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It was winter in Minnesota and I wanted to escape to some place warm and without snow, so I signed up to go rafting on the San Juan River in Utah (see previous blog for more info) the end of April.  Little did I know the weather would be worse than what I left behind.

But what made the trip all worth it was meeting our native river guides: Lyle, who manned the paddle raft, and Daniel who manned one of the oar boats, and the other participants, the eldest being 91 years and an inspiration to all of us.

We would spend three nights on the river after driving to Bluff, Utah, and launching the rafts.  The river has lots of smooth spots and some Class II and a Class III rapids.  We did have two “swimmers” in Eight Foot Rapid who were quickly rescued, without injury, by an expert throw of the rope from shore as they bounced downstream.

The weather was fickle from the start: 90 degrees off the plane in Phoenix; 50 degrees in Flagstaff; 30 degrees our first night camping on the river; then snow, sleet, and finally, on our last day, pouring rain with snow mixed in.  We were really freezing our asses off by the time we reached Mexican Hat and our take-out.  Most of us brought warm weather gear, but for some it was their first experience camping in such conditions and they had no idea what to expect.  Everyone toughed it out.  On the last day I wore four layers of “hats,” which earned me the name “Woman of Many Hats.”

Irregardless of the weather, traveling down the San Juan was mystical, reverent, spiritual and even a bit thrilling.  Paddling or floating, the canyon is lovely as it rises up in accordion pleats above the river, or as the sun hits the sandstone, or as we sang songs to keep our spirits up in the rain.  And on our last night we all helped each other set up our tents while being pelted by strong gusts of sand that permeated every zipper, our sleeping bags and made drifts on the tent floor.  Assorted gear was returned to its owners the next morning after being blown aloft.

The sight of the Mexican Hat as you round a long bend is very moving.  I had a habit of calling it the “Medicine Hat,” which seems even more appropo’ as the sight of it signaled our take-out point and we certainly needed the medicine of the heaters in the vans to save us from hypothermia after spending five hours in the rain. Needless to say, I was too cold and it was way too wet for me to drag out my camera on the raft.

Still, in between the stormy weather there were times it was sunny; no matter the weather we enjoyed great meals provided and cooked by our guides and we even dodged the rain enough to have a couple of campfires. 

The desert light in the canyons is very elusive, it only takes a minute for it to disappear which results in a flat-looking photo.  When the light bounces off the sandstone the colors reflect vibrantly against the blue sky and it’s then you better be ready to snap the shot.

Rafting the San Juan is an adventure I will always remember, and I thank our Navajo and Hopi guides, Lyle and Daniel, for sharing their culture with us.  Thanks to Chad for teaching me about how to read a river, and many good wishes to all of the others on the trip who shared their friendship with me.


Sunrise at River House Camp on the San Juan

River House is the most extensive dwelling on the San Juan River. The Ancestral Puebloans lived here between AD 700 and 1300. There have been several stabilizations to the ruin since it was excavated in 1977.

From April 29 to May 2 of 2010, I traveled by raft on 26 miles of the river with others from the group Exploritas. We were accompanied by both Navajo and Hopi guides who work through Northern Arizona University.  This will be the first in a series of photo essays from the trip.

Moon over River House Camp

Steps up to River House Ruin

Leave only a shadow

Looking down from the dwellings

Possibly represents a snake

Morning light at River House