Coyote's Corner

Field Lessons and Games, Insights and Resources

An Early Spring Run of the Upper San Juan

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As river runners, we are part of a tradition…

Now…how to settle the grounds?

River runners argue. We argue about knots and rigging, water levels and rapid lines, bighorn sheep and cowboy coffee. Especially cowboy coffee. During an early spring trip, greeting the rising sun with a mouthful of grounds became our tribute to the combination of human, geologic, and fossilized history found along the banks of the Upper San Juan River. While simply boiling ground coffee seems straightforward, the subtle complexity to the quality of the cowboy brew mirrors the Upper San Juan River.

From Sand Island to Mexican Hat, the San Juan flows through eons of sandstone. We ease our rafts across gravel beds and pull away from undercutting corners beneath steep tiger-striped walls while floating through a combination of ancient and modern history.

As we row past an ancient toehold route that climbs out of the canyon, we find Butler Wash. Hundreds of rock images decorate the sandstone. Thousand-year-old petroglyphs inspire archeologically-minded river runners to puzzle over ancient cultures. While I can never know what any of these images represent, they gallop across my mind as I stand in the footsteps of people who passed by thousands of years ago.

Past Butler Wash is River House. Also known as Snake House, the south-facing dwelling provided warm winters and cool summers to the Indigenous Americans who lived there over many generations. Downriver still, pottery sherds scatter the sand beneath ancient structures along the many side canyons and alcoves.

A multi-family dwelling along the San Juan
…everything tastes better in a Dutch Oven.

With our camp set, coals glowing, and a dutch oven meal on its way, the discussion ranges from ancient to modern. More recently, San Juan Hill earned a spot in historical lore as a significant obstacle for the Mormon Hole in the Rock expedition. At the southern end of Comb Ridge, 250 pioneers pulled their entire lives out of the river basin. In less than an hour, we hiked what took them over 2 weeks to ascend. Despite the hoofholds carved in slick sandstone, livestock struggled and stumbled their way to the 700 foot summit.

Marking the entrance to the tighter walls of the canyon is the Mule’s Ear Diatreme. A river trip without a geo enthusiast would be like a river trip without coffee. Strictly speaking possible, but should be avoided at all costs. As the rock nerds on our trip (yes, I’m counting myself) would tell you, the igneous diatreme and the prominent sandstone fin are not the same feature. The fin, created by forces folding and compressing, should NOT be confused with the underground gaseous explosion creating the diatreme.

An excited geologist showing us the Mule Ear sandstone fin
Avoiding the Ledges in Ledges

Look quickly, however, because as the canyon walls close in, the water becomes faster.  Here emerge the rapids!  From Four Foot, to Eight Foot, to Ledge, they don’t range higher than class III but can be technical at low water. Faster water digs deeper and fossils can now be spotted within the newly uncovered Honaker Trail limestone. We take extra time to hunt for prehistoric creatures, running buckets of river water up the cliffs to pour over the myriad fossils that wander through the limestone.

After a few lazy bends in the river, Mexican Hat Rock can be seen balanced atop the canyon wall. The upside-down sombrero marks our journey’s end, and we hit the takeout almost exactly as the early spring flurries appear. Flakes fly around us as if saying “yes – you’re low on food, yes – you’re low on water, and you drank the last of your cowboy coffee this morning…the Lower San Juan will have to wait until another day.”

As river runners, we are part of a tradition. A tradition brewed with grounds covered in lithic scatter, triumph, loss, and the innumerable footsteps of those who passed before.