Petitioning the overseers

The hows and whys of river trips down the San Juan

Sharon Rodemann

For most river runners in the West, the middle of February is the real start of the whitewater season, a kind of college acceptance-letter week. While all of the great multi-day river trips through the canyons of the Colorado Plateau are regulated by the fickle swoons of weather and snowpack from year to year, most of them are also governed by the U.S. government, particularly the Bureau of Land Management. As melting snowpack rushes down from Colorado and Wyoming’s high peaks toward its placid end in Lake Powell, coursing through BLM land, the government agency holds a series of lotteries for the limited number of permits granted each year to river runners to float these waters.

As stewards of almost 250 million acres of lands in the West, the BLM attracts more than its share of sagebrush ire from ranchers (where is Cliven Bundy these days?), off-roaders, hunters and others chafing against government interference with what they perceive as their divinely bestowed right to do whatever the hell they want across these vast open spaces because, y’know, freedom.

River runners, by and large, accept the BLM’s role as essentially underappreciated custodians — keeping river access points functional, managing boaters’ readiness to float these wilderness stretches, occasionally assisting with rescue and, most essentially, keeping the wild parts wild by limiting the number of people tromping across them. Though a lot of private boaters believe that the commercial outfitters, also subject to limited launch dates, get preferential treatment, the lottery system is basically fair and transparent.

It’s easier to appreciate the BLM when you score a permit, and this year the little ball landed on our number for a six-day trip down the San Juan. By way of estimate, this would make our 11th trip down the river, starting in 1991.

Cue: River war stories

Later to be my wife, my girlfriend at the time was a committed and reasonably skilled kayaker, vaguely disdainful (as many kayakers were, and some still are) of the rafting crowd, subscribing to the view that most rafters were under-skilled and usually inebriated louts, party-barging their way through otherwise serene reaches of postcard perfect landscape, spraying God’s country with discarded Bud Light cans, hogging ramp space and generally being oblivious, self-entitled nuisances.

For their part, rafters sometimes refer to kayakers as “stream lice.”

But enough of all that.

Karin landed a permit for early June of 1991, and it was clear that a) she wanted to use the permit and b) her boyfriend wasn’t a kayaker. So to put together a trip, we needed a boat, nevermind the skills to navigate one.

We rented a behemoth Achilles raft and a rent-a-wreck Datsun pickup with a passenger door that didn’t really close. We invited an old friend of mine from back East and, oddly, my Canadian nieces’ old swimming coach, to join us, at least as much for their access to lines of credit (for the rentals) as for their company.

The standard San Juan run is an 84-mile course starting just outside Bluff, Utah, a tiny riverside hamlet precariously populated with off-gridders, artists, rafting guides and grizzled retirees from the mining industry. The river winds its way initially through gentle sandstone-framed pasturelands, drops into a 600-foot-deep canyon, pauses at an even tinier settlement called Mexican Hat, then lazily drifts through the famed Gooseneck section, bending and twisting 14 river miles through steeply walled canyons that would only take a bird 4 miles to cover by air. Folded and tortured strata streak the canyon walls — some of the oldest rock in the world plays hide and seek at river’s edge, a geologist’s Valhalla. The river eventually slows and widens as it approaches Lake Powell, at a dusty and bleak remote takeout ramp at the foot of gigantic clay-stratified cliffs.

The San Juan will never be any river runner’s idea of a thrill ride. Despite its average gradient (8 feet per mile, which is actually steep for canyon rivers), there are only a handful of noteworthy rapids. And there is only one, Government Rapid, that approaches the betterknow-what-you’re-doing level of Class III, and then really only at very high or very low flows.

If one considers the great Colorado Plateau river trips as a family, the Grand Canyon would be the paddleboard wielding patriarch, sternly quoting ancient scripture, Cataract Canyon would be the brawling hell-raising son getting regularly bailed out of the local hoosegow, and the San Juan would be the flaxen haired daughter reading Edna St. Vincent Millay and conversing with butterflies.

At the launch ramp, Karin strapped in quickly and slid her way into the water, while Mike, Stu (the swimming coach) and I stood befuddled over the raft and the disassembled raft frame, trying to figure out which pieces connected where, loading the oars in backwards, swearing at the hand pump and inspiring the promise that an otherwise fairly simple river would be a comedic challenge.

River trips have a unique way of testing interpersonal relations. I didn’t know Stu at all — he got a tip about the opportunity from my brother in Toronto — and despite some years of friendship, both in Boulder and back East, Mike and I had grown in somewhat different directions. He had left Colorado in the mid ’80s to do law school in Pennsylvania and was by this time an ambitious young gun at a law firm outside Philly, collecting a paycheck every week defending ski areas.

I had a pony tail and barely two nickels to rub together.

We argued over our first camp, a tight little promontory in the upper stretch of the river around Mile 13. Stu wanted to keep going, or at least find a more generous space, but Karin (who in those days wasn’t someone you wanted to argue with) insisted. We took the spot, pitched our tents on the rocky soil and mixed up dinner from a couple of Mountain House pouches. Day one and the beer was already getting warm.

