Ep. 95: Green River Kayak Camping | Utah kayaking Canyonlands National Park

Hey friends, welcome back to Grand
Adventure! I’m your host Marc Guido and on this
episode we’re going to leave the RV behind, and instead this kayak right here
is going to be our camper. We’re going to go on a bucket-list kayaking trip down
the Green River into Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. We’re going to cover 101
miles of river in eight days. Along the way we’ll encounter people from four
other states and two other countries, and we will see ruins of ancient people dating
from 200 to 1,200 years ago. So we hope that you’ll stick around
for this episode! Stay tuned! Our trip begins rumbling down a dirt
road in a Chevy Suburban through the high desert of Eastern Utah. We trade
tales — some tall, some not — with our driver from Tag-A-Long Outfitters in Moab, until
we enter a startling green oasis set amongst the low pale yellow sandstone
lining the banks of the Green River. Ruby Ranch grows alfalfa for equestrians in
the desert cities of Phoenix and Las Vegas, but it also serves as a boat
launch for those looking to paddle Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons to
retrace the route first mapped by John Wesley Powell over a hundred years
earlier. The water gently laps the river’s left bank as we unload a week’s worth of
gear clothing and food before bidding our driver farewell. Our last connection
to civilization heads back out the doubletrack road,
the sound of the vehicle’s engine replaced by the occasional crow of a
raven as we load our boats and lather on sunscreen. Jon and I shove off at 10:15
a.m., two hours after leaving Moab, and adjust
our boats as we drift with the river’s current past low sandbars and irrigation
water intakes. Before long the sandstone lining the riverbanks grows in height, and
it’s not much further before their first red clay walls of Labyrinth Canyon rise
above them. We’re now entering the canyon that we came here for. The sun beats down
through cloudless skies, and temperatures are in the mid-80s — about 10 degrees
warmer than normal for this first week of October. The river is also flowing
briskly as flood control managers have released water from an already full
Flaming Gorge reservoir 100 miles or so to our north, in preparation to accept
snowmelt in the spring. Still we struggle to find the deepest water, and therefore
the strongest current. The river looks like a chocolate frappe and its silt
obscures visibility to only a few inches. It’s nearly impossible to ascertain its
depth, and we instead use land features to estimate where the river’s true
channel must be. We make our first landing on the river’s
right bank at Tri-Canyon, named by Powell for what appear from the river to be
three impassable alcoves across from what Powell named Tri-Alcove Bend.
It’s here that we first discovered the river’s silted muck, perhaps one of the
most evil substances known to humanity. With the consistency of what’s contained
in a baby’s diaper, and the holding power of quicksand,
the river mud clings to everything and thereafter hardens like concrete if
you’re not able to quickly flush it away. We learn to choose our landings
carefully, for at times it’s only a foot or two across but at others it stretches
for many yards before yielding to drier sand beyond. We land here for our first
planned hike of the trip. Tamarisk — an invasive nuisance species of tree — lines
virtually every inch of waterfront soil along the river. It’s so thick in places
that it even bars the region’s native mule deer from reaching the river to
drink. We use the semi-dry wash from Tri- Canyon’s creek bed to venture far enough
from the canyon mouth to pass the tamarisk barrier and begin hiking
overland, but our progress is further thwarted by thick, high reeds that
promulgated in the unusually wet first half of the Utah summer. A trip up the
right branch of Tri-Canyon quickly dead ends in a beautiful grotto formed
by what is now a dry waterfall, and we’re unable to venture much further than a
mile up the main branch of the canyon before the reeds become virtually
impassable. An hour and a half later we return to
our boats having accomplished little, and are surprised to find a river busy
filled with not only the folks we encountered at the launch, but also a
group of seven kayakers from Colorado who had launched a date earlier in the
town of Green River, 23 river miles upstream from Ruby Ranch. We had no
idea how much progress we would be able to make on this first day of our trip,
considering the logistics of getting to Ruby Ranch with our gear, so we’re
thrilled to have covered 17 river miles on our first day to reach Keg Spring
Bottom before dusk. Bottoms along the river are flat expanses once used of
water cattle and allow them to range for forage in the plant growth
made possible by the river’s moisture. We succeed in commandeering a small sandbar
along the left bank. We set camp, determining that our tents are unlikely
to need a rain fly on this warm, clear evening. We start the charcoal to cook
what will be our most perishable meal on this trip: a couple of New York strip
steaks and baked potatoes slathered with melted butter. We put a
disproportionately large dent in our supplies of red wine and whiskey over
dinne,r and quickly fall asleep at an unlikely early hour after a quick dip in
the silty water of the river. We awake with our brains clouded from the effects
of the previous night’s wine and whiskey. We say little to each other as we break
camp reload our boats and shove off into the river.
