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The Canyon of Desolation

By Ann Driggers

"Early in the spring of 1869 a party was organized for the exploration of the canyons. Boats were built in Chicago and transported by rail to the point where the Union Pacific Railroad crosses the Green River. With these we were to descend the Green to the Colorado, and the Colorado down to the foot of the Grand Canyon.
May 24, 1869 – The good people of Green River City turn out to see us start. We raise our flag, push the boats from shore, and the swift current carries us down".
                --- John Wesley Powell in The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons, originally published in 1875

With those words, as documented in his journal, John Wesley Powell begins the last great exploration of unmapped territory in the continental United States. Some 143 years later we seek to trace a short section of his epic journey, 80 miles of the Green River, through the canyons he names Desolation and Gray. Like many who have been fortunate to spend time on the rivers of the desert southwest, I carried Powell’s story with me, reading about his incredible and adventurous ride through this rough and beautiful land. Although the Green is now much tamer and quieter there were many aspects of his account to which we could relate, in particular the landscape. And some about which we could only imagine - the boldness of their expedition, of rounding a corner in the river, hearing the roar of a rapid, not knowing what lay ahead.

We pushed off from Sand Wash at the mouth of the canyon, now un-tethered both literally and figuratively for we would not be in communication with the outside world for 6 days. Having no flag, I briefly contemplated raising our umbrella in salute to Powell but it was rather blustery. Instead we focused on rowing hard against the headwinds and entering the canyon. Powell, "We enter another canyon, almost imperceptibly, as the walls rise very gently” and then “We find quiet water today, the river sweeping in great and beautiful curves, the canyon walls steadily increasing in altitude….in these quiet curves vast amphitheaters are formed, now in vertical rocks, now in steps….one of these we find very symmetrical and name it Sumner’s Amphitheater

Tired from rowing hard, fighting strong winds from a cold front as it exits the region, we pull over and camp in Gold Hole. We are short of our goal for the day and only 15 miles from put in. A cool, breezy night for us, thankful for our tents and down bags, unlike Powell who writes"The wind blows like a hurricane; the drifting sand almost blinds us; and no where can we find shelter."

The morning dawns clear but cold, the river level has dropped by nearly a foot, making us again concerned about progress as today we will be traveling mostly flat water. I ply the oars hard again, with little relief from a few minor rapids, as we go deeper into the canyon, passing Powell's Lighthouse Rock.

We stop briefly to see an old iron-prowed skiff left by early river runners beneath a cliff.

The cliffs are rarely broken by the entrance of side canyons, and we sweep around curve after curve with almost continuous walls.”

Late afternoon we have made only 16 miles and camp for our second night at the mouth of Cedar Ridge Canyon on a sandy beach under the shade of large stands of cottonwoods. 

A warmer night and no winds means we enjoy a fire and lay our sleeping pads out on the sandy beach beneath a waxing Strawberry Moon.

We awake excited for we are about to enter “a region of the wildest desolation. The canyon is very tortuous, the river very rapid, and many lateral canyons enter on either side….” The lateral canyons flush rocks and debris into the river, constricting it further and here is where the rapids begin. But first we stop to view petroglyphs - evidence that others trod these canyons long before Powell.

We run several large rapids, Steer Ridge, Rock Creek and Snap Canyon amongst many others, all immense fun.

"Piles of broken rock lie against these walls; crags and tower-shaped peaks are seen everywhere, and away above them, long lines of broken cliffs; and above and beyond the cliffs are pine forests, of which we obtain occasional glimpses as we look up through a vista of rocks. The walls are almost without vegetation... We are minded to call this the Canyon of Desolation."

After another balmy, windless night we push off headed for the 'big one'. Joe Hutch Canyon Rapid is considered the largest of all in Desolation Canyon, though only recently formed by a debris flow - an example of how the river may have changed to a greater extent since Powell's trip. Even though several of our group had run this rapid before, the water levels were sufficently different and we felt it worthy of scouting. Chad and Jeb discuss lines:

Before running it:

After Joe Hutch I lost all sense of time, the days defined by the rapids, glorious weather, and the progressively stunning landscape. The nights by good food and company, camps on sandy beaches, sleeping on the raft, lulled to sleep by the gentle flow of the river speckled silver with moon light. I succumbed to the rhythm of the river and it seemed as though time stood still. 

Except it didn't. 

The miles slid past and with every oar stroke the end of our journey neared. 

"We have an exhilarating ride. The river is swift and there are many smooth rapids. I stand on deck, keeping careful watch ahead, and we glide along mile after mile, plying strokes, now on the right and then on the left, just sufficient to guide our boats past the rocks into smooth water. At noon we emerge from Gray Canyon as we have named it..."

Powell continued on down the Green to its meeting with the Grand, whence it becomes the Colorado River and flows into the Grand Canyon. He and his men emerged some two months later.

Our journey, on the other hand, was finished. I didn't want it to end. If I could have rowed back upstream I would, for I have been bitten by the river bug.

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