San Juan River Family Float, August 2011

5 September 2011

We are back from another perfect few weeks in southern Utah. We spent 9 days floating and enjoying the scenery- the geology, the big horn sheep, and the absolute solitude of the San Juan River,with some camping and exploring before and after. The weather was perfect- clear and hot, and the moon was full early on. The float was an easy one. The flows were very low- averaging about 600 CFS- but we still made good time and had to paddle very little. Even towards the end the water was still flowing and we only had to get out of the boat to negotiate sandbars a few times. This likely has something to do with the high water level down below. The low water made Government Rapids a bit challenging for us, but it was easy enough to get through it with a quick scouting.

Rock art panel on the San Juan, with prehistorically vandalised images. Gerald Trainor photo.

A rock art panel we encountered along the way, with prehistorically desecrated elements.

Our Float
We put in at Sand Island on Sunday the 14th, and took out 9 days later on the 22nd at Clay Hills. Nine days was just about perfect, although another day or two would have made for more exploration time. (Another day or two is always better no matter where you are floating!) It was a family float for the first 4 days- Mia took out on day 4 at Mexican Hat, then Nicolai and I continued on for the rest of the time in one boat. Two of us and all our gear in one boat, an Aire Tomcat tandem, was a little tight at first, and a little heavy. We carried about 10 gallons of water with us leaving Mexican Hat, and plenty of food (too much really, but  it’s always better to have too much than not enough.) A couple of days down the river and we were lightened up enough to make a little more room for ourselves. We did pump a couple of gallons of water at Slickhorn Canyon, and ended with plenty. On the river we carry a Katadyn Pocket Filter and make the work quick and fairly easy.

View down river from Sand Island boat ramp. Gerlad Trainor photo.

View down river from Sand Island boat ramp. Note sandbars on river left. They really weren't that much of an issue.

The San Juan river and surrounding country is amazing at any time of year, but August is my favorite time for floating. Part of it is the quiet and the relatively few number of people on the river. I also like the fact the water has calmed down by that time. No, I am not an adrenaline junkie, seeking the biggest rapids.  That I like the San Juan in late summer can attest to that. I enjoy just sitting in my boat and listening to the river, to the sounds of nature, and being able to close my eyes for a few minutes here and there and just let the river take me along. Nicolai and I both like being able to just roll out of the boat and fall into the calm, cool water, even if it seems at times to be about 50% silt! The amount of material in suspension can be high on any of the southwest’s rivers, but the San Juan has got to be the winner. This is especially true when you hit Chinle Creek after a storm down south. Besides Chinle Creek, this year we encountered the same red stream pouring into the brownish San Juan at Oljato Wash. It coats your boat, your gear, and your body. But it’s all part of the fun of the San Juan.

This year we saw more big horn sheep than we have ever seen anywhere. Nicolai is the expert at spotting them, whether it is a lone male, which we saw a few of, or a group of nearly 25 individuals, which we saw on two occasions. Lambs were everywhere, making up what must have been close to half of the two large groups we spotted on the lower section. It would not be an exaggeration to say that we saw somewhere close to 80 sheep between Mexican Hat and Clay Hills alone.

Cultural Highlights and a Walk Up Chinle Creek
Anyone who has floated the San Juan, or even visited the area, will tell you that the region is rich in cultural resources. There seems to be some kind of ruin, a rock art panel, moki steps, or an abandoned mining site, cabin, or homestead around every corner. The experience floating down the river is no different, at least to Mexican Hat. After that it becomes a geologic wonder. I won’t give much of it away here. I feel it’s a lot more fun to discover sites on your own, rather than using a guide to tell you step by step where to find everything. And a lot of what you might see out there probably won’t be found in any guide. The most common sites to stop at are the Butler Wash petroglyph panel and River House ruins. These are sites that really shouldn’t be missed. Their locations are easy to find, and the rangers at Sand Island have brochures on them. Besides these sites, just floating along, without getting out of the boat at all, you might see as many as 10 or 12 other sites (ruins, panels, or moki steps). If you get out of the boat and walk up a canyon or two you will be surprised at what you might see. 

