Frontrange Imaging

Green River, Canyonlands, Utah, May 2016

Sunday, May 29

After three weeks traveling through Utah, Nevada and Arizona, mostly spent mountain biking and with a little climbing and hiking, it’s time for a relaxing change of pace. The Utah town of Moab, seemingly at the center of the desert adventure universe, is extremely busy, with main street thick with RVs and motels and campsites are all sold out. Because Moab is so busy, we decide to stay in Fruita, Colorado for a few days, where the biking is excellent, the restaurants funky, and the micro-brewed beer outstanding.

Driving I70 from Fruita to Moab

Driving I70 from Fruita to Moab

Sunday morning starts at 4:30am. Yesterday was spent buying and organizing food, sorting and packing the gear, shifting from biking and car-camping mode to wilderness-river mode, and this early morning we just load the car and get on the road for the 1.5 hour drive from Fruita to Moab.

The drive is beautiful, with the early morning light highlighting the fascinating geology of the Colorado River valley, which is quite wide along I70. The La Sal mountains are standing prominently on the horizon, all by themselves above the red rock of the river canyon, and we regularly see prong-horn antelope in the desert next to the road.

We get to Tex’s Riverways in Moab before 8, and meet Devin and Darren, the two brothers who run the show. Loading the boats and gear on their trailer, instructions from Devin, and logistics take a while, then we head out on the 1.5 hour drive to the Mineral Bottom boat launch. The very exposed dirt road follows a series of switchbacks cut into the side of the canyon during the cold war era, when Moab was a uranium mining operation. The road is well maintained, and is one end of the locally-famous White Rim road, a popular jeep and mountain bike loop that runs 160km around Canyonlands.



Put-in at Mineral Bottom on the Green River, just north of Canyonlands National Park
Rob in the red rocks, Green River, Utah

Rob in the red rocks, Green River, Utah

Loading the boats takes a while, and we have lunch before getting on the water, at about 1:30. The boat launch area is a hive of activity, with people launching boats, and two parties, including our British camp mates Roy, Andrew and Oliver from last week in Moab, arriving for a pickup. A family group, with an angry grandad trying to keep control over a bunch of unruly kids, arrives in six canoes and the stress level of the whole place increases dramatically.

An arch in the making, Green River

Rob kayaking on the Green River, downstream of Mineral Bottom

Once we put the boats on the river the peacefulness is profound, with nothing but the calls of birds and the splash of the paddles to break the silence. The red canyon walls tower above us and we float and paddle down the smooth but swiftly flowing Green River. It’s been a couple years since either of us have paddled a boat on a river, but it all comes back quickly as we practice entry and exits from eddies along the shore. Rivers don’t get much more gentle than this one!

Camp at Fort Bottom, Green River, Utah

Camp at Fort Bottom, Green River, Utah

Rob enjoys a cold one at Fort Bottom

Rob enjoys a cold one at Fort Bottom

After four relaxing hours spent floating and occasionally paddling, checking out possible river landings and campsites, and gawking at the stunning scenery, we arrive at Fort Bottom just before 5. We pull out just before the old cabin, at the end of a series of thick bush, which lines the river as an impassible green wall, and before a tall rocky embankment. The river take out is excellent, with good spots to secure the kayak and canoe.

It takes an hour to unload the boats, move the gear up to high ground, and set up the tents, and all the while the sun is beating down and the flies are relentless. We put the kitchen under an overhanging sandstone rock that provides precious shade, and prepare dinner of rice and steak and mushrooms. The view from our kitchen patio, of the high red walls across the river, is stunning. River camping is only slightly more difficult than car camping, and we have a big cooler, a two-burner stove, comfortable chairs, and lots of camera gear. Cheers to day one!

Evening storm at Fort Bottom

Evening storm at Fort Bottom

Cactus at Fort Bottom

Cactus at Fort Bottom

Desert flowers at Fort Bottom

Desert flowers at Fort Bottom

In the evening a bit of wind blows through camp, which is typical as the desert cools rapidly after the sun goes down, and we reinforce the tent anchors as a thunderstorm passes to the east. Devin at Tex’s gave us a lecture on the serious winds that often come howling through the canyon, complete with stories of tents being blown through fields of cactus and other dramatic events that can reduce the fun level on a river trip.

The cool air in the evening is a great relief from the heat of the day, and we alternate between lounging around camp and exploring the desert, admiring the hardy life and geology.

