In the summer of 1869 a one-armed Civil War veteran named John Wesley Powell put together a ten-man expedition to explore and chart the Green River and Colorado River from Wyoming to the Grand Canyon. Over 99 days and close to 1000 miles, he and his men navigated unmapped canyons and plunging rapids, enduring searing heat, the destruction of one of their four boats, the dangers of rattlesnakes and rock slides and scorpions as big as a hand, and the loss of most of their hats to violent winds and waves.
The trip was not without its controversies—several of Powell’s biographers have made light of evidence that the major was a bit loose with the facts of the journey, and that he suppressed any publication of rival trip reports by his men. More controversial is the fate of the three members of the party who, just 80 miles or so from the end, decided to abandon the expedition, leave the river, hike out of the canyon, and set out across the desert for a Mormon settlement. That they died a horrible death is certain, though whether by thirst or by Indian attack (in a case of mistaken identity) is still debated. More questionable still is the fact that Major Powell, upon reaching the end of his expedition and returning to Washington D.C., never sent a search party to look for the lost men, nor even inquire after their fate.
Notwithstanding the critiques of Powell himself, his expedition remains one of the great achievements in American exploration. The historian Wallace Stegner called it “the second opening of the West,” after Lewis and Clark’s adventure. The last major blank space of terra incognita on the American map was filled in, not to mention the contributions to geology, biology, geography, and meteorology that the expedition yielded.
Drawn in by Powell’s harrowing adventures and vivid descriptions of the desert, and intrigued by the prospect of canoeing through Utah’s famous Canyonlands, our party embarked on a 56-mile (90km) slice of river adventure, meager by some standards, but just fine by ours. After all, it was June. In the desert. And we had no intention of having to quit and walk out.
When thinking of these rocks one must not conceive of piles of boulders or heaps of fragments, but of a whole land of naked rock, with giant forms carved on it: cathedral-shaped buttes, towering hundreds or thousands of feet, cliffs that cannot be scaled, and canyon walls that shrink the river into insignificance.
— John Wesley Powell, 17 July 1869, along the Green River north of the confluence with the Colorado River
In a Nutshell
Paddling distance: 56 miles (90km)
Portages: 0 (That’s right, I said zero!)
Outfitter: Tex’s Riverways, Moab: canoes, paddles, water jugs (6 x 6.5 gallons), portable toilet, fire pan (never used), drop-off at Mineral Bottom, and jet-boat exfiltration back to Moab.
Paddlers: The author, curly-bearded rock-hopper from Toronto, and three Texans: Mike, master photographer and logistics champion; Dave, marathon runner and optimistic father of teenagers; and Michael, canoeing rookie and laundry enthusiast.
DAY 1: A determined engineer with a wicked sense of adventure is no doubt responsible for the section of Canyonlands’ White Rim Road that plunges over the edge of a mesa and drops 1000 feet to the river below, with a dozen or so switchbacks desperately cleaving to the side of the cliff.
At the bottom of that cliff, at a place called Mineral Bottom, we pushed off in a pair of 17-foot aluminum canoes in the mid-morning white glare. We launched just ahead of a party of 25 or so teenaged rafters and their guides, who planned to float the Green River lazily for four days before shooting the famed Cataract Canyon and its 75 sets of whitewater rapids. Our itinerary would stop us just short of that goal, though this wouldn’t be the last time we saw the kids.
Paddling moderately along the Green River’s swift current, with the torch-red sandstone of Labyrinth Canyon towering high above us, we made the 11 miles (17.5km) to Fort Bottom in a little under three hours. Along the way we stopped at a sandbar island to gape at the natural amphitheatre forming in the cliffs opposite Point Bottom.
Fort Bottom is a broad plateau of desert scrub forming a bowl beneath the sweeping rim of the canyon. There are ample spots for tents, though little shade. We spent much of the afternoon in the shadow of a tiny four-man alcove, and the temperature held at 90°F where in the sun it was 104.
After waiting out the afternoon’s heat, we marched up to the Fort Bottom ruins before sunset, a twenty-minute hike to a promontory overlooking a 360-degree panorama of the bending river. We scrambled about the 800-year-old ruins of a Puebloan watchtower, and watched Dave jog up the Fort Bottom trail almost to the White Rim Road just before the sun fell below the rim to the west. We lost sight of him for awhile, and feared he’d slipped off the scree, so Michael and I took the med kit and trotted after him, unnecessarily worried, until he appeared, exhilarated and unhurt, from around a hidden bend.
