Desolation Canyon – June 2012

June 2-7, 2012

The good news – no mosquitoes!

The bad news – wind.  Gale force wind.

Mosquitoes

Mosquitoes are generally a fact of life when running the Green River through Desolation Canyon (“Deso” for short).  On my first trip down Deso we were ill prepared.  We were horrified to find visible clouds of mosquitoes at the Sand Wash put-in.  We had mosquito mesh hats, but did not have repellent with DEET.  Gary counted 75 bites on his left foot by the time we launched.

Gary in 1995 – right after launching

This year we were much better prepared – a screen tent for eating, plenty of DEET repellent, Bio UD spray for clothing, and a Thermacell chemical repentant for the kitchen and toilet areas (to my surprise, these actually work quite well if there is no wind).

But this year there were absolutely NO mosquitoes.  It was an entirely new experience.  There were some pesky gnats and a few biting deer flies, but they were really not bad.  There were also these strange white flies which looked like albino gnats.  When they would walk across your clothing, they would leave behind a faint white trail.  It was almost like they were coated in chalk.

Wind

Wind is another common aspect of a trip down Desolation Canyon.  It is very common to have stiff winds in the afternoon – and the wind always blows upstream.

This year we had three days with very little wind, two with fairly typical wind, and one day of gale force winds!  I have never before experienced such fierce winds for an extended period of time.  It was impossible to make headway down the river, even with two people at the oars.

At times we manually dragged our boats down the shore.  We finally gave up and waited it out – half of our group on one side of the river, and half on the other.  We sat for 4.5 hours until the wind subsided.  Finally, at about 6:45 PM, the wind mellowed enough we could proceed.  I would estimate that the gusts of wind were in excess of 60 mph.

Water

The water level has been really low this year (hence, no mosquito hatch).  The flow at Green River started off at about 5600 cfs and dropped to about 3800 cfs.

Deso hydrograph

Who

The Gardiner, Lloyd, and Robins families.

Barry, Dee, Kevin, Jarem, Jason, Wade, Clyde
Karla L, Jamie, Hannah, Karla R

Saturday, June 2:

We left Salt Lake City at about 8:00 AM and headed for the put-in at Sand Wash.  The drive went smoothly, and we made really good time until we got behind an oil rig heading out for a new load of crude oil.  With all of the oil wells in the area, we had cell phone coverage until we started the final drop towards the river bottom.

At about 11:30 AM we arrived at the put-in.  One group was about ready to launch, so we would have the area to ourselves.  Barry was the first one brave enough to exit the vehicle and see how bad the mosquitoes were.  As we were counting swats, we noticed he wasn’t slapping – he was shooing – they weren’t mosquitoes, they were gnats.  How lucky can we be!

The ranger was friendly and seemed to recognize me from our 2009 trip.  He quickly checked our gear, issued our permit tags, and suggested we take the first available camp because there were five groups ahead of us, all targeting the few camps about 7-15 miles down river.  He also warned us that an afternoon thunderstorm was forecast.

We took a break for lunch, and then resumed rigging the boats.  Sure enough, the thunderstorm rolled in.  There was a lot of lightning, so we took shelter in the mosquito huts (which you can rent for about $20/night if you want to camp at the put-in).

It didn’t rain too hard or too long, but it did manage to get everything splattered with mud.  We finished rigging and launched at about 3:30 PM.

Dee Gardiner – happy to be on the river at last

The winds were calm when we launched, but grew steadily as we moved down river.  At one point the wind was causing waves with whitecaps, which suggests a pretty significant wind of perhaps 20 knots (23 mph).  To ease our burden, we sometimes teamed up with two people at the oars in a push-pull configuration.  This allowed us to make steady progress until the wind died down again.

Clyde & Karla Robins working together on the oars

Camps seem to come and go in Desolation Canyon.  High water erodes some beaches and creates new ones.  Tamarisk trees overgrow much of the shoreline, making existing camps difficult to see.  (We were happy to see the Tamarisk leaf beetles were successful in killing off sections of Tamarisk trees.)

Most of my river guide data is quite old, so the information about campsites is highly unreliable.  Furthermore, for much of the river you are not allowed to camp on river left without purchasing a permit from the Indian reservation.

Our first opportunity to camp came at mile 91 (5 miles below the put-in) at Duches Hole.  It was a large sand/gravel bar that had sufficiently dried from the recent simulated spring runoff from Flaming Gorge dam.

