Thursday, August 20, 2009

Floating the San Juan in August ...

... is like taking a slow boat to Utah. Or, uh, in Utah. Through Utah?

Well, whatever it is, is certainly is slow. Especially this year, when our annual dose of welcome monsoonal weather has failed to materialize over the Four Corners.

Last weekend, I got to do five days on the lower San Juan -- Mexican Hat to Clay Hills -- with some folks I've never been down with before. Some I've known, some I met there. Some who've been down the San Juan before, some for whom it was their first visit.

Some Augusts at this time of year, the river can be in the thousands of cfs. And there can be floods and fluctuations in that flow. A few years ago, we were on the San Juan at the end of summer, when over night the flow bulged. We went to bed with the river a stately 1,000 cfs, and awoke to a bullying 10,000 cfs in the morning. It stole our groover and a bunch of gear, too, but this was a thief in the night, and there was nothing we could do about it. We were fortunate we'd tied our boats high and securely.

Not so last week, though. Last week we found the river slow and gaunt -- a mere 500ish, with its skin hanging off as wide beaches and long sandbars, and its bones showing through in rocky rapids and bouldery midstream obstacles.

Case in point: I humbly admit I suffered my first-time-ever wrap in Government Rapid -- usually an all-bark/no-bite class II bit of splashy water. This year it was a sieve of boulders, a sandstone net that snagged my cataraft like a rabbit in a snare.

I bowed humbly to the river as we tugged and low-sided and tried to pry and finally got roped off the rock. The river this year seems determined to remind me to always be respectful ...

Aside from that, though, our float time consisted of mainly long, lazy days on the water. On the second day we floated for 17 miles -- which took us a good 10 hours. And what did we do in those 10 hours -- and all the other hours we spent on the slow boat ... across? ... Utah over five days?

Talked. Sat silent. Looked. Smelled. Felt. Thought. Didn't thought. Rowed. Didn't row. Did nothing. Drank warm cheap beer. Which was everything we set out to do.

But isn't that the San Juan River? As staggering a landscape as the canyon of the San Juan is -- with its crumbling-layer-cake limestone ledges and cliffs, its herds of Bighorn sheep, its sprawling sandy campsites, it's fantasmagorical sidecanyon hikes, and its opportunity for day upon day upon night upon another day of such beauty -- it isn't all that popular. We saw two other parties on the river, and it turned out I knew one of them.

The reason, I believe, is that the San Juan doesn't offer big whitewater, which deters most folks, given its remoteness and long shuttle (the 56-mile lower, Mexican Hat to Clay Hills, section, anyway). It's slow. And so, for mst, especially younger, more adreline-addicted younger river runners, there's nothing there.

They're wrong. Everything is there.

Everything for us, anyway. For our kind. Because with its slow, sweltering loveliness, the San Juan is a river for poets and drunks (two traits that, in my experience, are often correlated). Not loud, hammering, sloppy, sotty drunks -- but philosophical, pagan, playful, active, convivial drinkers. Like us.

And families. And both other parties we saw, including ours, were parents with kids. Fellow San Juanistas.

Slow floating down the San Juan suits me. It suits me and all those fellow San Juanistas. Enough said. And it suited this band of companions brought together for this particular trip this particular time down this, the Four Corners' family river.

Gathered on our slow boats to through over across in around and within our kind of place.

Check out more pics from the San Juan here:

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