Desolation Canyon Raft Trip
Sometimes there is an event or series of events that, in review, represents a microcosm of your life, and that microcosm can be helpful in understanding your life why questionable decisions are made. Why did I not report Elder (Phil) Bradley after that first night on my mission? Why did I marry Nancy in spite of all the warnings I received, such as the engine problems and Nancy being too young to get married without her parents permission? Why, when she told me she was going to build a life apart from me with friends (male and female) whom I would never know, and she discussed getting a divorce, did I not pursue the divorce? I could have started over with a marriage to another woman who was not constantly expressing criticism of me and her disappointment in who I was. I could divorced her and have more children who would be raised my a loving mother and father instead of being subjected to the angry, controlling and insecure person I was married to. The only counseling I pursued was an academic counselor who I thought could help me find an alternative to suicide. I was raised to follow directions without question Did I not get a divorce because I did not want to loose my children, or was it because there was no one to tell me to pursue a divorce. A river trip was going to be one of those microcosms.
At the time we moved into our new home in North Salt Lake all the home at our end for the street were new and several families were moving in about the same time. Billy and Betsy War moved into their new home across the street from us. They had a daughter the same age as our daughter Amy. Billy had been transferred in from Denver to work in one of the nearby oil refineries. Like us, they had no idea how conservative a neighborhood they were moving into. They felt snubbed when they noticed that all the other new families on the street received numerous visits from their neighbors often bringing plate cookies, but no one visited them. Billy and Betsy were Catholic, but even though we were active LDS, we also did not fit in either since Nancy worked outside the home. This was frowned upon since the conservative LDS culture favored women staying home to raise their children. It was especially offensive to the LDS housewives who had to justify not working themselves. Billy and Betsy became our closest friends in the neighborhood.
Billy was an engineer for the Husky oil refinery in the valley just west of us. The refinery manager, Al Guraltei and his wife Charla, also moved into a home on our street. He, Billy, and several others at the refinery were river rafting enthusiasts and they were planning on a 4 day, 90 mile trip down the Green River through Desolation Canyon between Vernal and Green River, Utah; a trip that several of them had taken before. They were going in May when the river would be at its highest and the rapids would also be at their highest level. They were confident enough in their abilities that they did not engage a guide for the trip. Billy and Al had two-man Kayaks made by Folboat for them and their wives, but for some reason Betsy could not go, so Billy asked me if I would like to join them and go down the river with him in his two-man Kayak instead of his wife Betsy. Nancy did not have a problem with me going for four days. She even encouraged it. I was sure she had plenty of friends to keep her entertained while I was gone.
The kayak was made of sturdy vinyl over a collapsable frame and could be easily transported in the trunk of a car. I liked Billy and I thought it would a great experience. I had never done river in any kind of boat, let alone in a kayak.
The refinery manager, Al Gualteri and his wife Charla, would be going in their two-man kayak. Five other friends including another couple, an attractive and flirtatious single woman with her boyfriend, and a teenage boy, would also be going not the trip, but they would be riding in a 6-man rubber raft along with the food and cooking equipment. I was new to the group and having had no experience river rafting, and I was a little intimidated.
I was going to go on a kayak 90 miles down the Green River through something called Desolation Canyon when the rapids were at their peak. I figured that if it was my time to die, as it was my father’s when he died of polio, this would be a fun way to go, and if not, it would be a great experience that I would never forget. I knew only Billy, and all the others worked together at the refinery, but I was sure, by the end of the trip, we would be well acquainted with each other.
Al and Charla seemed to have the most experience and was leading the group and acting as our guides. Billy assured me kayaking down a river was not too difficult and I would have no problem picking up the basics. I had paddled a canoe at scout camp as a boy scout, so I figured I could pick up the rest.
We all met downtown at a restaurant to get acquainted, plan the meals, go over the logistics, and determine how much the trip would cost. Not having to pay for a guide, made the cost quite reasonable. The food would be mostly dehydrated, but we would have a large cooler for the few things that needed to be kept cool. We also needed to pack our own drinking water, since the Green River earned its name from an abundance of algae and other contaminants. We could also either boil water from the river or use chemicals to purify the water for cooking and for drinking. Billy and I were to share a two-man pup tent that we had to carry in our kayak. Our sleeping bags, clothing, and personal items, were in water-tight bags tied to the inside of the kayak.
Desolation Canyon was a long canyon with little access except by the river. The water would be mostly calm or light rapids at first, but would turn to serious rapids later on down the river. There are several rating systems for rapids, and in this case, they were rated from one to ten. Ten was the most difficult rating, and was found in Catarack Canyon on the Colorado River within the Grand Canyon. The highest degree of difficulty on our trip would be an eight. We would be traveling in the last half of May during the season with the highest volume of water which would make the trip more challenging.
