San Juan River Trip 2020
I mentioned in my last post that we had permits to raft the San Juan river. Way back in March we snagged the permits. We didn’t get selected through the lottery, but after lottery recipients accepted or declined they released any extra permits. Quarantine had just started and we figured things would be better by June. As the weeks progressed, we began to realize there was a strong chance the trip would be cancelled. Noel was calling the BLM office in Monticello almost weekly in May for updates. Week after week trips were cancelled and we fully expected our trip would be cancelled too. They told us they would have a firm answer for us the week before our trip. It ended up that they literally reopened the river the week before our trip was scheduled. The Navajo nation was still under lockdown so we would not be allowed to explore anything on the Left side of the river, but as long as we stayed on the right side we would be allowed to go.
In the days leading up to our river trip, I was both nervous and excited. The thing that made me most nervous was the travel part. Once we got to the river, we would be socially distant from pretty much everyone, but to get there we’d have to travel through many towns and into a different state. I didn’t want to be responsible for inadvertently bringing COVID to one place or another and honestly, I’m not jumping at the opportunity to get sick myself. We had bought a portable toilet to use on the river and part of me wanted to only use that and never use public restrooms. We would be on a heavily traveled route for at least 3/4 of the drive though so using the toilet discretely would be difficult. Noel convinced me it would be fine to use a rest stop here or there and we would just be careful – wear masks, sanitize, wash hands, etc. (Germaphobes across the world are feeling vindicated right now I’m sure.) The day before, I bought supplies. We’d volunteered to do food for the trip. My cart was overflowing. I’d been shopping every two weeks so I was used to big grocery hauls, but this was another level.
We’d intended to hit the road early morning, but didn’t actually leave the driveway until a little after noon. This was our first camping trip of the year outside of our backyard so we were a little rusty. We ate sandwiches in the car and made two stops that day for gas and restrooms.
It was so interesting how attitudes differed in different towns. Some towns “didn’t have” Coronavirus and people were taking zero precautions. Other places had very clear rules and expectations for mask wearing and/or social distancing. We wore our masks and gave space at each location no matter what the locals were doing. (Side note: This is the healthiest spring our family has ever had. It has been so nice to not catch multiple colds the kids bring home. I may be a converted germaphobe.)
We stopped in Moab to grab some dinner. We got it to go and ate dinner on the grounds of the closed welcome center. Moab was a total mix. Some people wore masks, some didn’t. Some establishments required masks, many didn’t. It was a little quieter than normal, but still pretty busy. We headed on to our final destination of the day – Blanding – and enjoyed the desert sunset. In Blanding, we met up at an Airbnb we were sharing with Noel’s cousin, Annie; her fiance, Greg; Noel’s sister, Danielle; and Noel’s cousin, Jessie. We’d all decided social distancing among the eight of us was futile and just crossed our fingers no one was asymptomatically carrying COVID. (Side note: This was supposed to be a cousin reunion for Noel’s side of the family like the rafting trip we did back in 2015. Noel’s sister Joy and Chris weren’t able to join [Chris is high risk for coronavirus] and Noel’s cousin Jaimie and her husband, Wolfgang, also didn’t make it because they have a baby, plus the baby is also high risk. They were missed.)
The next morning, we drove to Bluff to meet the boat rental company at the boat ramp. After rigging the boat and shuttling two of the cars to the end boat ramp, we hit the river in our 14′ raft and two double kayaks.
Noel and I took a one day rowing clinic two years ago. Danielle and Annie had both worked as river guides in college and Jessie has been on numerous rafting trips. Noel and I were almost the least qualified oarsmen there, but we took the reigns first. We crashed into two trees lodged in the middle of the river and almost plum tuckered ourselves out trying to figure out what we were doing. It was clear we weren’t naturals. We were also doing the navigating. Fortunately, even with our inexperience we didn’t miss pulling off to see the Butler Wash Petroglyph panel.
There were so many petroglyphs (plus graffiti). It was a lovely stop.
We hit the river again and awkwardly propelled ourselves down the river. The kayaks got a good distance ahead of us and I guess we didn’t communicate well with them that we were looking for a pull-out to see the River House Ruins. The banks also seemed to be really overgrown without any good places to land and we kept getting further and further away. By the time we found a pullout we were two miles down river.
A few of us were a bit testy (mostly Noel and I), but we all cheered up a bit after some dinner.
We poured over the map and decided we would try to hike back to the ruins in the morning. The campsite was really much lovelier than any of the other places we could have pulled over. There was a full moon that night that lit up the sky so headlamps were hardly necessary. In the middle of the night I heard something rustling outside the tent. My first instinct was Oh no, a bear! But I quickly remembered we were in the desert. Then the animal hee-hawed. I really needed to pee, so I got out of the tent and sure enough two donkeys were nearby munching on bushes. Luckily they were not aggressive and left me alone.
