In September of 2014 I paddled a kayak alone down 52 miles of the Green River through Utah’s Cayonlands National Park. It is said to be America’s finest flatwater river trip. And, it almost took my life. This story is a testament to the old adage that bad things can happen when we least expect it.
There is no terror like facing impending death. I have made the classic fatal sequence of those who drown: panic then exhaustion. The current has me pinned to the middle of the broad river. If I could stand I would collapse in exhaustion. But, there is nothing to stand on and nobody there to throw me a life line. I’m about to go under.
The prospect of facing down death was far from my mind when I giddily drifted my kayak into the Green three days ago.
The legendary Green River of the American West begins as a trickle of glacier melt high in Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains. It first runs north as a rippling mountain stream before doubling back and finding its true southerly course. In Western Wyoming it builds volume and sediment before flowing into Utah, then Colorado and back into Utah. Through Desolation Canyon it is a big river with crashing, brown rapids. Downstream from the town of Green River, Utah, the Green’s last 120 miles are calm and placid, twisting between the layered cliffs of Canyonlands National Park, before finally merging with the Colorado. From the Indians to the fur trappers to one-armed explorers to crusty desert roving nature writers and leathery river rats, the Green River runs through our Western identity like few others.
Fully loaded and ready to launch at Mineral Bottom
Day One on the River
Today, I joined the ranks of the Green River Rats and I pushed my sit-on-top kayak into the muddy river at Mineral Bottom, the last put-in upriver from Canyonlands National Park. This lowest 52 mile stretch of the big Green River that I’m about to drift down is said to be America’s greatest flatwater river trip.
It’s already near 100 degrees this early September day. But, the river water cools as I dangle my hands into the liquid mud. I’m gliding on a wide tan-colored expanse of flat water that seems completely still. Only by glancing at the willows on the riverbanks do I detect any drift, which is walking speed at best. Red and tan banded cliffs rise a few hundred feet on both sides under a perfect dome of blue sky.
I establish a rhythm of slow steady paddling over the next few hours as the river wanders its way into Canyonlands National Park. The air remains still and hot with no shade. The water is flat and the color of chai latte. After a long easterly stretch the river takes a swing towards the south where low sandstone cliffs drop straight into the water. I seek out the narrow bits of shade tight to the rock, at times floating under stone overhangs a foot over my head. The landscape feels immense. This is the big West of canyon and cloud, rock and sun, river and big sky.
Serenity on the big desert river, just a few miles into Canyonlands
Drifting quietly under a world of rock
Before the trip I was told about the sudden gusts in Canyonlands that tend to scatter tents and canoes without warning, and, sure enough, the calm is broken by a wind out of nowhere. In a matter of minutes my hypnotic drift down a glossy river becomes a struggle against wind and waves. It’s a good time to get off the river for the day, but campsites suddenly become hard to come by. Both banks are choked with willow and tamarisk as I battle head winds and side winds depending on the direction of the river.
Finally, with the sun behind the canyon rim and with tired shoulders, I spot a low sandbar island. The canyon seems to reward me for my hard work, for just as abruptly as it roared to life the wind stops. I pull the kayak up onto the sandbar, look around, and know that I have finally found my campsite for the night, 22 miles from my starting point and deep in the backcountry of Canyonlands.
Sandbar campsite at Valentine Bottom, 22 miiles from put-in, 30 miles from confluence
The Sandbar and a Cat
As I’m getting unloaded I hear disturbances in the river, like the rising crescendo of released underwater bubbles. Curious, I tie on a hook and a hunk of smelly salami to some fishing line I brought, secure about 30 feet of line to the boat and heave the salami out into the river. Thinking it unlikely that I’ll catch anything I quickly forget about it and get back to my camp chores.