Monday, to Anderson Bottom

Dawn panorama, 6am, Fort Bottom

Dawn panorama, 6am, Fort Bottom

Tall, spindly desert flowers

Tall, spindly desert flowers

Cactus in the early morning, Fort Bottom

Cactus in the early morning, Fort Bottom

Wake up at 5:30 after a restless, hot night, when the temperature in the tent was too warm to be in the sleeping bag and too cool to be on top of it. I’m always glad to get out of the tent in the early morning to check out this gorgeous time of day, when the air is fresh and the stunning low light changes dramatically, minute-by-minute.

There’s lots of work to do in the morning, chiefly get breakfast going, take apart camp and pack the boats, but there’s always time to grab some photos of this stunning and peaceful time of day in between jobs.

Morning camp panorama, 7am, Fort Bottom

Morning camp panorama, 7am, Fort Bottom

Detail of the Fort Bottom cabin

Detail of the Fort Bottom cabin

Cabin at Fort Bottom

Cabin at Fort Bottom

After breakfast and packing up camp, before the sun gets too hot, we walk just west of camp to the nearby abandoned cabin, built in the late 1800s. Perched on the edge of the river, it has lost its roof but the log walls and stone fireplace are still standing. Known as “Outlaw cabin”, it was built by Mark Walker, a pioneer rancher on the Green River, well before the region was declared a National Park.

Interior of  Anasazi fort

Interior of Anasazi fort

Remains of Anasazi fort

Remains of Anasazi fort

After investigating the cabin, we follow a trail up the butte at the center of the river bend to check out the remains of an ancient fort built by the Anasazi people and estimated to be 750 years old. The fort sits on the very highest point on the butte and is a compact stone structure, only big enough for perhaps 4 people, with fantastic views overlooking the river, far upstream and downstream of Fort Bottom. The two stone towers are connected by a small window / doorway and the taller structure still has wooden beams embedded in the stone walls that would have supported a 2nd floor.

View south, downstream, from the fort

View south, downstream, from the fort

Approaching Anderson Bottom

Approaching Anderson Bottom

Rob in the kayak under some cirrus clouds

Rob in the kayak under some cirrus clouds

By 10am we are back in camp to load the boats and get on the water. The sun is already hot, and we are moving slowly to not overheat. The river is once again gorgeous, calm but quick flowing water, with constant bird songs, sightings of blue herons, ravens, swallows, all the time surrounded by constantly changing geology. On the river it doesn’t take long for the heat to really get to us, and we are dunking the sun hats in the muddy water to cool ourselves off within an hour. No dawdling today, and we get down to Anderson Bottom by 1:00, find an easy take-out with a great big camp spot under a huge old cottonwood tree, and with dwindling energy we look forward to the prospect of an afternoon nap in the shade of the big tree.

Sandstone wall at sunset

Sandstone wall at sunset

Flowering desert plants

Flowering desert plants

Cracked mud at Anderson Bottom

Cracked mud at Anderson Bottom

Unloading the boats and setting up camp takes about an hour, then it’s time for relaxing under the tree with a beer in hand before the nuisance flies drive us into the tents to escape their incessant buzzing in the ears and eyes and nose. They don’t seem to be biting (much), just really annoying.

After an afternoon siesta, we take a quick stroll to the cliffs across the mud flats of this abandoned river bend to some caves and then it’s time to cook dinner while fighting flies, eating dinner while fighting flies, and taking sunset photos while fighting flies.

Anderson Bottom camp is at a meander in the river that the river abandoned some time ago, and the broad flats between the current river and sandstone canyon walls are covered in silt and sand. After wolfing down dinner, I run around grabbing photos in the dramatic light as the red walls turn even more brilliant red and the sky gets some color.

Anderson Bottom at sunset

Anderson Bottom at sunset

Finally after sunset the flies disappear, and we are left in relative peace, pondering some large, shiny black bees that appear to have a nest in the logs around the fire pit. Later on Rob figures that these are Carpenter Bees. The sky rapidly darkens and the stars come out, slightly obscured by thin clouds.

Around 2am I wake up and stumble out of the tent to find the light clouds from earlier in the evening have cleared, and that the sky is now thick with stars. Canyonlands National Park is far from major sources of light pollution, with the nearest town of any size being Moab, about 40km away. Out here, the Milky Way is a glorious, subtly glowing band that starts off lying along the eastern horizon, and slowly rises until it’s standing vertically around 3am.

