Headwaters to the Upper Green River
August 15, 2018
The One River Many Voices expedition officially began on Wednesday August 8 at the Green River Lakes trailhead in the Wind River Range, but the journey truly began about 2 years ago.
Mike approached me when he realized he had a sabbatical coming up in a couple of years. He and I have always wanted to complete a long expedition together since we met over 15 years ago and saw this as our opportunity. We talked about a climbing road trip or traveling overseas. But, those trips just didn’t quite sit right with us. We then brought up the old idea of a source to sea river expedition on a river that holds meaning to both of us. The idea was solidified as we decided on the Green and Colorado Rivers.
For Mike and I, ideas of trips come easy and go just as quickly. The hard part is putting them into action. We decided on an action plan so that we didn’t fall into complacency with this trip. The first step was to see if I could get the time off. I love my job and we rely on my income – so losing my job over a trip was not an option. We decided on dates so that I could approach the owners of the group practice that I work in. Both John and Lori were overwhelmingly supportive of me taking a leave of absence, and agreed to hold my office while I was away. Step one was done.
Next, we had to secure a Grand Canyon permit. Many folks know that this is not an easy permit to obtain. We looked at river miles for the entire journey and came up with an estimate of when we would be approaching the Grand Canyon on a Fall source to sea trip, following good weather south. As the 2018 permit season approached (2 years before the launch date) we sent an email to about 120 friends asking them to apply for 5 dates in our date range. Email after email came back saying they were denied. One afternoon, we both got an email from a friend saying she had pulled the permit! She was the only person out of the entire friend list that was successful. The following year, we sent a second email out to folks asking them to apply for a Gates of Lodore permit – and one friend got that. The last permit we needed was a Desolation Canyon permit – and both Mike and I got that permit. With the lottery-dependent permits completed and my work giving me 5 months of leave, the trip was officially on. (We’ll write later about the hardship in planning a 5-month expedition and house rental. It caused a number of marital fights, and it was a full time job on top of our already full time jobs. All I can say is thank you Jennifer Walrod – one of the best couples counselors out there…)
Fast forward to Weds, August 8, 2018. Walking away from the vehicle that day at 5pm was a surreal feeling. Mike and I were still bickering over small details that day – realizing everything that we forgot to put in the van/boat. Regardless, we had everything we needed on our backs and were heading into the Wind River Range for 4 days. Emma Dog was thrilled.
We hiked about 4 miles into the Bridger Wilderness that night, and found camp at the head of the second lake. We had a stunning view of Squaretop Mountain and the Green River Valley behind it. We set up camp and cooked our dinner staring in awe of the majesty of the view before us. We both expected to have a good night’s sleep, as we both tend to sleep well in the backcountry. But, to both of our dismay, our sleep was a continuation of the stress of planning and front country life. We both woke up grumpy – and aimed our anger mostly at each other. Matters got worse when 2 backcountry rangers approached us in the middle of breakfast saying they were ticketing us for camping within 200 feet of the lake. We were both dumbfounded as the ticket went against Leave No Trace principles (it was an impacted site, 50 feet from the water) – and we are both Leave No Trace master educators. (More later about this event…)
The rangers talked to us for an hour, and we started our hike at the crack of 10 am. The hike was beautiful, but Mike was furious and engaging in hypothetical conversations he would have with the rangers if he saw them again, as well as composing articulate letters out loud that he is going to write to the agency. I’ve learned that trying to do therapy on your partner is a disaster, so I mostly ignored him as he went on his rants. We ended up hiking up Vista Pass and found camp at nearly 11,000 feet. The amazing view calmed both of us down, changing the mood entirely.
We set up camp on a spectacularly beautiful pass, and cooked dinner staring at peaks over 13,000 feet. After a long day of hiking (and ranting) we were both sufficiently tired and slept like the dead that night. I usually sleep cold, but that night it was a surprising 60 degrees at elevation. I have rarely slept warm above 10,000 feet. We woke up the next morning and day-hiked up to the headwaters of the Green River. We found our way to Dale Lake, and played for a couple hours. This was the first play we’ve had in months. We started really feeling like ourselves again up at the headwaters - very fitting.
