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Paddling the San Juan River in Southern Utah

Posted by Darren Bush on 10/9/2020 to Canoe
The owner and Chief Paddling Evangelist of Rutabaga, Darren Bush, recently returned from a once-in-a-lifetime canoe trip on the San Juan River in Southern Utah. He shares his experience here.


"I am invited a dozen times a year to paddle with friends to exotic places, and most often I regretfully decline, mumbling something about work commitments and a lack of spare time. 

Last Spring I was invited to paddle the San Juan River in southern Utah. The San Juan River has its headwaters of the southern Rockies in Archuleta County. Other rivers such as the Animas, Navajo, Piedras, and Los Piños join the 380 mile-long river, which eventually empties into Lake Powell, the body of water created by flooding the Glen Canyon.

This time, I said yes. Was the timing good? Of course not. Was the timing bad? Maybe. Would the river still be there next year? It has been there for six million years in its current channel, cutting canyons that are up to a quarter-mile deep. So yeah, the river was going to be there in the future. The real question is, "would I be there?"

To avoid COVID-19, bow paddler and wife Stephanie drove across the country 20 hours in her little Prius. It sipped gas every 400 miles and we ate in the car. We had both tested negative, as had the rest of the group, and temperatures were taken each morning. 

The trip was to be eight days on the river, organized by Bear from Northstar Canoes. The purpose of the trip was to test new products (i.e., beat up canoes), eat some pretty good grub, and enjoy some starry nights together. The mission was accomplished.

There were plenty of highlights; there's no shortage of natural beauty. Red rocks, blue skies, and evidence of ancient inhabitants were everywhere. I bent over in a sand wash and picked up a shard of pottery that was over a thousand years old. I put it down next to another identical shard. It doesn't matter if there's a ton of shards, you leave them because if everyone took one, there would soon be none. A few of the more perfect ones I stashed behind some rocks so no one else would find them and be tempted.

Petroglyphs were frequent and spectacular. I am more familiar with pictographs, where the artist painted the rock with pigments. Petroglyphs are pecked onto the rock and through a compound called desert varnish, a compound of oxides that covers the rock surface. The complexity is astounding. There are many theories about the meaning of these images, but the simple truth is no one really knows. Sure, we identified a few recognizable images, like Kokopelli, but for the most part, it was just cool.


But mostly, we paddled. Sometimes flat, sometimes, white. We were running heavy as we had to carry our own water, and a lot of it, so the canoes were a little less responsive than we're used to, but we adjusted and had to plan ahead a little more than usual. Adding 100 pounds of water right behind the bow paddler plus three packs and giant camera case makes for quite the load, and waves come over the bow much more readily.

One particular rapid ended just upstream of one of our campsites. After setting up our tent, I paddled upstream along the shore and portaged around the rapid. I wanted to run it solo. I grabbed a 16' tandem, flipped it around backward, and ran it clean. I was giddy, so I eddy-ed out and portaged up around it again and ran it clean again. I figured I wouldn't be back in who-knows-how-long, so I braved the thorn bushes and ran it again. 

I saw the pictures a few days later. It confirmed that I was in a state of pure bliss.

The best part of the trip was eight days with my favorite bow paddler. My wife Stephanie is a chronic underestimator of her abilities as a paddler, despite her competency. Her skills were never in question, but her confidence grew hourly. By the end of the trip, I was just enjoying her playing with the river.

I need to listen to friends more. The store staff are the most competent people I know. I can leave for a week and a half and nothing's gonna happen that they can't handle, and if I'm gonna preach, I better practice too."

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