Trip Report- August Family Trip and San Juan Float

22 September 2014

We took about two and a half weeks in August for our yearly, family desert adventure which included 6 days for yet another leisurely float of the San Juan River. This seems to be our most common family adventure, occurring almost every year, and it never gets old. As usual it was challenging at times (wind, rain, not enough ice!), and of course completely relaxing. Any time in the bush, away from the craziness of the world is good.

Panoramic view to the south of "train camp", one of our frequently visited camps in Utah. It has a great view of Westwater, the La Sals, and the railroad tracks.

Panoramic view to the south from “train camp”, one of our frequently visited camps in Utah. It has a great view of Westwater, the La Sals, and the railroad tracks from the cliff edge.

We made our way casually down to Bluff and the put in, beginning with a day in Green River for lunch from the taco truck, melons, and a look at a part of the abandoned Pershing Missile Launch Complex that we had not visited. Mia had not seen it at all, so it was an exciting experience for her, seeing a part of our Cold War history in person. Not to mention her first rattlesnake. We were at the radar site, taking a look in the lunch room, admiring the pink porcelain stove that was still sitting there. Right next to the stove, coiled and resting on a piece of fallen drywall, sat a small snake taking advantage of the cool lunch room. It didn’t even move; we stayed far enough from it so as not to disturb its rest, and backed out the door. They can be anywhere, so be careful crawling around in desert canyons and abandoned lunch rooms.

Green River Pershing Missile Launch Complex. Photo by Gerald Trainor

Inside view of one of the abandoned radar station buildings at the launch complex.

Once we reached the river it was the usual packing frenzy to get on the river as early as possible. It must look funny to people who stumble upon river runners packing, with gear strewn in seemingly random piles, half-filled dry bags lying about, and boat parts, paddles, and PFD’s hanging off the truck. But there is a method, and it all fits in its place perfectly in the end. I am always amazed at how much gear can go into a dry bag, and how much we take along in our little boats.

Aire duckies ready to go on the San Juan river. Photo by Gerald Trainor

Our duckies, and Mia and Nico, ready for the 6 day trip. It’s amazing how much they hold and how stable they are.

I won’t say much about the float, other than it was perfect. The weather was mild for the most part, the river was low, and therefore quite clean, until the last day. On our last night there were storms off to the southeast and we woke to a river that had risen about 2500 CFS, making the last day was a quick float down to Mexican Hat. Along the way we visited some of the usual sites, trying to alternate as there are so many, and trying to add new stops to our itinerary as well. Butler Wash, River House, and Baseball Man were a few of the stops. There was much sitting around, enjoying cups of tea, the sound of the river, the play of light on the canyon walls as the sun moved across the sky. As usual we took along a trip book- a set of blank pages, mostly Mohawk, but some Arches and  Stonehenge (paper brands) for writing, drawing, painting, and gluing. On all of our trips we create a visual  and written journal, adding scraps of paper to it- receipts, food wrappers, permits, and eventually photos from the trip. Once we are home we bind them and they go on a special shelf full of books of our adventures.

Baseball Man panel, Utah. Photo by Gerald Trainor

Baseball Man panel, one of our favorite hikes from the river.

After the float we had a goal (unmet) of finding roast mutton and frybread. We drove south to Monument Valley, hoping to find a roadside vendor, but were out of luck. We traveled on to Kayenta and searched there, but again without success. Down in the Shiprock area it’s easy to find, but not so in the Monument Valley area. We settled for Mexican food at the Amigo Cafe, a good choice. We stayed in Kayenta for the night to clean up after the trip and prepare for the next week of travel. The Wetherill Inn is our favorite motel in Kayenta, always clean, quiet, and offering a good night’s rest.

Before leaving we took Mia to the Code Talker exhibit at the Burger King, and visited the Shade House Museum next door. Nicolai and I have visited there a few times, but Mia had never seen it. The Burger King has a few well-presented cases full of donated items brought back from the Pacific theater, and the Shade House has even more. The Shade House has the PBS documentary on the Code Talkers playing continuously- if you have the time sit and watch it. It is an amazing piece of history, very informative, and something that everyone should know about. The Shade House also displays and explains a bit about the history and life of the Navajo people, not just about their WWII service.

After Kayenta, we headed north again with time in Montezuma Canyon and the Nancy Patterson site, and a drive through Lisbon Valley. A few days in Moab, and two days in Grand Junction ended our trip. For more on our desert adventures visit the Desert Explorer website.