Following a dinner of steak fajitas and single malt, we watched the stars emerge in a moonless sky and welcomed the local bats on their evening bug-eating sortie. I commenced reading Edward Abbey‘s Desert Solitaire, which he wrote in the early 1960s after serving a brief tenure as a ranger in nearby Arches National Park. Mike prepared his tripod to shoot the Milky Way, enlisting the others’ help to light the tents during the long exposure. The first night in the backcountry is always a late night–we’re too excited to sleep.
Paddling distance: 11 miles (17.5km)
“The desert is made first and foremost out of light, at least to the eye and the heart, and you quickly learn that the mountain range twenty miles away is pink at dawn, a scrubby green at midday, blue in the evening and under clouds.”
— Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost
DAY 2: Sunrise struck the Fort Bottom bluffs with diagonal streaks of orange light, and before long the heat of June compelled us to return quickly to the relative coolness of the river. We paddled our way around the bend and hauled down the 3-mile straightaway of Potato Bottom. On our left flank the sandstone gave way to bulbous limestone formations overhanging the water, providing some shade from the fast-rising sun.
With the mercury soaring the term of the day became “evaporative cooling”—frequently we soaked our hats, bandanas and shirts into the water to chill our skin. Around the bend at Beaver Bottom we spotted a small notch in the cliffs with a triangular beach in full shade, and we pulled over for a snack break and some low-level rock climbing.
Later, while paddling around the flank of Millard Canyon the ballyhooed Buttes of the Cross came into view, so named by Major Powell for their cruciform appearance high above the river.
We had planned to stop for a midday hike in the horseshoe canyon at Anderson Bottom, near Bonita Bend. But the teenage rafters had overrun the prime landing spot, and with the sun bearing down on us from its noon peak, we decided to push on.
Around the bend at Valentine Bottom an enormous cleft appeared in the 600-foot wall to our left—a peek into Holeman Canyon, another reputed hiking spot. Beyond this bend, Labyrinth Canyon officially gives way to Stillwater Canyon, and the change is apparent in the rock formations. Above the ochre sandstone walls a hundred-foot-tall “bench” of limestone lies like a thick layer of white icing on a red-velvet cake.
The heat bore down on us, and Michael took the opportunity to dry out the laundry he’d done in a large Ziploc bag with an agitation of Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap and river water. This earned him the nickname “Spin Cycle” for the remainder of the trip.
We took a short, buggy break among the desert willows on a beach opposite the famed Millard Canyon Benches, and then powered on to Turk’s Head. This unmistakable natural tower is formed by a three-mile erosion of the limestone band, separating Turk’s Head from the rest of the canyon wall.
Three-quarters of the way around the bend lay an exquisite campsite on a bluff above a bench of hard white sand, partially shaded by the cliffs. A twenty-mile morning of paddling came to a close with a cool swim in the swift current, after which we waited out the afternoon heat in the shade.
By 5pm the sun had waned enough for us to begin the scramble up the 100-foot cliff to the Martian landscape of the Turk’s Head plateau. Above the plateau, Turk’s Head itself towers another 300 feet, and we scrambled most of this elevation over red-and-white talus until we reached the nose, beyond which we could not hope to climb without ropes and protection. As the pinks and yellows of sunset began to appear in the sky, we could see a full-circle panorama of the river bend, the canyon walls, the expansive mesas, and the distant, isolated buttes beyond Deadhorse Canyon.
Later, from our campsite on the ledge over the river we gaped at the afterglow of the sunset lighting the easterly clouds, and again the bats whirled among us hunting insects. Despite the lingering heat we crawled into the tents around twilight, pleasantly aching from the toil and the sun, and passed out.
Paddling distance: 20 miles (32km); cumulative 31 miles (50km)
“The river itself sets the tone: utterly relaxed, completely at ease, it fulfills its mighty purpose without aim or effort. Only the slow swing of the canyon walls overhead and the illusory upstream flow of willows, tamarisk and boulders on the shore reveal and indicate the sureness of our progress to the sea.”
— Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
DAY 3: Another sunrise exposure compelled us to pack up camp swiftly and peel off onto the river by 8am. Today the thermometer would reach 109°F, the highest of our five-day expedition.
