Still Waters Run Deep: Tackling America’s Best Multi-Day Float Trip on the Green River

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By Michael Lanza

“Oh, no, I wouldn’t take young kids down that river in May. It’s much too dangerous. I tell families to go in June or later, when the river’s lower.”

That was the dire warning issued to me over the phone by an employee with an outfitter based in Moab, Utah, that offers multi-day float trips down the Green River in Canyonlands National Park. His tone completely derailed me: Based on everything I’d read and heard, May was an ideal time for a family trip on the Green—which may well be America’s best easy float trip.

From the put-in at Mineral Bottom on the Green, through 52 miles of Stillwater Canyon and then four miles more on the Colorado River to the takeout at Spanish Bottom, the river slowly unfurls beneath a constant backdrop of giant redrock cliffs and spires. Off the water, you can take side hikes to centuries-old Puebloan rock art and cliff dwellings, camp on sandy beaches and slickrock benches, and maybe even spot bighorn sheep scrambling around on precipitous rock faces.

I had several friends excited about it. We’d comprise a party of 17, with nine adults and eight kids, the oldest 11, the youngest my four-year-old daughter, Alex. A few adults were experienced kayakers or canoeists, but most of our party were novices. I’d assured everyone we’d have no problems, that the river current would be gentle. But I’d never taken my kids on a multi-day river trip before, and I’d never been on the Green (though I had seen much of Stillwater Canyon while mountain biking the White Rim Trail in the park).

I like uncertainty in the backcountry, but encountering surprise challenges with little kids along can be stressful—and potentially dangerous. And at the other end of our group’s age range was my 80-year-old mother-in-law, Ann. High on my personal list of Big Screw-ups to Not Commit? Losing my mother-in-law on a river.

 

So I checked into the river’s level and talked to people who knew the Stillwater section, including an employee at another outfitter—and ultimately concluded that first guy I spoke with was blowing a lot of unhelpful hot air, probably because he had never taken kids on a wilderness trip. He reminded me of other (usually childless) people I’ve encountered who, while well-meaning, seem to think children are like fragile glass vases that will shatter if not handled with extreme care. Like most kids I’ve known, mine are as fragile as an alligator.

We decided to go for it.

Under a blazing desert sun on a May morning at Mineral Bottom, we launch a small armada of three heavily loaded rafts, two kayaks (a single and a two-person), and a canoe. If we set out buzzing with excitement—adults all smiles and kids clearly feeling like they’re joining John Wesley Powell’s first descent into the unknown—we have no idea what a lasting impact the next five days will have on us.

That first afternoon, we tie up the boats to scrub brush on a riverbank of slick mud at Fort Bottom. Then we walk 15 minutes to the ruins of a one-room log cabin built in the 1890s by a rancher named Mark Walker. Not much more than 100 square feet, all that remains of it are walls of hand-cut logs, a stone chimney, and roof beams, the willows and mud that formed the roof long gone. Still, it’s remarkable that any of it still stands after a century of abandonment. We enter through the open doorway and walk around the small area of dirt floor, the kids both amused and awed by the vision of someone residing in such a tiny space so far from civilization.

Leaving Fort Bottom, we float into early evening as the long rays of sunlight burnish the deep reds of the canyon walls and cast long shadows across the river. The rippled water displays a complexion of blurred streaks mirroring the shades of crumbling rock above.

 

Floating the Green River through Stillwater Canyon in Canyonlands National Park.

Floating the Green River through Stillwater Canyon in Canyonlands National Park.

We eventually find a campsite at Potato Bottom. The kids spray onto the beach to play and explore, while the adults commence what will become a three-hour ritual every afternoon of unloading boats, pitching camp, and feeding 17 people. Each morning, we’ll reverse that process—no faster—eating, packing up camp, reloading boats.

But if managing so large a group requires enormous effort, life on the river represents the diametric opposite: the height of leisure.

By our second morning, we adjust to the lazy rhythms of paddling and drifting for those several water-borne hours of each day, leaning back under a nuclear sun to watch it all slide torpidly by us: the ancient geology, the scattered, small groves of cottonwoods and willows, and the always-blue sky. We make slow progress rowing rafts burdened with several hundred pounds of gear, food, water, and humans. And the placid-almost-to-a-fault Green gives us very little speed assist. But we don’t care. We’re in no hurry.

The kids migrate between boats like pirates. They pull on a raft’s oars until bored with the task, eagerly jump at sharing the two-person kayak with an adult, take dips in the silted, chilly river, instigate water fights, and play cards or games in a raft.

We pull to a riverbank two or three times a day to investigate a side canyon or eat lunch. We know there are several other boating parties on the river because we see them in campsites every afternoon; but groups spread out on the slow river, so we rarely encounter those other people during our hours on the water. Generally by mid-afternoon, one of us lifts the lid of a cooler, and the soft hissing of a beer can opening draws our other boats toward the sound.

 

Mark Fenton kayaking the Green River through Stillwater Canyon.

Mark Fenton kayaking the Green River through Stillwater Canyon.

“Dad, can we go in the kayak together?”