Moonrise over Anderson Bottom camp at 3am

Moonrise over Anderson Bottom camp at 3am

Even through bleary eyes I am totally in awe of the sky, and really have no choice but to set up the night photography gear and capture this magical sight. This photo covers nearly 180 degrees of sky and is composed of 20 frames, each a 90 second exposure with a 28mm lens. It takes about an hour and a half to set up the gear and capture these frames, and close to 3am I notice that the sky in the east is getting brighter, behind the big sandstone buttress across the river. At first I’m confused by this, as it’s still far too early for sunrise, but then realize that the moon is rising, and its reflected light paints the desert with long fingers of brightness and casts dark shadows.

May 31, Anderson Bottom to Turks Head

Wall dome at Anderson bottom

Wall dome at Anderson bottom

Tall grass on the riverbank, Anderson Bottom

Tall grass on the riverbank, Anderson Bottom

Rob and I both fail to get an early start this morning. I was up for over two hours in the middle of the night, and it turns out that Rob heard me as I was walking around and taking pictures, and so he had a bad nights sleep too. Sorry buddy, I was trying to be as quiet as I could!

Morning reflection leaving Anderson Bottom

Morning reflection leaving Anderson Bottom

After the morning routine of breakfast, taking apart camp and loading the boats, we’re on the water again. 2/3 of the way to our destination today, just before the Turks Head bend in the river, we stop at a takeout marked by Devin and hike a mile to find a huge boulder with petroglyphs on one side. We joke that it’s a long way to walk in the heat of the desert to see some old graffiti and then joke that the strange-looking figures seen in petroglyphs in this region are actually proof of alien visitation.

Petroglyph rock, Tower Park, Green River

Petroglyph rock, Tower Park, Green River

Petroglyphs at Tower Park

Petroglyphs at Tower Park

Darren having lunch in the shade. Photo by Rob C.

Darren having lunch in the shade. Photo by Rob C.

In all seriousness and respect, the petroglyphs impress on us a tremendous sense of time, and deep continuity of humanity, out here in this harsh and stunning landscape. We wonder how old they are, and speculate on the meaning of the symbols and figures carved in the rock so many centuries ago, by fellow humans who had far, far greater skills than we do at surviving in this land, humans who were much closer to the reality of life and land and sky than we are in our modern, online, opulent and largely virtual lives.

Approaching Turks Head bend

Approaching Turks Head bend

After hiking back to the boats and getting back on the water, we look for a takeout that would let us hike to some of the native cliff dwellings on this bend of the river. And some hunting around that involves difficult upstream paddling and fighting to secure the boats on a steep, muddy bank with nothing but eroded shrub roots for rope anchors, we find an excellent takeout about a mile down river where there is already a pair of canoes, lashed together. We are hoping that there will be enough space for two more tents, and that whoever is here will be willing to share this space with us.

Camp cactus

Camp cactus

On shore, we meet Carl and Nancy, and Ron and Sally. Super fun folks, we chat the night away swapping back country adventure stories of deserts and hills and mountains. Carl has hiked the Appalachian trail, 2100 miles, by himself, a journey taking 5 months, and Ron has mountain biked the white rim trail, just across the Green River, all 100 miles, in two days, among other adventures. The solitude out here has been fantastic, but we joke that it’s a nice break to have somebody else to talk to!

We share our wine with them, and Carl gives us a block of ice out of their amazing Canyon ice chest, which has kept ice frozen for the last 6 days. They are running the river from Crystal Canyon, just south of the town of Green River, and have done several days of more than 20 miles each, much better than our 10-12 mile days. Maybe we should be paddling more and not just floating!

Experienced desert paddlers, they share tricks with us Canadians such as clearing the river water with Alum powder, mixed into a quart of water, which is then used to settle the sediment out of numerous 5-gallon pails of muddy water. After being cleared of mud, it can be used for bathing, or treated and consumed. We, on the other hand, have been carrying all of our water, more than 5l per person per day, and our ice melted after two days.

Canyon detail, Turks Head campsite

Canyon detail, Turks Head campsite

After suffering from heat exhaustion the last two days, we have been slowly figuring out what it takes to be comfortable out here in the heat and sun. I stow my 2L water bladder behind the kayak seat so that I can drink constantly, and am keeping my sun hat wet all day by dunking it in the river every 10 minutes, which keeps my head cool and drips over my body, keeping the heat under control. After arriving at camp today, I feel much better than the last two days.

