River Wise by Linda Ballou

Moab, in Southeastern Utah, is a gritty desert town filled with old hippies, cowboys and artists. The gateway to the Colorado Plateau, it serves as the jumping-off point for hikers, mountain bikers, river rafters and rock
climbers. The year round population of 8000 bulges to 40,000 in the summer when people come from around the world to visit nearby Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. The rangers speak of the “sound of silence” on guided walks in Arches National Park, but in order to know what that means you must get out of the busy parks and down onto the rivers.

Whether it is the Colorado, or it’s largest tributary the Green, the secrets of this sandpaper rough region lies hidden in the 300 million-year-old canyons carved by the rivers. Gray clouds were swarming overhead when I reached Ruby Ranch, the “put-in” point for outfitters on the Green River, thirty miles west of Moab. Anyone traveling in this remote area with limited access should be prepared to cope with desert emergencies and know the BLM River Regulations for low impact backcountry travel. Most outfitters carry VHF aircraft radios and Satellite phones for emergency communications. Our guide, Chuck, the owner of Nichols Expeditions, pointed to rounded hummocks of dark clouds. “Those are called mammaries. They mean there’s a lot of turbulence building,” he said.

The Ruby Ranch, an oasis in this desolate region, has survived since the turn of the century for two reasons: there is a water wheel to irrigate green alfalfa fields for cattle, and two, the original owners were kind to outlaws. Members of the Wild Bunch, of Butch Cassidy fame, often stopped by for a home-cooked meal on their way to Robber’s Roost sixty miles away. The $20 gold piece left under each plate allowed the owner to buy more cattle and survive while other settlements along the river went back to sand.

The Green is, in fact, ruddy colored from sediment run-off. The murky water did not entice me to swim even though it was a pleasant 67 degrees. The current was strong solid and swift in this so-called lazy river. Paddling a kayak for fifty miles on flat water appealed to me. I envisioned an effortless glide through Labyrinth Canyon with plenty of time for rubber necking and a chance to hone my river skills. It was the end of the driest summer in the history of Utah. The volume of the river was low; 1700 cubic feet per second as opposed to the normal 8,000 cubic feet per second. A kayak is a good choice for this river because it is more maneuverable and easier to lift off of a sandbar than cumbersome rubber raft. It’s also the best river for a novice to learn how to kayak.
The rudders of the six kayaks lined on the shore were tied in place to idiot proof the trip. “With the river this shallow the rudder could get stuck; besides you can steer quite readily with your paddle.” Chuck said, during his safety lecture in which he demonstrated basic paddle techniques. My fellow adventurers lined on the shore included Stan, an off duty fire fighter with extensive outdoor experience, Jack a CPA counting his days to retirement who had paddled a bit, but had never camped out, and a yuppie couple who often paddled together at home in Maryland. I had a week of sea kayaking in Baja to brag about. Our levels of river skills were as varied as our body shapes and income.

Once out on the water we were greeted with strong head winds and a smattering of rain. It only rains a total of nine inches a year here, but we were just lucky. I could see rain tendrils twisting down to earth from murky skies
ahead. Desert storms can be intense violent thunder and lightening storms that cause flash flooding. I wondered how much of the dark side of the desert we would see as we slogged into the wind with the rain tapping a merry tune on my plastic hood.

The current carried me easily along as I gave the Chinook, a stable sea kayak, gentle guidance with my paddle. Each time I took my paddle out of the water to glide, she tried to do a pirouette. Chuck made us practice eddy
twirling so we knew how to tuck in behind a rock sheltered by the eddy fence if we needed to take a rest. Most kayak tip-overs take place on take-out and departure so it’s best if you take breaks on the water.
Patches of blue promised relief as we approached our beach camp for the night. When I nosed the Chinook into the shore, John, our cook, was offloading the support raft weighted down with kitchen and camping gear. It’s
been a full season since Chuck has been down the Green and it doesn’t look like anyone else has been here either. We had our pick of choice sandy spots, shaded by cottonwood trees for out tents. Sitting on a scalloped sandstone ledge, I peered up at bronze bluffs stained with dark patches of patina called desert varnish. The setting sun broke through the clouds illuminating the canyon walls, turning them to a copper blaze.

