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Having attempted since 1987 to obtain a permit to run Utah’s magnificent Green River through Desolation and Gray Canyons, I was almost stunned when I heard the nice lady on the other end of the telephone line at the Price, Utah, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) office telling me that I had received an authorization for a June 14, 2007, launch. Sure, during those years I probably could have gotten a permit for an off-peak-season trip, but river flow levels are almost always best during a fairly narrow window of time in the late spring. Because those levels are mostly dependent upon snowmelt from the watershed of the Yampa River, a major upstream tributary of the Green, a mid-June launch date is prime time. BLM only issues 6 launch permits per day—three private and three commercial — so competition for peak season launches is intense.
The Green River originates in the melting snowpack and dwindling glaciers of the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming where the annual precipitation ranges between 40 and 50 inches per year. On its journey southward it flows out of Wyoming into Utah where it is dammed by the Flaming Gorge Reservoir, and 80% of its pristine water is pumped out onto desert land to grow high water usage crops such as alfalfa and grain. Sadly, most of the water is wasted by evaporation.
Below Flaming Gorge the Green River moves into western Colorado where it is given new life by the Yampa River which flows in at Dinosaur National Monument. It is these inflows from the Yampa that make the Green River an interesting place for whitewater enthusiasts in late spring and early summer.
As the Green exits the State of Colorado, it reenters Utah and flows in a southwesterly direction until it terminates at the confluence with the Colorado above Cataract Canyon and Lake Powell. It is here in east central Utah that the beautiful Desolation and Gray Canyons are located—the destination for our June trip.
Desolation Canyon was named by James Wesley Powell during his expeditions exploring the Green River and the Colorado River in 1869 and 1871. He and his group were the vanguard of European-Americans who would quickly displace and disinherit the Native Americans who had lived there for millennia. Powell’s unimaginative label for this beautiful canyon has endured, but Desolation Canyon is anything but “desolate.” It is huge; it is dramatic; it is grand; it is gorgeous; and it is overwhelming. But desolate? No.
Over a time span of millions of years the Green River has carved through the sedimentary rock of the 10,000-foot-high Tavaputs Plateau to create Desolation and Gray Canyons. The riverbed is now situated at an elevation of approximately 4,000 feet, so the canyon walls are often several thousand feet high. The layers of sandstone have been eroded into sheer cliffs and innumerable fantastic shapes. The colors of the rock range from deep reddish browns to shades of lighter browns and gray. Many of the cliff faces and sculpted formations have been darkly stained by desert varnish.
This area is extremely dry, and desert vegetation predominates. However, because the canyon walls are very tall, coniferous trees can often be seen at the higher elevations. The huge springtime floods that once occurred here have been largely eliminated by the Flaming Gorge dam, so very dense growths of undesirable, invasive plants such as tamarisk (“salt cedar”) have taken over much of the riverbanks. In addition to sapping vast amounts of water out of the river, this vegetation overgrowth has created two significant problems for river runners: (1) the number of campsites has been vastly reduced, and (2) the vegetation provides a perfect habitat for bugs. There are now hordes of mosquitoes, biting flies, gnats, and small flies that besiege anyone who ventures up into the greenery. Boaters are advised to bring bug suits or at the very least a bug hats; they are hot and uncomfortable, but they work. Insect repellents reduce the incidence of mosquito attacks but have absolutely no effect on the other pests.
Running Desolation and Gray Canyons is a wilderness adventure that should be undertaken only by experienced people who come equipped with quality boats, equipment, gear, and provisions. The canyons are extremely remote and unforgiving of mistakes. Any situation requiring outside assistance would be difficult at best and impossible at worst. Come prepared for just about anything and don’t take unnecessary chances. This is not a place where you can get yourself into trouble and call 911 for help. Once you shove off into the current at Sand Wash, you are committed to the entire 84-mile trip, and you are very much on your own. Oh, and your cell phone? Forget about it. If you want phone service, bring a satellite phone and hope for coverage.
The Bureau of Land Management provides a lot of useful information about the river on its website, www.blm.gov/utah/price, where the agency also posts its equipment requirements. Read and study the information closely! We complied with all the regulations, of course, and our equipment and supplies far exceeded what was required. Our rafts were in tiptop condition; they were large enough to carry everything we could expect to need; and we had knowledgeable and experienced people in our group.
