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.

 

 

 


Spring Break Trip Report- March 2014

6 April 2014

We have just returned from one if the most memorable Spring break trips in years. The trip included some of our usual endeavors- seeing rock art and ruins, a bit of gold panning, hiking along Comb Ridge, and plenty of exploring of dirt roads around southeastern Utah. It also included new adventures: a visit to Oljeto, on the Navajo reservation, to see the trading post where the Wetherills lived and then a drive down to the now defunct Piute Farms Marina at what was once part of Lake Powell.

Piute Farms waterfall. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Piute Farms waterfall, about two miles below Clay Hills takeout, March 2014. The river below actually looked like a river. There were few signs that the lake had made it this far up the channel in years.

We also stopped in at Hite “Marina” (can you have a marina without water?) to take a look at the lake level on our way towards Hanksville. We drove down the boat ramp only to find that we could keep driving all the way across what used to be the lake right to the edge of the Colorado River. And it did look like a river- cutting down through the accumulated silt of the past 50 years and making its way toward the ocean. Looking down river, there was no lake in sight! Looking up river, the Dirty Devil was a muddy little stream braiding its way through the silt and into the Colorado. I can’t help but wonder how long it will take to clean out all that silt…. But more on that in a future blog.

Colorado River at Hite Marina. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

The Colorado River, at Hite Marina. Looking down river, as it makes its way to the ocean.

Silt plain that was once Lake Powell. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

I hope this adds a bit of perspective to what is going on at Hite Marina. This photo was taken at the edge of the river, where I stood when I took the top photo, looking back over the silty, tumbleweed-scattered plain that was once the bottom of Lake Powell. That is our Landcruiser in the middle distance, with the boat ramp far off in the photo.

Back to the archaeology for now. One of our early stops was just outside Blanding to look at a few rock art panels and nearby ruins. We met up with a group of archaeology students, their “tour” leader Daniel Cutrone, the Principle Investigator at the Nancy Patterson site in Montezuma Canyon and professor at California State University Dominguez Hills, and our friend Madalyn from the Edge of Cedars Museum in Blanding.

Nancy Patteson site. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

A central view of the Nancy Patterson site, showing excavated walls and many of the mounds that make up the possible 300 rooms of the site.

Daniel, Madalyn, and their crew kindly took us along on their outings to a few unnamed sites, the Nancy Patterson site, Spirit Bird Cave, and a behind-the-scenes tour of the Edge of Cedars Museum. We were joined on one of the days by Sally Cole, author of Legacy on Stone, among other titles. What a treat it was to look at rock art and not have to pull out our copy of her book for interpretation- all we had to do was listen! The best part for both Nicolai and I was when we were asked if we wanted to return in the summer to be part of the ongoing excavation of the Nancy Patterson site. I haven’t done any excavation in years, and definitely welcome the return to the dirt. For Nicolai, I think it is a dream come true. For more on the Nancy Patterson site, ongoing excavation, and field work possibilities, see the Shovelbums Website.

We spent a few days in Poison Spring canyon, as we often do, enjoying the sites there and some of the slot canyons accessible from the canyon bottom. Next we drove on to Green River town. In and around Green River we explored the abandoned U.S. Army Pershing missile launch complex. What an adventure that was!

Green River missile launch complex. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

The guard shack and associated buildings at one of the main parts of the Green River launch complex.

Abandoned around 1979, the buildings are in a serious state of decay, with doors falling off or missing, fences broken down from power poles falling on them- the power poles having been chopped down by looters stealing the copper wire strung between them! Ceilings had fallen in, windows were mostly broken out, and nearly everything that could be carried away had been. And the few things left on site were well smashed up and thrown into piles in corners. It was perfectly post-apocalyptic in look and feel, including a grey, overcast sky above us. While exploring I kept expecting to round a corner to find a growling pack of ferrell dogs, or maybe zombies, or at least a boy and his father resting as they made their way down The Road. Perhaps that was us?

Tent city concrete pads. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

The concrete pads, perfectly aligned and dressed right, at what is referred to as the “tent city” outside Green River.

Bunker near Green River, Utah. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Nicolai next to the bunker at the weather missile launch pads.

Either way, let it be known that we never crossed a fence, or a building threshold, as it is still government property and clearly marked as of limits… in a couple of places at least (most of those signs appear to have been stolen.) If you go, be sure to view it from afar.  We spoke to a local deputy who warned us that theft and vandalism have ramped up recently and that they are watching the sites. I have only touched on this marvel of modern science, warfare, our military-industrial complex, and our cold war history. Volumes could be written about it- not by me however. But I do plan to write a full blog about the site, and the Pershing and weather monitoring missiles launched from it in the near future.

