Peaceful paddling through Labyrinth Canyon
September 26, 2006
There is an exquisite charm in our ride down the beautiful canyon. We are all in fine spirits. Now and then we whistle or shout or discharge a pistol, to listen to the reverberations among the cliffs. We name this Labyrinth Canyon.- Major John Wesley Powell, July 15, 1869
Slipping quietly beneath the immense wall of sandstone jutting out over the river, I couldn’t help wondering how long the slow, muddy water had been gnawing at the alcove.
The river has shaped the rock for eons – a time span I could no more fathom than I could the sheer weight of the wall hanging directly overhead. Just about everything in Labyrinth Canyon exceeded my capacity – colors beyond description, enormity I couldn’t fit into a camera lens and a geologic history so vast I couldn’t comprehend it. So I paddled.Five days and 67 miles on Utah’s Green River is long enough to lose all sense of time, yet infinitesimal in the evolution of the landscape.There is no better way to see a canyon, I’ve concluded, than from a seat on the coursing water that created it. I traded the sweat and dusty boots of prior canyon explorations for a plastic sea kayak and an unparalleled vantage point – one from which I felt both dwarfed by the surroundings and a part of them.
For a week in mid-September, our group of five meandered the twists and turns of the Green in equal measures of solitude and camaraderie – the perfect mix for any expedition. Four of us, including a guide, paddled kayaks, while trip leader Brenda Milligan captained the “party barge,” a supply-laden raft that she deftly finessed across the shallowest of sandbars.
If water passage is the way to see a canyon, then booking an outfitter is the way to rough it in luxury. Nightly, we pitched our tents on wide beaches along the serpentine river. Brenda and her assistant, Cathy O’Connor, prepared enough food for a group twice our size, three times a day. Typical fare: thick slices of French toast with bacon, fruit and coffee for breakfast, a green salad with shrimp and bread at lunch and, for dinner, veggie lasagna, bubbling in a Dutch oven cradled in charcoal briquettes. The latter came after gorging ourselves on happy-hour hors d’oeuvres, a daily routine. Around the evening campfire, amid stories and stargazing, came the ritual complaint about overeating. Then came dessert.The Green River, calm and wide (and brown) from our put-in at the town of the same name to our takeout at Mineral Bottom, just north of the Canyonlands National Park boundary, is ideal kayaking water for the novice, or anyone with no interest in whitewater and white knuckles. We were forewarned about a few sections of class I rapids, but I’ve seen frothier water in a hot tub.The current, slow in some sections, ebbed to imperceptible in others. In other words, we had to paddle, roughly 15 miles a day. By the time we made our final push to each evening’s beachhead, my neck and shoulders were grumbling. A cold beer and cold bath in the silty water silenced tired muscles.Far more precarious than the boating were the landings. Virtually every stop presented the opportunity for a mud bath, as we gingerly extricated ourselves from our wobbly crafts along the gooey shoreline. Getting back in was every bit as tricky. By the third day, the kayaking contingent had perfected the launch maneuver: Tuck sandals inside the boat, straddle seat opening and plop in. Leave feet dangling in the water until the mud washes away. Carefully fold legs into boat and assume paddling position.
We go around a great bend to the right, five miles, and come back to within a quarter mile of where we started. Then we sweep another great bend to the left, nine miles, and come back to within 600 yards of the beginning of the bend. The men call it a ‘bowknot’ of river; so we name it Bowknot Bend.- Major John Wesley Powell, July 15, 1869Labyrinth canyon is aptly named for the maze of twists and turns carved by the river, which shortened its course by some three miles at the oxbow bend of Horseshoe Canyon. Where the waterway once looped through the side canyon, it now bypasses it entirely, flowing right past the former entrance and exit of the Horseshoe bend.It has yet to carve a similar shortcut at Bowknot Bend, a great oxbow separated by a sliver of land. It’s an unlikely portage, though, given the 15-minute scramble up a rocky ridge where, thanks to a break in the canyon wall, hikers can view the river coming and going. Back in the kayaks and roughly nine miles later, we were back where we’d started, but on the opposite side of the ridge.
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Brenda, whose raft was equipped with both oars and a small motor, either hung back or chugged well ahead, graciously keeping her sputtering motor out of earshot.Aside from the occasional canoeing party, we had the canyon to ourselves. Sometimes the silence was broken only by the dip-splash-dip-splash of my paddle until I paused to glide in quiet reverie of the rose walls towering to either side. Wary blue herons took flight at our approach, whumping the air with giant wings. The buzz of insects, amplified in the canyon, hinted of giant swarms around every bend, but none materialized.At other times, the canyon reverberated with our own laughter or, on one afternoon, thunder and the rush of water spilling off the canyon rim – sudden, temporary waterfalls splashing over the lustrous desert varnish that streaks the walls.The varnish, thought to result from the interaction of airborne dust and microscopic plants on exposed rock under moist conditions, is but one layer of history written on the walls. Short side-canyon treks reveal Native American petroglyphs and the inscriptions of later river travelers.
Still clearly legible in Hell Roaring Canyon is the inscription D. Julien, left by French-Canadian trapper Denis Julien in 1836 as he headed upstream. At the turn of the 20th century, steamboats plied the river, hauling supplies and people. Inscriptions mark their passage as well. Later yet would come the uranium miners – the remnants of their toils are visible in the rocks above Bowknot Bend. At Crystal Geyser, hopes of striking oil fizzled when water and mud gushed from a test well instead. Water still periodically spews from a corroded pipe and decades of resulting mineral deposits form a bright orange crust on the terraced sand.We stopped to investigate (and eat). Water began to gurgle around the pipe, but we weren’t treated to a rare blast from the geyser.Now, river travelers are welcome to inscribe their names in a notebook kept at the “post office,” a chimney of rocks piled on the ridge at Bowknot Bend. Inside the chimney is a sealed tube that protects the book from the elements. Unfortunately, no one in our party could wrench open its cap and we did not add a record of our passage to the river’s history.
It doesn’t matter. I’ll remember.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Various Moab and Green River-based outfitters offer Labyrinth Canyon trips. I chose Sheri Griffith Expeditions in Moab, which offers several women-only expeditions on the Green. Permits, issued by the Bureau of Land Management, are required of both commercial and private parties in the canyon. Go to http://www.blm.gov/utah/price/labyrinth.htm for regulation details.Pick up a copy of Belknap’s waterproof Canyonlands River Guide. It contains maps of canyons on both the Green and Colorado rivers, and notes points of geologic and historical interest, along with explanations and historical photos.