Canoeing in God’s Country

Note: I recently received a nice award from the Boy Scouts of America where I enjoyed serving for many years. Gary Stradling wants to take credit for the award because he’s the one who roped me into helping with the District, a factor in the award. In way of thanks to Gary I decided to publish this Scouting adventure report. I wrote it many months ago. All the names and most of the actual facts have been changed or embellished to protect the innocent – and those who are seldom innocent, like Gary.

Canoeing in God’s Country

Spring was in the air, and we wanted to do something daring and exciting, but not so daring and exciting that our wives would clutch our life insurance policies to their bosoms and plan how and where to spend the money. We debated several actual adventure options temptingly described online, but most were too expensive (skiing in Antarctica – $27,500) or too idiotic (kayaking down Palouse Falls in Washington, a 186-foot vertical drop).  We settled on a canoe trip down the Green River through Canyonlands in central Utah. There were thirty or so of us, Scout leaders and boys, who banded together to plan the trip, if “planning” is the word for how men do these things. Frank, who kayaks a lot, said we needed to practice canoeing through rapids before the trip so that instead of drowning in the Green River, we would more likely drown practicing in the Rio Grande. We agreed, and early one Saturday morning in May, we drove to a set of rapids north of Pilar, New Mexico. (Pronounced Pee-Lar’, which if you roll your R a bit means, “a likely place to drown.”)
Standing on the banks of the Rio Grande, and focusing intently on how the river was very cold and very swift, we halfway listened to Frank’s lecture about the mechanics and safety rules for running rapids in open canoes. For example, there’s a proper way to behave when you get stranded against a rock: you lean the canoe toward the rock and scream. If you lean away from the rock and scream, you might wrap the canoe around the rock, and I’ve seen that happen.  On a previous canoe trip south of Durango, Colorado, a young man named Jaret and his canoe partner disregarded everything we had told them and wrapped their canoe around a bridge piling. Jaret and irresponsible people like him have no business anywhere near water. He later worked as a whitewater river guide.
Frank also instructed us that the proper way to canoe through rapids is to open your eyes really wide and paddle downstream like a fiend. If you’re canoeing faster than the speed of the water, you’ll have control.  If you open your eyes really wide and hold onto the sides of the canoe, you’ll soon be drinking the Rio Grande.
Frank then informed us that when (not if, but when) we and our canoes become separate items in the river, we should remember three things: 1) the river has many eddies and bends where we can reacquaint ourselves with fellow travelers and maybe with a canoe and possibly a paddle, 2) while bobbing and gasping as a single item through rapids, we are to keep our feet out in front of ourselves so that it is our feet instead of our butts or brains that first encounter large rocks, and 3) God listens to and understands the unintelligible prayers of those suddenly introduced from toes to tassel into frigid water. But how he answers them, Frank says, varies depending on how long it’s been since you’ve mocked a prophet. Frank studies the Bible a lot, both the New and Old Testaments apparently, and he seemed eager to witness our forthcoming accidental baptisms.
We canoed through the Pilar rapids, and all of us at one point or another learned what the Rio Grande tastes like. It’s quite refreshing. Sometimes we portaged back to repeat the same rapid until our confidence soared to the point where young Dylan decided to see if it’s possible to shoot a rapid in a canoe while standing up. It’s . . . um . . . not. We returned from Pilar full of bravado and swagger. No one had drowned, in spite of all the money we had on Dylan.
In June we drove to Moab, Utah, where we had arranged for a river outfitter to take us and our canoes to the point of embarkation. We dined at Wendy’s with people who smelled like they had been out on the river for a week—somewhat offensive. Then we loaded into the outfitter’s dilapidated bus and, towing a trailer loaded with our canoes and supplies, we drove north of Moab and turned off on a dirt road toward the river. The air in the bus was dusty and hot, so we opened all the windows to let in fresh air, which was dusty and hot.
We eventually saw the river down below. Our driver, whose name was probably Jaret, seemed confident as he navigated the old school bus and canoe trailer down the guard-rail-less switchbacks at a speed slightly faster than I would have preferred. What appears as confidence can, in young drivers, actually be lunacy, and although I’m not a Roman Catholic, this was one of those occasions when I experienced a sudden desire to frantically genuflect.
Departing from the dusty bus and kissing the ground, we unloaded our canoes and prepared for launching into our adventure. The Green River in June was at flood stage with a five mile-per-hour current. It looked wide and swift, but we had been on the Rio Grande above Pilar, and we were ready for anything. But as a precaution, we had a group prayer and scripture.
