October, 2011 Archive

Zunoquad 4: Canoeing the Green River, Utah, 2011

Friday, October 7th, 2011

Full Slideshow

September 16

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Steve E., Peter U. and I strike camp in Zion National Park after two days of pre-canoe trip hiking and drive Interstates 15 and 70 through beautiful unpopulated country. We stop for breakfast in Richfield, a surprisingly prosperous agricultural town in a long, settled valley, where we joke with the waitress who brings us generous portions of  fresh, low-priced food.

A blasting rainstorm in the afternoon causes concern about how we’ll cope with such weather along the river. In the town of Green River, the next settlement located 130 miles down the road, we buy locally grown melons and visit the fair.   Pulling into Moab, we’re delayed by a high-school parade that blocks traffic.  The three of us spread out in the busy grocery store, and within a few minutes finish last minute grocery shopping for perishables. We meet up John and David, who’ve driven up from Phoenix, eat dinner at a hip Thai restaurant and head to the airport 20 miles north to meet the rest of the crew—five men flying in from Bellingham and Seattle.  Sharing a bed in the Red Stone Motel to save money, I find it hard to sleep, from excitement and also anxiety about the two hour rainstorm that pelts the town from 4 to 6 A.M. This is the kind of weather we were prepared for in the Yukon two years ago, but not here.

arrival

to start on a bus
passing thru unknown
is to be alive again

continuing in plane
after subway sky train
surviving stopped watch
during last hour
reappearing only at check in line up

end by flying back over rockies
in plane smaller than powell river’s
with flight attendant also pilot
landing fifteen miles from town
on only long enuf flat spot
‘tween peaks
met by part of other half
to crash in moab
where it never rains

Murray th K

September 17

We all gather at Tag Along, the outfitters, at 8:00 A.M.—any delays, we’d been told would be charged to us at $80/hr—but don’t depart until an hour and a half later due to their short staffing.  Two of the five canoes left for us are so dinged up we insist they substitute another two they say are reserved for a different party.  They agree and epoxy the hole in the keel discovered in one of the better boats. Dave, the crusty old river rat who drives the van and trailer that takes us to the embarkation point at Ruby Ranch, recites paragraphs from Edward Abbey, the literary voice of this part of the world. The morning’s rainclouds give way to sun beating down with an intensity as frightening as the thunderstorms, until I apply sunscreen, even under my t-shirt.

The van leaves us alone and we enjoy lunch under the shade of riverbank cottonwood trees, making quick work of dividing up the large cargo of nine-days provisions into the five boats. Lionel is appointed team leader for the day and I paddle bow in his canoe.  Entry into the swiftly flowing current of the muddy river is blissful: ten people sprung free from the connections of daily life and reattached to this old untrammeled association.

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After less than an hour the flat grey desert banks transform into sculpted red sandstone cliffs revealing layers of deposition and erosion produced by the rise and fall of shallow seas over hundreds of millions of years.

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There are no other people on the water or signs of human impact on those banks, except for the relentless thicket of tamarisk clogging the “Bottoms” which line the inside edges of the river’s tight turns.  This impenetrable Asian vegetation has driven out most of the native cottonwoods and willows that used to provide open shade and habitat along the shores. It was introduced by  government soil conservation officers from the Great Plains to control erosion.  They didn’t realize that erosion here was the essence of the riverbank ecology for millions of years.

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The variety of angle, color, texture, light and shadow overwhelm the senses as the canyon deepens and the scale of its walls reduce the canoes to miniscule toys. But rhythmic repetition soon becomes evident at every level, from the immense meanders of the river’s trajectory to the parallel scratches in the rock polish, suggesting ranks of wing feathers brush-stroked by the wind with an action painter’s abandon.

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The air is desert-clear, the sky flat opaque blue, the sun hot enough even under hats and sunscreen to make us search out shady patches along the cliffs and revel in their momentary coolness. Occasionally we cross toward the opposite bank in search of a faster flow or to avoid the riffle indicating a submerged sandbar. Passing close to the frescoed walls, we sense the  progress of the current bearing snowmelt and silt from a thousand miles upstream down another thousand miles from here to the sea.

At seven miles from the starting point we stop at June’s Bottom, a sandy beach at water level with a thin margin of shade under the tamarisks, where our large 16 by 24 tarp can be rigged by tarpmeister Steve to provide shelter in case of another downpour. We strip naked and jump into the river letting tense muscles be carried by the stream, chilling hot dessicated skin in the thick cool liquid.

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Then ten bodies swarm over the canoes hauling the cumbersome loads ashore.  Some gather firewood, some pitch the tarp and their tents, some set up the kitchen, boil potatoes and corn and then barbeque steak, the last fresh meat of the trip. Happy hour is declared and a five-liter box of wine is quickly emptied.

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A gray cloud passes overhead and deposits only a few drops of rain. Conversation bubbles and flows: practical coping, group problem-solving, planning the next day’s itinerary and destination, all rendered lyrical by the pure beauty of this place. The average age of the men is determined to be 64—all of us in retirement or at least heading that way, exploring the possibilities of leisure or of new careers.

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Mosquitos are bothersome for an hour or so around sunset, and then stars cover the black night sky, the spaces between them filling with a misty glow that can be perceived as innumerable points of light.

start

up at five-thirty
to th question of why
do we need four pounds of aluminum sulphate
before three hours
of waiting
canoe loading
and ruby ranch entry history
with mud flats desert moonscape
midst phalfalfa fields
and lunch
before push off
with quick hit of california green for some
and irridescent blue herons
nesting  above
three canyon campsite search

stop at june’s bottom
with enuf time for
dessert first trudy cake
and steak corn potato grilled
before plastic cornhusk refuge burning
over distant political drill debate
and ending before finding mom
by eight thirty or nine

Murray th K

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