Turks Head campsite

Turks Head campsite

Feeling bad about waking up Rob last night while I was shooting night photos, I resolve not to do that again and make sure that I place my tent far away from any other campsite, so I can play with the camera under the incredible starry sky without disturbing anybody.

Sunset over the river from Turks Head camp

Sunset over the river from Turks Head camp

Canyonlands is beautiful in the middle of the day, but in the evening the place becomes magical as the red rock walls glow intensely in the low light, and the sky is clear and deep blue. As the sun sets, the desert air cools rapidly, and there are often wind gusts that blow dust up dust around camp. The dust is a nuisance, but the cool breeze feels fantastic!

Evening river reflection

Evening river reflection

I’m writing this while sitting in a shirt and pants, in a collapsible chair outside my tent under a night sky that is incredibly rich with stars. Everybody else in camp has gone to bed, and the night is very peaceful, but not quiet. At 10:30 there are still birds singing, crickets and frogs chirping, and some unknown creature crying out up river every 10 seconds like he’s being tortured. The flies which are such a nuisance all day and evening are gone, the temperature is beautifully cool, and the evening sky is full of bats, flitting about in their acrobatic style as they hunt down the pesky flies and mosquitoes. Go bats!

The Milky Way lies flat on the horizon early in the night, and by 2:00 in the morning it will be high overhead, from Scorpius in the south to Cassiopeia in the north, but after losing more than two hours of sleep last night I can’t afford stay up all night again! The plan for tonight is to wait a bit until the Milky way has risen decently above the horizon, shoot until midnight or so, then crash in the tent.

Milky Way over Turks Head camp around 11pm

Milky Way over Turks Head camp around 11pm

On the far right of this image is the constellation Scorpius, where the two brightest “stars” are Mars and Saturn. The glow on the horizon, just above my tent, is the light pollution of Moab, and green glow on the horizon is air glow, a natural phenomenon that has annoyed astro-photographers for all time. The dark clouds that obscure the glowing band of the Milky Way are not Earth clouds, but clouds of galactic gas, billions of years old, floating in our galaxy, waiting to collapse into stars.

Ok it’s 12:30, well past time to sleep and I’m in awe of the gorgeous night but exhausted. 6am comes early and we’re hiking to some cliff dwellings tomorrow morning before packing up and getting on the river.

Jun 1, Wednesday, Turks Head to Water Bottom

Up at 6, as usual, as the sky brightens but before the sun hits the tent. Groggy this morning, but the nights sleep was solid, right they way through, from 12 – 6, after taking photos of the glorious Milky Way as it lay in a gentle arc in the eastern sky.

Green river lizard

Green river lizard

Scorpion

Scorpion

While having breakfast this morning, there’s a cry of “scorpion!” and we all gather around to gawk at this 3 inch long, prehistoric-looking creature, all armour and pincers and stinging tail, as it scampers from a hiding place under a bag to the safety of a nook in the rocks. Scorpions don’t just look primitive, they are truly ancient creatures, with the earliest fossil records dating back over 400 million years. After the excitement of the scorpion, I resolve to keep my shoes inside my tent at night, instead of outside in the vestibule as I usually do, because it would be a very unpleasant surprise to find one of those in a shoe at 4am!

After breakfast we say good-bye to our friends as they head off down river, going all the way to Spanish Bottom. Rob and I go for a hike to find the cliff dwelling ruins up-river of our campsite – much easier to walk across the desert than to paddle up river! We scramble up through a band of the soft, deep red sandstone from camp and then on to and around a broad bench surrounding the Turks Head formation, before scrambling down a wash to reach a lower, grassy bench. Following a very rough trail we come across the first dwelling very soon, just above the grassy bench, tucked below an overhanging layer of hard sandstone. We continue wandering and find another small rock wall, partially collapsed, before turning back and then continuing on in the opposite direction, past our descent wash.

Cliff dwellings at Turks Head bend

Cliff dwellings at Turks Head bend

Cliff dwellings at Turks Head

Cliff dwellings at Turks Head

After 20 minutes of wading through scratchy grass, we are just about to turn around when we see, up about 10m in the broken cliff, a set of three beautifully preserved cliff constructions. The biggest one would make a great kitchen, the middle sized one a very compact sleeping quarters for two small people, and the smallest one perhaps a storage area.

