In 1967 my father bought a Pontiac Catalina and a dingy old travel trailer and took his girlfriend, my brother and me on a road trip. Over the next 8 weeks we drove 13,498 miles, visited 51 parks, and saw wonders like geysers, redwoods, grizzlies, and the Summer of Love in San Francisco. The trip made an indelible impression, cementing my appreciation for the natural world and the American landscape. This summer Pamela and I hope to repeat the experience for our family.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Dave: Down the San Juan

We are taking a one day raft trip down the San Juan River with an outfit called Wild River Expeditions. The trip leaves from their headquarters, next to the Recapture Lodge in Bluff, Utah.

In addition to the Wicinas and Kalinski families, there are two more people joining us, for a total of ten. Two rafts.

We meet our guides, Jim and Marcus. Jim is kind of what you'd expect for a river guide. Tall, lean, sun-burned. Splits his time between being a carpenter, a micro-brewer, and a river guide. Very articulate. Seems like the kind of guy who, if he hadn't chosen the western outdoors for a career, would have been a Wall Street guy or a professor or some other high-functioning career. The other guide practically made the whole cost of the trip worthwhile. His name is Marcus. He is a Navajo (Bitterwater clan).

Meeting Marcus is a good exercise in judging books by covers. He's bare-chested, has a giant tattoo of a tomahawk on one arm, and wears impenetrable black sun glasses. I have to admit, my first reaction is, Who's this agent?

But, as we proceed, we realize, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the river. Marcus has been guiding raft tours for 11 years. Before that he worked for a lot of petroleum exploration trips down the San Juan for seven years. (There's oil in this area.) So he knows just about everything about the river. His knowledge of the region's geology is vast. Besides all his acquired knowledge, we're basically rafting through his neighborhood. So he tells us things like, "My friend was walking her dog over on that cliff. The dog chased a squirrel and fell off the cliff. Fell two hundred feet. But the dog lived. Kind of limped but he lived. So then we called him 'the flying res dog.'"

Our trip down the San Juan is spectacular. Virtually no signs of human habitation except for a few traces of Navajo ranching. One side of the river is reservation land.

The first half of the trip we pass down a broad river valley. Unfortunately, the river banks are largely choked with invasive Russian olive and tamarisk. They have introduced a beetle that attacks the tamarisk, and most of them seem to be dying, but the olive still forms a nearly impenetrable jungle. In one stretch they have manually cleared the invasives, leaving only the native willow and cottonwood. It is pleasant and makes me sad the river's ecology has changed so dramatically.

The river guides make a stop and we take a short hike up to a blackened cliff face where there are a couple hundred yards of pictographs. It's an incredible "panel," as the archeologists call them. You see carved feet and spirals and six-fingered hands and lots of human-like shapes of people with antennas or strange horizontal markings over their heads. Jim gives us a big explanation of what the drawings might mean, but it's clear to me that these are portraits of the aliens who visited this area thousands of years ago.

At another stop Marcus leads us on a hike to an overlook to give us a geology lecture. He moves so fast on his short legs we can barely keep up with him. Then we move on to River House, a cliff dwelling in an alcove facing the river. We are allowed to walk up into the dwelling. (In Mesa Verde this would be punishable with banishment or arrest.) After we look at this ancient site, Marcus hops up into a corner out of sight and starts playing his Indian flute. Really well. Suddenly we are transported through the eons and find ourselves pondering the lives of the people who came through this canyon before us. It was magical.

Later in the day the canyon walls close in on us. Nearly sheer cliffs rise 1400 feet. We see desert bighorn sheep on the banks 30 feet away.

We stop at a sight to look at some fossils, and we all enjoy jumping in the river, drifting downstream in our life jackets, hauling ourselves out, and repeating.

There are some minor rapids on trip. They make things interesting, but nothing heart-stopping. The guides could probably handle this kind of water in their sleep.

I rode on the kid boat with Jim all day. At one point we plotted a pirate attack. We were equipped with a giant squirt gun and a baling pump that could shoot water. Jim faked engine trouble and when Marcus approached, Lark raised a black flag, we shouted, "Arrrrrr," and we tossed as much water as we could at the adult boat. Unfortunately, we were downwind, so I think we got as wet as they did.

All in all, this raft trip was a fantastic experience.

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