Off down the river where we camped on the river bank. We had to climb up the bank, and each tent had it's own small spot.  We hid the toilet behind a big rock on a ledge and placed the Sun Shower on a rock where we took turns taking a bath.
Tom inspects the ancient granary.

Flint knappings cover the ground
The gang at the gathering site preparing dinner

Oct 21, Tuesday.  
Today we paddled 12 miles to Water Canyon, and camped on the west side of the river up a sandy embankment.  In the afternoon we took an exploratory hike up to a spring-fed stream and skinny dipped in the clear cold water.  The floor of the canyon is limestone and full of fossils: crinoids, brachiopods, and gastropods.  The ground is covered with chert scrapers and knives. Surely the ancient ones thought this as beautiful and enticing place as we do today.

As evening comes, Sandy led the women in a meditation on the ground. She is a yoga teacher; Nori says she’s the best. Dave, our intrepid photographer climbs above and takes a photo. Dinner is chicken with figs that Nori and I contribute. Every dinner has been fantastic! Cheese appetizers, cookies for dessert.  The crickets break into their rhythm as the light dims and the river skyline is silhouetted black against blue sky.  We have a big discussion of where the pee buckets are placed: one at each tent for those middle-of -the-night emergencies, because peeing in the campsites would soon render them unusable due to the uric acid depositions.  We pack a lunch for tomorrow’s hike back up Water Canyon. Today we saw a beaver swimming past a huge rock off an eddy.

After dinner Tom played the ukulele; I read from Edward Abby’s “Down the River”, the first part of a story he told of floating the Stillwater Canyon years ago in November and taking along Thoreau’s “Walden”.  It was the perfect tale for the occasion.  I had read “Walden” in high school, but Abby made it come much more alive that it had when I was just a teenager.  I was inspired to dig into it again.
Tom on the ukulele

Oct 22
Today we hike up Water Canyon; left at 8:30 am, crack of dawn!  The trail goes all the way over the top south to Spanish Bottom. The way was steep and rocky past the pools of water we swam in yesterday.  Time passes quickly in spite of the steepness and distance we have gone.  Nearing the top of the rim a huge rock shaped like a giant wedge slipped down and crushed Nori’s left foot. I pulled it off before it fell on her, but she was finished for hiking for the day.  We stopped, sent the rest of the group on while we examined it.  Thinking it was just bruised, we continued up a few hundred more yards to the rim where we met the rest of the group at the cliff’s edge and stopped to soak her foot in the cold pools of the stream. We were done, but the group continued.  We headed back at noon in a zen march downhill alternately using walking poles, hands and me for balance.  Our hike down took two and a half hours to the bathing pool where we soaked for another hour and nursed her foot. We had some energy bars, but my knife broke in the pool when I opened it to cut an apple. Too bad!

In the evening Nori and I cooked salmon and stir fry for dinner.  Tom played the mandolin; I read part 2 of Ed Abby with Thoreau in “Down the River”.  Then early to bed and an attempt to read T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”.  After my efforts, I feel the need to read it again for any understanding.

The hike up Water Canyon

Oct 23, Thursday
Paddled to Spanish Bottom.  Just before we reached the camp, there was a sign partially hidden on the left side of the river where Al had us stop and registered for the evening’s campsite. Although someone had booked the first camp, when we arrived, no one was there; they must have put in a wrong date. After the scum and mud of the river, we hauled out the boats and washed them thoroughly, rinsed them out and stacked them on the shore.  It seemed we had a few little problems: Tom and Sandy’s tent pole broke; the toilet had a stuck lid; and I lost my sponge in the river. So, I make a note to add repair splice to my repair kit, also a flathead screwdriver; new glue, sewing kit, and a razor blade.

Nori nearing the Spanish Bottoms and the end of the journey.

Nori was injured, the rest of us feel like hanging in camp, but Dave, our intrepid photographer went for a hike.  Tom, Sandy, Judi, Nori, and I read.  When Dave returns, he is covered with scratches; apparently there is no real trail from here to the “Doll House”.  We have a discussion of how best to get there tomorrow: take the boats down river a bit, then paddle back, or hike around like Dave did.
Looking at the food in the coolers, I find the tortillas and berries to be moldy and there is no cold left.  On the next river trip we should bring 2 coolers: one with ice, and one with frozen dinners. Roze and I talked about the Yeti coolers: she said the Grand Canyon guides put ice in layers, put a wet canvas over the top, keep it in a freezer overnight, use dry ice. Afternoon temperatures soared, and we felt very hot. Nori went to the tent for an afternoon nap and to rest her swollen foot while I sort my pack, prepare shower water, and read T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”.  Sandy does a little Yoga stretching on the shore, then she, Tom, and Judi go for a short hike on the beach while I have a chance to write in my journal.
The days meld into one; I try to remember back to the first campsite, but it is a blur.  I need to have Roze refresh my memory of the days, where we have camped, when we saw what.  I need to get the highlights on paper  No wonder that writers are always taking notes.  

Nori and I practiced four paddle strokes:
Day1 it’s just the forward paddle: straighten the arms draw back.  Although we had been paddling on Ridgway Reservoir, we had not practiced on a river
Day 2, the feather stroke, a variation on the forward paddle.
Day 3, the draw stroke
Day 4, the sweep

Four other canoeists came and we invited them to camp with us.  Dave, Kai, Scott, John.  Dave Tanner has a twin brother Joe Tanner, a former astronaut, lives in Longmont and teaches at CU, moving to Horesfly Mesa in 2 years  Dave lives in Bloomington, Indiana, and coaches swimming; has a Ph.D. in kinesiology.  The four were grateful we offered the first camp to them rather than the rowdy crowd down canyon.