Day two greeted us with a perfect paddle day. The storm front had passed and blues skies beckoned. The sun-spangled river was glassy and calm. I slid into Chuck’s wake watching him rock rhythmically from side to side, making metronome strokes in his tiny river kayak that appeared to be an extension of his body. “Every time I get into one of these I think of the Aleut.” He says. “How connected they are to their world and have been for thousands of years.” No one knows when the people of the Aleutian Islands began paddling the skin boats we call kayaks. The biodegradable components of their crafts decomposed making it impossible to know their exact age. Slinking through the silky water, the kayak did seem the perfect mode of transport to explore the
secrets of the Canyon. Without the interference of engine noise we could hear the screech of the Peregrine falcon nesting in the cleft of the cliffs a thousand feet above us.

Each bend in the river revealed another even more immense set of towering rock behemoths. I saw a row of Pharaohs standing next to Nefertiti, with a regal lion lying at her side, gazing down on us with indifferent eyes. A squaw and her stern chief husband called “The Lovers”, stand in relief from the rock. The ominous, foreboding faces look down on the mortals passing through their canyon. They watched Major John Wesley Powell, the first to record explorations of the river, come though in 1869; Butch Cassidy and his gang herding stolen stock down narrow ledges in the 1900’s; moon-shiners burying kegs of whiskey in the sand during prohibition; and the uranium boys blasting out roads in the 50’s. Unmoved, unshaken, uninterested in human struggles, they watch the river carve its way through Earth time.
We slid in close to the canyon walls where solution pocks, holes caused by erosion, make nice homes for swallows. The birds darted in and out of their mud nests clinging to the sheer rock walls. We stopped for a simple lunch on a powdered-sugar sand beach under the Thunderbird. The face of the great bird with wings spread open is considered by the Indians to be a bearer of happiness. I couldn’t argue. We shared our beach with the only other people we would see on the river that week, a solitary couple on an outing for their silver anniversary. This stretch of the Green is so calm it is safe for independents that have some river savvy.

By afternoon the river had taken me completely under its spell. I was mesmerized by the reflection of the bushy Tamarisk lining the shore, and the ruddy terracotta stone towers shimmering in the water as it rippled off my
paddle. There’s something about making new tracks in unmarked time that humans enjoy. We drifted under the shade canopy of the willows bending over the river. A beaver curled under the surface at our approach. I saw an
undulating light rippling up the rock face like an upside down waterfall; just another unexplained desert phenomenon.
From out of nowhere a stiff headwind came up. The still water turned to rippled chop, and the journey became a “bit of a grunt.” I consoled myself with the thought that the extra paddle effort would work wonders on my
ever-expanding waistline. I was falling behind Chuck and the others who were chatting and paddling with seemingly no effort. I could touch bottom with my paddle, so I wanted to stay close to Chuck and follow his lead through the narrow sandy channels. My right wrist was tingling with tendonitis and my left hand was cramping. If I was left behind, I could get hung up on a sand bar and be forced to drag my kayak through knee-deep, sucking mud. I felt panicky. I considered crying, but stuck to hysterical titters. That’s when the wind really picked up.
Chuck could see I was in trouble and doubled back to help me.

“You’re working too hard. Follow the bubble line. That’s the strongest point in the current. Let it carry you along. Let your hand drag in the water to cool it off. Don’t hold on with such a death grip. Relax your hand on the
paddle with each stroke.” He said, demonstrating the proper approach. Under pressure to perform, I straightened my torso and made myself mindful of each stroke. It became easier, but I was still playing caboose to the caravan. Stan, a direct relation to the Energizer Bunny, paddled circles around me. “Someone has to be behind.” he said. “Besides you take the pressure off the
rest of us to perform.”

How sweet! My position, pulling up the rear, was serving a useful purpose to others in life on the river. I crested with a second surge of energy, but felt relieved to see Chuck heading for the narrow beach that would be our camp for the night. He signaled to the group to wait until he and John secured the cumbersome support raft. The other kayakers lined up like 747’s on the tarmac waiting for take off on the far side of the river. They positioned themselves strategically to traverse the river and catch the flow high enough above the beach to make a tidy landing. I cleverly tucked myself behind a large downed tree in the water where I could rest out of the current.
As John trundled by me, he looked alarmed. “You’re in the worst place you could be.” he yelled. “Keep your boat tipped downstream when you come out of there.” he said.
Unwittingly, I had placed myself exactly where every seasoned river guide fears to tread. I was pinned by the strong current against a snag. The current could easily suck me under and I could get a limb in the groin, or
worse. It looked like I was going to be the first one to take a bath on our four day outing on a lazy river. Chuck waved me in first. If I did tip, he wanted Stan on the water so he could come to my aid. I nudged the nose of the Chinook forward and felt the current start to drag us under. I pushed hard with my paddle against the tree to dislodge myself, but found I was securely fastened. I lurched forward with my body rocking the boat free, then used my paddle to circumnavigate the submerged monster. I got free, sailed around the limb and shot downstream. I made a clumsy landing, nearly losing my sandal to the sucking mud on shore.