At the restaurant, I was offered a cup of coffee, and being my usual flirtatious self and the only non coffee drinking Mormon in the group, I turned down the coffee and said, “If I do any sinning on this trip, I am not going to waste it on a cup for coffee.” I really did not have any sinning in mind, and it seemed like a harmless joke, but Billy must have not only noticed the comment, but taken it seriously, because in the tent the first night, he mentioned that the attractive single woman in our group had a social disease. I was fully committed to Church standards and was surprised that he had taken my comment seriously enough to feel the need to warn me about her. I admit, the conversation was arousing.
Al had arranged for a couple of vehicles to get all of us and our equipment to Sand Wash, a place on the Green River down stream from Vernal, Utah, where we would launch the boats and get on the river. Al also arranged for our vehicles to be driven to Green River for our trip home.
When we reached Sand Wash, we setup our collapsible kayak, attached our personal items, and went through some basic instruction. A kayak is very agile and easy to upright if it overturns, but a two-person kayak is a little more cumbersome. Not only is it larger and heavier, but it takes some coordination between the two people. For instance, in the case being overturned, it needs to be discussed ahead of time what direction to attempt to upright the kayak, or the two people will fight each other and never get upright. Normally one person paddles on one side of the kayak, while the other person paddles on the other side to keep it going straight and when a rapid turn is required, a quick response needs to be rehearsed. There is also the drill for getting out of the kayak quickly if it is upside down and the uprighting action does not seem to work. We would release the ties holding the watertight skirt around our waist and do a kind of forward summersault while holding on to the sides of the kayak. We ran through it quickly for my sake since everyone else was experienced.
Once we were on the river, it became evident that kayaks traveled considerably faster than the rubber rafts, so the kayaks had to slow the pace occasionally and wait for the rubber raft to avoid getting too far ahead of them.
The first day we encountered a few small rapids, but nothing that required any special attention. We found a place to camp in the afternoon leaving us plenty of time to make camp, set up the tents, cook and eat a meal before dark. The food seemed to be plentiful and tasty and the cooks had the necessary experience with dehydrated foods.
The second day, was still mostly calm water, with the exception of a few more serious rapids. I was having a great time in the kayak and the scenery was spectacular. Everyone got along well, we hunted scorpions and cut open a barrel cactus. I had never seen a barrel cactus before and found the inside was very watery like a melon, but tasted more like a tomato and was an obvious source or water if one was stranded in a desert. Later on we sat around telling stories and commenting on the experiences of the day. We all seemed to be having a great time.
Once we got into Desolation Canyon, the scenery was even more amazing. The canyon walls were 200-300 foot high on either side and it was obvious why it was called Desolation Canyon. It is hard to believe how anyone could get in or out of the canyon expect by boat. We did see one abandoned cabin and what looked like an old road, so there must have been a road into the canyon.
It was not easy to find enough level ground to camp for the night. The rapids got increasingly more difficult in the canyon, and by the third day, the rapids were difficult enough that we had to stop above the rapids, get out of the boats, and look at the rapids to strategize as to the best approach. The more severe rapids changed the overall experience from a peaceful sightseeing journey down the Green River to a technically challenging and dangerous adrenalin high. More and more, the rapids represented life-threatening challenges. Most people run the river in rubber rafts, but two-man kayaks are a different story. The fun and excitement of the easier rapids of the previous day were augmented by an element of fear. By the end of the third day, we were drenched and exhausted when it was time to make camp. Thanks to our waterproof equipment bags, we were able to get into dry clothing and sleeping bags. The stories we told around the campfire reflected the most severe challenges of the day.
The next day the rapids were even more challenging, and two in particular were the most difficult of the entire trip. One was Rattlesnake Rapids where the river flowed forcefully into a rock wall and made a sharp left turn. The turbulence caused by high water flow in May made that turn in the river especially savage. We beached the boats well above the rapids and walked as close as we could to the bend in the river, but we still could not get a good enough view to identify the best strategy. As far as we could see, there was not one place in the rapids better than another to shoot for. The entire river was churning, muddy rapids with no apparent focal point. We decided the best approach was to stay as far away as possible from that rock wall where the water was most turbulent. We got back into the boats and it became every boat for itself when we entered Rattlesnake Rapids.
Billy and I had to work hard to keep our kayak upright and facing down stream. The flow was so swift that it did not take long to pass through the roughest part. When the water became calm, we looked around for the others. We saw the raft, but there was no sign of Al and Charla in the other two-man kayak. We finally did see their overturned kayak up river from us. We waited for them to upright their kayak, but there was still no sign of them. We feared the worst and after what seemed like too long, we saw a couple of heads bob up in the rapids up river from us and Al and Charla’s kayak. We immediately rowed to the heads and could not see any signs of life. We reached for them and grabbed their life jackets. We could not bring them aboard the kayak since it could not hold more than two people. We were relieved to see they were both breathing, but too exhausted to say or do anything. Al and Charla were able to hold on to our kayak as we paddled to shore. Kayaks may be easy to maneuver normally, but with two people hanging onto them, they are extremely slow. We finally got to shore while the others of our group in the raft went after the kayak and oars.
