ilanarama: my footies in my finnies (snorkeling)
[personal profile] ilanarama
The San Juan, in SE Utah, is the river I did my first river trip on, in 1990 when Britt and I had just started living together. It was also the last river trip that we did in 1998, just before selling our raft along with everything else we owned in order to buy a sailboat and goof off for a couple of years. The San Juan funnels all the water from SW Colorado and NW New Mexico through classic Utah sandstone canyons and into the Colorado River at Lake Powell, and was home to both pre-Puebloan native cultures and Mormon settlers. A few years ago, I bought a small paddle cataraft, but I only used it once since Britt didn't have a boat. But when Britt's niece's husband Dublin invited us to come with him and some friends on a San Juan trip, Britt immediately decided he'd better buy one as well.

medium walls

big walls

The boats are "Fat Cats" made by a local outfit called Jack's Plastic Welding. My boat (the yellow one) is currently set up with an oversized kayak paddle, while his has an oar rowing frame which is more substantial and gives his boat more capacity, but they are both small, one-person crafts. (A friend commented that they weren't catarafts, really, they were kitten-rafts. Which is why I have named my boat YELLO KITTY. I'm gonna get a logo sticker and a lettered name and stick it on the tubes one of these days.)

Dublin's friends had only time for a weekend trip, and so they had registered for a permit (the San Juan is lottery-controlled) for only the 28 miles from Sand Island to Mexican Hat. The next stretch of the river, to Clay Hills, goes through the fabled Goosenecks of the San Juan, where the river folds back on itself in big lazy loops, and we would have loved to do that too, but unfortunately there were no available permit slots. Instead we extended our trip by putting in a day and a half early at Montezuma Creek, 19 miles upstream from Sand Island. This rarely-floated stretch (we hadn't done it before) has no rapids and runs mostly through private land, but permits are free from the BLM and easily available.

We drove out Thursday afternoon, turned over our car to the shuttle service who would move it to Mexican Hat, set up our boats and slipped into the river. We only went a little more than a mile, just so we could get away from "civilization" for our first camp. The first nine miles of both sides of the river are within Navajo lands, where camping is not allowed without a tribal permit, but we figured that if we camped on an island, we'd be, technically, still in the river. It wasn't long before we found a nice big island; we pulled in, set up camp, had dinner, and went to bed.

camp #1

The next day we set out down the river. The scrubby hills on each side gave way to low sandstone walls, some with toehold routes that had been cut into them centuries ago, others with cliff swallow nests tucked into them.

We stopped for lunch at Recapture Creek, then hiked up the creek bed through clear water that was ankle-deep and bathtub-warm (and through wet sand that had distinct impressions of the footprints of a bear - no, we did not see the bear, but I was looking!) to the cliff wall that was covered with inscriptions from the Hole-In-The-Rock Mormon expedition in 1880, as well as more modern inscriptions from 1957 and 1989. (Where is the line between history and graffiti? Or rather, when?)


Beneath the wall were scattered countless chert flakes and potsherds (black and white pattern, and pressed coil and red and black), evidence of the pre-Puebloan tribes who lived here.

As we drew closer to Sand Island, the cliff walls got higher. Our second camp was on an island under a pair of huge and beautiful incipient arches across the river from Bluff, UT, just a few miles upstream from Sand Island.


The next morning we floated down to the Sand Island put-in, where we met Dublin and his friends and got checked out by the BLM ranger (and Britt got yelled at for not wearing his life jacket). We stopped to look at the Butler Wash petroglyph panels, which were extensive and nifty, but it was hard to get out of our boats there, so instead of trying to haul our lunch up a crumbing mud cliff to a flat spot to eat, we floated downstream to a nicer lunch spot ahead of the rest of the group. When they caught up with us, Tom, who had done this trip many times, said, "Did you go look at the petroglyphs yet?"

Britt, who had also done this trip many times, said, "What petroglyphs?"

It turned out that at the back of the beach campsite where we'd pulled out was an old road that led to a trail that went up to the big cliff wall behind us, and on that wall were literally hundreds of drawings. Many of them had been excised or drawn over by modern artists (my guess is that the Navajo, who live there now, resented the drawings of their "ancient enemies" - the literal meaning of "Anasazi" - and destroyed them) and for that reason the panel is called "Desecration Wall." Oddly, although our guidebook showed the campsite with the name "Desecration" it didn't mention the rock art!


petroglyph figures

In addition to the fairly conventional figures there were some bizarre ones like the alien baby Teletubby and the dancing guys with big hands. And of course the more modern FUCK YOU written across ancient spirals and sheep. Grr.