Our gear consisted of food for the week, mess kits, tents, sleeping bags, cameras, GPS units, Frank’s Bible, Bob’s waterproof  river map, extra clothes, plastic bags, sunscreen, toiletries, lots of chocolate, and a toilet. There’s a requirement on the river through Canyonlands that you carry your toilet with you, and Frank told us it’s so that when God walks through your camp, He won’t be offended at what he finds there, citing as his source Deuteronomy 23:12-14, “Thou shalt have a place also without the camp, whither thou shalt go forth abroad: And thou shalt have a paddle upon thy weapon; and it shall be, when thou wilt ease thyself abroad, thou shalt dig therewith, and shalt turn back and cover that which cometh from thee:  For the Lord thy God walketh in the midst of thy camp . . . therefore shall thy camp be holy: that he see no unclean thing in thee, and turn away from thee.” The boys thought Frank was making this up, but he showed them the verses. They then discussed the scripture with commentary approaching the borderline inappropriate. Next time it might add to the reverence to just have a prayer.
We bade goodbye to Jaret and launched into the river. The current was swift, and as we paddled along we noticed numerous eddies on the river surface churning up from below and lazy whirlpools along the edges. It was magical. We felt confident and excited. It was late afternoon, and the red rock canyon walls were beginning to be swallowed in shadows with their mirrored reflections in the river around us. I will always treasure my memories of the peace and beauty of the canyon and the river.
We didn’t have far to go to our planned campsite, Horsethief Canyon. The GPS men told us to start looking for a stream on our right to pull into. Soon we were pitching our tents in the shade of cottonwoods and preparing for supper.
Dave and his son were cooking for us that evening, and they had a special treat for us – scrambled eggs, the last we would see for several days of food from the refrigerator.
I love scrambled eggs for supper, but it is one of life’s mysteries how scrambled eggs cooked by a man or a boy over a campfire always take on the taste and appearance of coarse sawdust. And the egg-encrusted pan was unusable for the rest of the trip. But after a busy day, a meal of sawdust and ketchup packets, fruit sticks, and our own private stores of chocolate cookies, we felt content, and it was time to settle in for a memorable night with the sounds of the river, insect noises, reverent thoughts of God’s creations, and sudden leg cramps.
In the morning we dined on oatmeal and fruit snacks, the former sticking to our ribs and the latter to our teeth. We loaded the canoes with our packs and provisions and portable toilet and prepared to depart. We had a group prayer. Prayers along the river tend to express gratitude for the beauties of the earth and for protection in a place where the paramedic is more than three minutes away. I sometimes forget to pray, but in the Canyonlands of Utah, I was in awe of God’s creations, and I looked forward to participating in our morning group prayers. I think it might be a state law anyway. One of the scriptorians read a scripture, Psalms 137:1, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”
None of us wept by the river that morning because we were in Utah, which, according to the majority of natives, is not Babylon.
Mornings were wonderful on the river. It was cool as we packed the canoes and watched the sunlight edge down the cliff layers of red, orange, maroon, greenish, gray, yellowish, and other colors that men don’t know the names of. Cameras are wonderful, but they don’t capture the completeness of the experience—the cool air, the sounds, the smells, the complete panorama of color, and the lamentations of those with toilet duty. Once again, we enjoyed gliding along with the swift current through the beautiful canyon. Thanks to the current, we didn’t have to paddle much, and some of the time we linked our canoes and floated together in a metal scrum.
We stopped at Fort Bottom. Everyone floating the river stops there. The Green River makes a giant horseshoe bend around this attraction. We tied our canoes securely to trees along the bank and climbed up the trail to the top of Fort Bottom. In 1899, a rancher named Mark Walker built a one-room cabin atop the mesa. The cabin walls and stone chimney are still there, and we took time to drink in the astonishing view Mr. Walker enjoyed as he would help Mrs. Walker saddle the mule so she could ride for a couple of months to Provo to buy some flour, eggs, TP, sunscreen, People Magazine, and a Slurpee. Soon we were back on the river, and we floated our way down to Anderson Bottom, where we would spend the night. He who drew the short straw was assigned to take the sealed lid off the toilet, affix the floatable toilet seat, and then position the portable throne in a secluded place near the camp and inform everyone of its specific location.
At Anderson Bottom there’s a nice spring in a carved-out cave in the cliff face where we filled our water jugs and plastic bottles with clear, refreshing water, which we filtered anyway to ensure that no one would suffer the effects of giardia, which if consumed causes one to sprint to the toilet at frequent intervals, which would be a bummer for him and would also increase the laminations of those assigned to deal with the portable toilet.
That evening, Kyle cooked stew. Kyle’s wife is a talented cook, one whose dishes are praised by all. Kyle believes that because he has observed his wife’s cooking techniques, he too, by osmosis, is a gifted cook, especially when it comes to something as simple as stew.
So, into the pot went some freeze-dried stroganoff packets, some dehydrated peas, chunks of Summer Sausage, some chili powder or something that he thought was chili powder and might have been cumin or nutmeg, lots of garlic powder, grated carrots, a can of Garbanzo beans, a can of evaporated milk, and other random items from his pack. He made plenty for seconds.