In the morning, we set out for the ruins. There wasn’t an official trail to the ruins so we were mostly following cattle trails and sometimes turning around and trying again when we found a dead end. After about 2.5 miles we made it to the ruins.
There were two main areas. One you could see up in the cliff and one you could walk up to.
It was really cool. I’m glad everyone was willing to make the trek with us.
I was a little nervous one of us would trip and knock over a wall or something, but thankfully nothing disastrous happened and others can enjoy it for a while longer. There was a sign with pictures of the ruins (I think from the 70s?) and you could see that there used to be more/higher walls.
Then we made the trek back. Most everyone was low on water and it was hot. The hike back wasn’t as fun, but I’m still really glad we did it.
We loaded the boat back up. Today we would hit all three of our rapids. They were only class 2, but Noel and I decided we needed some coaching. Annie hopped in the boat with us and helped guide us through. After we got through the rapids, Noel and I decided we wanted to try one of the kayaks.
The kayaks were a nice change of pace – much more nimble. We found a lovely spot to make camp and began setting everything up.
Noel and I were working on dinner while everyone else set up tents. In the middle of all that, an intense windstorm kicked up. The camp table blew over and threw all the bacon in the sand. Noel smartly turned off the propane as we all chased items. A few things still blew away into the river. The sand pelted legs and burned eyes. I hugged the bag of cake mix I’d been mixing to my chest. At some point I yelled for the kids and I saw Ellen wedged in between the two kayaks clutching a life jacket and crying. Cooper had climbed into one of the tents. When it quieted down a bit, we assessed the damage. One of the tents poles was broken beyond repair. Luckily we had three tents so everyone still had a place to sleep. We’d also lost the bacon, garlic bread, and a couple of plates. We ate dinner with occasional wind gusts stealing lettuce off people’s forks. (Side note, Noel’s former center director had given us some pointers on this trip and wanted a report after. When Noel told him about the windstorm he told a story of a friend who had done the trip with their baby. The baby was in the tent and began to fuss so one of the parents got the baby. Minutes later the wind picked up and blew the tent – sleeping bags and all – into the river. Public service announcement: Always stake your tent.)
As we began dishing out dessert, it began to pour rain. We all ran with our cake to our tents. Luckily, this wasn’t bear country so eating in the tent wasn’t a kiss of death. The wind and rain continued all night.
In the morning, things finally let up. We emerged from our tent to a very wet world.
Eventually, everyone emerged and we made oatmeal for breakfast, eating out of whatever random assortment of dishes we could find.
The skies looked a bit ominous so we packed up quickly. At first things were calm, but overcast. We even spotted one of our runaway plates stuck in the Tamarisk and rescued it. We enjoyed the scenery and even saw two beavers swimming in the water.
At some point, the wind picked up. It was strong, almost strong enough to push us up river. Thunder boomed and heavy rain pelted us. The kids cried and we tried to give them suggestions on how to cover their faces. Luckily, this storm didn’t linger for hours like the one the night before. The storm clouds passed and the sun came out. (When we returned the raft, we were told the Bluff had quarter sized hail. I’m glad we at least missed out on that.)
The rest of the trip was uneventful and full of beautiful scenery. Before we knew it, we were at the Mexican Hat boat ramp. We packed everything up, returned the things we’d rented and got some grub in Blanding.
We got some side eyes for wearing masks inside when we ordered, but that’s fine with me. San Juan is one of the hot spot counties in Utah right now. We didn’t even let the kids in the building and happily ate outside.
We spent the night in Grand Junction. Noel thought he’d made a reservation, but actually hadn’t. Luckily they still had the deal we wanted and we booked it 15 minutes out. The Marriott had rules for masking wearing and social distancing which we were happy to comply with. We ate leftovers from the river and luxuriated in being clean.
The next morning we did sacrament in the hotel room since we can do that now and then hit the road. Noel joined a ward council meeting while I drove. Crazy times right now. We almost made it home without stopping, but Cooper urgently needed to use the restroom outside of Georgetown. We stopped at the rest stop which had very clear instructions on entering and exiting the building, wearing masks, etc.
Finally, we arrived at home where we set up all the wet things to be cleaned and dried and the kids snuggled our neurotic cat. When asked, both kids said they would do another river trip again and that overall it was fun. Perhaps there’s another river trip in our future. It’s probably my privilege talking, but it was so nice to go off-grid for a few days and not be bombarded by news and all the terrible things happening in the world. Stepping outside of our bubble really helped me loosen up a bit about everything. We’re still doing our best to be careful and prevent spread, but I’m definitely less uptight about things slowly reopening and that’s probably best for everyone.