By Justin Malloy

Based on the elevation difference between their origin and destination, Powell and his crew knew how far they were set to descend when they launched on their first voyage. It was to be approximately 5,000 feet. But at what rate would they cover that elevation? They had no idea. With each languid day rowing the miles of flat water between canyons and whitewater their anticipation grew. What waterfall awaited them around the next bend? How fast would the river flow if the gradient suddenly steepened and how large of boulders would tumble around them from the ensuing force? Could it disappear into the Earth, like the River Styx?

 

These fears and anxieties would linger with the men throughout their journey. While their wildest ideations didn’t come true, as is so often the case, challenges and hardships previously unimagined occurred instead and beset the crew’s progress. Through adversity they bonded, and Powell especially felt a strong kinship with the men. Many years removed from his explorations, Powell writes:

…the memory of the men and their heroic deeds, the men and their generous acts, overwhelms me with a joy that seems almost a grief, for it starts a fountain of tears. I was a maimed man; my right arm was gone; and these brave men, these good men, never forgot it. In every danger my safety was their first care, and in every waking hour some kind service was rendered me, and they transfigured my misfortune into a boon.

 

DesolationEllie Guide Desolation

Many river guides believe Desolation Canyon does not deserve its given name. Compared to other drier, hotter canyons farther south, Desolation is relatively green and vibrant, with large groves of cottonwood trees, varied wildlife, and plenty of shade. It is extremely remote; however, the entire course of their trip was remote; so how did this place earn such an ominous name?

 

When traveling through the Canyon of Lodore, it is difficult not to be struck with its lush and abundant vegetation and wildlife. North of Lodore is more of the same type of country. However, once the Green River exits Split Mountain, it enters a wide, flat basin for roughly 100 river miles. This land has been cultivated for farming for years, but if not for that human impact, the basin would aptly be described as barren. The subsequent canyon after the Uinta Basin is Desolation. Now, imagine traveling in rickety wooden boats through the lush country of Southern Wyoming and Northern Utah for weeks before arriving in the Uinta Basin tired, beaten, and hungry. There is hardly a tree in sight, let alone herds of deer to hunt or edible plants to forage.

 

This was the reality for Powell’s men. They were desperate for sustenance other than the “salt-meat fare” they had been relying on, and the area looked bleak in offerings. The previous winter, Powell writes that “a man named Johnson, a hunter and Indian trader” who lived nomadically, “informed me that it was his intention to plant some corn, potatoes, and other vegetables” on an island in the river and “invited us to stop and help ourselves”. Powell’s crew were able to find the garden, however it appeared unattended and in a sad state of affairs. Desperate as they were, they harvested potato tops as greens and cooked them that afternoon for lunch. Soon after the meal, Powell writes “one after another of the party is taken sick; nausea first, and then severe vomiting, and we tumble around under the trees, groaning in pain. I feel a little alarmed, lest our poisoning be severe.”

 

As we know now, symptoms of food poisoning from green potatoes include fever, delirium, shock, vision changes, and hallucinations. Powell didn’t offer many details of the symptoms they experienced, but one can deduce that it was a troubling experience for the men. This is the context in which Powell’s party enters Desolation Canyon. With the lush abundance of Lodore behind them, and having survived terrible food poisoning, the symptoms of which probably still lingering, Powell writes:

The walls are almost without vegetation; a few dwarf bushes are seen here and there clinging to the rocks, and cedars grow from the crevices- not like the cedars of a land refreshed with rains, great cones bedecked with spray, but ugly clumps, like was clubs beset with spines. We are minded to call this the Canyon of Desolation.

 

For centuries before Powell arrived, Desolation Canyon was home to multiple different groups of indigenous peoples, including the Fremont and Ute, among others. After Powell, parts of the canyon were settled by ranchers and at least one moonshiner operated a hidden still. The river runners of today get to enjoy a plethora of picturesque campsites with large cottonwood trees and long sandy beaches. All to say: Desolation Canyon has never been all that desolate.

 

Desolation Gray CanyonGray

The differences between Desolation and Gray, two canyons lying end to end along the same river, are stark and striking. While Desolation has tall red walls with pinyon and juniper, Gray is characterized by lower cliffs of gray, brown, yellow, and white. The plant life itself is different as well. The rock strata in both canyons can be ascribed responsibility for these differences: the rock of Desolation is primarily from the mid-Tertiary period, roughly 55 million years old, while the rock of Gray is primarily Cretaceous deposits of the Mesaverde Group, some 75 million years old. On his crew’s entrance to Gray Canyon, Powell writes, “Just here we emerge from the Canyon of Desolation, as we have named it, into a more open country, which extends for a distance of nearly a mile, when we enter another canyon cut through gray sandstone.”

