An extraordinary experiment is underway in a parched corner of northern Mexico where the Colorado River goes to die.
The silence is eerie. We’ve stopped paddling completely. Watching and waiting. And watching, and waiting. Paddles down, binoculars up. An overhanging branch shakes high on a towering yellow cedar flanking us on shore. A raptor launches over our sea kayaks and heads up the estuary, the flapping of its wings piercing the silence.
Don Starkell, who claimed to have paddled more miles than any person in history, died of cancer Saturday at his home in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the Winnipeg Free Press reports. He was 79. The famously stubborn canoeist is best known for paddling 12,000 miles with his son Dana, from their home near Winnipeg to the mouth of the Amazon. The 1980 open canoe journey earned the Starkells a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. It was but one episode in a life of canoeing and kayaking that spanned nearly 75,000 miles.
Rowan Gloag of the British Columbia-based Hurricane Riders crew—a group of hard-charging sea kayakers from the Vancouver area who have a recurring habit of surfing sea kayaks in places where sea kayaks rarely venture and of always returning with the footage to prove it—recently checked in with C&K from his new digs on Vancouver Island.
Though wood-and-canvas canoes look great and paddle even better, few people have bothered to build them since the early 20th century. They’re not all that easy to build, and lighter, stronger materials have only become more readily available. Even fewer people take them on long expeditions.
British sea kayakers Jeff Allen and Harry Whelan may have got all the press for their record-setting 25-day circumnavigation of Ireland in the spring of 2011, but behind the scenes was a man with a camera on his own a whirlwind tour of the Emerald Isle in a cluttered Pugeot Boxer van. Photographer Vaughan Roberts racked up about 3,000 miles providing land support for Allen and Whelan, navigating the backroads of coastal Ireland and setting up shots for his new DVD, “Into the Wind.”
Flanked by pine-covered escarpments and lined with strands of sycamores, cottonwoods, and willows, the sparkling-clear San Francisco is a major tributary of the Upper Gila River, but a complete unknown to most paddlers—possibly because catching the river with navigable flows is difficult at best, and possibly because combat boating skills are a prerequisite to safely traverse this extremely remote stream. Three years ago, when we decided to explore the San Fran, we were met by a lonely land of inaccessible high mountains, rugged canyons, and stark ridges, and a river that tested our fortitude. In between quiet pools were long stretches marked by swift currents and boulder-garden rapids. Great fun. However, what required all our attention, all the time, was the threat of strainers and downed trees often completely blocking the tight channel. Not so fun. That said, the San Francisco ranks near the very top of my favorite ephemeral streams.
Cruise through the pastel landscape of North Dakota badlands, past Teddy Roosevelt’s historic ranch site, and through truly remote high plains grassland habitat. The year I went, I got frustrated interpreting the gauge and called the National Park visitor’s center. It must have been a slow morning, because the ranger put the phone down, walked over to the riverbank, and came back with the first-hand flow report. Side hikes abound (as long as rains haven’t turned the trails to gumbo). Think owls, cottonwood bottoms, coulees, and coal seams. White pelicans, desert bighorn sheep, and petrified trees punctuate the miles. Beware, the Little Missouri can brim with water one week, and go dry the next. Choose your window wisely and the reward will be a very quiet and surprisingly scenic week in the land where a few buffalo still roam.
After two trips down the Escalante, I have nearly exhausted my supply of superlatives (Unbelievable! Incredible! Stunning!) when trying to describe this rarely paddled wild jewel in southern Utah’s red-rock canyon country. And I do mean rarely paddled. I bided my time for more than a decade before catching this semi-arid stream with enough water to carry my canoe through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It was well worth the wait. Just when you think that the looping, river corridor can’t get any more spectacular, you careen around a tight bend and are amazed, again and again. Sheer sandstone walls, streaked with magnificent patterns of desert varnish, tower 1,000 feet overhead. Inviting side canyons abound.
About 45 miles north of Silver City, N.M., lies the Upper Gila River “Wilderness Run,” so-called because most of this splendid stretch lies within the half-million-acre Gila Wilderness Area. A friend and I snagged this trip in March a few years back, when we found the tight, twisty stream to be delightfully boat-able after a brief period of snowmelt in the four mountain ranges around it. Starting near the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument visitor’s center, the river winds through absolutely gorgeous wilds that few have seen, an area rich in forested canyons, natural springs, boulder garden rapids, and an abundance of birds and wildlife. But not people. If you’re looking for solitude, this is definitely the place to go.
It took me a decade to hit the Dirty Devil window. I drooled over the quadrant of canyon country it scribes through, full of side slots and sandstone slickrock and Butch Cassidy hideouts. Some years it would be a bare trickle, no more. Once it came up, but I dallied one day and missed it. But last spring the snowpack was deep, spring break landed right, the river gauge was coming up nicely. We made the leap, drove 700 miles, and found ourselves in mid-March, camped all alone at the end of a four-wheel-drive road, perched above the braided, murmuring stream running about 220 cfs.