Missile launch pad near Green River, Utah. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

One of the main launch pads, with rolling building still in place. There are two other, identical pads, both without the building or even the rails that it rolls on.

For now, we are planning our summer fieldwork, a family backpacking and exploring trip, and a solo trip for me. The summer promises to be a full one- be sure to get out and enjoy it. And watch out for rattlesnakes, they are already out. For more about snakes, and our desert adventures, visit the Desert Explorer website.

 


Trip Report- Green River Family Float- August 2012

13 September 2012

This year we made our way back to the Green River for our family float. We put in on the 19th and took out on the 26th of August. The weather was perfect- not too hot, cloud cover in the afternoons,  and only a couple of storms- one big, dramatic one that put our aging Sierra Designs tent to the test. It held up for the most part, but the zipper has finally given out after 20 plus years of use. A point of note for other Sierra Designs users- I called to see about a zipper replacement and was given an online code for 45% off any new tent. The zipper replacement could reach as much as $125, and while not quite reaching the cost of the new tent, it was close enough. So next year we’ll be trying out the Sierra Designs Zolo 3. Look for  a review of that at some point.

beach camp on the Green River. photo by Gerald trainor.

One of our perfect beach camps. We found them around every bend in the river this year.

Back to the river- as usual, there were no bugs, and because it was a little later in the season, we saw on average one other group each day. All in all it was a very calm and quiet float. Unfortunately we missed the fast water last year, when we floated the San Juan. So this time we rowed, and rowed some more. The water averaged about 1200 CFS and we planned accordingly. We gave ourselves 8 days to get from town down to Mineral Bottom, so that we wouldn’t be rushing and could enjoy the big sandy beaches all along the 64 miles of our float. In the end, as usual, we could have used 10 days, or maybe 14, or a whole month if it could be managed- the truth is that the surprises that nature provides are never-ending and a person could spend a lifetime out there enjoying them.

Nicolai Trainor at Crystal Geyser, Green River, Utah. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Nicolai enjoying the shade of our beach umbrella, on the beach at Crystal Geyser.

After dropping our permit at the J.W.Powell River History Museum, we put in at the bridge in Green River as usual. The permit for this section of river is free and you can download the PDF from the BLM website. Fill out a copy for the BLM and drop it at one of the locations noted, and take one on the river with you. If you plan to float on into Canyonlands National Park, there is a charge and the logistics get more complex.  See the Floating the Lower Green River page at the Desert Explorer website for more information. 

We parked the tuck “downtown” this year. In the past we parked at the museum, but they no longer allow parking there. Ask at the museum or around town for recommendations on where to park. Before heading down river, we loaded up with melons. If you float the Green River in the fall you are obligated to carry as many melons as you can to enjoy along the way. This trip was the first for our new boat, a Cutthroat 2 cataraft from Jack’s Plastic Welding so there was plenty of melon-cargo space. This section of the Green River down into Labyrinth Canyon, and on through Stillwater Canyon, especially at this time of year, is a flatwater float. Canoes are faster, sea kayaks are fastest-we saw a couple of them out there. But the “big” boat made it so we had plenty of gear and provisions and amenities.

Cutthroat 2 in front of the Inkwell on the Green River. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

The new boat, fully loaded, in front of the Inkwell.

After making it under all the bridges and through the riffles, we made our first stop at Crystal Geyser only to find that the ground was dry. It did not appear that the Geyser had erupted in some time, certainly not as we had seen it in past years. It has been a dry year, with low water, and the lack of eruptions could be reflecting the lack of ground water recharge this summer. From there on we made some of the usual stops,taking alook in Three Canyon, hiking up to the saddle at Bowknot Bend, up canyon to one of the Julien inscriptions, and taking a look at the other inscriptions- historic and prehistoric- along the way.

View from Bowknot Ridge, Green River. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

The view from the top of Bowknot Ridge- up river is to the right, downriver to the left. The view is well worth the short hike up.

All of our camps were on big, clean sandbars. They were found around practically every corner this year, one benefit of low water. This gave us plenty of room for the sunshade, a big camp, and frisbee. We didn’t have any fires this year- there was a fire ban in place. You can check current fire conditions at the Utah Fire website.

We took out at Mineral Bottom and were met by Moab Taxi for a shuttle back to Green River to retrieve the truck. Mineral Bottom road was fine for the most part, although there were a couple of questionable spots on the switchbacks due to a recent storm. High clearance at least was necessary; four wheel drive was just more insurance of safety. After taking out, we spent a couple of days in Moab and enjoyed the new pool, Wicked Brew coffee, and a delicious breakfast at Eklecticafe. The cafe is right on Main Street near Posion Spider Bicycles and is only open for breakfast and lunch.