We realize that these cliff houses, make of thick rock walls and tucked under overhanging rock, make a fantastic shelter from the sun, and are far more comfortable than our high tech tents, which are completely unusable when the sun turns them into nylon ovens during the heat of the day.

Field of chert

Field of chert

Hiking back to camp past Turks Head

Hiking back to camp past Turks Head

As geo-geeks, Rob and I are both fascinated to find lots of chert in the area, a rock with extremely small crystals that fractures into very sharp-edged fragments, suitable for making knives, arrow-heads and other stone tools.

Also cool is to see an aerial view of Turks Head.

After getting back to camp, making a quick lunch and loading the boats, we are on the water by 12. It feels great to get on the water, especially since it’s noticeably cooler than the sandy desert. We’ve been dunking the sun hats in the river, and putting that hat soaked in muddy river water on feels great, and keeps the heat exhaustion at bay.

Another tough day on the river

Another tough day on the river

The transition from land to water every morning takes about an hour, packing up the gear and loading the boats, and is fun and exciting, as we are about to start off on another day’s journey downriver through new territory.

Floating and paddling down the smoothly flowing river, watching the cliff walls glide past, looking for landmarks and navigating with the excellent river map is very peaceful. There is an deep sense of time while floating down through this canyon, carved over millions of years by the river, and exposing layers of rock that were deposited as river and ocean sediments 100s of millions of years ago. The slow pace of travel really gives you lots of time to contemplate this and let the reality soak into your bones.

Rob drives the canoe towards Water Canyon

Rob drives the canoe towards Water Canyon

Blue heron on the Green River

Blue heron on the Green River

Steep walls of red sandstone rise straight up from this section of the river, approaching our next campsite at Water Canyon. Once again, water defines life in the desert, and the thin band of dense vegetation lining the river is thick with birds, constantly singing and crying out to each other as we float by. We see several blue herons, standing on the bank or flying gracefully over the river, and after several attempts I’m finally able to grab a photo of one, standing serenely on the bank as we float by.

Life in the desert is all about hydration, and after today’s easy, two hour hike to the cliff houses and back, we each consumed about 2l of water. Paddling some but mostly floating on the river today I drink another 2l of water from my water bladder over a few hours, and then put down another liter after setting up camp and before cracking a beer.

In the mud at Water Canyon

In the mud at Water Canyon

Looking for camp in Water Canyon

Looking for camp in Water Canyon

I’ve been navigating, and miss the takeout to the upper Water Canyon campsite, instead putting the boats into the creek coming out of canyon itself. We paddle up the narrow gap between a small rock wall on the left and an equal sized green wall of the invasive Tamarisk trees on the right, without finding any suitable landing points, until we run out of navigable water and turn around. Since I’m in the “Ferrari” kayak while Rob is driving the “freighter” canoe, I go back to the river and push the boat hard to get upstream and find the campsite, then guide Rob and the freighter along the shore, in the eddies, which is much easier than fighting the main river current.

The transition from water to land can be dramatic, aiming for the takeout point and driving the boat there (fun!), then usually struggling to get onshore in the deep, soft mud that really tries to suck the sandals off your feet, securing the boats to a tree, walking about to make sure we are at a good campsite, emptying the boats and then hauling the gear up an often steep and slippery or sandy path to the campsite under the blazing sun. Kind of fun, mostly knowing that there’s a lukewarm beer waiting for us after camp is set up.

Camouflaged lizard at Water Canyon camp

Camouflaged lizard at Water Canyon camp

We have a 10l water bladder, and the two of us are going through about 1.5 of those a day. It is not extremely hot, but the temperatures are still around 30C, and the sun is inescapable while on the river and while hiking about the desert. After getting the boats landed and secured, moving the gear onshore while floundering in slippery, ankle-deep mud, hauling the gear up a sandy trail under the blazing sun and setting up the kitchen and tents, our reward is our daily beer, the best tasting thing in the world. Unfortunately we only have six beers each for six days, but the main craving is not for beer, but cold liquid. We’ve brought 3l of wine in a box for the week, and find that it tastes OK when diluted 5:1 with water, which allows this parched desert wanderer to enjoy the flavor of the wine, in a more subtle manner, while still filling the body with the water it craves. We call it a back country desert sangria.

Rob has been teasing me over my choice of tent locations this whole trip. I really enjoy capturing images of my tent in spectacular locations, so I tend to choose camp sites based more on photo aesthetics rather than the more standard criteria.