Minutes later I hear a slight ping and look up to see a taught line being pulled slowly this way and that. I jump over, grab the line and pull it in, hand over hand. A 14-inch catfish flops onto the sandbar, whiskers and all. I briefly consider keeping it for dinner, but the slimy creature can’t compete with the dinner I have planned. I toss it back into its muddy domain and soon dine on exquisite cheeseburgers cooked on a cast iron pan over my stove complemented by fresh diced watermelon and a cold beer—yes you can take “stuff” on a river trip.
I decide not to use the tent tonight opting for a starry ceiling. By the time I crawl into my bag, the moon is up, the stars are twinkling, and the desert crickets are making sweet music. I clap my hands and hear two echoes in the canyon. The river is quiet except for those catfish bubbles.
Catfish may be tasty, but they don’t look tasty. I set this one free.
Day Two on the River
Morning in the West: perfect air, perfect scenery, and perfect solitude. A heron is feeding at the head of my island as I cook a breakfast of eggs and pancakes. Upriver to the west a growing band of red sunshine is making its way slowly down a rock face.
I saw may of these beautiful Herons on the river
I finally debark from my wonderful sandbar and begin day two on the river. The canyon country tightens up a bit more to the river today. Rock walls become closer and taller and yet the river maintains its lazy pace. I paddle less this morning and drift more.
By midday the calm is broken and that headwind kicks up again, earlier than yesterday. Before I know it I’m facing down two foot rollers. The flow of the river seems to be almost stopped by the wind and I’m forced to paddle hard to keep moving. I come to a beach on river left and stop for some lunch and rest.
The wind is relentless and kicks up plumes of sand into my cheese and salami. Desk-sized blocks of sand break from the bank and crash into the water like calving ice burgs. A party of five, two canoes and three kayaks, drift into view like ghosts. They battle the wind with stubborn nonchalance, content to kick back and simply bob in the waves when the wind is especially stiff.
I decide to shove back into the river to make a run for the next bend and hopefully calmer conditions. Eventually I round a 90-degree bend to the left. The orientation of the canyon changes and the wind dwindles to a few blustery breezes.
In mid-afternoon I’ve found my campsite. It’s a big beach on the outside of a long left bend in the river. The western canyon wall is close, draping a nice early shade over the beach to cut the sun. It’s a great spot, but large enough to accommodate many more people. I realize that river etiquette requires me to offer the use of this place to any later parties. As I wander up and down my beach like a contented Robinson Crusoe I hope I will not have to share it.
Beach campsite, night 2, about 38 miles from put-in and 12 miles from the cofluence
The Beach and Padre
A group of four men come around the bend. They are paddling a contraption of two canoes with a platform fastened between them stacked with an enormous pile of camping gear. Shirtless, burley, and gruff-voiced, these look to be the saltiest group of guys on the Green. I can see that they are scouting my beach with envy.
Reluctantly I wave and call out to them with welcoming words. I’ve done my part, now the decision is theirs. They decide to stay. As they climb ashore, one-by-one, the last man off the boat catches my attention. He’s a tall ancient man. Shirtless with a good sized sagging spare tire around the middle, his leathery skin is the red-brown color of the Wingate sandstone of the canyon. His hair is a close-cropped helmet of thick blond-gray like the Navaho Sandstone that caps the Wingate. He looks like the canyon itself.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” he says, and then offers to share their liquor which is apparently of great abundance. I don’t quite know what to think of this odd bunch. At the moment I’m not thrilled that they are here. What was a quiet canyon is now filled with profanity-infused banter and I lament the loss of solitude. But, as I cook and eat my dinner, they start to seem less like prison escapees and a bit more like regular folks. I finish my dinner, grab my can of beer and saunter over. I’m welcomed into the crew with great enthusiasm.
My improvised river rock and fire pan cooking system. Only beach driftwood can be burned and fire pans are required.
“So, where are you all from?” I break the ice.
“Albuquerque and Phoenix,” they say in unison. “How ‘bout you?”
Nods all around.
“You guys been down this river before?” I curiously ask.
