Dolores River--- Slickrock Canyon Run
There aren't many desert river runs that can be done in a solo or tandem open canoe without raft support. Damntrue posted a while back about his journey down the Green River from the town of that name down to Spanish Bottoms, at the junction with the Colorado. This time you'll see a much smaller river, cutting another world class canyon--- a river that only runs a few weeks a year, and sometimes not at all.
The Dolores arises high in the San Juan mountains, passes SSW through the old mining town of Rico, and then describes an inverted question mark, swinging west, north, northeast, and eventually joining the Colorado east of Moab.
The Dolores was never a year-round river, but its natural cycle is severely compromised by management of McPhee Dam. About half the years it doesn't run at all, and when it does, the season for paddling is roughly 30 days around May 31.
When it escapes McPhee Reservoir, the Dolores cuts a series of canyons: Ponderosa Gorge, Little Glen Canyon, Slickrock Canyon, Paradox and Mesa Canyons, and Gateway Canyon. Ponderosa Gorge has serious whitewater. Except for famed Snaggletooth Rapid, it can be run in whitewater open boats, but having one's gear in a support raft makes it much safer. The last canyon, Gateway, is a bit easier but still has some rapids that are very difficult in a gear laden canoe. Paradox and Mesa canyons are roadside runs, attractive but less favored.
Slickrock Canyon is a 36 mile run from a BLM access in Big Gypsum Valley to a BLM takeout upstream of Bedrock. The stream gradient is a modest 10 feet per mile, and while rapids are fairly frequent, they are mostly straightforward. Three used to be rated class 3, but while they may challenge loaded rafts, they are more easily threaded by canoes.
Here's the Slickrock run from outer space. Note the severe meanders. You'll have a strong tendency to see rivers and streams as raised above the surrounding surface, rather than appearing incised into it.
mapdolores by ezwater, on Flickr
Here in early June 1995, I'm tying gear into the boat at the Big Gypsum Valley access. Because the Dolores runs through salt deposits, is very silty, and has no reliable freshwater tributaries, one cannot treat the water. I was planning for two nights on the river, and carried a generous water supply in plastic bottles, held in Nylon net bags.
doloresscn1 by ezwater, on Flickr
There is no advance permit required for this river, which makes it much easier to run on the spur of the moment. But the BLM requires one to sign in, and to carry a fire pan, and a strainer for food particles. This was funny in my case, because I did not plan on cooking at all. I had three day's supply of granola, trail mix, and beef jerky. But in case a ranger inspected my load, I had an aluminum turkey roasting pan for firepan, and a large kitchen strainer. I carried a welding rod container to meet the secure feces transport requirement. The rules on these desert rivers are that you pee in the river, but take all feces back to civilization.
It was early afternoon when I was able to put on the river. Flow was 800cfs, just enough that rafts could still manage it. Canoes can run the Dolores down to half that flow, or less. My wife was still there to get pictures of the first mile of my progress, but she planned to drive to Montrose to visit her aged cousin. She would pick me up at Bedrock in two days.
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The land rising around the river.
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Entering Slickrock Canyon
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A rapid near the mouth of Bull Canyon. I didn't know the gal in the green canoe, but through a chance internet contact, I was able to send her this picture.
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Nearing a spot where the river cuts entirely under overhanging sandstone.
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Here I've parked under the overhang, with 800 cfs running quietly below the wall.
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As I rested, a party passed.
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Out in the open, looking above the overhang.
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The river coming back out into the open.
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Desrt varnish, seen in sandstone canyons everywhere. They don't seem settled on a cause for it.
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What falls from the rim sometimes lands edge on and sticks.
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With a swift current, I was making good time. I hoped to cover at least 12 miles before camp.
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Remember the profile of that high ridge, because later we'll see it from the other side, again from the water.
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Here, from space, you can see the meanders through which I'm passing. The neck of the three leafed clover is where the previous photo was taken. We have 3 miles of river separated by less than a quarter mile. We'll see both sides of the next meander neck also.
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I was a bit lost at the time, because I was trying to follow progress on the map based on turns.
