We glide beneath a wall of rock layered in white, rust, brown, so many shades for which I have no names. The silence is palpable–our paddles idle, our voices still–as we drink in the evidence of eons of time and the erosive power of water.
It is moments like this that I will remember when I think of floating the Green River through Canyonlands National Park. It’s one of the premier flatwater canoe or kayak trips in the country, easily accessible to anyone with moderate backcountry camping skills. Yet on our weeklong trip during the first week of April, we encountered just one other party before the take-out.
Our group of eight–four couples–spent six days and six nights on the river, traveling from Mineral Bottom, 52 miles upriver from the confluence with the Colorado, to Spanish Bottom, four miles below the confluence. Rock formations–towering cliffs, pillars, windows, and balancing rocks–were one highlight of this trip. We were also captivated by ancient Indian petroglyphs, rock structures, fossils, and desert blooms.
We put in shortly after noon on a Sunday, traveling in two tandem canoes, two solo sea kayaks, and a tandem folding kayak. As the days went by, we sank deeper and deeper into the earth. New formations of rock would appear, signaling our descent through time as well as space. We started in the Chinle Formation, sandstone laid down in a tidal-flats environment during the Triassic period, some 208 million years ago. We wound down through the Moenkopi Formation, also Triassic, and the famous White Rim Sandstone, of the Permian period from 245 million years ago, sandstone that started as desert and near-shore sand dunes. We descended through Organ Rock Shale and Cedar Mesa Sandstone, Elephant Canyon Formation (limestone) and Halgaito Shale, to the Honaker Trail Formation, laid down some 300 million years ago, which includes limestone, sandstone, and shale, and was formed in shallow sea, delta, and stream environments.
The Canyonlands have been visited by people for more than 10,000 years, according to a cultural history presented by the National Park Service. About 2,000 years ago the region began to be settled, as hunter-gatherers gave way to early farmers, the Anasazi and Fremont people. All along the river you can find evidence of early habitation–stone dwellings and granaries, chipping stations, shards of pottery with vivid blue and green glazes, and petroglyphs that speak across the centuries.
We spent an afternoon at Turk’s Head, a huge peninsula sticking out into a gooseneck of the river. A trail leads from the river’s edge through the tamarisk, which chokes the riverbank along much of the Green River. Beyond the tamarisk, a broad flat leads to the Turk’s Head formation–a cap of tough, erosion-resistant White Rim formation perched atop softer Organ Rock Shale. We found more rock granaries near the base of the formation, where imprints of fingers from 2,000 years ago are still visible in the clay that holds the rock together. We clambered up into the Turk’s Head rocks to a broad, flat expanse of rock that is littered with piles and piles and piles of flint chips. The amount of chert available makes this one of the largest chipping stations in the park. The immensity of the landscape here is almost overpowering. It’s hard to imagine people sitting here on this arid, treeless flat, hundreds of feet above the river, chipping away to make spear points and arrowheads, but the evidence is clear.