“Well,” starts the second oldest guy in the group. “This would be my sixth trip down personally. Padre here’s been down a few times.” He motions to the ancient one. “Padre, how many times does this make for you?”
Padre stares at me for a moment, his large rugged head cocked a bit to the side, then says, “well, this would be number eighty for me.”
I believe he must be joking. “Eighty?!” I gasp.
“Yeah, well,” says Padre. “That’s over a span of about 40 years.”
Fascinated I lay into old Padre with question after question. In the 1950’s his family took a six-week car camping trip out West from Detroit when the American past time of car camping was not yet a past time. They car camped right up underneath one of the big arches in what was then seldom-visited Arches National Monument, guided to their spot by Edward Abbey himself when Desert Solitaire was but a few passing thoughts in that young park ranger’s mind.
Like many young men from the East who see it for the first time he was allured by the distances and vividness of the Western landscape. It was during that trip that he stood on the rim in what would later become Canyonlands National Park, looked down into those river canyons and envisioned floating right down that winding Green River.
He didn’t do it on that trip, but he made it back out West permanently fifteen or so years later, bought a seven dollar inflatable raft from K-Mart and floated himself right into the Green River. There were no jet boat pick-ups at the Confluence then, and very few other people on the river. In those days you hiked out.
He loved the experience so much that he kept coming back and started bringing people with him. One time after completing the 52 miles down the river from Mineral Bottom, he turned his canoe around and paddled the 52 miles all the way back up the river. He has explored and knows intimately just about every side canyon and every bend in the river. His tales are conveyed with understatement and nostalgia, like a great adventurer who knows he can never capture in words the experiences he holds in his heart: “See that next little side canyon down there?” he says, pointing down the river. “I call that one the ‘candylands’ because of the bright colors and texture of the rocks. Hard to get to.” His voice trails a bit as he stares down his canyon.
I lay awake for hours that night watching the moon traverse across the sky between the canyon rims. Something about Padre’s story makes me especially proud of my country this night. What a beautiful life! What a beautiful place this is! What a beautiful country I live in! This is freedom. This is the America that I love.
Day 3 on the River
In four miles I come to a sweeping left curve in the river where Jasper Canyon comes in from the right. I find a place to tie up, hop out of the kayak, swap my water shoes for my hiking boots, and head up into the side canyon.
I never see the Anasazi granary that is supposed to be near the mouth of the canyon as I continue on an intermittent hikers trail into a tightening dry gorge. Nearly a mile up, I finally clamber over some ledges, around some freshwater pools and into an astounding amphitheater. Above me is a 500-foot circular overhang cliff with water drops drifting down from the lip. I scamper up ledges and get underneath the overhang and behind the drip-waterfall to watch single drops of water on seven-second free falls to the red rocks by my feet.
The head of Jasper Canyon, looking straight up at the circular amphitheater
Back on the river now the remainder of the afternoon is calm with glassy water. I play leapfrog with the five person crew I saw yesterday in the wind and, for a while, enjoy the bluegrass tunes I hear coming from one of their kayaks.
The river makes big turns here, but it’s always quiet and calm with that gentle drift through the canyon walls. The days have become progressively more enjoyable and I have a hard time believing it when I realize I’m within three or four miles of the Confluence and I’ve put nearly 50 river miles behind me.
Today, my campsite reveals itself easily. On the inside point of a sharp right bend in the river a great big beach and raised dune sparkles in the sunlight. This is the place for my third and final night on the river in Canyonlands.
My third and final campsite was a magnificent beach… But, I would not get to enjoy a night on this one.
The Dune and Calamity
I walk aimlessly for a while along the white-sand beach. The canyon is especially tight here as the river makes a near doubling back and the close canyon walls curve with the river that formed them. I notice next to my beach there is a big shallow eddie swirling around. I decide then to do something I’ve been contemplating for most of the day—get in that water and cool off.
