San Juan – Part 1

by Terry Plotkin

San Juan River.

I am going to relay the events of the journey down the San Juan River that 13 others and I took in canoes and rubber kayaks in July. This is the truth the way I remember it. I will not embellish any fact. No need to, as this was a wild ride.

We put our 8 Kayaks and 2 canoes in near Bluff, Utah. We began our 8-day journey covering 83 miles down the ancient silty waters.  Bluff is a desert town in the middle of nowhere. We went further away from civilization from there. The first day was scheduled to be an easy one, as we only planned to go 7 miles. We made two stops for short hikes to ancient Indian art and ruins. We are in Navajo territory, but these sites predate that tribe and were left by the Anasazi, who occupied the land for thousands of years before the white man arrived. There is artwork of people with thin waists, broad shoulders, and wild hats. Nearby, there are dwellings built into the rock, square rooms and circular religious centers. The dwellings were built in such a way that the hot sun did not bear down on the structures. The circular rooms had serpent carvings in the wall. The serpent is an ancient symbol of kundalini, which is the evolutionary energy in humans, and is found in many places of antiquity including Egypt and India. I was surprised to see it here. The world they faced must have been quite different from the one we were looking at because in their time there was no dam to keep the water flowing at a relatively steady pace. The river would have been less silty, the water fresher, more likely to flood and dry out, the trout abundant, and the land more fertile then the sparse patches of green that we saw. I could have stayed there for hours but the group wanted to move on. We camped on the sand. Tamara and I had a good-sized tent and a blow up mattress for basic creature comforts. That night we ate stir-fries, as the vegetables had not yet spoiled in the heat. We had a relaxing, great day.

Day 2 was much different. We had to go 14 miles to stay on track after the easy first day. We also encountered our first serious rapid. We spent perhaps an hour scouting out the best path before venturing down.  Everyone navigated the rapids fine, although the canoes took on some water and had to be bailed. The sun produced temperatures in the upper 90s and the heat was bearing down on us, a dry heat that made the skin shrivel. Only frequent dunks in the river provided relief. We arrived at our sandy camp in the early evening with giant rock walls hundreds of yards high enclosing us, but there was enough room at this spot to spread out a little.  Drained from the day, Tamara and I set up our tent and tried to repair her rubber kayak, which was leaking air and required blowing up every hour. We were looking forward to a good night’s rest when the wind started to pick up and thunder rumbled in the distance. No one expected rain in this season, but I counted the seconds between the thunder and the lightning and it was getting closer. It had gone from 16 seconds apart to 8. I worked quickly to secure our site, pounding the stakes down and placing rocks along the edges of the tent. The wind picked up and the tent looked like a helium balloon waiting for the opportunity to be released and float away. Then the wind got stronger and the thunder louder. Tamara came to help as we desperately tried to secure the tent. No sooner did we get one side secured when the wind, now blowing seriously hard, would dislodge the other. Then the tent was air-borne, its only tether to the Earth was our grip. The wind now whipped the sand into action and it blew sideways across our bodies. The tent could not be anchored, nor could shelter be taken. I dove on the tent to keep it from flying away like a kite, as the rain began to fall. The wind was like nothing I had ever seen, and for a brief moment I was airborne. Tamara fell upon the tent and we spread eagled to hold it down. A few yards away I heard Dave scream as he ran to the beach, but I dared not get up lest we lose all our stuff.

Thunder! Lightning! AHHHH! All happened in a fraction of a second. Sand pelted us from the side and rain from above, while the powerful wind seemed to come from everywhere. Rolling thunder and bright lightning. I have a thought, a realization, that this might be it. I just didn’t know if we would make it. I felt strangely calm about that fact.

I was worried about a teenager whose face I had not seen since the storm began. We laid prone to the Earth for a half an hour until the storm passed and people emerged from the ground where they waited out the storm. Some had gone to the beach, and lay upon the rubber rafts to keep them from blowinging away. Dave, who had let out the yell, had run into the water to retrieve some of our stuff that had blown off the boats and headed downstream. We lost nothing and no one got hurt. Our tent pole was damaged, our tent was soaked, our skin bruised from the sand, and the winds, which had calmed some, still came hard, billowing the too large tent that would make sleeping difficult.

Tamara lost it for a while, and I didn’t blame her. I kept it together for the most part, except when I pounded my fist into the ground and demand that the Creator damn this situation. I am not sure the Creator heard me or cared about my feelings, and Tamara pulled it together after a few minutes. It was a good thing she did, as the coming days would call upon our reserves of resiliency.

Part 2 – 4  to come out soon. Don’t miss it.

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