Historical Fiction by Doug Ross
Rafting the lower San Juan River in the early rubber boats, circa 1950. Note the old-style inflatable life-belts. All photographs courtesy of Doug Ross.
Editor’s. Note: This story was originally published by the Canyon Echo and the San Juan County Historical Commission in July 1996 as part of the ‘Life Along the San Juan River’ historical series. See the digitized version of the original here.
After driving a quarter million miles of southbound corrugated dirt road across the desert and wondering if the circling vultures have you in mind for dinner, you thump your way down a narrow slot of a canyon, red dust pouring in every crack of the old beater, and come out into a green valley. The high sandstone walls open wider until you come around a corner and there you are, finally.
But you turn off the road onto a sandy lane and stop in front of a couple of old Army barracks tents tucked up against the towering red cliffs.
A couple of kids lounge in a shaded breezeway between the tents and stir a little at your approach. They are actually expecting you, and, after you have introduced yourself, one of the teens steps into the left tent and returns with the “Old Man” following behind. He’s been expecting you, too. After shaking hands all around, the guy asks one of the kids to get you a chair, offers you a beer, and you sit down to chat.
“Here’s what you’ll need to do,” says Kenny Ross, your host. “Gotta get all your stuff for the next ten days into one of these black bags.” He holds up a military surplus heavy rubber bag with a folding top and straps on the front and sides to cinch it down. Hmmm. Guess you’ll have to leave the sink behind.
You get started packing that black bag to get ahead of the game. A couple of curse-laden, sweat-soaked, fly-swatting hours later, it looks like you might be able to do it, having eliminated most of your stuff as non-essential.
The next morning you hear the whine of a truck motor and sounds of gnashing gears coming through the brush. In a cloud of dust, a 1947 Dodge stakebed truck emerges from the hole in the willows. Kenny gets out of the passenger side, bids you good morning, and waves the kid driving out onto the beach. The truck lurches, swings around, and backs to-ward the river, stopping short of the wet line. Kenny helps you bring your gear over to the beach and proceeds to introduce your fellow passengers.
There are two couples: Jan and Bob Somebody, Art and Rachel Somebody, and a single guy wearing a pith helmet, Jack Somebody. Everyone is cordial and slightly dusty. After a few minutes, Kenny tells you all to pitch in and get the gear unloaded and the boats pumped up. “Need to get on the river as quick as we can.” he says. It is 8:30 a.m. and already hot. The two brothers are tossing stuff out of the back of the truck.
Kenny suggests that the two couples ride with him, leaving you with Jack and the kid. Hey! This thirteen-year-old is running the boat? Will you die? The kid gets across the bow from you, asks if you’re ready. Yup, brother tosses the bowline onto the boat. The kid shouts and you shove the boat into the current. The kid hops toward the oars. You hesitate, take an extra step,and the bottom goes out from under you, and you are floating along, holding onto the side of the boat, heading for Arizona. The kid puts down the oars and he and Jack manage to drag you into the boat. “Sorry about that,” the kid says. “Forgot to tell you it was kind of deep right there.”
Launching the trip near Bluff. Before the construction of Navajo Dam in New Mexico, periodic flooding of the San Juan River prevented growth of vegetation along the river banks.
Hot, stinking hot, but not too bad if you soak your hat in the water, get your shirt wet. You wind around bends and beneath looming cliffs, pass Navajo kids waving from the left bank,and leave civilization behind. You stretch out across the bow to dry, while Jack snaps away with his camera. The kid hasn’t hit anything, no one has died, the boat seems to be under control. Relax.
Suddenly, the boat dips down and rides up and then steeply down again, up, up into a breaking wave and a brown wall of river engulfs you. “Aaiiiiarggh!” the kid hollers, and you hold on as the boat descends and lifts. Jack is sitting up on the load, holding his camera in the air, grinning and hooting.
Sandwaves. Helluva lot of fun, huh? The kid talks about the river and how it forms these waves that build and break and then do it all over again, but only in the long, flat stretches. Some of them get pretty big. Won’t go broadside into any big ones; could turn us over, and the old man would get pissed. We’re supposed to know better.
Herons rise from the shallows ahead, scooting downstream to land again, then do it all over when the boats catch up. It’s a game they play, the kid says. We approach a shady bank downstream, where Kenny has already landed his boat.
