Colorado Springs, Colorado
Paddling Since: 1984
Join Date: Jul 2014
Desolation Trip Report
This is more personal narrative than trip report.
I had fun writing this. Maybe a few of you will enjoy the story.
I know, I know; I shouldn't be on the river if I can't fix my boat. Please spare me the lecture.
July 21 - 26
CFS 3500 - 3000
Temps 97 - 103 during day/60's at night. The heat was stunning from about 2 -6pm every day
Bugs - A few mosquitoes early on, some nasty deerfly looking flies throughout
Bears - We saw none. Comrades saw a bear at Log Cabin jump in the river and swim over to Rock Creek
My wife and children (11 and 9) and I ran a friend's 16' Avon down Deso. We used River Runners out of Vernal for our shuttle; completely reliable folks. The last few miles of the road into Sand Wash had flooded recently and the drive in took an additional 45 minutes on slippery mud. We blew up the boat and wedged it among the others so as to be able to rig in the morning. The bugs were mostly gone but we were still glad to have the Bradley Cabin the night before launch.
Katie (sp?) the Ranger was bright and perky, and we launched under blue sky in light winds. A couple of motored groups passed by; I'd left an engine at home b/c I didn't want to deal with the fuel, mount, etc and b/c the forecast predicted mild winds. And so it was.
By late afternoon we were above Rock House Riffle when a loud pop/hiss/gurgle preceded the collapse of our floor. Suddenly we were in a bucket boat without a bucket. We pulled out at Stampede, unrigged, flipped the boat, sent Maggie underneath w/ the pump hose, soaped the floor and pumped. We found the leak underneath the floor’s 6th drainage hole on the front right of the raft, an awkward spot. It looked like a seam had separated slightly.
We opened my friend’s repair kit and immediately felt the tug of trouble. He is a former aircraft mechanic, prepared to fix anything anywhere, and the ammo box was stuffed with more glues than seemed necessary and a few tools we didn’t recognize and at least three types of valves and a variety of tapes and patches and, of course, no instructions. It was near dusk but still 95 degrees, we were all bitten, burned, hungry and cranky, we were filthy from mucking around on that muddy beach where our gear was strewn, and I had no confidence that we could fix the hole in our boat. But Michelle would have none of it. She remained upbeat and encouraging, she led a family cheer earlier when we found the hole, and now she insisted we could handle this. She gave us jobs, organized camp, and fixed supper before we lost light.
We then chose a glue and carefully dabbed at the hole. I only drank three beers that night instead of the four I’d budgeted for. I didn’t know when we’d get off this river.
We woke early, turned the boat over and rigged in the gray light. Our plan now was to manage the boat to Jack’s and look for help, thinking that Jack’s has a flat beach/work area where many groups stop to take stock. We hoped we could at least find someone to advise us. As we loaded, a raft drifted by with a young couple running it. It still wasn’t much past 7am. The girl said they had camped that night on the huge beach below Rock House Riffle, river left, and her dad had awakened before dawn and found one of their boats gone. He’d told his daughter and then jumped in a duckie to chase it down; they were now chasing after him about an hour later, w/ the rest of the group still at camp. The dad chased that boat all the way to Cedar Ridge, where he waited for his group to catch up. And now the best part: the missing boat had drifted 75 yards upstream in the beach eddy, where it had parked and waited.
We rigged the leaky Avon with all the weight on the frame, put the kids on the tubes and a few puffs in the floor, and pushed off. The long drift around Peter’s was easy enough, w/ a bit of a tailwind, and we bounced thru Jack’s without taking on water. The beach at Jack’s was empty, and after a half hour we decided to push on. The boat was a bit sluggish, the floor was flat, and water filled the raft when we stepped on the floor, but one way or another we had to take it downstream. We fought the pm wind and were happy to camp at Cedar Ridge 1 with its glorious shade tree. And that’s when the helicopter arrived.
The chopper came over the west wall and almost directly over our camp, with a long cable and a large bucket underneath. It hovered over the river above Firewater Rapid, very near the takeout for the moonshiner’s hike. The pilot lowered the bucket into the river, and in less than two minutes he was climbing out of the canyon behind Nutter’s Rock. He came back a half dozen times that afternoon, a noisy jarring disruption of our solitude, and a way cool thing to watch. I later found out firefighters were dealing with a large blaze about 20 miles west of our Deso campground that afternoon.
