Lessons Learned On The Green River

Lessons Learned On The Green River

The Green River Taught Me A Thing Or Two On Perspective.   

Go on the Green River they said, it’ll be fun they said, it’s one of the best float trips you can do in the country....they said. Here’s the story about how my brother and I learned some real tough lessons on the Green River and got to use our West Slope Case in a true emergency situation.  

The length of the Green River that flows through Canyonlands National Park is known as one of the premiere float trips you can do in this whole country. We picked a 55 mile stretch that started at Mineral Bottom and ended at Spanish Bottom. This stretch of river winds through Canyonlands and provides some truly stunning views, incredible campsites, and a mostly easy paddling experience. Through all the research I had done over several years this seemed like a trip where we might be able to keep our guard down and just float through the beautiful scenery.  

preparing the canoe for a trip down Utahs green river

I did know about one small stretch of river called the Millard Canyon Riffle, which, as the guidebook puts it, requires a right to left move in low water to avoid mild chop.

This section of river has haunted me for years while thinking about this trip because as an inexperienced canoeist I was not sure if I’d be able to make a definitive move across the river when it was necessary. I also interpreted this as just needing to be on the left side of the river as to avoid crashing into the sandstone cliff on river right, as the guidebook says.  

Our first day on the river was uneventful other than some wild wind gusts that caused me to lose my snazzy Stetson hat. Probably should have had a strap for that. We made camp on the first day at Fort Bottom and got to explore some very cool trails and ancient ruins. It was the perfect campsite for our first day on the river and we felt great about traveling down river with ease and the occasional shove of the canoe through sand bars.  

As we prepared our breakfast on day two my brother and I once again looked at our guidebook to get a good sense of what this day would bring. We knew we wanted to make around 17 miles that day and that we’d have to face the dreaded Millard Canyon Riffle but felt pretty good about the day. That feeling subsided quickly as we approached the Buttes Of The Cross and heard the river getting louder. Before we knew it we had entered the riffle and we were on the wrong side of the river.  

Things can go from good to bad in an instant. Our canoe hit a submerged rock and pivoted the canoe 90 degrees, broadside to the river. It pitched the boat downwards as well and left the gunwales below the surface of the water. Within just seconds the canoe filled with water and tipped us out. Fortunately for us we were able to stand in knee deep water and hang on to the canoe but the water was swfit, the boat heavy, and our nerves extremely frazzled.  

We tried to bail the boat to no avail and spent what felt like an eternity standing in the churn of the Green River. We had to make a decision. We took the throw rope and wrapped it around our big blue dry bag that held our tents, clothing, and sleeping bags. I also clipped it to my two camera cases to try and save those. The decision was made. We needed to get this dry bag across to shore and then reasses what needed to happen. Our guide service left us with a number for the Moab’s sheriff department who we could reach from our Garmin InReach.  

With a huge leap of faith we grabbed the gear and started to move away from the canoe expecting it to take off down the river.

We still didn’t know if we’d have to swim to shore or if we could walk. Steadily we made our way across the river inch by inch. The boat didn’t move. We made it to the muddy bank and dropped our gear and a sense of relief started to blossom. At least we would be OK.  

Over the course of the next hour we made several trips back into the river to retrieve more equipment from the boat. Our cooler full of food, backpacks, and another dry bag containing all of our cooking equipment. We lost a paddle and some other items in the mayhem. Fortunately, we’d be reunited with some of our runaway gear a little later on.  

Once the boat was empty the big test came. Our throw rope was too short to tie off to the trees on our little slice of shore but we had an extra length of paracord. Now, I'm not great with knots, and that is something that I must work on, but we had to trust our fate to whatever knot I could manage to tie.  

Once the paracord was tied off to the tree the next step was to wade back out to the river and tie the paracord onto the throw rope, and then clip it to the boat. Once that was done I positioned myself on the upstream side of the canoe so if it took off I wouldn’t get pinned. After jostling and tugging the boat this way and that for a few minutes it finally released from the rocks and got pointed downstream. Moment of truth.  

The knots all held. My brother and I both reeled in the extra line until we were able to get the canoe onto dry land. Once on land we got it tipped over and bailed out. We were now in the clear and performed a remarkable self-rescue. A huge takeaway from all of this is to remain calm and measured. In an emergency you need to be able to think clearly and make good decisions. Could we have avoided this disaster? I’m not so sure. In this stretch of river you can either get smashed into the sandstone cliff on river right or strike submerged rocks on river left. With our level of experience, I'm not sure we could have chosen the correct line through this.  

As much as we wanted to call it a day right there we couldn’t make camp on this little sandbar. With the river rising each day we would have found camp submerged the following morning so we decided to get back in the boat and find a proper spot to camp. And a proper spot we found!  

A few hours later we sat in our camp chairs, which remarkably did not float away, and looked out over Anderson Bottom and the Green River. All of our gear was laid out to dry while we prepared dinner and replayed the events of the last few hours in our minds. I can say with confidence that this was the single most difficult scenario I've ever had to deal with in my life outdoors. I’m grateful to be safe and for the lessons learned.  

The next couple of days went a lot better for us. They were full of calm river miles, incredible campsites, unexpected company and desert treats, and some of the best sleep I've ever had while at camp. We were not done with the difficulties yet. We found that out a mile below the confluence.  