Our first camp – on a huge sandbar

One of my first duties after arriving at camp is to set up the toilet system – which we call “the hooter”.  I prefer a nice ‘room with a view’ using vegetation for privacy.  When camping on a large sandbar like this camp, I set up our toilet tent.  Jason found an entire cow skeleton near the hooter, and brought back this cool looking skull to guard over our camp.

Jason found this cool skull near the toilet tent

The winds settled down by the time we reached camp.  Once again, Karla L provided a wonderful dinner for the group.  She tried something new this year – some form of Café Rio-like pork and rice.  It was excellent!

Karla Lloyd cooking another fabulous dinner

The kids enjoyed a chance to finally sit down and relax – until a game of Frisbee was started.

Jason Gardiner enjoying the evening

Hannah & Wade Robins

Wade spotted a bear across the river.  Everyone got up to take a closer look and take some photographs.  The bear moved up river rather quickly in spite of the rough terrain.  The following morning Clyde spotted a coyote in about the same location, but moving down river.

Wade spotted this bear across the river

Sunday, June 3:

Normally we prefer to not be on the river on Sunday, but sometimes it is unavoidable.  In keeping with the Sabbath day, Wade filled the canyon with excerpts from a variety of church hymns.

The weather was absolutely gorgeous with almost no wind all day.  That, plus the fact that there are no rapids for the first 26 miles, gave a fairly relaxing day on the river.  We did manage to cover 21 miles and set up camp just below the first rapid at Jack Creek.

It was Karla and Clyde Robins turn to provide dinner – and once again we had a splendid and unique meal.  They prepared a Korean dish that had a nice spicy meat on top of sticky rice.  It was delicious!

Karla & Clyde provided a wonderful Korean dish for dinner

This was our finest camp of the trip.  We had a sandy beach and plenty of shade trees.  Jamie even found two trees appropriately spaced to set up the hammock.

Jamie Gardiner relaxing in the hammock

Monday, June 4:

Monday was a fairly typical day on a desert river in terms of weather.  It was hot with a little wind in the morning and a fairly stiff wind in the afternoon.  The current picks up speed below Jack Creek, which helped us make good time as we progressed down the river.  Every mile or two we would encounter a small rapid (Big Canyon, Firewater, Cedar Ridge, Flat Canyon, Dripping Springs, Fretwater, and Wild Horse).

Steer Ridge

At mile 57 we came to the first ‘big’ rapid – Steer Ridge.  Steer Ridge actually has four sections.  Part 1 is the largest, but it isn’t much to worry about.  Perhaps at some water levels this rapid has some kick to it, but at these low flows it was pretty tame.  The waves were big enough to be enjoyable and even splash us a little, but it really just wet our appetite for more.

Part 2 is very small and short.  Part 3 is fairly long with the main wave train following the cliffs along the left bank.  At lower flows, there is a hole that forms near the bottom of the rapid.  This has been known to flip rafts and it is difficult to see because of the wave train.  It is known as “surprise hole”.  Part 4 is another short set of small waves as the river turns left.

Rock Creek

At mile 54 we came to Rock Creek, which is a popular lunch spot.  Rock Creek is perhaps the largest side stream entering the canyon and it offers a place for a refreshing dip in fairly clear, but cold, water.  No soap or cleansing products are allowed in the side streams, but it is still nice to rinse off some of the sand and dirt from the day’s adventures.

Camping is not allowed within ½ mile of Rock Creek, but it is a nice place to pick up extra water if necessary.  We took advantage of the clear water and filled our solar shower for later use.

Barry Lloyd enjoying a refreshing dip in Rock Creek

Kevin Gardiner taking a well-deserved nap

We camped for the night at mile 52.6.  This camp was fairly nice with a sandy beach and a few trees.  The beach was not very flat, however, so it was difficult to find ideal tent spots.

While we were setting up camp, a strong gust of wind blew Jason and Kevin’s tent over and sent Jamie’s tent cartwheeling off into the wild.  Hannah happened to catch it on video.  A few tent pegs were lost and Jamie’s tent got 3 or 4 punctures, but at least we were able to still make use of the tents.

Tuesday, June 5:

Before leaving home I checked the forecast for Vernal, Utah (upstream from Deso) and Green River, Utah (downstream from Deso).  Saturday through Monday called for temperatures in the mid-90s with winds ranging from 7 to 10 mph.  Wednesday and Thursday were similar, but with temperatures in the mid-80s.  Tuesday called for 21 mph winds as a cold front moved through the area.  I think the forecast was later changed to indicate much stronger winds – and did it blow.