There seemed little chance of signaling the pilot and arranging for my crippled boat and tired family to be flown out of the canyon, so I began talking to passing floaters about our Avon. A two boat group landed at Cedar Ridge 3, and the TL agreed to come look at our boat after he’d set camp. Jake was just who we needed. He evaluated the damage, helped us unrig (again), helped us set the boat at an angle to drain and dry the spot. He came back an hour later, mixed glue, and using scissors, sticks and four hands managed to smear a half cup of glue in and around the hole. We then clamped the spot b/t an ammo can and a rock. Jake said goodnight as the light faded.
The next morning, our 3rd on the river, we rigged our boat from scratch for the 3rd time. We pumped the floor about half way and it held. Jake dropped by for the celebration and we were on the water.
The floor held up well for the next two days. I thought a big wave on the right might dislodge the glue, and I tried to baby that side. And so, of course, we kissed the wall at Lower Wild Horse, a rapid that seems to have more kick at lower levels. At Steer Ridge, you can’t go too far left at the entrance, but the rapid itself is pretty mild at this level. Below Steer Ridge the wind picked up and we were going nowhere. I was rowing from a paco pad laid across a box, a new experience for me, and I’ll never go back to a chair. Here’s why. I moved a little left on the paco and Michelle sat next to me. We each worked a single oar with two hands ineffectively for a few minutes, then found our rhythm and pounded that boat downstream. We did this three or four times in Gray’s; I like working next to my girl, and I felt stronger throughout the day because of her help.
We camped at Three Canyon with its football field beach and spectacular shade, but with the temp at 103 all Michelle and I wanted was a nap. The kids swam and played soccer and ran around the beach and generally made me feel crippled and old. That night we set the tent but slept out and watched the storms flash in the night. Around 5 – 530am we heard thunder up canyon, where a darker cloud now rumbled in the gray sky. Michelle and I decided to start packing up, and here is a vivid memory. It is 75 degrees, and we are naked, pink and brown, walking up and down this soft white sand beach under low light and low clouds with our belongings, and the clouds keep changing colors, and there are shafts of sunlight but no sun, and there’s lightning and thunder to the north, and the wind swirls and raindrops fall and stop and fall, and we are carrying our things to the boat, to leave. We were surprisingly inefficient trying to leave that beach: the strange light and weird beauty was distracting, but even more, the storm was oppressive, seeming to say Danger! Danger! Hide in the Tent Puny Humans. Getting on the water during a storm is counterintuitive, and it took some effort to stay focused on doing just that.
We were floating by 8am, under gray skies and on easy water. At Red Point, a small rapid, I took the right center channel and immediately hung up on two or three rocks; the run must be left. Michelle threw herself against the front of the boat, trying to inch us off the rocks. I stepped out of the back of the boat on to a rock, a move that spooked my kids (Where’s Papa going?). After a few minutes we finally jiggled and wiggled ourselves off the rocks and slid down the river to the first Joe Hutch, an easy channel between boulders.
I never used to scout the second Joe Hutch, either before or after the flood. The run was always down the tongue and have fun. But lots of groups seem to be taking a look beforehand, and we did too. And maybe it has changed, is less the wave train of the ‘90’s and more about three waves. We followed Jake and his wife into the rapid (we’d met up at the scout): left of the 1st wave (a thunderous run-able hole at high water) and straight into the 2nd wave. Except Jake went a little left and his wife went a little right and they both missed most of the 3rd wave on their respective sides. I took the tourist route, headfirst into both waves, pleased by the squeaks and screams of my family.
When we pulled into the eddy at McPherson’s for lunch, the floor was flat again, the boat filling with water with every step.
Johnny and Maggie took about 100 pictures on their cameras in Deso, and 80 of them are of the wreckage of the Ouray Lodge. The destruction is fascinating, and the presence of a bat in one room added to the charm. We took a picture of the four of us in the door way of the McPherson ranch house. It is the same picture Michelle and I took 21 summers ago, in 1993.
We slogged on down to Wire Fence, avoiding weight on and talk of the damn floor. The 1st two camps were taken, but the group that lost their boat the 1st night was lunching on the beach at the 3rd camp and waved us in. They soon moved on, and another group arrived with 20 folks on commercial rafts and a half dozen duckies. We invited them to share the beach and Halleluiah!: within an hour I had a cold Baba in one hand and a halibut taco in the other. The group was a couple of former guides, the families they’d raised, a friend’s family, a few current guides from the same company, a mix of personal and company EQ…. But damn the logistics, these folks could cook, and we enjoyed talking till sunset about parenting, rivers and recycling plants while all the kids splashed in the river and ran through the dunes.
