Trip Report: Paddling San Juan- April 8-12

Paddling San Juan- April 8-12
By Wanda Gayle
BOATING 04/08/2014 Class II

Barry Jung:
Wow, what a way to celebrate my 59th birthday...rafting the San Juan River in southeastern Utah for the first time. This was my first river permit for the club and my first go at organizing a river trip. First, I want to give a special thanks to our boating directors Zig and Kelly. Since it was my first permit and opportunity to organize a trip, I was a little apprehensive, but with their help and guidance, as well as the help of my fellow paddlers, the trip was just awesome.

We (Barry Jung, Karen Boothe, John Alico, and Wanda Gayle) left Salt Lake City Monday morning, April 7, to travel just beyond Bluff, Utah. After we shuttled John's Astro van to Mexican Hat, our takeout point, we settled in for the night at the BLM campground at Sand Island, but not until after we got something to eat at the Twin Rocks cafe, aptly named for the large twin rock columns outside.

Day 1 - Tuesday, April 8, River Mile 0 to 6 (Barry)
Up and early on April 8th, my birthday, yahoo!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Before hitting the river we viewed the wonderful Sand Island petroglyphs, a stone's throw from our campsite. At the put-in beach, Sandy, the volunteer ranger, checked to make sure we had all the required gear and gave us river instructions. We were also told the river was running at 550 cfs. Pretty low. Originally, my permit included going all the way to Clay Hills, but with the river so low and with Zig's advice, the shorter, 27-mile distance to Mexican Hat was the final plan. As we shoved off, within 50 yards I managed to get stuck on my first sand bar. Getting stuck and running across rocks was something we would get used to. Wanda, John and Karen laughed, but their time would come too.
The weather on the trip was absolutely delightful: high 70s during the days and low 40s at night. No rain. We enjoyed floating down the strong current, taking in the open desert scenery. While we were first on the river that day, kayakers and rafts soon overtook us when we stopped to view the Butler Wash petroglyph panel. Wanda took some great pics of various people, animals and plants chipped into the rocks. It is an amazing array of petroglyphs stretching across 100 yards on the face of the rocks. And, I kid you not, there is a petroglyph of ET's head on the wall.
We eventually stopped at mile 6, the beach to access River House ruins. Pulling into the shore, there were kayaks and rafts aplenty but by nightfall we had the beach all to ourselves. The ruins were an easy walk and quite impressive. We returned to camp and enjoyed a nice campfire before turning in.

Day 2 - Wednesday, April 9, River Mile 6 to 8.5 (Karen)
Barry, John and I hiked back to River House hoping that the morning sun would bring a different perspective of the ruins. After taking some morning photos we hiked to the Rincon to see the remnants of the Barton Trading Post. On the way back to camp we heard wild turkeys gobbling. We all broke camp, got on the river, and made our way to Chinle Creek where Barry had a permit to both camp and hike on Navajo land. Barry went on an exploratory hike to find the trail leading to a pictograph known as "Baseball Man." We spent the evening listening to more wild turkeys, watching wild horses as they came to the river to drink, and sitting by the fire. We were getting anxious as tomorrow we would hit our first in a series of the San Juan rapids, affectionately known as "river bunnies."

Day 3 - Thursday, April 10, River Mile 8.5 to 13 (John)
We awoke, had breakfast and broke camp, staging our gear near the boats, which were several yards from the river out of the mud. Barry led us to the trail he scouted up Chinle Creek, which took us past a ruined hogan before heading up the canyon. We soon came to Baseball Man. There was conjecture as to what team was represented with the ones from Cleveland and Atlanta receiving the most votes (it was also suggested that he might have played for a Washington team, but that would be the wrong sport). Continuing up the canyon, we eventually spied a ruin in an alcove high up the face of a sandstone ridge and moved to get a closer, though still distant, view. Barry had not noticed that particular alcove because he spotted another that he thought was a likely site for a ruin and was quite surprised when he noticed what the others had been seeing. He climbed up to explore. He was close to a third alcove hidden from our view, but was concerned about keeping the group waiting so did not explore it. He learned later, to his great disappointment, that there were artifacts in that third alcove, including a large, partially buried pot. He resolved to come back.
Returning to the river, we loaded the boats and headed to our rendezvous with Four Foot Rapid. The river was very low in places, making the route through the frequent riffles important so we didn't have to get out and line the boats through. We stopped to scout Four Foot, chose our route and all ran it successfully, setting the precedent for all subsequent rapids.
We continued down to about Mile 13 and found a campsite on river right. The day had been sunny and hot so both Barry and I went for a dip in the river that was refreshing, albeit a bit chilly. After a pleasant evening around the campfire, we went to bed and slept well.

Day 4 - Friday, April 11, River Mile 13 to 20 (Wanda)
Before we got on the river, we rigged our boats a bit tighter thinking about the rapids to come. Then a band of desert bighorn ewes climbed down hundreds of feet to the river to drink, a special treat since they can go for weeks without visiting water. With a male duck in the lead, the two rubber duckies and the canoe found the current and followed the river as it took us along the channel cut through Lime Ridge. Because of the low water level, the rock bands that hugged the river were exposed below the 800-foot red walls. Ravens in the sky and their shadows on the canyon walls passed us overhead while we kept pace with the duck through the Narrows. It finally found a mate around mile 16.5, no doubt deciding to bypass Eight Foot Rapids at mile 17. At the rapids, Barry took the lead and showed us how to thread our boats through the boulder-filled, rushing water. Then it was a few more miles to Ledge Rapid. No one ended up swimming so we visited with the raft people on the beach below. Their party included nine kids, some almost young enough to be in diapers if they had any clothes on. Barry then found a roomy, sandy beachfront campsite for the night. There were some gorgeous brachiopods around camp and a good view of the river canyon from the ridge above. After our last dinner on the river, we listened to the fire crackle over the river sounds. Reluctantly, we faced the fact that the next day we'd be driving cars, using phones, and flushing toilets. The waxing gibbous moon reflected itself in the San Juan and Orion, Ursa Major, Mars, Venus, Saturn, and Jupiter, and all the ancestors that dwell in the canyon, said a silent good night.

Day 5 - Saturday, April 12, River Mile 20 to 27
Everyone enjoyed the last seven miles of our San Juan trip as the river emerged from the Narrows and the Raplee Anticline into open, redrock country. It was just a little concerning that the river now seemed to be only ankle deep but no one got hung up again, especially that two-point ducky suspension that happened upriver. A turquoise sky peeked around a low layer of mauve stratocumulus and high mounds of white cumulus. Then we passed Mexican Hat rock and meandered around our last bend, pulled in at the boat ramp, derigged, and shuttled back to Sand Island. During most of the drive to Monticello a magnificent desert cloudburst with giant blue fingers of rain touched down west of Highway 191. It was a wonderful, dramatic ending to a great river trip we like to call Barry's San Juan River Birthday Bash.