Desolation Canyon Whitewater Rafting – The Journey begins

Captain Dan of our airplane flight

The alarm is set for 4:50 a.m. but we are awake by 4:40. We have been told to meet at the airport at 6:30 a.m. for our air flight to the put-in site for Desolation Canyon. As I walk out our hotel door at 5:15, I am met by wet payment and the smell of rain. Light sprinkles touch my face. I didn’t know that rain was expected but it has cooled the atmosphere from the prior day’s heat. By the time we arrive on the north skirts of Moab, it has stopped drizzling. The cloud cover is starting to move on, and the sun’s rays are peaking through. It is sixty-eight degrees – a beautiful day.

            We arrive at the airport shortly after 6 a.m. and settle down on a bench outside to wait. The airport lobby door is locked and there is no sign of any other passengers. The air is cool and the morning pleasant but as the minutes tick by, butterflies begin to awaken in my stomach. Did we misunderstand? The clock ticks slowly by 6:30 and still no one has arrived. Two small planes sitting on the tarmac fire up, taxi away from the hanger, roar down the runway, and disappear into the sky. Now our anxiety has spiked, and we begin to pace back and forth. We have no cell phones and no way to contact anyone. Did they leave without us? Are we at the wrong airport? There is really nothing we can do about our situation, and we feel helpless. We check all the doors again– still locked. Finally, a car pulls up to the Redtail Aviation Maintenance building. We rush over to the gentleman who emerges.

            “Do you know anything about a flight leaving at 6:30?” I question anxiously.

            “There is a flight scheduled for 7:30,” he responds, “I’m the pilot and my name is Dan. I will be taking you today.”

            Whew!! What a relief. They haven’t left without us after all. I let out a huge sigh. Now that our panic has been eased, we settle down again to wait some more. Right around 7:30, the remaining people arrive. There is a dad, Alex, and two teenage kids, Casey and Colin. We are soon led out to a small eight-seater airplane. Decked out in red and white, it greets us with an open door. There is no ID required. After a short orientation, I am soon strapped in with a seat belt and shoulder harness. Headphones finalize the ensemble and the pilot throws instructions our way while revving the engine. Soon we are speeding down the runway and lifting into the air.

The Green River below us with a view of the launching site

            Below us, the dry barren land of Utah gives way to the sandstone cliffs of Desolation Canyon. The land east of the Green River in the canyon is part of the Utz Indian reservation so we will only be able to camp in the wilderness area on the western side. Our route takes us north along the canyon’s course just a few thousand feet above the ground. A forty-five-minute flight later finds us bumping along the pebble strewn ground of the makeshift landing area of a flat mesa above the river launching area. Soon we are bouncing along a rocky dirt trail in a pickup winding our way around and down to the river.

            We have been informed that the river is extremely low this year due to a small snowpack last winter and little rain. The river is at 800 cfs (cubic feet per second) which is the lowest level they have ever rafted at. The two rafts that we will be taking have been lashed together and our guides, Haden and Marla, will be using a small outboard motor to move us along in the slow flow and calm water. Any rapids today will be class 1 or 2. Dawn and I clamber into the front of Marla’s raft. The first thing I notice is that there is water seeping into the boat at my feet. Having water coming into out floating home doesn’t seem like a good way to start out a water trip.

            “There’s water coming in,” I point out to Marla.

            She chuckles. “These are self-bailing boats,” she proclaims, “They have openings to let the water drain out if we get swamped in the rapids. Otherwise, we would have to hand bail.”

            Oh, that’s an interesting concept I never thought about. At least I know we will not be sinking in the first hour.

            The sun is bright and warm. With a little breeze, the day is not uncomfortable. We move along slowly, not unlike a barge and a pusher on the Mississippi River. We weave this way and that attempting to navigate in deeper water. Sand bars extend into many areas of the channel. Several times, we get bogged down in the sand and Marla and Haden jump into the water and push our stranded vessel out of its predicament. Then we motor onward.

