This past July we took our first long-term canoe trip down the Green River in Utah. Our Troop had an absolute blast despite much of the trip being new to our backpacking crew’s experience. It occurred to me to make some notes on the logistics of our trip and lessons learned for our next paddle or trip to Canyonlands. We put in at Mineral Bottom and spent the next five days paddling 50 miles to the confluence with the Colorado River, then about 3 more miles to lower Spanish Bottom (just above the Colorado’s first Cateracts post-confluence). We were picked-up at Spanish Bottom and jet boated another 50-odd river miles up the Colorado to pull out at Potash and return to Moab. In early July 2017 the river was running an unusually high 10,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) at Mineral Bottom, had dropped to a bit less than 4,000 cfs the days before we started our float, and ran about 3,600 cfs (just above the July norm of ~3,000 cfs) during most of our paddle.
You can see the most recent USGS hydrograph feed here.
As with any expedition, planning for the conditions you reasonably expect to encounter is key. Normally we are self-contained and carry all our supplies on our backs. This canoeing situation presented two new conditions from the get-go: we would be moving our gear in boats rather than on our backs (i.e. a pseudo-car camping trip) and the aquatic nature of our travels meant that everything had to be prepped for potentially going subtidal.
For this trip we ditched our traditional backpacking packs in lieu of 30 to 60 liter dry bags. Most of us went with a backpack-style bag (like this one; $15). I opted to also bring an additional duffle ($25) for miscellaneous crew gear, sampling equipment for microplastics, etc. While the standard dry bags worked well for our crew across the board, my “dry” duffle was less than “waterproof,” thanks both to the zipper’s lacking any watertight backing or seals and our hours-long water wars while en route each day.
We transported most of our food in a mix of bear cans (usually carried inside our packs) and ice chests. Rounding out the rest of our gear were 6.5 gallon water jugs, our Coleman double burner stoves, camp chairs, a handful of plastic tubs for miscellaneous cooking gear, and our river toilets. We brought everything ourselves save for the water jugs and toilet which were provided by our outfitter.
The Gear Next Time
We got by fine with our gear this trip, but our trip down the Green River did prove to be something of an equipment shake down for future river runs. With this float under our belt, I have lots of equipment adjustments for that next paddle. Overall, most these refinements fall under the umbrella of treating a future float more as a “pure” backpacking endeavor and less of a car camping one.
Firstly, I would go with pure backpacking food over the duration of the trip. This would allow us to avoid the need for iced foodstuffs in coolers, Coleman stoves, charcoal, etc. we carried to support our planned “car camping” meals of omelets, burgers, and the like. Go with Jet Boils for heating “just add water” dishes and related no-cook options such as crackers, granola bars, and plain fruit.
We used our default backpacking bear cans for food storage. To be sure they fit under our canoe seats with only a slight bit of flipping and twisting to find the right orientation. But most of them are fairly scratched up now. In something of a baffling approach to packing, our crew did not stash food based on meal or day and failed to put a daily menu with each stash. This translated into several wasted hours all told of hunting for peanut butter or some such item once they discerned what we were to be eating that meal. Next time we should go with good ol’ ammo cans.
I was first introduced to old Ammunition Cans during my first float down the Colorado river when I was 7. These water tight metal boxes with o-rings are designed to keep bullets dry. Their myriad of sizes make for a wonderful palette of easily storable objects of various dimensions. Their considerable weight (relatively speaking) seems to be behind their decreased popularity in recent years with cheap plastic boxes, composite Pelican Cases, and heavier duty Ziplock bags stepping into the watertight container space starting in the mid-1990s.
Within the confines of a boat (or off-road vehicle for that matter), weight is less of a consideration and geometric shape/stackability a plus. Moderate-sized cans could have contained a meal for our group of 18 with larger cans able to hold an entire day’s menu of freeze dried vittles for our crew. Add in a printed menu for the day that included duty assignments and we would be good to go.
Next I would bail on my sleeping bag. While we heard constant cautions in the lead up to our trip that river runners have gone hypothermic in mid-summer, my all season bag was way, way, way overkill for the typically +90°F evenings. Even the last night when a long train of thunderstorms and consistent drizzle rolled across the region and dropped the overnight temperatures to ~75°F, I never even thought about crawling into my bag. This ambient warmth was compounded by tent. While my single person tent is well ventilated, it nevertheless was typically 4 to 11°F warmer than the surrounding air temperature when we lacked a breeze (the norm in the late evening). With my rainfly attached it was even warmer (one might even say stifling) and mostly drove me to never even take that sucker out of my tent bag. To be sure it is good be prepared and having a bag for warmth and rainfly for precipitation is prudent. But when the daytime temperatures ran from 95 to 105° in the canyons, you should re-examine your default sleeping arrangement.
