How I Almost Died in Canyonlands National Park

I’m floating on my back in a huge shallow eddy.  The muddy water silently churns a giant slow-motion circle.  The water soothes the back of my head and brings relief from the early September heat like the cool side of a pillow.  As I float I watch the jagged outline of red cliff-tops against the blue desert sky.  My eyes close as I let the slow current drift me back towards my secluded white sandy beach.

After a few minutes I snap out of my bliss and move to stand up but my leg whiffs through unexpectedly deep water.  Calmly treading I look around to re-orient myself and notice that my bright yellow kayak on the beach is surprisingly small and it’s moving away from me.  I find myself in mid-river.

This wonderful spot was three days and 50 miles into one of America’s finest flatwater river adventures.  I’m in Canyonlands National Park, where the Green and Colorado Rivers carve twisting labyrinths in the ancient rock layers before joining together in a grand confluence of waters and canyons.  In the Canyonlands the “Green” River is the color of peanut butter.  The muddy water, several hundred feet across, moves as one relentless mass from bank to bank with no rapids, waves or riffles.  When on the water the river seems as still as a lake until you glance to the bank and see the Tamarisk bushes drifting backwards as slow as a morning stroll in the park.  Away from the main river numerous side canyons lead to immense rock cathedrals, hidden edens, and relics of prehistoric societies.  The wilderness is deep here and the rivers offer the only way out.

 Over the course of these three wonderful days I had drifted and paddled around countless oxbow bends, glided under overhanging cliffs, and watched the tapestry of the desert southwest unfold slowly under a piercing early September sun.  The stiflingly hot canyon was always silent except when a paddle clipped my boat and echoes erupted off the rock walls like distant gunfire.

On my second night on the river I had met a man who looked like the canyon—skin the rusty color of the Wingate formation and a gray dome like the Dakota rocks.  His buddies called him Padre and he was paddling the Green for the 80th time.  This canyon had captured his heart decades ago when he bought a cheap K-Mart raft and floated 52 miles to the confluence with the Colorado.  Padre was one of the original vagabond river rats of this canyon back when few people even thought of floating it and even fewer gave it a go.  Old Padre knew these canyon lands as thoroughly as anyone and yet he still gazed around in wonder at all the possibilities—sights he would never see, discoveries he would never make.

I found it very easy to understand why Padre kept coming back.  After my first night in the canyon I had awoken on a sandbar in mid-river just as liquid sunshine blasted over the canyon, across the meandering waters, and lit up the opposite rim with a blood-red glow.  The air was sublime.  It was the most perfect morning in the wilderness I’d ever experienced.

Sometimes the wilderness can throw a big right hook when you let your guard down.  When we put ourselves into obviously dangerous situations our minds are tuned to the risks involved.  Life threatening “flukes” in the wilderness often happen because we get careless during those seemingly safe and peaceful moments.  Closing my eyes while I drifted on my back in a big wilderness river was careless—I had let my guard down.

As a result of that carelessness I find myself, a weak swimmer, treading deep water in the middle of the big muddy river.  In a faster river my instinct would have guided me to turn downstream, use the current to my advantage, and simply swim casually back to my beach.  But, this river is a trickster.  It moves so slow that you forget it moves at all.  So, without worry, I casually start to swim straight back to my beach, against the slow but relentless current.

After a bit I stop and look up, sure to be in shallow water again, but my feet find no footing and my beach is even farther away.  That slow current simply pushed me back like a celestial giant might push away a pest with his thumb.  Panic sets in now and I try again, same direction, this time going all out.  I keep my head down, pushing myself to the absolute limit, until my muscles can’t go anymore.  I try to place a leaden foot beneath me onto the riverbed that I know must be there, but again my foot finds only water.  In the chaos and panic my eye catches the beach and it looks terrifyingly distant.  For all my epic struggle, the cruel giant has effortlessly pushed me even farther into the river.

Now I’m in real trouble.  Lactic acid burns like fire through my legs and arms.  I’m heaving for air but the muddy water is lapping at my chin.  Keeping my mouth and nose above the surface is an epic struggle, like trying to hold back a thousand-pound boulder on a sloping hill.

I realize I’m going to die.  A brief moment of absolute terror strikes, but is quickly overrun by something like a combination of deep depression and overwhelming guilt.  I hear my three-year-old daughter as if she’s sitting on my lap, “I love you, Daddy.”  All the implications of leaving my daughter behind without her Dad are rushing by and it is unbelievably crushing.  But, then something deep inside my consciousness takes over, and I tell myself to stop fighting it.  I then do the only thing I can do.  I stop flailing and just float on my back and let the river take me where it will.