With no shirt or shoes, and my life vest sitting on my kayak, I wade into the eddie finding knee deep water out 20 feet from the bank. I’m not here to swim. I simply want to get down into that cool shallow water and float on my back. I relax immediately as I float on my back, looking up to those reddish canyon rims. I let my arms hang and my fingers find the sandy riverbed. Drifting. Slowly drifting, I feel the current pulling me back to shore, as expected. The bottom drops away from the reach of my fingers, yet I linger in my float like a log adrift by the bank. Or so I think. I finally turn upwards to stand, but that sandy bottom isn’t there. Suddenly, I’m treading deep water and drifting away from my beach in the main river current.
Within minutes I’m in a fight for my life. I’m heaving for air after foolishly panicking and repeatedly trying to swim up-current towards the beach only to be pulled farther into the middle of the river. The slow current is like a giant’s thumb casually pushing me away the more I try to push back. I’m a hundred feet from either bank and the river feels a hundred feet deep. The terror is profound as I realize that I’m about to die.
Silent fear grips me as I oddly fixate my eyes on the rim of the canyon in pure exhaustion, river water lapping at my upturned chin. Then my smiling three-year-old daughter appears vividly in my mind, and I hear the sweetest words in that sweetest little voice: “I love you Daddy.” A flood of emotions: extreme guilt… Crushing sadness… Anger at myself for being so foolish. How could I do this to them?! I can’t do this to them.
I hear another voice, my voice. “Stop fighting it.” The fight or flight instinct is powerful, but usually counter-productive in drowning situations. Overcoming the natural urge to fight or flee is difficult. It requires the slow moving logical mind to overpower the rapid instinct to simply react to whatever is about to kill you. “Relax (gasping breath). Get on your back.” I say this aloud, but my voice seems detached from my body.
But, I listen to the voice’s reason. I lean back, extend my arms wide, and just float. I focus on the sky, the canyon rim. As I gradually recover my wind I beat back the urge to panic. This allows me to reason and I predict that the current will drift me over to the far bank. If I just float the river will discard me gently on that opposite shoreline.
A second wave of terror thunders over me when I finally turn to look for that opposite bank and find that I am no closer than before. The river seems immense and I’m an insignificant piece of waterlogged flotsam about to drift silently under the surface to eternal darkness. I see a vision of bleached white bones like driftwood on a winter sandbar—my bones, picked clean by ravens. But, my mind returns, once again, to my little girl and my beautiful wife. I can’t leave them. I concentrate on staying afloat. I find calm again. The fear is there, lurking just under the surface. Over and over, I begin to say aloud, “I’m going to make it.” I force myself to believe it. With renewed energy, I commence an angled backstroke, but I pace myself this time, slow and steady, letting the current work with me, angling toward the far bank.
It feels like an eternity, but it works. When the bank is finally close I turn from my backstroke and jolt into a spasm of a side stroke. I strike the rising river bed with my left hand. Salvation. I claw my way up onto a steep muddy bank, and only then do I realize how extraordinarily exhausted I still am. I do nothing for ten minutes but lay there on that bank, my legs still in the water and my torso draped along the slope like an evolutionary fish emerging from the sea onto land for the first time.
A Creature of the Night
It’s about 4:00 in the afternoon. I sit on my steep muddy bank of salvation looking across and up the river to my kayak sitting on that beach. The river is two football fields wide and I drifted a good quarter mile down. Attempting to swim back across is unthinkable. I find myself boxed in by two cliffs, one upriver and one down, that drop straight into the water. Between these cliffs, where I am, is a steep slope rising from the riverbank that is covered in a nasty tangle of thorny bushes, loose rocks and quite possibly home to rattlesnakes and scorpions. At the top of this slope, about 30 feet above the river and behind me, the vertical rock of the canyon rises hundreds of feet straight up. My only way out will have to be by boat rescue. Will that rescue come this afternoon, or tomorrow morning?
