Summer Is Coming, and There Is So Little Time

12 March 2016

It has been many months since I have written a blog post. There is no possible way to catch up on all the desert adventures we have had in that time. To mention of few of them, we spent a week in the San Rafael Swell area, went for another San Juan River float with incredible rain fall and flash floods along the way, did more excavation at Nancy Patterson Village, spent weeks in and around Moab, had many long, solo runs down roads and trails, did lots of canyon hiking, backroad driving, and general exploration of southeast Utah. Last year was a great year overall, and this year proves to be much the same. We have already taken two trips to the desert, and our next is just a few weeks away- spring break is just around the corner!

One of the highlights of last year was the San Juan River. I did that trip solo, and so had no real schedule other than to float down the river. I did a few hikes up side canyons, all of which I’d had in my mind to do for some time. There was a huge storm a few days into the trip- I put in at about 400 CFS and took out just over 8000 CFS. It made for a really fun float to say the least. I have never seen so many pouroffs running at the same time. The sound that came with it was deafening at certain locations along the river.

River flows during my October, 2015 San Juan River float.

River flows during my October, 2015 San Juan River float.

As I noted above, I did some side hikes along the way . One canyon I visited had countless ruins in it. I could have spent days exploring, but was happy to have a long day to walk up and back. Many of the ruins I saw were completely inaccessible without technical gear to get in. Needless to say, I enjoyed them from the opposite rim or canyon bottom for the most part.

Ruin along the San Juan River, utah.

One of the smaller ruins I was able to climb up to. It was so perfectly square and plumb, it left me wondering how we have so many problems with our own residential building today. The very distinct foundation was an interesting feature as well, being offset by the plaster that was still in place.

After finishing up on the river I spent five days along Comb Ridge. I am slowly making my way through all the canyons, seeing at least a few of them on each trip to the area. As always there was so much to see, and the time I had to see it in really seemed inadequate. I found a few small structures along the way that appeared to be sweat lodges. I have found a few of these at the mouths of the canyons, out near Butler Wash, and a couple of them up in higher ends of canyons. Most are small, however one that I came across on this trip did seem more like a shelter than a sweat lodge.

Sweat lodge along Comb Ridge, Utah. Photo by Gerald Trainor.

What looks to be a sweat lodge at the mouth of one of the Comb Ridge canyons.

I won’t go into the Nancy Patterson archaeology here, but save it for another post. My report is nearly done, and I plan to upload it again in a blog, as I did with the 2014 report. No promises when that will come… but it will be by May when we head over for this year’s excavation.

In the meantime see the Desert Explorer website for more on our desert adventures, our gear preferences, and plenty of book recommendations. I have been spending a lot of time updating the site, adding current links where they were broken, and doing my best to update information that I haven’t revisited in many years.


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.

Dams and Silt, Trash Bags, and Human Waste

8 October 2011

As the nation’s biggest dam removal project gets underway in Washington I have finally finished cleaning the silt from my boats and gear after my recent San Juan River trip. It took a while to do, but the boats are cleaned out for the winter.The remnants of Chinle Creek and Oljato Wash are now staining my driveway and nourishing the plants in my front yard. It is amazing how much silt can get trapped in the floor of a self-bailing inflatable boat. And now, with the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams coming down, the 100 plus years of silt behind them will make its way to where it should have gone long ago. I can’t help but wonder about the impact of 100 years of silt moving down river in a couple of years.

But more importantly to me, I’d like to start wondering about our own silt trap on the Colorado and when Glen Canyon might return. It only takes a second of thought on the subject and the answer always comes: probably not in my lifetime. Even if the dam was completely silted up and stopped producing power, the revenue generated would still be a huge argument for keeping the “lake” (a lake is a naturally occurring body of water, a reservoir is a man-made pool of standing water, just to clarify) in place, no matter how much water or the condition of power generation at the dam. And think about how many writers have benefited from the dam, or at least filled newspaper editorial columns and pages of free magazines ranting over the subject through the years. I’ll leave it at that and move on to …trash.

Sea To Summit Trash Dry Sack
On our recent San Juan trip I took along a few new pieces of gear, including a dry bag specifically designed to carry trash. I had been thinking about it for a couple of years. REI used to carry it, and I went there with it on my list last summer I think. But as is so often the case with items I try to get at REI, they no longer had it. Lucky for me that Sea To Summit is here in Boulder; it took a couple of days to order it in at the Boulder Army Store. I paid about 35 dollars for the 20 liter bag. The 10 liter is about 30 dollars. Both sizes are available, although many outfitters seem to carry only the 10 liter size.