Flat? Not so much. Wind sheltered? Not at all. Spacious? No, just one skinny tent wide. Secure? Not really, it’s wedged between a crumbly cliff and the steep river embankment. Scenic? Oh yeah!!

Water Canyon camp

Water Canyon camp

While shooting stars after dinner, a big meteor streaks across the sky, from north to south, covering most of the sky and leaving a glowing trail. Wow! It’s been difficult to get enough sleep on this trip, since the days are busy from 6 in the morning until 9 at night, and then the stars come out, completely stunning here in the desert under a nearly new moon, which means that I want to stay up all night capturing the glorious universe! Fortunately I have embraced the concept of the siesta, and catch up on sleep during the heat of the afternoon.

Reflection of Saturn and Antares at Water Bottom camp

Reflection of Saturn and Antares at Water Bottom camp

Thursday, Water Canyon hike

Up at 5 with an urge to use the poo box. In this national park, we need to pack all human waste out, so we rented a portable toilet, which is a simple, sturdy metal box, which does the job. Decide to stay up and photograph the dawn sky instead of going back to bed. The sky starts off dark blue with still a few stars visible, but is rapidly getting brighter, with thin clouds scattered about.

Water Canyon camp at dawn

Water Canyon camp at dawn

By 6 Rob is up and I am still shooting the stunning location of this camp, the upper Water Canyon camp, tucked between the cliff and the river. After breakfast we plan today’s hike and get ready, scoping out the trail from camp.

My scenic tent spot at Water Canyon

My scenic tent spot at Water Canyon

Water Canyon, looking down towards Green River

Water Canyon, looking down towards Green River

Water Canyon lizard cairn

Water Canyon lizard cairn

The hike starts off paralleling the creek drainage that feeds into the river and working up the fairly flat bottom of the canyon. The trail soon turns left at the junction between Water and Shot canyons and begins to climb steeply up a slope covered with car and house-size sandstone boulders. The trail is very well marked with cairns, and more than once we see a helpful lizard, perched on top of a cairn, pointing the way. Or merely sunning himself…

Tadpoles in a pool, Water Canyon

Tadpoles in a pool, Water Canyon

Huge boulder fall in Water Canyon

Huge boulder fall in Water Canyon

Flowering cactus

Flowering cactus

Near the junction of Water and Shot canyons is a spectacularly huge boulder of white sandstone that has fallen from the top of the cliff and broken into a few pieces when it hit the floor. The canyon, as promised, has water trickling down the middle, and there are small pools full of tadpoles in the flat areas. The stream originates far up-canyon, as a spring coming out of the sandstone.

Hiking up a wash onto the mesa above Water Canyon

Hiking up a wash onto the mesa above Water Canyon

Rob admiring the huecos

Rob admiring the huecos

Darren exiting the hueco-bowl, photo Rob C

Darren exiting the hueco-bowl, photo Rob C

Exiting the main canyon leads to a flat, sandy wash (water drainage), which ends at a formation with spectacular hueco formations eroded into the soft sandstone.

Cyptobiotic soil and cactus

Cyptobiotic soil and cactus

Along the way there is a long section with very thick cyptobiotic soil, some of the thickest we have seen on this trip. This soil is formed as bacteria colonize the sand, stabilizing it against wind erosion, holding moisture, and fixing nitrogen, which eventually allows other plants to take hold and grow. The soil is dominated by cyanobacteria (blue-green algae), one of oldest known forms of life, with fossil evidence dating back over two billion years. The resulting soil is very fragile and slow-growing, and the rule here is to never disturb the crypto-soil, and never walk off-trail, unless it is down a sandy wash.

Hiking across the mesa towards river overlook

Hiking across the mesa towards river overlook

Colorado River overlook

Colorado River overlook

The final section is along a mostly flat, sandy trail surrounded by pillowly red and white sandstone formations 20-50m high. A kilometer or two of this leads to a large patch of white sandstone slickrock, and the first river viewpoint.

Looking down at the joined Colorado and Green rivers as they flow south towards Spanish Bottom is spectacular. After spending the last few days at the bottom of the canyon looking up at walls it’s great to get a high, big-picture view. The confluence of the two rivers is upstream of this viewpoint, and not visible here, but there’s a extension of the trail leading towards a viewpoint that might show it.