Trip Report: The San Juan River, August 2013

27 September 2013

Nicolai and I finally made it down to the San Juan River for a leisurely float from 04 August through 09 August, 2013. We postponed our trip for nearly a month due to a number of reasons, but this actually put us in a better position in terms of water flows. We put in at Sand Island and took six days to travel the 28 miles to Mexican Hat. Needless to say there was no rush during those very relaxing six days. We stopped frequently to look at everything from rock art panels that we had never seen, to collections of basketballs swirling around in the eddies below Chinle Creek.

Reclining Kokopelli figure along the San Juan River.Photo by gerald Trainor.

Reclining Kokopelli figure along the San Juan River.

Flows started out at about 500 CFS and reached just over 3000 CFS on our last day. Storms in the mountains gave us some relatively fast water on a couple of days, and there were no issues at all for us in our 2-person Aire Tomcat in getting down the river. We made stops at many of our usual places, at various rock art panels, some of the moki steps, and River House for example, and at some new locations that we had considered seeing for years. We had so much time that we planned our lunch breaks around our stops to see the archaeology; we had plenty of time to lay back and stare at rock art that we thought we new well, only to find new and exciting elements all along the way. We even had a layover night along the way- we set up our sunshade under a stand of cottonwoods for extra protection and watched the river, drank tea, and played Frisbee for a couple of days. If you plan to float this section of the river, yes, you can do it in a couple of days. You can also take weeks to do it and still not see everything there is to see.

San Juan basketmaker anthropomorph. Southern Utah. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

San Juan basketmaker anthropomorph with headdress and elaborate breastplate.

As usual, the weather was cooperative, although at this time of year there can be big storms.  We didn’t have any this year while on the river but did see some rain before and after the trip. The weather overall was a bit cooler this year. We are always prepared for it and found ourselves wearing our raingear and polypro to stay warm on a couple of occasions.

Bighorn sheep along the San Juan. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Bighorn sheep along the San Juan. At this location we counted about 27 of them. They are definitely doing well.

After the San Juan float we spent a few days around Bluff, as we often do. We took a drive down onto the reservation and saw a ruin that we had been meaning to see for years and years. Next we headed north and spent a couple of nights near Cottonwood Wash during the Perseid meteor shower. That was a treat- there was not a single light visible around us anywhere; we camped on a big patch of slickrock and laid awake as long as we could each night, counting the white, red, and green meteors as they streaked across the clear night sky. Then it was on to Moab and points north to finish out our trip.

Big Ruin in an alcove on Casa del Eco Mesa. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Big Ruin in an alcove on Casa del Eco Mesa.

It is time to plan for the next trip now. We are considering something new- a trip over in late October. It will be very different for us being used to the hot, long days of summer, if we can make it happen. Look for a trip report some time in late November if it goes. In the meantime, for more on our adventures visit the Desert Explorer website.

Back to Utah- The San Juan River in July

25 June 2013

Yes, the San Juan River in July- something new for us. Usually our river trips happen in late August, but we have a free couple of weeks and were able to get a permit for July 2nd. We have allotted 6 days to cover the 30 miles from Sand Island to Mexican Hat, more than enough time to float it twice! This part of the river is usually floated in 3 days, depending on the flows. The river in the last week has fluctuated from a low of about 350 CFS to a high of about 650 CFS. “They say” that you need at least 500 CFS to float the river. But that takes into account the mud that you will encounter down river near the Clay Hills takeout. The mud can be a problem in low water, and can cause some dragging at the end. We are taking out in Mexican Hat and don’t expect any problems at all. We will be floating in our two-person inflatable kayak that does well in low water.

San Juan River, Mexican Hat

Ah, the San Juan- slow and silty, calm and relaxing.

There do not appear to be any fire bans in effect at the moment for the San Juan, but that could change at any time. There are two fires in the area- one in Dark Canyon and one in Arches National Park. Both were caused by lightning. We always check for current conditions throughout the state. They have a map of ban areas, current fires, as well as complete ban information for all the national and state parks and recreation areas. The site can be very useful in planning a trip.

For complete information on floating the San Juan river, visit the San Juan River page of the BLM’s Monticello Field Office. There you will find pages to answer all your questions, as well as launch calendars that are updated daily, information on restrictions, and a downloadable permit application. The permit process is quick- just fill it out, fax it back, and call them to pay for you slot.

