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Paddling Utah's Green River
paddling the green river: a family adventure

Pygmies not only sell boats. We go adventuring in them!


Through the high desert of Utah, two mighty rivers carve canyons banded with copper, ochre, cinnamon, lilac, and sage green limestones. In May, 1996, three Pygmies (John Lockwood, Freida Fenn, and daughter Freya Fennwood) paddled the silted waters of the Green River, the northern artery of the Great Colorado Basin.
We launched from the small, barren truck stop town of Green River, Utah. The staff of the John Wesley Powell River Museum directed us to a local woman whom we hired to drop off our van at Mineral Bottom, 68 miles downstream. By 2 pm, May 8th, we were afloat. I paddled a GoldenEye-Standard. John and Freya paddled the Osprey Triple Kayak—the center cockpit loaded with 82 pounds of fresh water (plus other gear). Even if filtered, the Green’s water is too saline to drink.
So, slathering sunscreen over our pale Northwestern flesh, we paddled into the 4 knot current. The sun shone at a pleasant 84 degrees. We lazily paddled the 300 foot-wide, Class I river. The Green flowed high on the banks, the annual high water mark—snow melt pouring out of the Rockies of Wyoming and northern Utah.
The banks grow a dense riparian zone of native willow and an exotic newcomer, the tamarisk of Asia. Its feathery foliage blooms with clouds of pink flowers. The banks hum with millions of overjoyed bees. The tamarisk reproduces so invasively, however, that it chokes out the seedlings of the indigenous cottonwood—a tragedy for all creatures who depend on the shade of these desert giants. At high water, we must seek campsites above the jungle bordering the river. Paddlers in midsummer easily camp on sandbars, yet the daily temperatures soar above 115o F. We preferred May’s higher water and lower temperatures in the 80’s and 90’s.
family kayaking on the green river

This section of the Green meanders through flat ranch land. Around 4 pm we stopped at Crystal Geyser. Carbonated saltwater surges from a 2000' deep attempted oil well. Since the 1930’s, orange, ochre and green minerals have crystallized in cascades down the river bank in mesmerizing patterns. Continuing, we paddled on through the largest "rapid" we would encounter, named "the Auger", carefully following the tongue of deepest water. We pulled out our kayaks, just below the rapid in a large eddy. Freya (age 8) pitched the tent below the branches of an ancient cottonwood—only nine leaves desperately clung to the last green branch.
On day two, we watched the distant mesas and buttes draw closer—purple and burgundy invitations into Labyrinth Canyon, still a day’s paddle away. We cruised through miles of oxbows, then pulled under Dellenbaugh’s Butte, a gargantuan inkwell formation. We cooked below an overhang, 200 feet of sheer mahogany stone poised above us. Beds of agates covered a dry oxbow below the Butte. Five buzzards circled, searching for the end of something’s life to continue their own. That evening, we all lounged on the river bank. John caught catfish and I sketched Freya’s portrait while a troupe of bats danced above the Green in a cobalt sky with Venus as their western spotlight.
By day three our skin, hair, and kayaks carried fine layers of silt from pouring hatfulls of water over our heads to keep cool. With 1% humidity, we felt ourselves dehydrating in the desert air. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officials who manage this section of the river recommend carrying 1 gallon of water per day per person. Lots.
By 4:30 that afternoon, we found the "Garden of Eden". Three side canyons converge at a campsite called Trin Alcove. Sheer, vertical walls surrounded our enclave. Our tent sat under a 3-foot thick cottonwood, lively with 6" lizards especially adapted to live on and in their bark. Four-foot "tables" of yellow Navaho limestone provided a kitchen under the tree. The merest trickle of a brook wrapped 3 sides of our camp. In paradise, no other humanoids in sight, we skinny dipped and sunned like snakes in the sunset. At twilight, this creek erupted in Canyon Frog chorus. High tremolos were answered by contralto agreements to procreate. Abundant mosquitoes provided a violin section.
Lounging in the osprey triple!

