A Place in Utah


The quintessence of the river was overwhelming.  Calling it a river was at once myopic, comparing something 20 feet wide and barely ankle deep to much more immense and imperturbable bodies, and a deep acknowledgement of context.  I was 36 hours into riding the very crack of a catchment that enveloped vast canyoned furls on either side, and ran over a hundred miles up to plateaus whose snow was responsible for the bare runnels I could only just hold my boat to.  Any lapse in attention, to look around, grab a snack, or even scratch and ear, got me stuck on a sandbar 3 of every 4 tries.  This wandering, seemingly fickle waterway wasn’t the heart of this area.  For over a decade of episodic visits I’d been witness to more signs of wildlife and far more precious beauty in the surrounding canyons, especially the upper branches and their perennial springs.  There rock sills reliably wrung a few drops an hour, every day of the year, from each square inch of stone, leaving the walls draped in fern and moss, and the damp sand spangled with deer and bighorn tracks.  Rather the river was evidence, laid out in mile after mile of exquisite plainness, of just how small and thin the everything of the whole surrounding area was.  This was all the water it had to give, the riverside grasses dyed taupe by the winter winds all the life it could sustain.

There were no cottonwood trees.  None, not a single one along the river, for over twenty miles.  Packrafting is and should be a quiet and almost stifling meditative activity, done on rivers and creeks far from roads, off the most common flyways, and mostly away from people.  Without the actual noise of human footfalls and the virtual noise of human trail construction floating is generally absolutely silent, save the caress of water and whisper of greenery.  But this river was eerie, deafening, in it’s silence.  The water was laden with silt, but lacked the gradient or flow to hiss with urgency as flooding waters do.  Rather it bubbled subtly when it moved at all, languishing and torpid.  But it was, I finally realized, the lack of trees that moved my mind to foreign territory.  In winter cottonwoods are silent, stripped of leaves and static with branches against the sky.  But their not being present caused a peculiar void that no quantity of quiet could fill.  Between this deviation from the norm, a 60 mile route that was for me all new, the creeping and omnipresent cold, and the frequent bowknot meanders, emerging back onto the plateau and shortly thereafter civilization in the form of my truck and then a burger and fries was ruder than it had been in a number of years.  Ruder than I thought this particular outing could be, for me with my years of time in similar places.

It’s good to be surprised, even when you expect it.


When you know a place will be good, your first visit needs to be undertaken with respect, delicacy, and planning.  You can always go back, but never for the first time, and that initial experience can stamp your brain more potently than any other.  So, I was naturally pleased that this route (quite new in my knowledge) worked out so well, and was so hard.  Difficulty can always be created by artifice, but being prepared, having a good plan, and still only just having the hours necessary to make it through is the ideal outcome.  It is an outcome my often paranoid brain plans well into submission.  I’ll return, soon I think, and often.  I want to understand why their are no trees along the river when the side canyons have plenty, and begin to link together the places in my mind.  But it is highly likely that this trip will always be the best I’ll have there, and I’m content I came close enough to fulfilling that promise.

12 responses to “A Place in Utah”

  1. I’m lying in bed in SLC with a shattered arm right now, reading this makes me both stoked and depressed. Looks like an amazing trip, so bummed I will miss this spring for the ages laid up. Keep ’em coming, gonna need some vicarious trips for awhile!

    1. Sounded like an absolutely brutal arm break. Hope the healing proceeds without complications.

  2. Bet you were happy about that life jacket! We did about the same stretch at 128 last year. Rough. And that was without a 40 lbs bike on the bow.

    1. The bike made dragging a little tougher, but I was always getting stuck at the stern of the boat. If the water were clear and the bottom gravel and rock (ie not sticky) 120 would be cruiser.

      Best safety device would be something to pull you out of the quicksand.

      1. Cruiser? You think so? I felt the ‘deep’ channel was fairly easy to locate. The problem most often encountered was the transitions when river bends and other influences shifted the channel from one bank to the other. Invariably this forced you to traverse the shallow middle section where the fanning out of the flow left no depth.

        1. There was almost always a boat-deep channel on those traverses, just hard to find. By the last day I was going about 70% which made a big difference.

  3. Great to finally meet….and to do so on this trip was neat. Neat to hear and see the recollections of your outing.

  4. […] most standards that is true, at the middling level I found the Escalante this month and the Dirty back in March both are small enough that they only earn the label “river” through hydrogeographical […]

  5. […] most standards that is true, at the middling level I found the Escalante this month and the Dirty back in March both are small enough that they only earn the label “river” through hydrogeographical […]

  6. […] side of being “lost” had at least in the woods become so routine that by then I was often choosing to intentionally under-map myself, in the name of maintaining adventure.  Something, incidentally, […]

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