For more on our San Juan River floats and all our desert adventures visit the Desert Explorer website. You can also follow our nightly camps and discoveries on our SPOT messenger page.

Dirty Devil, Four Corners Fugitives, and Quicksand

25 May 2012

This will be a brief post, as we are preparing and packing for 10 days on the Dirty Devil starting next Monday. We may need at least 10 days to get from the put in down to Hite at this time of year. The water has been dropping  steadily for the last couple of weeks. About two weeks back it was over 100 CFS, today it is at about 7 CFS. We’ll be dragging for sure. But we view it as just another adventure. Still trying to work out our logistics as well- it can be tough with just one vehicle.  We may check in at Blondies in Hanksville about a shuttle. I have learned that we can park at Hite near the boat ramp for an extended period. The entrance fee, $15,  covers 7 days. I talked to a ranger there and was told that 10 days would be okay with them. It feels a little safer leaving the truck there for 10 days, rather than at the take out for the Colorado over on the highway. Our other option, which I have done before, is to leave the truck at the BLM office in Hanksville. That requires hitchhiking back at the end of the trip.

Fugitives Revisited
I was recently contacted by someone who is writing a book on the Four Corners Fugitives and the 1998 manhunt. If you are unfamiliar with it, we have an (unfinished) outline of the events on the Desert Explorer website. The book will be published early next year by a major publisher. Having spent so much time in the Cross Canyon area looking for signs of the fugitives myself, I am excited to read more about it after all these years. I will post more once I get the okay from the author.

Many of you might already be aware of the recent (November, 2011) rescue of  a NOLS student from quicksand along the Dirty Devil River. I did not know about it until Frank pointed it out recently. I did some searching online about the incident, and from the reports I read it seems that the student was trapped for 13 hours until a rescue helicopter with a crew of three arrived and got him out.  The quicksand was only up to his knees, with water to about his waist.  Other students were with him and had attempted to extricate him, but without success. They fed him and gave him warm drinks to keep him warm. No injuries were reported and everyone was fine in the end. That is about the extent of information in the reports available online.

The incident occurred along the Dirty Devil, somewhere near the mouth of Robbers Roost. I know personally of some rather deep quicksand in that area, having experienced it while floating the river a few years back. I can’t say that I have ever been as stuck as the student seemed to be, but I have had my share of quicksand experiences. It is just a part of floating, backpacking, or hiking canyons in the southwest.

Now for the good news: according to the only article I found online about quicksand, which references studies done in the Netherlands and France, you will not sink to your death nor drown in the stuff. The human body is not dense enough to sink all the way. The article goes on to say that you “should” only sink to about your waist. It also states that self-extrication is possible not by trying to pull yourself out, but by wiggling your legs around in circles, pushing the mud away, allowing water to travel down into the hole. Water is much easier to pull yourself out of than very thick, dense sediment, that is, mud. A point to file away for the next time you find yourself sinking into mud out there in the desert.

We will post a trip report upon our return from Utah. In the meantime, we will check in using our SPOT messenger every night. You can follow us on our SPOT public page. Visit the Desert Explorer website for more on floating, the dangers of desert hiking , and our adventures.

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?”

Mineral Bottom Road Open, White Rim Trail Closed (again), Green River Reaching Record Flows

12 June 2011

I have had a few inquiries and comments lately about floating the Green River. An update on conditions is on order.

As of 29 march, 2011 Mineral Bottom Road down to the Mineral Bottom boat ramp is open. The switchbacks that were washed out last August have been repaired- and the road looks nice! You can read more and see a photo at the NPS website. But, I was told by someone in Moab a few weeks back that the road from the bottom of the switchbacks up to the boat ramp is now under water. Here is a quote directly from the NPS website: “The road to the Mineral Bottom ramp may be flooded at flows above 30,000 CFS. If this occurs, vehicles left at the Mineral Bottom parking lot will be stranded until the water recedes.” Flows today at Green River town according to the USGS water data website were at about 45,600 CFS- close to reaching record levels.

The White Rim Road was open briefly, but is now closed again. Rain and hail closed the Schafer Trail on the east side of the park on the 18 May. And now the extremely high flows on the Green River have flooded the low sections of the White Rim Road right along the river. According to the 19 May 2011 issue of the Moab Times-Independent, flooding along these sections occurs when the flows reach about 20,000 CFS. You can read more about closures at the NPS website.

