A Riffle in Time

A dad-and-daughter duo paddle into the past on the San Juan River

Follow the Winding Water: San Juan River     Photo: Tom Berens/Courtesy, Go Utah

"I fell into a pit trap!" cried eight-year-old Ellen. Ten yards downriver were some broken sticks and a recently fallen-into hole in the sand, with footsteps leading back upstream. Ellen's parents were none too concerned: She had run pretty fast to report the incident, and in this tranquil southeastern corner of Utah, the likelihood of bloodthirsty headhunters was definitely low.

It was our second evening on the Upper San Juan River with guide Janet Ross and her seven-member crew from Southwest Ed-Ventures. Our trip, "Family Fun on a Redrock River Run," had two objectives: to bring families together on one of the West's most spectacular hidden waterways, and to give them a taste of how our prehistoric ancestors negotiated nature.

For me and Grace, seven, it was also a last chance for a father-daughter outing before school began. So we left the rest of the family at home and made off for Bluff, Utah, where our three-day journey began. The 26-mile float trip down the chocolate-brown ribbon of the San Juan would eventually deposit us at the town of Mexican Hat, named for an impossibly balanced sombrero-shaped rock formation.

Along the way, in between soaking up the powerful August sunshine and enjoying the fresh-cooked meals offered by our hosts, we were taught everything from flint knapping—the banging together of rocks to yield sharp points—to making twine out of dogbane plants. Most of us applied these skills in positive ways, but the ambush of Ellen (trapped, of course, by big brother Ben) proved that newly learned technologies, just like an amazing canyon, have the power to seduce.

Southwest Ed-Ventures is no ordinary outfitter. It's the ecotourism arm of the Monticello, Utah–based Four Corners School of Outdoor Education, a nonprofit that uses the proceeds from Southwest Ed's programs—among them, multiday arts seminars with the Hopi in Arizona and wolf-tracking outings in Yellowstone—to fund a 25-year initiative to install outdoor-education programs in 426 elementary schools in the Four Corners states. The program has made significant strides in its first four years, thanks to the persistence of the Four Corners School staff, who, when they aren't running trips, are working toward raising the eco-consciousness of thousands of kids.

Each outing is anchored by an expert staff member, and ours was Robin Blankenship, from Earth Knack, a Colorado school of Stone Age living skills, which she runs with her husband, Mike O'Donal. We didn't know what we were in for as we shoved off that first morning, or after the first few hours of jumping in the water to cool off and drift on the current. But after lunch, we all found ourselves banging rocks together at just the right spot to send a shock wave into the stone, slowly chiseling it into a blade or an arrowhead. It was equal parts history lesson, physics tutorial, and how-to on surviving with two hands and a brain.

This was followed by more lazy floating, with canyon wren songs for background music, and a rest stop to gander at Anasazi pictographs. After we pulled into Cottonwood Camp and set up our tents—light camping gear and clothing are the essentials, plus ample sunscreen—Mike gave us a lesson on fire starting.

Flint knapping had left a few gouges in my knuckles, and I'd gathered that basket weaving was not in my genes—perhaps my ancestors all carried their stuff in animal hides. But making bright, hot fire where none existed before? Now I was getting in touch with my inner pyromaniac. Mike demonstrated the methods of bringing together the three necessary elements: fuel, heat, and oxygen. A few of us scootched our camp chairs closer, intent on fending off the encroaching darkness with light that didn't come from Duracells.

"This can be kinda hodd," said Mike, a Maine native turned Rocky Mountain hunting guide. "It might take you a few tries." He instructed me to shift my weight a certain way as I worked the moose-rib-and-twine bow back and forth, spinning the dowel and pressing down hard. After a minute I got into a groove, and a sweaty minute or two after that, as heated particles formed, we could see smoke ghosting up from under the wood.

"Now!" said Mike, and I stopped spinning, pulling up the plank to reveal: embers. I'd done it—on my first try. I dusted off my hands and glanced at Grace with that strong-provider look, then slept well as the San Juan gurgled by.

On day two, Janet led a hike to an Anasazi cliff dwelling, explaining that the 900-year-old, ten-room "River House" site "probably belonged to one extended family." After 20 years of observing the BLM's restoration of these ancient sites, Janet is well acquainted with every rock. She asked us, "What do you think it was like out here, in the middle of the desert with only your aunts and uncles to hang around with?"

"It sucked," said Ben.

Hopping back into our three rafts, we made our way into a canyon, where the river narrows, and encountered our first decent-size rapids. For a couple of hours we navigated frequent ripply areas, getting good and splashed—enough action for a family trip, and not too much—before sliding down Class II–III Eight-Foot rapid, the most righteous plunge of all, and onto a beach where we spent our second night.

At around 1 a.m., a pleasant rain started pinging the tent. I sat up and absorbed my surroundings, feeling like I'd washed up on a riverbank on another, more enchanting planet. Grace woke up, and we both said it would be fun if Mom and two-year-old Henry were with us. All the same, spending a few days with our new extended family on the river hadn't sucked one bit.

But in the end, the simple fun of dropping over the side of a raft and drifting, at one with the cool water, was what had made the trip perfect. The next day at Mexican Hat, we de-rafted, washed the mud out of our hair, and headed for a convenience store to pick up some ice cream. As I scanned the aisles, I realized how fine-tuned my senses had become, my eyes taking in everything like a hunter on the prowl, and there I was...stalking a Fudgsicle. Capturing it was all too easy, so we paid for our goodies and went outside to eat. We weren't ready to fall into that trap again.

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