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Kalen Thorien admires the view from above the Colorado River; Photograph by Max Lowe

Utah by Dirt: River Life on the Colorado

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Newbie guide Max oars his way down the Ruby-Horsethief section of our float under the watchful eye of captain Susan Monroe. The position of river guide is a coveted position and one not easily earned. Max was starting his journey; Photograph by Max Lowe

For Utah by Dirt, four friends find as much Utah adventure as possible accessed by dirt roads. Follow their story on The Adventurists blog.

As the sun settled behind the canyon walls, I stared around at the surrounding desert, bobbing along the Colorado River in my packraft, legs sticking out with a beer can nestled between my thighs. Pinks and reds radiated off the canyon walls as Neil Young serenaded us in the background. Our crew was heading down Ruby-Horsethief Canyon en-route to Westwater Canyon, where the bigger whitewater of the Colorado was waiting for us.

Our guides were from Holiday River Expeditions, based out of Green River, Utah, where our group gathered before departure. Established almost 50 years ago, the river-rat mentality runs deep in this outfitter’s team, and you get that sense immediately every time you look at the huge grins plastered on the guides’ faces. Our crew of river travelers was a hodgepodge of people from California and Salt Lake City. The age span ranged from mid teens to wise old sages. For some, it was their first river trip; for another, his 12th down Westwater Canyon alone. We bobbed along, swapping stories of previous whitewater trips, our places of work, where we’re from, and where we’re going. A bond between very different worlds quickly grew, and our little chaotic mix of adventure-seekers soon became a family.

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Kalen Thorien, a professional skier, brought along her tiny inflatable packraft and paddled herself a good bit of the trip, a lady of the desert in her element; Photograph by Max Lowe

We landed at our first camp and the night unrolled with moments of play and relaxation—all with sand between our toes and translucent clouds drifting overhead. I started setting up my camp at a glacial pace. The guides, without a blink of hesitation, were working hard at preparing the night’s feast. Smells of grilled chicken and roasted veggies tickled my nostrils as I blew up my sleeping pad, eyeing the surroundings canyons for possibilities for a quick hike before we ate. Stories continued as we chowed on the world’s largest tacos, laughing between massive bites, each of us contributing amusing anecdotes when the time was right. I sat back with a full belly, taking in the serenity and peace as the fire crackled and chuckles continued.

The next day started with a massive breakfast of pancakes, granola, and lots of coffee. These guides knew exactly what we were all craving. Another mellow day on the river, and then we’d cap off the trip with the big water. The night, again, was filled with delicious food, whiskey, and games of horseshoes. The California crew gave Max and Joey a run for their money, ending in a tie with the whiskey taking hold before a third game could commence. It was only night two, but I felt like I had known these people forever. Intricate details about each others lives were now commonplace in conversation and any sense of anxiety or shyness had gone out the window. The night was filled with stars, quickly washed out by moonlight which bounced off the small rapid train below our camp. The light echo of moving water was a blessing to fall asleep to, allowing a slumber far deeper than anything found at home.

Fueled with more coffee and another massive breakfast, we began our whitewater day. The guides gave us a quick but thorough run down on safety—how to high-side when we get bucked by a rapid or how to pull your buddy out of the water if he or she goes overboard. The twinge of nerves was felt in everyone’s gut, but the excitement was far greater. The boom of rapids, that heart dropping, adrenaline fueling sound, came quickly. The river always has an eerie calm in its body before you hit a rapid. The water, being forced through a narrow area, slows down and backs up, creating an almost cruel slow motion effect before the chaos. Your heart begins to beat faster, your palms become sweaty. The guide begins to maneuver, slowly, but confidently, into place. It doesn’t necessarily take much strength, just precision, to negotiate a rapid. If you read the water and line yourself up just right, you can flow through with almost comical ease. But if you’re off, by even just a hair, it can turn to a heart-pounding bronco ride where neither you nor the person rowing has 100 percent confidence that you’ll make it out in one piece. But that’s what these guys are trained to do. They know this river like the back of their hand and how to handle her ever changing characteristics.

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Carston Oliver and Joey Schusler take the first wave off the bow going into the tight section of the Westwater Canyon, Utah; Photograph by Max Lowe

“Hang on!” Colin yelled as we plunged down the tongue of the first rapid. Carston and Joey were up front, and I watched as both were completely submerged by a breaking wave. The raft bucked in the air and Colin let out another shout of joy. Hoots and hollers reverberated of the walls, overpowering the noise of the torrent. Around the next corner was another set, and after that, another. A symphony of whitewater, each with its own melody but all delivering the same climactic moment. We battled through, everyone getting soaked by one wave or another, laughing between gasps of air, taking in the ride. Eventually the water calmed and we settled down on the first beach to enjoy lunch and a cold beer. The rest of the float would be a quick but mellow bob to the take out. Colin serenaded us with his guitar as Max took over the oars. Content, sun-baked, and adrenaline-fueled, it was a perfect end to a perfect day.

There’s something to be said about river life. It’s a pace that, for some, might take a bit of adjusting. Moments of mayhem and chaos are dotted with extreme downtime … also known as tanning on a giant piece of rubber while drinking a beer and magically moving at a 2-3 mph. The dedication that many people give to this lifestyle is impressive. Living out of your truck in the middle of the desert in July, earning almost minimum wage, and consuming bulk amounts of ramen noodles are not uncommon practices for the river rat. Beards are a respected facial adornment, bad tan lines are signs of dedication, and beer koozies are a necessary tool for survival…next to duct tape and sun hats. So what is it that makes people come back? Why choose to live such a lifestyle? What is it about the river that attracts such a variety of people?

The river teaches an existential outlook on the world. It forces you to be present. Your path is completely dictated by nature, and as they say, trying to swim upstream is a battle in futility. You drift along, allowing the slow and steady pace of reality to flow, accepting whatever fate lies ahead. It’s a mentality that seems to be lost in our current world. Constantly planning for the future, “becoming” someone, going somewhere, paying off debts, stress, depression, anxiety…we’re constantly plagued with a burden we carry; an inescapable wormhole of self-deprecation. It’s something that’s extremely difficult to pull yourself out of, until you’re forced on an 18-foot raft, with good people, and beautiful surroundings.

Then like clockwork, the inner senses adjust to a new pace, a flow state that is delicately placed in the hands of running water. Time is measured in CFS, desktops become paddles, and the water cooler is quickly replaced by beer. You weave in and out of reality, catching your brain drifting back into the default world, dissecting your current life-status. But you quickly catch your unintended mental exit when the sound of whitewater reverberates off the canyon walls. Quickly, you’re immersed in a second by second existence, where every action has a very sudden and real reaction, and any false move produces unintended chaos followed by shouts of joy and victory … even if your boat did flip and all your belongings are floating down the river. The point is, you’re alive, living, breathing, and immersed in the original origin of your existence, surrounded by the key ingredients of life down to the very cells that you’re composed of, filled with the rawest of elements and saturated with shades of bliss unattainable in any other circumstance.

This is river life … and it’s easy to see why so many fight to keep it alive.

Up Next: Floating Utah’s Rapids

The Adventurists blog series “Utah by Dirt” is sponsored by Toyota 4Runner, which provided vehicle for this adventure.

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