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Getting a New View of Native Lands

A Ute guide anchors a raft trip on the Green filled with wildlife and wonders

June 23, 2002|PETER AIKEN | Peter Aiken is a freelance writer living in Nantucket, Mass.

FORT DUCHESNE, Utah — It was my fourth night on Utah's Green River, and I was in a deep, exhausted sleep. One clearly spoken sentence jolted me awake: "Peter, there's a bear behind your tent."

I jumped out in my boxers with flashlight in hand. The bear was just across a shallow stream leading to the main river, and it rose up on a rock overlooking camp. In the dim moonlight, the beast's phosphorescent eyes stood out like beacons in the glow of my flashlight.

At the beginning of the trip I had asked Rick Chapoose, my Ute Indian rafting guide, what he did when bears came into his camp. "I just tell them to go away," he had said in his soft Western accent. I wondered at the time whether this was some dream catcher-Father Earth-gentle steward gibberish.

But there was Rick, cigarette in one hand and flashlight in the other, looking at the bear and saying, "Go 'way!"

The bear stayed put. I calculated it could cross the stream, climb the bank and be all over me in 2 1/2 minutes.

While Rick talked to the bear, I picked up the biggest pot I could find and banged on it with a large spoon. I didn't stop until the glowing eyes slipped back into the dark.

*

The Green River enters Utah south of the Wyoming border at Flaming Gorge and flows along the eastern side of the state until it joins the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park, 100 miles north of the Navajo reservation. In this wild country, the river cuts through massive amphitheaters of stone that can take a man's loud cry and wrap its echoes around a canyon bend. In the heat of midday nothing moves but the river and fat catfish rising to its surface.

A last-minute family cancellation for this August trip two summers ago limited our group to Rick, his partner Debbie Ducey, two mixed Labs named Lucky and Little Bear, and me. Rick supplied the rafting expertise, Debbie the organization, and the dogs the early warning system.

I love adventure travel and reading about Native Americans, and my teaching experience in the Peace Corps in Samoa and Thailand heightened my enjoyment of and desire for cross-cultural experiences.

So when I saw the small ad in the back of a Men's Journal magazine for a rafting trip on the Green River with a Native American guide, I was intrigued. I could study the river system as well as the people who had lived around it for centuries with the help of Rick, a full-blood Northern Ute, the people for whom the state was named.

There are other rafting outfitters on the Green, of course, but I chose Rick's company because of the intimacy of the group and his depth of knowledge and experience. Rick specializes in small groups--10 or fewer--including families with kids as young as 5. He teaches the history of and gives information on the flora and fauna of the section of river that explorer John Wesley Powell named Desolation Canyon in 1869.

Rick's roots run deep here; he has been rafting people down the Green for years, as did his father before him.

*

We put in at the ranger station called Sand Wash, a former ferry crossing for cowboys that's down 25 miles of bad road from Fort Duchesne. Near the end of the road was a narrow canyon with a flat mesa looking down on it.

"Perfect place here for an Indian ambush," I said to Rick.

"I know," he said. "I wanted to put a line of Utes on horses up there all colored up in war paint for the tourists."

From Sand Wash we would float 90 miles south on this meandering river to the town of Green River. You won't see a single active settlement on either bank along this stretch. In fact, three-quarters of the length of the river's east bank is Northern Ute reservation, off-limits to non-Indians. Ten miles from Sand Wash, the river enters Desolation Canyon, where surrounding peaks start at 5,000 feet and rise to more than 8,000 in the heart of the canyon. Cell phones don't work, and speedboats and motorized personal watercraft aren't allowed. There are no shops for food or drink.

But there are terrific stops along the way. Indian petroglyphs, 1,000 years old, are only a few minutes' walk from the river at Flat Canyon Rapid, two miles south of Cedar Ridge.

An abandoned moonshiner's shack is squeezed into a cave along one slope of Firewater Canyon. We saw two abandoned ranch sites, complete with sheds, ranch house remains, fenced-in corrals, irrigation ditches and fruit trees picked clean by wildlife. There are bubbling cold springs in tree-covered glades for cooling off in, and riverbank beaches wide and clean except for whitened animal bones.

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