I fight to clean my river sandals of the omnipresent river muck. It’ll take me
several days to devise a plan that actually works. We soon find ourselves
among the Colorado kayakers. We feel like a water-bound Harley gang as we paddle
downstream through increasingly towering canyon walls. They’re a friendly bunch,
some of whom are new to Labyrinth Canyon, while others in the group have paddled
it many times before. We exchange information about points of interest as
they approach and we become better acquainted with one another. We spot the
River Register where for more than a century river travelers have carved
their names and the dates into the canyon wall. Great blue herons silently
guard the riverbanks. Less than ten miles into our day we
reach Bowknot Bend, named by Powell for the circuitous route by which the river
loops back on itself over the course of the next five miles, to return to a point
only a few hundred yards away from where it started. We continue downstream for several miles
to camp at the tail end of a sandbar island adjacent to the mouth of Two Mile
Canyon. While ravenous mosquitoes are thick in the tamarisk growing on the
island’s northern half, the southern tip is hard, flat sand free of the annoying
insects. We pitch our tents at the island’s extreme tip and cook our second
night’s dinner: penne tossed with a dry Italian sausage and topped with a rich
aribbiatta sauce and grated pecorino romano cheese. A light rain shower passes
by to our east and leaves a brilliant rainbow across the river in its wake.
Having learned our difficult lesson, we take it easy on the wine tonight. It’s
still unseasonable warm for this time of year. Wishing to eschew the hot afternoon
sun we decided to begin our day with a hike, and paddle through the cool river
water during the afternoon. Immediately across the way sits Two Mile Canyon. We scramble up a steep rockfall that
gains access to the otherwise inaccessible canyon rim. We’re thankful
to have the shade of the canyon wall to shield us from the day’s intense sun, and
we’re rewarded for our efforts by endless vistas across the sandstone
plain through which the river carved its course. Through a cleft in the canyon
we’re able to spot our camp on the island in the river far below. Now in our
third day on the river, it’s somewhat refreshing to be able to see out of the
canyon we’ve been trapped in thus far. Further downstream we catch a glimpse of
the 1909 inscription by the crew of the Launch Marguerite, a steam-powered river
vessel that once ferried equipment and supplies to miners working near the
Confluence. Our next stop is at Hellroaring Canyon, a broad dry wash that contains
the 1836 inscription of Denis Julien, a French fur trapper from New Orleans who
was thought to be one of the first Caucasians to wander this area, and one
who prolifically left his mark upon the land. Several miles downstream of Hellroaring
Canyon is Mineral Bottom, the single point upon our 101-mile journey where a
navigable road meets the river. It also forms the demarcation between Labyrinth
Canyon above and Stillwater Canyon below. We set up our third night’s camp a few
miles downstream on a bar created by the silt deposited by the wash at Horsethief
Bottom. We have here a broad beach, and the silt from the wash minimizes the
river muck at the water’s edge. I take the opportunity to wade into the river
with a bottle of soap. I also get to enjoy my first experience with what I’ve
coined the “poop tube”, an altogether unpleasant process mandated by the
river’s permit requirements. This night’s menu featured chicken
quesadillas grilled with fresh shredded mozzarella, diced onions and jalapenos, and
hot sauce. It’s a hearty dinner, and we sleep well before 9 o’clock. We wake up
in a different season. After three hot desert days, autumn has arrived overnight.
With the rising sun comes a brisk upriver wind, and temperatures have
dropped a good 15 degrees. Clouds are thick and menacing. Breakfast for me
consists of a Clif Bar, and for the first time this trip I wear a jacket on the
river. I struggle to keep my river hat in place as the winds increase along with
the waves that they create. They’ve grown to one to two feet in height as we pass
with the river from BLM land into Canyonlands National Park. Some miles
later we arrive at Fort Bottom, so named for an 800 year-old Anasazi stone fort
that sits atop a bluff overlooking the river from a strategic position. Closer
to the river sits the “Outlaw Cabin” built before the 19th century by Matt Warner, a
local rancher. Little else is known about the cabin, including whether or not it
was actually used by outlaws, but its walls and stone fireplace still stand
even though the roof of willows has long since collapsed.
We’re joined at Fort Bottom by another small group traveling in canoes. Thunder
rumbles in the distance as the others ascend the butte to the fort while Jon
and I check out the cabin, and we decide to press on with a rock alcove to serve
as a shelter for the contingency plan. It’s surprisingly placid as we reach the
summit ourselves and examine the fort. The Anasazi’s architectural skills
are reinforced by the fact that this two-story stone structure still stands
after some 800 years of punishing weather in the desert. We’re quickly
chased off the butte as lightning strikes nearby, and as we quickly descend
to lower ground the winds gust to 60 miles an hour. Sheets of rain and
even hail punish our bodies. The wind shoots precipitation directly into the
alcove that we had hoped to use as shelter, so we head back to our boats,
but not before rain running down my legs has filled my hiking boots and my feet
squish as I walk across the beach. My aging reign shell has begun to leak. My
body’s core is saturated and cold. As the skies clear, water pours for hundreds of
feet in temporary waterfalls spilling from formerly dry washes on the canyon
rim, turning one element of the storm into a special pleasure. Fresh with silt
from the clay walls above, the river water quickly turns a deep red color. As the storm’s winds subside they’re
quickly replaced by the day’s prevailing headwind. We paddle directly into it
through one of the river’s longest straight stretches past Potato Bottom to
Queen Anne Bottom. Canyonlands’ famous White Rim sandstone now rises a couple
of hundred feet above the river surface, and the tamarisk lining the river banks are
now replaced by sheer rock walls rising directly from the water’s surface, for
some of the most remarkable paddling of our trip. We find here the most interesting
campsite of our trip, sitting in deep, soft sand perched 20 feet directly above
the river on a ledge in the White Rim. Unlike the surrounding riverbanks, the
sandstone rises relatively gently above our campsite towards the rim. We pitch
our tents and head upward, seeking a route to the rim for a sunset hike
before dinner. Our shoes stick to the rough sandstone like suction cups, and
it doesn’t take long to find a route that actually works. The steady wind
whips our clothes as late afternoon thunderstorms drift all around us. We find the White Rim Road and cross it,
the soil quickly turning deep red as we climb a nearby bluff. The setting sun
dips below the clouds en route to the horizon, and lights up only the Island In
the Sky some 10 miles to our east. It’s an otherworldly experience, and we
can only stand there and gape in awe. After the sun disappears from view,
daylight quickly fades and we snap to our senses, and descend back to camp just
as rainfall arrives as well we cook our night’s dinner — linguine with a
white clam sauce — under a steady drizzle before retiring to our respective tents
for another early night. Day five dawns once again gray and threatening, and the
unrelenting headwinds persist. It’s another Clif Bar for breakfast
before hitting the river for some of the most difficult paddling of this trip. We
round Bonita Bend, where the river has carved a new course and eliminated a
two-mile meander, and we continue around the broad curves of Valentine Bottom and
Tuxedo Bottom to arrive at the unique physical and archaeological entity known
as Turks Head. Hidden among the cliffs at the base of
Turks head sit ruins of Anasazi cliff dwellings, again some 700 to 800 years
old. We find a narrow path through the tamarisk on the bend’s south side, and we
arrive at the same time as five folks from Kentucky and Florida traveling by
canoe. We decide to explore together. The canoeists shove off first, but with
their significantly greater windage than that of our kayaks we quickly catch them.
Beyond here the river narrows, and the canyon walls close in upon us. For
the first time that we can recall there are no side canyons carved by water
along the banks, and it feels like being on the narrow skyscraper-lined streets of
lower Manhattan. Just beyond our day’s planned objective of Horse Canyon we
find a broad sandbar on the river right and begin setting up camp.
I had just set my tent poles and staked the four corners. I turn around to grab
my rain fly when a ferocious gust of wind storms up the canyon and rips my
tent from its stakes. I reach out and barely catch my tent as it performs a
Wizard of Oz maneuver towards the tamarisk lining the sandbar, where it
certainly would have met a shredding demise. I prevent a repeat performance
with a couple of well-placed deadman anchors before we settle in for fajita
night. We’re well I had a schedule. The river ,however, has other ideas as the
weather of the previous two days continues unabated. It rained all night
and would continue off and on into the morning. We take advantage of a brief
weather window to pack wet tents into our boats and shove off. It’s colder than
it’s been the whole trip. Sunshine teases us between rain showers, but we
nonetheless spend most of the morning paddling with our jacket hoods up we
face alternating head and tail winds as the Green River winds through its final
few 90-degree meanders to its Confluence with the Colorado. As we reach the
junction the wind approaches from all directions, creating a sandstorm that
swirls some 30 feet into the air. We feel sorry for a pair of kayakers hunkered
down in their tent amongst the roiling dust. We round the corner and begin for
the first time to paddle through the waters of the Colorado River. The
increase in volume provides a stronger, yet less predictable current. Eddys
swirl our boats around and we’re grateful for our rudders. A flash of
lightning, quickly followed by a loud clap of thunder echoing off the canyon
walls, sends us scurrying for the minimal shelter of an eddy beach.
Once the storm abates we paddle through several small rapids and on to Spanish
Bottom. This is the last collection point for flat water paddlers, the point of
no return beyond which Cataract Canyon’s class 5 rapids that swallowed
several of Powell’s expedition boats awaits. As a result, canoeists and sea
kayakers are nearly forced to congregate at two camping areas established by the
National Park Service and either end of Spanish Bottom. Day seven dawns sunny and still with the
coldest morning of our trip. Puddles around camp from yesterday’s rainfall
sport a thin layer of ice on their surface .Jon and I take advantage of the
conditions to spread all of our worldly belongings on the boulders surrounding
camp Spanish Bottom to finally dry. This will keep us in camp until afternoon,
before we hike to the rim. Fossilized remains of ancient sea creatures line
our route. We find what was clearly a horseshoe crab, a sponge and several
other primitive life forms preserved among the boulders. After scaling several dry waterfalls the
going gets easier, but we nevertheless scramble on all fours onto the rim of
the canyon to find a landscape dotted with gentle rolls of sandstone preserving
pools of water, and rows of hoodoos. Vistas to the south and east reveal a foot
or two of snow that fell overnight upon the treeless summits of the La Sal and
Abajo Mountains, their white caps beautifully juxtaposed against the red
and yellow spires of Canyonlands’ Needles District. We eventually reach a
vertigo-inducing view of the Colorado River some 1,200 feet directly below.
With waning daylight we double back on our route and continue further west past
our ascent route ,encountering Beehive Arch and the sentinels of the Dollhouse
before returning the Spanish Bottom via the established trail, where stones have
been placed like stairs along much of the mile-long route. We arrive back in camp Spanish Bottom
just as dusk transitions to dark. The sound of a diesel engine reverberates
off the canyon walls shortly after noon, well ahead of our scheduled 1 p.m. pickup.
I dash down to the riverbank and wave down the jet boat captain. After 15
minutes we have all of our gear loaded on board and we’re speeding up the river
towards Moab. This was a journey that will be embossed into our memories like
the ancient pictographs and petroglyphs on the canyon walls. We chose to embark
upon this trip without support, but both Tex’s and Tag-A-Long offer
guided trips as well, for those who prefer a little more guidance. A paddle
through Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons is nonetheless not for everyone;
the trip’s length, dirt and logistics will dissuade many. But those who retrace
Powell’s paddle down the Green River will be rewarded with the voyage of the
lifetime. Now, a wonderful thing about kayak
camping is that you can bring along everything AND the kitchen sink.
Unlike backpacking, you don’t have to worry so much about weight. If it fits in
your boat’s hull and it’s within your boat’s weight carrying capacity, you’re
good to go. It’s a wonderful way to explore the deep river canyons of the
desert Southwest. Now, several permits are required from
the BLM for the Labyrinth Canyon portion of the Green River, and from Canyonlands
National Park for the Stillwater Canyon portion of this trip. The permit from
the BLM for Labyrinth Canyon is really pretty simple; it’s just a matter of
filling out a form, paying the requisite fee and making sure that you have the
required gear. The permit from the National Park for the Stillwater Canyon
portion of this trip is a bit more of an arduous and bureaucratic process, and
while there are no lottery slots required —
there’s no lottery for a permit — permits are limited by the number of people that
the two appointed outfitters which are Tag-A-Long Expeditions and Tex’s Riverways, both out of Moab, can haul out from the Confluence or from Spanish Bottom. In
addition, the owners of Ruby Ranch do charge a launch fee for people to
launch their boats from their property. However, two free launch sites
available a little further upstream, both in the town of Green River and at a
place called Crystal Geyser. If you liked this video give us a thumbs up down
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