When traveling is a passion, why not share it and bond with friends and family?
Last month, I was off on another one of my treks. This time a close friend and I flew off to Moab, Utah, to spend a week in the outdoors doing some white-water rafting and exploring two of our country’s National Parks – The Arches and Canyonlands. While I could go on forever about the natural beauty and amazing wonders of the two parks, it was the 5-day experience floating down the Green River through Desolation Canyon that will consume the words of this post.
Being a fan of the travels of the 19th-century explorer John Wesley Powell, I’ve retraced many of his boating and hiking trips in and out of the slots of Glen Canyon, the lake he is named for, and through the Grand Canyon. I felt it was about time to see more of where the courageous former Army Major who spent many years of his life on multiple expeditions on behalf of the US Government.
Powell, a lover of geology, was a river adventurer. In his early years, he explored several mid-western waterways, including the Mississippi and the Ohio Rivers. But it was his daring expeditions further west that earned him his fame. Referring to Powell as brave is an understatement for the Union soldier who lost his right arm at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862 and soon thereafter returned to command forces during the siege of Vicksburg and the Battles of Atlanta and Nashville … and in the midst of all that, there he was in the trenches of warfare picking up rocks to study when he found the time!
In August of 1869, the Major launched his first expedition to study the geology of the desert region in the western frontier from Wyoming’s Flaming Gorge Canyon with nine additional men and four simple wooden boats. The journey covered 700 miles over an 11-month period through some of the most barren and driest regions of the United States, which included the canyon he named Desolation in central Utah. Not all of the team of ten were able to endure the treacherous rapids, the scorching heat, and the encounters with the indigenous peoples of the region … to name a few of their hazards. But in the midst of all that, there was Powell in the canyons and gorges picking up rocks and naming places … just doing his thing among the stunning beauty and solitude of those river valleys.
He returned to the Nation’s Capital with fanfare and an incredible story to tell. In 1875, he published his fascinating journal of the expedition, which is still widely read today (you may want to add it to your summer reading list!). In 1881, he was appointed the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey. Amazing accomplishments for a one-armed man!
Having logged at least ten modern day “vacation” river expeditions over the last 25 years throughout the Americas, this was one was planned to be as much an escape from reality in one of my favorite environs, as it was to catch up on some male-bonding with my close friend Richard, who now lives in New England.
Using my favorite river outfitting company, OARS, to organize the trip, we were grouped with 8 other hearty souls, one of whom was “on holiday” from her job in Wellington, New Zealand. With four experienced guides, our adventure was sure to be full of relaxation, fun, exercise, and education about the geology and history of the area.
Our crew was most accommodating, by allowing us to bring along and store enough of our favorite brew to share with our fellow travelers, not to mention providing us three wonderful “river” meals each day, which included eggs and pancakes in the morning and filet of salmon in the evening.
Speaking of evenings, which are one of my favorite parts of a river trip, there is absolutely nothing more stunning than throwing your sleeping bag down on a tarp along the sandy beach by the river and experiencing the full beauty of a starlit night with no ambient light pollution! By the way, my motto is to “Just Say No to Tents!” Despite the slight risk of bears, snakes or other varmints, it’s worth it to wake up throughout the night and see full constellations, falling stars, satellites and even the International Space Station … all with your bare eyes!
The river meanders through some of the most beautiful red and golden plateaued sandstone cliffs that in several places are deeper than those of the Grand Canyon. Vegetation is sparse everywhere, to say the least, within Desolation, except for the lush wash areas at river level where cottonwood, tamarisk, and willow trees reign. Believe it or not, as arid as the climate is, various Native Americans tribes including the Freemont culture, among others, thrived in the canyon for centuries, where they tilled the soil at water’s edge to grow maize, a staple of those indigenous peoples.
Life in the canyon is quite different for the modern-day river trekker. Once on the water, the choice is either relaxing on one of the four large rubber rafts commandeered by one of the guides or manning your own kayak to paddle through the rapids and the long stretches of calm water in between. My tendency this time was to enjoy the solitude of the latter and paddle for much of the 75-mile journey. Along the way, there were hikes to high points and incredibly well-preserved petroglyphs etched into stone centuries ago by the canyon’s early inhabitants.
The great thing about re-bonding with an ol’ buddy is that within seconds of reconnecting, the levels of “crap” that one gives the other returns to full intensity! It took more than the first 24 hours for our traveling companions to get used to the banter that went on between Richard and me. More than anything, it helped to fuel the one and only youth in our group, 14-year-old Noah from Santa Barbara, California, to find one of the many water bazookas which began a 5-day water battle of which everyone gladly participated … some of us more than others!
There is something special about a small group of strangers being tossed together on a river in the middle of nowhere. It doesn’t take long for people to get to know one another … and get along, despite potential personality or philosophical differences. In some ways, I think such an outing should be a requirement of all elected officials across the country! Just imagine our County Executive Jan Gardner and her opponent Kathy Afzali confined to share a two-person kayak for 5 days! Could it change politics as we know it in Frederick County?
For Richard and me, who have always shared opposing political views, none of our differing opinions mattered. The same was true as we conversed and collaborated with our fellow rafters and our crew. Experiencing the pure beauty of this natural untamed wilderness was enough to cause us to think about nothing more than bathing in the peacefulness of our surroundings and praying that others will find their way here someday.
For me, my new young friend Noah added something special to the trip. Being part of a large family all my life, connecting with kids is just a part of who I am, and Noah and I shared a lot of fun making a bow and arrow set complete with feathers and arrowhead! But for father and son (Mark and Noah), it was very special to observe. Having the two of them in our group reminded me of the unforgettable experiences I shared with my own children on similar rafting trips over two decades ago on California’s American River and Idaho’s Snake River. It was then, as I saw it on the Green River last month, a bonding experience like no other.
So, I came away from Desolation Canyon relaxed, energized, and … inspired. Inspired, knowing that each of my 5 grandchildren are coming of the age that I can plan my next river trip with one of them!
How about Cataract Canyon 2019 … and who knows where in 2020?!