Next time I camp in the southwest midsummer I plan to bring either a sleeping quilt, a very think blanket, or simply a small sheet as my default source of nighttime warmth. Some of my colleagues argued a sleeping bag liner could have also done the trick. My revision would be to put the quilt/sheet between me and sleeping pad to minimize the sweat. Should the temperature actually dip a bit lower than you like, you can simply wrap yourself in your covering of choice to ward off a slight chill.
The fire ban currently in effect translated into our not being allowed to have openflame/wood fires. While I well understand the need for the ban, camping is never the same without fires. Given our plentiful stoves we should have just canned the notion of charcoal fires and left our briquettes at home.
We ended up bringing along our own water in our carboys from Moab. Tex’s had a great hose and good municipal water (all of which is supplied by local wells) with which to fill out cans. Our other outfitter (we won’t name them…and they are planning on selling off their river permits at the end of the season anyway; you should go with Tex anyway…see below) had a lame standard garden hose sitting in the hot sun that made their water taste of plastic. These containers we rented held 6.5 gallon’s each and we typically placed two per canoe for balance. I also brought along my personal 7.5 gallon can that was a bit too large for the canoe; it worked but the added volume was awkward to arrange.
All told we over packed water, ultimately dumping about 40 gallons before we jumped on our jet boat ride at the end of our float. Again, having too much water is never a bad thing. This is especially so given we were prepping instant meals and travelling in a very hot and very arid climate. The rule of thumb in this region is 1 gallon per person per da. We had packed closer to 1.5 or 1.75 gallons per person.
The biggest mystery I had with regards to travelling the river was the ability to filter water as we typically do on long backpack endeavors. Consulting blogs and talking to folks gave the impression that trying to filter raw river water (especially Colorado River water) would lead to clogged filter membranes and much time and wasted effort. Also for a group our size we would be spending tons of time filtering each day. It was much more efficient to simply lug along what we needed.
Kenny from Tex’s hooked us up with the right way to do this should we have wanted to. You begin with a clean bucket. As soon as you make it to camp you fill that bucket with river water and set it aside. Within an hour or two most of the sediment has settled to the bottom and you can pour off comparatively sediment-free water into your container for chemical purification, filtering, or boiling.
I actually bought a shawl from Moab Gear Trader before we started our float. But as it was a present for my wife, I left it in our van. The tops of my knees got a bit too much sun despite my constant slathering with sunscreen. Having a simple shawl to drape over them would have done the job just right.
Better/Available Lens Cleaners
This was a minor thing, but I do wish I had brought a very small lens cloth and possibly a small bottle of alcohol/lens cleaner. This would have made things a bit nicer for both my sunglasses and my camera lens. The river water that was flying every which way all day long frequently left spots on my lenses as it dried. And the constant water gun fights translated into my never wanting to open my bags while on the water to get a dry towel. A small bag or box would have allowed me to more frequently clean those suckers off.
Proper Water Guns
I think we might have had one or two 30 minute periods sans water fights over the entire course of our five days of our five day float down the river. While simple paddle splashing worked well in close quarter combat, the hydraters of choice were 1 m-long water pistons. They proved quite effective at giving a good dose and at throwing water a good distance. Said water guns also proved effective bailers for emptying water from your canoe, a constant need given our propensity to blast water into each others’ vessels.
Much of the gear I brought worked out quite well over the course of our trip. This included:
- my large camp chair (everyone that brought a small backpacking chair eyed the larger ones with envy)
- art supplies (sketch pad, water colors, etc.)
- my journal
- Jet Boil
- smaller dry bags (for my boots, sketch pads, etc.)
- iPhone (for logging our positions and for photography) & waterproof phone case
- solar powered battery charger
- hiking boots and collapsible hiking poles
- flavored water enhancers (most of my colleagues preferred the instant Gatorade powder, but I like my ice tea squirts)
- tent (when the mosquitos came out, my tent was a welcome refuge)
- tie-downs from Moab Gear Trader (see below)
- toilet paper (it was a right move to leave the baby wipes behind…they don’t go in the river toilet and need to be packed out)
Moab has grown tremendously since I first drove through this place almost 30 years ago. It even seemed bigger than during my last pass through about a decade ago. In fact it has grown so much one of the chief discussion items in town is how to deal with all this growth. In short, the town’s construction has outpaced their sewage capacity with the big conundrum being to allow more hotel construction and get the added revenues or put a temporary moratorium in place to allow the waste management systems time to catch up. This growth has not been limited to buildings. It now includes all manner of outdoor industries and outfitters that will take you bouncing over Jeep trails cut by Uranium miners in the 1950s, telemark skiing, mountain biking down BLM thoroughfares, sky diving, jet boating, or whatever else your heart desires.