Last bend in the Green River, and confluence with the Colorado River

Last bend in the Green River, and confluence with the Colorado River

Confluence of the Green (bottom) and Colorado Rivers, with the La Sal mountains on the horizon

Confluence of the Green (bottom) and Colorado Rivers, with the La Sal mountains on the horizon

Turkey vulture eyes me up for lunch

Turkey vulture eyes me up for lunch

After a bit of discussion about water and time, I run out along the trail extension, giving myself half an hour to get to the viewpoint and back. The view from this 2nd viewpoint is spectacular, overlooking a big bend in the Green River, with the confluence just visible as a V-shaped feature in the rivers. Snap some photos as four turkey vultures circle overhead, clearly recognizing a solo desert traveler as a potential meal, and then head back to join Rob for lunch.

Tree and flowers

Tree and flowers

My throat has been dry most of the morning, and I’ve finished half of the 2l of water I carried. We both realize that it will be a long, hot and dry walk back down to our camp on the river. The small pools in the canyon bottom will provide some chances to cool down, but otherwise it is just hot, dry blazing sun all the way back. 2l is clearly not enough water for 7+ hours in the desert, but today it will have to do.

The tenacity of desert life really impresses me. This tough little tree, probably a decade or more old but only a foot high, is growing out of a bed of rocks, no soil in sight. And this cactus is clearly quite happy, hanging on between some cryptobiotic soil and the edge of a cliff. Amazing!

Desert tree, growing in rocks

Desert tree, growing in rocks

Cactus on the edge

Cactus on the edge

Stopping at the water pools in the canyon to soak the hat and shirt really helps, as does sitting down in the few shady spots we find. Back in camp by 3:30, where we both put down about 1.5l of water before cracking a beer. The hike was only about 12km, with 1100ft (335m) elevation gain, but we are both feeling wiped out from the heat and dehydration. In camp, a thermometer reads 33C in the shade.

It has been a great day, a spectacular hike and it was nice to stay at the same spot for two nights, avoiding all the work of packing and moving and setting up camp again. Falling asleep, on top of the bag with the temperature down to maybe 25C, listening to the frogs scream their ghastly cry, the crickets singing, the bats chirping at incredibly high pitch, and the river gently flowing, 10m away from my tent. This is living!

Friday, to the Confluence

Camp cactus, Water Canyon

Camp cactus, Water Canyon

The end for a bee, photo Rob C

The end for a bee, photo Rob C

Last day of the this amazing river trip. Clouds came in last night, thin clouds but enough to negate any desire to stay up late and shoot the sky. Not the best location for deep sky imaging anyway, down in the depths of a narrow canyon. Crash fairly early after the very hot hike and up at 6 this morning.

On the trail from my tent to the poo box I hear the buzzing of a bee, and look down, still groggy with sleep, to see one of the big black bees and one regular bee caught in a spider web, frantically trying to escape, while a big black widow spider attacks and tries to kill them. That’s an intense life and death struggle in the desert so early in the morning. The spider is moving in an incredibly menacing way, hard to describe, as it approaches the bees, who are buzzing their wings and trying to counter attack with their stingers, but are trapped and immobile in the webbing. I watch this for few minutes, then call Rob, who is fascinated by the insect drama. After returning a few minutes later, the black bee has managed to escape but the regular bee is doomed, moving slowly now while the spider bites, poisons and wraps it.

Pushing the freighter to the Confluence

Pushing the freighter to the confluence

Very calm water on the Colorado River

Very calm water on the Colorado River

After breakfast and packing up, we are on the river by 9, as per schedule, and heading downstream to the confluence of the Green and Colorado, around the bend that I saw from the overlook on the hike yesterday. The river is not flowing very quickly, and Rob, driving the freighter, needs to work hard to get the big boat to our pickup point, 6 miles downstream at Scorpion Rock. Approaching the confluence wraps up the trip nicely, as it’s a very natural, and grand, end point to the river.

On the calm Colorado river

On the calm Colorado river

Jet boat pickup by Tex's Riverways

Jet boat pickup by Tex’s Riverways

The confluence itself is incredibly calm, not a rapid or even a ripple where these two large rivers come together. The current in the joined Colorado river is faster, but the extra speed is only really noticeable once we have landed at the excellent, hard sandstone takeout.

We land at our agreed upon pickup site of Scorpion Rock, unload the boats, haul them up on the rock, and wait for a 1/2 hour until Tex’s jet boat appears, heading downstream to Spanish Bottom to pick up other groups. I have time for a swim in the river, which is cooler than expected and very refreshing. Just don’t drink the muddy water!

