Trip Report- July, 2014- San Rafael River Backpack

7 August 2014

I had a chance to spend a few days on the San Rafael River at the end of July. I went in on Monday and returned Wednesday evening. I was alone, so it was an out and back hike to Fuller Bottom, starting and ending at the San Rafael River bridge, about 15 miles each way. I looked up a few side canyons although conditions and time didn’t allow for much exploration. I will definitely need to go back. The walking was easy, the “trails” fairly clear and not too brushy, and it wasn’t terribly hot even though the forecast was calling for temps over 100 degrees.

I traveled light as usual foregoing even a sleeping bag this trip, taking a Golite nest for bugs and an Integral Designs Ultralight Bivy Sack and silcloth poncho. All in all these were good choices. Of course I had the usual backup lightweight ploypro top and pants, Golite Trinity raingear, and a couple of other items for safety. The only piece of gear I didn’t have and could have used was a PFD  (Personal Flotation Device), but more on that later.

San Rafael river canyon. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

A sunny morning on the San Rafael River. Looking down canyon at the amazing geology of the region.

Fun With Weather
When I started walking on Monday my first river crossing, about one kilometer up river from the bridge, barely got the soles of my boots wet. I just hopped across the calm, clear river on exposed rocks. A few hours later when I had to cross over again I could tell the water had risen and was definitely more silty- there had been some rainfall far off to the west. Still, it was an easy crossing, with the water barely over my boots. I should mention that as part of my plan I retrieved my pair of OTB combat boots from the bottom of my gear closet- see my Escalante River Trek blog posts or Gear Review pages for more on those. I knew I would have to make some river crossings, and wasn’t sure how wet I would be, so I played it safe with these lightweight, quick dry boots with good drainage.

Monday night brought a few drops of rain, but nothing substantial. Tuesday was a calm, clear morning, ominously cool and quiet. Mid-day Tuesday I was at the point where the trail to Fuller Bottom branches off from the river, with about 2 kilometers to go to Fuller Bottom. I left my pack here and made a dash for the put in, but I didn’t quite make it all the way. As I made my approach on the road to Fuller Bottom I could hear thunder off in a couple of directions, but still felt safe enough to continue. I’ll summarise the events that quickly occurred over the next 15 minutes: the sky grew dark, the thunder became louder, lightning started flashing all around me, icy rain began to fall, then chunks of ice, then balls of hail, the rain became sheets of wind-blown rain, and visibility dropped to about 100 meters. What fun! I couldn’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon.

Flash flood in San Rafael River. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

A drainage, dry an hour before, with water already quickly dropping.

Flash flood along San Rafael River. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

The same drainage one and a half hours later. All you have to do is wait the storms out- don’t panic and try to make crossings. This is what gets people killed.

By the time all this happened I had found myself a dry, north-facing ledge to hide under; the storms came mainly from the south-southwest. Even though I was dry and safe, and I knew my pack was double-waterproofed (I use Sea to Summit ultralight silcloth pack liners), I was still a bit worried about it back there alone, tucked up under a juniper. My concern was not so much my pack itself, but being able to get back to it. My walk to this point had been up, down and through quite a few drainages that I knew were at this point filling up with water. I waited till the biblical squall had subsided and began making my way back towards my pack, curious to see what the drainages looked like. Sure enough, some of them had become raging torrents as the mesa tops were drained of the rain that had just fallen. Even the road I had just walked in on, dry 45 minutes before, was near waist-deep in water. What a storm. If you ever have the chance to safely view the outcome of storms like this, and see what flash floods are and can do, it is something not to be passed up. But again, do it safely. These storms can sweep you away in an instant, just as they do boulders, trees, and tons of other debris.

River flow graph for late July, 2014. From 2 to 100 CFS.

River flow graph for late July, 2014. From 2 to 1000 CFS in the course of 24 hours.

I’ll skip over the details of the walk back, but I made a few crossings that may have been safer with that PFD. My pack was where I left it. I retrieved it and started my return trip down the river. I had a plan to make it to a certain side canyon that evening, camp there, and explore it the next day. But that didn’t happen. A couple of hours later, another storm came, bigger than the previous, that kept me in place for the night. This was the storm that brought the river up to 1000 CFS from the 2 CFS that I started out with. There were no more river crossings to be done that day. The amount of water that fell from the sky, and then came raging down the river was astounding. The massive cascades of red water that fell from the previously dry and quiet canyon rims were deafening. The intensity of a storm like that really puts the power of nature into perspective. If you try to fight it, you don’t stand a chance.

The safe way to face a storm and flash floods like this is to simply find a high, dry if possible, place to spend some time. I was prepared to sit out the night under some cottonwoods; they offered some protection. But the storm passed, the sun came back out right at sunset, and the sky was clear overnight. The next day I continued down canyon, taking in the sights along the way, and wading a river that was again knee to waist deep.

So much for the weather details. The hike was a good one, but needed more time for the side canyons. Five or six days wouldn’t be too many. The access to the trailhead is an easy one, down a very well maintained. There is plenty of water on this hike (no need to carry too much on your back.) The “trail” is descent, though not technically maintained in any way- just by hikers, cows, and people on horses. There are lots of side canyons to explore, you might see some rock art along the way, and you will definitely see wildlife- bighorn sheep, peregrine falcons, wild turkey, a very large gopher snake, and deer were on my viewing list.

Bighorn sheep on the San Rafael River. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Curious bighorn sheep on the San Rafael River.