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I'd been hoping to camp in or near a particular rock overhang called The Grotto, but I gave up and camped amongst the scrub up near the rapid you see in the back center. I decided to hike downstream before setting up camp.
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When I got up high and looked around the bend, there was the Grotto camp. In the second picture you can see the tents more clearly.
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If you've been imagining desert heat all this time, relax. The day had been cool and fresh. I spent the evening munching granola, drinking one of my two beers, and soaking up the scenery in the transition to moonlight. Below, we're back on the river on a splendid morning.
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Here's the Grotto camp from water level. The campers got out before me.
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"The Notch" at the upside of another meander neck.
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And here's the downside of the big three-leaf-clover meander.
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A word about the sandstone. When it's markedly layered and broken, it was laid down in an ancient sea. When it's rather smooth and broad-faced, it was laid down as ancient sand dunes. Sometimes the wind blown layers can be seen slanting in the rock.
The weather's starting to turn. The Notch marks the downstream side of the meander.
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It was starting to rain as I approached Spring Creek. I tried, but not hard enough, to find a place to get out and scout Spring Creek Rapid. I didn't like running the usual route next to the left wall, because I couldn't see if it was clear. So I tried to thread left center, and got my underside thumped good for my troubles.
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Here the rain's stopped and so have I.
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Here I've stopped at Coyote Gulch, the largest tributary to the Dolores in Slickrock Canyon. Coyote Gulch runs fairly level, so those equipped to spend a day or two hiking can walk all the way to the Utah border.
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The mouth of Coyote GUlch.
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Often one sees little horizon lines on the water, and the exact route is seen only on getting near the lip.
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Another neck of a tight meander loop, in this case Mule Shoe Bend. I climbed up on the neck to see the river on both sides.
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Right after I got back on the water, a ferocious little thunderstorm struck. The wind was so strong that I was almost blown over, but I got to the left bank and held on to shrubs while the storm blew over. The shot below was when I had turned the Mule Shoe bend. Notice how the rain has changed the color of the frozen sand dunes.
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Looking back up toward Mule Shoe Bend. This is the deepest part of Slickrock Canyon.
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Here's the downstream side of the neck of the Muleshoe Meander. Some day the river will cut through and run straighter and faster.
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Having covered almost 20 miles, I've camped for the second night. I'd not seen a single craft on the water all day, but here's the red kayak gang I'd seen at the overhang the afternoon before.
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I did a little hiking around the campsite, but nothing ambitious. Folks often ask why I often canoe entirely alone. What if something happened? My experience is that a tired paddler hiking alone in rocky country is more at risk. I didn't want to end up like the poor fellow who jammed his arm and had to saw it off to save his life. So, I'm conservative whether on the water or on land in these solo outings.
The night seemed windier and colder, so I zipped all the panels shut in my 3-4 season tent. I drank my second beer and worked at sleeping.
The next morning was sunny and fresh, but I had a headache. I had only about 7 miles to go to reach the take out, so I didn't want to hurry, and mostly floated along taking pictures and trying to ignore my head.
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Here's Bip Rock, a famous landmark. You can see cross-bedded sand layers laid down by ancient winds in its face.
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I've just run Corner Rapid, near La Sal Creek. It is described in older sources as a class 3 drop, but at least at this level, there was no maneuvering justifying a class 3 rating, and there was no drop either. I, however, now having a full blown migraine, had to drop on the sand and throw up. Not sure what the BLM wants one to do with vomit. Probably remove the food particles with one's strainer. Anyway, I lay in the shade and rested as my headache receded.
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Back on the water, nearing an interesting dome that I can't find on the maps.
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Looking back at the mouth of La Sal Creek.
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S-turn Rapid, another "class 3" that is only just a class 2.
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A long class 2 leads past the mouth of Steer Gulch.
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Loading up. The raft belongs to a couple who had seen me convalescing on the sandbar earlier. They usually canoe, but recently got the raft to give themselves more carrying capacity for multi-day trips. He runs shuttle by hitch hiking, and I gave him a ride about halfway back to Slickrock where they embarked.
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The ancient store at Bedrock. You can actually buy useful things there, and sometimes they can help arrange shuttle.
co03.151 by ezwater, on Flickr