Thursday, July 24, 2008

The River

For the first time, we stayed home for summer vacation. Two years ago, when we set out to conquer the United States, I complained about gas prices doubling. Since our nationwide travels have ended, they have doubled again. I decided this is our summer of local discovery; I decided this is the summer of the river.

The San Juan River in Bluff, UT. along with Twin Rocks Trading Post.

The San Juan River boasts a potent history. It is the northern boundary of the Navajo Nation, a male river known alternately as Old Age River, Male Water, One-with-a-Long-Body and One-with-a-Wide-Body. In Robert McPherson’s book, Sacred Land, Sacred View, which provides Navajo perspectives on the local land, the river is described as follows:

“The San Juan is a powerful river described as an older man with hair of white foam, as a snake wriggling through the desert, as a flash of lightning, and as a black club of protection to keep invaders from Navajo lands. Within it is a holy being who married a female, the Colorado River, and, where these two spirits joined in nuptial bliss, they created water children of the cloud and rain people.”

The Mormon pioneers who arrived here in 1880, soon discovered the capricious nature of this unbridled river. Already having suffered a most difficult journey, the Hole-in-the-Rock settlers came to rest in this little valley. Over the next several years, they suffered the erratic ebb and flow of the San Juan. By late spring of 1884, in a letter to President John Taylor requesting release from their missionary duties in Bluff, the men surmised, “Our experience has taught us that we cannot reckon with any certainty on what it [the river] may do.”

After Navajo Dam was completed in 1963, the turbulent river was somewhat tamed by the control of dam releases, although tributaries located downstream, such as the Animas River, can still contribute to an unruly flow. Wild Rivers Expeditions located in Bluff speaks in awe of the 1970 flood. As quoted from their San Juan River history, “During this event, the gauge at Mexican Hat measured about 35,000 cubic feet per second. Launching an oar boat early in the morning in Bluff, Wild Rivers’ boatmen rowed the flood for the 84-mile journey to Clay Hills--upper and lower canyon [a journey which typically takes several days]--in just 10 hours”.

When people talk about the San Juan now, they speak of a slow, muddy river. Experience and history tells me to never underestimate its might. With that in mind, I waited for the lower, calmer waters of July to get myself and the kids on the river. I have floated the river at various times since moving to Bluff and have frequented its banks often, either on horseback or foot. Yet, I wanted the kids to experience it firsthand; knowing you cannot truly experience the river until you are on the river.

After practicing in a calm channel, we prepared for a full-fledged duckie run between Swinging Bridge and Sand Island. My nephew, Tarrik rode in my kayak while Kira and Grange shared the other. I told them it was their opportunity to strengthen brother-sister cooperation. The trip took a bit longer than normal. While Tarrik and I cut a fairly straight path down the river, Kira and Grange slowly spun their way down the river; struggling with both coordination and cooperation.

Two different groups of Canada geese accompanied our float. At one point, we caught the attention of a goose who didn’t realize she was under the silent surveillance of one hungry coyote. The avian turned its attention to our large strange ducks and floated away from the river bank while the coyote, now disappointed, threw a woeful glance in our direction before disappearing into the dense shrubbery. Large herons flew away from us, deciding our ungainly aquatic presence was too much for their graceful ways. The kids learned to stay out from underneath the trees, lest they pick up extra passengers in the form of various species of arachnids.

A subsequent river trip proved special indeed. My 87 year old mother, sister Chris and niece Krista decided on a Bluff adventure. I asked them to bring grubby clothes, but would not tell them why. On the second day of their visit, I revealed my plan. “We are going on the river”. I told my mom to think about Venice and the lovely gondolas. Outfitted with an umbrella, plenty of cool water and my paddle power, she could sit back and enjoy the ride.

San Juan River
Blue Heron on the San Juan River.

After some slathering of sunscreen and bug repellant, I revised the vision. “Mom, think Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn and the African Queen”. We slid the duckies into the water, neatly transferred Mom into the boat and opened her umbrella. Half of the stays were broken and my typically stylish mother nestled under a rather forlorn looking swath of shade.

Grange requested his favorite activity; joining duckies and laying back while silently floating downriver. I kept an eye on our progress, instructing everyone to break apart and paddle when needed. We all enjoyed the quiet of the river and the beauty of the bluffs while listening to various bird songs and crow caws. Late afternoon clouds obliged us with cooling shade while a slight breeze brushed over us.

I asked my mother if she had ever gone out in a canoe, thinking perhaps in her Illinois childhood, she would have made it to one of the lakes. She said, “No, this was her first time”. Later that evening, we hauled our sandy bottoms and smiling faces out of the river.

Several times over the course of this vacation, Kira and Grange have said to me, “Mom, we really love where we are from”. Our travels have provided them some perspective. Bluff is not always an easy place to live, but it is the place of my heart and, thankfully, my children’s hearts, too.

With warm regards,
Georgiana, Steve, Barry and the Team.

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