In the spirit of documenting and preserving the beauty of America’s most remote canyons, one writer set out on a 14-day hiking and river adventure to packraft down the Colorado River and return via the lesser-known Dirty Devil River.
At over 500 square miles, Canyonlands National Park is undoubtedly the gem of the Colorado River system. It contains the confluence of the Colorado and the Green Rivers, draining a combined quarter million square miles of American soil. My journey through the wilderness began in Moab, the last civilization before the river descends into 100 miles of meandering canyon walls so remote that I wouldn’t see a single person for six days.
I prepared for many dangers on my trip. Serious whitewater waited below in Cataract Canyon. In high water years, the 29 rapids of Cataract form the largest whitewater in America. At the Confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers, the flow doubles in size, and the river transforms into a threatening cascade. My vessel was a Kokopelli packraft, and at just over nine pounds, with 200D sidewalls, would it be enough to withstand the rapids and carry me into the wilderness?
The first days of my trip were easy above the Confluence. The water was flat, the temperature was warm during the day, and with the turkey basting pan the rangers allow rafters to use, I was able to build a fire every night with the driftwood scattered along the beaches. Each morning, I awoke to everything covered in frost and set off before the sun had time to reach camp.
Wildlife was scarce, but I spotted crows, a fox, and even a desert bighorn ram–a rarely-seen species in the area, according to an NPS ranger I met later on. Their population has been declining in recent years. So much so that the park service transported 11 from Lake Mead last year. All 11 were taken down by cougars. Because the sheep are unwilling to share their lambing grounds with tourists, they’re losing more land every year as adventurous folks wander farther from the usual trails. The one I spotted looked right at home among the slowly rising walls of Wingate, Chinle, and White Rim sandstone.
It felt like I was below the earth, exploring some subterranean parallel universe.
Paddling for hours on end to make 15 to 20 miles a day, I felt strong. Stronger than I had been since a paragliding accident only four months before left me with a broken neck, hip, and chest. I wasn’t sure that I could make the trip happen. However, the gentle resistance of the slow, muddy water filled my soul with ease and my mind with subtle joy. There wasn’t a single sign of people until I saw the Island in the Sky Ranger Station, thousands of feet above me. It felt like I was below the earth, exploring some subterranean parallel universe.
On the third day, I passed the Confluence as planned and headed for the Spanish Bottom around the corner. A beaver appeared downstream, swimming away and slapping his tail on the water before disappearing. Running aground at dusk, I threw everything I needed for the night into my backpack and hoofed it up the trail to the Doll House. One-thousand feet above the river, the Doll House is a maze of oddly shaped towers and passageways. Like high-density housing, this area provided shelter for the ancient Puebloans.
The next morning, I was sad to leave the area and descend the well-worn path to Spanish Bottom, but the rapids were calling me.
The next two days would reveal the tremendous force of the river in Cataract Canyon. Remote and secretive, the canyon defies attempts to define its difficulty. I put on my wetsuit, helmet, and gloves. I even fashioned a drybag with first aid supplies and secured a Spot device around my waist in case I was separated from my packraft. I knew that help was very far away if something went wrong, but at least they would know my location. The first rapid, Brown Betty, was rowdy, but just fine in the agile packraft. The second gave me a taste of real six-foot-tall waves, large enough to swallow the entire packraft. Drenched and bounced, and completely exhilarated, the waves came at me from all sides.
Traveling at 20 feet per second, the rocks come at me quickly, forcing me to make split-second decisions about which way to paddle. On the fourth rapid, I was fooled into trying to take the left channel before the current sucked me right and I had to adjust on the fly. Barely missing a car-sized rock, I made it through. In the 15th rapid, called Capsize, I rode up onto the pillow of water in front of Capsize rock before escaping around it. (The Best expedition of 1891 lost a boat to that very same rock.) By the end of the day I was exhausted, but I had run every rapid without flipping over.
That night I enjoyed the best camp yet, Big Drop Beach, at the head of the three Big Drops. I had been warned by the Maze rangers that the Big Drops were to be avoided in a packraft, especially alone. In times of high water, the Big Drops merge into a single, mile-long rapid. Upon scouting it, I could see the first looked longer than anything on the river thus far. But, I thought, after a good night’s sleep, the rapid could be run in the morning.
Unfortunately, a storm arrived that night, and gusting winds whipped sand at the tent all night.
When morning came, I packed the boat and set off into the current. I found the correct lines for the first Big Drop, which quickly flowed into the second and third, all with successful precision. The remaining rapids were also serious: 27 was a third of a mile long, and I found trouble at the beginning of it. Dropping into a hole, my front end came up and over my head, and soon I was swimming next to the packraft. As I floated feet first down the river, I managed to collect my paddle and drybag while riding out the rough water.
