Then
the Dolores ran into a great ridge of sandstone, and after feinting
north, it cut east into its canyon. Sandstone rose on both sides.
Some was marked by fairly horizontal layers, laid down along ancient
seashores. Some rose in smoother swells and curves, formed from
ancient dunes. Subtle striations showed how sand had blown in
slanting revisions, one over the other. Countless dunes must have
formed in deserts and blown away, but just these had been piled up to
harden into sandstone. The sediments lay deep for millennia. The
Dolores, once a tributary of the San Juan River, was forced northward
by uplift, to meander on flatlands as it ran toward the Colorado.
Then the land rose under the river, and those meanders began cutting
Slickrock Canyon. The Sandstone is very old, Jurassic, Triassic; the
uplift and canyon cutting happened fairly recently in geologic time.

Rock
walls dropped straight to the water’s edge. Bull Canyon, the first
big side canyon, opened on river right; the rapid next to the mouth
was not much. Around a couple of bends was a smaller right side
canyon, where rafts were landing to camp. Opposite was a big wave
train running along a low wall. I snuck right of the waves, my boat
too heavy to dump and too cluttered to bail. Should have bought a
pump. My gear was protected in tapered inflatable inflatable dry
bags, Voyageur and Watershed, designed for kayaks. The fat ends were
tied down next to the triple saddle, and the narrow ends were roped
down under the end bags.

At
the next bend was one of the most photographed spots on the Dolores,
where it cuts so far under frozen dunes that they hang completely
over the river. I landed on the shady bank opposite the overhanging
sand wall for a late lunch. A large campsite up away from the river
was as yet unoccupied. It was surrounded by dry grass salted with
yellow spires and cactus flowers.

Returning
to my boat, I saw a kayaker in a Wave Sport Diesel who seemed to have
three support rafts. I called to him that I hoped he’d be
comfortable, as he would be just sitting for much of the trip. Then I
pushed off again myself.

The
river snaked westward, then whipped north toward the most severe
meanders in Slickrock Canyon. Intermittent rapids were formed by huge
sandstone boulders which had crashed into the river. I had difficulty
keeping track of where I was, even though I had the Dolores River
Guide open in front of me, and the compass beside it. Part of the
problem was that the River Guide was arbitrary in which landmarks it
chose to include. La Luge Rapid, for example, “…not really a
rapid, just a fun drop,” was not a drop at all, and not at all
noteworthy. I wasn’t even sure which one the Guide authors meant
until I later reviewed my photos.

The
other problem was that, in such a twisting canyon, small turns were
hard to tell from big ones. For a while that sunny afternoon, I
thought I was a couple of miles farther along than was actually the
case. When I saw a campsite under a frozen dune, I thought that might
be the Grotto, cited in the Guide, but I wondered why it was on the
left rather than the right as shown on the map. Before I realized my
error, I chanced to photograph the neck of the three leaf clover
meander, where the river runs three miles around a stem about an
eighth of a mile in thickness.

Still
looking for the real Grotto, I gave up and camped opposite a noisy
wave train. The small campsite was almost ideal, with one pocket just
big enough for the tent, another with a ledge for sitting and
spreading gear, and a third in cool shade where I lay and rested for
awhile. Then I hiked south over fallen boulders and up to an
overhang. I could look down on my campground to the SW, and around
the bend to the north was the Grotto, the thing itself. Tiny tents
and people lay in its friendly maw. Finally knowing my location, I
saw that I had covered 13 miles the first afternoon.

It
was cold that night, though pleasant enough in my Sierra Designs
Omega, with the winter weather panels zipped shut over the screens.
Empty Gatorade bottles obviated nocturnal trips to river’s edge. The
roar of the wave train drowned out night sounds.

Up
by 7:30, I sat munching trail mix. An oarsman guided a raft down the
wave train, with two passengers, one in the bow, one in the stern.
They must have a lot planned, to be loaded and on the water so early.
The current is strong and steady enough that a raft could cover the
whole 36 miles in a day.

I
repacked methodically, trying to put things back where I could locate
them quickly later. I was on the water again by nine o’clock, but
found that the party in the Grotto had left before I could take their
picture from water level. Downstream on the right was the Leach Creek
side canyon, said to be a good hike. The landing was high and small,
and there was no good place to tie the canoe or beach it, so I kept
going.