GUIDEBOOKS AND MAPS:
Invest in a couple of river guidebooks and secure them to your boat in readily accessible, waterproof, transparent cases. We learned the hard way that a wonderfully annotated guidebook can be lost when the afternoon winds whisk it right out of the raft.
Belknap’s Desolation River Guide (2006 ed.) and Rampton’s Desolation and Gray Canyons River Guide (2003 ed.) are available from Canyonlands Natural History Association, www.cnha.org, 800-840-8978; in 2007 those publications cost $17.95 and $14.95, respectively. You can also order 7.5-minute USGS topographical maps from that same website. The Association offers RiverMaps which contain additional information of interest to river runners, such as river mileage, campsites, and descriptions of rapids.
FOOD AND SUPPLIES:
Most river runners spend the day before their shuttle trip in either Vernal, Utah, to the north, or Green River, Utah, to the south, stocking up on food, ice, water, and last-minute supplies. Our group chose Vernal as our “staging area.” Vernal is a town of about 8000 souls and has supermarkets and a Wal-Mart Supercenter. Local folks advised us to do our food shopping at Smith’s Supermarket, 1080 W. Highway 40, and that turned out to be an excellent choice. We bought an impressive array of fresh foods, gourmet items, and drinks and loaded two 150-quart coolers, a large “day cooler”, a raft-size dry box, and six 5-gallon waterproof buckets for our trip. The supermarket had bulk ice in 20-pound blocks, but we found that the “compressed ice” available at the shuttle company office was far superior. With grilled steaks, barbecued chicken breasts, beef shish kebobs, sauteed and grilled fresh vegetables, Greek salads, gourmet breads, cheesecakes, s’mores, French toast, fresh fruit, hors d'oeuvres, Starbucks dark roast coffee, Tecate, Sangria, etc., etc., we ate well and often on this trip. Rafts can carry an amazing amount of food, liquids, ice, and other creature comforts!
We contracted with River Runners Transportation, 417 East Main, Vernal, UT 84078, 800-930-RAFT, www.riverrunnerstransport.com to do our shuttle. When planning your trip, consult with owners Melanie and Ed Morrison concerning what is involved in a Desolation/Gray shuttle. Ask them to send you their highly detailed information sheets and then follow their instructions completely in order to minimize problems.
The shuttle drivers will pick up your vehicles at Sand Wash sometime after your launch and will deliver them to the take-out which is located at Swasey’s Rapid twelve miles upstream from the town of Green River, Utah. Be sure to bring an extra set of keys with you! The drive on the dirt road from Myton, Utah, to the put-in is a long, extremely rough, vehicle-jarring, tire-shredding, dusty trip suitable only for trucks and SUVs, not cars. Be sure to fill up all of your water containers and top off your fuel tank(s) before you leave the pavement. Your vehicle will be carrying a lot of weight, so make sure that your tires are capable of accommodating a heavy load and sharp rocks. The shuttle company advises against vehicles equipped with passenger-type “P series” tires.
There are absolutely no services of any kind after leaving Myton, so make sure that your vehicle is in excellent shape and that you have at least one spare capable of a 200-mile trip over rough roads. If you are bringing a trailer, it should be one that is designed for extreme road conditions and has at least one well-secured spare tire. If your vehicle develops a problem, you will be responsible for repair costs and the lost time incurred by the drivers and the chase vehicle that accompanies them.
Shuttle costs are substantial ($185 per vehicle in 2007) but reasonable, considering that the shuttle drivers have to be on the road 8-10 hours and are accompanied by a company vehicle. It is fair to assume that the shuttle drivers will probably drive your vehicle a bit faster over the dirt roads than you might. It would be a smart idea to leave each driver a gratuity and any special instructions they might need regarding your vehicle.
ANOTHER WAY TO SHUTTLE:
If you decide to use the town of Green River, Utah, rather than Vernal as your “jumping off point”, you will have several ground shuttle companies to choose from. In addition, you have the option of flying into the Sand Wash put-in area aboard a bush plane, which is a fun and exciting way to begin your river trip. There are three aviation companies that will fly people and limited amounts of gear to the Sand Wash “airstrip” located on the canyon rim above Sand Wash. The landing experience will peg your adrenaline meter, and, after you kiss the ground and say a few Hail Mary’s you will hike about 30 minutes down the canyon to the launch area. For details contact Redtail Aviation 800-842-9251, Slickrock Air Guides 866-259-1626, or Green River Aviation 877-597-5479. I flew with Redtail Aviation many years ago but have no recent experience with any of the companies.