Each morning we got a little more efficient at cleaning up camp and repacking the boats.  We usually launched between 9:30 and 10:00 AM.  This morning was no exception.

About two miles below camp we came to Three Canyon rapid.  Jamie and I were in the lead, rowing with a pretty stiff wind for this early in the day.  We entered the rapid okay, but when we got into the wave train at the bottom of the rapid, the wind velocity increased significantly.  Two side canyons combined their wind with that of the main canyon.  The river also turns left just below the rapid, and corners are often the most difficult to negotiate in the wind.

It quickly became apparent that I would not be able to make it around the corner, so I asked Jamie to double row with me.  It was all we could do to hold our ground, let alone make progress downstream.

We soon realized this was a fruitless attempt, so we stopped rowing.  I was shocked at how quickly the wind blew us back up the river – right up the wave train.  We were going faster upriver than we ever go down a rapid on a non-windy day.  This is about the same time our other three rafts entered the rapid.  So, we soon had four rafts and one duckie trying to avoid colliding with each other.  None of us had room to row, and with the wind, rowing was pretty useless anyway.

We decided to pull over to shore and hold onto the rocks and rest.  This is when a group of three catarafts entered the rapid and also became ‘stuck’.  So now we had eight boats hugging the shoreline.

I figured that if we could just get around the corner, we would be able to continue on downstream.  So, I waited for a lull in the wind, and then Jamie and I shoved off and rowed as quickly as we could – trying to beat the wind.  We made it about ¾ of the way to the bottom of the rapid before the wind forced us to seek the shore again.  As we pulled out I hollered to the other boats to come one at a time so we would have ample rowing space.  Unfortunately, the three catarafts didn’t follow my suggestion, so we soon had all three of them plugging up the channel for the next ten minutes or so.  Once they were out of the way, we made another break during the next lull.  We were able to reach the camp on the other side of the river, so we decided to wait there for the rest of our group.  Kevin followed my lead and soon joined us.

From our vantage point, we could see when another strong wind gust was coming up the river.  Barry pulled out for his first attempt just as a super-strong gust was coming.  Poor timing on his part.  Naturally, that attempt failed.  He did, however, eventually make it to the Eddie where Jamie and I waited earlier.

We then expected to see Clyde’s boat make their move, but saw nothing.  Eventually Hannah and Jarem showed up in the duckie (in the Eddie, not the camp).  Jarem walked back up stream – I assumed to help Clyde row.  But still nothing.  Then Jarem came back.  And a little later Wade walked down to Barry’s boat.  Why aren’t they helping Clyde row his boat?  I still don’t have an answer to that mystery.

While we were waiting, Jamie noticed that my raft floor was flat.  The sharp rocks along the side of the rapid punctured our floor while we were waiting to make our break for it.  So, while waiting for Barry and Clyde, we unloaded my raft in preparation to patch the floor.

Eventually someone decided to take some action.  We saw Wade and Jarem walk back up stream, and later saw Wade rowing while Clyde walked through the water dragging his boat like Humphrey Bogart in “The African Queen”.

Humphrey Bogart pulling the African Queen

Clyde pulling their raft with Wade at the oars

The raft repair went smoothly, so while waiting for the glue to cure, we decided to eat an early lunch.  We then reloaded my boat and headed off for more adventure.

Belknap Falls

About 1.5 miles below our lunch spot, we came to another bend in the river.  It took me two or three attempts to make it around this corner and enter the tongue of Belknap Falls.  Once again we were able to run the main part of the rapid but not make it past the wave train at the bottom.  So, once again we pulled over to shore – this time being more careful of the rocks.

Jarem and Hannah made it a similar distance in the duckie.  I pulled out the camera to get some shots of the other boats coming through.  The safe run through Belknap Falls is on far river right, which is hidden behind the rock on the left side of this photo.  Notice that the rafts are on river left – because of the wind.

Approaching Belknap Falls

A few moments later, a strong gust of wind came up, sending water spray high into the air.  Notice that in the next photo the rafts are almost totally obscured by the spray. Also notice that the rafts are even further to river left.  This strong wind was making raft control almost impossible.

Belknap Falls obscured by water spraying in the wind

Being early afternoon, the winds became more and more intense with shorter and shorter breaks between gusts.  It became clear that making further progress would be nearly impossible.

The frustrating thing was that one of the nicest camps on the river was just ½ mile downstream.  I thought it unlikely that Lion Hollow camp would be open, but it would sure make a great place to wait out this storm.