Warm indeed. The month of June on the San Juan can be a cranium-sizzling experience, with desert-dry days, hard cobalt blue skies and a sun straight from a sci-fi writer’s fevered alien world imagination. We didn’t see a cloud — not one — over five days on this trip. (Although, by contrast, my current wife and I ran the river in late May of 2007, and our first two days we were pelted by hail in low 40-degree temperatures.) And one of my first lessons was, if you’re going to bring complex beers (somehow we had decided on St. Pauli Girl, which is fairly nasty under the best of circumstances, and Holstein Light), you better plan to have them in Roland Emmerich-proof coolers, laced with dry ice and draped with regularly soaked towels, or they will break down in a hurry into aggressively toxic swill.

Which happened on day two.

It was pretty obvious that Karin and Stu weren’t going to get along. Karin liked to sleep in, Stu was one of these break-of-dawn types, probably better suited for the military than teaching the backstroke to grade school kids, and by the middle of day two, he was already talking about getting off the river a day early, pulling at the oars as if outrunning what he probably thought was an unfortunate choice of vacation. The heat and deteriorating beer situation weren’t helping.

Nor was the Olympus. We were carrying Karin’s beloved OM-1 on the raft, being relatively careful with it (this was years before waterproof cameras, with the exception of the now cheerfully obsolete Nikonos diving camera), when we hit some sand waves. Sand waves are a hydraulic curiosity unique to the San Juan — a combination of the unusually heavy sediment content of the water and the step gradient can produce, at certain places and at certain flows, a series of standing waves that can range, at high flows, up to 5 feet in height. Usually in a train of half a dozen, they spring like mini-Nessies out of nowhere, usually catching the oarsman unaware. Generally benign, this particular set unfortunately rolled over the front of the raft and deposited some water in our bail bucket where someone (me, I think) had placed the camera for safe keeping.

We didn’t notice until we made the next camp, when Karin onshore came over to the boat and saw her black OM-1 in the bucket in 3 inches of water. Hell hath no fury.

By the third night, we were baked, dehydrated and barely speaking to one another. We had a nice camp that night and a good campfire, the fragile détente broken only when one of San Juan’s resident prehistoric rock insects — hideous-looking creature with a prehistoric lineage, 2 inches in length, some unholy arachnid/roach spawn that lives under the rocks at waterline and provides nourishment for the lizards — crept unnoticed atop Karin’s left Teva, prompting a quick freakout which spilled the pot and the white gas stove. Dinner was a little late that night. Bugs aren’t usually much of a problem on the San Juan (on a later trip, Karin and I spent an hour trying to chase out a daddy-longlegs from our tent in the middle of the night), but these horrid little things make an appearance from time to time. There are scorpions, too, dastardly little things that live just under the sand. Karin got nailed by one on our 1995 trip, her foot swelled up like an overstuffed burrito.

Day four and we were in the last stretch. Mike had bumped the raft down Government Rapid, hitting rocks in the low flow as if aiming for them, and we were now in the final 18 miles. Flat and slow.

Nothing lasts forever

In the 1950s, a proposal by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation would have dropped a massive dam at the confluence of the Green and Yampa Rivers at a place called Echo Park, a mind-bogglingly scenic and wild stretch of river now enjoyed by river runners coming down both streams. The proposal was fought tooth and nail by the nascent environmental movement, and David Brower, then president of the Sierra Club, threw his support in favor of a different dam proposal, one that would have dammed the Colorado River below its confluences with the Green and San Juan rivers, essentially drowning the sandstone labyrinth known as Glen Canyon. It is said that Brower essentially traded Glen Canyon for ditching Echo Park, and Brower until his last days (he died in 2000) always regretted the decision.

The result was Glen Canyon Dam, and the pool behind it became Lake Powell.

One of the unexpected results of the stilling of the Colorado River has been the slow demise of the San Juan, one of its primary feeder streams. As the river’s descent to the confluence of the Colorado (which is now under water) has been slowed, the San Juan has been depositing its silt in its final miles, raising the riverbed and forcing the river to expand laterally, thus slowing its flow further. Below Government Rapid, there is almost no streamside camping, as the river has widened from canyon wall to canyon wall. The silt deposits have created sandbars, and the river is essentially now a barely moving lake for almost 20 miles.

The San Juan is slowly choking on its own silt — by some estimates, the Clay Hills takeout will be inaccessible, and the river will be permanently unrunnable by the end of the 2020s.

We were within a few miles of the takeout, a day earlier than we had planned. Stu had had enough and wanted off the river. Karin wouldn’t have it though, so we pulled into a reed-choked bank just where the canyon wall began its final plunge below river level, barely 2 miles from the takeout ramp. We set up our tent on the sloped and rocky bank, Stu threw his gear into the reeds and vanished for the rest of the evening.

Karin boiled up her last meal of the trip, a homemade gloop of chicken paprikash, a favorite dish of hers since her childhood in Czechoslovakia. Mike brought up the rest of the beers, now well past room temperature, made some conciliatory remarks about the trip and all the work we had put into planning it, and we ate quietly in the fading light of a soft summer evening.

Karin and I saw Stu a few years later; he was managing a restaurant in Keystone, and we had a few laughs remembering the trip as being more fun than it really was. That was 18 years ago, and I have no idea what happened to him since. Mike still lives in Pennsylvania, he sells exercise equipment now. We chat occasionally by phone, and the river trip seldom comes up. Karin passed away in 2004, and my current wife and I have run the river together five times — the last time with a couple of her grown kids from Cleveland.

Sharon can’t make it this year due to work. I’ll be floating the river with an old rafting friend, both of us solo on our own rafts. The beer will be cold, the river gentle in its dying days, and we’ll share some memories until next time.

If there is a next time.