There’s an old saying, “ANYTHING tastes good on the trail,” and now there’s a new saying, “Some swill tastes bad on the trail!” I ate enough to be polite, and then politely threw half of it into the river after apologizing to the fish and the National Park Service.
That night we tried to sleep. The professional travel author, in covering river adventures, never introduces the theme of flatulence, it being an indecorous subject except in middle school locker rooms. It’s a pity, however, given that during that June night at Anderson Bottom, several world records were broken in those metrics associated with the subject. But this is a classy essay, so we will have to let it pass.
After our oatmeal and fruit snacks we met as usual for prayer, fairly certain that God had not walked around our campsite during the night. Our silent prayer was one of gratitude that Kyle’s cooking shift was over. The scripture dealt with Peter walking on the water, our scripture reader of the day being too charitable to read Proverbs 23:8, “The morsel which thou hast eaten shalt thou vomit up, and lose thy sweet words.”
We prepared the canoes and then took a hike to a slot canyon a couple of miles away. We climbed up a trail and at a marker we stepped into a shallow notch in the mesa top. The notch got deeper and wider. Soon we were deep below the mesa top in a narrow canyon that continued to drop and slowly widen. Over the centuries, the rainwater and snow melt have rushed down this canyon and carved and polished the red stone into a magical escape from the dry landscape above. Ferns grew near shallow pools, and we climbed and hiked and dropped deeper into the swirled walls of the canyon, wading through pool after pool, sometimes carrying our packs and cameras aloft to keep them dry. The last pool, where the canyon ends near the river, was the deepest and muddiest. The boys covered themselves with mud and then splashed into the pool to wash the mud off. The boys enjoyed the mud much more than the older men who realized from experience that our wardrobes were limited, and it’s uncomfortable to live in mud-encrusted clothing.
We ate our individual lunches of tuna, crackers, and apples, and then took to the river to float to our next campsite at Turk’s Head, a saddle-horn-shaped formation towering above a large loop in the river. We looked for a convenient place to come ashore, and as we turned the final bend we realized that there was not going to be a convenient place. The banks were steep and thickly covered with Tamarisk trees, a beautiful but invasive water-hog of a tree that has taken over the river banks of the western United States. We picked a spot and struggled to pull each canoe from the river up the steep embankment while being scratched by trees and bitten by ants while trying our best to refrain from saying words that we haven’t used since we were young and were trying to herd sheep. We finally pulled all the canoes to high ground and selected a beautiful meadow as our campsite. Discovering that the beautiful meadow was a giant ant pile, we selected a barren, dusty area against the base of the cliff as our campsite. I can’t remember what we ate that night, which is a profound compliment to the chef.
In the morning we climbed up Turk’s head as high as was safe and then watched the boys climb a lot higher. Along the way we saw old Native American grain storage bins carved into the cliff face and sealed with adobe brick.
We prayed, and I read the scripture about Christ cursing the fig tree, which I thought was apt given the amount of tree cursing we had done the previous day. We carefully lowered the canoes down our ramp through the accursed Tamarisks and then stowed our gear and toilet and things aboard once the canoes were horizontal.
The Tamarisk tree was brought to the United States without its beetle. The Park Service and other organizations are now importing a beetle from Arabia or somewhere, which feasts on the Tamarisk tree and only the Tamarisk tree. The beetles are happy. The Park Service is happy. And we would have been happier had they done this prior to our trip.
We drifted to Horse Canyon as our next campsite. We pitched our tents and then hiked up the box canyon to the base of an enormous dry waterfall. We stood at the base of the cliff, and about a hundred yards above us the rock had been eroded over the centuries into a wide trough, where during rainstorms there appears to have been mighty rivers thundering over the edge. We felt miniature. We had checked the weather before our trip, and there had been no forecast for rain, but if it had rained we would not have slept comfortably knowing that our tents were in the path of whatever water might roar out of that canyon.
Jacob cooked that evening, and we watched and learned. He lined a pot with a turkey-baking bag and boiled some carefully measured water. He added dehydrated rice and beans, tomato paste, canned meat, spices that complimented his entrée, and a few other ingredients. Soon we were eating Frito pies that were amazing. ANYTHING tastes good on the trail, especially if Jacob prepares that anything. We emptied the pot, and Jacob removed the turkey-baking bag, folded it up and added it to our trove of trash. There was no messy pot to scrape and wash and curse. We applauded.
We slept well. There may have been a few bean bombs that night, but nothing worthy of a trophy.
In the morning we prayed. Jacob asked whether someone had a good scripture, and we had a brief discussion as to whether there are bad scriptures. We agreed that all scriptures are good, but there are quite a few, especially in the Old Testament that you wouldn’t want read at funerals.