After snacking, swimming, playing and resting – we made our way down to camp. Ultimately, we decided to break down camp so we could make some miles that afternoon. We made it down the pass and into the Green River Valley. Since we already got an $80 ticket from the Forest Service for camping “illegally” we didn’t want to risk an “illegal” camp. We walked past dozen’s of camps that were all illegal. It's difficult to find spaces that are 200 feet from lakes and trails in steep alpine valleys that aren't sloped and choked with deadfall. Around 8pm, we finally made a camp that was 100 feet from the river and 200 feet from the trail. We set up the tent and walked to a gravel bar nearby to cook dinner. Just as we finished hydrating a much-awaited beans and rice meal, I looked up to see a baby moose not 50 feet from us. I poked Mike in fear, and his immediate words were “Shit, where is the mother?” Then, mother appeared out of the trees, next to the calf. My body froze and all I wanted to do was run into the trees, but somehow I stayed put. (Maybe it was Mike telling me “DON’ RUN!” I may have run a little bit when we came across a grizzly bear at nearly the same distance about a decade before… everything worked out ok though.) I held Emma down, as she was growling at the mother moose. I think she sensed my fear, and instead fell asleep as we gently talked to the moose so that she wouldn't come over to our side of the river. The mother didn’t seem to be fazed by us, and continued to munch on whatever she was munching on before Mike and I got there. After about 30 minutes, she and the calf meandered away so that we could finish our now cold beans and rice.
After going to bed, I had dreams of moose stomping our tent to shreds. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep well. We woke up the next morning and began to break down camp. We were drying our sleeping bags and tent ( it was dewy that night) and walked back to the gravel bar. The damn moose and calf showed up just as we started breakfast… in the same spot. We decided to pack up and make breakfast on the trail so that we could give space to the mother and calf. Don’t get me wrong - they were both beautiful. The calf was blonde and the mother was powerful. Both looked very healthy and well fed. We walked back into the willow grove to pack up our wet stuff. As we were packing, I heard a “splash” into the small Green River between us, and they were heading straight for us. I dove onto Emma as she started growling, and Mike grabbed the bear spray and yelled at the moose to take notice of us. She veered away and kept running into the woods – the same direction we needed to go, along with her calf. My legs were shaking and heart rate high, but Emma had again calmed under my grip. We had a great breakfast by the river a mile down the trail.
It was a hot hike out that day. The last mile out, the sandy trail was so hot that Emma’s paws were burning. We made it out around 4pm, and I volunteered to get the van that was parked a mile away. After we bathed in the river, we found that our friends had planned and prepared a steak and potato dinner for us that evening. Coyotes, firelight and starlight finished off the night. It was perfect.
Sunday morning, our same friends prepared a ceremony for the start of our 1800-mile river journey. We burned sage for cleansing, then offered tobacco and whiskey to the river for safe passage. After some last minute gear repair, we set off in our packrafts from Green River Lakes, and headed down the Upper Green River. The winds were not in our favor and I may have been “just slightly grumpy” about that, and let Mike know all about it. After about 5 miles of traveling into a headwind in slow moving water, we hit the Moose Creek whitewater section that lasted for the rest of our float. It changed my mood, and I was happy to be on the river.
The river is lower than we had expected for this time of year, so we are having to packraft much more of the river than planned before it is deep enough to launch our dory. We have had to paddle solo each day. I’ll paddle a section and Mike will meet me at a designated take out, then he gets into my boat and paddles until the take-out where meet him. We’ll continue this way until we can put the dory in. We’ve scouted the boat ramps, and it looks like Huston boat ramp will have enough water to support our dory. That will be on Friday August 17th. Until then, we look forward to seeing the river solo by packraft.
Thanks for following our journey. Tomorrow (August 16th) might be our last day with internet access for a while. More updates to come down river!