David Friedman: The Day I paddled with Edward Abbey

In this dreamlike voyage any unnecessary effort seems foolish. Even vulgar, one might say. The river itself sets the tone: utterly relaxed, completely at ease, it fulfills its mighty purpose without aim or effort. Only the slow swing of the canyon walls overhead and the illusory upstream flow of willows, tamarisk, and boulders on the shore reveal and indicate our progress to the sea (Abbey, 184).

It was the late afternoon and the sun was blazing down on us. We were all gunneled up (all of our canoes attached) taking turns reading from Desert Solitaire, one of Edward Abbey’s most celebrated works. As each of us took turns reading this book of gospels I grew increasingly eager to read. Finally, I thought to myself as the book was passed to me. I rubbed my thumb across the title that continues to impart wisdom and knowledge, Desert Solitaire, A Season in the Wilderness: A Celebration of the Beauty of Living in a Harsh and Hostile Land.

We were right in the middle of the chapter, Down the River. In this chapter Abbey is recounting his rafting voyage with Ralph Newcomb through Glen Canyon. This chapter is really a poem or eulogy, if you will, for the once-majestic canyon. Since then Glen Canyon has been transformed by the Glen Canyon Dam. This dam generates energy and irrigation water for the west. In addition to energy, it has created recreational opportunities on its reservoir, Lake Powell. Although the canyon has been industrialized, its memory lies on with many locals from the town of Green River, Utah. Bob, the outfitter who equipped us with our gear for our canoe trip down the Green River, shared many stories with us about the historic canyon from countless voyages he took down the river with his father. As we parted ways he said in a raspy voice, “there are a number of sections you will be paddling in Labyrinth Canyon that that are eerily reminiscent of the once majestic Glen Canyon.” 

There I was in my canoe, with the poetry of the past in my very hands. It was a powerful moment, for it felt as though Abbey was with us. As I read the historic chapter I felt Abbey’s words soak into my senses.

Beyond the side canyon the walls rise up again, slick and monolithic, in color a blend of pink, buff, yellow, orange, overlaid in part with a glaze of “desert varnish” (iron oxide) or streaked in certain places with vertical draperies of black organic stains, the residue from plant life beyond the rim and from the hanging gardens that flourish in the deep grottoes high on the walls (Abbey, 184).

I could feel, smell, hear, and touch his passion for the land. I felt like we were interpreting the landscape together. I could imagine him sitting with us gazing at the canyon walls and contemplating the wilderness that surrounded us. As I read Abbey’s words while I floated down the river – it was unlike anything I have ever experienced before. I couldn’t help but feel that I was side by side or better yet, paddling with this historic river runner. For today was the day I grew closer to the river runners of the past. For today was the day I paddled with Edward Abbey.


Katie Hutchens: Labyrinth Canyon


John shuffles and spreads the animal medicine cards in a fan before me. Pausing for a few seconds, I carefully select one of thirty at random. Butterfly: the master of transformation. First an egg, then a larvae, a cocoon, and finally, a rebirth as a entirely new being. The card asks its receiver some questions. Is there a decision that needs to be made in your life, an idea that requires forming, or has that idea developed enough to share it with the world and make a difference in the lives of others?

The river is a master of transformation. As its waters ebb and flow with the seasons, the land around it succumbs to the powerful changes. The currents deposit cobbles and gravel on the outer curves, while the inlet banks form into vegetative beaches that gradually rise up the sides. The water has carved rock slowly but definitively, creating the steep canyon walls that we gaze up at while floating downstream in our canoes. Thinking of what this land looked liked thousands or millions of years ago seems impossible.

The riparian habitat lines the banks, gravitating toward its most crucial source of sustenance, water. This habitat, which makes up only about 3% of the land in this region, is essential to about 80% percent of the life. The river has ensured the vitality of its banks, changing what would be sand and a few shrubs, to a dense layer of plant and animal life. This section is the median between river and upland, the vital connection between desert and water body. This river has total control over its immediate environment. It is a master of transformation.

When the spring floods come, the banks drown in a rush of fresh snowmelt and rainwater, and the flora and fauna are more than happy to accept the high waters. Over time, they have adapted to depend on the seasons. Fremont cottonwood trees wait for the floods to disperse their seeds not only because the water will carry the seeds downstream, but in order to germinate, they must be implanted in wet soil. Understanding the control of the river, life willingly adjusts its ways to properly balance the ecosystem, and ensure its sustainability for the future. When the hot and dry summers roll around, the plants and animals are prepared to adapt once again to the rivers continual mood swings.

