The San Juan, May 2018


Aug 9, 2007
As my luck seems to go with these things, I failed at pulling a permit in any of the river lotteries for 2018. But it seems my lack of luck in getting my own permit is frequently replaced by the luck of my friends. That was the case for the San Juan River this year. Back in February the results were released I was saddened to find I was again denied. I sent messages to the crew urging them to check their status. It was the night before email notifications go out, but it's like Christmas. Or the opposite, usually. I can't wait to find out. A little while later I get a message from @Dave. HE WON!!! Last year he pulled a miraculous win for a Yampa permit and now the San Juan. I prepared to go to bed knowing that we finally had at least one 2018 permit for something lined up. His permit request was just for the Lower San Juan, a 54-mile stretch starting at Mexican Hat and ending at Clay Hills. The full stretch starting at Sand Island would have been nicer, but I won't complain!

As I was drifting off to sleep my phone buzzed again. I picked it up to see a message from @Jen. SHE WON TOO!!! And for the full 7-8 day trip from Sand Island! Two permits to choose from! Or maybe two trips to go on! What a problem to have! Over the following months we watched the hydrograph for the San Juan, fretting about the dismal amount of snow in the headwaters in southwest Colorado. Dave's shorter permit was for mid-May. Jen's long permit was for early June. Usually either time would be ideal with the highest flows in early June. I was leaning hard toward June but there was a problem there. Dave couldn't make that date work. We watched and waited.

Soon enough we came to the conclusion that we'd be lucky to have any water on either date. The area was in a record drought with something like 30% of average snowpack if my memory is correct. The peak flow would likely come earlier than June, if there was one. And so we opted for the safer bet in May and cancelled our other permit with plenty of time for others to pick it up and use it. The flow of the lower San Juan is regulated by releases at Navajo Dam in New Mexico. During a typical spring, it's common to expect flows in the 3-8k CFS range, depending on how much snow we had and how full the reservoirs are. During drier times, they try to keep the river at around 400-500 cfs. While flows that low are certainly doable in a loaded raft, it's not as pleasant and often involves quite a bit of getting out to drag the boat through rocks and sandbars. Especially in the last ~14 miles where Lake Powell has dropped huge amounts of silt and caused the river to meander through shallow silt bars.

As our date approached, things were looking bad. The hydrograph indicated the river was at minimum flow. Or less. At one point it came in below 400 cfs. I saw posts on Facebook indicating the effect it was having on people's trips. One read something to the effect of "We've had a bunch of people come off the San Juan lately with sore hooves, and it wasn't from hiking". They'd been dragging their boats through the miles of silt. We considered alternatives. Friends were coming from across the country so cancellation was not an option. Also, it was to be my wife's first big whitewater river trip. I did NOT want it to suck. But with less than a week before our trip, the river spiked for the first time of the year, hitting upwards of 1700 CFS. Trip on!

Here's the hydrograph for May 2018. Our dates on the river are the area highlighted in yellow. As you can see, it dipped back down a bit but we were still able to ride a decent 800-1000 cfs for the duration of the trip. The average for the same dates is closer to 4000 CFS.

The night before our launch we all met up at Muley Point for a night around the fire. The next day a few of us headed to the ramp with the boats while the others moved some cars. We were doing a paid shuttle for our main vehicles but leaving some others elsewhere to avoid paying to move 5 cars. By mid-morning we were mostly rigged and wondering where on earth the rest of the group was. It's been way too long, I thought. What happened?

11 o'clock rolled around and so did happy hour. Somewhere... Midway through my second cocktail I saw Collin's Subaru bouncing down the dirt road to the ramp. What a relief! We worked quickly to get his raft loaded and get everything else rigged up to go. We had a long day ahead of us. It would be 18 miles through the Goosenecks to to reach our target at the base of the Honaker Trail. Off we go!


Gypsum Creek Rapid, one of only a handful on the entire stretch, is quickly encountered after pushing off. It's just a class II, but it was way more interesting than I expected. No footage or photos, unfortunately, but you can see it pouring off in the distance there.

And soon after we pass under the Highway 163 bridge. The last sign of civilization we'll see for the next 5 days.

From here the canyon walls climb as the river follows a mellow gradient. Within a mile or two, we've already seen more Bighorn Sheep than most people see in years.


And the walls grow higher.


Passing through the winding bends of the Goosenecks. Audra takes a nap. I try to come up with new song parodies for our "band", The Canyon Country Groovers. Most are about the groover (river toilet), some about other aspects of river life like crushing beer cans (Yoshimi battles the pink robots was good for that). Lazy days on the river are good.

