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Regular Paddler, Remarkable Waters: Flaming Gorge, Wyoming

Following in the wake of explorer John Wesley Powell on a little-known desert reservoir

By Mike Bezemek

With each stroke, I ignored a knot between my neck and shoulder blades flickering sharply like a flame. I winced as the current vanished, along with the milky olive Green River, into the blueness of Flaming Gorge Reservoir.

It was our second afternoon, 25 miles behind and 65 ahead across a lake that felt uphill. I rationalized, if a fishing boat offers a tow, who am I to refuse? Perhaps it was local custom on this little=known, high-altitude lake on the Wyoming-Utah border.

While day-dreaming, dark clouds tumbled from behind an orange mesa. The placid waters whipped to whitecaps, and hail clinked off my deck.

"Whose idea was it to paddle this lake!" I shouted at Woz, who grasped a littoral boulder to stay upright. A sharp look confirmed the answer.

Fifteen months ago, I won a winter launch for the Grand Canyon. Since my boating crew hadn’t paddled the canyon, I proposed we eschew any veterans clamoring to take over and execute our own "fresh eyes" personal first descent. Then I read everything relevant. Intrigued by intermittent re-tracings of the original Powell expedition—nearly 1,000 miles from Green River, Wyoming, to the Virgin River in Arizona—I suggested revisiting that trip in segments. When folks expressed interest, I realized I would actually have to do it.

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I’d bring along expedition journals, accounts, and photographs. We’d read at night, and, by day, track down the vantage points and re-snap the pics to see what’s changed. Granted, much of the route involved vast stretches of flat-water "backpacking" in a boat. But lately, I’d discovered the value of stepping down the intensity and upping the exploration factor. Plus, this would allow Woz, a mellow paddler by nature, to join up.

So, yesterday, with vital logistical support from Flaming Gorge Recreation Services, Woz, our shuttle driver Cliff—a burly Floridian transplant with a machine gun laugh and constant grin—and I cruised the riverbanks in Green River, Wyoming, searching for the 1869 put-in. I displayed a black & white photo on Rite-in-the-Rain paper and Cliff barreled off for better views of distant topography, like a kid on a scavenger hunt.

Suddenly, we realized a grading with homes distorted the fuzzy landmarks. Was this our spot? A nearby local stopped his lawnmower. He said the commemorative plaque was a ¼ mile downstream, but he’d always thought this was the real location. We tossed our Pyranha Fusions on the shore, packed the waterproof hatches, and 146 years, two days, and an hour after Powell, we launched.

For three days we hugged the tree-less, high-desert shoreline, while ducking rain, thunder, and hail. Between storms, we gazed past rainbows at shale tablelands, rocky buttes, and chimneys, while overly-optimistic ospreys circled above. When the wind was in our favor, we rode manageable waves south. Nights we were tent-bound, cooking in the vestibule and reading expedition writings eerily similar in weather and observations, despite the reservoir that flooded the river.

On our fourth day, the clouds dispersed and hot sun beat down. My arms buzzed—like a runner’s high—as nonstop paddling became normal. We struck directly across four wide bays, finally entering Utah. Fishing boats zipped by, swapping unsuccessful coves, and the water turned crystal clear, revealing infamous 60-pound mackinaw evading their trolling lines.

Sunset splashed across the high Uinta Mountains. We camped near the shadowy entrance to Flaming Gorge, the first of many canyons named by the white explorers. Come morning, it burned true to its name, erupting from the lake like the tip of a fiery scythe. Many writers portrayed the canyon as drowned, but we discovered the majority remains above water.

I was Saturday and by afternoon, dawn-patrol fisherman politely ceded the lake to boaters who give motors a bad name. My favorite were trust fund "bad boys" in pantaloon-length board shorts. They blasted Kid Rock and guzzled beer faster than they pissed it off their bows.

We were entertained, not bothered. We knew what to expect. Yet, I wonder why us weary paddlers weren’t offered a beer, only indifferent scowls. We must have looked particularly thirsty while pumping drinking water in Horseshoe Canyon—a brilliant limestone goose-neck, with steep sides of stunning white. Upon exiting, flaming sandstone returned in a banded amphitheater of primary reds.

In Kingfisher Canyon, I lamented the burial of Beehive Point, a landmark beloved by the first crews. Adjacent was Hideout Canyon, where evening light played across ridges of Weber Sandstone like piano keys. I queried fishermen about the point, but none had heard, nor seem interested. Except for two friendly fellas from Salt Lake unpacking in an inlet. We camped nearby, and the boys invited us over for cocktails. The first cup—which they refilled before I was done—felt ridiculously heavy in my aching hands.

Our final day, we entered Red Canyon with burning crimson sandstone—the adjective Flaming was already used, unfortunately. A fatigued Woz spotted images in the cliffs. All militaristic. First, a cannon. Next, rifle rock. Missile silo buttes. After he extracted a life-sized battleship, I suspected exhaustion.

Two miles from the dam, in open water, what felt like a microburst gusted from behind, catapulting us a half mile in ten minutes to the nearest cove. When it lessened but didn’t stop, we accepted the gift and surfed to the boat ramp.

Cliff picked us up with jolly handshakes. "Was it worth it?"

Our shoulders were tight, our arms shook like a bus driver’s after a double shift. Woz looked like he got fired out of cannon rock. But with much effort, we slowly nodded. "Yes."

–Read the first installment of Mike Bezemek’s ‘Regular Paddler, Remarkable Waters’ series on the benefits of stepping down your paddling, and stay tuned for more.

–Watch a 3-minute time-lapse of a 1,700-mile paddle down the Green and Colorado rivers from source to sea. And read more about the trip in a C&K Digital Feature.

–More great PADDLING DESTINATIONS from C&K