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  • Writer's pictureBen Kilbourne

Packrafting Honaker to Grand Gulch

The trip started at the top of the Honaker trail near Goosenecks State Park, the part of the San Juan river that twists back and forth like a snake, or I suppose the neck of a cartoonish goose. The group consisted of myself, my girlfriend Hallie, my long-time friend and trip partner Porter, and the SWD team: Brandon and Ashley. We’d met them in person only the day before when I picked them up from the Salt Lake City airport, and now there we were about to embark on a six-day packrafting adventure together.

I set my phone on the rear bumper of someone's 4Runner, engaged the 10-second timer, and then we all stood together for our first group photo to commemorate the occasion.

Group photo at the top of the Honaker Trail. Left to right: Ben, Hallie, Brandon, Ashley, and Porter.

From the rim of the San Juan, we dropped nearly a thousand feet in just over a mile-and-a-half. I had completely filled my 70-liter Big Wild to the point that I could only get one roll on the extension collar, but I still had a full 2-liter Platypus that had to go somewhere. I strapped it down under the turkey-basting pan (emergency firepan) and then clomped down the trail relying heavily on my trekking poles with such an insanely heavy load on my back.

The descent was quick. That green ribbon of water appeared at first scarily thin and flat from 1,000 feet above as if painted on with a single color but rapidly gained detail. White riffles soon gave the river shape, revealing its true size and depth — enough flow for packrafting.

On a beach, we dropped our packs, opened them, and let gear spill out onto the sand — sand that would soon stick to everything and follow us home, indeed even all the way back to Wolverine, Michigan. Wind threatened to send loose items into the water and sprinkled sand across our sandwiches, but the sun was warm and it was turning into a beautiful spring day.

Getting ready to launch on the San Juan River at the bottom of the Honaker Trail.

We inflated our packrafts, shoved out into the swift water, and let it take us downstream into a system of canyons that, as Ashley later noted with surprise, we wouldn't be escaping until five days later.

I realized then that, as locals, Hallie, Porter, and I take it for granted that trips in canyon country are spent largely within deep, meandering systems of canyons. Overland routes exist in canyon country, but they're usually just means of exiting and entering more canyons. Canyon country is a name often used to describe the part of the Colorado Plateau physiographic region where billions of years of deposition were followed by a period of uplift, causing the region's water to careen downhill, sculpting the landscape into a sort of mystical kingdom of buttes, spires, arroyos, canyons, cliffs, and domes.

The San Juan River is near the heart of this country. It flows clear and blue/green out of the San Juan Mountains of Colorado and then begins to cut into the Colorado Plateau as it crosses through northern New Mexico, working its way towards Lake Powell — formerly the Colorado River — just downstream of where we were. If you take this river far enough, you'll end up where the current ends and the powerboats begin. We would not be going there.

Brandon and Ashley pick up the art of paddle balancing quickly.

Most of our time on the river was spent in a leisurely manner. We balanced paddles on our heads, leapfrogged a great blue heron for nearly five miles, and made up ridiculous songs to pray elusive bighorn sheep into existence along the shore. The songs did not work.

Our river camp on the first night.

To break up periods of relaxation there were a handful of rapids. The first seemed not to have a name on any of our maps, and would probably have been read-and-run if we'd been boating more than we had this season, but since we all felt unprepared, we pulled over to scout it. There was a straight-forward line, so Porter, Brandon, and I hit it. Ashley opted out of this one and Hallie stared the beast down for a good fifteen minutes before finally getting into the boat. Despite the tension-building hesitation, she hit the line perfectly.

Ashley runs Ross Rapid cleanly.

The second rapid was called Ross Rapid, a fun wave train that everyone ran without hesitation. The third and final rapid on this stretch is Government Rapid, a usually Class II, sometimes class III rock-dodger. At around 700 CFS, I'd call it Class II. It did take a little maneuvering, however, simply to keep from driving up onto a boulder like a seal.

Pointing at rocks in Government Rapid.

I should note that some of us were testing some new gear on this trip. Ashley and Brandon tested prototype bow bags to find out how they'd work in the wild. These are designed to clip to the daisy chains on the Big Wild functioning as a front pocket when hiking. Brandon knew right away what needed to change and tweaked them when he got home. These bow bags are now dialed in and available here.

Bow bags on Alpacka Classics.

Hallie and I were testing the Alpacka Refuge and the Alpacka Expedition. After taking turns in each boat and running both through each rapid, we agreed that the Refuge was more fun. It felt small and nimble and packed tiny in Hallie's pack. In our opinion, it's the best boat for backpacking-focused boating trips with the potential for chilly water that max out at Class III. Which is 99% of my trips.

Refuge vs Expedition. The Refuge wins for this type of trip.

Only Brandon and Porter did not have whitewater decks on this trip and they missed them dearly. Though the sun was warm the water and the breeze were cold. Both Brandon and Porter had frozen feet for much of our float while the rest of our shoes remained completely dry the entire time.

After Government, the river became once again a four-mile-per-hour leisure float. I almost fell asleep just before Slickhorn Canyon. But right at Slickhorn, the river took a sharp jog to the left and the canyon widened, spreading 700 CFS of water out in shallow braids over the mud and sand, and there the winds found us. That last mile and a half between Slickhorn Canyon and Grand Gulch took over an hour. At times the wind was even driving us upstream.

As we were dragging our boats across what was supposed to be a river, we spotted a group of children playing on the shore, marking our exit canyon, Grand Gulch. We pulled over near them and they watched us park our tiny boats on the shore with only mild curiosity and then they went back to more important tasks.

