STORY AND PHOTOS BY WEST HOWLAND
The message read, “The Dirty Devil’s up to 3,000, is anybody getting on it?” Immediately, my first response was to send out messages to anyone and everyone I could think of in the desert Southwest who might be interested, have the time, and could get out on exceptionally short notice.
The Dirty Devil River drains a large chunk of eastern-central Utah, wedged in between Capitol Reef National Park on the west and the Colorado River and Canyonlands National Park to the east. Putting in at the highway bridge in Hanksville, one has 80 miles of winding, serpentine river and canyon before hitting the confluence with the Colorado River near Hite. Named by John Wesley Powell and his crew as one dirty devil of a river, the waterway is dry most of the time, and trips to the bottom of the canyon are usually done backpacking or mountain biking. Water here is often scarce at best, and when it’s flowing, it won’t flow for long. With only one 4×4 road out at Poison Spring Canyon, exit from the canyon is exceedingly difficult at best.
A text came back. Kristen was in. A veteran Grand Canyon backpacker and photographic explorer, she is happiest out in the quiet slickrock of canyon country. She also had until Friday at 2 p.m., to plan, pack, drive, paddle 80 miles, and be back in Arizona. We crossed our fingers that the water would stay up that long. We set about planning the trip that night, and after pulling together what random bags of backpacking-type food we had on hand, came to the conclusion that we wouldn’t starve. Our distinct lack of maps, however, was slightly worrying.
The pre-dawn glow of 5 a.m. came far to quickly having been up until the wee hours of the morning poring over Google Earth and sorting gear. A couple of quick pitstops for gas and coffee and we were driving north through the thunderstorm.
Crossing into Utah, the landscape was vibrantly green under dark foreboding skies. The thunderstorms followed us — Kristen and I both commenting that we could probably use as much water as we could get, even if it meant paddling in the rain. As we pulled into Blanding, we got word from one of our roommates, Chris, that he had gotten in touch with a pilot friend based out of Moab. He could fly us from the airstrip at Hite to Hanksville for $300. Along with being able to lose the hitch-hiking shuttle plan, the flight would also allow us to scout the river for any trip-altering obstacles.
We’d meet at the Hite airstrip at 2:30 and fly from there, then hike down to the river from the airport in Hanksville. A quick stop in to the greasy Chinese restaurant in Blanding, and we were on our way. Thunderstorms continued to roll north across the piñon- and juniper-studded landscape as we dropped down through millions of years worth of sediment carved into ever-tightening sinuous canyons by the water that is so scarce in this region.
Set a couple hundred feet above the Colorado River just east of the confluence with the Dirty Devil, the Hite airstrip is unassumingly dramatic to say the least. We stuffed drybags into the tail of the plane and after a brief orientation from our pilot, Nick, we were aloft and banking north following the most recent thunderstorm up the drainage. The streambed of the Dirty Devil is primarily sand, mud, and fine gravel. Because of this, the gradient is fairly low and exceptionally consistent.
Pressing our faces against the windows of the tiny plane, the biggest features we saw were sand waves trundling their way upstream. The river was distinctly lacking in whitewater; with so much sediment, not even then foam could turn white, just differing shades of silty desert brown.
As we continued to glide our way north, we began to see water flowing down into the main canyon. Not just one or two side-canyons flowing, but every single low spot had water pouring off, cascading down cliff faces racing downstream. As abruptly as we were up in the air, the canyon walls disappeared, and we descended into Hanksville. Our luck continued, as the airstrip was only a half-mile from the river! A quick walk and we were inflating our packrafts and donning drysuits under the bemused stares of a highway crew on the bridge above us.
We put on under clear skies and waved to Nick as he buzzed the river before making his way back to Moab. The river leaves Hanksville as a broad, shallow, muddy stream winding between farm fields until finally settling down into the humble beginnings of a white and orange sandstone canyon. While water acts consistently, learning to read sand bars and shallow flowing mud is an acquired skill. We spent a fair bit of time that evening scooching ourselves from one shallow piece of current to the next hoping that we wouldn’t be doing 80 miles of hike-assisted-packrafting through quicksand and waist-deep mud.
