My First (but not last) River Trip

Posted On
Jun 05, 2013
Southern Utah
Family Friendly
Guided Adventures

By Lauren Lengel – Teen Contributer 


I gazed at the rapids, flowing quickly. Water was splashing against boulders and being thrown back. "Are you sure?" I asked.
It was early August. Our family set out on a "girls only" two day raft trip guided by Wild Rivers Expeditions on the San Juan River, a 24 mile section in the heart of Southern Utah's remote red rock canyons. Two guides would each row enormous blue rafts and we girls would paddle inflatable kayaks, or "duckies." We loaded our supplies onto the rafts and pushed off - my mom and aunt kayaking the duckies. Our adventure began.

I grabbed a paddle and climbed into the duckie with my mom. Our guides led the way down the first set of rapids in the oar rafts, bouncing off rocks like a pinball machine. Soon, they dropped out of sight.

Jess, one of our guides, told us all about the river and its amazing wildlife. They would point out animals and plants as they rowed along. "See that hawk?" She pointed high above a few trees a mile or two away, "I think it's a Red-Tailed Hawk." We also saw a Sandhill Crane foraging for food in the marshy river shore. It was the largest bird that I've ever seen. As she rowed, Jess told of a classic movie that was filmed in the area and the lore and history of the San Juan.

Finally, the blue rafts had reached the end of the rapid. They stopped by rowing into an eddy at the river bank. My aunt Monique, camera in hand, hopped out and walked up to the rapids to get a closer look. She would take photos of us running the rapids. Mom used her paddle to push our duckie into the river so we could start going down. Dry mouths and sweaty palms, we approached the churning whitewater.

Soon, its lunchtime! Our guides rowed over to the side of the river to pull out on a sandy slope, tied the rafts and duckies down and helped the little ones climb up. After we were all up on shore our guides started unloading food and supplies from the raft for lunch. We sat and chatted while they prepared a gourmet lunch of fresh fruit and taco salads. While we were eating, Monique asked if we were ready to go exploring.

My sister groaned, "A hike?" Yep! One of the guides was to lead us to explore Butler Wash, one of the most famous collections of Indian petroglyphs in the west and accessed only by boats. My aunt had previously viewed the "glyphs" so she chose to hang out with my cousin near the rafts. Jess led us up the trail; the petroglyphs started to appear after a few minutes. The first one was so faded with age that we could hardly see it. As we continued hiking the petroglyphs started getting clearer and varied in style and size. Some of the petroglyphs were etched into the rock by the Anasazi dating back to AD 400. We stopped as Jess knelt down and picked something up. "This is a broken piece of red pottery," she said, then poured water from her canteen on the shard to get the sand off so we could have a better look. She explained how it was made and the importance of pottery to the early Anasazi, then carefully laid it back on the sandy ground.

Some of the petroglyph panels had holes in them, so wide and deep that you could stick your fingertip in. This part had pictures of horses drawn by early the inhabitants but, unfortunately, the holes were created by vandals who shot bullets into the glyphs for their own amusement. They defaced the panels by writing their names or tracing pictures using guns and bullets as if drawing with a pencil. Sadly and so unnecessary to mar such important culture and history. Soon we retraced the route back to where the other guide was loading the supplies from lunch into the rafts.

"Are you ready?" My mom asked as we started paddling toward the top of rapid. I silently nodded. We reached the start and I gulped quietly as we paddled into the head of the roiling whitewater. The powerful hydraulics turned us back and forth, as if toying with us, water flying over, around and in our faces. "Paddle faster!" My mom yelled, "I am!" I screamed as one of the waves made our duckie jump off the water and engulf us as we landed. A boulder appeared in front of us and the waves hitting it washed over us as we turned. "Come on!" My mom hollered as she maneuvered around another boulder near the red rock cliff we had just passed.

Later, we eddied out to hike to an ancient Indian dwelling made of old mud bricks underneath the side of a small cliff. Our guide guessed where their living room and bedrooms might have been. Some corn cobs were still inside, thousands of years old.

"Wow!" I yelped as our duckie jumped again and turned to the side as we furiously paddled to turn it so we wouldn't hit another boulder looming straight ahead.

After hours of fun-filled floating, chatting and splashing water fights, it was time to make camp. We set up our tents while the guides gathered cooking gear and plopped into camp chairs to watch the glow of the desert disappear into darkness. We recalled the experiences of the day until dinner was ready, and then served ourselves to yet another wonderfully prepared shore meal. After, most of us stayed up to enjoy the brilliant night sky and the seemingly infinite number of twinkling stars - so many it seemed like snowflakes in a blizzard. Soon, sleepy, I crawled into my tent and curled up into my sleeping bag.

We turned straight again and weaved around the boulder toward the side of the cliff wall. "Paddle harder!" My mom yelled as she pushed her paddle against a rock to turn us away from the wall.

After a hearty breakfast, on the river again. The current was faster today and I spent most of it in the duckie. We saw some amazing animals, many more then the first day. One time my sister yelled out, "Look up there!" I looked where she was pointing and saw two wild donkeys standing up on the edge of the ridge. We saw several desert big horn sheep, males with stately curled horns and later saw several families coming down to the river for a drink. The baby sheep were so close to our raft we could almost touch them. They seemed to ignore us as our boats floated by.

I paddled harder as waves splashed our duckie. For a brief moment, I turned to look back at what we just went through then quickly turned forward to the command,"Keep paddling!" Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed my aunt shooting pictures. I turned my head and grinned, "Cheese!" The rapids were the most fun even though I was so nervous in the beginning. But we made it! Whew!

In the evening we saw another Sandhill Crane, its tall, sleek body against the perfect background - the glowing sunset and surrounding cliffs. Then, the huge bird provided some whimsical entertainment by flying ahead of us a short distance. When the boats would catch up the crane would fly another few yards ahead. It continued doing this for awhile, seeming to want to lead the way.

The beautiful sunset looked so majestic against the canyons and cliffs - a perfect ending for our rafting adventure on the amazing San Juan River. Our guides from Wild Rivers Expeditions made the trip an outstanding two day dream adventure into the remote southern Utah desert. Now, dream over, I was heading back to reality - school in the fall. I cannot wait until next summer for my next family rafting adventure.

Lauren Lengel, age 12, enjoys Utah's great outdoors by skiing, camping, hiking, and biking with her family and friends.  Lauren attends 6th grade at Oakridge Elementary.  She loves reading and writing short stories, especially anything about owls.