On day four I had picked a campsite around river mile 4 that we could camp at before making the final push down to Spanish Bottom. We were feeling great on this day and the miles were melting away on this calm sunny day. As we came closer to the camp near Water Canyon, it became clear to us that the river had come up too much and the proposed campsite was now under water. With a warning from day one about the river picking up speed at the confluence (where the Green and Colorado rivers meet) we decided that we needed to find a spot to pull in, have some food, and rerig the boat in case of another emergency.  

We found a little sandbar and got to work rehydrating, putting in some calories, and coming up a plan for the confluence. We had all our emergency supplies ready to go incase the boat flipped and we felt ready for this challenge! All that was left to do was get back into the boat and head down river.  

The next couple of miles down to the confluence flew by with anticipation growing every minute. Finally, we were on the last straightaway before the mighty Colorado River meets the Green. As we approached we were thrilled to see calm water with barely a discernible change in speed. We hooted and hollered thinking we were out of the woods.  

The next goal was to make sure we could find a landing for Spanish Bottom. If you miss it, Cataract Canyon, one of the wildest stretches of white water in the country, is just two river miles away. You better find a spot to land.  

Suddenly, the river picked up immense speed and flow. On river left we could see the sign in box for downstream campsites. We had also been warned about this and to not bother with the signup due to powerful eddies that occur there and to stay river right. Well, river right was a raging torrent. The middle of the river was just a constant wave train with the added bonus of huge chunks of debris from upriver, whole trees were floating through the current. Our only option was to try and hit the bank on river left.  

We paddled furiously to try and avoid the eddy line on river left and to hit the bank right below the eddy line. The powerful current grabbed our canoe and sucked it right into the eddy line and just nearly tipped us out. A moment later we made landfall and were stunned to get a good look at the river. As we would come to find out later, the river had increased from 3500cfs when we put in to nearly 30,000cfs. Well above the territory of two inexperienced canoeists.  

After getting a campsite registered for Upper Spanish Bottom we surveyed the scene. My brother kept a cooler head but panic nearly forced me to demand we make camp right there, even though I knew it wasn’t a possibility as we could not get our jet boat pick up there. I convinced myself to stop overthinking and to just go so we got back into the boat and hugged the bank on river left until it was safe to get ourselves moved to river right.  

We flew down that last mile of river at close to 10mph, my gps would tell me later. At the very first landing we saw on river right we stopped and breathed the biggest sigh of relief. We had made it to Upper Spanish Bottom. We paddled 28 miles on that day and we made it to camp and out of danger. We unloaded the boat, pulled it up to shore, and set up our campsite with an incredible view of the Dollhouse, looming over us in The Maze District.  

the dollhouse in the maze district of Canyonlands national park

We took our time getting camp set up and scoped out an area for our camp kitchen and for where we wanted to set up our fire pan for the evenings camp fire. There was a great spot for both of our tents that provided large boulders for extra wind protection and some shade from the surrounding trees. The relief was palpable around camp that night. I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility for our safety and my brother had put his trust in me that I’d get us down river safely, and I almost didn’t. On two occasions. I had the best night of sleep at camp in my entire outdoors experience.  

We were so relieved to have made it to Spanish Bottom because we were running behind our schedule and wanted to have a day to hike in The Maze. The Maze District is one of the most remote areas managed by the National Park Service, outside of Alaska. It took us four days of intense paddling to even put ourselves in a position to be able to get into The Maze. Still, it required an arduous hike from the river bottom of about 1400 feet in elevation gain to get access to The Doll House. The Doll House is an incredible feature that is sure to inspire you and drive home the foreboding isolation of The Maze. All in all, we spent the better part of a day hiking around in The Doll House and only racked up around 3 miles up there. We originally had planned for an 18.5 mile loop hike but to be honest, we were glad to take it slower and really soak it all in. Plus, my brothers shoes floated away during the incident on day 2 so he wasn’t exactly prepared to embark on a larger hike.  

Now that we are both home safely there has been time to reflect on this trip down the Green River. What could I have done differently? I exhausted my resources while planning and preparing for this trip. I think I didn’t know the right questions to ask such as “are there sections where swift water could pose an issue to a canoe”. Well, now I know to ask that. I also know to seek the input of outside sources such as guides and outfitters and go to them with a level of humility, letting them know my concerns as a complete novice and first time canoeist. I guess you can’t expect a guidebook or other resources to go into detail about every little riffle, rock, or awkward landing.  

I’m grateful for the learning experience and a tough lesson on letting go. There was a moment there that I was truly ok with the loss of all my camera equipment and everything else because it was the only choice to make. I prioritized safety above everything else which led to making a quick decision, which ultimately saved us. I’m grateful for my general experience in the wilderness to be able to remain calm, think quickly, and make critical decisions.  

I can say that this was the scariest experience I’ve experienced in the outdoors and it led to the single greatest trip of my life. If you’re thinking about a trip down the Green, I have to say I do recommend it, though it should only be taken on by experienced wilderness users, and preferably not your first ever canoe trip.  

the west slope case by cold case gear at home on the green river

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1 comment

Some story. Glad it all worked out in the end. The value in your taking the time to post is that it may be a lifesaver to someone reading it who intends to make the same trip in the future.

Barry Shatz

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