“a region of the wildest desolation”

John Wesley Powell named this “the Canyon of Desolation,” perceiving it as “a region of the wildest desolation.” But to those who love high deserts, the Green River is truly magical here, where it splits the 10,000 ft.-high Tavaputs Plateau to form Desolation and Gray Canyons. Its water sustains brilliant green cottonwoods that beautifully offset the surrounding formations. Here, the Green River is warm enough to provide a welcome embrace, cool enough to restore one’s spirits from the intense heat and sun.

As the historical marker at Sand Wash notes, Desolation Canyon was selected as the landmark to commemorate the centennial of the 1869 Powell exploration, because it is the least changed from Powell’s time. The deepest and longest of the canyons of the Green, Desolation Canyon has ample evidence of human efforts to scrape out a living here over several thousand years, from Fremont granaries and pictographs to homesteaders’ ranches, but almost all are essentially abandoned now, their non-habitability proving up Powell’s perception of the essential wildness of this place.

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The spectacular views from our small plane give us a birdseye view of the varied land- and riverscapes that will embrace us  this week.
The spectacular views from our small plane give us a birdseye preview of the varied landscapes and riverscapes we will encounter this week.

A short flight in 5-passenger planes from the Green River airport brings us to a sketchy dirt airstrip high on a mesa, a 45-minute hike away from Sand Wash, at Mile 96 on the Green River, where our six-day Desolation Canyon river trip begins.

Donna hikes from the sketchy landing strip to the Sand Wash put-in for our 6-day river trip.
The hike from the sketchy dirt landing strip to the Sand Wash put-in for our 6-day river trip.

Laurel (Dwight’s daughter) and Shawn have renewed their licenses in order to serve as two of the river guides for this “extended river family” trip full of several generations of river guides and river rats, plus a big crop of children and a handful of adults who are self-described “river virgins.” Veteran status goes to Chris Hogan, who first worked on the Green and Colorado Rivers in the late 1960s. “Big Hogan” is also a friend of Dwight’s since junior high, and “little Hogan” is his namesake. We have three current CRATE (Colorado River and Trails Expeditions) guides, already river-experienced in their early 20’s, to do the heavy lifting. And to add to our “full circle” experience, Ken Quist, son of famed boatman Bob Quist and namesake of Ken Sleight, helped us load up at the warehouse and at Sand Wash.

Shawn's boat resembles a one-room schoolhouse, with Shawn and Laurel's sons, Harper (l) and Hogan (middle) on board for their first river trip.
Shawn’s boat at times resembles a one-room schoolhouse, with Shawn and Laurel’s sons, Harper (l) and Hogan (middle) on board for their first river trip, along with life-long friend Freya.

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Though the river is dammed upstream, it feels more natural, less “damned”, and thus strikingly different from the water in the Colorado River below Lee’s Ferry. Here, the Green River is warm, silty-brown, with many sandy beaches that attest to natural river processes — illusory, to some extent, since the dam is there, but welcome.

Shawn and Hogan float the river on Hogan's first river trip.
Shawn and Hogan float the river, a grand way to celebrate Hogan’s first day on his first river trip.
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After the first night on the river, I enjoy this view from our campsite. This is 2 hours after my early morning coffee, and 2 hours before we push off — we’re going for the record for leisurely starts!
Cottonwoods, rock, water. These are the component elements of a glorious afternoon.
Cottonwoods, sagebrush, rock, water. These are the constituent elements of our glorious afternoon.
Very early in the morning, only Zoe, a goddess of a river guide who is a pre-med college student in the river's off-season, and Lucas, our stellar trip leader, are up and about. The white bag on the sand may possibly contain quite a few empty beer cans, signifying one of the amazing luxuries that differentiates a river trip from a backpacking trip.
Very early in the morning, only Zoe, a goddess of a river guide who is a pre-med college student in the river’s off-season, and Lucas, our stellar trip leader, are up and about. The white bag on the sand may possibly contain quite a few empty beer cans, signifying one of the amazing luxuries that differentiates a river trip from a backpacking trip, along with sleeping cots, camp chairs, and dutch ovens.
At 5:45 am, only the highest reaches of the canyon are hit by the light of the sun, to glorious effect. Desolate? Not to an open heart and mind!
At 5:45 am, only the highest reaches of the canyon are hit by the light of the sun, to glorious effect. Desolate? Not to an open heart and mind!
July 31: another magical morning, midpoint again between my first cup of cowboy coffee and our departure from camp.
July 31: another magical morning, midpoint again between my first cup of cowboy coffee and our departure from camp.
It's a great ducky day -- so terrific to be sitting right in the water, paddle in hand. Dave Brown shares some river time with perhaps a next-gen river guide.
It’s a great ducky day — so terrific to be sitting right on the water, paddle in hand. Dave Brown shares some river time with perhaps a next-gen river guide.
Zoe and Dwight enjoy a little whitewater moment.
Zoe and Dwight enjoy a little whitewater moment.
Ginny and Travis -
Ginny and Travis – “river virgins” no more!
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Travis and Ginny paddle furiously…or not.