Smiles abound.

Alli took the oars on my boat for a mile or so.

Rounding the corner at Honaker had us concerned. We'd passed up some good spots and noticed people at the first spot. We pulled over and Dave ran down the bench. Good news, the best was further down, and it was empty. I did a poor job of taking photos on this trip. I only got out the big camera a few times. Most everything is with my iPhone, and I didn't even get that out very much so no camp photos that night. Dave posted some pics in this thread that will fill in some of the gaps:

The next day was another long one. We were front loading mileage so that we could spend more time at our two reserved campsites in the lower part of the canyon. Oar goal was a campsite at John's Canyon, another 18 or so miles down. We would see plenty of wildlife again on this day.


One of the most interesting parts of the day was a river-wide rock garden right before John's Canyon. We sent the kayak down first to help point us to the best path, but we all still got pretty stuck. Like really stuck, actually. But with a bit of bouncing, pushing and pulling in pretty deep, swift water, we were free. Yeah, I know what you're thinking, how do you get stuck in 'deep, swift' water. It's weird, but you'd probably get stuck there too.

Collin and Dave work on a fine dinner of Beef Bourguignon at John's Canyon.

Audra and I go for a walk to see the huge dryfall at the end of John's Canyon.


Lower John's Camp was empty. It had a nicer view.

The next day was shorter but we had Government Rapid to look forward to. We stopped to scout. Jen went first in the kayak.

And Nilauro in my cataraft that he rowed for the trip.

The ladies watch as I go for my run. As I get ready, a group of about 20, all women, arrive at the scout location and get out to watch as well. The pressure is on!

And then.... (photo by Collin)

Okay, that looks bad, but it really wasn't. Here's the video:

I wanted to stick around and do some laps on the kayak, but I felt like we should get out of the way and let the big group of ladies have it to themselves. From here on out the river is flat. More so as we approach Slickhorn Canyon where Lake Powell once reached, leaving a load of river-killing sediment in its wake. The landing for our campsite (Slickhorn C) was not easy to get to. At slightly lower water, we would have been on the gravel 30 feet or more from the bank. We were able to walk the boats in, crossing our fingers the river would not drop too much by morning when it was time to leave.

We spent the last sunny hours of the day swimming and hanging out in the river. It was discovered that there is one benefit to catarafts. It was also discovered on this trip that there aren't really many others...

A groover with a view. Which reminds me of one of the song snippets that we came up with on this trip. I think Dave and/or Collin started this. We didn't get far, but remember that song "Hit me with your best shot"? Here's a snippet of our version:

Please put the groover in the best spot!
I need a view to make my deuce drop!

Or the really bad ear worm... (think TLC Waterfalls)

Don't go chasing groover spots
Please stick to that nice one that we parked the boats next to
I know that you want to have a view when you're on the john
but there's no way I'm climbing up that

And of course, the Smell of Groover (Sound of Silence), which I finished writing while sitting on the beach at this campsite after dinner. The first Canyon Country Groovers song we actually completed.

Hello groover, my old friend
I’ve come to poop in you again
Because the beans that I’ve been eating
Pressure built while I was sleeping
And the gristle
that was eaten with my steak
Still remains

Within the smell
Of groover

On winding streams I poop alone
Beneath cliff walls made of sandstone
And in the light beam of my headlamp
I turned and walked south right out of camp
When my nose was stabbed by the smell of the groover box
Out by the rocks

That’s how you find
The groover

Okay, there's a lot more verses of that one, but now is not the place. This is the place:

It was Jen and Alli's night to cook dinner, so after setting up our cots, Audra and I went for a hike up Slickhorn in the evening light. It was gorgeous. A highlight of the trip.

The geology is amazing.

Taking the high route back into camp. They were getting rowdy down there.

The next day we took our time getting on the river. It was only 4 miles to our last campsite at the mouth of Grand Gulch.

Audra took the oars for a couple of miles.

Rowing a raft is like a foreign language compared to paddling a kayak. This slow flat water on this stretch was great to learn on.

We started hitting the notorious Lake Powell silt bars shortly before arriving at Grand Gulch. The current running along a ledge at the landing required some quick work, but soon enough I was looking up the canyon. We'll go up there later, I thought.

We spent several hours swimming and hanging out in the shade of the biminis. The ledge running along camp was great for jumping in and then floating back to the boats. We even did some throw line practice, but probably not enough.

