By Scott Phair
What could induce four relatively sane Maine river runners to leave the most beautiful and popular summer destination in America? Permits for three of the most spectacular and historic rivers in the southwest, namely the Colorado River through Cataract Canyon, the San Juan River, and the Green River through the Gates of Lodore Canyon. The trip leader for this excursion was Billy Hughes, a longtime guide for several companies in the Forks, currently working for Moxie Outdoor Adventures. Billy was able to secure all three permits, an extraordinary feat of either great luck or great skill. Knowing Billy, I suspect a certain amount of the old “sweet talk” was heavily involved in this outcome.
My wife Karen Laverty, George (Heyduke) Hacklin, another long time guide, and I, along with Billy, made up the “Core of Four”. We would participate in all three river adventures and would be joined by other friends on the Colorado and the Green. We would drive out and back with our own equipment which turned out to be a distance of over 6,500 miles. We began by driving 36 hours straight which brought us to Limon, Colorado at 11:30 PM. The voice of reason, my wife Karen, ever mindful of the testosterone level of her companions, suggested we stop and spend the night so we could actually see the Rocky Mountains as we drove through the next day. It was a wise decision.
We were fortunate to be able to spend four days before the first put-in in Moab, Utah, the Mecca for adventure sports in the USA. This town is devoted to hiking, biking, climbing and river running in a way that no other town in America can claim. The 110 degree heat assaulted us as we first climbed out of our vehicles. We soon discovered that it is the sun, not the heat that makes you uncomfortable. We equipped our rafts with umbrellas and this made all the difference. After a period of four days for acclimation, we were ready to commence our journey.
The old saying about the Colorado River is it’s “Too thick to drink and too thin to plow”. The brown water, though, looks mighty inviting when you’re rowing a 1,200 lb. raft for ten hours in that heat. We jumped in at every opportunity and loved it. After four days we came to the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers. This is arguably the most famous and important spot in western-river running history. We met a couple who were looking for someone to run the “Big Drops’ with and they made a wonderful addition to our seven. In celebration, we broke out the hand-crank blender and had boat drinks to die for.
The “Big Drops” are a series of three rapids with a space of two miles. Because our new friend had been a commercial guide for 10 years on this section of the river, we ran the first one without scouting, following his line. We scouted the second Big Drop (Satan’s Gut) and ran without any incidents.
Then we looked at the third drop (Kolb’s) and we all had one of those, “Oh boy, this should be interesting!” collective looks. Duke was driving an inflatable kayak and decided to go first. All the boatmen loved that because now we could see what the water would do to him. Perhaps this sounds harsh, but that’s what probes are for! He had a great run for the first 10 seconds, then disappeared for a 7 count (we saw the boat after a 3 count). He had visited the “dark room”, that special place where there is no light, but an abundance of water. He eventually retrieved his boat after a nasty ½ mile swim and we all ran an entirely different line successfully. Thanks Duke, for taking one for the team….
We managed a lay-over day (this is when you can stay in one place more than one day) at Dark Canyon, 15 miles from the take-out. Several of us hiked up Dark Canyon to find pools and waterfalls with cool, emerald water flowing freely. What a bonus this was for weary, hot hikers.
We took our boats out at the Dirty Devil River, drove to Bluff, Utah and prepared for the San Juan River. The “Core of Four” would be alone for this leg and it was one of our favorite experiences of the whole trip. We began with green water but woke up two days later to find the river had turned a bright orange color. This was caused by rain on the red clay hills upstream from us. For the next four days the river changed color every day, and we were treated to some of the best examples of petroglyphs, Anasasi ruins, and breathtaking vistas of the southwest. The San Juan, even at low water levels is a remarkable experience for anyone who has an interest in our past heritage and culture. The San Juan was such a visual experience; it’s hard to find words that convey the power of this setting. You just have to go there.
We took off the San Juan at Clay Hills and drove four hours to Vernal, Utah for our final leg. Vernal is the home of Dinosaur National Monument and the town has everything dinosaur. We met our largest group of folks (7 new members) and we put in at the ranger station on the Green River just above the Gates of Lodore. This name comes from an English poem known by one of John Wesley Powell’s crew members who was reminded of the poem by the sound of the water in this canyon. The Canyon of Lodore also contains Upper and Lower Disaster Falls, where Powell’s expedition lost their boat, the No Name, along with a significant portion of their equipment and supplies for their first descent exploration of the Green and Colorado Rivers. Traveling on the same water as this legendary band of explorers is both exciting and humbling. One evening, a member of our merry band sang a song acapella, in the dark, with such feeling and sweetness that it seemed to me her voice was embraced and amplified by the canyon walls. We continued on to Hell’s Half Mile, where we ran five rafts through a very challenging section of white water. The Canyon of Lodore is a place of beauty, history and mystery and it was fitting that we would end our western odyssey back in Dinosaur National Park.
And so, tanned, fit, and filled with wonder at the adventure available to those who dare, we returned to our homes here in Maine, thinking about how we can make this happen again. Rafting is a wonderful way to see magical sights, meet extraordinary people, and challenge your own limits. For all you guides that hang out and want to really improve your skills, get out of Maine for a time and find a river you’ve never done. Each river offers something that we need. This summer, our group found three rivers that rekindled our love for river running and dropping off the planet for long periods of time. As I grow older, I am learning what a precious gift that is.
“…there is nothing-absolutely nothing-half so much worth doing as messing about in boats.” A quote from Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1908.
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