Trip Report: Rafting the San Juan River


                        What's SUP San Juan?

It always takes a little while to get into the flow of a river trip, but I know I’m there when, on a recent Saturday night in early September, I find myself sitting on a sandbar, margarita in hand, watching the setting sun bathe the canyon rim in tangerine and cantaloupe. The kids are so busy burrowing in the sand, they’ve forgotten we are here and—almost—vice versa. There are 10 of them, not counting the baby (who has very agreeably gone to bed for the night), ages 3 to 13, and—by now, three days in—they’ve morphed into a single, self-contained, sand-encrusted, mud-streaked unit, with its own language and pecking order and collective schemes. It’s Lord of the Flies, San Juan Edition. 

Tonight, the mission seems to be: Dig Elaborate Tunnels in the Sand or maybe Reenact the Chile Mining Disaster. So far the only casualty is a plastic lobster beach shovel, now cracked beyond repair. In the settling dusk, the children are becoming less distinct and more shadowy, and I can just make out our three-year-old’s blonde head, hunched over the slope. The older kids have donned headlamps and, from this distance, resemble miniature miners toiling at their passageways. Sooner or later it will be bedtime, but for now, nothing whatsoever needs to be done except kick back, pour another cup of box wine, and watch them work.  

We’re camped on a sandbar just below Eight Foot Rapid, river left, at roughly mile 18 on the upper San Juan River. Together with four other families from Santa Fe and Durango, we put-on two days ago in Bluff, Utah, and by the time we take out tomorrow at Mexican Hat, we’ll have floated 27 miles, three rapids, and countless riffles through a deep crack in the desert. Our flotilla consists of three rafts, two duckies, and five standup paddleboards, though the distinctions of who brought which boat and who rides in which craft have become irrelevant. We’re not so much paddling as playing musical boats. Lured by Tootsie Pops and Pringles, our three-year-old parked herself in our friend Will’s raft with the other kids and wouldn’t budge all day.

That’s one of the perks of boating with a bunch of families: pawning your kids off on other people. Another: waking up to breakfast quesadillas and coffee that someone else made. Gliding in rare silence on a paddleboard while another mother minds the baby on your boat. Extra hands to set up the pop-up shade (and dismantle it at three A.M. when a storm rolls in). Laughing your ass off around the campfire while your dentist friend tells a story about stealing a canister of nitrous oxide during grad school and an almost full moon heaves itself above the canyon rim. Watching the kids go feral and bury themselves waist deep in river mud, and knowing that there are 9 parents to help dig them out.

Filed To: Adventure, Water Activities, Travel, Paddling

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