Baseball Man panel, San Juan River, Utah. Gerald Trainor photo.

Baseball Man panel. You can clearly see how it got its name.

Butler Wash petroglyph panel is really one of the highlights of the area. The life-size human figures there are classic San Juan style anthropomorphs. The panel comprises hundreds of years of visits by the ancient inhabitants of the area. It is best to visit this panel, if you can, in the early morning or late in the day. It is in full sun and hard to photograph otherwise. Another favorite of ours, which requires a permit from the Navajo Nation, is Baseball Man panel. We took a few hours one afternoon and walked up Chinle Creek to see the panel and associated ruins. Baseball Man is best visited in the early afternoon or later, as it becomes shaded around mid-day. There are lots of things to see along the way as well- there are some old hogans off in the distance, you might see other signs of early occupation, a Leopard Lizard, and a burro or two.

A few words about ruins, rock art, and artifacts- remember that these resources are fragile and irreplaceable. Please stay out of ruins, don’t climb on or into them. Do not touch rock art, petroglyphs or pictographs. Oils and other residues from your hands can damage them, speeding up deterioration. If you pick up a pot sherd or flake to take a look at it, put it back in the exact location you found it. Please don’t add to any “collections” of artifacts you might find at a site, and please do not remove anything from cultural sites. An artifact in its original context has scientific value. Once an artifact is removed from its original location, that value is gone. Finally, if there are “trails” around and through sites, please stay on them. Avoid walking through middens (trash dump areas). Archaeology is based on the study of what has been left behind by ancient inhabitants- in large part by studying their trash. Please help preserve it.

metate, near mouth of Chinle Creek. Gerald Trainor photo.

Metate- one of a few that we saw in the vicinity of Baseball Man panel. It appeared that they may have been making them here, and these were left behind. Alternateively, at least one of these slabs may have been intended for use as a granary door.

Longnose Leopard Lizard.

Longnose Leopard Lizard seen in the brush at the mouth of Chinle Creek. Not the best photo, but these guys are very secretive compared to a Collared Lizard for example, who will sit and let you take endless photos.

The mice on the San Juan are the worst I have ever encountered anywhere. This year there was truly an infestation. I believe there is a correlation between the amount of moisture we had earlier in the year and the increase in the mouse population.

Mouse hole in PFD. Gerald Trainor photo.

The mice will smell food, food wrappers, where food has been. They are vicious little creatures. This is the "trash pocket" in my PFD.

Out of 9 camps, we fought mice at 7 of them. And as always, the Slickhorn Canyon camp was the worst. Slickhorn has mice that can smell food through the thickest drybag! We did the best we could to clean everything, and took every bag that had food in it inside the tent with us. The mice were just walking onto the tent, 3 and 4 at a time, and trying to find a way in. In the end I only had one small hole to patch the next morning, but even that is too much. Be sure to keep everything clean of food residue, empty all trash from your PFD pockets, and seal everything up tight. Ammo cans and dry boxes would be your best bet to keep all your food safe from these 3 inch long monsters. Also, if you choose a fresh sandbar as a camp you will likely be safe. The mice typically inhabit the well-used camps along the river, just waiting for the next group of boaters to come along and feed them.

Mouse in our camp on the San Juan. Photo by Gerald Trainor.
Mouse in our camp on the San Juan. This was at Midway camp, where my PFD was eaten. There must have been 15 of them attacking us that night. A Deer Mouse? Or is it a Canyon Mouse?

For more information about floating the San Juan river, visit the Desert Explorer San Juan page. It has posts from our previous float there. You can also find more on rock art, packing for the river, and gear reviews and recommendations there. 

Next post: more from our recent trip- Moab and Green River visits, some words on new pieces of gear, and “Why did my Chacos fall apart?”