Their parents asked us if we needed water and we declined but left the offer open to other beverages and they soon produced five beers. I told one of the dads that I had floated this stretch of river with my parents when I was six and he excitedly said he hoped his six-year-old son who was currently slopping gobs of black stinking mud from the water onto the shore would return in 20 years to do what I was doing. I said I hoped so too, and, flattered, did not tell him that I was 36 and not 26.

Starting the hike out Grand Gulch.

About a mile up-canyon there is a big pour-off that can only be bypassed by carefully traversing a crumbly, steep slope made up of some precarious conglomeration of shale and sandstone cobbles. At its crux, a person could fall about 50 feet to the bottom of the canyon. This bypass has gotten worse and worse over the years as new flash floods flush debris down Grand Gulch. Its condition at the time was fear-inducing, but not impassible.

Hallie working her way slowly towards the dry fall.

We shuttled packs across it without incident and then inspected it from the other side. Way scarier from that point of view. Certainly a femur-breaker at minimum. But once this was over, we wouldn't have to worry about anything other than putting one foot in front of the other for the next 49 miles, so we left our packs sitting on the sandstone and began looking for camp.

Shuttling gear.

Brandon peers off the edge of the dry fall as an up-canyon wind splatters water over the slickrock. The trail we took can be seen crossing that scree pile above his head.

That first night in the canyon, the tent thrashed in the pre-storm wind and Hallie and I woke covered in sand several times. In the morning we packed up in snow flurries and then walked up-canyon in the morning shadow. We gathered water too early, hauling five liters or more past flowing springs and deep pools.

I had researched Grand Gulch, but only in a cursory, pragmatic sense. I sort of knew where water would be. I was also kind of aware of the high density of Ancestral Puebloan dwellings and artifacts but I did not know where these things could be found. So, when we rounded a corner and an arch came into view, we all exclaimed in awe. It was as if a portal to another dimension opened before us. We let our packs fall to the sandy wash bottom and hurried through out-of-place-looking lush green grass towards this opening between worlds.

It simply felt like a place where I wanted to be, and the other four agreed. It drew us in.

Soon we were finding handprints stamped in red, white, and green across the rockface. Kokopellis had been carved into boulder patinas. Several matates were gouged smoothly into the stone and the manos lay nearby. Potsherds — surely far fewer than there used to be as people have unfortunately taken them home over the years — lay strewn beneath boulders along with tiny corncobs. For over an hour we poked around, sat, stared, wondered.

Ancestral Puebloan handprints.

Ashley and Porter below the arch.

Finding potsherds beneath rocks.


Later, as we asked one another to describe our favorite parts of the trip we all agreed that this arch was number one because it was a surprise.

It's a good thing to plan — especially for safety reasons — but sometimes planning too much can squash that incredible element of surprise. I hope I can remember this as I plan future trips: plan what I need to plan to have a safe trip, but no more.

Brandon and Ashley and the arch.

That day we managed to walk 10 miles and 10 miles only, a distance that would prove to be our limit every single day due to almost constant deep sand. We started to find a rhythm, and the days started to blur. We spotted many more pictographs: birds and hands and anthropomorphs, but I can no longer say where we saw them. We observed the geology change, the canyon widening slightly, shallowing slightly. We watched the sun cross from one side to the other, anticipating it in the mornings and hiding from it by afternoon. We braced against a frigid wind that blasted at random intervals between walls of sandstone. And all the while, as Ashley noted, we were still deep in one of the earth's recesses, a feeling that alternated often between comfort and claustrophobia.

The widening canyon near the end of the trip.

Our final campsite of the trip.

Throughout the lower half of the canyon water was plentiful, but near Collins Canyon it began to disappear beneath the deep sand. Around that same area we started to encounter humans, the first we'd seen in a couple of days. All of them asked us about water, or told us what they knew about water, but we learned quickly to take their words with a grain of salt. Some people seemed to share what they'd seen with their own eyes. Others seemed to relay to us the exact same information we'd received from the ranger station. Yet other water data seemed suspiciously blog-like, as if they were sharing absolute truths from another era, 2011 or worse.

For this reason, I don't want to participate here in the same telephone game. The best information you can get will be from the Kane Gulch Ranger Station. You could also day hike into Grand Gulch at various points to inspect water sources before embarking on a thru-hike of the canyon. I know I said the lower half of the canyon was wet, but I don't know if this will always be true, especially as the desert southwest trends hotter and drier every year.

This once reliable spring is now a patch of wet mud thirsty hikers paw at with cracked fingers.

On the final morning we woke early and started up Bullet Canyon, one of the most popular tributaries of Grand Gulch. Unsurprisingly by then, we found water where one loquacious party we passed said there would be none.

Bullet canyon houses two famous Ancestral Puebloan dwellings: Jailhouse Ruin and Perfect Kiva. Both were incredible. They urge hikers to try and imagine living in this harsh, hostile, but beautiful place. But all imagining tends to fall short. We couldn't quite arrive at any kind of understanding, being as far removed as we are from this landscape or actual land-based subsistence. But that didn't stop us from leaving inspired, wondering how we can get closer to the land communities in which we live. How we can better understand the landscapes that surround us. For me, Hallie, and Porter that means the Wasatch Mountains, and for Ashley and Brandon it's northern Michigan. We'll all do our best.

The entrance to Perfect Kiva.

An Ancestral Puebloan dwelling.

Team SWD on the final push out Bullet Canyon.

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