Butterflies undergo a process of transformation that begins the second they are laid as an egg. They grow into larvae, then a caterpillar, munching away at leaves carelessly. Suddenly, without ever knowing what they’ve been preparing for their whole lives, change is knocking at their door. But do they resist and stay a caterpillar forever or with no assurance of what the future holds, allow the new stage to take over and hope for the best? With an innate understanding, the worm locks itself away in hiding, far from the influence of others and completes a transformation it’s been waiting a lifetime to finish.

When we feel a change is coming, there is a desire to resist. We know we have to evaluate our lives, and act on it. Change is difficult; it challenges everything we’ve built up to that point and makes us uneasy of the future. It all comes down to this: those that resist the shifts get left behind. Those that embrace them with open arms and don’t look back not only last through the rough times, they emerge better than they ever thought was possible.

Sara Larsen: Groover Tales from Labyrinth Canyon

Groover: a bucket or rocket box with a detachable toilet seat that is used as a means of disposing fecal matter on river trips. The number one rule of the Groover is DO NOT pee in the Groover. The second rule is to always remember to bring the key back or put the paddle up after use or the next person in line will risk soiling themselves, while waiting for no one.

The following story is one many, on and off the course, will be reading or hearing for the first time. The people, places, and events, are real.

I woke up early on our last day in Trin Alcove due to a grumbling in my tummy. The dinner from the night before was not sitting well with me and if I didn’t unzip my bag and run to the Groover fast, my tent mate Katie would not be happy…nor would I at the idea of rinsing poop off my sleeping bag. Luckily, I was the only one awake and the Groover was wide open. I made it just in time and was able to return to my warm bag for another hour of sleep before the breakfast call.

One thing that those of you reading this should know about me: I’m not the fastest mover in the morning and usually I’m the last one packed. On this morning, after breakfast, my stomach was still not in tip top shape and another trip to the Groover was in order. I decided to multitask to ensure I would be ready on time. I brought my toothbrush along, figuring I could sit and enjoy the morning on the Groover while brushing my teeth. This Groover was set up on riverfront property and was nicely covered by willows and Tamarisk. It made sense to brush my teeth because afterwards I could just spit my paste into the river on the way back to camp, being extra efficient. Everything was going smoothly, the last of my dinner was being processed and my teeth were feeling minty-fresh. I got up with my toothbrush still in my mouth and reached for the hand sanitizer when all of a sudden, *scurry, scurry, scurry, rustle, rustle, rustle*, two squirrels ran out from the willows and back into them on the other side, giving me quite the scare and causing my toothbrush to fall from my mouth. “Goodness,” I sighed then looked on the ground for my toothbrush, which, surprise, surprise, was no where to be found. I slowly leaned over the Groover and discovered that my toothbrush had fallen directly in as a result of the squirrel ambush.

“Katie, do you have an extra toothbrush?” I asked in a somber tone sulking back to the tent. “Yeah, I do actually, why?” she inquired. I held up my toothbrush in between my thumb and pointer finger far away from my face as if I were holding a smelly diaper and replied, “Because I just dropped mine in the Groover.” Katie burst out laughing as I dropped my germ ridden tooth brush into my trash bag and lathered on hand sanitizer. “I’m never brushing my teeth on the toilet again,” I said.

Now, I wish all of this were true, but alas, I have concocted the entire story from my imagination and I still have a poop free toothbrush. However, I thought it would be fun to write a post about the Groover and how even though it is a portable toilet, it brings people together and has an assortment of uses!