Our goal of the day was 16 miles to Water Canyon, but the absence of a good landing and the presence of another canoeing party obliged us to paddle on to Powell Canyon; thus another 20-mile day.
Along the way, the walls of Stillwater Canyon became narrower along the river, providing us with some shade along the left bank for the first couple of hours. A blue heron, or possibly several different blue herons, journeyed just ahead of us, always launching itself into a low glide just before we could bring it squarely into the frames of our smart-phone lenses, as the DSLR zooms were stowed in dry bags.
We made fast progress over the 12 miles down to Jasper Canyon, where we stopped for a snack break, a short hike and a brief swim. The awesome waterfalls of Jasper had already dried up for the summer, but we still marveled at the colossal cliffs and what remained of the green hanging gardens.
After another 5 miles we arrived at the mouth of Water Canyon, where a narrow side stream emerges to meet the Green River. Paddling up this creek we found another canoe party eating lunch in the shade of the cliffs, and though there was a decent campsite just beyond them, we didn’t feel like stopping here, and so we paddled back out and continued down river.
At Powell Canyon just before 2pm, we beached our gear and dove into a cliffside alcove for lunch—grapefruit and blueberries, plus the last of our cheese and salami—and a nap in our camp chairs. Around 5pm, the teenage rafting party whirled around the bend in the swift current and literally bumped into the rocky ledge below our campsite. They’d hoped to camp here too, but the flat spots were too few for an expedition of their size, and they pushed on for the Confluence. One of the overarching lessons of paddling the Green River in high season, in addition to evaporative cooling, is to choose your prime campsites by early afternoon or risk settling for lesser spots. There are more than two dozen campsites along the route, but they (and the hiking opportunities they afford) are not created equal.
Eveningtime we scrambled up the side canyon above our tent site hoping to find a breach in the overhanging band of limestone. We dared not climb the attractive cracks exposed to a fall of twenty feet or more, so instead we traversed over to Powell Canyon and hiked about halfway up its shaded grooves, rife with cedars and prickly pears, before the approaching dusk begged us to turn back.
We made falafel burgers for dinner and leaned back in our chairs, craning at another starry sky and wishing the desert heat to dissipate before we had to crawl in the tents. After dark, I walked up by headlamp to the spot where we’d stashed our dry bags, and found a black widow spider had spun herself a web in the alcove. Startled and instinctively deferential to venomous creatures, I wheeled about and left her to her nocturnal hunting.
As we sat in our camp chairs slowly sinking into the soft sand we all agreed we should probably know more, by this stage in life, about the cosmos and constellations and the like. Perhaps once we did know, only now our intelligence has become so localized that we can no longer remember. Perhaps we never needed to know until now.
It was a new moon, the darkest night in one of the darkest places in North America, and the night was bountiful. Mike set his internal alarm to 2a.m., the darkest time, and captured the sky for thirty seconds at 1600 ISO.
Paddling distance: 20 miles (32km); cumulative 51 miles (82km)
“The boaters floated on a serene current meandering through a vast assortment of rock formations high above—buttes, pinnacles, turrets, spires, castles, gulches, and alcoves of all kinds. These perpendicular cliffs of Navajo sandstone—with their red, amber, and chocolate layers—were curiously stained with jet-black sheets and streamers of desert varnish.
— Cecil Kuhne, River Master: John Wesley Powell’s Legendary Exploration of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon
DAY 4: After breakfast—our standard fare of peanut butter and peanut M&Ms on a bagel—we had just a short one-mile paddle to the Confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers, where we pulled over on the long beach on the right shore as the teenage rafters were just breaking their camp. We scrambled up the scree and talus to a promontory offering a panorama of the two rivers becoming one.
The Colorado River was thick with rafting and canoe parties, and everyone was compelled to stop at the campsite register about two miles below the Confluence. Most of the rafting parties were sallying onward into Cataract Canyon, and so despite the congestion we were able to sign up for our preferred campsite at Lower Spanish Bottom, at the base of the Dollhouse Trail.
The final two miles of canoeing were the windiest of the trip, as the upriver breeze gained speed across the flat, mile-long plain of Spanish Bottom. Access to our campsite was up a steep bank, more than 10 feet high, and after tying our bowlines to willow roots we hauled up our entire outfit in the style of a bucket brigade. I slipped while helping Michael out of the canoe and quickly found myself neck deep in the water just six inches from shore, such is the drop-off.