Soon, I was paddling as hard as I dared and getting nowhere. Without the strength to battle the pull for miles, I got out of the boat and into mud up to my waist. Across the extensive mud plain lay the saltbush and firm ground. I portaged, carrying the boat and pack separately. This got me past the worst of the wind, and back into the boat. Under a clearing sky, it was quite cold, but my toes were still movable. My mind turned to thinking about what needed to happen to float through the canyons in darkness.
The most important thing visitors to this area can do is leave no trace.
That’s when I started to hear voices. Then there was a motor, too. Around the corner came two National Park Service boats, with seven people aboard. The head ranger spoke up when they drew alongside, “Are you the packrafter I’ve been hearing about?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” I said. “Do you have space for one more?”
Pretty quickly he answered, “We’re the government, we can’t give rides.” But before I could stammer a reply, he added, “I’m just kidding, we’re going down a few more miles. You’re welcome to hop on.”
Like that, I was riding with a cadre of National Park workers. Buffeted by the cold wind, we talked about which canyons went to the top and which didn’t—and discussed our common interest in conservation and education efforts. I learned about the animals they think are down there, including the playful river otter. Their mission was to exterminate some of the non-native tamarisk and nap weed that grow along the banks. It was also their last trip of the year—a celebration of sorts.
Once they learned of my purpose to shed light on conservation efforts in the area, they opened up about the sheep, beaver, and 8,000 people per year who go down the river. It’s remarkable how well their efforts have preserved the cleanliness and natural feeling of the waterway. Still, many of the animals are driven away from the water during the summer months when more people hike and paddle through the wilderness. We agreed that the most important thing visitors to this area can do is leave no trace.
All too soon it was over, and my new ranger friends vanished in a cloud of dust.
We are in danger of losing this amazing natural habitat to pipelines and pump jacks.
On the return trip, I traveled the Dirty Devil River, a tributary of the Colorado that provides a canyon passageway directly to Han’s Flat Ranger Station and the Maze. The lower part of the Devil resides within the Lake Powell Recreational area. Upstream, the river is a BLM Wilderness Study Area. Due to current mining interests and legislation, the river is not safe from government authorized land development. Roads that exist in the area have been created illegally by oil developers, without penalty. We are in danger of losing this amazing natural habitat to pipelines and pump jacks.
I cleaned my stuff in the river for an hour before a buddy of mine showed up. We drove 20 miles up the road and headed out with a fresh re-supply. Our path to Happy Canyon began with an ascent of Butler Canyon, to a ridge above the Dirty Devil, where we hoped to find a way down to the canyon bottom. This route avoided the muddy hike up the Devil itself. Two days of hiking the meandering canyons and sneak routes brought us to a panoramic view of the Dirty Devil, situated well below our Wingate ledge. We were far beyond any hiking trails now. There was crypto to avoid, vast sandstone domes of Navajo, and my favorite, the little ferric balls of sand that collect on the ground. No one had any reason to come up here. We believed there was no water either until we were lucky enough to find a small pool hidden in a deep cleft. Replenished for a few days, we tried every route on the topo that held any promise of getting down.
On Day 4, we found a series of ledges that looked like they’d lead us to the bottom. Like playing a game of Super Mario, we descended by precarious down-climbing and sliding. Just 100 feet from the bottom we cliffed out again. Wherever we believed there was a route to the river, we were shut down. Each time we fell farther behind schedule. The ropeless descent had failed.
It is up to us, the adventurous ones, to self-police in our most wild areas and ensure that others after us have the same right to untrammeled wilderness.
From our high point, we got to see the Dirty Devil as one sees a museum piece. From our vantage, we observed more bighorn, the rolling Navajo domes cascading into Wingate towers, and sprinkles of green juniper. Through these spaces were also illegal roads that the Cotter Corporation made in the 70s and 80s for mining and drilling exploration. These roads continue to be upgraded, even today, by leases issued by the BLM. Despite its Wilderness Area status, the BLM is still permitted to allow drilling and mining on these public lands, which is why the area was excluded from the Canyonlands boundary in the 60s.
My trip to the Canyonlands and beyond only furthered my belief in the importance of speaking out for its conservation. Despite having to turn back, I remain hopeful for many return journeys to see the rock art sites of the nomadic peoples who once inhabited this remote landscape. It is up to us, the adventurous ones, to self-police in our most wild areas and ensure that others after us have the same right to untrammeled wilderness. The Dirty Devil River certainly belongs next to the Colorado River on the list of areas that are still truly wild.