Assessing my situation I am all too aware that I have no shirt, no shoes, and no supplies. The sky has turned cloudy and looks to be darkening. If it starts to rain at night, life-threatening hypothermia is a high probability. I begin very carefully making my way up the bank. At a point directly across from my kayak there is a sandstone ledge about eight feet above the river which I consider to be a possible site for a bivouac. It is not large, but it’s flat and dry with relatively easy access to the river water.
The sky is still cloudy and threatening rain, so I must find some kind of shelter. My best chance of finding it is up along the base of the cliff behind me. So, I climb the steep slope in my bare feet dangerously clawing and pulling my way up through spikey vegetation on loose dirt. One slip could make my dilemma infinitely more serious. I manage to make my way up to cliff base. There is a level shelf extending about two feet from the base. I see a dead tamarisk growing from the edge of the shelf, its tangled branches forming a dense tunnel about five feet high and five feet long. Straight above, maybe 30 feet up, is a six-foot rock overhang. This place looks like it would stay dry in a rainstorm, and I consider this to be a lucky break.
The glow of sun behind the clouds creeps towards the canyon rim. No boaters have come and my confidence in seeing another party before dark is waning. My attitude is stoic as I mentally prepare for a long and chilly night. But, I wish I had a shirt at least. The clouds dissipate and low angle sunbeams burst through. With the chance of rain diminishing my biggest survival concern becomes dehydration. I realize that once it is dark it will be nearly impossible to make it back down the treacherous slope to the river without a fall and likely injury. I feel I must allow myself safe emergency access to river water. So, with reluctance, I leave my shelter and return to the sandstone ledge nearer to the river. Drinking the river water, sediment and all, is a last resort, but I want the option.
Before I make my way back down the slippery slope, I notice a healthy prickly pear cactus growing to my right. They are edible if you can defeat the layers of spikey armor. I find a couple of sharp edged rocks and carefully and slowly manage to peel off the skin, spines, and stickers from one side of a plump lobe and scoop out the watery inside. It’s lime green and looks rather appetizing, but is almost tasteless. I eat as much of the juicy inside as I can reasonably scoop away, receiving valuable, if little, hydration.
Now back down on my ledge, the day finally starts to give way to the night as the first stars appear. The canyon, in this sharp river bend, is like a colossal auditorium and I pretend I’m in the best seat in the house as the lights turn down for the show. I stare across the river to my kayak and cooler where there is cold water, sparkling juice and beer. I feel like the Greek mythological king Tantalus, standing in cool water under a glorious fruit tree but forever banished from sipping the water or biting into the juicy fruit just beyond his reach. That tantalizing cooler is so close, yet a universe away.
Just as night falls, a waxing gibbous moon appears over the rim behind me and illuminates the canyon. I feel I can see nearly as well as I could during the daytime. Still warm, I find I’m actually enjoying the peace and beauty of the canyon in the moonlight. I look up at that moon and recall something I often tell my daughter: The moon is made of cheese and there’s a man up there in that moon. He smiles down at us and makes the night peaceful. There is wisdom in folklore like this. It gives me comfort this night.
Within a couple hours from dusk the chills start earlier than expected. The moon is now well up over the canyon and the Big Dipper is slowly disappearing behind the north rim. I’m concerned about the fact that I’m already getting cold with at least seven more hours of night to endure. With no clothes to put on nor tools to build fire, the only thing I can do is exercise.
I stand up and begin doing upper body calisthenics with my feet planted firmly. The calisthenics keep me warm, but I also use them to calculate the passage of time. I swing my arms in estimated one-second intervals—five sets of 60 for five minutes and then switch to a different movement for variety. After 15 or 20 minutes, my body is warm enough for 5 to 10 minutes of rest before shivers return and I start the process all over again.
My mind remains remarkably strong and positive. At times I even enjoy the experience. It’s fantastically elemental–just me and the big night wilderness. I feel strange. The moonlit canyon is otherworldly and I feel as if I’m a grotesque alien creature perched on a ledge on some other planet.