So, Kevin and I decided to make a break for it.  After ferrying out into the current, I quickly found myself about 100’ upstream from where I started.  Clearly, this wasn’t going to work.  Kevin reached the opposite bank and began to pull his boat along the sandy beach.  That seemed like a good idea, so Jamie and I headed over there too.

We now have the two Gardiner rafts on river left, the Lloyd and Robins rafts on river right.  Which group was in the better position?  That is hard to say.  The Lloyds and Robins sought shelter in the rocks while the Gardiners broke out their camp chairs and spent the afternoon on the beach. So, the Gardiners have their camp chairs, sitting on the beach, getting blasted with sand and water every time a strong gust of wind happened – which was almost always.  The others sat on hard, odd shaped rocks in the shade with some water spray but very little sand spray.  We both felt sorry for the other group.

Just the night before Jamie asked why we never go on relaxing vacations.  I told her this was her chance to enjoy sitting on the beach all afternoon.

At about 6:30 PM the temperature of the wind was noticeably lower.  It was my hope that once the afternoon heat dissipated, the wind velocity would die down.  Or, with luck, the storm front would pass through and the wind would blow downstream for a time.

At about that time two Western River outfitter boats came around the corner.  They were strapped together and propelled by a motor. No fair – that is cheating.

We had a quick snack to rebuild our energy level, and at about 6:45 PM we made another attempt to move downriver and find a place to camp.  This time we were successful, only to find that the Western River group stopped at Lion Hollow.  Dirty rats!

Every camp for the next 2.5 miles was taken, so we finally settled for a swampy camp just below mile 46.  This was the worst camp of our trip, but we were happy to finally be off the river and have a nice, but late, dinner.  I must admit, that the shower water we collected at Rock Creek certainly felt great after 4.5 hours of being sand blasted on the beach!

Wednesday, June 6:

The cold front passed during the night dropping the temperature down to very nice sleeping levels.  A good night’s sleep was sorely needed.

Wednesday was a gorgeous day.  There was almost no wind, and the temperature was slightly cooler.  The heat from the previous days really zapped our energy levels – so this felt great.

And this is the day for most of the big rapids!

Joe Hutch Canyon

During our 2009 Deso trip we got to experience the thrill and excitement of running a brand new, huge, rapid at Joe Hutch Canyon.  A debris flow of boulders and mud came down the side canyon completely altering the rapid.  What used to be a short but fun rapid, was now a monster rapid with a huge boat-flipping hole.  What a ride at about 12,000 cfs!

Time has somewhat tamed this beast as the rocks and debris shifted around, and these lower flows it was pretty mellow.  We stopped to scout the rapid and take pictures.

Kevin manning the video camera

From the shore, the hole still looked pretty big, even though this is a much lower water level than our 2009 trip.  But the run actually turned out quite easy.  The hole was easy to miss, and small enough that you could punch through it if you wish.

Barry rowing in Joe Hutch Canyon rapid

Kevin and Jason dropping into the hole

Wire Fence

We stopped for lunch at the first camp just above Wire Fence rapid.  The camps in this section are excellent.

After lunch we rounded the bend and ran the narrow slot on the far left of Wire Fence.  It is an easy run if you line up correctly and thread the needle between the pour-overs on the left and right of the narrow tongue.  The tongue drops quickly and is followed by a nice wave train.

Clyde was somewhat nervous about having Wade row through Wire Fence, but Wade hit it perfectly!

Three Fords

At these flows, Three Fords is clearly the largest rapid on the river.  The waves were big and really fun.  This is my kind of rapid!

Jarem Lloyd ready to row Three Fords rapid

Normally we stop in the Eddie at the top of Three Fords to take photos.  This year the Eddie was not well formed, so I had Jamie hold the raft while I stood on the dry boxes and took a few pictures of the other boats going through.  Jamie then followed me in the duckie with the helmet camera going.

Jamie Gardiner back in the duckie with the helmet camera

Three Fords rapid

Most groups try to jockey for a nice campsite about 12-15 miles from the take-out at Swasey.  Because the wind threw everyone off schedule, and we were somewhat last of the groups, we figured our chance of getting one of those prime campsites was very low.  So our options were to camp early and enjoy a quiet evening and long push the next day, or take our chances and risk having to find a camp down in the Gray Canyon area at or below Nefertiti.  We opted for the shorter day.

