In the ever-expanding taxonomy of camping, which ranges from ultra-minimalist backpacking to backyard slumber parties to ultra lux safari glamping tents, there are two primary branches: car camping and backpacking. Both have their charms. Car camping can and should include the comforts of home, while backpacking offers the romance, solitude, and adventure of truly wandering deep into wild places. For us at Springbar Canvas, having it both ways is as good as it gets. In other words, we like to have our cake and eat it too.
Here’s where the boat comes in. A multi-day river trip draws from the best of both the car camping and backpacking experience. The boats can carry hundreds if not thousands of pounds of gear—so you can bring pretty much whatever you want—while the current of a river and the stroke of each oar transports you into some of the most remote and beautiful wilderness left in the lower 48. That said, a multi-day river outing can require weeks of preparation: sorting out logistics and permitting, planning 3-course menus, and working out the math on just how many beers you need to bring along. It’s a lot of work, but it’s all worth it—a camping experience doesn’t get any better than this.
Early this summer, we had the opportunity to join our friends Mike & Shelley who had drawn the permit, along with a great crew, on a 5-day trip on Utah’s Green River in Desolation Canyon—so named by the one-armed John Wesley Powell himself who floated the stretch early in his 1869 exploration down the Green and Colorado Rivers through the bottom of the Grand Canyon. When Powell and his men entered Desolation they were sick as dogs from eating potato greens, so they were not in a great mood overall, likely playing a role in the less than flattering name designation of ‘desolation.’
The landscape is stark and rugged, even desolate, but it’s also incredibly beautiful. It’s a unique kind of beauty that belongs only to the great desert canyons of the southwest. Desolation Canyon cuts through the Tavaputs plateau, a remote wilderness area that tops out at over 9,000 feet in elevation. It’s home to Utah’s largest herds of deer and elk, and subsequently a healthy population of apex predators like bears and cougars. The canyon bottom and river course, which runs for 84 miles through Desolation, is rich with herons, geese, and beavers. Additionally, the campsites on this stretch have a reputation for being among the finest river camps in the southwest—soft sandy beaches and gnarled cottonwood trees more than a hundred years old. A truly lovely place to pitch a Springbar Tent in our opinion.
Our small flotilla consisted of 4 rubber rafts with oar rigs and one stunning dory named the Cedar Mesa. Mike built the dory himself in his garage over the last two years. It was a labor of love and it shows. The sleek lines, glassed wood, and brass locks seem the ideal pairing for the river and landscape. Everyone was a bit jealous of Mike’s rig. A hand-built whitewater dory is to a river trip what a fully restored vintage Land Cruiser is to a car camping trip. It’s certainly the most stylish way to do it.
On our launch day, we woke to rain and a late spring cold front, the river swollen at more than 20,000 CFS. A bit chilly and damp yes, but the silver lining was absolutely zero bugs, a huge plus as Desolation can be a mosquito infested affair later in the season. After double-checking the rigs and getting the green light from the ranger, we launched with rain jackets zipped up and smiles on our faces. It’s a great feeling of commitment and freedom at the moment of launch, knowing that for the next 84 miles there will be nothing but the river and canyon, your wits, and your supplies. No phones, no news, no social feeds.
For a trip to truly be an adventure, something has to roll out not according to plan, and this trip was no exception. The first day turned out to be a bit of an epic. A commercial trip of a score of boats and 100 middle school kids on an extended field trip snaked our planned campsite some 20 miles downstream from the put in—after telling us at launch that they planned to camp much further down. The next camps were another 10 miles down river, so we dug in the oars and rowed on, only to find when we arrived that we’d caught up with boaters who’d launched the previous day inhabiting these sites. With light fading fast, we were forced to pull off in a thicket of tamarisk for a makeshift camp. Not ideal, and certainly not the plan, but it set things up nicely for the next day.
