Monday, May 24, 2010


Friday, May 14, 2010

The river trip had been several months in the planning. We were a group of cognitive research scientists, a writer with photographer from the New York Times and the sole artist of the group; myself.

Dave Strayer and I had been running this stretch of the San Juan River for over ten years. I was coming along to row one of the rafts and for visual entertainment, while they reveled over the cognitive changes in the brain without cell phones and other electronic devices. It puzzled me to why one would even consider it worthy of research.

On Friday we pulled into the small town of Bluff, Utah late at night. It had been overcast with rain most of the way down from Salt Lake City. I had four bodies in my car and Dave the other four. He was hauling the trailer filled to the brim with all the gear we would need over the next five days. Our mode of transportation was two rafts, a canoe and an inflatable kayak, called a “Ducky”.

The alarm went off at 7:oo the next morning. It was a quick breakfast at the only coffee shop Bluff had to offer, followed with the finale packing of all our gear into watertight river bags. Everything had to be put into something that would protect it from the churning water of the rapids. I had a 20mm ammunition rocket box that I had outfitted with slots to hold panels of canvas for me. The military always liked to store their firepower in watertight metal boxes, which after use became available to buy at your local army/navy stores for next to nothing. Mine held about ten panels, the turpentine, paper towels and a rag for clean up. My French easel was in a watertight river bag. I was ready to get wet.

We drove west twenty miles or so to a small hamlet of weathered, paint peeling dwellings and a lone gas station. This was the town of Mexican Hat. We pulled into the dusty gravel road that ended by the river, behind Val’s convenient store. It was the put-on for all river runners doing the 57-mile stretch to the remote, isolated point of departure at Clay Hills. Everything was unloaded from the trailer and sprawled out on the ground, two hour later it was all strapped down tight on the sixteen-foot long inflatable rafts. We had two large ice chests containing our food for the trip, one of which was to remain sealed the first few days so as to keep the blocks of ice from melting. The last thing you wanted was your dinner floating around in lukewarm water after the third day. We also had along with two more watertight dry boxes for the non-refrigerated goods. Breakfast muffins and coffee came to mind for those. We were checked out by the park ranger and launched.

Our first rapid was Gypsum. In Utah they rated them on a scale from one being the easiest up to a five, which if done wrong could suck the raft and all its occupants underwater for a washing machine ride. Gypsum was a class two and just around the bend. You barely had time to get your feet wet, before you were thrown into it. Generally the rafts just sail across the top without any problem. The canoes are a different story; being lower down in the water, they will promptly fill up from the churning rapids splashing over the bow. Once this happens they roll over in an undignified manner, leaving you flaying and gasping for air in the turmoil. It was up to the rafts or ducky’s to pull the waterlogged canoeists to shore.

The canoe made it through, filling only halfway up with water. A small stop to bail it dry again and we were on our way into the serpentine maize of the Goosenecks. The walls of the cliffs became higher with every mile we put behind us. Over millions of years the ground slowly raised itself up as the river eroded a path through it down to the Colorado River. The present day depth was now over a thousand feet of rock.

Our first stop was an old miner shack built on top of a saddle in Mendenhall loop, a mile-long oxbow bend in the river. There one could hike up to a small plateau and see the river just on the other side. And it was here a miner, named Mendenhall in the year 1893 decided to try his luck at making his fortune. Unfortunately the river didn’t agree with his plans and within a year flooded and washed away all his equipment. The shack was abandoned shortly after.

We pressed on to our first camp site at mile marker thirty-seven, it was a ninety degree right turn in the river and offered a nice view across the river of a rock strewn side canyon. This medium sized sandy spot offered plenty of room to set up the kitchen and six tents we had. Strayer had a Dutch-oven pork lion meal planned for the evening and he also had enough volunteers willing to help in the preparation.

I decided to work on a small 11x14 along the river bank, before the sun went down. The light was now racking itself across the rock on the opposite shore line and made for a nice study. Within a few minutes I had everything set up and was at work. I was mainly at work against the clock, as I watched the shadows growing longer and longer in the evening light. Within an hour I was forced to quite, I was barely able to see the pallet. After cleaning up I retired to a chair with a glass of wine in my hand. The conversation was the executive functions of the frontal cortex. I yawned

Richard Boyer

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