We first thought about trying for Rabbit Valley, but decided our chances were not good.  So, we stopped at Range Creek #2 – the same place we stayed in 2009.  This camp is okay, but not the greatest.  It was surprising how far from the shore the shade tree is during lower water.  Range Creek #1 looks like a nicer camp, but it was already taken.  Range Creek #3 and #4 look terrible, but they might do in an emergency.  While scouting the lower camps, Barry noticed fresh bear tracks.  They had to be fresh because the wind scoured all of the beaches clean.

This had been a good day and had helped us forget the pain and misery of the previous day.

Thursday, June 7:

My notes from 2009 indicate that it is 19 miles from Range Creek to Swasey, and at the higher flows of around 12,000 cfs (I think), we arrived at Swasey at about 4:00 PM.  With the flows now below 4,000 cfs, we were in for a long day.  Luckily, we had another beautiful day with only short spouts of wind.

Dee looking a little scruffy on day 6

The first big rapid of the day, Coal Creek, is about 5 miles from camp, so the ladies took the opportunity to enjoy the duckie for a while.

Karla L & Karla R having fun in the duckie

Since both ladies are named Karla, we decided to call them “Karla L” and “Karla R”.  “L” for left of Lloyd, and “R” for right or Robins.

Hannah at the oars while Jarem and Barry relax

In the past we have always scouted Coal Creek rapid (claimed to be the most dangerous) and Rattlesnake rapid.  Every time we scout it, we are disappointed.  It is a long walk through the brush and you are still too far from the rapid to see anything or even take good pictures.  So, you end up scouting it from the boat as you enter the tongue.

I always get the two rapids confused in my mind.  They have similar entrances and layouts.  They both have rocks you have to avoid.  Both could be dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing, but both are pretty easy as long as you pick a good line.  Of course, there may be water levels where scouting would definitely be worthwhile.

At this time we were following another group, so, from our boats, we were able watch them run both Coal Creek and Rattlesnake.  As predicted, both were fairly straight forward runs.  Coal Creek has a rock shoal on river right.  The best run is just left of that shoal – but not too far left or you will hit a hole that is difficult to see from upstream.  From there, you simply pick your way past the rocks and holes.

Rattlesnake is similar, but the main danger is getting pushed up against the cliff on river right.  At these flows, that wasn’t a problem.

Looking back at Rattlesnake rapid

Two miles below Rattlesnake is Nefertiti rapid and the end of the Gray Canyon daily access road.  Nefertiti can be fun at higher flows, but at this level it is pretty mild.  We were hoping to eat lunch here, but the group in front of us had the same idea.  Fair enough – since they showed us the safe way through the rapids they could enjoy the nice lunch spot.

Since the wind hadn’t picked up yet we decided to press on and get across the 3 mile flat water section below Nefertiti.  We finally stopped for lunch on the beach below Sand Knolls rapid.  Sand Knolls frequently has a fun roller wave right at the top, and today was no exception.  Some carried the duckie back up for a second run.

Barry punching through the big wave in Sand Knolls rapid

Jarem & Hannah in Sand Knolls rapid

The remainder of the Gray Canyon rapids are pretty tame at these flows, so we were anxious to get to the take-out and start the long process of de-rigging our boats and head home.

It is our family tradition to take some photos of the kids in front of Gunnison Butte near Swasey rapid.  Here is a photo of Jamie.  I have an almost identical photo taken in 2005.

Jamie with Gunnison Butte in the background

Below are Jason and Kevin, followed by a photo of Kevin taken on our first Deso trip back in 1995.  Kevin has certainly grown, but he still enjoys spending time on the river.

Jason and Kevin near Gunnison Butte

Kevin back in 1995

We were lucky to find a mostly empty boat ramp at the Swasey take-out.

Hot work at the take-out

Thanks to the Lloyds and Robins for contributing video and photos for this trip report.

For additional photos, visit my Picasa Photo Albums at:

https://plus.google.com/u/0/photos/111435234005380552754/albums/5752036354653025665

And here is my Deso highlights video on Vimeo.com.

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About gardinerfamilyadventures

A really great family!
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2 Responses to Desolation Canyon – June 2012

  1. Er if simonson says:

    I came across your blog and was looking to do a overnight trip putting in at Nefertiti and taking out at swayses rapid. Are there many sand bars in that nine mile section to camp on?

    • There are a few places to camp along the east side of the river, but they are all accessible from the road so they often have people camping in them. There is a nice campsite right at the end of the road at Nefertiti and a few fair camps further downstream. There is also nice camping at Swaysey’s rapid. There are a few small beaches on the other side of the river, but they are in full view from the road, so you wouldn’t have much privacy.

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