The kid asks Jack to man the line this time, warns him not to step out until he gives the word, and we slam into Kenny’s parked craft, spin crazily out into the current and head toward Arizona again. You make an ineffectual grab at the other boat, lose your grip and the kid says to get ready, okay Jack, JUMP! The boat thumps the bank and recoils as…Jack jumps.
Timing is everything. Jack has jumped into five feet of water, is spluttering and clawing for shore, the bow line secured between his teeth.
The San Juan, just above its confluence with the Colorado River, circa 1930.
Kenny hauls out some grub. The kid and Bob and Jan collect driftwood and light a fire for roasting hot dogs and making hot, black tea. Kenny says hot tea cools you off. Everyone is chattering about the kid’s boat obviously being the exciting ride and even Jack has to grin..
Afternoon slides like hot lava, cooling as you pour water over your head, slug great gulps of tepid water out of your canteen, and think about that first sensual tickle of Scotch whiskey at camp. The river picks up speed as it enters rising cliffs. Shade, sweet shade. A collective sigh of relief as the sun moves temporarily behind a canyon wall. The river takes on a different tone now, rambunctious and snapping, trying to shove itself over the rocks and into tight places.
Darkness arrives late, and the campfire is the only light casting shadows around the canyon. People stretch out on the sand, catching the last light of the dying fire, telling lies and proclaiming the day a success. Jack’s boots are propped up, drying out by the fire. Maybe tomorrow, he says, he’ll give the thought to tennis shoes, but he hates sand jammed between his toes. Yarns turn to yawns and excuses to go lay down and look at the stars.
Morning sneaks in and makes noise in the kitchen. The kid and the old man clatter around with pots and pans and sip coffee, preparing to feed the masses.
For breakfast, you savor pancakes, sausage, juice, toast, and eggs with some very serious coffee.
Spurred on by the rapidly disappearing shadows on the canyon walls, the trip is underway again. You find yourself perched on the load in the front of Kenny’s boat. The craggy walls rise high above, limestones and sandstones. Kenny says the oldest is about 350 million years or so, formed by ancient seas coming and going over the ages.
The river careens through all this, carrying you into small rapids and bumpy places, swirling past eddies floating driftwood from three states upstream. Except for what’s in the eddies and driftwood piles, there is no sign of man. It looks like we are the first to be here since the river carved the hole.
After lunch, the river flattens a little and sandwaves form in front of the boat. We come around a corner and the balanced Mexican Hat Rock perches alone, surrounded by red desert shales, and a rock tapestry of color. “Civilization,” says Kenny. “We’ll stop at Hunt’s trading post to refill the water cans and camp in the middle gorge somewhere.”
You’re in the Goosenecks, where the river cuts through nine or ten miles of twisting canyon to make one mile if a crow did it. It is quiet here, but miles slip by because the river isn’t going to stop to mess around and have a beer. All the wristwatches went away in shame in ammo cans quite a while ago. The river doesn’t give a damn what time it is.
Grand Gulch is the biggest drainage coming into the San Juan from the north downstream of Bluff. If there is fresh water anywhere, Kenny said, it would be running here. “Grand” seems an insufficient name; the terrain was made up of house-sized boulders perched atop one another, making a monstrous jumble of the talus slopes. It looked like a giant’s children had been playing and left their toys laying about after getting called home for dinner. Grand Gulch’s walls tower at the mouth perched forty feet or so above the river, hanging above you as you pull into camp.
And what a camp. The high water allows us to pull the boats into a channel around a rocky island while the main current sweeps into the rapid below. The channel, just wide enough to slip the boats into, puts us smack up to a low ledge and overhang, forming an alcove about fifteen feet deep and sixty feet long. The smooth, river-polished floor sat in permanent shade and could have been God’s own living room.
The kid demonstrates a great camp game. The neoprene boats have a separate removeable inflatable floor. The “air mattress” has the same shape as the boat, pointed nose and squared off at the back. He hauls the ribbed floor out of his boat, throws it in the water and lays out flat on it. He paddles it out into the current and into the sharp drop of the rapid, riding through the waves and whooping it up. He catches the eddy at the bottom and paddles to the beach. A neoprene surfboard! Art asks Kenny if he can use the floor from his boat. ” Okay,” he says, ” but put it back and don’t fill the damn valves with sand. And wear your life jacket.” You find it hilarious, especially after you discover that the air mattress isn’t as rigid as it looks and folds up around you in the waves like a taco and then tosses you like a green cowboy at the rodeo.