Our six-and-a-half-year-old, Nate, has been eyeing the two-person kayak covetously. So after lunch that second afternoon, we again shuffle bodies around between boats, and Nate and I cast off onto the brown water in the two-person hard shell. Easily gliding along much faster than the rafts, we paddle ahead of them, drift to let them catch up, circle a raft to ambush its occupants with splashes, and explore the base of cliffs shooting straight up out of the river.

Predictably, that evening, his little sister whispers the same request to me. So on our third morning I again take the two-person kayak out, this time with Alex in the front cockpit, so small her head and shoulders barely rise above the deck. She does her best to manage the two-bladed paddle that’s longer than she is tall, often content to just hold it.

“You’re an awesome kayaker,” I tell Alex. She turns around to me, her smooth-skinned little face split with such a wide smile that I have to smile, too. We spend just a couple of hours together in that boat, but I sense we’ll both remember it for a long time.

 

Later that third afternoon, I’m back in the two-person kayak with one of the six-year-old girls, Sofi. I paddle us far ahead of the group, looking for an available campsite big enough for our flotilla. But we keep passing campsites already occupied. The day turns into our longest on the water as we paddle into evening, Sofi and I so far ahead of the others that we don’t see them for two hours.

I worry that everyone behind us is growing tired, hungry, and grumpy. But Sofi utters not a complaint, content to eat snack bars, occasionally dip her paddle into the river, and bask in her extended adventure in the kayak, scouting ahead of our group.

Then I hear Sofi suck in her breath softly. She lifts an arm and points to the riverbank to our right. Not 10 feet from us, a great blue heron, shockingly tall, lithe, and absolutely still, stands in a shallow eddy, one eye staring back at us. I stop paddling and we drift in silence for a moment of frozen time. Finally, the giant bird spreads its wings as if throwing a cape over its shoulders, lifts itself from the water and flaps downriver, disappearing into the backdrop of red cliffs.

Eventually, I see Mark steaming toward us in the single kayak. A longtime whitewater paddler, he’s been dubbed “the fast guy” by the young kids. He catches up and points toward river left, asking, “How about over there?” It looks like a promising spot: a flat bench-like area a short scramble up a steep, rocky riverbank from the water. It turns out to be our best campsite of the trip: acres of dry, flat ground for tents, some shade, big rocks where we set up our kitchen area and lounge—and one huge boulder that quickly earns the moniker “Kid Rock,” where the kids all nestle like puffins on a seaside cliff, lost for hours in their stories and laughter.

 

The kids, age four to 11, clustered on "Kid Rock."

The kids, age four to 11, clustered on “Kid Rock.”

On our fourth day, another broiler under the desert sun, we float through two final hairpin bends in the Green, between towering walls that obstruct our view downriver. Then Stillwater Canyon’s mouth yawns widely to disgorge its flow into another slow, brown, wider river entering from the left: the Colorado.

It carries us down toward Spanish Bottom, and we pull up for our final river night on a large, sloping beach. The kids pass much of the afternoon up to their waists at the river’s edge, excavating mud for some reclamation project of the imagination that will wash away into the current by tomorrow. In the evening, we sit around a campfire, roasting marshmallows, telling stories, playing a game in which everyone describes the animal they’d choose to be, and laughing until dark.

With a tired and very dirty Alex in my lap, I look around at our group. Multiple voices fill the calm, warm air, drifting up the canyons walls soaring above us. Adults and kids alike bounce between conversations. Watching everyone, I think: These people behave like longtime friends; someone stumbling upon us might assume we’ve been doing trips like this together for years. I have to remind myself that only a few of them knew each other last week. All are friends of my wife, Penny’s, and mine, but most of the group met for the first time the evening before we put in on the river. Five days later, they’re all best friends.

 

Stillwater Canyon, Green River.

Stillwater Canyon, Green River.

For each of the families involved—especially the kids—floating the Green through Stillwater Canyon will eventually become the gold standard by which we measure other adventures. Many moments from this week will assume exalted status in our memory, even for Alex, who’s barely four: the impromptu beach game of hitting a big ball among kids and parents to keep it in the air for as long as possible (our best performance: 45 hits); each child’s time paddling with an adult in the two-person kayak; Sofi’s sighting of the great blue heron; the morning Mark and I hiked at first light to the canyon rim, looking down a thousand feet at the river and out over a vast land of burgundy cliffs and spires given infinite depth by the dawn light; and of course, Kid Rock.

And all of the parents will hear our kids periodically make the same remark for years to come: “We gotta do another river trip with that same group of people.”

Over the years, I’ve found it’s the rare grand slam when all the elements of an unforgettable adventure fall into place: the right people, just enough excitement and pleasant surprises, perhaps some interesting history and culture, and scenery that makes you marvel at your good fortune to be alive and here.

We got the people chemistry right. The Green River took care of the rest.

Click the page number box below to read my tips on planning this trip yourself.

 

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Mark Fenton on the rim of Stillwater Canyon, above the Green River.

Mark Fenton on the rim of Stillwater Canyon, above the Green River.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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