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Green River Chapter 1

Crystal Geyser to Hey Joe Canyon

Big Blue

Last summer I had an adventure-within-an-adventure while bikepacking the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. North of Butte, MT, I veered off piste into the magical land of Polson, MT, on the southern shore of Flathead Lake. Flathead Lake, the largest natural body of freshwater in the Western U.S., had been on my radar for a while. At the time, my idea was to rent a kayak, throw my bikepacking gear in it, paddle for four days to the north end, then resume my bike trip. Of course, it did not exactly happen that way...

The details are already chronicled in this blog post so I won't relive them here, but that experience was so impactful I got the silhouette of the limoncello-yellow Necky kayak tattooed on my left forearm. That boat, that place, and the people I met in Polson changed the course of my life.

Last Christmas I went back to Polson to spend the holidays with Dave and Suz. We even got to celebrate with Jens, albeit it from afar! He mailed us a homemade Stollen loaf—all the way from Germany—which we thoroughly enjoyed each morning! And I mailed Jens a wooden puzzle of a bear, which turned out to be ideal because Covid had hit his household and he was quarantining.

We got to spend quality time with Mark and Ginny, and I showed my new kayak tattoo to Greg and Sue and shared with them how much the adventure in their beautiful boat meant to me.

In Polson, I did a quick "Necky kayak" search on Craigslist and wouldn't you know it... there was one listed for sale in Northern Colorado! I stopped to look at it on my way home to Boulder. Structurally it appeared in good shape; there were no major gouges in the rotomolded plastic shell and the skeg operated just fine.

No, it wasn't quite the yellow Necky Zoar Sport I paddled across the Flathead, but the blue Necky Manitou was its sister kayak, and like family, I knew I could love it just the same.

I told the man I'd take it... just as soon as I figured out how to get it home. My old Honda Civic didn't have a roof rack and the 14.5 ft-long kayak was just as long as the car itself. He gave me one day to figure it out. Resourceful and (really) excited about the boat, I cobbled a solution together and was back the next day.

I got it home only realize I hadn't really thought about where to keep it. At the time, I was renting a 475 sqft shoebox with no garage or yard.

So... it took up residence in my living room for several months until I could move it to an available boat rack at the nearby reservoir. Having to step over it several times a day was a constant, literal, physical reminder of the impulsivity of the decision. My feelings toggled between shame and excitement for our future together.

I can't remember who, but at one point a friend called it a "big blue whale," and the name "Big Blue" just stuck.

Once the reservoir thawed in late spring, I moved Big Blue to its new home and proceeded to make improvements, such as replacing the foam padding, elastic shock cord, neoprene hatch covers, and a few other minor updates.

Anywho, by mid summer I had a new car with a sturdy roof rack and Big Blue was finally ready for prime time!

So without further ado.... the Green River:

Why this route?

This was essentially the longest stretch of water Big Blue could handle within a reasonable drive from home. The route, from Crystal Geyser, Utah, to Spanish Bottom, Utah, is about 110 miles long, cuts right through Canyonlands National Park, and ends just a few miles after the confluence of the Green River into the Colorado River.

There were a few logistical items I'd need to organize before locking it in, including securing permits from the BLM and National Park Service, and booking a jet boat water taxi to pick me up at the end and bring me and Big Blue back to Moab, UT. Because there are no river access roads in much of Canyonlands, the only way to take out before the major rapids of Cataract Canyon are to go back upriver via boat.

The solution to pollution is dilution

When I showed up to Tex's Riverways on the morning of August 16, there was a group of nine preparing their gear alongside me. They were cousins, Aunts, and Uncles from the Northeast who were embarking on a canoe trip down a section of the Green.

Per Tex's rules, each person could bring up to 100 pounds of gear, not including water. The gear I needed to bring included:

  • Sleep system (tent, bag, and pad)

  • Clothes

  • Toiletries (including WAG bags to carry all solid human waste out)

  • Food for all 9 days

  • First aid

  • Boat repair kit (wet epoxy, spare screws, etc)

  • Additional required items, per NPS (bilge pump, throw bag, fire pan, bow/stern rope, extra PFD, etc)

  • Water treatment system(s)

  • Electronics (headlamp, phone, bluetooth speaker, battery pack, etc)

  • Garmin inReach satellite SOS device (there's NO phone reception on the river)

  • And in my case... books. Paper. Books. And lots of them.

Luckily, I was well under the 100 pound limit :)

Once our gear had been reviewed, our shuttle driver and seasoned river guide, Kenny, gathered us around to give a safety talk. Among other things, he advised us that, "the solution to pollution is dilution," meaning we should pee in the river. However, all solid waste must be carried out in an airtight/waterproof container.

He also told us about an important, yet fragile, part of the river ecosystem called black crust. He instructed, "don't bust the crust" by walking or camping on it.

By late morning, our boats were on the trailer and we were piled in the van on our way north from Moab, UT, to just south of Green River, UT, to a put in area called Crystal Geyser.

More nimble than the group of nine, I was the first to shove off and start my adventure.

Settling in

The first several miles were mostly through the flat desert, with occasional signs of agriculture—past and present. There existed a thin green line of vegetation along the murky water's edge, but not much greenery beyond that. I noticed a Great Blue Heron early on and must have seen a hundred by the end of my trip. Dragonflies, although less regal than herons, also became a trip mainstay and frequently caught a ride on my paddle.

I paid attention to the current, the eddies, the breeze, and how the water behaved during a straightaway versus winding around a corner. By the end of the first day, the farmlands had disappeared and red rock walls began to sprout.

Camp #1

One of the biggest unknowns for me was the ease (or frustration) of finding a campsite each night. I really didn't know what to expect. Would there be a lot of sandbars? Or would it be feasible to climb the banks and sleep higher above the water? What was the wildlife situation? Would there be rattlesnakes to contend with? Would I be able to find a place to pull my boat completely out of the water each night (preferred) or would I need to tether it to something, but ultimately leave it in the water?

With a little trial and error and stopping to scope out a few areas, I ultimately found a decent sandbar to camp on where I could pull Big Blue all the way out of the water. An earlier camp expedition up a bank and through some dense willows proved unsuccessful and I ended-up scratching my right eye on a branch. Although it was nice and flat past the thin green line, I didn't like that it put me out of sight of Big Blue. The mosquitos near the willows were also pretty horrendous.

That night I slept really well.

Labyrinth Canyon

The next morning I awoke as the sun snapped the temperature inside my tent from 80 to 95 degrees. It was toasty. The forecast predicted highs around 100 all week, and perhaps for once, it seemed the weatherman was correct. I ate some cold-soaked oats with instant coffee (a hack I learned on the Divide... it's actually DELICIOUS) then packed up Big Blue and hit the river.

The red walls continued to grow higher all day. As I kept track of my topographic map, I started to better orient myself based on the geology. I was learning to identify alcoves, bottoms, canyons, washes, buttes, and bends.

From seemingly out of nowhere, a large fish jumped completely out of the water—less than a foot from my hand. It scared the living daylight out of me! I screamed. It splashed. And I let out a laugh so big it echoed off the canyon walls.

On the map I noticed a potential hiking opportunity, just before Trin Alcove (the picture above, on the left). If I could scale up the initial rock, the map showed it leveling out. I tethered Big Blue to a sage bush that had barely managed life on the rock, I donned my hiking shoes, packed my approach bag with water, snacks, my inReach and hiking poles, and began to scramble up.

Exposure... ugh

If the same climb had been at ground level, I would have ran up without batting an eyelash. But put the same pitch 10, 15, or 20 feet up, above murky brown water—and make the rock so hot it's nearly impossible to touch—and well, that changes things.

I got about 70% of the way to the top before climbing back down. Then I sat there and stared at it, remembering the old bouldering ethos of "think before you move," meaning I should analyze and plan my route before starting to climb. I'd have better luck with a clear plan of action.

So after a few minutes I started back up, only to realize that omg, the rock really was too hot to touch. Again, I turned back down. I looked at my map and decided to try my luck at Trin Alcove, just up ahead.

Holy sunshine

Wow... "heat" doesn't fully capture it. It was so hot and the sun was so strong. It didn't help that I was ultimately traveling south in the Northern Hemisphere, which meant the sun spent most of its time directly in front of me. My shoulders got sunburned through my sun shirt. I began dipping my bandana into the cool water and wearing it over my nose, like a bandit.

About every hour, I dipped into the water with all of my clothes on in order to take advantage of the effects of evaporative cooling. It made such a massive difference! Once I learned how to address the heat etc, the rest of my trip was comfy.

Top 5 campsite!

Around 5:30, I stopped on a sandbar to make camp... and it might just be one of my favorite campsites—ever.

Looking upstream from camp

Looking downstream from camp

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