Having experience with the Groover, I was excited to have one this trip instead of the average trowel to dig a cat hole method we have been using. Why wouldn’t you want to sit on an actual toilet seat as opposed to in between two rocks? My course mates were not too fond of having to carry our poop along with us down the river however. Although, without the Groover would we have had as many laughs or shared as many embarrassing poop stories? The Groover brings people together and encourages teamwork. No one wants to be left alone on Groover crew and everyone wants the Groover lid to be screwed on as quickly as possible so we all worked together to pack up the bucket of feces in a timely fashion so the smell didn’t linger. I’d say it also promoted more personal hygiene. With the hand sanitizer bottle being left by the paddle, more people most likely remembered to wash their hands after using the bathroom, which I’m sure many forget when their cat hole is covered. Also, everyone has to be on Groover crew at some point so nobody gets left out! The Groover is usually placed in a scenic area, providing a nice peaceful escape from the hustle and bustle of daily river life and sometimes you make new friends with kayakers that float by and wave as you sit on the plastic throne. The Groover can also provide some daily exercise; I for one get an excellent buns and thigh workout in while trying not to pee in the Groover. Groover stories are hilarious and John brought along a book on horrifyingly disgusting Groover stories that were read as an after dinner treat or a lunchtime floatilla story to be enjoyed by all. The Groover although quite repulsive, can always be counted on for group bonding and in fact, I think many of us will be missing the Groover on the Dark Canyon section as we wipe with twigs and pine for the comfort of a plastic seat.

So next time you want to turn up your nose (or plug it) when the Groover is mentioned, think about your Groover experience. If you’re lucky you haven’t dropped your toothbrush in it or gotten it spilled on you just yet, and it can be thought of fondly.

Nathan Tutchton: Reality Check

“They were born just a couple of days ago,” Randy told the group as he hoisted a tiny goat into the air. Voicing himself over the bleating of a concerned mother, Randy went on to explain how the newborn kids would soon join his functional goat herd. For now, the younglings clustered together in the barn, looking content, lazy and adorable in the heat of the sun.

Randy Ramsley is not the type of farmer you’d expect to find in Southern Utah. Short, with a wild tangle of blonde hair flowing out under his green trucker hat (which ironically reads John Goat instead of John Deere), Randy operates a 100% organic farm (although not certified due to cost) and herds goats in an area dominated by cattle ranchers.But Randy has done more with his plot of land than anyone believed possible, and attributes his success to his atypical ethic. Local ranchers tell Randy to stop his crazy methods and start living in the real world. At least they used to, before they tasted his homemade bread.

As we continued our tour of the farm, I stopped to pick up a shining object that caught my eye: a small bullet casing. I’m not gun expert, but I’d have to guess it was a standard 9mm round. What was this doing here?

“Put a kid down yesterday,” Randy stated before I could voice my question. “It had struggling kid syndrome. Wasn’t going to make it,” he explained. “I’ll tell you one thing, if you can’t handle blood, guts, and death, stay out of this business.”

I nodded silently in understanding. The decision seemed simple enough. There’s no reason to waste time and money trying to keep a sick goat alive when it’s probably going to die anyway. In the real world, death happens.

For the last few weeks we’ve been backpacking in the real world. Not the ‘real world’ accountants and business executives talk about, with taxes and mortgages. We’ve been out in the real world, where good food is hard to carry, where there’s no toilet paper, and where it gets frigid at night.

We’ve scrambled up cliffs, forded rivers, and baked in the sun. We’ve seen art 10,000 years old, tracks from beasts long extinct, and slept in places no man will likely set eyes upon in the next hundred years. Yet through all this, Randy’s words have stuck with me.

Out in the real world, every plant and animal earns the right to see another sunrise. Junipers brave hostile cliff faces, cayotes endure the torment of the elements, and birds travel miles to find food when the pickings get slim. These beings deserve life because they fight for it, every day.

So was Randy – a brilliant and compassionate man – right to shoot the baby goat? His decision makes sense logically. The goat was a bad investment. Did Randy make the right decision, shooting a newborn that hasn’t learned to walk? Who knows? Maybe it would have died anyways. Maybe not.

Or maybe, it takes more than logic to make real world decisions. Maybe they take some heart.

All I know for certain is that the real world is not as simple as it seems. Out here, where life has fashioned itself to the very sands upon which we walk, every foottfall has an impact. The choices we make need to be as thoughtful and complex as the creatures they effect. No path is without fault. Sometimes the better trail ends in a cliff. Sometimes, coincidence leads you to an unexpected place to quench your thirst. When it rains, you get wet. And when the thunderclouds roll in in the real world, you can’t simply put a bullet in their head.

Colorado Plateau 2012 students at Randy's farm.

Colorado Plateau 2012 students at Randy’s farm.