June has got to be our family’s collective favorite month. It’s the month where 3 out of 4 of us wrap up school for the year, one of us has a birthday (Geminis in the house!), and year after year we launch our adventures for the summer. June of 2016 felt a little different than other years at the same time. We had blocked a considerably amount of time off, but Maureen needed to be back to start teaching again eventually. We were making a final push on house projects for the year and had finally started getting a new roof, a project that had been postponed literally since we first bought the house in 2012. Mat had decided to replace the year lot-line fence that was rotting to the core, since there was so much other chaos going on and the whole house was a construction zone already. And so it was during all of this madness that we realized – it’s summer, and we don’t know what we’re doing yet!
We jumped on the internet and started frantically searching for blogs and trip reports of cool stuff that families had done over summer break. We found the usual day-hike and road-trip here or there, but we couldn’t really find anything of substance that was perking our interest (part of the inspiration for Campstogether and the blog that you are currently reading!). And then we found a couple of trip reports and Youtube videos set to classical music that started to corroborate with each other. It seemed possible to take canoes down a few classic stretches of flatwater across the country. We had looked briefly at floating down the Wild and Scenic Missouri as part of our 2014 road trip through Wyoming and Montana but it never materialized. Now various sources were pointing us to a stretch of river spanning some of our favorite terrain in Utah, the Green. We could theoretically start near Moab and float all the way down through Canyonlands National Park and end up at the Colorado River, where we could take a jet boat back up to our car in Moab. Most people seemed to do this in canoes, which we had absolutely zero experience with. A few seemed to do it as a party trip in huge, inflatable river rafts, which we also had zero experience with. The choice was clear – how hard could a rafting trip really be?!?!?!
Maureen immediately hopped on two phone lines at a time calling every single outfitter in the sleepy town of Moab. After a day of research and asking different companies questions back and forth, she was somehow able to secure a raft, but more importantly a drop-off at the river and a pickup at the confluence. All of this would need to occur in a 10 day period with a put-in 72 hours from that day. Perfect! The roofers were set to finish the next day, we could pack our car up in a couple of hours, and the forecast was for hot desert heat, which meant we wouldn’t need many clothes! We literally packed up the Subie that afternoon and headed east on I-80 the next day, making one stop at REI for SPF 50 shirts for the boys and giant brimmed hats to keep them out of the broiling heat. We packed a bunch of stuff that seemed like it would be helpful while rafting – swimsuits, a bag full of carabiners, some extra climbing rope, ridge rest padding to sit on, Chako sandals to wear on our feet. We watched Youtube videos while cruising down the highway on how to actually raft and what we could actually do once we got on the Green.
We stopped at a casino in Reno for our first night pit-stop and then pushed all the way to Moab the next day where we were greeted by wonderfully scenic (and practically empty) BLM camping right alongside the river. The campground was empty of humans, that is, but absolutely chock-full of mosquitoes. We survived the first night by sequestering ourselves in the tent and had one full day in town to gear up on supplies and sundries – everything that we would need for the next ten days. The trip was super committing, much like blasting up a big wall in the Valley – once you put in the water, there was no going back upstream, and there was no cell service or people to help you out of whatever difficulties you encountered. You were on your own.
Maureen put her super powers to good use in Moab and did an amazing job shopping for ice and groceries for 10 days for her family. We had sodas, coffee, snacks, chips, and meals loaded into our boat and our NRS industrial strength cooler. We loaded all of our fresh water on board the boat, as there was no chance of filtering or straining the brown muddy river that we were floating on. We had a portable toilet that we had to use for 10 days straight, a couple of water canons and innertubes for the boys, and the best wishes of the river dirtbags that drove back into town before we had even pushed the raft into the Green. We were on our own.
As with any adventures, the learning curve was steep and we got our systems together pretty well. We did have a nicely illustrated map of the river including beta on good campsites indicated by the kind dirtbag at Moab Gear Trader, the used gear store in town where we had already become regulars. We figured we could probably float 10 miles a day or so, but we had no idea how we would do it. We had set up the raft for “rowing” which basically meant that one of us was working incredibly hard at any given time while the other three folks on the raft were hard core chillin’, basking in the sun, looking for rock art, wildlife, or getting towed along on an innertube behind the raft. Without any amount of paddling we could usually float along at about 1 mile an hour – a rate too slow for us to make the required distance and pickup some ten days later at the confluence. With a moderate amount of work and paddling we could hit 2-3 miles per hour in calm conditions (read: no headwind!). And when the wind picked up and whistled through the canyon from the south it was all hands on deck as we were exerting all-out effort, and trading off rowing shifts every 15 minutes, just to keep moving between 1-2 miles per hour.
The river itself was incredible calm and peaceful for the most part. The water was so muddy that it flowed a chocolate brown – there was never any hope of seeing the bottom, much less seeing 12 inches below the surface. It was an unknown world down there, and we really had no idea what lurked below. Sometimes it was quite shallow and you could walk along next to the boat with your chest out of the water. Other times it was deep and you had no hope of touching bottom. The kids wore their life-vests at all times we were on the river (or close to the shore) because the thought of them dipping their heads below was terrifying, as there would be no way to reach in and see to pull them out.
