It’s always a crap shoot, heading for Utah in March, hoping for enough water in the Dirty Devil to float a boat. Seems like for the past decade we’ve had it on the radar, sometimes even set out with intentions to paddle it, and yet we’ve only gotten down that lovely, lonely, elusive bit of seasonal river twice. Once with the kids some years back, and then, finally, again this year. Every other time we’ve gotten cold feet and pulled the plug, or substituted a float on the San Juan, or gone hiking instead.
This year, though, it happened. As usual, the decision-making process was as up and down as the river gauge – planning on it, calling it off, putting it back on. Even at the end, packing up, we made sure to include the Plan B kit of hiking gear in case. To complicate matters, we were victimized by FAKE NEWS!!! Looking at the river gauge at Poison Springs, the week before departure, the reading went crazy. Spiking up to 700 cfs, then plummeting to 90 in a matter of hours. I’d look mid morning and it would read 500. By afternoon it was down to 100. What the hell? Who knows, even now, what was going on, but somehow we looked at the information, looked at what was predicted to be an awesome week of nice weather, coupled with full-moon nights and made that leap of faith. Leaps of faith are what make life, well, worth it.
At the put-in, outside of Hanksville, the Dirty Devil looked less than reassuring. Sheets of braided water flowing thinly over loose sandbars. Just as dirty as advertised. A couple of dead cow carcasses adorning the channel. But hey, there we were. Nothing to do but put on. Three of us – three solo hardshell canoes (a brilliant choice, by the way – we were much more comfortable, roomy, and less prone to running aground than the inflatable folks we saw along the way).
The last time we did the DD, with the kids, we started out with 150 cfs and had a rain/sleet storm on Day 2 that pumped things up to 2-300 for the rest of the time. We were hardly ever out of the boats and had only minor turbulence to contend with. This time, things were different. Looking back at the gauge, which finally started reading accurately, our levels vacillated between 80 – 120 cfs. Pretty marginal, it turns out, but surprisingly doable.
Yes, we were out of the canoes A LOT that first day and a half. We soon decided that the best footwear was no footwear. The bottom was deep sand and it made for much cleaner feet getting in and out all the time. There were some comical moments (of which I had more than my share), some spooky, quicksand moments. Luckily the days were warm, the winds were calm and as we went along, we got better at the Zen of reading river channel. Somewhere on Day 2, below Angel’s Cove, the river channel started to narrow more, and we were less and less out of the boats, more and more reassured, and open to sidehikes up sweet little side canyons, some with pouroffs, some with springs, some nothing more than nice excursions.
So, for five days we drifted along, read water for that narrow slot of deeper river (all it took was a 1″ difference to make or break us). Camped under the loom of sandstone walls, bathed in pale moonlight all night, sat around the campfires talking about near-death escapades and embarrassing episodes in life, and all day long beetled down the tortured and sweet course of that ephemeral, dicey flow. Our trip involved a full layover at Happy Canyon to explore up that amazing slot, all the while watching the DD inch lower.
Five days on, passing Poison Springs road, we were startled to find Doug’s truck parked above the river. We had planned another 2 days, down to Lake Powell, but our shuttle driver misunderstood and delivered the rig early. Good thing we spotted it, or we’d have been in for some serious confusion a couple of days on.
So, unfortunately, the DD came to an early end. We drove the long, rough road back to Hanksville, where our chagrined shuttle guy refunded our fee and put us up in a motel for the night. Stand-up dude. Not to be short-changed on our desert time, we made up for the lost river days with a day scrambling around the Shamrock Slots south of Hanksville, and exploring a new section of the San Rafael Swell, where, not surprisingly, we found plenty of fodder for the life-trip list. That checklist never does get shorter, does it? And yeah, that’s a good thing.