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Adventure: Utah

Canyonlands' Call

Canoe down the Green River through desolate but ravishing canyonlands

August 18, 1996|TOM DUNKEL | Dunkel is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer

ALONG THE GREEN RIVER, Utah — Midafternoon in the barren, blistered desert of southern Utah. My older brother, Bill--the history scholar of the family--has just re-expressed his opinion that this isn't really such an awful, Godforsaken place. Who knows? The Paleo-Indians who 10,000 years ago inhabited these primordial canyons and washes might have been pretty happy folks, living in a kind of Rock Garden of Eden.

We are sprawled on a picnic-table-size slab of rock, content as lizards, soaking up the sun and the solitude. The parallel walls of Trin Alcove Canyon, which stand no more than 20 feet apart at this particular bottleneck, poke toward the baby-blue sky, enveloping us in a corridor of stone that twists and turns as far as the eye can see.

We have the world to ourselves. A world seemingly frozen in its temporal tracks at about 1 million BC. The nearest signs of civilization--providing you consider video stores and car washes and Butch Cassidy's King World Water Ride the trappings of an advanced society--lie about 40 miles away in the small tourist town of Moab. The nearest means of transportation--namely, our aluminum whale of a rental canoe--is beached on a sandy lip of the Green River about a three-hour walk due east.

Some folks' notion of a dream vacation is lots of golf and lots of frosty drinks with umbrella swizzle sticks. My brother and I prefer a week of eye-popping isolation and semi-deprivation. This is Bill's third foray down the Green River: a 50th birthday present from his wife. This is my first trip: a no-special-occasion gift to myself. I am anxious to see firsthand the famous, flame-broiled canyonlands of Utah. They're hot news of late, emblematic of the ecological tug of war going on all over the West.

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Local control versus federal authority. Short-term prosperity of the inhabitants versus long-term preservation of natural beauty. The political debate resounds in Washington, D.C., my adopted home. Legislation floating around Capitol Hill aims to redefine, if not eliminate, the government's role in public land management. One bill being pushed by Utah's five-man Congressional delegation seeks to reduce by nearly half the 3.2 million acres of federally designated wilderness in the state that is currently off limits to development, while opening up an additional 19 million acres of semi-protected land to commercial and heavy-recreation use. Conservationists claim the policy changes would destroy Utah's unique canyonlands. They insist companies are itching to get at the coal and mineral deposits buried beneath these other-worldly red-rock formations.

However, we've flown across country to try to forget about politics and everything else. Jobs, money, hair loss, Howard Stern. Whatever. Canoeing and hiking the Green River presents the opportunity to lose one's self mentally--and, at times, physically--in a wild, untrammeled place; a grand-scale sort of place that has a way of making people feel refreshingly pipsqueakish. Humility National Park.

Bill and I chose an early spring paddle to ensure privacy. In eight days on the river, which cuts roughly a 320-mile vertical path through eastern Utah, we will briefly cross paths with only two other canoe parties. A quick glance at our map conveys how far afoot this is from Main Street America, what with the preponderance of exotic monikers such as Hell Roaring Canyon, Pucker Pass, Squaw Spring, Bull Bottom and Dead Horse Point. But remoteness has its price. We must pack in all our food, first aid supplies and water (25 gallons stored in five, hard-plastic bladders)--and pack out all our waste (including the human variety, which we are dutifully depositing in a metal portable potty that resembles a stagecoach strongbox).

While the canyonlands aren't hostile terrain, they allow little margin for error. There are no riverside phone booths, no network of access roads. Break a leg or burst an appendix, and you either crawl/paddle until you bump into a good Samaritan (which could take days) or resign yourself to becoming a gourmet dinner for buzzards and worms. Furthermore, we are doing a relatively placid part of the Green River known as Labyrinth Canyon, not far north of Canyonlands National Park. Although the waters don't run deep here, they do run awfully cold. The water temperature is a hypothermic 40 degrees when we put in. Hardly ideal capsizing conditions.

Nonetheless, Bill Schroeder, the local river rat who drives us from the canoe-rental office in Moab to our lunch location about 30 miles northwest of town, offers this piece of unsolicited advice. "You should satisfy your curiosity," he says. "That's why we have people who come every year. There's a million places to check out."

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