Kialoa trip report; March 30 – April 13
Lucas Will & Natalie Jackson
Green River, Utah & Lake Powell, Arizona
We left on a day with no sight of the sun; northern Wisconsin was wrapped in a blanket of steel grey but for the cold, white overnight snow dismissive of our hopeful spring weather. I eagerly deflated the boards after snapping a quick photo of them leaning up against the car out on the frozen yard, an odd scene for sure.
Our thinking the previous fall was that we’d disappear during a window of time so that warmer weather could melt away any remaining dirty remnant of our beautiful winter, harden the soft, rut-filled driveway, and perhaps even start to green up our little mowed section of field where our house was parked. In short, let’s leave during the messy transition and return home as though a curtain had been pulled and spring had arrived in two weeks.
Two days later we pulled into Moab, Utah under bright sun and heat. I had felt foolish wearing pants and a fleece into the gas station in Grand Junction, only to emerge feeling naked in flip-flops and shorts. Watchful of the unsuspecting sun snake, Natalie wanted to wager how long I would last before burning.
We met up with friends who were camped on public land and spent a couple nights catching up on the past winter’s adventures. During the layover day, we worked to ready our boards and shakedown gear. We both had Kialoa inflatable SUPs, Natalie was paddling a 10’ 6” Waikiki and I was on a 12’6” Napali.
Both boards already had 4 attachment points on the nose for securing gear, we glued additional 2” D-rings on the tail rails, wide enough for our large dry bags to fit within. Having spent the last four years exploring Lake Superior and inland Midwest lakes on these boards, this would be our first extended point-to-point outing on them and we hadn’t ever loaded them this extensively before.
Our friend dropped us off on the Green River at Green River, UT, where the banks are low and unremarkable, and watched us strap down gear from the edge of the floating dock.
Our large primary bags, filled with personal and group gear, went on the tail. On each nose, we secured a 6-gallon container of potable water alongside a watertight small ammo can that would eventually be packing out our human waste. It was the mullet packing approach: business up front, party in the back.
Our boards are 6” thick - an enjoyable feature for the typically cold water back home - and we were pleasantly surprised when we finally stepped on with all of our gear at the generous amount of freeboard.
The plan was to paddle 66 miles, all calm water but for a handful of ripples in the very beginning, to the edge of Canyonlands National Park where our vehicle would be waiting at Mineral Bottom. We had 5 days and no agenda other than paddling, floating and side canyon exploring.
Being midweek we expected the river to be quiet and other than a tandem canoe at the boat launch, we only passed one other group with two rafts the first day. One of the oar handlers wore a large, blonde wig that Natalie and I both commented on to each other after passing. We were intrigued.
With boards steadied by a ballast of gear and energized by the feels of being on the water after months off, we covered nearly a third of our total distance before setting up camp just above Ruby Ranch. It was a less than idyllic campsite, I felt more like we were squatting somewhere we shouldn’t. Clearly, the muddy tracks and eroded divot in the bank signaled a water access for cattle though we did manage to find a small, flat grassy patch for our opening night’s rest. Over dinner, we watched both groups drift by as the sun hit the horizon.
It took only two bends to pass Ruby Ranch on river left, which showed no sign of activity. Directly across a dead cow lay half submerged in the river. We had read the soft bottom can be a death sentence for cattle who enter the river, though we had no way of knowing in this case.
From here, the riverside topography begins to rise. Our first impression of this was a stunning, tall wall of Navajo Sandstone on the outer bend before Bull Bottom where we could paddle directly beneath the high cliff. According to our guidebook “River Guide to Canyonlands National Park and Vicinity,” this is the start to the famed Labyrinth Canyon, named by John Wesley Powell in 1869.
Our destination for the day, other than just down river, was to explore up Three Canyon on foot. When we arrived, a flotilla of canoes were lashed within the shallow mouth of the wash but the large group was absent except for their set-up camp complete with a multitude of plastic pales, rolled out sleeping bags and a single strand of prayer flags in the overhanging Tamarisk.
The same canoe duo had just arrived in front of us and disappeared up the trail as we tied our boards off to the side of the other boats. We enjoyed feeling our feet on the ground and wound our way up and into a different side canyon until we reached a vertical drop-off and turned around.
By the time we were back on our boards it was early evening. We were open to the first site that looked appealing and landed another mile downriver on an island with a long gravel bed lining a narrow strip of vegetation. One of the joys of wilderness travel now is that Natalie and I are seamless together and the requirements of daily living are natural and selfless. On this night, she set up the tent and our bed while I cooked dinner. We ate quietly as the sunset erupted on the canyon wall, a perfect outdoor show for perhaps only our eyes.
We kept our long center fins on each board, which meant we had to contend with shallow spots. Sometimes we could reduce our fin draft by standing forward a few steps on the nose but with the strapped bags on the tail, this wasn’t as impactful as without this added weight. Many of our landings allowed us to nose right up to the bank, only occasionally did we have to actually step into the river.