“Good work.” Chuck said extending me a hand.
“You mean it?”
“Yes. Snags are one of the reasons we go in the fall. In the spring the water is so high you can’t see them.”

That night I felt I’d earned my tender streak grilled to delicious perfection. Each meal on our outing topped the last one. After leading kayaking and mountain biking trips about the globe for twenty years, Chuck has a flare for seasoning food that rivals any gourmet chefs. On the first night he doctored a salmon fillet with a snappy wasabi-ginger sauce. We enjoyed fresh steamed vegetables, organic green salads, and luscious local
melons from the Ruby Ranch with our entre. John produced brownies, cakes and muffins “to die for” from his Dutch Oven on the camp stove. Ever since his mountain bike tour in Tuscany, Chuck is in the habit of keeping a pot of espresso brewing on the back burner for guests who need a real java jolt.

Next day, Stan and Chuck headed up a slot canyon where they hoped to see some wildlife. They could see cougar, coyote, mule deer or a Golden Eagle wheeling overhead. There are numerous hikes up these canyons to the rim. The hike at Two-mile and Horseshoe are considered the best. Two-mile Trail takes you up to Five Window Arch, a spectacular catacomb with views of Canyonland. It is possible to loop down through the deep, rugged and wild Horseshoe Canyon past petroglyphs chipped into the desert varnish centuries ago by native peoples.During prohibition the Green River was one of the favorite places for a still, inaccessible with plenty of water to “cool the coils.” There was a still in the little canyon coming into Horseshoe off the Spur. Bootlegger’s
buried their kegs in the sand to hide them from the sheriff’s posse and to allow the whisky to age. If you stumble on a keg, beware! The last man who sipped some of this buried treasure said when he tried to stand he found he
was paralyzed in his chair.

We glided past Hey Joe Canyon where one of the largest uranium mines was located. Chuck told us about the seventy-year-old woman he took on this trip. She came to see where her late husband had struggled for so many years. Women were not allowed in the mine camps. It was rough and grizzly work. Many men died blasting out the mines and others died from uranium contamination. She cried at the sight of the solemn copper colored monoliths in Labyrinth Canyon that her husband called his cathedral.

We made camp at Bowknot Bend where I enjoyed a room with a view. My boulder bench seat wrapped by an enormous amphitheater of striated bluffs overlooked a sagebrush meadow sprinkled liberally with yellow rabbit bush. Below I could see the khaki colored Green snaking through the canyon. I imagined Powell and his party coming around the bend in their wooden boats. A self-educated naturalist and geology professor, the Major could read the messages recorded in the rocks and was transformed. He saw his God in the sublime landscape of a world where terror and wonder hold hands. Following in the explorer’s footsteps, I hiked up a steep trail through sloughing sandstone to what he dubbed Bowknot Ridge. From the narrow ledge I saw the serpentine river doubling back on itself in a seven-mile loop. With the river on both sides of the ledge it felt as though I was standing inside a funhouse mirror. Suddenly, I realized I’d found it. The “sound of silence”. My response. After a few meditative moments, I couldn’t resist yelling out at the top of my lungs and listening to my own voice reverberate through the vast stillness.
Once back in the Chinook, I floated effortlessly through a seamless day. I followed the bubble line, finding the swiftest part of the current and used my paddle as a rudder to catch the glide. I stuck close to Chuck weaving in
around the sandbars and narrow channels. I found my rhythm and felt I could do shallow, light strokes for as far as the river would take me. Tomorrow the rest of the group would do a quick change into mountain biking gear at Mineral Bottom. They were heading for the famous White Rim Trail. The abandoned mining roads carved into the cliffs during the uranium boom are a magnet for bikers around the world. I was to return to Moab on the support van with the kayaks. After exchanging travel tales around the campfire we said our goodbyes and then I drifted to a dreamless sleep feeling river wise.