A few notes about walking rivers, something I have done a few times now. Plan to get wet. Waterproof everything. Use waterproof cases for your maps and camera. Make sure everything is secure before making crossings, especially if swimming. Remember to unbuckle waist and chest straps and remove one shoulder strap before water crossings- if you need to ditch your pack you don’t want to mess with buckles under water. Find good shoes or boots that will allow you to be wet, and somewhat comfortable.

A Visit to Green River
The San Rafael Swell is reached from the south through the town of Green River. Be sure to visit the town on your trip. Stop in for Mexican food either at the restaurant La Veracruzana, or the taco truck located next to the park in the old Shell station- good tacos and tamales can be found there. Green River Coffee is just down the street from either of these eateries, and if you are early enough they should be open. If you need water you can fill up at the back of the parking lot at the John Wesley Powell River History Museum right next to the river.  If their water is not on, the West Winds truck stop has spigots at the gas pumps. Starting in the late summer, you won’t want to miss the melons available all through town. I loaded up on them before returning to Colorado. If you are around in September you can enjoy the town’s Melon Festival.

For more on our desert adventures, visit the Desert Explorer website. Next up: back to the San Juan River in mid-August.

 

 

 

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Trip Report- July, 2014- Excavation at Nancy Patterson Village

5 August 2014

Nicolai and I spent another two weeks in some of our favorite places in southeast Utah in late June and early July. The weather was normal for this time of year- hot, dry, and windy. There was no rain to speak of, and likely none coming for a while. We made it to the San Juan River on a few afternoons for a swim, and also to the Blanding pool a couple of times. We spent the Fourth of July in Blanding, enjoyed the great selection of food at their celebration, and the fireworks later that night. I have to mention that we had the best Fourth of July food there- roast mutton and fry bread, Navajo tacos, and chil chin (in Navajo), or red berry soup. That was a treat! We hiked a couple of days, as we had time, along the San Juan and in Comb Ridge, and camped at a few of our favorite spots. Favorite spots are easy to find in southeast Utah (they are just about anywhere we go.)

Collared lizard. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Collared lizard that was very curious about our excavation. There were many of them out and about this summer.

Nancy Patterson Village
The highlight of our trip was the archaeology of Nancy Patterson Village. We spent 10 days focused on excavation at the site, examination of the artifacts, and formulating a draft report. We will post a separate blog on the excavation as the report comes together, but we give a brief account here. Nancy Patterson Village is a Pueblo III (AD 1100- 1250) with underlying P II (AD 900-1100) habitation. It is located in Montezuma Canyon and at its height had some 300 rooms with as many as 30 associated kivas. There are two distinct parts to the site- the upper, mesa-top ruins and the lower, flood plain ruins.  Culturally it is related to nearby Mesa Verde.

Nicolai in our excavation unit- Nancy Patteson Village. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Nicolai the archaeologist in our unit- living the dream of the 9-year-old.

The goal of the current excavation at Nancy Patterson Village is the definition of architecture on the outside edge of the lower, flood plain settlement area. This area is considered to be the latest construction at the site, and therefore is assumed to have the shortest occupation sequence. Excavation defines not only the physical, spatial boundaries, exposing the actual walls and floors, but tells us the temporal boundaries as well- how long the structure was in use. Charcoal samples taken from three separate levels, the earliest found in the fill below the first floor, will give us an idea of the construction date and the date of final use, now assumed to be about 1275 ACE. The occupation sequence of our unit is confirmed to be later based on the pottery we found as we excavated. All of the pottery was later, Mesa Verde style pottery.

Mesa Verde corrugated wares at Nancy Patterson Village. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Mesa Verde corrugated wares from our Level 2, found directly on our final floor. There appear to be 3 distinct jars, with some shards showing intense burning that likely did not occur during normal use.

We found a number of interesting features in our unit, including what appeared to be “post-abandonment” (happening at some point after the room fell into disuse) burning and pottery left on the final floor. We found numerous lenses of charcoal, some of which may have been hearths within the room. We also found the masonry outline of a metate, a grinding stone that had been imbedded in mortar in a corner of the floor. The outline of the metate was clear, and the small, flat pieces of sandstone embedded in mortar that were used to level and secure the metate were still in place. Finally, if the fill under the floors is an indication of the intensity of occupation, that is, if there is more trash in the floor fill we can assume the was more trash to use as fill, this tells us that there was likely more going on to create that trash. The fill under the floor about mid-way down was replete with artifacts- pottery, flakes, cores, hammer stones, part of an axe, and a mano were all found in a very small area.

Metate impression on top of floor. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Metate impression on our earliest floor. The small pieces of sandstone used to level the metate are still imbedded in the masonry on the floor. Most of our artifacts were found on top of this floor and were used as fill under the floor above.

Salmon Ruins
Besides the excavation, we made a side trip down to Salmon Ruins near Bloomfield, New Mexico. It had been years since I visited there; Nicolai had never been. Seeing the excavated and consolidated ruins made for a good contrast with Nancy Patterson Village. Salmon is a large pueblo located near the San Juan River. It has two distinct occupation sequences- its initial construction by Chacoan peoples around 1090 ACE, followed by a period of decline and depopulation by about 1125 ACE (referred to as abandonment in the literature at the site- but I am not a fan of that word.) The second distinct occupation begins about the same time and ends around 1280 ACE. The second group of inhabitants come from the San Juan area and some of the literature indicates there are distinct ties to Mesa Verde.  One argument for this relationship is the distinct change in architecture, including the shape, size, and location of kivas, resembling those of the Mesa Verde region more than the Chaco region.

Look for more about our excavation later this year. Once the weather turns cold, we will focus on writing. In the meantime, we are planning our San Juan trip in late August. For more about the archaeology of the southwest and our desert adventures, see our earlier blog posts or visit the Desert Explorer website.