"It's like the Zion Narrows," said the young paddler. "But better."
My eyes widened like a desert wanderer in a Spaghetti Western. Was that an oasis on the horizon--or just a mirage? We were standing outside the Chow Hound in dusty Green River, Utah. It was the only thing open at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night in early June. And after an eight-day, 165-mile trip down the Green River, punctuated by a bring-me-my-brown-pants descent of Cataract Canyon at 35,000 cfs, I wondered if I was having a hallucination.
"I'm sorry," I said incredulously. "Did you say better than the Narrows?"
We'd taken out at Dirty Devil on Lake Powell that afternoon during peak heat. Crammed two trucks' worth of gear and three people into my two-seater beater. And welcomed the idea of sleeping in for the first time in two weeks. But then I'd spotted a car with whitewater boats and a young couple seated outside the restaurant. After inquiring where they paddled that day -- I half-assumed a Green River daily -- our new friends explained they'd driven all the way from Salt Lake City when they heard the news.
Muddy Creek, which hadn't run in six years, was flowing.
Only minutes before, I'd skimmed right past this less-than-exciting name while perusing the American Whitewater inventory on my phone. The adventurous buzz from Cataract still had me rising and falling on flat ground. I'd hoped we might get a shot at paddling the Zion Narrows due to this year's burgeoning snow pack. But that famous run was already below optimal, so I'd resigned myself to a lazy morning of rolling straps and praying for powers of truck re-packing telekinesis. The instant we received this lucky beta on Muddy Creek, I knew we must shake off the exhaustion and step out to explore a new run.
"It's a bit hard to find," warned the girl as we said goodbye.
The next morning, we heaped our multi-day equipment in our campsite, split two pots of coffee between three paddlers, and caravanned across the desert. About 30 miles west of Green River, I-70 ascends the eastern slope of the San Rafael Swell. This 75- by 40-mile anticlinal fold is similar to the monoclinal Water Pocket Fold of Capitol Reef National Park. In the Swell, sandstones, shales, and limestones have uplifted and sharply eroded, like a rupture in the earth. It has all the drama of Boulder's Flat Iron Mountains, minus the pine trees and population. A quaint and hospitable region with welcoming place -- names like Five Miles of Hell Trail and Goblin Valley State Park. What could possibly go wrong?
At Exit 131, we left the interstate and bounced south into BLM land on a series of increasingly rough gravel roads. Through this fractured landscape, flash floods have carved buttes, mesas, gorges, and slot canyons. We passed some wild horses, one of 23 herds in Utah. In a gully, we encountered an abandoned 1940s sedan, into which some bored marksmen had emptied 70 years of ammunition.
"Lost shuttle vehicle?" I joked, but no one laughed.
"Did we bring any headlamps?" asked Jack, eying ominous clouds forming in the distance. In the chaotic gear-rigging transition from week-long expedition to day-trip, we'd left them all in camp.
A few miles and unmarked intersections later, we could see a gap dropping away under cliffs. We felt even more confident when we passed a gravel air strip that landmarks the takeout near Hidden Splendor Mine. We dropped a car and gained a New Zealander hitchhiking paddler who guided us to the put-in at Tomsich Butte. There, we joined the Kiwi and his friendly Salt Lake pals, Krug and Huck.
Within minutes of putting on, we were gazing up at Hondu Arch -- and we hadn't even entered the Chute yet. There wasn't much info on the AW page: a 15-mile run, with sporty gradient of 19 fpm, and classification listed as I to III, which is always a curious range. For the first 3.5 miles the creek meandered tightly, dropping through boulder garden riffles rating about Class II at 230 cfs.
Soon, the limestone walls of the Chute enclosed. We gawked skyward as the tight gorge rose -- in many places with sheer or overhanging cliffs -- to about 300 feet. We stammered articulate observations, such as wow, no way, and shiiiiit. Who cares about headlamps, we needed a Thesaurus of Wondrous Expletives. Krug, a lifelong Grand Canyon raft guide, who had paddled Muddy several times, had a twinkling grin on his face that kept suggesting the best was yet to come.
We moved slowly, stopping for breaks on gravel bars and floating awestruck through pools. We paddled under cliffs that seemingly touched one another overhead. We descended into a sandstone rock unit and rounded a curvy bend where the creek had hollowed out a cave like the Sydney Opera House. Passing through the crux of the Chute, walls narrowed to only seven feet across. Looking up, a jumble of branches and logs had lodged between canyon walls, 20 feet above the creek.
The Chute supposedly runs for four miles, but it was six miles before we finally exited back out into the table-lands of the Swell. We floated silently, sad it was over. At the takeout, our collective mood livened with post-river beers, as we discussed favorite views and sections. Having not yet paddled the Zion Narrows, I can't compare the two runs. I can only report what other paddlers have said: Muddy Creek is Utah's other Narrows. As our groups parted ways for the long, confusing drive back to civilization, there was only one thing to say.
"See you in six years." Sooner, if we're lucky.
Read more by Mike Bezemek, who writes and photographs Regular Paddler, Remarkable Waters for C&K, a paddling series about "stepping down" the intensity and "stepping out" the experience. His guidebook Paddling the Ozarks, for Falcon Guides, is now available. He also authors Twit Lit Classics for Racehorse Press, which reimagines classic works of literature as Twitter feeds. Learn more at mikebezemek.com.