With more than 30 miles behind us already, day 2 was pure leisure and perfect weather. After breakfast we floated a mere 5 miles to a lovely cottonwood shaded camp at the mouth of Flat Canyon, giving us the entire day to hike, drink, pitch a Springbar Tent, and cook. Flat Canyon is also home to one of the nicer petroglyph panels on Desolation—a densely packed display of hunting scenes, serpents, and strange figures. It was my designated day to cook, a task I enjoy, and on the river my favorite cooking tool is the Camp Chef Outfitter fire pan. A big fire burned into a hot bed of coals for grilling a whole salmon filet, flank steak, and Dutch oven potatoes. The fire kept burning late into the night and we made a healthy dent in the alcohol supply. It’s inevitable on these trips that at least somebody goes full tilt and ends up puking in the river. Wasn’t me, but it happened.
On day 3 the current accelerated and the rapids began, from this point on there was at least some action every couple of river miles. We pulled off and lunched at Rock Creek, taking time to explore the ruins of cabins built by some exceptionally hardy and visionary settlers from Sweden in the late 19th century. Their vision didn’t quite pan out, a reminder that some dreams do die. Although, despite the hardship they certainly endured, I have to imagine that at times they were as impressed with the beauty and solitude of the place as much as we were. The remaining structures, some made of carefully hewn blocks of sandstone, are still full of remnants from the homesteaders. A rusted out pot belly stove, farm implements, and even a pair of old boots, with the hardened leather toes turned upward in a spiral from years of exposure.
Early in the afternoon we made camp at Trail Canyon, where we enjoyed one of the finest river meals I’ve ever eaten thanks to Pat Harrington and his dad John—fine cooks and even better river companions. They channeled the spirit of Francis Mallmann and we overindulged on one meat dish after another in the Asado style. Pork loin, marinated chicken thighs, leg of lamb, grilled squash and more Dutch oven potatoes. It was a truly a beautiful thing. No plate needed, just a knife for cutting off a hunk of meet roasting over the coals. Belly swollen and happy, I slept that night in the Springbar under a truly impressive cottonwood tree and the star packed sky of the remote desert. This is paradise.
Early on day 4 we pulled off to scout Joe Hutch Rapid, arguably the largest whitewater of the trip. At the top of the rapid, just left of center, was a very large hole with the potential to flip a boat, followed by a bend to the right causing water to surge on jagged rocks on river left. We decided to enter to the left of the large hole, followed by a backstroke to pull away from the wall and what would be an unpleasant situation on the rocks. We all made clean lines and enjoyed the ride. While Joe Hutch was billed as the largest, a few miles down river was Wire Fence Rapid, and that proved to be the most technical and treacherous of the trip. We opted not to scout and ran the line on river right. At this high water level, boulders that are typically exposed at lower levels became a series of holes and drops that were hidden until we were more or less on top of them, requiring quick action at the oars. Here the Cedar Mesa, Mike’s dory, took her first scar. Sliding into a hole, one of Mike’s oars, made of solid ash, snapped like a toothpick in two pieces—just below his hand and at the oarlock. Otherwise, we made it through unscathed and floated on to our final camp at Range Creek.
At this point the cold front had lifted and the sun was burning hot. Hot enough for a swim in the runoff water chilled by snow melt. We sprawled out on the beach, picked over the goodies in our coolers, and played an excellent game of whiffle ball. Of course, I’m always a proponent of dwelling in the Springbar, but when the temps are warm, the skies are clear, the sand is soft, and the bugs are non-existent—the only way to camp is out is in the open. And that’s just what I did, drifting to sleep while watching a shooting stars burn across the sky.
Sadly, all trips come to end. Ones like this you wish would go on forever. I’m always tempted on the last day to just keep on floating. After a somewhat hectic takeout at Swasey’s beach due to winds that must have been gusting at 60 or 70 mph—powerful enough to pick up a deflated raft that’s essentially just several hundred pounds of wet rubber and toss it 20 feet like a tumble weed—we took part in an almost sacred river runners tradition: A juicy burger and cold beer at Ray’s in Green River.
The worlds greatest ‘car camping’ happens on a boat, and I can’t wait to get back on a river.