 

We now know that this open country separating the two canyons is home to an important natural history site. Discovered by geologists in the early 1900’s, there is a geologic signature known as the Cretaceous-Tertiary Line, or K-T Line, which indicates the global event that caused the extinction of dinosaurs roughly 65 million years ago. For what is possibly the greatest mass extinction event in Earth’s history, where 75 percent of the species on the planet were wiped out, the leading theory is a meteor strike, geologic evidence of which has been found all over the globe.

 

Labyrinth

Labyrinth Canyon marks the beginning of the longest continuous stretch of flat water on the Green River. Between it and Stillwater, the subsequent canyon, lies a calm 120 miles of river without a rapid. This proved to be a joy for Powell and his men. On Labyrinth, he writes:

 

There is an exquisite charm in our ride to-day down this beautiful canyon. It gradually grows deeper with every mile of travel ; the walls are symmetrically curved and grandly arched, of a beautiful color, and reflected in the quiet waters in many places so as almost to deceive the eye and suggest to the beholder the thought that he is looking into profound depths. We are all in fine spirits and feel very gay, and the badinage of the men is echoed from wall to wall. Now and then we whistle or shout or discharge a pistol, to listen to the reverberations among the cliffs. At night we camp on the south side of the great Bowknot, and as we eat supper, which is spread on the beach, we name this Labyrinth Canyon.

 

More than anything, Labyrinth Canyon is full of history. While Powell gets credit for being the first non-Native man to float this stretch, a French-Canadian fur trapper by the name of Denis Julien is believed to have achieved this feat in the 1830’s. Though this cannot be confirmed, he did leave an inscription in Labyrinth, and Julien is known to have traveled the rivers in a boat made of buffalo hide in pursuit of furs and pelts. He famously left inscriptions as far north as the Uinta Mountains and as far south as Cataract Canyon. Other inscriptions in Labyrinth include those left by Buzz Holmstrom, the Kolb brothers, Norm Nevills, and rock art left by indigenous peoples who predated them all. There are also cabins, roads, and equipment to find left behind by early ranchers, miners, and homesteaders.

 

The most common put-in for a Labyrinth Canyon river trip is at the historic Ruby Ranch. Across the river from the ranch is the mouth of the San Rafael River, one of the main tributaries of the Green. As the river descends downstream from Ruby, the walls of Labyrinth rise and groves of cottonwood trees emerge on the riverbanks along with the only stands of Gambel’s oak trees that are found along the river.

 

White Rim Turks Head Canyonlands Green River OverlookStillwater

On the ‘entrance’ of Stillwater Canyon, Powell writes “The line which separates Labyrinth Canyon from the one below is but a line”. Today, Mineral Bottom serves as the border between the two canyons and home to a dirt boat ramp that serves as the put-in for a trip down Stillwater. As Powell floated downstream, he and his men were awestruck by the incredible rock formations that surrounded them and were inspired to name a large section of the canyon Tower Park after the buttes, pillars, and mesas of the area.

 

There is rock art, cliff dwellings, granaries, and more scattered all over Canyonlands from different indigenous tribes including Ancestral Puebloans, Utes, Paiutes, and Fremonts. The greatest concentration of archaeological sites at river level may be in Tower Park. The Turks Head area alone has petroglyphs, granaries, and a cliff dwelling. The riparian zones of the riverbanks are thought to have served as fertile farming land until a decades-long drought in the late 1200’s forced people to head south.

Raft parties heading for Cataract will choose to brave the narrow switchbacks of the Mineral Bottom road to avoid the busier stretch of Meander Canyon to float their way to the confluence. Stillwater is also a popular section of river for canoeists to paddle for a few days before camping near the confluence and catching a jet boat ride back to Moab.

 

Westwater Canyon Justing Rowing WhitewaterOriginally from the suburbs near Cleveland, Ohio, Justin made his way to Utah after graduating from Ohio University with a degree in exploring and having fun… If not on the river or in the kitchen, you’ll find him wandering the mountains, drinking coffee, or writing down words he hopes will come across as sensical.