In 1982 Edward Abbey published Down the River with Henry Thoreau, a 35 page essay where Abbey contemplated the life of Thoreau while rowing down the Green. I read the essay in college and reread it on my first trip down these canyons. I left the book in the sand at night because it never rains in the desert and now the pages are swollen and wrinkled from rain. When you peel the pages apart sand spills out as if evoking some cosmic link from the river to Abbey to modern times where pumpjacks are slouching towards the canyon rim.
2013 brought us Fedarko’s The Emerald Mile. The story revolve around Kenton Grua’s speed run down the Grand Canyon in a dory, but the book is about the waters and people of the Green and Colorado Rivers: the Native Americans, the conquistadors who stumbled upon the “profitless locality”, Powell’s journey, David Brower’s fight to preserve the canyons and ultimately the power of the waters subdued under the direction of Floyd Dominy.
I read the book tucked against a campfire while floating these canyons in October 2018. The stories evoked memories of McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid, a book where McPhee records the conversations between Brower and Dominy on river trip, a book that has stayed with me for decades.
On the river I am lost in the words and lost under the canopy of stars, the walls of sandstone, the murky waters, the twisting side canyons. Memories become lost in time, one trip blending into another and I forget the years but remember the important things: the days and the nights and where we pitched our tent and where we saw ruins and a collared lizard and where my daughter caught a lizard and when my daughter first picked up the paddle and pulled it against the water.
Back home I pass the long winter nights perusing the channels for movies filmed in Canyonlands. While Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch was filmed in Mexico, the Wild Bunch Gang crisscrossed the Green and Colorado rivers in their evasive maneuvers to escape law enforcement. Peckinpah’s story of violence is a story of Manifest Destiny that parallels Dominy’s quest. In a retelling of the same myth, Thelma and Louis drive their car off the canyon rim and into the murky waters in a spot just downstream of the Potash boat launch near Moab. Moving into murkier territory Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi opens with scenes of Canyonlands pictographs and stunning desert landscape and over the course of 80 minutes transforms the world into a chaotic world of shopping carts and atomic blasts.
This is followed by more desert footage in Ron Frick’s Baraka. Frick was Reggio’s cinematographer for Koyaanisqatsi and his film, which is meant to be a sequel, attempts to return some of the balance that Koyaanisqatsi ripped out from under viewers. Top it all off with George Stevens’ 1965 epic The Greatest Story Ever Told where Max von Sydow plays Jesus and the desert landscape becomes the Holy Land. The canyons evoke stories.
We launch on warm October day.
Our shuttle driver gives us the usual warnings about our young child, Isabelle, on a river trip and tells us that she won’t be able to do any of the hikes he recommends. Isabelle, 5 years old, is a river veteran with close to 1000 miles and over a 30 nights of river trips under her belt. She has grown accustomed to my, and other adults, continued worriedness when she is near moving water and has reached the age where she shouts, “I KNOW” and stomps away. Our shuttle driver watches her with an amused smirk and then, wishing us luck, drives away leaving us along at the launch. The sun is hot and air is warm, but the river is cold and I forgot my boots and my feet are already cold before we even begin the trip. I raise my arm to wave down the driver.
Another warm October day we sort through gear with another family. Another shuttle driver offers tips but the children ignore him. Isabelle has aged a year and her independence grows by the hour. She and her friend, Aven, poke around in the bushes near the launch looking for things that crawl. The drivers sees that we’re fine and drives off leaving us before I can see what I forgot. “Wait,” I say as the bus pulls away. I need something else. Maybe socks, more ice, another roll of toilet paper. Something to hold us back.
But the shuttle is gone. No turning back now. The river will not wait. We push our loaded aluminum canoe into current and begin our float.
We glide down the golden waters of Labyrinth Canyon. The water here is smooth as oil, the current slow. The sandstone walls rise fifteen hundred feet above us, radiant with sunlight, manganese and iron oxides, stained with old tapestries of organic residues left on the rock faces by occasional waters. On shore, wheeling away from us, the stands of willow glow in autumn copper; beyond the willows are the green-gold cottonwoods. Two ravens fly along the rim, talking about us.
Labyrinth Canyon starts a few miles below the launch at Ruby Ranch, a flat oasis of irrigated green ranch-land surrounded by desert. A mile below the boat launch we encounter the beginnings of the canyon walls that will eventually build to 2000’ tall. The windswept multicolored Navajo Sandstone (the topmost layer of the Glen Canyon Group) only rises 100’ above the river at the start of the canyon, but the walls rise steeply with every passing mile and by the time we have paddled 30 miles the cliffs rise 1000’ above us.