Downstream you make a stop in the mid-morning at Moonlight Creek, another canyon entering from the left. Two huge boulder slabs, calved off from the cliffside, sit as thirty-foot sentinels to the narrow mouth of the canyon. Tucked behind the boulders is a large deep pool, thirty feet below the canyon floor.
The San Juan widened briefly in the Paiute Farms area.
At Paiute Farms the river decides to teach us a lesson. As everyone trudges beside the boats, hauling them off sandbars, you can’t help noticing the difference from the narrow canyon where the river whipped you along through the rapids and past side canyons. The cliff tops had dropped gradually until you were floating out into another broad valley, where the river couldn’t make up its mind where to go, so was going everywhere. Off to the south you see Monument Valley distorted by rising heat waves.
At camp that night your reverie is interrupted by Kenny. “Say, could you give us a hand,” he says. “We’re going to need to move the kitchen…right now.” You pick up your gear and move it off to the side. What the hell? Then the sound comes down the canyon, subtly at first, then with an odor of dust and…and…is that sheep shit? You stand in amazement as about twelve million bleating, scrambling, stinking escapees from Bo Peep rush headlong around the fire and scatter along the river to drink away a hard day’s work. Sheep Happy Hour. A couple of skinny dogs skitter around, barking at everything and nothing, just doing their job. They look like they could use a beer or two.
You hear a strange voice from out of the dust cloud churned up by the wooly hoarde settling over everything in the camp. Something like, “git, you som’bitch, git.”
“Damn, Kenny, I honest-to-God tried to get ahead to warn ya, but I seen ya too late and ya know them damn sheep…they smelled the water and they was gone…how the hell are ya? Ya keepin’ these dudes in line?”
Kenny invites him to dinner, but the herder declines, mentioning that Bernice is back up the way, fixing dinner at the sheep camp and might skin him if he doesn’t get back before dark. Adios. He shakes hands all around, then whistles at the dogs, who jump up and dive into the sheep, moving them back up the canyon. The mule doesn’t look happy, but he lets the herder mount and they ride off, cussing each other and the sheep, kicking up more dust to mix with wooly sounds.
The odor of sheep dust lingers far into the night. The damn stars are out again and the moon is starting to peek down the canyon’s cleavage.
The lower San Juan River, now flooded by Lake Powell
Canyon, but different now. The cliffs are farther away and lower, hinting at vastness beyond, with long, shallow talus slopes trailing red and grey and brown and purple and rocky, down to the river. In the distance, the Navajo Sandstone shows off buff-colored domes. The dominant red sandstone cliffs of the Wingate formation stretch above us. Multicolored clays and shales beneath the Wingate contrast with the red. You catch a brief peek at the top of Navajo Mountain.
The river has regained its playfulness and speed. Riffles come and go as the river picks its course. You could almost hit Arizona with a beer can from here, but the river won’t be there for days. Copper and Paiute and Nakai and Cha and Nasja canyons wait downstream, along with the cold sweet water from Wilson Creek and Red Bud, and the abandoned gold camps named Williamsburg and Zahn and Spencer.
The river is still broad through here, channels easier to find but the terrain is littered with sandbars. There have been sandwaves all day. Where channels tighten and side canyons enter, small riffles kick gleefully, trying to catch a camera unawares. You have a sense of peaceful speed, as if the river knows it is supposed to behave itself because its big sister isn’t far away. You move closer to the Colorado with each sandwave. Kenny and the kid have mentioned something called Paiute Falls and Thirteen Foot. Ominous names. The San Juan apparently has business with us before we get to the calmness of Glen Canyon and the Colorado.
The boats enter the Great Bend, a long gooseneck in the river where the canyon narrows. The water texture changes and looks like it is moving toward us. A blast of wind stops the boats dead in the water and Art’s fickle hat zips upstream. Kenny and the kid turn their backs downstream and pull hard into the wind, not making a hell of a lot of progress.
There’s a splat of rain on your own hatless head and then another splat off the tube. No rain, Kenny? Is this bird shit, then? He grins.
