Desolation Canyon, A Wild and Wonderful Wilderness

A sense of excitement and anticipation radiated from our group of friends and family as we watched the small single-engine airplanes drop out of the cloudless blue sky and glide down the runway toward us. They were coming to the airfield in Green River, Utah, from their home base in Moab to fly us into the Green River Wilderness area and the start of our 5-day Desolation Canyon rafting expedition.The early morning air was cool, the sky was perfectly blue, and there was not the slightest hint of a breeze. Perfect conditions for the 30-minute scenic flight to Sand Wash, where the rafts were waiting.

Our adventure actually began the previous evening, when we all met up at the Colorado River & Trail Expeditions (CRATE) warehouse in Green River, Utah. At the warehouse meeting, each person received a large waterproof bag and an “ammo can” in which to pack their clothing and personal items for the river trip. An identical waterproof bag containing a sleep kit (sleeping bag, foam pad, and plastic tarp) was already packed aboard the rafts.  Since the  bags and ammo cans are numerically coded with the same number on them, each person only has to remember one number to easily keep track of his/her gear.

The small airplanes taxi down to the passenger pick-up area and stop fairly close to where we are waiting for them. The pilots quickly size up our group and the pile of waterproof bags and ammo cans to make sure everyone and everything is going to fit. Then Nick, the chief pilot, asks if there are any groups of 3 or 5 that want to fly together. If so, they are directed to an airplane. If not, Nick assigns everyone to a plane, and then the pilot of that airplane makes the seat assignments. The take-off is perfect, and we’re soon looking down on the fields and farms of Green River as we head toward Sand Wash.

What a way to start an adventure! The flight is nothing less than spectacular. From our bird’s eye view, we can see that the Green River flows through the heart of a remote and wild landscape aptly described by the famous explorer, Major John Wesley Powell, who made the first scientific exploration of the area in 1869:

“Many lateral canyons enter on either side, and crags and tower-shaped peaks are seen everywhere, and away above them, long lines of broken cliffs; and above and beyond the cliffs are pine forests, of which we obtain occasional glimpses as we look up through a vista of rocks.”

From our flight altitude, side streams that feed the Green River glisten like silver threads as they reflect the morning sunshine. Later in the trip when we hike up some of these side canyons, we find that these “silver threads” are actually beautiful creeks and rivers that nourish luscious riparian habitats where a great variety of plants and animals thrive.

All too soon, the pilot points out the dirt landing strip atop a flat mesa above the river. The airplane banks to the left, makes a straight approach, and touches down with a small bounce, kicking up loose rocks and gravel until coming to a stop. The river guides are there to meet us, and our gear is quickly unloaded from the airplanes and re-loaded into the back of the CRATE truck for transport down to the river. The crew will load the bags onto the rafts while the passengers hike from the airstrip down to the river. Since we’ll be sitting on the rafts most of the time this first day, it’s good to stretch our legs and work up a little sweat on the mile-or-so descent to the river.

Upon arrival at the boat ramp, the fun begins! Each person is fitted with a life jacket with a unique name imprinted on the back. This will be his or her life jacket to wear throughout the trip. Then the expedition leader officially introduces himself and the other guides and welcomes us to the river. Following a thorough safety briefing and a review of the environmental protocols,  we are ready to go!

Our flotilla consists of four 18-foot oar-powered rafts that are rowed by the guides. Amazingly, all of the gear, equipment, food and supplies for the 5-day trip are stowed compactly aboard the rafts. We are a self-contained little band of explorers heading off into the wilderness – a wilderness that has changed very little in the 140 years since Powell’s first exploratory expedition in 1869. While other stretches of the Green and Colorado River system have been greatly altered by dams, Desolation Canyon has been left in tact with enough feeder streams and rivers flowing into the Green River to maintain its ecological integrity. For this reason, Desolation Canyon was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1969, commemorating the 100th anniversary of Powell’s expedition, and the official  plaque was placed at Sand Wash.




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