The teenage rafting party was already docked for their afternoon hike up to the Dollhouse, an ethereal formation of caves, pillars and ledges atop the cliffs rising 1200 feet over the river. We enjoyed the broad shade of a cottonwood tree, under which we erected our hammock and camp chairs, waiting out the hot afternoon in a surprisingly strong and constant wind, which blew about our site. I felt free to read another eighty pages of Desert Solitaire while the others discussed and tied all sorts of fascinating knots.
After the rafters returned and embarked at last for the rapids and we saw them no more, we packed up a few snacks and water bottles and began the ascent of the Dollhouse. Along the steep trail, the vistas of Spanish Bottom and the distant bends in the river were nothing short of spectacular, but they almost paled in comparison to what awaited us at the top.
There is no more fitting end to the expedition than to reach the Dollhouse, especially at sunset. The views northward and westward into the Maze of Canyonlands, and southward and eastward into the Needles, transfix the tired hiker and hold him in a state of awe. The Dollhouse itself is a repository of narrow cracks and enormous fins of rock, and here we bouldered, hollered and scampered like children, careful not to trample any of the delicate vegetation, until at last the onsetting dusk bade us descend back to Spanish Bottom and cook one last dinner in the desert wilderness.
Paddling distance: 5 miles (8km); cumulative 56 miles (90km)
“The exploration was not made for adventure, but purely for scientific purposes, geographic and geologic.”
— John Wesley Powell
“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.”
— Edward Abbey
DAY 5: In the morning we lazed over multiple cups of coffee as a pair of mule deer does grazed nearby on some cottonwood leaves. We packed up our gear and awaited Tex’s jet boat, which arrived just before 11am to zip us and a few other canoe parties 50 miles up the Colorado River to Potash Landing, just short of Moab. The journey took two hours and was a breezy blur of ever redder and more spectacular canyons and cliffs, and as we motored onward the rushing winds made whitecaps on the water.
Our skin was caked with a week’s worth of sand, which no amount of swimming could adequately remove, and cracked from the brunt of the desert heat. Those of us still maintaining hair found it tangled and semi-bleached, and the sandal-shaped tan lines on our feet bore evidence of the daily battle with the sun. Though we never ran out of water we were still possessed of a deep thirst, which we quenched in town on sodas and beer before a sufficiently gluttonous post-trip feast at a Moab restaurant.
At sunset we ambled along the town’s sidewalks eating ice cream and stretching our backs. We stopped in at a local bookstore, where behind glass they keep a first-edition copy of Major Powell’s original account of his 1869 expedition. The clerk was delighted to show it to us; its large, gold-rimmed pages contain the serifed descriptions and illustrations of that original Green River exploration, though not one of us was prepared to part with the $2750 it would take to purchase the book. Better to hold the priceless experience of our own adventure close to our hearts.
In a chapter of Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey and a companion paddle down a section of the Colorado River upstream of the construction site of what would become the Glen Canyon dam. His goal is to explore the canyons one last time before they are lost to the reservoir, and his voyage is a silent protest to the engineers and bureaucrats. He writes: “A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.” Much like John Muir, Abbey believed wild spaces should exist and thrive for their own sake, but Abbey also worried that the tides of industrial greed, overpopulation, and easy access would inevitably swamp the wilderness. As such this chapter of his book, so nearest our own experience, reads like an elegy, which tempers the delight of finishing an awesome trip like the Green River paddle. That’s probably for the best; one ought not take the wild–even a simple 5-day slice of it–for granted.
A few things that might make a great trip better:
- Download and print your own 1:10,000 topographic maps from nationalmap.gov
- Finish your paddling and pick a campsite by early afternoon, to avoid the heat and grab the best spots
- Download and read John Wesley Powell’s expedition account free from the National Archives
- Of all the other Green River trip reports out there, I like this one by a family of 7 that paddled this route in a single, 20-foot canoe; great photos!
In addition to the regular outfit of canoe-trip gear, we found the following things useful to bring to the desert:
- More sunscreen than you think is possible
- Long-sleeve shirts with SPF protection
- A back-up hat (heed the lesson of Powell’s mutiny)
- Extra lip balm and moisturizing lotion
- A cooler with ice, plus a wet towel draped over the cooler
- Enough water to quench an elephant’s thirst—we drank/used almost two gallons per day per man, and were glad to have more than 6 gallons left over at the end of the trip
All photos copyright © 2018 Richard A. Johnson, except where noted.