Three more hours of calisthenics and the moon is now nearing the opposite rim. With the Big Dipper gone I now have a new constellation to track, the Teapot, which has made a grand entrance over the east wall directly above me. I know the early morning hours will be the darkest, coldest and weariest hours, but the daylight, warmth and rescue are on the other side.
As expected, the canyon gradually turns inky black. With the departure of the moon comes the full splendor of the galaxy. The Milky Way is a silk tapestry spread between the cliffs, and I’m sure there is a star visible in that awesome sky for every living soul on Earth.
In the darkness I sometimes get a sense of vertigo. Without the moonlight the sky and the canyon walls are equally black, the rock discernible only by the absence of stars. Below me the black river seems a bottomless abyss, its presence betrayed only by the occasional catfish in the night. Every few minutes a chunk of sand breaks from the dune across the river and an unnerving ker-PLAAAASSSHHH reverberates in the darkness.
Hallucinations. A startling fluorescent green hummingbird appears and floats around my vision, its wings flapping in slow motion. He comes and goes. Stars begin to move–the teakettle shape-shifts into a weird spinning carnival top. Feint flashes of light flicker over the west canyon wall.
Wait. The flashes of light are real. Distant lightning. The cloud bank that rolled over in the afternoon must have built up over the La Sals to the east or perhaps even the San Juans in Colorado a hundred miles away. I’m not worried about rain, but I am amazed at what this world can reveal when we see it without the filter of modern life.
The dawn is near. Continuing my unending calisthenics routine I gaze across the sky expectantly for that first sign of light. I look up to see my teakettle, but I notice that I can no longer see the Milky Way. Soon a bluish hue emerges over the canyon to the south. Dawn is here!
My ordeal is nearing its end and yet it’s still so far away. It is the coldest time of day and I’m constantly shivering now. My mouth is like the sand of the desert and my throat burns with thirst. But, I know salvation is near and I resist the urge to gulp down liquid mud from the river.
The half-light and my weariness play tricks on me. I keep hearing a haunting woman’s voice upriver around the bend. But, as the canyon gradually enlightens, the familiarity of my amphitheater begins to return. I see the first rays of sunshine ignite the highest pinnacles to the west—rock turning from gray to flaming red.
After rescue, looking back across the river to the area where I spent the night.
Sixteen hours after my near drowning the canoe drifts into view seconds after I hear the voices. Two men. I make my way as far as I can up river and wait for them to get near before I wave them over. I feel as if I’m acting in an awkward Monte Python comedy skit. The men turn towards my bank just downstream from me and paddle easily up the back-current along the shore until I can reach the edge of their boat.
“Did you spend all night over here?” asks the younger man incredulously.
I hop clumsily on their cooler and they paddle hard cross-current towards my kayak. We cross the swirl in the river where I nearly drowned and the canoe spins and dips. “Wow, that’s a strange current,” says the man in back.
At the other side, I hop out onto that wonderful beach and shake the hands of my rescuers, thanking them again before they’re on their way. There is no crazy jubilation or mental collapse, just a calm sense of relief. I’m no longer Tantalus as I reach into that cooler, ice melted now, but the water inside ice cold, and bring out my last carbonated juice. I’ve never tasted anything so beautifully refreshing in my life.
I don’t have too much time. It’s pick up day and I still have to paddle to the confluence by 10:00 am to be ready for the jet boat pick-up to take me back to Moab. Once on the water I make a point to relax and enjoy the final stretch. Before long the river curves right and I see across that broad bend a huge beach with a bunch of people straight ahead. Left of the beach another river comes into view, about equal in size to the Green and just as muddy. It’s the Colorado. I paddle out into what is now the Colorado River below the confluence and straight over to the lower end of the beach.
As I sit on a grassy bank waiting for the boat I look across the Colorado straight up the Green. The river curves and disappears into the ancient walls of the canyon. I know I left a piece of my soul there in that labyrinth. I believe that those still waters will run deep.