That
second day began beautifully sunny. It would become memorable for its
weather contrasts. As I rounded the lobes of the Cloverleaf meander
and passed the Notch, a gap in the neck of the next meander, clouds
built up overhead. A mile below the Notch I spotted the back of the
neck of the Cloverleaf. Just a mile beyond that was the other side of
the Notch. Around the bend I spotted a “small natural arch”
designated in my guidebook. It was more like an undercut stone bench,
not a walk-through. It was getting colder and raining a little, so I
pulled over on a gravel bar to put on my Rapidstyle raingear. Back on
the water, I missed pictures of the giant rocks at Pirate’s Cove
because raindrops blew all over the lens. The river meanders kept
oscillating at about two cycles per mile all the way to Spring
Canyon.

Spring
Canyon was the one rapid I ran badly. “Spring Canyon (III) is
worth scouting.” I, however, was distracted trying to clean my
lens, photograph the canyon mouth, and spot a landing, so I ended up
not scouting or doing the other things properly either. Most of the
water ran down a twisting course against an overhanging left side
wall. I couldn’t see through that, so I decided to try working
through the half-covered boulder field in the center. The loaded boat
didn’t respond well to corrections, and I ended up humping crudely
over some hidden rocks. No harm done except to my pride. The rain
increased again and I stuffed the camera under my PFD.

Below
Spring Canyon the river straightened, running west for a ways.
Sometimes the headwinds were severe, and the best way to fight it was
to lean way forward and bury the paddle next to the bow, using the
strong current to pull the boat forward by its nose. But then the sun
came out, the sky cleared, and I stopped to rest and rehydrate. Back
on the water, occasional rapids were peppy enough to keep the
paddling interesting. In a couple of miles I came to Coyote Wash, the
biggest tributary in Slickrock Canyon.

Most
of the side canyons are fairly steep, with scant water trickling down
stepwise from pool to pool. Coyote Wash does not carry much more
water, just a shallow ribbon in the sand even in this wet spring, but
for some reason it has cut a level course, so that one can walk up
over sand and grass for miles, even into Utah. I contented myself
with a quarter mile walk, accompanied by rafters who were interested
in my lone canoeist status. There were huge, grassy campgrounds at
the mouth of the wash. I hoped to find a smaller campsite a few miles
down around Muleshoe Bend.

Muleshoe
Bend is another tight meander, two miles around with a neck only
about two tenths of a mile across. The neck on Muleshoe has eroded so
far down that one can land and climb across. This neck is the
Muleshoe’s Achilles Heel; someday the river will cut through and
amputate the shoe. Clambering over the gap, I thought that only the
most lightly loaded boater would consider a portage here to save half
an hour’s paddling.

I
could have camped there, but it was rather open and over-visited. The
sky was darkening, the wind picking up, so there would be a strong
tailwind down to the toe of the shoe. Perhaps I could find a campsite
sheltered by an overhang. Soon, though, thunder echoed down the
canyon, hard rain pelted down, and the wind blew so that I could not
keep the boat in line.

The
boat was briefly forced so hard to starboard that the gunwale came
within a couple of inches of the water. I managed to get to the bank,
where I grabbed a double handful of willow branches and hunched over
to wait out the storm.

It
was over soon, and the rainwater left the frozen dune layers a shiny
gray. The sky cleared, the sun shone again. This was perhaps the
deepest part of Slickrock Canyon, the river at about 5000, the canyon
rim up to 6000 feet. I stopped to look for a sheltered campsite,
without success. Tamarisk, willow, and thick grasses thrive near the
water and make it difficult to get to more open, drier areas above.

Soon
I floated to the downstream side of the Achilles Heel. Campsites
there were still exposed and unappealing. Campsites in the Dolores
River Guide are marked by white or black teepees, and the dark ones
are supposed to be for smaller parties. There was a small-party site
marked about half a mile down on the left, by the mouth of a small
side canyon.

I
paddled down, landed on a gravel bar, and explored the site. It was
not small, in fact it could have accommodated an entire GCA
Extravaganza with ease. Up on a gravelly step was a gathering site
with logs arranged for sitting, and more logs landscaped to protect a
colony of flowering cactus. For my own tent, however, I chose a
pocket sheltered by small trees, an easy walk from my landing. Having
done about 15 miles, I was too tired to go on, and if I was joined by
a larger party, there was the chance of getting fed something more
interesting than trail mix and jerky.