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Andrew brings some little ducklings safely through a rapid.
Andrew brings some little ducklings safely through a rapid. (Click to see a larger version.)
What is Team Andrew seeing here??
What is Team Andrew seeing here??
I love this photo: it looks like a river version of the drive-in theater of my childhood, with Travis and Ginny hanging out, waiting for dark to see a film on the big screen...
I love this photo: it looks like a river version of the drive-in theater of my childhood, with Travis and Ginny hanging out, waiting for dark to see a film on the big screen…
What's it like to flip in a rapid? Here are Laurel and Harper in the river, post-flip. Harper hung onto his paddle, Laurel later recovered her lost flip-flop, and she and Harper floated on one side of a big rock while their ducky floated through on the other side. Later, when asked if it was fun or scary, Harper replied,
What’s it like to flip in a rapid? Here are Laurel and Harper in the river, post-flip, with the rapid barely visible now, upriver. Harper hung onto his paddle (the thing you definitely don’t want to lose), Laurel later recovered her lost flip-flop, and she and Harper floated on one side of a big rock while their ducky floated through on the other side. Later, when asked if it was fun or scary, Harper replied, “It was 50-50.”
I must have taken a vacation from my camera on August 1 - but I did get this photo of our river guide Zoe, sporting my Dirty Girl prototype
I must have taken a vacation from my camera on August 1 – but I did get this photo of our river guide Zoe, sporting my Dirty Girl prototype “sMittens” – sun mittens. Chrissy (Dirty Girl) was so impressed with this photo, she’s sending out a pair for Zoe.

During our trip, we were often in bear country, but we saw none. We saw groups of bighorn sheep (twice!), a bald eagle, lots of great blue herons, and we enjoyed the music of canyon wrens. Damselflies and scary-ugly catfish were our constant companions on river. Cottonwoods, junipers laden with fat berries (technically female seed cones), sagebrush (Artemesia tridentata) and horsetail (Equisetum spp.) battled with the dreaded tamarisk for space along the shoreline and side-canyon streams. We swatted mosquitoes and biting flies, but all things considered, their numbers were reasonably low. Bleached bones on side trails and at campsites paid tribute to the cycle of life in this place that looks desolate and barren only at superficial glance.

August 2 - our last morning on the river. We're in Gray Canyon now, and anyone up early was rewarded with this spectacular sight.
August 2 – our last morning on the river. We’re in Gray Canyon now, and anyone up early was rewarded with this spectacular sight.
A half-hour later, this was the view.
A half-hour later, this was the view.
“Big” Hogan packed up his cowboy camp, and we had just a few short miles on the river to our take-out at Swayze’s, Mile 12.

Where did those six days go? They were like little Hogan’s best rock-skip on the river — six skips, and the rock disappears forever into the river, into our memories. But for almost all of us, this wasn’t our first rodeo — and my hope for all of us is that it certainly won’t be our last. Even so, it will never again be the same river:

“You cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters are continually flowing on.” ~Heraclitus, 6th century B.C.

I love the fact that the great river close to Heraclitus was called the Meander, and I love that he was considered a loner and something of a crank. As for that ever-changing river, not only do the waters continually flow on, but storms brings in silt, rocks, and debris from the side canyons, huge blocks fall into the river, sand and rock cobble continually move and are re-formed into new beaches and cobble bars, water levels rise and fall. But the ever-changing river is also eternal, and we are always welcome to come to the river to meander.

Note: I took photos sparingly, often without people. My apologies to the many wonderful people on the trip who are absent from the small selection of photos I’ve posted here. You can see Dwight’s photos here: they include many scenes not included here: individual and group photos, side hikes, and more. ~Betty

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