As the moon chased the sun from the sky, we found an elevated sandbar to call home for the night. Upon unpacking our boats and beginning to get food prepped, we came to a startling realization. While we were indeed surrounded by water. We had neither filter, nor chemical water treatment. The Aquamira that we thought we had packed, had evaporated. Quickly taking stock of what purified water we had remaining, we concluded that if we played our cards right, we might just be able to make it out without need of a filter. Unfortunately, this meant using gritty river water for everything except drinking. Eventually it didn’t matter what was purified, as it was all gritty.
Having kicked the proverbial drinking-water-can downstream, dinner was a calorically intensive affair without much to-do, and immediately after cleaning up and crawling into the tent it began to rain. The pitter-patter on the tent lasted until just before sunrise, and to our astonishment, the river that had been flowing at just above 800 cfs when we had laid down, had more than doubled its flow. With our morning rituals out of the way, we were back on the water to use as much of this heightened flow as possible.
Without any sort of map, we eventually stopped wondering where we were, and paddled in awe of the spectacular place we were passing through. By mid-day the nonexistent walls of the prior afternoon had risen over a thousand feet and left us spinning our way downstream mouths agape around every turn. Desert varnish streaked down the sheer cliffs that overhung the water sheltering us from the occasional showers that left little clean raindrop marks on our mud-caked gear. The miles coasted by as the sun continued its arc, until we were once again searching for a place to sleep.
Surrounded by canyon walls, we were hoping to find an overhanging alcove to keep us dry, however the rock layer down at river level was better suited to boulder-filled slopes than sheer, overhung walls. We settled for another elevated sandy bench site and proceeded to crawl through the mud and quicksand to get there. With little byway of sturdy vegetation or boulders nearby, we carefully laid our wet, muddy gear in piles on top of itself or delicately draped over the least prickly shrubs we could find. Everything was sandy, nothing was sacred.
The next morning, hoping for a water level similar to the previous day, we were disheartened to see that our lovely, wide, muddy river had shrunk overnight. We were indeed floating on an ephemeral desert stream. The ace in our pocket chirped to life as a request for our location pinged off of satellites to Chris, back in Flagstaff. He responded to our question of “where are we?” with the answer of a seasoned expedition logistics coordinator.
“5 miles above Poison Spring. Water level 800 and dropping. Weather clear. 30 Miles to confluence.”
Time to get moving. Remembering the kind of shallow hell that 800 cfs wrought on us the first afternoon, we were both skeptical of our potential downstream progress, not to mention the mileage needed to get to the truck that evening. As we began our float, we decided that if we could get to Poison Spring in an hour or less, we could make the last 25 miles in five to six hours. If not, we’d be deflating our boats and hiking out the Poison Spring road to the highway some 12 miles and 2,000 vertical feet away.
The gauge at Poison Spring came and went with hoots of relief just under an hour after we launched, and, continuing downstream, the cold gray clouds that had been hanging over us since the day before began to break apart. By the time we stopped for lunch we had clear blue skies, and a wonderful warm table of rock above the river. Continuing downstream, we soon entered into the lake sediments, which grew above us until they choked off all access to the water. These recently deposited sediments also affected the gradient. Our speed, which had been around 5 mph, very quickly slowed to no more than 3 mph.
The final miles dragged on surrounded by collapsing mud banks, dead tamarisk, and temperatures dropping faster than the setting sun. We knew that the last few hundred yards of the river drop very steeply down to the Colorado River, and that we didn’t want anything to do with that kind of gradient in soft packrafts at the end of a long day. What we didn’t know was where to stop above it to minimize the overland hike to the truck.
Very quickly, the canyon walls receded, and then the mud banks dropped down to just above our eye level. We got out to survey our location in the last light of the day, and able to discern nothing, we put back on. All of a sudden, the river began to pick up speed. Without an eddy to slow ourselves down, I committed to the quickly approaching drop. A steep 4-foot-drop deposited me in a fast-moving pool surrounded by mud and punji sticks. I eddied out, jumped out of my boat, and got ready to catch Kristen. She came shooting down through the drop and had just enough space in the eddy to roll out of her boat and into the mud.
We packed our boats quickly and bushwhacked our way through dead vegetation until we could get up on a slickrock shelf and orient ourselves. As night completely enveloped us, we each chose our own route up and away trending toward the highway that bordered us on one side. Four miles later, exhausted, hungry, mud-caked, and sweating profusely under our drysuits, we reached the truck where cold beers and a bag of chips waited. Not bad for an off-the-cuff, last-minute desert paddling adventure.
— Read more of C&K’s Dirtbag Diaries.