For more on our floats and other desert adventures visit the Desert Explorer website.


Spiders and Beetles, Dalton Wells, Great Horned Owls, and Escalante Photos

8 August 2011

The summer is a busy time for us- busy and fun- and this summer has been one of the busiest in recent years. We have been travelling since March, barely home at all. We’ve seen and done so much that it is hard to keep up with it. This will be a quick post- a follow-up on a couple of earlier posts, and few words about our most recent trip. And as soon as I finish this one, we are off again- we have a permit for the San Juan River next week. Look for a post from that trip in a few weeks time.

Spiders and Tamarisk Beetles
As luck would have it, Nicolai and I found ourselves with some free time a couple of weeks back, and we weren’t too far from Green River Town. We stopped in town for a cup of coffee and some ice for the cooler. Then we made a visit to Crystal Geyser where we had a swim in the still-swift Green River and spent a couple of hours waiting for the geyser to blow. The geyser wasn’t too active, but we did get to talk to a researcher from Grand County who was checking the condition of tamarisk trees and the resident beetle populations. He happened to be checking a group of trees that were covered with those big spiders that we have encountered on our floats down the Green, so we asked for more information about them. He couldn’t tell us specifically about the spiders, but he did say that they seem to be following the beetle populations. It seems that they are feeding on the beetle larvae. He said that in that area in particular he had noted a couple of groves that were covered with the spiders. It seems that the beetles do have a natural, local enemy, a question I am sure that researchers asked when they were deciding whether to allow the beetles to be released.

Unidentified species of spider at our camp at Crystal Geyser. This photo was taken on our float of the Green River in 2009.

Moab and Dalton Wells
On that same trip we made a visit to Moab, as we usually do. This time we did some driving around on roads and trails in the Sovereign area  north of town. One of the entrances to the Sovereign trail is through Dalton Wells, a historic site located just off the highway. It is on the National Register and there is an interpretive plaque explaining the history of the site. Dalton Wells began as a Civilian Conservation Corps camp and was in use for that purpose from 1935 to 1942. It was one of four camps located in the Moab area. The CCC members were responsible for countless projects in the Moab Valley and surrounding area during the years the camp was in operation. These projects were initiated by the Soil Conservation Service, the National Park Service, and what would become the Bureau of Land Management and included building stock trails, water development projects, range improvements, and fencing and pasture work.

From January through April of 1943 the Dalton Wells CCC camp became the “Moab Isolation Center”, one of many relocation camps for Japanese Americans during World War II. The camp was used for this purpose only briefly, and housed “troublemakers” from such camps as Manzanar in California and Gila River, Arizona. At most it housed about 4 dozen men, who were eventually transferred to the indian school at Leupp, Arizona on 27 April, 1943.

There are a couple of websites with more information on the camp- one is the Utah State History website, the other is the National Park Service page on Citizen Relocation Centers. The latter page has a couple of photos of the camp.

Great Horned Owls
In April we made a visit to Phoenix and Tucson where we visited the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum among other locations. There is  a blog post about that trip for those interested in reading more. In Tucson we stayed in a hotel in the foothills that was also home to a Great Horned Owl and her two young ones. The owlets lived in a large planter box surrounding the deck of a second floor room of the hotel. It appeared that the hotel was respecting the owls by keeping the associated corner room vacant. Our room was right next door to the vacant room and so we had a great view of the owls, day and night. During the day the mother would sleep in a nearby pine tree, up high near the very top. The owlets would huddle together in the corner of the box, as far from onlookers as they could get. At one point the mother brought in a cottontail for the owlets to eat. They moved the rabbit around a bit, and we got to watch one of the owlets have its morning meal. At nights the mother and young ones would perch on the edge of the planter box, keeping a close eye on everything through the night. The mother would fly off and return all through the night, and would leave early in the morning for her daytime rest in the pine tree.

Mother and owlet Great Horned owls at their hotel room in Tucson. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Mother and owlet Great Horned owls at their hotel room in Tucson. The owlet to the right that is bent over was only concerned with its rabbit breakfast. Most of the rabbit is in the foreground near the cactus.

Owlets in the planter box, Tucson. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Owlets in the planter box.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Owlets huddling together for their daily rest in the early morning. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

Owlets getting ready for their daily rest in the early morning.

Final Words on Escalante Trip

I have covered nearly everything I wanted to regarding my Escalante Trek in recent blog posts. The only loose end was posting photos of the trip. I have finally done that. A series of photos from the trek is up on the Desert Explorer Picasa page. For more on our desert adventures, desert backpacking, floating and general information, visit the Desert Explorer website.

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.