Back
at water’s edge, the view south was right through the gap in
Muleshoe. One large party passed, the three rafts and the lone Diesel
kayaker. Wave, shout, hadn’t seen them since the overhang the day
before. I explored the little canyon behind the camp. It was too
boulder-choked to go far. Then the tent had to go up; no prospect of
sleeping out with the sky still doubtful and a cold night coming on.

Next
morning I woke with a migraine, but the weather looked to stay fair.
I shifted some of the water bottles toward the back of the boat to
improve handling, and sure enough, when I set out, the Synergy was
more like its old self. I had only about 8.5 miles to the Bedrock
take-out, and there were four “name” rapids along the way,
so handling counted more than tracking.

A
mile down I passed Bip Rock, a big chunk of eroded sandstone perched
oddly on the water. The Dolores whipped back and forth twice more in
its canyon and then the walls began to pull back, revealing more open
vistas.

Opposite
a side canyon was One Holer Rapid, where the guidebook said I could
stay left of an island and enjoy the big hole at the bottom. Well,
there was no island, and there was no big hole, though there were
some nice waves, and some half-hidden rocks which might catch a
careless raft. The open views were so beautiful that I pulled over to
the right bank and threw up. Where would the BLM want me to barf?
Never mind, it went in the river. I was not sorry for retching, for
as is often the case, it ended the migraine.

I
found a place in the shade and dozed for a bit. Then it was on to La
Sal rapid, which the guidebook said “looks awful” but can
be run in rafts at less than 800 cfs. At 800, there really wasn’t
much to it; waves and hidden rocks were the only hazards. Just beyond
on the left was La Sal Creek running smoothly out of a side canyon.
Though there is a pack trail running up along the creek, I couldn’t
find a good landing, and turned out to paddle through some multi
channel rapids.

I
missed the left side landing where one can see petroglyphs and
dinosaur tracks, and soon came to S-Turn rapid, described as a III+.
It was much more open and easy than, say, Spring Creek or One Holer.
The only problem might be that the first leg of the S would shoot a
loaded raft toward some right side rocks lurking in the turn. These
were easy to skirt in a canoe. I landed for pictures and to kill
time, even napping a bit again, knowing that Ellie didn’t expect me
at the take-out until 2 PM.

The
last name rapid was “Madam Curie,” next to a big side
canyon. This was radium mining country, but I don’t know why the
Madame’s glowing reputation was attached to this particular rapid. It
was a nice one, though, with a bit of length to it.

In
the final mile a big pumping plant appeared up the right bank. This
Bureau of Reclamation project is not to extract or purify water.
Instead it takes brine from shallow wells and pumps it deep in the
ground so it doesn’t run down the Dolores and into the Colorado. As
mentioned earlier, the Dolores has high salinity, and reducing
salinity in the Colorado supposedly helps farmers and communities far
down in Arizona, southern California, and Mexico. Of course it would
work just as well not to have built two huge reservoirs on the
Colorado, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which increase salinity by
leaching salt out of the rocks they cover, and lose enormous amounts
of pure water to evaporation….

But
I digress. Though I hadn’t seen any live people all day, just one
parked raft, when I got to the take-out there were lots of vehicles
and several rafting parties loading up. A couple in an oared raft,
the same one I had seen parked earlier, said they had seen me dozing
at One Holer rapid. They were fairly experienced canoeists, but
decided to try rafting to better cope with the gear challenges of
multi-day western rivers.

Ellie
appeared on time, in spite of some temporary route confusion. I
loaded up while she explored, and then we hit the road, meeting my
sister and her family to camp along the Dolores’ sister river, the
San Miguel. The San Miguel was cookin’ with cold runoff, but I had
run that section before, and I was dog tired.

In
fact I did not run anything after the Dolores. I watched practice for
slalom Nationals in Durango. We visited Sand Dunes National Monument,
the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Mount Capulin Volcano National
Monument in New Mexico, and Tishomingo State Park in northeast
Mississippi. It just didn’t seem important to run anything after the
Dolores, not for a while.

June
2-4, 2005

by
Gary DeBacher

From
The Eddy Line, March 2006