Paddling Through the Desert - Page 3 of 5

[Our desert campsite, viewed from the river.]   [The bathroom at desert camp.]
Cleaning up Tuesday morning in preparation for leaving desert camp. You can see the inlet that allowed us to easily beach the boats, and also the low rocky cliff where we set up our kitchen.   The "bathroom with a view" at desert camp (see text for comments).

Day 3, Tuesday, March 16, 1999

Since I showed you what our "bathroom" looked like, I will offer a few comments about the "facilities". Canyonlands regulations require that all river parties carry and use a portable toilet. By regulation, it's OK to pee on the ground, but anything else must go in the toilet. We rented our toilet from Tag-A-Long for $25, which I thought was a reasonable price. The toilet was of excellent quality, and consisted of a sturdy box of welded aluminum with a sturdy lid secured by a sturdy band clamp. The key word here is "sturdy" – they designed it so it wouldn't break or leak while being transported. Daily setup was easy. It had two metal handles so one or two people could carry it from the raft. Then you unsnapped the band clamp and removed the lid. They provided a standard-size toilet seat in a dry bag. The underside of the seat had a metal sleeve that fit securely in the lid opening. Ours easily held 24 man-days of use; Tag-A-Long dumped it and cleaned it at the end. It was so easy to use and so comfortable it seemed like a decadent luxury on a wilderness trip like this, but if you have the space, it was well worth the price.

Last night was quite chilly, and we found ice in the dish-washing basin this morning. We were lucky on this trip to have nice weather. Although rain was forecast one day, it failed to materialize. I imagine a site like Desert Camp would be a real mess in the rain, since the dry red dust would turn into slimy mud. The sandy camps would have been OK, even in the rain. Most days were clear to partly cloudy (except for an overcast day when it was supposed to rain), with cool temperatures. In the evening, the desert cooled rapidly, and the nights were downright chilly. Most nights it went below freezing, since upon rising the next morning we usually found frost on our gear and ice in the dish-washing basin. It warmed up rapidly during the morning. According to weather statistics, the average high and low temperatures in March are 55 and 30, the extreme high and low are 85 and 7. By comparison, the July averages are 92 and 62, the extremes 111 and 38.

During the day, I usually wore short pants and a tee-shirt, plus a windbreaker, hat, sunglasses, PFD (life preserver), and my neoprene booties. Once we set up camp, I dried my feet and put on shoes and socks, then added fleece outerwear as required to handle the chill of the evening. While sleeping, I wore long johns (top and bottom), fleece pants and shirt, fleece socks, woolen gloves, and a fleece/wool watch cap. I used a medium-weight sleeping bag (synthetic insulation) inside a bivouac sack, on top of a 3/4-size Thermarest pad. I used a rolled-up jacket as a pillow. This made for quite comfortable sleeping, although sometimes my face would get cool since I was sleeping exposed under the stars.

[Dramatic river scenery.]   [Lunch stop on a sandbar with the Sphinx in the background.]
Dramatic river scenery (about mile 31.4).   Lunch stop on a sandbar at mile 26.5, with the Sphinx in the background.

Our lunch stop this day was on a sandbar at about mile 26.5 near the Sphinx (some of the more notable rock formations have names). Our campsite was on the left-hand side at about mile 25.5, and consisted of a medium-width but long-length sandy beach with a shallow inlet for the boats. The lumpy sand was somewhat uncomfortable to sleep on, compared to the dry dust of last night.

Our usual way of selecting a campsite was to scrutinize the map for possibilities, then a fast kayak would go ahead to scout locations. The scout would mostly look for a good place to beach the boats, especially the raft which was difficult to maneuver. The scout also looked for adequate space for the tent and some way to get from the river to the tent area. After finding a site, the scout would paddle back to the group to report his findings. We would then try very hard to have the raft properly positioned and help Ben guide the raft to the landing. I frequently used my soft-nosed Klepper as a tugboat to push the raft in the proper direction. The raft basically got one chance to land. If it missed the approach or had some other problem, the current would carry it past the landing and it would be impossible to row back upstream. I decided after the fact that it would have been very handy to have a set of FRS radios so individuals could communicate without having to paddle back and forth to speak in-person. The raft required enough lead time to get in position that the scout kayak really had to race back and forth between the landing and the raft.