Everyone huddles beneath the lee of a boulder except the kid, who is bouncing around the beach, face to the sky, taking an impromptu shower, wearing just his cut-off jeans. Simultaneous thunder and lightning send him scurrying under the tarp. “Holy shit, that was close,” he says.
Like most desert storms, this one moves through in a hurry. The gully washer turns to downpour and then to rain and finally to dribbling spatters on the tarp. Kenny points to a red rivulet starting on the cliffs across the river. As you watch, the rivulet grows to a crashing red waterfall dropping two hundred feet to the rocks below. Vermillion waterfalls pouring the colors of the cliffs into the river. Pinkish mists rise, futilely trying to put the colors back. The grey-brown river changes to mottled red as you head downstream to camp.
It’s a different creek the next morning, resembling a swollen artery pumping the reddish-brown water through the heart of the canyon. The water had come up, and the kid points to the boats which had been on the sloping beach the night before, now floating high and bumping the cutbank, knocking sand loose and rarin’ to go.
There’s a slight tension huddled around the coffee cups this morning. You know you have a couple of pretty good rapids to run. The kid is excited. He’s never run these by himself. Wanna ride in my boat today? Oh joy, you can hardly wait.
Kenny reminds us to pack our bags well, cinch them tight. There seems to be a little extra care in loading the boats this morning, ropes lashed across the load in a little tighter, the tarps tucked in and nothing left to flap around.
The river is still flat, reassuring, but there is an uncomfortable roar echoing off the cliffs from downstream. Kenny lands at the head of an island and waves the kid into a patch of sand between the rocks.
Make sure your tie is good, Kenny reminds this thirteen-year-old-who-is-going-to-kill-you. Some splashing sounds of to the left and right, but where are the falls? Kenny gives you a look, looks at Jack and the kid, shakes his head and starts across the rocks.
The kid bounces from rock to rock, feet barely touching. Jack sedately picks his way across to the right side of the rocky island. By the time you catch up, everyone is standing on the bank. The kid is perched on a rock next to his old man. Kenny is pointing and gesturing, the kid is nodding, then shaking his head, listening. This isn’t your garden-variety rapid, but there is no waterfall here. The rising river is pouring around an island about a hundred yards long, high in the middle, all rocks. The right side, Kenny shouts, is what is called the “falls” and the left side is where we’re going to go.
The kid looks disappointed. Kenny walks over to a driftwood pile and heaves a hunk of log into the current. It disappears. Pop! There it is, dropping into the hole, whoop-de-doo, and riding to the top of the big waves and out of sight again. The kid nods. `Nuff said.
The kid follows the old man’s lead through the rapid, and except for the moment when the boat stands on its stern in the huge hole that Kenny skirted, he does just fine. Of course the kid isn’t bragging, but everyone is abuzz at the bottom. The kid is all grins, happy to be right side up, after Jan said she looked back and could see the entire bottom of our boat. C’mon, not all of it. Yeah, the whole thing. Looked like a breaching whale.
Wilson Creek is vertical, sliding down the angled sandstone face to the bottom of the cliff twenty feet from the river’s edge. Froggy peeps and cicada screams go silent as we approach. Maidenhair ferns cling to the rock, bright green moss decorates the creek as it goes into the river. A jungle of cattails and rushes fills the riverbank up to the cliff face. You stop fora mid-morning honest-to-God clean water shower in the water off the cliff face. Refreshed and clean, all giggles and grins, you head downriver toward the next chance at death.
The Big “S” Rapid turns out to be an odd wild ride, without much heart palpitation–around one blind corner and zip! down a constricted channel and around another corner, mostly waves.
Folding wooden boats, used before inflatable rafts, shown here at the bottom of Thirteen Foot Rapid.
Thirteen Foot Rapid is not far downstream, at the mouth of Cha Canyon and Kenny wants to get it out of the way before camp.
A big rapid makes a distinctive sound, different in tone and volume from ones you might not take as seriously. Thirteen Foot is a long rapid, with the water all forced to the left against the boulder field spewed out by Cha Canyon and then jamming to the right along a steep talus slope.
Then it makes a nasty left hook at the bottom where an enormous boulder has come down to perch on the right side, water pouring up onto it and sliding back on itself and rolling around behind to churn and bang some more before it spits out at the bottom and the eddy below.
Jan and Jack agree to walk.
