He said, "I'm kind of scared"... and I wasn't sure if he meant kayaking Stillwater Canyon or surviving the ride to the water.
You see, we were in an outfitter's van pulling a trailer of our boats, descending the very narrow shelf road switchbacks down to Mineral Bottom to the Green River, in Canyonlands National Park near Moab, Utah.
Kevin, the youngest member of the crew, is just twelve, and this is his first kayak expedition. From where we were sitting on the moment, there were multiple things going on that could have been the source of his concern. Turns out, even though both of us were fairly worried about living through the ride down into the canyon, it was the river he was referring too.
Kevin, his dad Stanley, grandfather Michael, along with my son Jami and I were about to leave the turmoils of America and the problems of the world behind. No news, no cell phones, no contact with any of the eight billion souls up over the tops of those red rock cliffs, for seven days.
Each of those seven days were forecast to be a 100ºF plus scorcher up on the desert floor, but we counted on a much much cooler 96 or 97 on the water down in the canyon. When there is no relief, every degree makes a difference. Shade in canyons can be at a real premium in mid August and when you find it, there exists the possibility that the area was recently in the sun, and the sand or ground is still burning hot.
Jami Mohlenkamp was a sure leader and had the trip mapped and planned to perfection.We would camp wherever we would find proper spots, keeping insects, peanut butter mud, quick sand, bats and flash floods in mind. We wanted bats, ....less insects.
So, off we shove from Mineral Bottom on the Green River with the eventual destination being the confluence with the Colorado River fifty four miles downstream. The Green river is silt laden and will take your water filter out of service quickly, so we each needed to carry eight gallons of water on board. When planning the trip we discussed where to carry this many gallonson a virtualneedle in the water.Stanley came up with the idea of saddle bagging two large 2 1/2 gallon water jugs with a kayak strap (already there) hanging on each side in the water, keeping it both cool and off the boat, literally acting as pontoons. It worked like a charm and he was quickly and appropriately designated "The Professor".
We did around twelve miles that first day, with a slow 2-3 mile per hour current, down to Fort Bottom. There was a large sandy beach to camp on with great first night vista views of some of america's darkest skies. If you have never witnessed the night sky in the dry desert air of desolate Utah, ...you've let some of the best of life pass you by.It's a little frightening at first as you stand amazed at the universe and beyond clearly spelled out in front of you. The darkness only helps you focus on the immensity before you and beckons you to feel an integral part of it all. Chills, still.
The next morning, after dreaming of stars all night, we hiked to an Anasazi granary on a bluff overlooking the river downstream on which we would be navigating when we left camp. Another hike found us at a cabin, taled to be a hideout for horse thieves in an era long gone.
As it started to get noticeably hot by the time we returned to strike camp, we hurried to the river to cash in on the four degree temperature discount the river offered. We quickly learned that going slow would not find us at camp too early and wishing we were back out on the river.
Floating that day was so much more settled than day one and we drifted down the lazy Green River, always in sight of each other, but spread out into the desolation. The silence was deafening and only interrupted by an occasional fish flopping out of the water or the caw of a raven soaring high overhead,as the constantly changing scenery unfolded very slowly in front of us. Mesmerizing to a fault.
Michael had a bad craving for ice, which would worsen as the hot days spelled out. Sometimes all you want is that which you cannot have. He very well knew it was impossible but the dream made him smile. We camped that night on another nice white beach with shade close by.
We beached around four after lingering down the river for all it was worth and sat in the shade for awhile until setting camp up out by the boats and putting in a nice evening of shooting stars and a listing Milky Way.
Oh Captain My Captain, Jami, planned and executed bountiful meals every evening, a wonderful event after snacking all day. Pretty amazing the gourmet dinners we were allowed to enjoy, all packed inside our tiny little river vessels.
Off the next morning early on day 3, ....we thought it was cooler. It wasn't. We arrived at our pre planned camp at the mouth of a canyon. We discussed camping in a drainage (which is what a canyon is) in the event of a flash flood up canyon, but since we hadn't seen a cloud to this point, and had studied the weather forecast for the entire area, we decided that life without risk was like no life at all and we setup out tents in the canyon's mouth. Tonight the show put on by all of creation in the night sky had a little frosting on it. It was the evening of the annual Perseid Meteor Shower and we were treated to more shooting stars than we could count, especially in the desert's deep black skies. Pretty spectacular entertainment surrounded by magnificent desolation.
We hiked the canyon the next morning and resorted to chasing shade for a good part of the day, moving our chairs to the fancy of a relentless sun taking all paths of least resistance to find us. Cold water was bobbing in the river waiting our return to camp, and the sweet taste of chilled water seemed sweeter than ever before. Life's simple little things are so valuable when it's the only thing you have. We stayed another night in the same camp, the only night we would do so.
The next two days were simple solitude. Floating the river became our M.O. and we were well settled into river life by now. Long lazy days did not seem so anxious like the first couple had. We were settled in to our mission and were one with the river. We even all shared stories at camp those later days how we had taken short naps on the river as it was so peaceful and lazy. I continued to annoy everyone by having them pose for photographs but because of it, we scared up a few images to help tell our tale.
Saturday morning at 10 AM, we were astounded to hear a loud encroaching noise coming up the canyon. We had become totally unaccustomed to NOISE. As it rounded the last corner before reaching the confluence of the two rivers where we camped the final night, we could see it was the outfitter's jet boat, come calling to take us and our boats the fifty miles back to Moab on the Colorado River. We were going home....
The jet boat snaked back and forth around sand bars at an incredible thirty miles per hour which felt supersonic after days and days of going no faster than three.
I looked over at Kevin, and asked, "Scared?" he smiled and responded, "Of what ?"
It was a great experience and I would like to thank my crew, Jami "OHCAPTAINMYCAPTAIN" Mohlenkamp, Michael "ICE" Gordan, Stanley "THE PROFESSOR" Gordan, Kevin "YOUNG BULL" Gordan-Diaz. It was a pleasure to kayak with you all.
Steve "SHOOTR" Mohlenkamp
About the Author: Steve Mohlenkamp has been a commercial photographer and occasional author for over forty five uninterrupted years, specializing in travel and motorsports. Kayaking is a family wide sport for him and several expeditions find themselves happening each year. From Denver, they mainly float in Colorado and Utah, but find Lake Powell and the northern Parks of Grand Teton and Glacier to their fancy as well.
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