San Juan – Part 2

by Terry Plotkin

Day 3 was another long day of 13 miles mostly drifting downstream, hot sun overhead, incredible cliffs peering down on both sides of us, and the best thing of all, perhaps the best thing of the whole journey, was the penetrating quiet that dominates this place. (I got up very early before the sun rose to meditate and the stars were out by the billion and shooting stars by the tens.) We saw lots of big horn sheep. The ranger told us at the start of the trip that their numbers had at one time been reduced to 2, but they had made a comeback and now there were 150 of them. Other animals that were seen on the trip included a shy coyote, free ranging cattle (There was no place for them to run to as the river was on one side and the cliffs on the other.) great blue heron, rabbits, lots of song birds who could be heard but not seen, ravens, geese, a weasel, a variety of lizards including purple ones, lots of ants, cicadas insects and their incredible loud chants, crickets, and horses.

It was Tamara’s and my night to cook and we made a vegetarian chili for dinner- very popular among the 14 diners – and made camp on the beach. At sunset we had a made-up ball game going on, flutes playing, books being read, and people resting. We were a community.


Day 4:

We drifted downstream again, and I was in my third day of a head cold – something I rarely get. With the heat of the sun and the spaceyness of the cold, drifting down the river was all I had energy for. We spent a leisurely lunch hiding in the shade of an overhanging cliff to stay cool. The question came up during another drifting day down river as to how long one could stay in this river – desert – stone – cliff world before the one you left behind receded so far from memory that it would scarcely matter. Tamara thought it would take 2 weeks, and that seemed about right to me. If there is life after death, perhaps that is what it feels like after awhile, as the world we now know slips from memory.

We picked a campsite near the beach where the tall grass would offer some protection against the wind, which was sure to come up as it did every night. We had given up on the tent as a shelter; between the wind and the damage to it, it just wasn’t working out. We did have our air inflatable mattress, which I was pumping and pumping and pumping, but the air would not hold. Tamara found a big split in the valve of the mattress that was letting the air out almost as fast as I could pump it in. We looked at each other, said nothing, and lay down and waited the short time it took for all the air to run out. This left only plastic between the hard ground and us. I knew what would happen next. I was sure of it. Right on cue, the rain began to fall. We pulled the tarp over us as the sky reached total blackness. That helped for a while, but then the rain started flowing under the tarp, and there was nothing to do but get soaked and try to get some fitful sleep. The rain eventually stopped, and we lay there having a difficult night until 2:30 in the morning.

“BOATS!!! BOATS!!! BOATS!!!” a male voice was bellowing a hundred yards away disturbing the quiet night. In my semi–sleep state I wondered if a stranger had come to the campsite, or perhaps someone was having a walking nightmare, or the yeller was having a psychotic break.

I searched for my flashlight yelling, “What’s the matter?”

“BOATS! BOATS!” was the reply.

We ran towards the beach and I realized it was David, our leader, doing the shouting. We arrived at where there used to be a beach, but now all that was there was river. “The river is way up! Grab the boats!”

David was standing waist-deep in the raging river holding onto the boats that were all tied together the thunderstorm 2 days earlier had taught us to do that. Within seconds everyone had arrived at the scene, flashlight beams darting everywhere.  We untied the boats with all hands holding on and carried them one at a time to higher ground. Sarah asked about out portable toilets that we had placed down the beach. I handed her my flashlight and off she ran to find them. Soleil, one of the teenagers on the trip, had left her stuff unsecured on the boat and it was floating everywhere at the shore. Like the night of the sandstorm, every sense was alert, working on instinct, mind and body completely engaged, adrenaline flowing, completely focused as a group on the critical task at hand. I say critical because even though we were not in physical danger we would be stranded like Gilligan without our boats, and our supplies were all necessities. It was fortunate that David had heard the river gushing during the night and had gotten up to see what was happening or we would had spent some days, at least, waiting for a rescue. All the boats were eventually hauled up to higher ground. Sarah could not find the toilets. Two kayak and a canoe paddle were missing. Much of Soleil’s stuff was gone. We placed a marker to see if the river was still rising, but soon realized it had begun to recede. We turned our flashlights upon the powerful river and saw coolers, tents, oars, and dry-bags all floating down the river from another camp miles upstream. We could not risk retrieving any of it. Eventually we went back to bed, or at least those who had one did. I had another fitful hour or so of sleep and got up at the first hint of dawn. As it grew lighter I could not believe that what I was seeing was real: The river had turned red.


End of Part 2 – More excitement to come in the next installment.


2 Responses to “San Juan – Part 2”

  1. Hmmm, thunderstorm, rising water, how about a side canyon flash flood, those are really cool.

    Nice to see you getting out Terry, the San Juan is a great river. I positively adore canyon country.


  2. Glad you are reading. I thought you would like it. We’ll catch up at some point. Terry

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