If you plan to spend the night anywhere within 100 miles of Vernal, Utah, prior to the commencement of you river trip, make your lodging reservations many months — yes, months! — beforehand. This region is experiencing a major oil boom, and virtually all of the rooms are perpetually reserved by the many petroleum companies operating there.
It’s even hard to find a site in a commercial campground in Vernal, but we did succeed in getting the last of the six tent sites at the Dinosaurland KOA. The campground was clean and well maintained, but the sites were very small and jammed closely together. Ear plugs are highly recommended because there is a lot of vehicular noise in Vernal that goes on all night. There is no shortage of rednecks who seem to think that the exhaust sound from their unmuffled pickup trucks is sexy, and those guys blast up and down the streets 24-7. And, if the racket made by these yahoos weren’t enough to keep you awake, there is the never-ending roar of oil field service trucks. You will be ready for the peace and quiet once you finally get on the river.
Our experience with restaurants in Vernal was dismal. We were forewarned by some local folks that the local restaurants were pretty bad, and we discovered first hand that they were right. At one of the most popular downtown restaurants I paid about $20 for the worst steak I have ever tried to eat. The meat was so tough that it defied cutting, much less chewing, and the taste was terrible. The service was even worse than the food, and the restaurant was so filthy that it should have been shut down by the health department. Breakfast at another restaurant was no better. My advice: if you are looking for a meal in Vernal, UT, find a chain fast food joint or go to a grocery store and pick up whatever you can find. Or, just go hungry; at least you won’t have to worry about getting sick.
The Bureau of Land Management maintains a primitive camping area with toilets at the launch site at Sand Wash. There is a BLM ranger stationed here, but there are no services or fuel, and there is no potable water (you did remember to fill those water jugs in Vernal, didn’t you?). Be prepared for bugs, because you are going to get a real initiation to the winged pests here at Sand Wash. There are three screened buildings located here that are available on a first come, first serve basis. Starting in 2008 these buildings will be available only by reservation, so you will need to contact BLM at 435-636-0975 well in advance.
In its literature the Bureau of Land Management refers to a “boat ramp” at Sand Wash. Not! There actually is a boat ramp at the take-out at Swasey, but what exists at Sand Wash is just deep, sticky mud that extends a long way out from shore. We didn’t notice anybody sinking any deeper than their knees, but we did see several folks lose their shoes in the muck as they slogged out carrying gear to their rafts. Knee-high rubber boots probably aren’t tall enough, and they would just get stuck anyway. Going barefoot can be a painful process because of the sharp rocks that are mixed in with the mud. Tightly buckled river sandals and a positive mental attitude toward nasty feet and legs seemed to work best.
The BLM ranger does a very detailed inspection of each boat and its equipment before issuing a launch tag. For example, the ranger inspected our PFDs to see if that the printed information and warnings inside the life jackets were still clearly legible and that the PFDs had not been modified in any way. He checked the expiration dates of the adhesives in our repair kits.
THE RIVER EXPERIENCE:
The first day or so on the river will be spent mostly on flat water, but the scenery will get better and better with every passing mile. Desolation Canyon deepens and becomes more colorful, and you are treated to a 360-degree panorama of magnificent canyon walls decorated with a myriad of erosion-carved features. This is Canyonland scenery at its very best. You get a real wilderness sense as you float along. The river will not be crowded and, in fact, you probably will not camp within sight or sound of any other group.
There are approximately 50 rapids and riffles in the 84 miles from Sand Wash to Swasey, none rated higher than Class III at normal water levels. Experienced rafters and whitewater kayakers probably won’t be seriously challenged since most rapids contain big waves but require little maneuvering. Two members of our group paddled a 16-foot Old Town Appalachian tandem canoe filled with flotation bags. The canoe took on several inches of “dampness” in most of the rapids but flipped only once. That upset occurred because the boat’s center flotation bag exploded under the pressure of the water and the turbulent wave action in one of the larger rapids. Paddlers in heavily loaded canoes should probably expect to do a fair amount of swimming and boat recovery at the water levels that we experienced, that is, about 5000 cfs. Our lone kayaker was a nine-year-old, 57-pound girl who paddled a lot of the rapids in her Jackson Fun1 kayak. She and her boat rode aboard a raft on the long flatwater sections and through the biggest rapids.