We woke up early. I wanted to run Three Fords with this group in case we ran into trouble, but the floor had managed some type of magical self-repair in the night, and we cautiously pumped enough air in to let it slough water. Three Fords has a left of center entrance at higher levels, but on this day it was follow the current (not the bank) on the right, slip over the 1st wave, stay off the wall and hold on. And our floor held just fine. We floated much of Gray’s with our Wire Fence Friends, thru Range Creek (doesn’t look like you can get left of that rock, but you will) and Rabbit Valley. The push to Coal Creek was slow and slower, as usual.
Coal Creek seemed different to me. There was debris on the rocks coming out of the canyon and leading to the tongue, but I couldn’t tell if this was from high water or a recent flash in the canyon. The current leading to the rapid wasn’t as pushy as in the past; we were able to hang at the entrance for 10 – 15 seconds and pick a line, almost pool/drop style. The rest of the run was as always a straightforward maze of boulders, but the entrance struck me as broader, easier, less intimidating. Probably just senelity.
Our friends camped at Coal Creek, and we floated down to Poverty for the night. Except there was no camping at Poverty; the long narrow beach was covered in logs, sticks, snags, and trees resembling Viking warships, with only a few patches of open sand at the downstream end. We coasted on to Rattlesnake, letting the kids swim behind the boat while holding the bowline.
I have bad luck at Rattlesnake. This day was no exception. Usually I run a paddleboat too close to that big mother wave and come out sideways and lose a passenger or hit a hole backwards or clip a rock or celebrate too early. On this day I pointed perfectly at what was a mild mother wave, pulled off the rock, and set my left oar to pivot. But the blade hit a rock. And stuck. The oar lifted out of my hand, out of the boat, stood straight up. I thought for a moment the entire boat might rise up on the oar, like a pole-vaulter, and crash back into the river. But the blade slipped free and the oar fell into the water, held close by the keeper strap. We pulled the oar up and slammed it into the oarlock, the water sloshing around my knees in the boat. It only took about ten seconds to regain control of the boat as we slid sideways thru the bottom of Rattlesnake, but during that brief time my sweet children heard some incredibly loud and extremely offensive language.
The group at the Rattlesnake camp had four or five boats stretched from one end of the beach to the other, a clear sign to other floaters, but I asked anyway. The TL, a Guy from Salida, said he’d shared the camp the previous night and did not want to again. The vibe was sullen and unhappy, and we were off the beach in minutes.
We camped at Nefertiti, as far downstream of the put-in as possible. The cottonwoods here are wonderful, and they come with a picnic table, a pit toilet and a parking lot. We thought the locals might come out to celebrate Pioneer Days with guns and beer and what-all, and there were the remains of two bonfires on the beach, but only one car came up the road all afternoon, at dusk, and it barely slowed before heading back downstream. What we did get was the Boys from Burma.
A middle-aged guy wearing a missionary’s smile and a dirty Hagger golf shirt walked across the beach. He talked about his trip for 15 minutes, and the short of it is: He and a handful of LDS guides had brought 30+ Burmese boy scouts/refugees/orphans down Deso. Some of the boys spoke some English, and a few of them had been on a river. Can you imagine: a mob of 16 year olds, eager, inexperienced, in the Utah desert, 12,000 miles from home. He said two of the boys oared boats thru Coal Creek, and two others took an IK far right on Three Fords and underneath the leaning rock. That’s hard to believe, but he said he had it on video and would post it. His group camped at the put-in and politely spilled across the upstream end of the beach.
Those boys were still snoring when my family took to the water the next morning. We knew the takeout would be busy on a Saturday and we chose to try to get down there early. The only boats to beat us out were two from the Rattlesnake camp that coasted downstream at about 7am. I had the thought that someone was running a semi-permanent camp at Rattlesnake, passing the beach on to friends and acquaintances, but that’s probably just me being pissy.
At Butler we saw a group packing to leave. On the front of one boat was a gigantic box, and onto it two guys were strapping the largest set of elk horns I’ve ever seen, skull attached. The group had a commercial logo on their boats, but none of the crew looked like paying customers. It was an odd scene that has stuck with me, something seeming fishy. Is it legal to remove things like this from public land?
The float to Swasey’s was easy, my kids each taking the oars for a stretch of slack water. We unrigged and ran, and there is nothing else to tell, because leaving the river is always a sadness into which I’d rather not delve. However, the return to civilization came with one consolation I never get on spring trips: the cantaloupe and honeydew from the Green River fruit stands.