On the jet boat are Carl and Nancy and Ron and Sally, our friends form Turks Head, as well as two other folks, who have come down river in a kayak and a standup paddle board (!), covering 100 miles in 8 days. The jet boat ride is a dramatic change of pace from the calm, quiet peacefulness of the canoe, as we run up the Colorado at nearly 30 miles/hour, the wind and roar of the engines so loud that it’s difficult to speak, and the stunning and constantly varying canyon walls racing by. 2.5 hours later we are at the boat dock, close to the Potash mine, and in a school bus for the ride back to Moab.

Logistics

Green River trip overview

Green River trip overview

A permit is required to camp along this river, available from the National Parks Service. This may take a few weeks, so make sure you book ahead.

Thanks to Devin and Darren at Tex’s Riverways in Moab, who provided us with rental boats, toilet, drybags, water container and other gear, a shuttle to Mineral Bottom and a pick-up at the Confluence, plus lots of good information and advice, all for a reasonable price.

Belknap’s Canyonlands River Guide is an excellent, beautifully illustrated and water-proof guide book covering over 370 miles of the Green and Colorado rivers. Available online or at Tex’s. We did roughly 50 miles of the Green River in a very relaxed 6 days; a 100-mile trip starting just south of the town of Green River is also commonly done.

Water. Very important in the desert! We carried 65l of water for the two of us for 5 nights and 6 days. At the end of the trip we only had about 6l left. Plus we had 6 beers / person and 4l of nut-milk for breakfast, in tetra-packs that don’t need to be kept cold. We heard from several folks that the standard desert rule is one gallon / person / day (just under 4l) but we carried 5.5l / person / day, used about 500ml / day for dish washing, and drank almost all of it. The sediment-laden river water can be treated with Alum powder, and then purified for drinking. You’ll need to bring a big bucket for settling the water, which is what other parties used on the river. We also froze 8l of fresh water in drinking containers and used them as ice blocks in the cooler, which kept the cooler dry and also provided drinking water.

We also had the Moab West topo map from Latitude 40 maps. Very useful for hiking trails, in addition to the river guide. There are many other interesting hikes along this stretch of river that we did not have time to do, including the Needles Area, the ancient meteorite impact known as Upheaval Dome and the Dollhouse area by Spanish Bottom.

One slight annoyance of this trip is the dirt and dust at the campsites, which are often on sand or old river sediment, which is very dusty. The dust and grit go everywhere and get into everything. My SLR was either in a Pelican case, which worked very well, or in padded dry bag, which keeps out water and dust. The little camera, not being encased in so much protection, got dustier, but keeps chugging along. Personally, the dust and dirt problem is easily managed by using baby-wipes, which get the day’s dirt and sweat off without using up any of the precious clean water.

Campsite locations were a bit of an exercise. The camping on the river is all wild – there are no facilities of any sort, and the locations are not marked in the guide book. Devin at Tex’s marked a few locations for us, and we got a few more locations from another party. The available camp locations also depend on water level, and we had very high water, as May is the peak of spring run-off. It can be difficult to find landing spots on the shore because of the thick Tamarisk growing everywhere. The campsites we used were occasionally hard to find and sometimes required padding upriver after missing the take-out, but each one was beautiful and extraordinary in different ways. We did not have any rain, but rain would have turned the silty grit into mud, something to think about when choosing campsites. The wind can be very strong and gust suddenly in the canyon, so it’s important to shelter and secure your tent appropriately. Contact me and I’ll share the camp spots: darren at frontrange dot ca.

Food storage. A cooler is nice to have, so that you can have fresh vegetables, non-melted cheese and luxuries like hummus and milk. We used a basic Coleman cooler, which started off the trip with 8l of ice. That ice lasted just over two days in the 30+ heat. More expensive coolers, made by Canyon Coolers or Yeti are able to keep ice frozen for well over a week in those temperatures, adding to the luxury. Another technique is to have two coolers, a high-quality cooler strictly for ice an another one for food. It also helps to cover the cooler with a wet towel.

The main challenge is managing the heat, which hits hard by 9 in the morning and doesn’t let up until 8:30 or so in the evening. Being out in the hot sun for hours is draining, and you need to actively keep yourself cool and drink lots of water, or by early afternoon you’ll be suffering heat exhaustion.

To wild places and dark skies!

– Darren Foltinek

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