Be sure to check in with the the appropriate agency before you leave home if you are planning a trip any time soon. You may have to change your plans. If you are floating any time soon- have fun and be careful.

You can read more about our Green River adventures, and enjoying the Utah desert at the Desert Explorer website.

Summer Plans- The Escalante and the Dirty Devil

20 February 2011

It has been quite some time since I have posted, and again I apologise for this. It has been a busy winter, which is a good thing- a busy winter means a good, long summer in the desert.

My last post, and updates, dealt with the shooting of the ranger in Moab. He has been at home for some time now and is recovering from his ordeal. The suspect in the shooting has still not been located. He is undoubtedly in a crack or under a rock somewhere along the Colorado River south of Moab. His bones will be found some day, and the mystery of his disappearance will be solved.

The Dirty Devil River
I have recently been in communication with various river runners who are preparing to float the Dirty Devil River. Jason and crew look like they will be the first to float of the bunch of us, and they may be setting a new standard for the river by floating in a cataraft, although the final decision is still up in the air. As Frank puts it, “Whats the worst that could happen? Abandoning the boat and barely making it out alive?”  It’s going to be an adventure no matter what. They will be putting in at the very end of February, taking advantage of high water, so they should be fine. Next will be Seymour and crew, putting in at the end of March. Next would be Frank and the Kokopelli crew who may run it again, and Nicolai and I plan to float it in June.

View down river just below put in- low water, sand bars, and mud.

The river can be a tough one, with the channel tight and deep at one corner, then playing out into a wide mudflat a few inches deep 100 meters later. The mudflat scenario requires getting out and dragging your craft through. This sums up my experience during my first few days on the river when I did it in 2008- jump in and float a bit, get out and drag a bit. Repeat for six hours or so. But the rewards far outweigh the… great workout you’ll get along the way. The river is quiet, isolated, full of wildlife and incredible scenery.

Nicolai and I will float it later in the summer, during the dragging season. Robert may join us on, but his plans are not finalised. We are choosing to do it then simply because we prefer the hot, long days over the shorter, potentially much colder late winter days. I know I’ll be dragging, and Nicolai will be walking, but it will be an adventure he will never forget- the most important part. For more on the Dirty Devil visit our website pages and see the main blog post about it for all the comments by those who’ve floated it.

The Escalante Trek- Part Two
Two summers back Robert and I did a long walk down the Escalante River-literally down the river- from the bridge on Highway 12 to 25 Mile Wash and out. It amounted to about 50 miles of walking. This summer I will revisit the area to “finish up” the river walk. I plan to use the Moody Canyon trailhead as an entrance, walk to the river, up river to connect with the previous end point at 25 Mile Wash, then down river to Coyote Gulch. From there I’ll head up Coyote, back across the mesa and into Scorpion Gulch, ultimately heading back out East Moody. That is the plan. I still have a bit of research to do regarding access at the head of Scorpion Gulch, and using East Moody as an exit. I will be traveling as light as possible and won’t be carrying any canyoneering equipment, so finding a way in off the mesa is a necessity. I will have about two full weeks to accomplish the trek, which should be no problem. It looks as though it will be a solo this time. I’ll post more on the planning as it comes together, and of course a trip report afterward.

I haven’t written much about tracking lately, but it is always on my mind. Every fresh snowfall affords easy tracking lessons, and every time we get fresh snow we make it a point to seek out some track or other- across the front yard, down the alley, or out in a field- and try to sort it out. Reading fresh tracks in fresh snow and really figuring them out helps create a solid base of knowledge for the future when tracks are not so clear and not so easy to read.

House cat tracks in fresh snow.

Speaking of reading, I am revisiting a tracking book that I have had on my shelf for a while now. Tactical Tracking Operations by David Scott-Donelan presents the author’s experience as a military tracker with most of the examples coming from the Rhodesian bush wars. This is a book about tracking human quarry, but is a worthwhile and interesting read for anyone  who tracks. While the book is probably not something you would read word for word to a six year old, there are plenty of tracking stories in it that my six year old enjoys hearing. It is a good compliment to the best tracking book out there, Bob Carrs’ The SAS Guide to Tracking, and Tom Brown’s field guides, the books I started with. All these books are available at