Everyone but me in the picture, motoring the first day

            Around noon, we glide onto a sandbar purposely and our guides set up a table to serve us a meal of pita bread with fixings. The temperature is quite warm, and I wade into the water to wet my feet while simultaneously trying to clean the mess off my pants that I have made from being a sloppy eater. The afternoon starts out much like the morning though clouds have now started to obscure the sun at times. This makes for a much more comfortable temperature. But as the afternoon progresses, the sky continues to darken and over the next couple of hours, the dark clouds advance. By midafternoon, lightning flashes occasionally and rumbles of thunder punctuate the silence.

            “Should we be getting off the river?” is the question being asked. We are from Minnesota and electrical storms mean “get off the water.”

            Our guides seem unperturbed, “With the canyon walls being ¼ mile high, there is little chance that we will be struck by lightning” is the sentiment and we continue with our water journey. Soon splashes of water touch my skin and bounce off the raft. But what starts out as sprinkles soon turns into a pouring deluge. Then those raindrops begin to feel rather hard. Ouch! Ice balls bounce off our heads, collect in the raft, and create large ripples in the water. It is hailing. I hunch over miserably as the water and ice creeps down my back under the personal flotation device and into my underwear. All our raingear is packed away in the dry bags which is not at all helpful. Haden and the other three guests grab helmets to protect themselves from the onslaught. I am too wretched to move. Marla comes to join Dawn and I bringing a six-foot long by three-foot-wide seat cushion which we hold over our heads while we huddle together shivering. Marble size hail balls sting the skin on our hands and legs. Dawn develops bruises from them. It seems like this ambush from the sky goes on forever. Is this ever going to end?

            Just as quickly as it began, the torment stops, and the sun comes out. But we are cold, wet, and shivering. Haden makes a decision to land at the next campsite so that we can move around, dry out, and warm up. We are led along a trail through the desert sand in the sunlight to a cliff with petrographs. This is just what the doctor ordered. The sun warms our torsos and begins the drying process of our clothes. My scrub pants and underwear are still soaked but at least I am no longer hypothermic once we jump back into the raft.

            A few more hours of navigating lead us to our campsite for the night around 6 p.m. The sky has again clouded over and thunder rumbles. We grab our dry bags with all our possessions and scramble up the sandy hill. The race is on to get our tents erected before the rain begins again. Then we dive in while the downpour cascades from the heavens. I am exhausted. But soon this shower too has passed and the sun shines on us for a pleasant evening.

Hailball (size)

            As we sit in lawn chairs waiting for our supper, someone spots a small brown head gliding just under the water in the river. As it emerges on the opposite bank, we are able to identify the creature as a beaver. He or she splashes merrily around for our entertainment. The Bureau of Land Management ranger who visits us the next morning reports that a bear was also spotted across the river on this evening. I am so disappointed that we missed this appearance.    

            Our guides cook and eventually serve us a scrumptious meal of shrimp alfredo pasta along with a salad. It is topped by strawberry shortcake for dessert. By 9:30 p.m., we are stuffed and ready to crawl into the sleeping bags and tents for the night. I discover after I arrive in my tent that my carefully checked and battery replaced flashlight does not work. Great! Just great! There will be no light to find anything in my tent and no light to stumble my way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. I also brought along an air mattress and a small battery-operated air pump. The air mattress is waiting for me positioned on top of one of the seat cushions from the raft. This arrangement will work out splendidly. It cushions my body perfectly as I lie there trying to fall asleep. The wind has picked up outside and the tent begins to rock back and forth. These tents are designed to sit on top of the ground without staking corners into the ground. Here stakes wouldn’t stay anyway due to the loose sand that covers the landscape. In the escalating wind, my tent begins to rock back and forth. It bows almost to the ground on one side. As it bends over, everything on that side of the tent gets dumped up on me. Flaps flop up and down like a bird with wings. I lay there in the pitch dark wondering if I am going to be trapped inside this enclosure. I finally fall asleep after I decide I probably won’t smother if it does totally come down on me.    (to be continued)

After the flight