Utah by Dirt: The Lure of the Wild River

As the river carried us strong and gentle through this labyrinth of sandstone in Ruby-Horsethief Canyon—past beautiful beaches occupied solely by shifting cottonwoods and slot canyons only accessible via a float down the Colorado or a 30-mile hike across the stark desert plateau above—the unique beauty of this place comes to light. Of course the scenic splendor and sustained power of nature’s grasp on this land are what draws so many to the flows of the Colorado River every year, but half the beauty of these special places, hidden from those unwilling to take the journey to get there, lies within their remoteness and the secluded wild in which they exist.

Our group of three rafts sets off down the lead stretch of Ruby-Horsethief Canyon on our first of three days on the Colorado River; Photograph by Max Lowe
Our group of three rafts sets off down the lead stretch of Ruby-Horsethief Canyon on our first of three days on the Colorado River; Photograph by Max Lowe

Waking up on a cliff’s edge as the sun poured down into the canyon, looking down upon on the fast-moving, silt-heavy runoff of the Colorado River, on our third and final day of packrafting with Holiday River Expeditions, I was beginning to understand the draw of these rivers. The amazing books by Kevin Fedarko (The Emerald Mile) and Edward Abbey that detail the sacred beauty and value of the river runs flowing out of the great Rocky Mountains and down through the deserts of Utah and Nevada had captured my imagination starting freshman year of college. Our pre-semester reading assignment was Desert Solitaire: A Season in The Wilderness, by Edward Abbey, in which he preached the power in untainted wilderness. Since, this and other books by Abbey have become some of my favorites reads and a precursor or accompaniment that I most definitely recommend to anyone traveling to the deserts of Utah. Within these odes to the wild and untamed were stories describing the canyons carved by the Colorado, the Green River, and the Yampa, church-like in their complete and uncommon beauty. Places unlike anywhere else in the world where the sound and sense of nature in its most primal sense ruled the landscape, and man visited only as an acolyte to the power of water and earth.

Rafting guide and woman of the water Susan Monroe oars her boat along a lazy stretch of the Ruby-Horsethief Canyon; Photograph by Max Lowe
Rafting guide and woman of the water Susan Monroe oars her boat along a lazy stretch of the Ruby-Horsethief Canyon; Photograph by Max Lowe

This float trip, ending in the tightly shouldered black walls of Westwater Canyon, was my first true overnight raft trip with this river ecosystem. Much of our experience of the wonders of the world comes secondhand through books, film, and photos, but I can tell you without doubt that experiencing the Colorado first hand is overpowering. Not only is the beauty and value of these remote and wild corners clear, but also the best in human camaraderie is brought forth in all who share the experience. Take a group of people from different realms and respects and put them on a raft together in the middle of nowhere, with a paddle in one hand a beer in the other, and a common appreciation for your fellow human surfaces.

Joey Schusler turns away from a wave in Westwater Canyon as it breaks over the bow of our raft, submerging him and Carston for a brief moment; Photograph by Max Lowe
Joey Schusler turns away from a wave in Westwater Canyon as it breaks over the bow of our raft, submerging him and Carston for a brief moment; Photograph by Max Lowe

On our third morning after a hearty breakfast of pancakes and bacon cooked by our amazing rafting guides, we pushed off the river’s edge and into our last day on the Colorado. As we neared Little Dolores, the first major rapid of the Westwater, my stomach dropped a little and my hands felt for a sturdy grip. Our guide for the day, Collin, made the Class III and IV rapids seem tame, but through past knowledge of running whitewater in Montana and Idaho, all it takes is the slip of an oar, your boat goes into a hole sideways and you and everything in your raft is underwater.

As the canyon began to open again to the wide, rolling red hills, and we neared our takeout, Collin let me jump on the oars and he pulled out his guitar. Floating along at a leisurely roll once again with riffs from the guitar echoing through nature’s amphitheater, the ebb and flow pace of life on the river came home. I had completed my first step of indoctrination into a community of those who can claim firsthand testament to the fervor that lives within these canyon walls, if only you have the grit to chase the river’s run. I am sure that this won’t be my last trip on the Colorado.

Up Next: Canyoneering in Escalante

Previous: Mountain Biking the White Rim 

The Adventurists blog series “Utah by Dirt” is sponsored by Toyota 4Runner, which provided vehicle for this adventure.

Follow us on Instagram at @NatGeoAdventure!

Comments

  1. […] Utah by Dirt: The Lure of… […]