Saturday, July 25, 2009

Rafting the San Juan: Deep in the Canyon

The second night after our "auxiliary" companions left us, I was pitching my tent, and suddenly I thought: Why? MT had her tent; T and L and LS had theirs. With our smaller company, there was plenty of space in the campsite. I wasn't invading their privacy, and they wouldn't be treading on mine. So I slid my still-rolled tent back into its bag and instead laid out my Thermarest and my sleeping bag, slipped some folded clothes into the sleeping bag's stuff-sack for a pillow, and made my bed under the open sky.

There's something about sleeping in the open like that that is satisfying in a sort of visceral, atavistic way. I don't know what it is; maybe the light play of the night breezes over your face, maybe the sense of openness that even the thin wall of a tent shuts down. Maybe it's the unmuffled whispers of the wild, the small sounds of insects and tiny night-dwellers going about their nocturnal business. But... there's something about it.

One morning I woke up with the coming dawn; in the canyon, the sunlight doesn't strike your face, but the sky is light above you, calling you gently to the waking day. The murmur of the river was soft in my ears, and a cool, fresh breeze played lightly over my face, flirting with my hair. I lay nestled into the soft breast of the sandy earth, my body warm and my face cool with the fading night, and I noticed, on the riverward side of me, tracks. I leaned up on one elbow, frowning at them, trying to decipher them. They came in a line from the river, spreading paw prints bracketing the thin, broken line of a tail-drag, delicate and graceful as a brush stroke. Looking close, I could see the sharp tics of claws, the print of a broad pad, the marks of toes. The tracks were muddled and trodden-over by my head; they circled above me like a halo, knotting together again at the left side of where my head had lain; then they arced back above me and angled away, back toward the river's bank. I narrowed my eyes speculatively at the river, wondering what denizen had come from its waters, paused to peer at me from my right, circled to inspect me again from my left, and then gone on about its business. Clearly a mammal, and the tail stroke looks too thin for a beaver. Foxes have more upright feet, their tracks more dog-like in appearance, not so broad; and coyotes ditto, and much larger than these prints.

Otter, maybe?

This puts a little smile on my face. I was born in the otter moon. Otters have always enchanted me; a juxtaposition of opposites: Playful, yet fiercely protective of their young, sleek yet muscular, equally at home on land on water, in summer and winter. Somehow it pleases me to think that, at least for a few minutes, I might have been as interesting to one of them as they are to me.

I sit in my puddled sleeping bag, looking at the morning coming on, writing now and then in my journal. After a while MT stirs, emerging sleepy and smiling from her tent.

"Look at this," I say, pointing at my little nimbus of tracks.

"Otter," she says, without hesitation, and then, looking at the pattern, she laughs. "It must have come right up to you; I bet it had its face not six inches from yours. You didn't hear it?"

"Not a thing," I said, laughing with her. T and L are stirring now and come to see what we're laughing at. T grins, his teeth white in the dark thicket of his beard.

"Sneaky little buggers," he says, going off cheerfully to start the coleman stove for breakfast.

Somewhere later along the river we come to the hanging gardens. You have to walk up a little side-canyon to see them; at river's edge you'd never know they were there. But if you know where it is, there is a tiny tributary stream feeding the San Juan from a narrow canyon. If you hike up a bit, you come to a place where a series of descending pools gather on flat pans, dropping in little waterfalls from one level to the next. Most of the pools are relatively shallow; some are warm, heated by sun and rock; many are populated with the fry of what will one day be much larger river fish. Some of the falls are only a matter of a foot or two; some drop eight or ten feet. Especially wonderful are the ones where a lip of overhanging rock pours the water down to the next level. Under the overhanging shelter of the previous level, guarded by the thin, narrow veil of the falling water, grow miraculous little aqua-gardens made of ferns and moss and other water-loving plants, astonishing to find here in the arid heat of southern Utah. Its very unexpectedness makes it a gift of enchantment, a thing of magic. It is tempting to sit in the cool shade behind the falling water and lose one's self in timelessness; but there are other wonders to discover, and the river awaits.

Much of the San Juan is relatively flat, with long, roundabout ox-bows that take three miles to move you one as the crow flies. Here and there there are underwater sand dunes that make "sand waves", little dips and gullies in the water, small, gentle bumps in the ride. But our course will take us through Government Rapids, a class-three rapid. On the day we arrive there, T and MT row over and tie off; we all get out and hike downstream, up a rocky outcrop overlooking the rapids, so that the boat pilots can scout the water. The water flows thick and glassy-smooth over a tongue of rock, flanked on one side by a tall boulder and on the other by the wall of a cliff. I've had cause to wonder if that's where the rapid gets its name: you're between a rock and a hard spot. Just over the falls there's a boiling pit of water, spray flying and water roiling. T and MT engage in a serious, intent conversation about how the water is running and where to aim the boats; T has many years of practice on this and other rivers, and he knows his job. The conversation woud make me nervous elsewhere, but even here it lights a small spark of disquiet; they are spending a long time discussing how not to get in the hole, where the boat can be swamped or flipped, and how to keep off the rock so as not to spin the boat sideways over the drop. MT is frowning in concentration and there is a line of tension in her posture and the set of her shoulders, something that surprises me; she has been so causally competent all along that I'd forgotten that she has only been doing this for a year or so.

After a longish conversation about the best way to shoot the rapids, we hike back to the boats.

"Where do you want me?" I ask MT.

"Right up front, and hang on," she says. "You're going to get wet."

Okay, then. I wriggle down amongst the dry bags and grab the lines on either side of the prow, getting a solid grip. MT rows us out into the current, hauling hard on one oar to turn us nose-on to the rapids, back-rowing to control our pace, digging in light and quick with the opposite oar to straiten us out. We watch T pilot his boat over the drop, catching a glimpse of the tossing Avon as he leaps back up from the water pit, and then we are at the rapid. MT hits it perfectly, strait in, digging her oars to turn a perfectly-executed pirouette around the flank of the boulder, spilling us down the river-race on the center of the wave. We hit the churning cauldron below and bound up like a leaping seal, the sturdy Avon flexing and buoyant, and MT is right: I am soaked by the slap of the waves, shocking cold against my sun-heated skin, and I am laughing hard.

"Okay up there?" MT asks.

"That was perfect!" I crow. "Let's portage back up and do it again!" MT laughs with me, pleased, and well she should be. It was perfect execution, maximum ride and no mistakes. Damn good at what she does, that girl.

[Next: The River's End.]


MaskedMan said...

Again; Lovely.

I envy you the otter tracks, and most especialy, the hanging gardens.

Barb said...

This tale is such a delight! I am looking forward to the next installment but I'll be sorry when it's over.

Holly said...

tho I am not a "sleeping under the stars" type, you do make it seem romantic. And the otter? Bliss. I would love love love to have seen the tracks all around.

Can you imagine what s/he was thinking?

"what?! who is this stranger on my beach? Who is this creature....amazing she does not wake! She is curiously long, but where are her legs?"


Pat said...

It dawned on me how fortunate for me that I didn't have to pay for such wonderful stories.
Thank you so much. I am ever so pleased to have you back. :)

AKDD said...

Thanks! I'm glad you're all enjoying it. It's been a real pleasure reliving it in this detail; I haven't thought deeply avout it in some years, and the task of writing it down has made it fresh again in my soul.