The first day is always difficult but even so we manage to make it 15 miles. The jackets we need are packed at the very bottom of the dry bag and the sunscreen (that was put somewhere we could find it easily) has disappeared. It is too hot in the sun and too cold in the shade. Isabelle whines and whimpers until curling up on top of a dry bag and falling asleep shortly after lunch. We paddle the remainder of the afternoon in silence, dipping our paddles gently to avoid waking her. We reach our campsite in mid-afternoon, spill the entire contents of our boat out into the sand and repack everything for the third time. We fall asleep early under a canopy of oak trees and are woken in the early morning hours by coyotes yipping in the hills above camp.
By the second day we are deep into the canyon and Navajo sandstone has risen a few hundred feet above our heads and the deep red Wingate sandstone juts out of the waters. For climbers the beautiful fissures of Wingate sandstone beckons and conjures thoughts of legendary Wingate climbing areas like Indian Creek. We pass beautiful handcracks practically jutting out of the water and in places we can see climbing anchors 100’ above the waters edge. We stop at Register Rock, a wall of stone at a bend where river runners have been inscribing their names for over a century and we find chiseled initials that are over 80 years old. Later that afternoon we pitch the tent underneath cottonwoods on a large sandy bench and walk around in the desert looking for snakes and spiders until the cold night drives us in the tent.
As we go on the days easier. We pack the jackets in the right place, find our rhythm in the water and supply Isabelle with a steady supply of snacks. The skies are sometimes rainy and cloudy and sometimes clear and hot. Early mornings are crisp, the afternoons hot. We rise early, stop for a long lunch and a mid-afternoon hike and pull the boats out of the water by early afternoon.
One morning we stop at a wide meander known at Bowknot Bend (click for an image from NASA) because of the way the river doubles back on itself. From the narrowest point and around the bend and back is a distance of 9 miles, but from where we park our boat and it is all of a 1/2 mile / 1000’ hike to reach the saddle where we peer down the other side at the river just below. We eat lunch on a rock overlooking the river we floated on one side, and the river we need to float on the other.
It would almost be faster to carry the boat to the saddle and pitch it off the cliffs and scramble down the other side then to paddle the slow moving river around the bend.
Labyrinth is only 50 miles and we paddle it in 3 short days. We camp just upstream of the Mineral Bottom boat launch on our third night worried that the trip is moving too fast. Mineral Bottom marks the half way point and just downstream marks the beginning of Stillwater Canyon. Our camp is a large open sandy desert bench with little shade, but the days are shortening and the camps quickly become shaded by the canyon walls. We eat dinner and spill into the tent as the temperature drops and lay in our sleeping bags listening to the sounds of the desert. We hear more coyotes and an owl calls in the distance. In the river we can hear beaver smacking the waters as they ferry across the river under the cover of night.
We launch the boats early in the morning and an hour later we drift by Mineral Bottom where a shuttle bus is parked and people are pulling boats into the water. We are worried that we are both going too fast and too slow.
We climb a hill of clay and shale and limestone ledges to inspect at close hand an ancient ruin of stone on the summit. An Anasazi structure, probably seven or eight hundred years old, it commands a broad view of river and canyon for many miles both up and downstream, and offers a glimpse of the higher lands beyond. We can see the Great Buttes of the Cross, Candlestick Tower, Junction Butte (where the Green river meets to Colorado River), Ekker Butte, Grandview Point, North Point, and parts of the White Rim. Nobody human lives at those places, or in the leagues of monolithic stone between them. From this vantage point everything looks about the same as it did when Major John Wesley Powell and his mates first saw them in 1869.
It is hard to differentiate between Labyrinth and Stillwater. Technically the change occurs somewhere around mile 35 where the canyon walls briefly open, but, to quote Abbey “the current is slow, no slower than before, the canyons as serpentine as ever.” For simplicity sake most boaters call everything below the Mineral Bottom boat ramp Stillwater Canyon, it being the half way point if you are floating both canyons. We pass Mineral Bottom one year on our 4th day and another year we launch from there. The two trips become one in my hazy memory. We stop at many of the same places. We walk the same trails and eat lunch on the same river bars. Revisiting the canyon is familiar but at the same time everything is different.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice,” Heraclitus said 2500 years ago. “For it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” We eat lunch on the same river bar almost a year to the day apart, we hike the same trail and peer into an ancestral Puebloan stone tower and sit on the edge of a rock with our feet above the river below. Isabelle is two children at once. The quiet 5 year old child who stumbles on flat trails and the 6 year old who sprints across the limestone ledges. “The whole of reality is like an ever-flowing stream, and that nothing is ever at rest for a moment,” Heraclitus reflected. “The substance of the things we see is in constant change.”
But I look beyond and the landscape is the same. I recognize towers and canyons and can pick out sand bars that we stopped on. Revisiting photos a year apart I find many of the same pictures. The same walls, the same hot October sun. Even the shadows are the same height. The only visible change is a bigger child that causes the boat to sit deeper in the water. Stability and change in the same frame.
We camp at Fort Bottom and on a small sandy bench called Hades camp. We explore the old cabin at Fort Bottom and sit on wide sand beach in front of our tiny fire pan. At Hades camp we scramble up a rocky ledge to an open desert bench with no shade. It is hot until the sun dips behind below the canyon rim and then we dig out puffy jackets and gather around the fire until drifting off to sleep.
Down the river. The deep red Wingate Sandstone gives way to the hard White Rim Standstone that rises as we drift downstream. When it first appears the white stone boils abruptly of the mud colored waters and we drift along a corridor of white. Within an hour the White Rim is above our heads with a band of soft red rock beneath it. The white rock forms a cap and gaining the canyon rim above the walls and towers suddenly becomes inaccessible.
We stop at Anderson Bottom and walk up a dried stream bed where lizards sprint for shade. At the head of the valley is a slot canyon that the children attempt to squeeze their way up. We float past inaccessible ancient Puebloan granaries tucked up against the white cap of stone. Later that evening we walk across the desert to a large boulder covered with petroglyphs. The guidebook calls it Newspaper Rock and I tell my 5 year old the carvings are stories like the news we read today. I attempt to explain to her that the structures and petroglyphs we see are almost 1000 years old, but the concept of a millennium but it is lost on her. Later that evening I scramble up a rock buttress way above camp where I look down at the river and contemplate the concept of a millennium. It is also lost on me.
We find pictographs and petroglyphs here, pictures of deer, bighorns, warriors, and spectral figures representing – who knows – gods, spirits demons. They do not trouble us. We cook our dinner and sing our songs and go to sleep.
The next day we tie our canoes to stumps on the steep river bank and bash through the tamarisk to reach an overgrown trail that we follow to a cluster of Puebloan archeological sites. We scramble along the rock ledges and to find several granaries tucked under rock overhangs. The door are framed with cottonwood and the river mud holding locking the stones in place has solidified to concrete. We peek our heads into the structures and scramble up ledges above them. The ledges we traverse are covered in bright chunks of chert – a hard rock composed of quartz crystals and a source for arrowheads, knives, drills and other tools.
Above the ledges we hike across the open hot desert looking down at the river. My daughter asks me where the Indians went and I struggle with an acceptable answer. A millennium later the only tenants are lizards and spiders, the lone tracks of a coyote who wandered through after the last rainstorm.
We keep floating. The canyon narrows and the walls rise 1300’ above us, the White Rim forming a billowing cap. We camp on a sand bar where the children make castles and walk in the mud. We catch invasive catfish with dental floss and a safety pin, hold a giant north crawfish that shines deep blue under the cloudless sky. We camp next to a canyon where blood red sandstone turns to silty limestone with clear cold water flowing over the jagged gray ledges. We watch bats stream out of a cave as the sun sets and walk past an ancient dwelling in the fading light.
The depths of Stillwater Canyon invite pause. We no longer paddle but drift with our heads bent back looking towards the rim. There are long stretches of shade where the sun is hidden by the walls and we dig out jackets to ward the chill. We are nearing the end of a journey that no one wants to end. We take a long lunch on a sandbar that is half shade and half sun and move upstream to stay in the sun as the shade moves past our feet. We pass camps where we want to linger and hikes that ascend to the canyon rim that we want to explore. I wish we had 10 days instead of 8. Or 20 days instead of 10.
If there is a point to being in the canyon, it is not to rush but to linger, suspended in a blue-and-amber haze of in-between-ness, for as long as one possibly can. To float, to drift, savoring the pulse of the river on its odyssey through the canyon, and above all, to postpone the unwelcome and distinctly unpleasant moment when one is forced to reemerge and reenter the world beyond the rim-that is the paramount goal.
Around a corner and the Green meets the Colorado. The river doubles in size and the two rivers travel independently side by side until the brown waters of the Green boils into the green waters of the Colorado and the river becomes one. The canyon walls unfold and we reach Spanish Bottom – a wide flat expanse of land 3 miles below the confluence and just above Cataract Canyon where the Colorado plunges over a series of ledges forming huge Class IV rapids.
