18,000 cfs. That’s cubic feet per second, measured at the river gauge in Green River, Utah. It didn’t mean much to a couple of easterners new to the Green River—and hankering for a river trip—but we learned that it means the river is carrying a lot of water, and fast. It’s not flood stage, which would be about twice as much water, but at that volume, a canoe can do about 3 miles an hour without even paddling. And there’s still water in the side canyons of the river that will dry up when the river will flow with just 5,000 cfs later in the summer.
Our friend Jeff once shared with us, in glowing terms, his time canoeing the Green River on a cross country trip in the late 1970s, so we were hoping to recapture at least some of the magic. Among the many outfitters in Moab, Lorrie found the Moab Rafting and Canoe Company, which specializes in supporting self-guided tours. We stopped by the office on a Tuesday to talk.
Kevin and Lisa own the company and love to talk about the river, particularly Kevin. They are from Chicago and had been making an annual paddling pilgrimage to Moab for a long time. Two years ago, they concluded that a couple of weeks a year was not enough, so they moved to Moab and were fortunate to be able to buy the company that had been supporting their trips all these years.
We asked if they would support a three-day self-guided canoe trip through Labyrinth Canyon, a 46-mile section of the Green River with no rapids to contend with. Labyrinth is just northwest of Canyonlands National Park, a place where the Green snakes through high sandstone cliffs. We rented a canoe and a few accessories, including a mandatory “groover” (river toilet), and a shuttle to and from our put-in and takeout points on the river. Kevin advised doing the canyon in five or eight days. We could easily do it in three days, he said, but taking more time would allow us to explore some of the side canyons along the way, each of which alone could justify a separate trip. We settled on five days beginning the following Monday.
A note on the groover for our eastern friends. A river toilet is mandatory in the fragile desert ecosystem, and the groover is fashioned from surplus Army ammo cannisters. It gets its name from the grooves that sitting on it leaves behind on the happy camper’s bottom. Ours was a deluxe model with an attachable toilet seat just like at home – so no grooves!
We showed up Monday morning and found that Kevin would also be transporting two other canoes and paddlers to the drop off point at Ruby Ranch, about an hour and a half drive from Moab to the north end of the canyon. We were all doing the same run: Matt and Tom in 3 days, John and Cory in 4 days, and us in 5. Kevin talked to us about the rules and vagaries of the river and advised each of us where to camp along the way.
One of the great things about a back-country trip via canoe versus backpack is that you can take a lot more gear, and our 18-foot canoe was well-laden, sitting pretty low in the water. Because of the sediment load in the Green River, we also needed to carry enough water for five days, at least a gallon per person per day in a desert environment plus water for cooking.
Kevin gave us a map of the river, and I was the designated navigator. That meant watching for natural landmarks along the way and trying to relate them to the notes on the map. There are no mile markers or signs of any kind on this stretch of river. We also found that we had to be pretty quick if we wanted to steer into a side canyon, because with the river moving this fast it is easy to miss the turn…and there’s no turning back! All in all, our first day’s paddle was successful. Although we missed one side canyon we wanted to explore, we made it into the one Kevin had recommended for our first campsite, a place where three side canyons come together and meet the river.
And that brings me to the real secret of the river trip….
The river itself is beautiful and solitary. There is bright green vegetation in the “bottoms” at the inside of each curve where the river has piled up sediment for thousands of years, contrasting with red sandstone cliffs and a bright blue cloudless sky. And every mile that took us deeper into Labyrinth Canyon is a lesson in geological time. But the real treasure is found in the side canyons. Most of them are only reachable from the river, but then you can only explore them on foot. And the hiking is absolutely magnificent! We hiked a couple of miles up just one of the three side canyons that first evening, and it was very hard to turn around and come back to camp. “Let’s just see what’s around that next bend….” We could easily have spent the whole five days poking around those three canyons, each of which had multiple side canyons, which in turn had their own side canyons!
The pattern was repeated each day. Our campsites were all very isolated; no neighbors, and indeed we saw very few canoes on the river the whole time. Wonders unfolding before us on the river, and great hikes from our campsites. One day we scrambled up from the canyon floor to the mesa, some 400 feet above us. From that vantage point, all we could see in every direction was desert scrub…and the river far below! Other days we enjoyed afternoon swims in lovely pools of calm, clean water. Aaahhh…..
The Canyonlands region of Utah was the last part of the continental U.S. to be mapped—and we can see why. The Green allowed us to penetrate deep into a mind-boggling and remote place. Except for a few fellow canoeists (and, alas, a few ATVers at the far south end near the take-out point) we saw nothing man-made for 46 miles.
Kevin was right. The river offers endless opportunity for exploration, and even five days was too short. Thanks Jeff, for turning us on to this. Next time, we’ll paddle and hike it together!
Note: The trip was awesome and terrific, and we’d do it again for sure. Lest anyone think we’re just Pollyannaish, we’ll report a couple of uncomfortable moments. Our third campsite was swarming with so many aggressive mosquitoes that Lorrie put on two layers of clothing despite the heat to stop them sucking her blood right through her shirt and pants. One day while we were out hiking, we returned to find a large raven had torn through our see-through dry bag and was feasting on our apples.
A few pictures (click each one for a brief description):
Night sounds in Keg Spring Canyon!