Dinner on thursday was Trader Joe’s Indian dinner: spinach and tofu over quinoa.  At this point in the trip all the perishable food is gone, and we are reduced to the canned, packaged, and prepared foods.  Still, we eat well and still have beer and wine, song and stories.  It is part 3 for Ed Abby and Thoreau. I hope I’m not boring the group with my reading. It seemed everyone enjoyed it.

Oct 24, Friday
Nori is injured and is disappointed to not be hiking with the group who have gone up to “The Doll House” for the day.  I am happy to be in camp with an injured knee and aching hip. To bed at 8:30 where I continued to read “The Waste Land” still not understanding it.  Was it Pound’s editing or Eliot’s obtuseness that I don’t understand.  If a short poem requires 100 footnote to explain the allusions, something is wrong and leads me to believe it’s not the greatest poem of the 20th century,  

Up at 7:00 am again this morning,  Coffee and Kobuk pancakes. The blueberries are moldy, so I throw them out. The sun doesn’t hit till 10:27, so we huddle around with hot drinks all morning. When it finally arrives we slather on the sun screen and lounge in the camp chairs, dry out our books spend the morning basting on the bank listening to the fish jump next to us,  What kind of fish I wonder? Some smaller, 12 to 14 inches; one comes clear out of the water like a breaching whale.  The water this morning felt warmer than the land, but now by midday it is cool to the touch, muddy green-brown with lots of debris and flotsam cutting down the center of the current.

Behind us the Doll House to the west keeps watch over the river.  On the east bank is the Needles district of Canyonlands and Indian Creek where I’ve climbed just a few weeks ago. I look to the rim to see if anyone is checking us out.  Nori is reading Karen Joy Fowler’s “We Are Completely Beside Ourselves”.  We are waiting for our solar showers to heat the water to a high enough temperature for comfort.

Thoughts on food.  Organic tortillas, both corn and wheat mold after a couple of days without refrigeration, so Mission or one of the brands that sits on the shelf is better.  Cooking the dinners and freezing them in plastic bags creates fine meals with short prep time and little mess. Group dinners mea more time for others.  Apples and oranges keep well and provide wonderful taste and nourishment.  Root vegetables are very stable.  Canned and packaged meals are easy with little mess.  Bring lots of candy, snacks; more alcohol: 2 beers a night and apertifs. Instant coffee, packaged creamers, salt and condiments.  Bread is vulnerable, as the raven ravaged my loaf left unattended in the keel of the boat for only an hour. Pilot bread or corn cakes make good sandwiches.  Winter sausage and cheese.

Boats come by.  Tex’s Outfitters in their concession tour boat drop off 4 folks, probably to hook up with the 7 people and 5 rafts beached at the lower campgrounds.  Then come canoes, many canoes, headed for a lower campground.  Nori and I shower; she wants to hang the shower up from the beach because of the traffic.  I set it up now full of hot water from sitting in the sun all day. Just as I get naked and soap up my hair a flotilla of canoes floats by and wants to palaver. 

On the river I think back to 1956 when my father and our Boy Scout Troop 179 floated the Glen Canyon  Our scoutmaster, Mike Coles, was the greatest scoutmaster ever and one of the largest influences in my life.  Our guide on the river was Ken Tanner, a single guy who liked boys.  I remember the preparations: food, boats, paddles, fishing rod, Argus camera…  My brother Tony still has dad’s paddle hanging on his wall. Driving from Hanksville to Hite down a dusty road in an overloaded stakebed truck.  Bullfrog rapids, Music Temple, Moki Canyon and the 6-mile hike up to Rainbow Bridge which we climbed up Moki steps and where we signed our names on a summit register  I had brought a bottle of liver to fish with and caught a huge channel catfish,  I thought I had hooked a log, but it turned out to be a delicious dinner.  Dad had me use his Argus camera, and I took a half dozen very poor photos that do not conjure up any memories.  Much better are the pictures in my mind of Marty Farsworth hiking up “Hole in the Wall” where the Mormon Pioneers brought their wagons down the vertical cliff on a dugway built of rocks and logs stuck into hoes they drilled into the cliff  It was likely less time from  then to the river trip than I am now old, yet it was ancient history and my heritage,  Marty stepped into poison ivy, and dad doctored him for the rest of the trip.  At Lee’s Ferry our take-out, someone offered me 50 cents to swim across the warm, muddy river,  I ended up a ways downstream and had to hike up the other side to hit cam on the back-swim It seems like yesterday, 58 years ago.

Each night one of the women has read a few of Mary Oliver’s poems.  Every one has been beautiful.  In the morning we pack the gear and arrange all our gear on the shore ready to load. Tag-along is scheduled to pick us up at 1:00 pm, so we do a leisurely breakfast, sit in our lawn chairs and pass the time watching the river.  Sure enough, at 1:00 the boat, actually two boats arrive.  One loads our gear and us; the other, recently rebuilt, loads the boats.  It’s a three-hour drive back up the Colorado river to Potash.  We watch the mountains, cliffs and mesas slide by as the roar of the engines seems to propel us up an otherwise tranquil river. Suddenly one of the boats has stopped; one engine is gone and the boat can’t continue.  We stop at a campground, make a decision to continue on, and the second boat will lumber behind.  At the final take-out at Potash the guides tell us we will board a big bus to Moab and the gear will arrive an hour later.

Good plan!  In Moab we head to the Moab Brewery for beer and food.  I’m quite set on a hamburger.  We are seated immediately; what a surprise considering there are eight of us. Just as we finish we get the call that the gear has arrived, so we hustle back to Tag-along, unpack the bus, stuff the cars with gear and head for home.