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Rafting the Upper Colorado River

Updated on February 6, 2019

Rafting Crew

Peaceful River
Peaceful River
Choppy River
Choppy River
River under Utah skies
River under Utah skies

Rafting the Upper Colorado River

A sliver of moon clings to a wind-pocked sandstone cliff. A constant pulse of waves laps against the beach, teasing the scatters of driftwood there. Sparks from the campfire rise, dancing against a fixed field of shimmering stars. My friends and river guide and I lean toward the warmth of the fire, into a circle of light and heat we've made on a small stretch of the upper Colorado. Only a day on the river, and already we can feel ourselves altering--our senses opening, our busy, troubled minds easing.

Each of us relish a feeling of our relative insignificance; we are mere specks on a segment of a mighty river, one that traverses high mountain valleys and desert playas over a course of 1,450 miles. Along the way, following the Green River from the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming and the old Grand River (now called the Colorado) from the Never Summer Mountains of Colorado, the waters descend some 12,000 feet in elevation before reaching the Gulf of California. Here, along the stretch we've run today in southeastern Utah, the river is barely halfway to its destination.

A few hours earlier we had been tossing through white water rapids with our river guide at the oars, sluicing through gorges carved over thousands of millenia by the Colorado. Sudden breaks in the stone walls offered fleeting vistas of southeastern Utah's canyon country: distant red-rock buttes and mesas or the La Sal Mountains laced with vertical snowfields. When the river calmed and slowed, our attention focused differently on the river shoreline where cliff swallows tended their mud-cone nests or a blue heron who reviewed our progress downstream from a higher ledge.

In the heat of noon, our awareness shifted inward. As we pulled ashore for lunch, I recalled hiking with my soon atop Thunder Pass in the Never Summer Mountains where the Colorado River begins as a trickle of snow-melt. As we ate our lunch on a sandbar studded with Egyptian tamarisk in bloom, my friend recalled his boyhood memories of growing up on an Imperial Valley ranch where rich green tamarisk honey had been his breakfast mainstay. This evening, having found this cottonwood-sheltered campsite for the night, we ambled beyond the shoreline into hills flaring orange in the setting sun. Our guide surprised us with some magic: he poured drops of water on a clump of cryptobiotic soil. Within seconds the soil flushed from drab gray to bright red, as though it possessed a kind of latent "green intelligence" like a scene from the movie "Avatar."

Now with stars glittering overhead, I crawl into my sleeping bag, and my mind drifts again to other hikes, one with my son Rich going down from the rim in Canyonlands National Park all the way to the snaking shoreline of the Green River, whose cool waters refreshed our tired and parched bodies; another as a tired and thirsty young man scrambling in desperation back up the Kaibab Trail after a long day's hike in the Grand Canyon. Hailstones pelting the ground provided me with much-needed water, saving my life, perhaps.

Tomorrow, I knew, we would face White's Rapids above Moab, Utah--and not only rapids but suck holes dumping waves of icy water in our laps. But beyond the rapids would be flat stretches of river where our clothes would be dry and our skins would warm again. We would become transfixed by nothing more than a turkey vulture, riding the thermals above Moenkopi sandstone cliffs. Our life now consisted not of urban worries but of river, sandstone and sky!

This night, in our sleeping bags around the fire, we had begun to appreciate the enduring value of river time in a modern age, and we knew we would feel the presence of the Colorado River for months to come.

There is a variety of river-running expeditions one can book out of Moab, Utah from one day to one week and longer.

This is a modified excerpt from my introduction to the book A Colorado River Reader(2000) available through the University of Utah Press.

Upper Colorado River

Family and Friends

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© 2010 Richard Francis Fleck


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