Flow and water levels were normal for early April, lower compared to the upcoming mountain runoff that was slowly making its way down from higher elevations. Though warmer than the coming frigid snowmelt, we never swim. I’m not sure exactly why – we never actually mentioned it – but for my part the color (watered down chocolate milk) and amount of agriculture along both banks didn’t necessary tempt me to take a dip.
Mid morning the next day, we paddled up on the raft crew again, this time minus wigs. “About time for a Bloody Mary,” I said, only half joking. We all snickered and then they offered us a beer. Bethany and Sam (river name: Nana) were in one boat and rafted with Bob and his son, Roan in the other. Roan was dehydrated and curled up under a blanket while the other three pushed him pickle juice. Meanwhile, Natalie and I circled them on our boards while we all drifted downriver.
Before long Bethany opened one of the large dry bags and started handing out costumes. Bunny ears came first.
Then Bob set up the bloody bar on the cooler. Soon after Natalie wore a super hero onesie and I pulled on a short skirt and matching blouse top.
We drifted all day together and picked a large gravel bar for camp that night. Before the sun moved past the canyon’s edge, Roan and I slipped back onto the Green with empty boards while everyone else set up camp. I taught him about switching from neutral stance to a surf stance, moving in and out of eddies and how to do full sweeps. Then we each tried kissing the nose of our boards. It was a fun play session less the weight of gear and the thought of making miles.
Clearly our fellow paddlers were experienced river folk, supplying our third night with a dance party, cooking tent, fire pan and a Mad Libs booklet that we took turns passing until all the gathered wood was burned. Nana’s spirit soared and Natalie and I cherished the company of our new friends.
We slept soundly on flat, hard packed sand beside the river. The last look I remember is the faint glow of our new strand of purple lights draped around the outside of our tent. By any measurement, it was the epitome of a perfect day on the river.
A couple miles down river the next morning, Natalie and I paddled on. We moved with the outside current on most bends and awed at the tall, rainbow colored bluffs that soared above us. We were nothing out here. The river didn’t notice us and we preferred to have that impact.
We discussed our final two days on the river and strategized about reaching the take-out so that we might have enough time to make the trip into Moab in time to catch the Post Office before they closed on Saturday. There, Natalie’s wallet waited for us, which had been popped into the mail from Minnesota just as we hit Nebraska the previous week.
A generous island covered in gorgeously hot, bleached sand near the bend at Horseshoe Canyon, roughly six miles from our ramp is where we pulled our boards up. In the back of my mind, I was hoping that the raft crew would keep drifting until they came upon us for another night together. We explored around the banked corner of the island, Natalie stretched and I stood in the warmth of sun and sand, mentally as far away from Northern Wisconsin as I could be. Then, came the peek of a blue raft around the upstream bend.
We shared dinner with light showers but ultimately all settled around a small, mellow firelight in the middle of Utah. At least it felt that way. The night’s energy was subdued compared to the previous, a soothing final night of our time on the river. It was a moment in time I’ll go back to often, I suspect. In the months since this night – and trip – I already have, reflecting on the fire light flickering on faces in the dark, and my deep, easy breath laying on a sandy island in the middle of a storied southwest river.
Natalie and I packed early and hugged our goodbyes. We approached Mineral Bottom just as a group of horses grabbed a drink at the muddy slope, cleaned and loaded our boards. Our transition away from the river was quick, ascending the steep switchbacks out of Mineral Canyon. We made the Post Office with a couple minutes to spare. Good thing, tacos and margaritas were on Natalie.
We headed south to Lake Powell after lunch, first stopping into a SUP and kayak outfitter in Page, AZ where they graciously tossed some paddling destination and beta our way. Soon, we were pulling our car up within a few feet of the lake shore at Lone Rock Campground for a couple days of car camping and day paddling. Lone Rock itself loomed over us in both camp and on the water. We enjoyed early morning slot canyon explorations and took a few cleansing dips in the lake (since we hadn’t swam at all on the Green).
Our final morning the day was projected to see 40+ mph winds so we broke camp before sunrise and headed to the boat lunch just up river from Antelope Canyon. We were the only ones paddling in, eventually reaching the head of the canyon where a 30 yard stretch of sandal sucking muck separated us from the start of where we could begin hiking. After exfoliating our feet, we were welcomed into the slot with gorgeous sunlight and smooth, glowing canyon walls. It might well have been the highlight moment of the trip.
As we paddled back out to the lake, we passed numerous tour boats, rented pontoons and over 20 other paddlers all heading in. Not only did we beat the winds but the early morning allowed us a private tour all to ourselves. Of the 11 days since leaving home we spent 8 of them on the water, a nourishment we relished in. We had driven to the desert of the Southwest to find paddling and it had delivered, in more ways than one.
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