By Kate Siber
SOUTHEASTERN Utah, with its crimson canyons and flat-as-a-dinner-plate desert, would seem to be an improbable place to find wild water. But there, one morning early this spring, the San Juan River, as wide as a football field and as fast as a galloping horse, surged amid the dusty buttes of Bluff, Utah.
But that wasn't the only surprising sight. Nathan Sosa, a Bluff native and self-described hydrologic navigation specialist, stood on the bow of an 18-foot-long baby-blue raft and described the protocols of the river and the boat. He wore a nylon American-flag jacket, button-down shirt and tie, flimsy prom-queen tiara and rubber boots — you know, traditional outdoorsman wear.
"The river is a special occasion!" he said by way of explanation.
Though he is on the "20-year program" in earning his bachelor's degree, Mr. Sosa is a de facto professor of San Juan River history, having cruised its rapids and riffles for 10 years as a guide for Wild Rivers Expeditions, a rafting outfitter in Bluff.
The San Juan doesn't gush miraculously from the sagebrush and scrub-oak desert. It trickles out of the 14,000-foot San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado, gains muscle when it meets the Animas River, then snakes along the Utah-Arizona border before dumping into Lake Powell.
On its 125-mile journey through Utah, the river follows the northern border of the Navajo reservation, skirting just north of Monument Valley and sharing much of the same John Wayne-worthy red-rock scenery and American Indian history. But since only a few dozen rafters float the river each day between April and October, compared with the hundreds of thousands of camera-clicking tourists who cram into Monument Valley annually, it is one of the most intimate ways to see the region. That was why a friend, Lori Moore, and I signed on for a three-day float on a 26-mile stretch of river between Bluff and Mexican Hat, Utah.
In April, the river was clocking along at 4,600 cubic feet per second; traveling faster than usual, we had plenty of extra time for hikes between our overnight camps. Good thing: Rolling past a host of almost alien-looking geological formations, cliff-top Anasazi dwellings and pristine wildlife habitat, the river is something of a greatest hits album of southern Utah's attractions.
Our first stop was Butler Wash, where a series of petroglyphs 100 yards from the river's northern bank stretched so far along an overhanging hunk of sandstone they resembled an elaborate frieze. About 10 feet off the ground, bighorn sheep, ducks, spirals, zigzags and human figures scratched in white and dating from 5000 B.C. covered the terra-cotta-colored rock.
Though Mr. Sosa has floated the river some 500 times, he still prefers to let first-timers conjure their own solutions to the riddles of the San Juan — such as the meanings of the petroglyphs.
"There's a river guide without his life jacket," Mr. Sosa said, pointing to a human figure as if it were a Rorschach test. "He forgot his morning coffee."
"That one reminds me of a fish spine," Lori said, pointing to a rainbow-shaped image with a line through it.
AND when it comes to the river, which flows through a layered, time-carved landscape that reeks of prehistory, there are even deeper mysteries.
"Around 1250 all the people left the region," Mr. Sosa said as we walked along the rocky path beneath the cliff. "There are lots of different theories. There was a 20-year drought. There was evidence of violence and warfare, cannibalism. But nobody really knows why." Alone in River House Ruin, an ancient 14-room cliff dwelling tucked in an amphitheater of rock about a mile and a half downriver from the petroglyphs, it felt as if they could have left yesterday.
Evening nightshade, a hallucinogenic plant thought to have been cultivated by the ancestral Pueblos for ritual use, still grows near the ancient mud-and-stone walls, which archaeologists estimate were built in layers between about A.D. 700 and 1150. On rocky hillsides nearby, potsherds and arrowheads still lie hidden in the sage and Mormon tea. Climbing through a window and standing in the darkness of an ancient stone room, it was easy to fancy yourself the site's first discoverer. That, however, is far from the case.
Some of the river's first Western visitors were trappers in the early 19th century and Mormon missionaries in the 1870s. A procession of fortune seekers followed: As many as 200 gold miners a day swooped in during the 1890s, but the river's fine-grain gold was too hard to collect. Oil prospectors arrived as early as 1907. A few years later, geological expeditions scouted the river for a good spot to dam. (They decided on Glen Canyon, about 90 miles southwest on the Colorado River.) Like the river's first explorers, we camped in tents by the river, but roughing it? Hardly.
