Starting the Paddling Trip - Page 2 of 2

[John Scheib, leader of the paddling trip.]   [Ben, captain of the "gear barge".]
This is my friend John, who organized and led the paddling trip.   This is Ben, John's brother-in-law, in the raft (also known as the "gear barge"). There was so much gear that Ben barely had enough room to sit and work the oars.

[Peter, Ben's son.]  
This is Peter, Ben's son (and therefore John's nephew). Although he's paddling in this picture, Peter spent most of the time just drifting down the river and reading a book.  

If you're an east-coast paddler, it's hard to imagine the wide-open spaces of the desert southwest. You can see for dozens of miles, and it takes some time and effort to recalibrate your sense of distance. Also, due to minimal vegetation, erosion runs rampant and creates spectacular landforms that can be observed in minute detail. In our river environment, the natural world was reduced to three basic elements: rock, sky, water.

And mud. Ah yes, mud, I mustn't forget mud. We ran into the mud problem fairly quickly. There were many places, especially away from the main flow of the current, where mudbanks lurked just inches below the surface of the water. Since the water was murky, you couldn't see where the mud was located. If you happened to run into the mud with a kayak, it was relatively easy to back off and get unstuck. With the raft, it was another story. Due to its limited maneuverability, it was much more difficult to get the raft unstuck. In fact, we had our first campsite selected for us when the raft ran aground in the mud and refused to budge.

I say mud, but it was really a gooey mixture of sand, silt, and mud that in some places could legitimately be called quicksand. If you walked out on a "sandbar", you could find yourself sinking up to your knees into brown goo that was difficult to get out of. Some of the difficulties were caused by inappropriate footwear. Sandals were the worst of all. If you were sinking and tried to pull your foot out, the sandal would partially separate from your foot and act as a very effective anchor buried in the muck. Wearing water shoes or low-cut boots wasn't much better – they could be sucked right off your feet. I had medium-cut boots about 10" tall, which were OK but not great. John was wearing lightweight chest waders with strapped-on booties which worked well (though they could get uncomfortably warm and clammy).

When the raft got stuck, we kayakers beached our boats on the firm shoreline further down the sandbar then walked back to help Ben with the raft. At first we tried to push the raft back out into the current, but we were unsuccessful due to the soft mud underfoot. Then we tried to pull it along in the shallow water, walking along the firmest mud we could find. It took all of us pushing and pulling and straining, but we finally got the raft unstuck and safely beached with the kayaks.

Due to our unpleasant introduction to the pitfalls of mud, mud, mud, we decided to call it quits for the day. We set up camp on the high and dry portion of the sandbar; it turned out to be a decent campsite. In my notes, I named each campsite, and I called this one "Island Sandbar". It was located at river mile 47.4 (measured from the confluence with the Colorado River which is mile 0). The put-in this morning at Mineral Bottom was at mile 52.2.

We learned the hard way from our muddy fiasco that you have to develop a keen sense of observation to "read" the river. Since you can't see the bottom (even if it's only inches away), you need to use other clues to avoid sandbars and mudbanks. The easiest way is to look for the slight swirls and ripples that mark the location of the main current flowing in the river – the main current is usually the deepest water. As you paddle (or drift) down the river, you have to maneuver so you always stay in the middle of the main river current. The current has a mind of its own and can sometimes do unexpected things. For example, it can suddenly move to the other side of the river, or perhaps split into large and small currents to go around an underwater sandbar (stay with the large current). When the river curves, the current usually keeps to the outside of the curve, but not always. That's why you have to pay close attention.

Another way to avoid sandbars and mudbanks is to look for the very slight ripple at the downstream end of a sandbar. This is where the flowing water is actively extending the sandbar, and the water makes a slight ripple as it drops off the end of the sandbar. If you see an area of smooth water with a slight ripple at the downstream end, there's probably a sandbar under the smooth water, and the ripple is where it ends. We got to be pretty good at reading the river, but it was still possible to get into trouble. For example, one day it was windy and the wind caused its own ripples on the water. It was very difficult to see where the current swirls were located, or the smooth water and ripples that marked a sandbar.

[Drifting past a cliffside arch.]   [Dealing with the raft, stuck in the mud.]
Heading down the river on day 1, past a large cliffside arch.   I took this picture from the sandbar where the raft got stuck. You can see John (left) and Peter walking gingerly through the mud (notice the walking stick they're using to keep from stumbling in the sticky goo). Ben is waiting patiently where the raft ran aground. We wound up dragging the raft through the shallow water to get it off the mudbank. What an ordeal!

There are five more days of river-running, continuing on the next page.

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