The Sea To Summit Trash Dry Bag. It made packing out our trash easier than ever on our recent San Juan float.

I only plan to use this on the river- I wouldn’t want the extra weight on my back while packing. And after a 9 day trial on the San Juan I am completely satisfied with it. The bag is pretty simple- it is a silcoth drybag with a roll-top closure, no different from other Sea To Summit bag designs. But this one also has daisy chain loops up both sides and added strips at the top edges to hold a trash bag liner in place. In the first few days we had it about a third full of trash (remember, this is the San Juan and we took along a cooler). We dumped that bag at Mexican Hat and had another about half full by reaching clay hills. There were no problems at all with it. The high points of the item are the trash bag liner inside making it easy to empty, and the loops down both sides. The loops allow for easy attachment anywhere on the boat you may have room for it.

Speaking of Waste…
A topic I have been meaning to write about all summer is that of human waste and its disposal. I know that many people think that when they go into the bush, their bathroom can be just about anywhere they choose. They feel that they are out there in the wilderness and it is just natural to squat behind a bush and do their business. Unfortunately some people think this way when they are on the river, walking down a busy trail, or in a well-used camp outside of Moab. Obviously there are a few problems with this notion.

First, “wilderness” is a subjective term. When we visit Moab for example, we camp about 20 minutes from town. To those who make one or two weekend camping trips a year, this may qualify as camping in the wilds. To me this is the suburbs of Moab, used by hundreds of campers a month. It is not a few days walk from nowhere- it is a place where someone else will camp in a day or two. Unfortunately camps like this are being trashed with human waste, diapers, beer cans, and every other type of trash you can imagine scattered through the desert (especially around Moab). Granted, this is not the case with most people who visit the area. But there are enough who consider these parts of the desert, or wherever it is they are found, a place to tear up, burn up, and leave trash. And this summer while in the Escalante I began finding the same situation along the river. As I made my way down the river from Moody Canyon I found countless places where people had defecated directly on the ground, possibly the same person/group of people, based on various tracks and sign. I found locations where groups of people had gone to the bathroom,waste on the ground, toilet paper blowing in the breeze. This is a river, with the usual river rules- pack out trash, human waste, no fires (on the Escalante), and common river runner courtesy. I wondered, in the parlance of our times, WTF?

Used Wag Bag outside of Moab. I found it as you see it, lying on the ground surface. Someone got the first part of it right- they used the bag. But then they left it here in the desert.

 And then it gets even  stranger. River runners all know about Wag Bags. Visitors to Moab are introduced to them at the visitor’s center in the middle of town. I am wondering if a little more education is in order regarding their use? Maybe something about the disposal part- the concept being to use the bag, take it back to town with you, and place it in a trash can. The bags are not meant to be left on the ground where they are used. Granted, I would expect to find something like this around Moab, based on the number of people who visit there, language barriers, and so on. But I found the same thing in the Escalante.

On my last day of walking on my recent trip there I found a slight trail down a steep wash, then some recently carved moki steps, and a cairn on the other side of the main wash while crossing Middle Moody canyon. There aren’t a lot of places to get across it and I was happy when I found this crossing after about an hour of searching, just as night was falling. As I climbed out the other side, right there in front of me, eye level next to the cairn, were a couple of used wag bags with a rock on top of them. Again, I felt a little disgusted at the site for various, obvious reasons. And the logic of those who left them is lost on me- first,why are people using Wag Bags in the middle of nowhere in the Escalante when a hole in the ground is all that is needed? And why are they leaving the bags at a cairn along a “trail”? 

So what do you do in a situation like this? I could collect them and pack them out (which I did not), I could call the Escalante visitor’s center and let them know that there are stupid people in the world (not much use in that), and then I could write about it here. Of course writing about it here is just “preaching to the choir” as they say. I am fairly certain that most of the people reading this blog don’t need a lesson on the use and disposal of a Wag Bag, or when it’s okay to dig a hole. In the end I guess it is up to us to convey our knowledge to others less enlightened than ourselves. Be sure to tell them to wash their hands when they are done.

For more about the Utah desert and our adventures there visit the Desert Explorer website.

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?”