Brothers and Sisters,
We are gathered here today to pay adieu to the mortal remains and wonderful spirit of Melba Gruderspool. We offer our condolences to her husband Milford and their nine children gathered with us. We pray for the spirit of peace to distill upon the family and congregation.
Let us turn to Judges, Chapter 3:
17 And he brought the present unto Eglon king of Moab: and Eglon was a very fat man.
18 And when he had made an end to offer the present, he sent away the people that bare the present.
19 But he himself turned again from the quarries that were by Gilgal, and said, I have a secret errand unto thee, O king: who said, Keep silence. And all that stood by him went out from him.
20 And Ehud came unto him; and he was sitting in a summer parlour, which he had for himself alone. And Ehud said, I have a message from God unto thee. And he arose out of his seat.
21 And Ehud put forth his left hand, and took the dagger from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly:
22 And the haft also went in after the blade; and the fat closed upon the blade, so that he could not draw the dagger out of his belly; and the dirt came out.
And so, Brothers and Sisters, we see that death comes for us all, for Sister Gruderspool and for Eglon king of Moab who might have also been in Lord of the Rings, and eventually for all of us.
Let us pray.
We loaded our canoes and pushed off before God could cause it to rain on our scripture reading, and we paddled and drifted to Water Canyon. The GPS men told us when we were approaching the entrance to the canyon, but we had difficulty finding it. There was in a tricky bend of the river where the swift current threatened to take us past the vegetation-clogged entrance. It took teamwork to paddle along the river edge and make a sudden sharp turn out of the current into the narrow stream. But remember, we had canoed the Rio Grande above Pilar. This canoe maneuver was not a big deal. The stream remained narrow, wide enough for only one canoe. The unsettling part was that we were paddling under overhanging rock, and the overhanging rock looked like it was made of cracked, compressed gravel, which one sneeze might cause to crumble and fall, especially on men and boys who had been making light of scripture stories. Somehow we were spared, and we came to a clearing with just enough space to set up camp for the night, unless it rained in Water Canyon, in which case our tents and bodies would eventually be found somewhere in Arizona.
The hike up Water Canyon is incredible. There are small waterfalls and cascading pools, some deep enough to dive into by those to whom safety is not important. We hiked along a trail about five feet wide with a steep cliff rising to the left and a thousand foot drop to the right. One of my eyes was making sure I was as close to the cliff to the left as possible, and the other eye was looking down the drop on the right. This brought on a bit of vertigo, which is the least desirable symptom for the situation. Eventually we made it to the top and climbed to the top of a red rock dome to take in the vista. Water Canyon is the gateway to the Maze, a vast array of domes and canyons of all sizes, shapes, and pastel colors. What a view!
In the evening we enjoyed our last meal on the river consisting of whatever we had left in our stores. At night we lay in our tents listening to the relaxing sounds of miniature waterfalls and small streams gurgling near our tents. I rolled over, realizing from experience that the first person to fall asleep is unaware of the cacophony of snores of those who follow. The last one to sleep may not sleep.
Breakfast consisted of more of this and that, and we met for our final prayer and scripture.
Steve worked the Bible concordance and found the perfect scripture for Water Canyon.
2 Chronicles 20:16, “To morrow go ye down against them: behold, they come up by the cliff of Ziz; and ye shall find them at the end of the brook, before the wilderness of Jeruel.”
We prayed, we packed, we boarded, and we left the wilderness of Jeruel and carefully paddled along the brook under the crumbling cliff of Ziz back to the river. We were only a few miles from the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers. I was a little apprehensive about canoeing where the momentum of two mighty rivers coming together might produce powerful eddies and currents that would pose a problem. But where the two rivers met, the water was as calm as we had seen the whole trip. About a mile downstream we perked up as rapids came into view, only about twenty feet of rapids and nothing compared to the Rio Grande. We might have stood up in our canoes to shoot these pathetic little rapids, but we knew that immediately after the rapids we needed to paddle quickly to the right bank and disembark at Spanish Bottom. A mile or so below Spanish Bottom the Colorado River squeezes through Cataract Canyon where only trained river experts like Jaret are paid to guide you between the rock Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis. It’s not a section of river for men in canoes and especially not for men estranged from their canoes.
Soon we were safely sprawled on the sandy beach at Spanish Bottom where a jet boat would soon meet us and carry us up the scenic Colorado and back to Moab, where there’s a Wendy’s restaurant that welcomes those who smell like they’ve been out on the river for a week. No one should be offended.
This is a trip I would recommend to everyone. The prophets agree.
Jeremiah 48:28, “O ye that dwell in Moab, leave the cities, and dwell in the rock, and be like the dove that maketh her nest in the sides of the hole’s mouth.”
Amen

 

 

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