Originally created 01/07/01

Stunning scenery makes Green River canoe trip worth effort



ON THE GREEN RIVER, Utah - Nothing comes easy on a canoe trip down Utah's Green River.

The trip through Canyonlands National Park offers close-ups of the stark red mesas that dominate this part of Utah, but it's no pleasure cruise.

Visitors must carry all of their drinking water, a portable toilet and pack out all their garbage. It makes for a crowded, and somewhat smelly, canoe.

Despite the hardships, four journalists from Washington state undertook a weeklong trip through this land of Butch Cassidy, explorer John Wesley Powell, and writer Edward Abbey.

Our party: journalists from Bellingham, Bremerton, Yakima and Spokane. Family men, fathers of boys, refugees from computer workstations.

We drove 1,000 miles to reach the Green River, a muddy waterway first traversed in 1869 by Powell. The one-armed Civil War hero led a small party down the Green and Colorado rivers and through the Grand Canyon.

"The landscape everywhere, away from the river, is of rock," Powell wrote then. It remains true today. Red rock formations soar from the river to 1,000 feet high, suggesting giant gothic cathedrals floating in the sky.

Our trip began on a Monday morning at the ramshackle offices of Tex's Riverways, the Moab, Utah, outfitter that provided equipment and a one-hour van ride to the launch point, the last few miles down a slick dirt road originally built for uranium mining. The harrowing ride was made worse because we had to share the trail with mountain bikers.

We loaded our two aluminum canoes at Mineral Bottom, a crossroads of activity along this lonely river. Each canoe was weighed down by a dozen gallons of water, ice chests, tents, chairs and other gear.

The rock walls of the canyon closed in above us. Erosion has worn the rock face into an explosion of Rorschach test blots, which seemed to change as the sun cast different shadows upon them.

Paddling constantly in the slow water, we covered almost 13 miles the first day. We stopped at Fort Bottom, an area associated with outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Perhaps the first shock was the landing site. There wasn't one. Instead, we grabbed hold of rock ledges to halt the canoe, then lashed our lines to slender tamarisks growing out of the rock.

The ledge, perhaps a foot deep, ran for 10 yards or so before a couple of rough steps led up to the flat ground where we would camp. We unloaded the canoes, then lifted them onto the flat ground so they wouldn't break free. A snake swam past us as we labored.

We pitched our tents in the shade of a few cottonwoods.

The next day we walked for miles through a canyon, following a dry wash created by past flooding to the canyon's end at a rock wall. After some poking around, we found a route to the top of the mesa. From that elevation we could see for miles. We saw a huge red rock perched on a smaller pedestal, like a square golf ball on a tee. We sat underneath to escape the heat.

That night, as we baked in our tents, a dust storm blew across the bottom, a precursor of things to come.

The next morning we canoed down to Anderson Bottom (immediately renamed Pamela Anderson's Bottom by our party). Then, after more paddling, we slid up to a beach and lay on the sand to recover from our exertions as huge thunderheads rolled in.

Suddenly, the skies opened, and we were pummeled by hailstones. Cold rainwater ran down the red rocks, soaking our clothes and turning the river the color of blood. The storm lasted half an hour. Then we laid our gear on rocks to dry out and set up camp.

That night we burned wood in a metal firepan to create charcoal and cooked ribs. We sat up smoking cigars and discussed Powell. The explorer had climbed some of these same mesas with his one good arm. He traveled the river on a wooden chair strapped to the roof of his boat.

The area is much the same as when Powell saw it. Access to the Green is controlled by a National Park Service permit system. We rarely saw more than two other canoes in a day.

On Thursday we packed up early and paddled nine miles to Turks Head, where we camped right on the river. Past visitors had left a gift: A miniature Anasazi-style village built along the shelves of red rock at the campsite. The little village featured houses of mud, with doors and windows, tiny wooden ladders, even some wall paintings.

That night we set up our chairs along the river, where we talked under an amazing canopy of stars. The occasional satellite raced across the sky.

We discussed Abbey, the author and environmentalist mesmerized by this red rock country.

Friday was our toughest day. We had to paddle more than 20 miles to get past the confluence with the Colorado River and reach our takeout point. Dark clouds filled the sky as we set out about 7 a.m. Fearing rain and wind, we paddled hard for two hours.

After a meal of peanut butter and honey sandwiches, we were in the canoes again. This portion of the Green is spectacular, but there are few places to pull out because the dappled canyon walls run right into the water.

After two more hours of paddling, the mighty Colorado was in view. The waters of the two rivers ran parallel at the confluence, each carrying their own color.

The Colorado is much swifter than the Green, with more rocks that produce rapids. There was much more traffic, including jetboats that caused big wakes.

We didn't have far to go, but suddenly we were much more alert at the oars. We had joked earlier about conquering the Green River. There was no such joking about the Colorado.

We made a perilous landing in the swift current on a steep beach above Spanish Bottom (an area our party immediately renamed Jennifer Lopez's Bottom).

More than a few canoeists have missed Spanish Bottom and plunged into the 26 rapids of legendary Cataract Canyon. Some of them survived.

We dragged the boats onto the sand, and, after nearly five hours of paddling, collapsed under the shade of a tree. Later we hiked four miles along the river trail to view the first major rapids in Cataract Canyon.

We sat on boulders and watched giant motorized rafts operated by outfitters plow into the rapids. Some of the rafts were so huge they looked like party barges, with rafters dancing as they headed into rough water.

The next morning, we packed up our gear and waited for the three-hour jet boat ride up the Colorado and the end to our wilderness adventure.

IF YOU GO:

Canyonlands National Park is near Moab, Utah, about five hours southeast of Salt Lake City.

Canyonlands National Park can be reached by phone at (435) 259-7164, or (800) 635-MOAB (6622). On the Net: www.canyonlands-utah.com.

Outfitter Tex's Riverways can be reached at (435) 259-5101 or at www.texsriverways.com.

For our trip, the cost of renting one canoe, one chemical toilet, transportation to and from the river, and a three-hour jetboat ride up the Colorado River came to $160 per person.