It was a great campsite and an even better bocce ball course. No balls were lost in the river. :)

That last night was our turn to cook. I grilled steak on the firepan grill while Audra made some sides on the stove. We all wore our Canyon Country Groovers T-shirts that I had made. It was a good night.

The next morning we were up early (but not early enough). We had 13 miles to the take out but this would prove to be the biggest challenge of the trip. The water is so muddy that you really can't tell if it's 2 inches or 2 feet deep. Picking the proper channel requires constant attention and maneuvering.

Smarter people might have picked one of the campsites further down like Oljieto or Steer Gulch. But we wanted Grand Gulch. We knew what we were in for. Well, maybe not exactly this bad. There was a good amount of boat dragging. Especially the cataraft with a novice captain and a deeper draft. The two rafts made it through without too much trouble but much time was spent waiting. Our hopes of getting home at a reasonable hour melted away at a snail's pace

But soon enough, the Clay Hills came into view and we knew we were almost there. At this rate, we could be home by 11?

The water at the take out is very shallow and muddy which made unrigging and loading harder than usual. But soon enough we were packed up and on our way. IMG_0647.jpeg

Audra, Jen and I headed straight back while Collin made the valiant sacrifice of doing the 30 minute detour to get everyone else back to their cars at Kane Gulch. I felt bad, but I didn't have room to carry all those people. As we winded our way up North Wash I noticed someone hitchhiking on the opposite side of the road. How strange, I thought. As a whizzed by I saw his face for a half second. I couldn't believe it. It was Jamal! (@Jammer) We hopped out and ran back down the road to him to see what was up. He was on day 30 something of his big Zion to Arches hike. I'd just had lunch with him a few days before leaving so I'd been thinking about where he might be. He told us that he'd just come down off the cliffs behind him and had been trying unsuccessfully to get a ride for over an hour. He was getting ready to give up and start walking the 8 miles of pavement that he'd done before. The last thing I wanted to do was delay our arrival at home to midnight or beyond, but there was no way I was letting him do that. We turned the truck around, tossed his stuff in and drove him over the bridge to the start of the road to Dark Canyon.

Jamal's perspective of this event was well documented in his latest series of videos. I'm so psyched to finally have an appearance in one of his videos! Here's the exact spot if you haven't seen it. Watch them all!

On the drive we noticed the water in his bottle looked more like green tea. Turned out it was some nasty lake powell water he'd just spent a good amount of time filling up on. Before he left, he chugged a ton of cold spring water and we replaced his supply. We also took some unneeded items from him to pickup later and offered him any food he would take. As we sat there on the side of the road, the rest of the group came by, some stopping to say hello. I no longer felt bad giving Collin shuttle duty.

Soon enough we were on our way, and Jamal was back under foot power heading to Dark Canyon. All in all, this was an amazing trip. Looking forward to 2019 it is amongst the trips I want to do the most. Yeah, I've done it, but it's not like that with a river. There's so much we didn't see and do and so many ways to spend the days. And Audra loved it. I think a few more like this and maybe she'll be ready for Deso-level stuff. And of course I still need to do the Sand Island to Mexican Hat section. I guess it's time to put in for permits, isn't it...
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That trip looks like it was blast. I will be waiting for the first Canyon Country Groovers album to come out on itunes. Thanks for sharing!
That trip looks like it was blast. I will be waiting for the first Canyon Country Groovers album to come out on itunes. Thanks for sharing!

We almost have enough for an EP now! :roflmao:

The other day I came up with the first two verses of "Crapper's Delight" (parody of Rapper's Delight)

I feel the shit drop
The shitty gettin’ drippy
Then the shit goes plop, and you don’t stop
Squattin’ in the rain rain the dookie, groovin’ to the dookie
By the river as the dookie go free

Well my view here has me impressed, I’m crappin’ by the stream
And me, the groovers, and all my friends are gonna ask you not to pee
See, I am on groover duty, I’ve gotta lift it to my boat
Through the trees, over rocks and right on down
Where we’re tying down our loads

That could be a tough one to finish though! :oops:
So awesome! Glad the flow was adequate despite the insanely low snowpack.

Were the pools in lower Slickhorn full? I wanted to go see those when I backpacked there in 2017, but they were a little too far off for a dayhike for the group I was with.