"You can literally bring the kitchen sink on a raft trip," Mr. Sosa said the first night, because the raft has plenty of room. "And at this water level, there's so much time for cooking and eating it's literally like a floating kitchen." He stood at a portable table chopping vegetables for a dinner of linguine primavera al pesto, spinach salad and garlic bread, while Lori and I cracked open cans of Tecate beer, tugged from a cooler the size of a steamer trunk.
Days on the river were windy but warm, with temperatures in the 70s. The water was as cold as the Atlantic in early summer, nearly numbing our feet when we waded in the shallows.
In the rapids, we were only mildly splashed, and on the flat water sections we sat on a large cooler, feet dangling. In a stark landscape of chimneys and mesas, we stared at a deep blue sky straight out of Western cliché, as Mr. Sosa steered and the river whisked us along. There were no riverside trails or roads to bring any intruders into our own personal wilderness. A few cows, owned by Navajo ranchers, idled by the river, and there was no shortage of birds. Herons, hawks, migrating birds and Canadian geese flew overhead, between cottonwoods and among the yellow and chartreuse reeds.
At night in the desert, the temperature plummets; in April, nighttime lows can reach freezing. On our second night, on a crescent of sand just past Eight Foot Rapid, we listened to the river tumble and were mesmerized by stars as thick as spilled salt in the night sky.
The morning after our linguine dinner, before bouncing through a string of splashy Class II and Class III rapids, Mr. Sosa gave a basic lesson in San Juan River geology.
"It's kind of like a car accident," Mr. Sosa said, explaining how the multicolored hills of the Lime Ridge Anticline were formed. "You get wrinkles on your hood. These are the wrinkles of the car accident from the North American and Pacific plates smashing into each other 70 million years ago."
That same collision created the Rocky Mountains, but here the geological processes are more visible: Bands of red shale and gray Pennsylvania limestone, which had originally been formed by the surging and retreating of a 300-million-year-old equatorial sea, rose from the earth like the layers of a magnificent, lopsided birthday cake.
Nine miles from our put-in, a corridor of bizarre and twisted formations cropped up, formed both by the sculpturing of wind and water and by volcanic gases that thrust rocks up at the surface of the earth between 20 and 25 million years ago.
"Magma beneath the earth sent gases blowing out of the earth at about Mach 2, pushing the rock up and forming these monuments all over the Southwest," Mr. Sosa said. To the south, the Mule Ear diatreme, the remains of an ancient volcano, loomed some 700 feet high in the cobalt sky, dwarfing a 300-foot fin of De Chelly sandstone.
On a hike, it was back to cultural history, as Mr. Sosa, wearing a fresh shirt, black clip-on bow tie and red blazer with brass buttons, led us through a cracked and dry river wash and past a Navajo hogan, an octagonal log building that he estimated was abandoned in the 1950s. A half-mile later, a trail of hand- and footholds led 600 feet up a cliff face to an Anasazi dwelling. (We decided against the climb.)
While the river offers plenty of diversions, it may be the scenery-gazing while floating through flat water, riffles and rolling rapids that keep the devoted returning each spring. You don't have to do anything but sit, as stones perched like ballerinas on butte-top stages perform a spectacle by the river. Considering the number of people who have tried to plunder the San Juan over the past two centuries, you wonder how it has emerged relatively unscathed.
The Navajos, it turns out, have a ready answer. Before leaving the river, Mr. Sosa pointed out riverside hills that have patterns of gray and red rock that look like the snakelike zigzags of a hand-woven Navajo rug.
"That's called the Navajo Tapestry," Mr. Sosa said. "The Navajos believe that it's a serpent that protects the canyon."
As we contemplated the otherworldly-looking monoliths on the drive back to Bluff, that notion didn't seem so fanciful at all.
A three-day trip with Wild Rivers Expeditions (101 Main Street; Bluff, Utah; 800-422-7654; www.riversandruins.com) costs $686 for adults and $584 for children age 12 and under. The price includes tax and meals, and camping equipment is available for rental. The company also offers one-day trips for $150, as well as longer trips, all of which leave from Bluff.
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