Later, they explained that the force of the rapids had capsized them, and the current held them under the water with such strength that their life jackets had little effect, and they could not get to the surface. While getting them to shore, we floated far enough down stream to be in calmer water, and when they had enough of their strength back, we reunited them with their kayak and oars. We were all happy they had survived. If the most experience couple barley made it out of those rapids alive and we had made it easily, maybe it was not our time to go.
The next major set of rapids was created by another river called Clear Creek that flowed into the Green. It was rated more difficult than Rattlesnake Rapids and the rapids were huge. There was more open terrain, and when we beached and walked along the shore, we were able to get a good view of the rapids. There was a large rock toward the far side of the river and a clear “V” in the middle of the river leading into some very high white water. It looked like there was calmer water on the far side of the big rock, but we could not see the flow on the other side or the rock. The others decided to head for the middle of the river and the “V”, but Billy and I decided to shoot for the other side of the big rock.
Out group was not alone on the river at that point. There were some other people on the other side of the river taking movies of their friends as they negotiated the rapids. When they saw our kayaks, I am sure they wanted to hang around to see the crazy kayakers give it a try. I never did find a way to contact the John Ford wannabes to get a copy of our attempt. It would have been nice.
As Billy and I ventured to the far side of the rock, it became evident that we had possibly made a mistake. The rapids were smaller, but the force of the river was pushing us into the big rock faster than we could move around it. I was in front and tried to push us away from the rock with my oar, and in so doing, broke the oar and we capsized. We were not wearing helmets, and the water was just shallow enough that my first thought was to keep my head from hitting the rocks on the bottom as I was upside down in the capsized kayak. It was kind of like walking on my hands along the rocky bottom of the river. That worked for a while, but I needed to breathe. I don’t know what Billy was doing, but I remembered our drill on righting our kayak and went through the motions. After a couple of tries, that did not seem to work. I remembered the forward summersault drill, and I used that to get out of the kayak and did it without hitting my head on any of the rocks. I guess it was still not my time to go. Billy and I were shaken, but both unhurt. I had broken my oar and had to get by with half an oar for the rest of the trip.
The rest of the trip was uneventful, partly because the rapids were not as severe and partly because we were now old pros at river rafting. We got off the river a little above the town of Green River. We could not go any further because there is a small dam above the town. The River below the town of Green River is another great rafting trip. It goes through Moab and the confluence where the Green River combines with the Colorado River, then into Lake Powell. I had experienced enough excitement for one trip and was not disappointed to get out of the river.
The vehicles were there in Green River as we expected. It took us a while to get the boats folded and loaded into the truck along with all our other gear. Then we found a small cafe and went in to have a real meal. It was certainly not a 5-star restaurant, but after four days of freeze-dried food, nothing could have tasted better. Everyone but the teenage boy and I ordered beer. I guess if you are a beer drinker, a beer after four days without, is a big deal. I felt like I needed to order one, too, until I realized we were off the river and I no longer needed to follow our leader.
Everyone talked about what a great trip we had. We talked about how close Al and Charla came to not surviving the trip, how happy we were that they did, and the excitement of walking on my hands on the rocks underneath the kayak. We also talked about the spectacular scenery and the magnificence of the 90-mile Desolation Canyon trip and when and where the next rafting trip would be.
While negotiating the Rattlesnake Rapids or walking on with hands on the rocks while upside down in the kayak, I was not afraid. I made it through the Rattlesnake Rapids and I got out of my kayak in the Clear Creek Rapids. I was only bummed that I broke the oar. I was doing what I was told. There was no reason to think I might get hut or drown. It was only afterwards when we were discussing the events of the day that I understood I could have died. If I had run out of options as how to get out of the kayak, I may have become afraid. Why should I think for myself if I had instructions to follow.
Why did I marry Nancy in spite of all the warnings I received, such as the engine problems and her being too young to get married? Why, when she told me she was going to build a life apart from mine with friends (male and female) whom I would not get to know, and she discussed getting a divorce, did I not pursue the divorce? I could cut my losses and start my life over with another mate who was not constantly expressing criticism of me and her disappointment in my life. I could have more children who would be raised my a loving mother and father instead of subjecting those additional children to the angry, controlling and insecure person I was married to. I did not even consider this. The only counseling I pursued was an academic counselor who I thought could help me find an alternative to suicide. Was it just because I did not want to loose my children, or was it just because no one told me to pursue a divorce. I was taught to follow directions? I saw no other options. Did I stay married to Nancy because there was no one else to tell me what to do?
A few years later, Nancy and I moved to Denver, and we never saw Billy and Betsy again. The last I heard, that they had moved to Cody, Wyoming. We never did that next trip. I went on one or two-day trips on rafts, but nothing like that four-day trip down Desolation Canyon.