And the final part with Jamal was great. Good to see his perspective as well.
I almost posted the video of me singing that cover on the boat. My wife recorded a bunch of stuff so that I could remember and write down lyrics later on. Figured not that many people would know it!
Let's hear it :) (lyrics at least so we can sing along at home)
This is all I have so far. For context, one of the daily camp chores on the river is taking a dead blow hammer and smashing all of the cans into the smallest size possible as to take up less space.

Her job is can crusher
She likes to swing that dead blow hammer

Crushing all the beer cans
Like PBR and Schofferhoffer

Because she knows that
If they're not flat
Then they'll take up too much spaaaace
There should be groover thrones
The ones with the third eye
Not the stink eye

Yeah, there should be potty pissers
The ones from the San Juan
Some edible Beef Bourguignon, we put ketchup on

Some Government Rapids stunts
That always crash
And if Jen shows up, we'll stare in awe at her chicken dance
Love it! When are you coming on a river trip so that you can become an official member of the band? And what song is that to?
I think one could make a dang good river feel playlist of just Lips songs. Even without the parody.
Cool to see the full report -- the Slickhorn geology looks very similar to Dark and gotta love the CCG songs. And of course... still very thankful for that ride and the crazy twist of fate that led to our paths crossing that day. :thumbsup:
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This trip looked like a blast. I think something like this, with camping and good meals, might help my wife get over her hatred of anything water related.
Great report Nick. Seeing your pictures makes me want to get on the lower section. They also remind me of an issue that we had that was borderline disastrous. Still makes me shudder a little thinking about it.

A few weeks before your group, I tackled the upper section with my dad, sister, and 5-year-old son. We had an incredible trip. As we landed on the takeout at Mexican Hat we were ready to start making the drive home. Not being familiar with the takeout, we saw a small number of vehicles near the river, but not our truck. My sister hopped out and started running up the road to see if our truck was parked farther up the road. As she was looking, I called the shuttle service, explained that I thought we were at the takeout but didn't see our truck. Due to some misunderstanding on both of our parts, I was told, "Oh, you just need to go a little farther". I swear I responded, "A little farther down the river?" and was met with a somewhat confident, "Yeah". I flagged my sister back and told her we needed to go a little longer. We pushed off expecting to see the takeout shortly.

Unexpectedly, we came to Gypsum Rapid, you described it as "more than you expected" and I'd agree. I hit it a little wonky and thought for a split second we might dump. Thankfully, that didn't happen.

As we passed under the bridge I saw the canyon walls rise and started to get nervous. We ended up pulling off, river right, below the Mexican hat hotels. I called the shuttle provider again, explained the situation and she responded, "'ve gone too far". Well Shit. I had noticed a small access road coming down from the highway right before the bridge. There was also a small trail that gained access to the Mexican Hat hotels and restaurants. My dad started towards to road to ask where the takeout was and grab our truck. I planned to get the boat back under the bridge to the access road.

The saving grace was the shallow water and I was able to touch most of the time while pulling the boat up the river with my son on board. It was stressful, frustrating and added another 3 hours to our takeout. I was very frustrated in my self that I didn't take the time to run up the road initially and find our vehicle.

Thankfully my son wasn't concerned and was having a blast regardless.
The red arrow is pointing to the bank where we essentially turned around.


If it wasn't for this spot, we would of been in trouble as there was no going up Gypsum Rapid.


Here is an image view of the takeout in yellow with the shuttled vehicles parked up on the hill in red. This is something I was I would have been made aware of at the time of paying for the shuttle.



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Whoa! That's crazy @AustinCronnelly! We were a little surprised by how far away the 'secure' parking was for the put-in. Makes sense because of the theft issues, but coming into that blind would have freaked me out too! One of my biggest anxieties on the river is overshooting something. A take out, a reserved campsite, etc. When we did the Green ABC I really didn't have much faith in the shuttle company getting it right so every take out we went past I pulled out my keys and started hitting the panic button. I figured if I heard honking I knew to get to shore ASAP! Probably too far away for that Mexican Hat launch though.
Also, I'm curious what shuttle company you used. You don't have to out them publicly if you don't want, but I'd be curious to know. I used Jim Hardin and it was very smooth and he was the only person I ever talked to.
Also, I'm curious what shuttle company you used. You don't have to out them publicly if you don't want, but I'd be curious to know. I used Jim Hardin and it was very smooth and he was the only person I ever talked to.

I’ll message you the shuttle service. I hold no ill will, but a quick map showing where the vehicle will be parked would be useful. Also most of my river experience is in Montana where the shuttle vehicles are often parked near the river at takeout, so I was a bit naive.