I have two suggestions; an equipment store and a river outfitter.
Moab Gear Trader
This is my new favorite store. Moab Gear Trader has a wide variety of just about anything you might have forgotten at home. From sleeping bags to hats to water bottles and carabineers, these guys have everything. They are open daily from early morning to evening. Part of their gear ships in new, part comes from trekkers who sell their stuff on consignment after the terminus of their adventures. This creates a great mix of regular gear augmented with one-offs. Pricing was very competitive. For example, his prices on most new items were just under the sale prices from REI and Big 5. Consigned stuff had a more variable value with some things well priced and others priced more typically.
The most important offerings for our trip were the rainbow array of tie down straps to the immediate left as you enter the store. These ranged from 6 to 20 foot lengths with each length a distinctive color. Pricing ranged from $7 for a 6′ yellow to $15 for a 20′ black strap. We had had a hard time figuring out which straps to get back home with most of what we could find at Home Depot and related sellers the ratchet style, super heavy duty variety or the too lightweight, too short variety for securing gear to your backpack from camping stores. After helping our first crew get set-up with their (lame) outfitter and seeing the poor state of the canoes they were offered (e.g. having but a single thwart to tie equipment to) I realized we needed to get serious about our system of securing gear to our canoes should they tip. These Gear Trader straps were the ticket; perfect for the job and cheap. We needed up mostly using the smaller 6′ straps around of coolers and plastic boxes to serve as both an actor point for the larger strap and to assure that they stayed closed in an event of a tip. The larger 8′ to 20′ straps were used to weave through equipment and anchor them to the thwarts. With our heavily laden canoes the 20′ straps were key.
Marshall owns this Disneyland for outdoors people. He has truly parlayed an idea into a perfect business model for this town at the gates of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. A former roadie for the US Ski Team, he clearly knows how to get stuff and make sure that stuff works in the real world. No fluff here. He also is a very generous dude who is quick to both offer up friendly advice for your adventure and to support his local community (he is one of the sponsors on the free Friday night concert we ended our trip with).
Our Troop was too large to do this trip in a single float so we used two outfitters. Our first crew went with another business in town (with a huge gift shop I might add) while our crew went with Tex’s Riverways. Tex’s is the oldest outfitter in Moab and really know their stuff. While our other provider supplied us with canoes that we falling apart (indeed one of their canoe’s seats broke entirely during their float, leaving the paddler to have to constantly dodge the remnant screws while sitting in his own camp chair) or simply would steer true, Tex’s canoes were solid and well maintained.
Everything about Tex’s was top notch. The two owners are former Navy sailors who have a great attention to detail (Darren handled out booking and was a great help was we prepped from afar). They take their charge about stewarding this landscape seriously and won’t compromise on safety or professionalism. Again, this was not the case with our other outfitter. Tex’s sold a few shirts, mosquito netting, etc. But there were no mass produced tchotchkes in Tex’s office. Only wall-sized maps, and an array of art, natural history and southwestern books on overflowing bookcases and tables. One wall was adorned with letter from previous guests thanking them the help. I was very happy to see that they even had a picture of good ol’ Ed Abbey during one of his Green River floats in the late 1980s tacked up next to letters from across the country. These folks were serious about their charge and intent on making sure their customers had a fantastic trip though the riparian wilderness of Canyonlands National Park.
The day of our put in we met Kenny. He was great. A resident of Moab for more than 13 years, Eagle Scout, and former staff at Philmont Scout Ranch, this all around outdoorsman provided us with a fantastic orientation (see videos below) and some great conversation and insights both pre- and post-paddle. His partner in crime–Lorenzo–was another great source of info and would pilot our canoe-laden jet boat back up the Colorado at the end of our expedition.
This had to be one of the neatest drives do a river I can recall. My suggestion is to sit on the right-hand side of the van to get the best shots of the epic drop offs from this old Uranium mining road now kept up by BLM.
Canyonlands Pre-Float Checkout
We had a great time chatting with the head River Ranger Stephen Young as we put in at Mineral Bottom. Steve and Kenny knew each other and worked synergistically to both make sure we were prepared, had all our permits in place, and that we were briefed on the most recent conditions on the Green River.
Other recommendations when you are in Moab: go to Arches National Park (the entrance is a mere 3 minute drive from downtown Moab), Moab Diner for a great dinner value, Fiesta Mexicana for large portioned and super taste Mexican food, the Moab Rim RV Park (where we pitched our tents), and Moab’s Recreation and Aquatic Center for a great place to cool off when the heat gets too much.
Now go get yourself on out to Moab and go float the Green River through Canyonlands. You won’t be sorry!
Oh, and in cased you missed my brief, general introduction to the southwest, you can see it here: