A butte rises in the desert on the road to the San Juan River.
Trips to the Boundary Waters, Woodland Caribou and Alaska all sprang from a desire to experience areas of wilderness untouched by man. I wanted to leave all the explosion of growth, development and progress behind and see North America as the early European settlers saw it. But the trip to the San Juan, while it was a wilderness trip, focused on the previous residents of the area--Native Americans who perhaps were more numerous today's denizens. Instead of ignoring the effects of human occupation we intended to study the art and dwellings of people who inhabited the area. The people we call the Anasazi, or the more politically correct Ancestral Pueblos. Some of the rock art along the river dated from the Basketmaker II period, around 450 A.D. Some of the dwellings on top of the mesas were from the Pueblo II period 900-1100 A.D. The ruins built high up on cliffs or alcoves were built later but were abandoned by about 1250 A.D.
Another difference: most of the trips on this site involve an excess of water. Woodland Caribou rivers and lakes were at record levelspictographs were underwater. My May trip up the Little Indian Sioux also had high water. Alaska was always damp; Norm and I lived in our hip waders.
My trip down the San Juan River in southeast Utah in March 2002 marked a complete changea river flowing through a desert. Almost all the water was in the river. Step out of the river and you travel on parched ground. Dry sand is blown around the few scattered desert plants. There was no need for the plastic ground cloth we put inside the tent in Alaska; we slept on dry sand. We left our hip waders at home. The gore-tex socks that worked so well with light hiking boots in WCPP stayed in the bottom of the pack. We used Tingley boots over running shoes. They were only needed to walk through the mud along the riverbank. After a few steps you are walking on dry sand which quickly sticks to the mud on your boots.
Before my companions arrived I visited the Wupatki National Monument north of Flagstaff. This ruin represents the Sinaqua culture. An eruption of a nearby volcano enriched the soil and led to an increase in the population.
The San Juan River (the locals just call it the "Juan") flows out of the Four Corners area of UT, CO, AZ and NM and flows roughly west until it enters Lake Powell, the lake formed by the Glen Canyon dam holding back the San Juan and Colorado rivers. It is commonly floated in inflated rafts from Sand Island near Bluff to Mexican Hat (27 miles) or to Clay Hills (57 miles).
We were interested in exploring ancient ruins and viewing rock art. These occur only in the first eight miles of the river below Sand Island. So we put in further upstream near the town of Montezuma Creek. This added a few more miles to the trip and gave us a few more opportunities to look for ruins. Upstream of Montezuma Creek is an oil drilling area with all its attendant problems. After the ruins end around mile 8, the river cuts its way into ever deeper canyons. These are interesting but only a geologist can get really excited about the view.
We were a group of three: Norm's son Colin, a high school senior, came along. Norm and Colin were veterans of several hikes in this area. They had made several trips here and to the Grand Canyon. Norm is very knowledgeable about the archeology of the ruins and rock art. They were particularly adept at climbing one side of a canyon to look for ruins on the other side. They could quickly descend and find a way up to the ruin. I pursued a more leisurely pace.
If one theme of this trip was dryness, another was darkness. We had several adventures after the sun went down. It began with Norm and Colin arriving in Phoenix at 10:00 pm. By the time we had ascended the 5,000 feet to Flagstaff it was 1:00 a.m. and 20 degrees cooler. The sight of a big elk near Flagstaff was a special ending to a long day. I had come out a day earlier and had driven the 2.5 hours north to Flagstaff ("Flag" to the locals) to pick up the raft we had rented from Canyon R.E.O. In loading the raft, large cooler, required toilet and fire pan and water jugs on the mini-SUV Avis had given me (instead of the full size one I had ordered), it became obvious that the addition of two more bodies and gear was impossible.
A third theme of this trip was forgetfulness. I'll recount all the essential gear that we all forgot later but at this point in the trip I'll simply say that I forgot certain details of the rental car arrangement. In brief we were stuck with the mini-SUV. Phoenix had no regular SUV's or minivans. I was able to find a minivan in Flagstaff and by paying extra money was able to rent it. This meant that the cheap rate I had obtained through priceline.com was gone and that, since the mistake was mine alone, the higher rate was mine alone; it could not be divided among the others.
My small SUV is fully loaded. There is no way that 2 more people and gear will fit. Those are the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff.