Friday, January 29, 2010

Canoeing in the Canyonlands, Part 1

*click the title to go to the 400-photo gallery or continue with my ramblings and personal pic picks*

Rumors of my impending demise notwithstanding, for seven days last October I paddled a canoe down the Green River through Canyonlands National Park in Utah.  Lynn, who I worked with at Steward, was in on planning the trip with a group of folks from Wisconsin and California.  It sounded like a great addition to the bucket list so I convinced them to take a chance with me.  I've been canoeing and done a few rafting trips in my life, I figured I could handle that part of it...anything more would be optional icing on the adventure.

A late start and 12 hours on the road put me into Moab with only a few hours sleep before meeting up with Lynn and five strangers over the stale motel standard of a continental breakfast and really bad coffee. (Why can't they make good coffee in Utah?)  Leon is the unofficial leader of the trip and has done an awesome job of coordinating the canoe rentals and everyone's contributions of gear and meal offerings.  He's also a nuclear physicist at Lawrence Livermore.  Coool.  His brother Burke lives in Wisconsin and is to be my partner...presumably because he knows what he's doing and they're not sure what this stranger can do.  Joe's an old friend of theirs from Wisconsin...turns out he makes medical equipment, including a new machine used in radiation oncology that could help me some day.  Thanks, Joe!  Rounding out the gang are Jon, who reminds me of David Yetman of Tucson fame; and Dan, the world traveler of the group with an affinity for kayaking in polar waters.  Throw a dart at the globe and he's probably been there.

Yeah, they're all pretty much outdoor nerds.  Awesome.

It's barely twilight, clear and a crisp 35 degrees...and we have to load all of our gear and take it a couple of miles over to Tex's, where we have to reload it into the van and canoe-trailer.  Before 7:30.  This is the part of these trips I hate.  But the guys at Tex's are good and with everyone helping out it went fast, minus the guy from another canoeing party yakking into his phone like an addict on his last fix.  After the obligatory "groover" lesson in solid-waste etiquette, we're off for an hours drive to the launch at Mineral Bottom, including the exciting 4x4 Horsethief Trail, corkscrewing 1000 feet down orange cliffs of Wingate sandstone.

There are four parties launching here this morning so we have to wait a bit for our turn.  Two guys on pontoon rafts will be going all the way down Cataract Canyon to Lake Powell...that'll be a great adventure.  We chat and confer with the other parties on their schedules and such, getting a better handle on what campsites to aim for.  You'd be surprised how much stuff you can get into three canoes and a kayak; and how much stuff seven people need for a week--including 400 pounds of fresh water!  I took the back of the canoe with Burke and was riding decidedly low in the water, making us a bit wobbly but it didn't feel like we would tip.

And then we're off, an hour before noon, gliding across the smooth water of the Green River in Labyrinth Canyon.  The flat inside river-corners are ubiquitously overgrown with thickets of willow, tamarisk, grasses and other shrubbery.  Elsewhere, steep slopes of the Moenkopi formation plunge directly into the water, overlain with millennia of cobbles fallen from the great cliffs above.  Little seems to grow above the high water line; the river is stingy in its desert way.

The current carries us along about 2 miles an hour, so not much effort is needed unless we get a head wind. (Aw, what'd you have to go and say that for?)  We hadn't eaten much since that stale breakfast so we soon stopped on a sandbar for lunch; wrap-sealed deli subs with squeeze packets of condiments--instant satisfaction.  Afterward I take the front of the canoe, which has a balancing effect on our waterline if not still a bit wobbly.  I also realize that the front of the canoe is the ideal photo position.  The nice camera is stowed safely in a dry bag on the river, but I wear the old three-megapixel around my neck...plenty good for documentation without having to obsess over an accidental dunking.

The sun warms the day nicely as we paddle another four hours and a total of ten miles to find a nice beach campsite waiting for us at Fort Bottom, named for an ancient Moki dwelling prominently perched on a bluff in the middle of this horseshoe bend in the river.  There's also an old cabin nearby, roofless and jack-knifed with decades-old names and initials.

In the morning we wake to frosted tent-flys and hot french-pressed coffee; there have been reports of java-snobs among us.  I'm not up for scrambling up the butte, so I suggest I get a group photo with the Moki Fort from camp.  The air is so clear we can still talk while stumbling over a second of sound-travel lag.  Say cheese.

To be continued...