We went through a series of ever-bigger riffles, and then the first "real" rapid of the river, Four Foot Rapid, which really didn't seem too much bigger than the previous riffle, but its "voice" was deeper and it pushed me around more. Still, a straightforward run, and I felt pretty confident when we pulled into Midway Camp for the night.

This was our first camp with the other group, and we didn't get a lot of sleep due to one couple A) pitching their tent uncomfortably close to us, and B) getting completely shitfaced drunk and talking loudly all night. Also, the gnats were pretty bad the whole trip, and I had a lot of bites that itched terribly. In fact, my right arm and hand had swollen up a la Sta-Puff Marshmallow Man on the first morning. It had hurt quite a bit, and we had somehow neglected to put an antihistamine in the first-aid kit, so I was rather nervous on that day and thought that maybe I would have to leave the trip when the others came in and head for an emergency room. But one of Dublin's friends - in fact, it was the obnoxious loud drunk guy, so I had to temper my uncharitable thoughts - had Benadryl in his pack, so I begged a small quantity and things began to slowly improve, to the point that today, in fact, I can actually see the knuckles on my right hand.

The next day we had a couple of miles of small riffles and fast water, winding around through the canyons, before hitting Eight Foot Rapid. This was a slightly harder one, and I made the mistake of getting a little too close behind one of the bigger rafts as we entered; I couldn't see what was coming as they pulled away to the side, and got hit smack on the side by a big wave that I didn't have the presence of mind to lean toward, rather than away from. My kitty-maran tipped and I went into the water. I kept hold of my paddle with one hand, and with the other hung onto the back of my boat, which demonstrated to me that it could choose a much better line through the rapid by itself. At the bottom I tried to flop myself back in, but there's not much to hang on to, and I ended up having to get help from one of the rafts. (Also, a beer. Which partly made up for it.) This weekend we are going to go to a lake to practice flipping and falling in and getting back on, and we might add a safety line to mine so I can grab it to haul myself back on. (The rowing frame on Britt's boat has handles, which mine doesn't.)

(I apologize for not having a photo of my swim, but Britt didn't have his camera out and I declined his suggestion that I hike back up and perform it again. But it probably looked a lot like this.)

I was pretty nervous for the next rapid, Ledge, but it turned out to be a piece of cake, and that was it for the rapids. Soon we were floating by Mexican Hat Rock, which looks even more impressive (I think) from the water than it does from the road, and then through the wild geological folds of the Raplee Anticline, and then we rounded the corner and there was the take-out, and it was time to go home.

Mexican Hat Rock


All 18 photos are here in a set on Flickr.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-06-10 03:46 pm (UTC)
starfishchick: (Default)
From: [personal profile] starfishchick
Oh, your flip/fall sounds scary for a bit but I'm glad you are OK.

This trip sounds fun!

(no subject)

Date: 2010-06-10 05:42 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Gorgeous scenery and looks liek you had a helluva time. At least water is a softer landing

(no subject)

Date: 2010-06-13 08:09 am (UTC)
blnchflr: Captain America Civil War (Default)
From: [personal profile] blnchflr
Ooh, kitty-maran - seems like flipping over in those could be even scarier than in a kayak? Gorgeous pics.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-06-29 03:36 pm (UTC)
eisoj5: (Default)
From: [personal profile] eisoj5
Yay, rafting the San Juan!! (Can you tell I desperately want to get in a river? Someday I will buy that boat.)

Looks like a great trip--sounds scary to have been dumped in the rapids though. We'll be camping at Sand Island in another week with the High School Field School kids I mentioned in the other comment.

Can I make a small request? I can't quite tell if you (or whoever it is in the photo) are touching the petroglyph panel, but please don't (or let your traveling companions know not to) :)

(no subject)

Date: 2010-06-29 05:06 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Oh, whew. :D Thanks!

I. Want. A. Boat. Definitely an inflatable something-or-other, since I have a rather small car. Your kitty seems cool!


ilanarama: me, The Other Half, Moab UT 2009 (Default)

August 2017

131415 16171819
20212223 242526

My running PRs:

5K: 21:03 (downhill) 21:43 (loop)
10K: 43:06 (downhill)
10M: 1:12:59
13.1M: 1:35:55
26.2M: 3:23:31

You can reach me by email at heyheyilana @


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