Monday, July 27, 2009

Rafting the San Juan: River's End

The longer we went down the river, the deeper the canyon became. This was not an entirely uniform process; there were dips and rises at the surface of the land tabled above us. But gradually, the walls grew higher, and time less meaningful. We stopped when we were hungry, or if there was something interesting to see. MT and T had taken their data already, so there was nothing to do but be on the river. We drifted past the sandy crescents of tiny beaches, populated with tufty grasses, shrubs and small trees, and strait sheer walls of rock that dropped strait into the water. Here and there we encountered other rafters, but we had long stretches of the San Juan to ourselves.

Our last campsite was the one I loved the best. It was on a broad, sandy beach which rose in a gentle slope to the canyon wall. The bottom of the wall had been undercut eons ago by the previous course of the river, making a deep bench under the massive weight of the canyon wall. The bench was maybe 100 feet long and cut maybe 12 feet into the foot of the cliff, and was perhaps 6 feet high and floored with extremely fine sand. As MT and T-and-family pitched their tents in the sudden breeze that presaged a storm, I unrolled my Thermarest in this declivity, feeling cozy and snug there, holed up in the flank of the canyon.

As the rain started to patter down sporadically, MT came up and asked if I minded sharing my snug-hole with her.

"Nope," I said. "Pull up some sleeping bag." So we lounged there under the rock, watching the rain come. At first it fell lightly, but we could see the bellies of the clouds above the cliff-top, 80 feet above us, and they were dark and heavy with rain. Pretty soon it was pelting down hard, with stinging force. The water ran down the cliff face and dripped in a thin curtain at the edge of my snug, but we were dry and cozy, nestled into the amazingly soft sand, cushioned by Thermarest and sleeping bag. For some reason, we started laughing about something - I have not the slightest recollection what - and after that we could not stop. Everything we said was incredibly funny, to us at least, and for 40 minutes or more we giggled and howled and chortled as the storm pounded down around us. We lay there in the fresh sweet storm-washed air, listening to the thunder roll down the canyon, watching the rain pock the smooth surface of the river, and we laughed and laughed. We laughed until we cried, and still we did not stop.

After a while, the storm started to ease up, and with it our laughter, subsiding to chuckles and hiccups and silly grins. L and T and LS emerged from their tent.

"Well, you sounded like you were having fun; what was so funny?" L asked us. MT and I looked at each other.

"We don't know," we said, and started laughing again. Maybe it was the ozone from the storm, or the fresh clean air or some magic of canyon or river, but L and T started laughing with us.

The next day I woke early, watching the light creep across the sky from under my rocky outcrop. The cliff wall opposite me grew slowly lighter, revealing the varnish marks - a trailing patina of dark streaks strafed down the rock from mineral washing down over the centuries - and the contours of the rock itself. This was our last day on the river; a thought that I could barely make sense of. The rest of my life - school, my house, my responsibilities - all seemed so strangely distant, oddly two-dimensional, like something I'd seen in a movie. Even as we packed up our kitchen for the last time, as we loaded our boats, as MT unshipped her oars and I shoved off from the bank and hopped into the boat, I could not shake that sense: that the rest of life wasn't really real, that this was the only reality under the sun.

The San Juan feeds into Lake Powell, a man-made lake created by damming - although some would say damning - the Colorado River with the Glen Canyon dam. Unknown beauties are lost now under the water, drifted in with silt, buried and perhaps destroyed. I never saw it before the dam was built - that was before my time, begun years before I was born - but as we floated the last leg of our trip, I could not help but wonder what lay beneath us, lost forever to our view.

The river here develops more of a laminar flow, a deceptively slow-moving surface underlain by a powerful current. It also begins to broaden out, its muddy back starting to verge out into what will eventually be Lake Powell. Our take-out was before the lake itself; MT hung back, back-rowing to give T time to land his Avon. More experienced than she, he would be able to drive the boat into the shore hard and neatly enough that his wife could grab mooring and hold the boat while he hopped out and stood ready on the bank to help bring us in. I soon saw why this was necessary: as MT put her back into it, hauling hard on the oars, digging them deep and sharp into the water, I suddenly saw just how much faster we were moving now than we had been upstream. This was a common take-out site, and there were other parties lined up along perhaps a hundred yards of river bank, pulling out boats and unloading gear, backing up trailers and loading boats up - but all with half an eye to the river, lest someone need help. I had maybe three seconds to realize that should we miss our landing, there were other hands downstream to try to pull us in before we went entirely past our take-out; but then I saw T splashing quickly along the river's edge from his boat - nestled amongst some vegetation, to which L was holding fast - to a clear area where there was room for us to try to land our boat. It was MT's job to aim us in, and she did it well; it was mine to fling the coiled line to T, a task I'd never performed before. But somehow it went perfectly, the coiled loops of rope unfurling in a flat graceful spiral, right into T's strong hands. He planted his feet and hauled back hard against the river's pull, reeling us in as MT laid on the oars, the two of them pirouetting our Avon in a smooth parabola into the bank.

Then it was just a matter of doing as everyone else was, hauling our boat out of the water, loading things up, getting in the truck for the drive back to Moab. It's maybe a good thing we had the drive ahead of us; it allowed a little time to transition back to the present, something that might have been terribly jarring otherwise. But gradually as we drove I started to feel the mantle of my everyday life begin to settle, gently, upon my shoulders again. By the time we got to Moab and decided to end our trip with really excellent pizza in one of the local restaurants, I was almost back to the present. Almost... but not quite. The world seemed just a bit different now, in some way indefinable, but both subtle and profound. And I can feel that still, all these years later: that sense that I was different, now, that I fit into the world in a way not quite like I had, before the river. Looking back at it, through the filter of time, I wonder if I was aware, then, of that small half-step to the side, that change of perspective; I wonder if I knew, then, that it would live in me, ready to be called up at any time.

Really have to dig that journal out, one of these days.


Holly said...

One of those experiences that leaves a permanent mark on your soul.

Do you think this infuluenced your decision to go where you ended up?

AKDD said...

Good question, but no; there was another reason for that. Hmm. That sounds like it could be another blog entry....!

MaskedMan said...

I know that timelessness. Oddly enough, I experienced it often on the Boat. Even on the Tender, though less often... Out to sea, you can shift into a mode where there are few decisions to make. Actions to do, yes, most certainly, but the actions are understood, known, comfortable.

There's a sameness to each day, to each moment even, and an easiness to your mind... It's a zen experience.

Dragon43 said...

The whole story of the river is really great and well told...

What a wonderful experience....

I need orange said...

What a great trip.

Thank you so much for taking us along!

Colleen said...

Just read all the installments in one go, that sounds like a really amazing trip! Sometimes I wonder at the kind of camping I miss, as most of my experiences have been in Alaska on horseback... but I can't do it all, and I wouldn't have missed any of my trips!

AKDD said...

Dragon and INO, so glad you enjoyed it!

Colleen, I get what you means about not wanting to have missed any of your trips... but it has not escaped my notice that you're nowhere near dead yet (aren't you like 12 or something?) :-D so it's not like you have no future opportunities to branch out to other camping ventures. If I gave you an idea about something else you might enjoy, I feel my work here is done! :-)

Colleen said...

Ha ha definitely not dead yet! Didn't mean to sound like I can't do different experiences in the future, I just probably won't do too much until I get back to Alaska for goid.