As required by river regulations, we built our fire in our own 18" radius fire pan. Raising it above the sand on stones, prevented ground scorching. We packed out all ashes in our latrine bucket (also required), along with our compost. These requirements were easy to accommodate, even for kayakers, and resulted in fairly pristine campsites. In this 4,000' elevation desert, decomposition takes decades, and could never keep pace with all the human travelers here.
Exploring canyons the next morning took us past 3,000 foot- high golden pillars and immense arcs cut into the stone walls by winter’s ice. Hanging amphitheaters loomed above cool ledges in perpetual shade. Endless variations of black "desert varnish" streaked the apricot sandstone, made by groundwater minerals which cascade over the walls during thunderstorms. This patina forms the surface into which Anasazi and Fremont culture peoples carved petroglyphs: big horn sheep, horned human forms, hands, bows /arrows, and geometrics.
Following an ever narrower slot in the stone, we found a tiny spring encased in deep green moss and maidenhair fern. The translucent, sloughed skin and eyes of a dragonfly clung near the seepage. We found the widest canyon was dotted with shallow pools with 10,000 tadpole occupants in each. We dipped often to remain cool enough to keep hiking. In the heat of the day, we napped on a shadowed ledge.
After two nights in "paradise" we paddled on. The canyon deepened, marked by hanging amphitheaters. I sang Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, with double echoes bouncing back between the 2 largest stages. Freya improvised high, ethereal chants.
Ten-Mile Canyon almost lured us to stay. Falcons nested and soared. Swallows built their mud pueblos under miles of wind eroded overhangs. Having only paddled a couple miles, we felt we should go on. A river register sat in a bend by a big eddy. We positioned our kayaks to turn and be carried to shore. Carved signatures, swimmers, animals and dates cut into the patina. All were made by fur trappers, geologists, and adventurers. Now days, you just sign a book, no dangling from ledges with carving tools required (or allowed).
We ended up camping just below a defunct uranium mine, as pull outs proved scarce through this section at high water. Major mosquito clans arrived, followed by plump brown bats skimming over our hats. I could have kissed those fuzzy flying mice.
Utah Canyon Country

Next morning, we feasted upon pancakes and espresso. John cat-fished. We launched and floated towards the Bow Knot--an oxbow with 7 miles of river in its loop. This territory comprises the heart of Labyrinth Canyon: cream yellow Navaho limestone caps the red/brown layer of Kayenta. Another 30' of terra-cotta Windgate sandstone lies below, streaked with black minerals. These geologic layers showed boldly in Spring Canyon, our next campsite. Two canoeists arrived with chests of iced beer. Parched, I would have paid $5 for a brew in that heat. Happily, the sunset distracted me. Camped under a thin grove of huge cottonwood, we watched the cliffs go scarlet, then burgundy as the sun sank. Freya sat 6 feet from a bank beaver and watched her eat a willow dinner while our Swedish fruit soup simmered.
Next day, we hiked to the canyon rim up a "road" dynamited into vertical rock. We spent the day dipping in springs and climbing to the flat yellow land at the top. Spring canyon looked like an immense vein leading into the artery of the Green River below. Towards evening, thermal winds raged up river. Those winds accompanied us for the next 3 days.
We began each day in 20 mph winds. By afternoon, they were gusting to 40. Our triple and single kayaks held course beautifully. Canoeists stopped paddling early each day, in despair. Some asked if we would trade craft when they saw us paddle a 1/4 mile up river to check out a campsite. The intense thermal winds actually blew rafts up stream. We found a great camping spot above the riparian zone, under a ledge, with a small cave the next level above us. Kid heaven.
The next day, we paddled a short distance to see an inscription carved by French fur trapper, D. Julien, in 1836. He was the first European to shoot Colorado's Cataract Canyon (about 130 miles downstream)--in a canoe no less. To our delight, we also found a geologist, 2 kids and 5 adventurous adults. Freya joined the kids and found some rare petrified seashore sand complete with ebb lines, to the geologist's amazement. We camped nearby, our last night in the canyon. Nature treated us to 50 mph winds that night. The tent collapsed at 2 a.m. We reassembled it. The zipper broke by daybreak. While my family slept soundly through the mayhem, I watched sheet lightning and mused on desert travel. The next day we would return to our ancient VW van, make a hair-raising ascent out of Mineral Bottom Canyon and return to asphalt and fast food restaurants.

Mineral Bottom Canyon

What I shall always remember is my daughter's voice lifting in song at the beginning of each day's paddle. I shall see her child self, pulling with vigor, using excellent technique: fully extended arms on each stroke, rotating her body to put strength behind her push. I shall always see her joy in facing the wind, waves, whirlpools, bucking current, and her shout, "Let's go there, Papa!" pointing at Nature's next amazing ridge of red rock wonder.

--by Freida Fenn






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