And while an incredible amount of water was moving at a steady rate, we were still in the desert, surrounded by the stillness and silence that only the desert can bring. It was an uncanny phenomenon, to be near so much water and yet never ever hear it flowing (matched only by the other-worldly tranquility found on South Curme Island in Desolation Sound). That coupled with being completely unplugged from the modern world really made it feel like we were going back in time. There were no cell phones, no tvs, hardly any other people. We saw the occasional other canoeist float down the river, yet they were entranced by the same magic that we were. They exchanged glances and smiles and then kept floating by, surrendering to the flow.
The boys were in heaven as their entire day became a multi-dimensional playground. As we packed up camp and loaded the boat (a task that seemed to take more and more energy each day despite the fact that we were eating rations) they frolicked in the water, rock, and sand, spinning tales of what had happened in that spot and what would come after them. Our guidebook (insert link) was incredibly detailed and narrative at the same time, and we spent many hours each day reading accounts of indigenous people living among the rock walls, or early explorers paddling up the river in search of Beaver pelts and freedom. Once in Canyonlands we literally kept our eyes peeled on the rock walls as we spotted Anasazi ruins built up into the cliffs – brilliantly placed where they could monitor the river traffic while staying high and dry in their abode.
We became experts on the river fast enough, although not without moments of fear and peril (see the night our tent blew away cross-referenced in this other post). After that fateful night we came up with a set of river rules that made us feel more prepared, if not secure:
- 1) Always camp on the river banks, not on a sandbar in the middle of the water
- 2) Always bring life jackets and the PLB inside the tent and do not leave them on the boat
- 3) Always anchor the boat using a rope to something sturdy on the banks
- 4) Always sleep with a headlight and knife accessible, in case we need to escape a wind-blowing tent
We followed these for the rest of our trip (When we could – there was one thankfully peaceful night where we camped on a large elevated sandbar because we could find no other option).
The day that stands out to me was the magical day in Canyonlands when we came around the bend to Turks Head, a ominous landmark that was easy to spot from far away but was also the home to an ancient Anasazi habitation site. We were hesitant on where exactly to land ashore and pull out the boat and nearly missed the site – thankfully another family was pulled over at the correct spot, and encouraged us to tie off the boat and hop up on dry land. We tied off the raft and explored, crawling through the sandstone tunnels and onto the broiling hot scorched earth that was the Turks head. We put on our most imaginative senses and thought about where we would go if we were there thousands of years ago, looking for a place to live. And just like that, the most amazing habitation site we had ever visited materialized in front of us. Dozens of adobe homes, carved directly into the rock, some even decorated with brilliant gems and shells found from the local landscape. They were humble yet sincere homes, natural insulated from the scorching sun, and as we would discover later that night protected from rain, wind, and lightning as well. We scrambled around the rocks exploring and soaking in the magic of the ancestors that walked there before us.
The day was drawing to an end and we loaded back in our raft and drifted directly across the river, to a pull-out on the shore that met all of our most recent requirements. We hauled out the boat and began setting up camp like we had down every single night so far. As we set the tent up and began organizing the gear, it was clear that our weather was about to change. We heard thunder and lightning from a distant source in the canyon, yet it was clear that it was moving very fast. We battened down the camp, made sure the boat was well secure, and huddled inside our Big Agnes for what looked to be another eventful night.
Over the next 2-3 hours we were hit with the worst thunder and lightning storms that I have ever personally witnessed. They roared through the canyons like the energy of angry gods above, as everything in their vicious paths bowed down and let them pass. Lightning struck repeatedly what felt like directly outside of our tent, and we tried to lay down flat on our insulated therm-a-rests praying to whatever gods were listening that we would not get struck. We came up with contingency plans in case we did get struck, and instructed the children on how to operate the Emergency Locator Beacon in case we were incapacitated. We couldn’t help but admire the ingenuity of the ancient Anasazi, that would have slept right through the storm in the rock-cliff shelters, dry and warm and peaceful. And here we were with the most expensive gear that money can buy, literally fearing for our lives.
The storms blew out just as quickly as they blew in, and by the grace of the desert gods watching over us from above, we were spared. We put in the water the next morning as usual, because just as each individual water drop stops for no one, our progress could not be halted down the river. We paddled, we lounged, we drank ice-cold Sprites on Day 9 in the oppressive heat of the mid-day sun. Our boys developed games and stories that were left on the river’s bank, and as we winded through the tightening canyons on Day 10, approaching the confluence, we began to mourn the end of the trip. We gave thanks to the Green River and all that she provided – graciously shepherding our ill-prepared family of four down her passageway, showing us all of the beauties that she entailed and the ancient secrets that she held. We laughed and dreamed about the next time that we would be there – what friends could we invite, what family members could we share this with? And then eventually we loaded up on the jet boats for a harrowing ride back up river to Moab, that could be a blog entry in itself. And just like that we were removed from the river and dropped back into “normal” civilization, where we would try to wash off the dust, silt, and mud while keeping the memories firmly intact.