For information regarding flow levels, refer to the USGS gauge at Jensen, which is located upstream of Desolation Canyon: waterdata.usgs.gov/ut/nwis/uv/?site_no=09261000. For a list of GPS waypoints for the rapids and a great deal of other information, go to www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/detail/id/1854".
If you have not been to Utah’s Canyonland country you may be surprised at how much the wind blows out there, but stiff afternoon winds are an almost daily occurrence. We did not have a single calm afternoon and had to deal with winds as high as 36 miles per hour. There were times when all we could was just put the oar blades into the current and hold on, hoping that the force of the water would keep the rafts from being blown upstream. Plan your days so that you get on the river as early as possible and try to make most of your mileage before the winds kick up. The river gods are perverse, so expect the wind to stop blowing just about the time you get off the river and begin to make camp in the late afternoon. That event will usually coincide exactly with the time that the bugs come out.
Utah’s Canyonlands are usually dry and very hot in June, but visitors should still come prepared for wet or cool conditions, just in case. In June, 2007, we did not experience the extreme heat that is so common at that time of year. Daytime highs were in the 90s, and nighttime lows ranged from the mid 50s to the upper 60s. The relative humidity was always very low, and there were few clouds. We equipped our rafts with large umbrellas which provided some relief from the relentless sunshine, at least until the daily afternoon winds began to blow. At bedtime it was usually still uncomfortably warm, but temperatures dropped to rather cool levels by morning. There was never a hint of rain, so we did not even unpack the rain flies for our tents the whole time.
The Green River is more of a butterscotch color than green. It is silt-laden, so it would probably clog most microfilters rather quickly. Bathing in the river made folks smell a little better, but whether or not it actually got them any cleaner is questionable. Rock Creek is a fairly reliable source of water, and bathing in it is strictly forbidden. We filled up a big water container in the creek and hung it on the raft frame to be heated by the sun during the day. By the time we got to camp that afternoon it provided a warm, relatively clean shower.
Camping on sand bars is the way to go in Desolation and Gray Canyons, if the water levels are right. There are fewer bugs close to the water, the air is cooler, and there is more likelihood of a little bit of a breeze down there. When the river is higher, however, sand bars are rare and sometimes nonexistent.
As mentioned earlier, invasive plants have choked out most of the potential campsites on the Green River, but because BLM allows only a very limited number of launches each day, it is usually possible to find one that is suitable. Keep in mind that the left (east) side of the river throughout most Desolation and Gray Canyons—from Upper Gold Hole all the way to Coal Creek—is located on the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation. Camping on reservation land is allowed only in certain spots, and only with a tribal permit. Many of the desirable campsites are on tribal land, so get a permit beforehand. They are affordable and are available by phone at 435-722-3282; credit cards are accepted.
For a list of approximately 60 campsites and their locations, as well as information on possible water sources, go to www.wwwfs.org/2004/GreenUT_Jun04/#CAMP_LIST. (Don’t try to access this website unless you have a high speed internet connection — it has about 80 pictures!) Remember that all water from natural sources in the canyons must be filtered, boiled, or otherwise disinfected.
WHAT ABOUT COMMERCIAL TRIPS?
Maybe by now you are thinking that a private trip on the Green River might be too much work and you might want to consider a commercial trip. Well, if your idea of a “wilderness experience” is sitting for four or five days crowded onto a huge raft with lots and lots of other people while listening to nothing but the roar of outboard motors and inhaling smoky exhaust fumes, there are lots of companies who will haul you through the canyons. But, if that’s the sort of thing you like, why not just stay in the city and take several long summertime drives on the freeway with all of your car windows open? You’ll be just as close to nature, and you’ll save yourself a LOT of money.
SOME FINAL WORDS
For many people, experiencing Desolation and Gray Canyons by raft, canoe, or kayak is truly the trip of a lifetime. If it is done right, it will be fairly expensive; it will require months of planning and preparation; and it will be physically demanding. However, if you ever get to make this trip, you should consider yourself one of the luckiest people on the planet. You will come back with fond memories that you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life.
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