Desolation Canyon in July is a primer in mosquito seasons, and hot enough to earn John Wesley Powell's description, "desolate." Our publisher arranged the trip with Dvorák's Kayak & Rafting Expeditions. Leland elects to explore the plateaus west of the Green River (also in the proposed wilderness area) and I am nominated to explore along the river.

(This text is an excerpt from a compendium of travel diaries. It is copyrighted material, please do not copy without permission. lynna.howard@mac.com.)

     One of the BLM's standards for proposed wilderness is "opportunities for solitude." The approach road we take seems headed for the biggest Nowhere on the planet. The sense of loneliness increases when the road dives down into Sand Wash and follows the flash flood plain deeper and deeper into cliffs that crumble like cake. The Green River cuts deeply into the Tavaputs Plateau. Opportunities for solitude are extensive on the plateau, but hard to come by along the river corridor.

    Most of the tourists that come to raft or kayak the river arrive by small plane from the town of Green River, Utah. They land on a dirt strip on the plateau and walk down to the boat launch. Because they don't drive the long dirt roads, many tourists arrive without an overall sense of place. Much of the proposed wilderness area are not included in their experience. The river corridor is like Main Street in a wild west town. All the activity centers there, but one block away civilization ends.

    Broad and silty, the Green River is not green, but milky brown. It begins as a clear mountain stream in Wyoming's Wind River Mountains, but is a big beast of a river by the time it reaches Desolation Canyon. The river was a barrier to travelers on the Oregon Trail and for ranchers that arrived later. From 1920 to 1952, a ferry at Sand Wash charged to take wagons, stock, and sheep across the river. Now only the sun-faded, dust-crusty remains of a cabin and stables tell a silent tale of old entrepreneurial efforts.

    Desolation Canyon is 59 river miles long, stretching from Sand Wash in the north to Three Fords Canyon in the south. There are about fifty riffles and rapids in this stretch and their intensity varies greatly with the water flow and with changes wrought by flash floods and landslides. From Desolation Canyon, the river flows downstream through Gray Canyon, both named by John Wesley Powell. At Gray Canyon the geology changes, with the rocks being mostly of the Mesa Verde Formation. For most river runners, the noticeable difference is the open feel of 36-mile long Gray Canyon.

    I find a petroglyph panel above my tent site. A beautifully rendered buffalo and several desert bighorn sheep have been pecked into the rock. About 800 to 1000 years ago, Fremont Indians produced this art by picking patterns into the desert varnish on a vertical section of the cliff.

    At Firewater Canyon we beach again, this time for a short hike to view the ruins of a moonshiner's cabin and still; and to fill water bottles at the spring. The rock hut of the bootlegger, complete with many tools of the trade, a rotting coat hanging from a hook, and some rock and bone tools from the Fremont Indian era make up an outdoor, in situ museum. Nearby juniper berries provide the makings for gin. Later discussions reveal that the male guides and two of the male guests know a surprising amount of technical detail related to concocting illicit liquor. The Brits, Irishmen, and Americans are completely in sync on this issue.

    In the morning, a couple of us paddle an inflatable kayak across two lines of small rapids to see bear prints. It is here, or at nearby Three Fords Rapid that Powell's party had trouble, "We come to a long, bad fall, where the rocks on the left turn the waters to the right. Bradley is knocked over the side; his foot catching under the seat, he is dragged along in the water, head down. Powell pulls him in."

    At Three Fords Rapid, we officially leave Desolation Canyon and enter Gray Canyon. The cliff walls are lower and sparse plant life becomes even sparser. From here on down to the town of Green River there are many more trails, cow paths, 4WD roads and places remembered for their outlaw history. We camp early near Range Creek Rapid. Desert Bighorn Sheep parade around for our edification on the eastern bank. Well, we've had bears and landslides, now we need Bighorn Sheep. The sheep are colored like the rocks and are hard to see until they move. There are more bear prints on the sandbar downriver from our camp and a three-foot long snake meanders through the tent site. Some of the guests are starting to say that there might be a bit too much wildlife.

Christy Klug and Will Robards, river guides for Dvorak Kayak & Rafting enjoy a break in Desolation Canyon. Christy is licking the wrapper of a Luna Bar.
Photo by Lynna Howard

Clouds roll in and soften the scene where the Green River creates a series of play waves for expert kayakers. Dave, a guide from Ireland, dances with the water.

Black bear tracks along the banks of the Green River.
Photo by Lynna Howard.