Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Volunteer Patrol Through Desolation Canyon with the BLM


At the end of June, my husband and I went on a week long adventure as volunteer rangers down Desolation Canyon on the Green River. Our job as volunteers was to help the real BLM ranger patrol the river, ensure everyone was safe, assist other boaters if need be, and check on historical and archeological sites. Our biggest job though, was to pick up trash. Not that people are particularly messy on the Green River, but trash flows no matter what and it ends up caught on river banks and doesn't get picked up unless some good samaritan comes along, packs it onto their boat, and rows it out. We were those good samaritans, and you know what? It felt awesome to give back to such a beautiful place.



We started off our journey at Sand Wash, a pretty dusty and desolate jumping off point. Located here is the Sand Wash BLM ranger station, where we spent our first night. Matt and I were slept in the 'Edward Abbey suite', so named because the man was said to hang out here a lot when he was hooking up with one of the rangers. The station is totally off-grid and powered by an impressive array of sun-tracking solar panels. The bugs though were fierce and no one was sitting on the deck enjoying the dusk or the sunrise.


After rigging our three boats in the mud, we set off on the flatwater with no winds and blue skies. It was calm, but warm so the umbrellas were nice to have along. As we began our descent into Desolation Canyon, I read up on the history of the place and who else had inhabited this dramatic space. Everyone from the Fremont Indians, trappers, explorers, robbers, distillers, ranchers and many more have all made this place home at some point or another. Now, mostly avid boaters make their way down the 84 miles from Sand Wash to the Swasey's Takeout near Green River, UT.


On our first day on the river, Matt and I had an opportunity to get off the boats and take a hike through a hanging valley. We hiked up a drainage and up to the ridge to get this dramatic view of the river as it bends around this cliff band. Along the way we came across a band of wild horses who had taken over a place called Gold Hole. I would like to rename this place Emerald Hole, because it was a bright green oasis nestled between red and tan cliffs. If I could be a wild horse, that is where I would live.



Along the way, we stopped at a lot of really amazing sites filled with some of the most interesting petroglyphs I've seen. Living in the west, petroglyphs are all around us and sometimes they blend together and you forget them. Amazingly though, the petroglyphs in Desolation were fascinating, interesting, even different than what I was used to. They had their own unique style. If only we knew the stories behind these rock-carved images, we could know so much more. Here, the boys on the trip check out the iconic Mushroom Rock, which is covered in petroglyphs along with unfortunate graffiti from more modern times.


As we descend further into the canyon, the green of the willow trees and cottonwoods pops brilliantly against the sandy sage and pinyon covered walls. It is so iconically 'Utah' and yet it is a landscape that I have never seen. You can't get this view without being down in the canyon on the water after having boated miles to get here. It is that notion that makes river travel so intriguing. You can't drive here, you can't really even hike here. You have to strap all the gear, food and drink you need onto a boat and set forth with to be on the river for days.


One night we camped on a sandspit across from Big Canyon, or as our ranger called it 'Castle Grayskull'. At first, the weather was nice, albeit a bit breezy, and a few clouds appeared threatening rain. We thought, 'maybe we should put up the tarp?' And then, sure enough, a storm roared through with winds gusting over 50 mph. All we could do was hold on to the tarp, hold down the food and hope to not get whacked in the head by an oar transformed into a missile by the wind.


But after only 30 minutes of the storm charging and pouring on us, she passed on clearing up to the setting sun. The light shown down onto Castle Grayskull revealing all the glories of the canyon - the hidden nooks, the herd of cattle, the brilliant colors. Only because of the storm were we able to enjoy such a beautiful night that cleared to a sky filled with stars. Life - after a storm you appreciate the beauty even more.


This is about the point where, technically speaking, Desolation Canyon is actually deeper than the Grand Canyon at over a mile from the tops of the surrounding peaks down to the water level. This was near Range Creek and the walls here reminded me so much of Zion, that I immediately fell in love with it.


Along the way, our crew continues to pick up trash, whether in the campsites or caught along the river banks. Here you can see a giant barrel strapped onto the back of the ranger's boat. It must have gotten washed down in the spring with the snow melt and landed on a beach. We decided to make lemonade out of our lemon and it served as our cocktail table for many a night while camping.


Around here, we are near the end of what is known as Desolation Canyon, so named by John Wesley Powell. After this point, the canyon walls give way to a blank spot before we enter the next canyon, Gray. I don't have many pictures of Gray Canyon, because frankly, it was pretty desolate. It is my belief that Powell and his crew were a little hasty in naming Desolation Canyon, because it is far more lush and colorful than Gray, which is made up of taupe, gray, white, and tans. There are few trees here except along the river. It certainly had its own sort of beauty, but is certainly more desolate than even Desolation is and if Powell had just waited a few days to see Gray, he might have better named them both.


Probably the most exciting part of our trip was our encounters with the bears. It's not often you get to see bears in the wilderness, but we were fortunate enough to see two. Here is one, which we named 'Surfer Bear' because of his sun bleached hide. He was hanging out on the river bank and we saw him multiple times that night as we camped across from him. He was very curious about what we were cooking and came out to sniff the air. The next morning a cinnamon-colored bear came wandering through camp. This is a bad thing for bears to do - getting used to humans and going after food only leads to them getting shot by a ranger. We did our best, with the help of air horns and a lot of yelling, to make sure it was a bad experience for the bear, and hopefully he never ventures into a camp again. I felt bad for the bear, because he was clearly nervous and frightened, but being scared by us is much better than being shot by us.


Finally, after 7 days on the river, we came out on the other end at Swasey's with all of this trash. Four trash bags full of bottles and wrappers, along with a shoe, hats, two grills, one plastic barrel, a feed bucket and a giant water tank. The white tank, which you can see here in pieces, took us over an hour to dig out of the river bank, cut up and strap onto a boat. It felt good to get that much trash out of a pristine and beautiful place and make it better.  

Images ©Bridgette Meinhold