Spanish Bottom is the last campsite of our journey and we pull the boats onshore and hike up the trail just outside of camp that leads to the canyon rim and the Dollhouse. We walk through the Dollhouse and through slots so narrow the adults must turn and find an alternate path. We spot a Great Basin Collared Lizard basking in the sun and watch a garter snake slither through the sagebrush. We peer over the cliffs at the Surprise Valley graben and note the snow covered La Sal mountains in the distance. It is Isabelle’s third trip to this place and the times blur together. The 2 year old who could barely stagger up the trail, the 5 year old collapsing at the top who must be fed gummy worms before continuing, the 6 year old who sprints up the trail and scrambles around the slot canyons and rock ledges.
A man could spend the better part of a life exploring this one area, getting to know, as far as possible, its broad outline and its intimate details. You could make your summer camp on Pete’s Mesa, your winter camp down in Ernie’s Country, and use Candlestick Spine all year round for a personalized private sundial. And die, when you’re ready, with the secret center of the Maze clutched to your bosom. Or, more likely, never found.
The shadows rise and the valley floor darkens yet we continue to linger. I want the inevitable loss of youth slowed to a geologic crawl. I want to hold up my arms and stop the sun like Joshua and remain standing here for hours in the perfect light.
It is nearly dark when we finally descend. The canyon walls glow in the golden light and the shadows of the Dollhouse climb the walls on the opposite side of the river. Stumbling back to camp in the dark Isabelle comes face to face with a fawn that still has her spots. I look into the brush nearby and can see the mother deer looking at me in concern. The young fawn and the young girl stare at each other unmoving. The mothers ears twitch nervously. Staring at the mother deer I hold up my arms to freeze the passage of time.
Permits: A permit is needed but there is no limit on numbers. Go to the following links to get your permit for Stillwater and Labyrinth.
Guidebooks: Tom Martin and Duwain Whitis’s Guide to the Colorado & Green Rivers in the Canyonlands of Utah and Colorado is a must have. Michael Kelsey’s River Guide to Canyonlands National Park is a great resource for hikes.
Recommended Reading: Edward Abbey’s Down the River and Kevin Fedarko’s The Emerald Mile are must reads. If you have children Deborah Ray’s illustrated Down the Colorado: John Wesley Powell, the One-Armed Explorer is a wonderful read.
Shuttle / Boat Rental: Tex’s Riverways is the easiest way to go. Call them to figure out when they have openings.
Addendum 02.24.20: Well this post blew up and inspired a bunch of rants directed at me via email and social media. The premise being that because I posted these pictures online I am aiding in the destruction of these lands. Never-mind that these same areas have been written about for decades (see the quotes above) and everything chronicled above can be found in numerous places both online and print. The basis of their arguments revolve around Industrial Tourism and the notion that what we are seeing in many western cities / parks is the explosive growth of a tourism industry that is every bit as destructive as the resource industries that preceded it. The rants morphed to include diatribes against SUWA for failing to abide by a moral litmus test when they compromised (gasp) to ensure the passage of several land bills that limited drilling near Desolation Canyon and increased wilderness protection of the lands surrounding Labyrinth Canyon.
All this echoes the ramblings of Jim Stiles – the activist and former Moab resident who founded the Canyon Country Zephyr. His message, simplified, is that land use managers pushed out the ranchers and the miners which allowed tourism to fill the economic vacuum that followed. The argument is that the “industrial tourism” industry that moved in exploited the lands far more than any of the past industries. Over the years his articles and editorials detailing the growth of industrial tourism morphed to include diatribes against environmental organizations.
You can read a primer of Stile’s philosophy in his post “MOAB GREENS CONFESS: “INDUSTRIAL TOURISM” EXISTS. (And now…their ‘solutions’)…“. And you can read a great primer on Jim Stiles called ‘Clinging hopelessly to the past‘ in High Country News. If you’re still intrigued you can read Stile’s book Brave New West: Morphing Moab at the Speed of Greed. Follow these up with the Socratic Gadfly’s post Jim Stiles, blowhard? Half blowhard? for a general critique of Stiles.
Read the links above and you begin to get a good idea of the underlying politics of small western vacation towns. I will admit to being rather fond of the Zephyr for years in much the same way I was/am fond of Abbey. But like reading Abbey, reading the Zephyr is an exercise in pretending the world hasn’t changed since 1965. The notion that companies promoting mountain bike tours are every bit as impactful as an oil shale complex is absurd. The notion that environmentalist shouldn’t push for more wilderness protection, because it might draw visitors, falls flat when a reversal of said protection immediately opens up those lands to oil leases.
All that said – it’s good to be aware of the above. Stiles is half right in many of his arguments just as Abbey was/is half right. The weight of their relevance in today’s world is a discussion that airs on a regular basis and will certainly continue to play out in the west.