“I’ve done it before,” Jack says, “and besides, I want to get some photos.” “What for?” you shoot back, “to document my death?”
Back up at the boats Kenny stops with the kid and points, makes sweeping arm gestures, verbally guiding the kid around the boulder at the bottom. You hear “left” and “pull like Hell” a lot. Hoo boy.
Kenny squares the boat into the current and pulls right center to enter the rapid. Slow, powerful backstrokes, holding position, holding, holding…a word to Rachel and she flatttens out and gets a firm hold. Kenny straightens the bow, pushes a little more and the boat slides past the first big hole, bangs into another wave, bow rising and falling.
As he maneuvers around another big hole and sets for the bottom, you can’t help but notice that he’s putting his back into it. The boat seems headed right for the death rock at the bottom, but as disaster rears its ugly head, another wave hits the bow, engulfing it, the boat slides out and left, shooting into the tailwaves and disappears around the bend. The kid stands on top of a large boulder, watching his old man’s run. He waves at a figure standing on a rock at the bottom. Art. Alive. Good sign.
Your turn. His turn. You can still walk around. The kid wants to know. Aw, to Hell with it, he’s too young to die alone. You realize the term “commitment” has many meanings as you untie the boat and the kid sits at the oars, quiet and pale. You can do it, kid, doesn’t seem to boost his confidence much.
Later you sip your Scotch and tell the kid again that you knew he could do it and never doubted that you’d live to tell the tale. The kid’s higher than a kite from the experience, along with everyone else. Kenny had watched the kid make a near-perfect first run through Thirteen Foot Rapid, and was a little proud.
As for you, after the initial misgivings of placing your life in the hands of a thirteen-year-old maniac, it had been pure adrenalin, and if you hadn’t raised your head to holler in ecstasy at the ride, you might not have choked on all that water as it tried to float you off the boat.
High cliffs of Navajo Sandstone reach up from the San Juan to touch the same sky that the Colorado does. Entering the last stretch of the San Juan, where it quieted down and shaped up to join big sister Colorado in Glen Canyon, had a calming effect that afternoon. Stopping at Red Bud Canyon could convince anyone that the rapids and the water are only a part of this river, exciting as it is.
Red Bud is a short quarter mile angling sharply to a “v” notch in the cliff tops, with sweet water trickling down across the boulders and among the Red Bud trees and the ferns, giving new dimension to the colors green and red and blue, and making a home to countless tiny red-spotted toads in the coolness and shade. Garter snakes and coachwhips dash out of sight in the tall grass. A doe and a tiny fawn had left their tracks near a small pool. Great gulps of clear, sweet water. Everyone plunged their heads into the cool water, finding joy in the relief from the heat.
On a white beach a half-mile long, you sit in the soft evening light, watching the shadows play tag with the cliffs and listening to the rivers blend. You are on the San Juan looking across to river right, red-white cliffs rising five hundred feet above the green banks of the Colorado. Three hundred miles upstream, snow melts and runs off the mountain to hurry down the San Juan for its chance to get to meet sister Colorado.
You hike to Rainbow Bridge, before the trip’s over, and sit in the pools at Hidden Passage and wonder what John Wesley Powell and the boys thought about Music Temple.
What you have just read is a compilation of trips through the lower San Juan River Canyon before 1963. I have written this from the perspective of the years I have spent on the San Juan River, and the lies contained herein are the truth as I recall or invent it. You can’t go there. “There” isn’t there anymore. Others who were on the river before Glen Canyon Dam and Navajo Dam were built may disagree as to my historical or geographical accuracy, but there is no one who can say it wasn’t there, somewhere.
Doug Ross is a veteran boatman who grew up with his father, Kenny Ross, on the San Juan and Colorado Rivers. He rows boats for Wild Rivers Expeditions of Bluff Utah.
The Bluff Legacy Project, “Life Along the San Juan River,” was made possible, in part, through a grant received from the Utah Statehood Centennial Commission, the nonprofit organizing body of the 1996 Centennial Celebration, and a grant from the Utah Humanities Council. The Centennial Commission has awarded $1.2 million in grants for projects that will enhance the state’s future. The Centennial Grants Program receives no state tax dollars and is funded primarily through Centennial license plate sales.
Editor’s note: Doug Ross passed away in January 2022. His obituary is published in The Journal.