Upon landing, we would beach the boats if possible and secure each boat with two mooring lines. River levels can change and we didn't want to wake up and find that a previously high and dry boat had refloated and disappeared. We would unload all the necessary gear and carry it to the camp site. A camp site would have three separate areas: a sleeping area (for the tent and my bivvy sack), a kitchen area (with the plastic tarp for a "table", stoves, lantern, collapsible chairs, ice chest, storage bin, water jug, dish-washing station), and a bathroom area (located well away from the other areas, with some privacy). It was fairly time-consuming to set up and take down the camp every day, especially repacking all the gear and securing it to the raft.

We rented a fire pan from Tag-A-Long (since ground fires are prohibited), but it was rather heavy and cumbersome. We heard of people using the metal lid from a garbage can as a fire pan; this would probably be a better idea. Ben liked to make big fires, so after setting up camp he would scour the area for firewood. Some sites had plenty, some sites very little. We would drown the fire before retiring, then next morning dump the ashes in the river (as requested by regulations, nowadays I think you're supposed to carry out your ashes). Needless to say, you're required to carry out all your trash.

I was surprised by the scarcity of good landings, despite 50+ miles of river to choose from. Most of the river was lined with 4'- to 7'-high steeply-sloped silty banks that would be awkward to scale at best. At the bottom of the bank at river level, there was usually a several-foot-wide strip of gooey mud. At the top of the bank, there was usually a zone of thick vegetation about 50' wide (mostly tamarisk shrubs/trees) that for all practical purposes was impenetrable. You could undoubtedly force your way through in an emergency, but it would be difficult and you would get scratched. Behind the tamarisk zone was open desert or rocky scree. Occasionally, the riverbanks were lower, but sometimes sheer cliffs or rocks came right down to the river. The landing situation could change dramatically if the river level changed; my comments apply to the moderately low level we encountered.

Here are some suggestions for finding landings. Where the river curved, sometimes there would be a sandbar on the inside of the curve. If there was enough sand and not too much mud, you could beach the boats and camp on the sandbar. A sandbar sometimes occurred as an island in the middle of the river; this could also be a potential campsite. Sometimes the downstream end of a sandbar had an inlet angling back into the sandbar. This would let you beach the boats out of the current. Where a side canyon joined the main canyon, there was usually a cut in the riverbank which could be a potential landing. The cut in the riverbank could extend inland and be navigable, which could make an excellent landing out of the current. As you traveled down the river, sometimes you could spot a trail leading down to the river. This usually meant there was a good campsite on top of the riverbank. One of our sites had a great camping location but a very poor river landing. There was no place to beach the boats, just a narrow ledge that was swept by the current. We moored the boats extra carefully that day.

Day 4, Wednesday, March 17, 1999

[John with the "Turk's Head" in the background.]   [Canoes pulling into Deadhorse Canyon inlet.]
John with the "Turk's Head" rock formation in the background (about mile 21.5).   A group of canoes pulling into the inlet at Deadhorse Canyon (mile 19.7) while we were eating lunch.

Our lunch stop was up a short side creek at Deadhorse Canyon, at about mile 19.7 on the right-hand side. Although we only ate lunch, this would have been an excellent campsite, with room for two or three small groups. The boats were easy to moor in the side creek, but there was only a small and very muddy ledge to step out on followed by a short but steep climb up the riverbank (with overhanging branches).

Our campsite was on the right-hand side at about mile 14.4, just downstream from the mouth of Horse Canyon. There was a small side creek for easy landing. The campsite was up a several-foot high silty bank and was rather small but OK. The entire site was on unstable silt; there were several cracks in the ground and the edges were slumping into the side creek, which was not very reassuring. On the other side of the site, there were some dry reeds then the talus slope of the canyon. The bed of the side creek continued upwards as a side canyon. A hiking trail followed the side canyon and led to a jeep trail, but it would be a long walk and drive before you could get anywhere. Immediately downstream from the side creek, there were several big snags in the main river. They could easily be avoided by keeping to the right and following a clear chute.

The river trip continues on the next page.

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