Oars de combat; on the Green River

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Published: Sunday, July 6, 1997

Copyright San Jose Mercury News; used by permission

By ZEKE WIGGLESWORTH
Mercury News Travel Editor

MOAB, UTAH -- The old married couple are going at it with practiced vigor, trying their best to run into every chunk of tamarisk along the 70 miles or so between Green River and Mineral Bottom. Their discussions of how best to move their 16-foot canoe down the river are, as well as being impassioned, loud enough to echo off the sandstone cliffs towering above the river.

The young married couple approach things silently, doing their on-the-job training with rigid determination and restraint. You never hear a word, but you can feel the angst floating across the green-brown ripples like a fog bank.

The two brothers, being brothers, snap and snarl like sled dogs who haven't been fed in a week. The elder, the one Mom always liked best, is intent on going down the river sideways. The younger, diagnosed early in life as a hopeless control freak, insists on having the canoe point directly downstream. Their conferences on direction and technique startle cliff swallows and spook cows several miles away.

In the last canoe, the two strangers, having met only the day before, are bouncy, bright and seemingly in total control. If there are gnashings going on, they are civilized and kempt. Perhaps not knowing each other is creating restrained and civilized interaction, an attempt on both parts not to rock the boat.

So you'll have no doubts, a river float vacation is under way here, an excursion down the wide and turbid Green River, one of the Desert West's major waterways. The canoeists range from experienced to total greenhorn. Their ability to deal with the great Utah outdoors also varies, but has nothing to do with canoe skills.

As the core of an experiment in interpersonal relationships and group dynamics, the eight canoeists here described, ranging from the 30s to the 60s, are excellent subjects. One glance around confirms what soon becomes obvious: We are dealing here with eight Type A personalities.

There is not a sheep in the crowd, just an octet of wolves. At no time do the temperaments (and tempers) emerge as clearly as when the fine art of canoe propulsion is being pursued.

It goes something like this: Whoever's in back, supposedly steering the canoe, is convinced the clod up front couldn't paddle correctly in a bathtub, let alone a river.

Whoever's in front, in the power position, paddling like a Volvo diesel, is convinced the idiot in back couldn't steer straight if the canoe had a satellite navigation system.

Lively adventure

It is the various methods and techniques of resolving these differences that enliven the voyage down the Green -- as well as spooking the aforementioned cows and propelling the various canoes into all manner of trouble, the least of which is crashing into the river bank once in a while.

There are many ways to take in the splendor of Southern Utah, a belt of national parks, monuments and wilderness areas stretching from the Nevada border to Colorado.

The area constitutes one of the most scenic and wild areas on Earth, and contains such wonders as Zion, Capitol Reef, Arches, Canyonlands and Bryce national parks, as well as a number of national monuments including the year-old (and still disputed) Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Most who come to the area do the canyon country by road, a few by air. But the watery routes, especially the wild and woolly rides down the Colorado, offer views of the staggering desert scenery that must be seen to be believed.

The Green, for most of its meandering trip through Southern Utah, is a placid and gentle river -- no whitewater to speak of, no thundering rapids, no deadly rocks or narrow canyon walls. It's nothing at all like doing a trip through Cataract Canyon or whizzing down the American River in the Sierra. It is advertised, in fact, as a ''calm and scenic float trip.'' None of this macho, 50-foot-high wave stuff, nossir.

The Green rises up in Wyoming, flows south through the Utah desert and finally joins the mighty Colorado River not far from Moab. Mostly, it's just a muddy river meandering through some of the finest canyon scenery in the world.

Canyonlands

The course between the town of Green River and the confluence of the Colorado River, 120 miles away, takes the river through a never-ending series of loops and curls, with much of the route through towering canyons. It is, quite simply, one of the most spectacular places in America. One favorite spot is Bowknot Bend, a huge 180-degree curve in the river that takes seven miles to go around a sandstone cliff that measures only several hundred yards across.

And just to balance out the beauty, they have tossed in a few beasts: mosquitoes, spiders, rattlesnakes, scorpions, smoke, dirt, mud, quicksand. Scorpions and snakes are seldom seen; the rest are almost never absent. Life on a river trip is not a clean endeavor.

Bloated and muddy

Plus, and not to be overlooked, the Green River itself, at the time of this group's little adventure, is almost at flood stage and about as silty as a river can get and still flow. Like Abe Lincoln used to say, too thin to plow, too thick to drink.

Just to make things even dicier, it's been a big spring and early summer for the Green and the Colorado rivers this year.

Huge winter snowfalls and spring rains on the north end of the watersheds have raised rivers all over the Southwest; the Green is bloated, flowing five or six miles an hour, so fast it's virtually impossible to paddle the laden canoes upstream. It makes pinpoint navigation difficult, especially close to shore.

When the river is low, there are numerous sand bars and small islands where you can camp. As high as the river is for this trip, however, campsites are few and far between and the shoreline is clogged by unbroken stands of tamarisk.

Tamarisk (also called tamarack) is a dense, willow-like tree, almost impossible to walk through. If there is no opening in the tamarisk, it's impossible to get on shore. Finding a decent campsite becomes a real chore.

Tamarisk is not native to the United States. It was introduced last century and is in the process of clogging every waterway in the Southwest. Nasty, nasty stuff.

You can float the Green two ways, one short, one long. The short version -- the trip we took-- goes from the town of Green River to a place called Mineral Bottom, 70 miles downstream, where a precipitous series of switchbacks offers about the only way for trucks to get the canoes and crews out of the river gorges before entering a series of isolated canyons.

The long version is to go from Green River to the confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers, 120 miles south. The stretch from Mineral Bottom to the confluence goes through Canyonlands National Park. From the confluence, jet boats haul your canoe and gear back upriver to Moab. Once well into the national park, it's almost impossible to climb out of the river canyons: Once in, you stay all the way to the Colorado.


Pumping water

There are few if any sources of fresh potable water on the trip, so you have to make your own using river water.

And, because of regulations of the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management, you have to haul all your trash out -- and you must also carry portable sanitation equipment because no human waste can be left near the river. (The porta-potty patrol is a volunteer situation, one of those deals where it really is a rotten job but somebody has to do it.)

At last, time to quit

Canoeing down a fast-moving river all day is like hitting yourself in the head with a sledgehammer: After seven or eight hours, it feels really great when you stop.

The first struggle past -- finding a place to camp -- and once off the river, tents up, fire built, sore bodies coated with an inch or two of bug glop, the wonderful canyon country scenery of Southern Utah comes into its own.


Re-packing 

The floating battles of direction and technique are for the moment forgotten as the odors of the evening meal rise into the sunset. (It could be roasted track shoe; the canoe crews are so tired and exhilarated, they would eat anything put in front of them. Fortunately, the food is excellent. The first night, there's even ice for the martinis.)

The stars come out, as only they can in the Southwestern deserts, close enough to touch, bright enough to burn. As the campfire slowly dims and the mosquitoes finally give up, one by one the paddlers and the steerers head for their sacks. Some sleep out, some take tents. The chill of the desert seeps in and fatigue claims them all at last.

Come morning, amid the usual curses and banging and clanks, breakfast is served, camp is broken, the canoes are reloaded, and the post-dawn air is greeted by Canoe Handling 101, Day 2:

"For crying out loud, you doofus, that's no way to get into a canoe. You're gonna sink us, you imbecile. And remember, you dumb nerd, paddle left, left, not right, damnit, left. When I say left I mean left, you cretin."

Somehow, all four canoes make it back into the river and begin floating through a stretch of rocks called Labyrinth Canyon.

The scenery is so overpowering, there comes a strange silence. Overwhelmed by the towering canyon walls and the blaze of sandstone formations, the group forgets its trivialities for a while and just stares at millions and millions of years of geologic history.

Desert varnish in Desolation Canyon

The only sound, far off, is the faint beating of wings as a pair of gray herons take flight. The sky is stunning blue, and there is a blessed small breeze in the air. It is about as elemental as it gets.

But the group is nothing if not motive, so the moment passes and soon, growling and snapping begins anew.

(It must be said, however, that by the time they all get to the Mineral Bottom pullout, four days later, most of the major league dissension is gone and the canoe teams are just that -- teams. It's tough to squabble when the world is so gorgeous.)

All that, of course, is days in the future. In the meantime, just to start things off, the old married couple promptly run full face into the nearest stand of tamarisk.

The young married couple, fast learners and knowing a good deal when they see it, immediately run backward into the bank, nearly tipping the canoe and scaring the beaks off a couple of birds nesting in the shore bushes.

The brothers -- well, they're still at it, nag, nag, nag -- and the former strangers in back, still showing zero signs of divisive tendencies, are discussing Zen, the healing aspects of wheat germ and the ERA.

It's going to be a great day.

 Copyright Patricia Sullivan