As I float on my back I heave violently for air that seems to never be enough and my heart is beating out of my chest.  But, I’m floating now, like I was in the shallow eddy, face up to the sky, arms wide, mouth gaping like a surprised grouper.  I’ve become just another piece of flotsam amidst the vastness of this river and its canyon.  I will land where the river takes me.

For several minutes I float, head pointed downriver.  I have a feeling of suffocation as my lungs still cannot capture enough air and my heart rate is still maxed as the muddy river seems to try to pull me into a watery grave.  Another wave of panic strikes when I glance to the side and realize I’m still no closer to either bank.  I see an image in my mind of bleached white bones on a winter sand bar being picked at by a raven.  I regain my resolve and find a surging rage.  Fuck you, river! I say it aloud.  I’m gonna make it!  I’m gonna make it…   Saying this makes me believe it, so I keep repeating it.  After a few more minutes I look over again.  The far bank is finally near.  I find the energy to move into a side-stroke and jerk my way to the bank like an injured animal.

I claw my way up onto that muddy bank of salvation and rest with my torso out of water and my legs beneath the mud like a primordial beast emerging from the ooze.  It seems to take forever to regain my breath, but when I do I see that I’m more than a quarter mile downstream from my beach and on the other side of the river.  I’m wearing only wet swim trunks—no shirt, no shoes, no supplies.  It’s late in the afternoon.

What do I do?  Try to swim back across?  I’m not a very strong swimmer, the river is wide and the current will take me farther downstream, probably below where a cliff drops straight into the water on the other side.  No, I can’t swim it, that’s too risky.  Build a raft?  With what?  The only things that grow here are spindly Tamarisk bushes, cacti and some grasses.  Walk out overland?  Hell no, that’s a death sentence here with no water, clothing, or supplies, even if I could scale the cliffs, which I couldn’t.

I resolve to wait for rescue.  A handful of other kayakers and canoeists come down the river daily.  But, it’s at least 4:30 in the afternoon and most of the other boaters have selected a campsite by now.  I give it a 50 percent chance that another party will come by today.  I’m prepared to spend a night on this side of the river until morning.

I make my way barefoot the quarter mile up the river until I’m right across from my kayak.  My side of the river is a prickly and rocky slope that rises steeply up to the base of a giant cliff face.  The sun is dropping towards its daily meeting with the canyon rim, and with each passing minute my chance of rescue diminishes.  After about an hour I watch that red ball sink behind the red rocks, and the canyon enters the normally blissful time of evening.  My hope of rescue today is gone.

I’m thirsty and there is a monster river just feet away, but it’s full of mud and sediment.  I want to avoid drinking that water if possible so I find myself a bulbous lobe of prickly pear cactus.  I find a sharp-edged rock that fits in my hand like a knife.  I poke the cactus with the pointy end of the rock and it snaps easily off at the stem as I bend it back.  I use my rock knife to carefully peel off the spikey skin to reveal the aloe vera-like meat of the cactus.  It has little flavor, but it’s full of moisture, and I relish this fruit of nature.  I’ve won a minor battle of survival and feel encouraged.

I choose a narrow but flat ledge a few feet above the river bank as my camp for the night.  It feels strange not to have anything—not a single tool or possession except for my swim trunks.  My feet and shoulders are bare.  There is nothing to use for cover, no shelter to climb into, no match or flint to spark a fire.  Like Tantalus in his pool that he can never quench his thirst with, I look across the river to my kayak and my cooler full of ice-cold drinks.

I’ve never had a problem letting my own mind occupy my attention.  There is a universe of material in every human mind, and I can think my way through any boredom.  And when you have no possessions while sitting in the wilderness you have no distractions.  As the night fills in I think about my trip down this river, the beauty of this canyon, the changing history of the West, and the life of old Padre.  I imagine Padre as a young man in the 1960’s, paddling is way alone down this big canyon river on that cheap raft probably about as happy as a man could be.  I think of the strangeness and beauty of the canyon, of the ancientness of the rocks now darkening in the dusk, of prehistoric floods, of the beasts and native peoples who came here before me.  I find myself thinking about my daughter and a sense of great relief comes over me.  I made it out of that river and I know I will make it through this night to see her again.  How will I, one day, tell her this story?

My thoughts take me into the night as the moon crests the cliff behind me.  Its shine brightens the canyon like a monochrome version of the day.  I can see everything.  The river with a beam of moonlight glowing from below.  The canyon walls, vivid and clear, not red as during the day, but a kind of cream or gray color.  The bushes and cacti, standing black and still like twisted statues.  Despite the brightness of the three-quarter moon, the brightest stars shine down on me.  The Big Dipper is to my right, just above the canyon rim.

As I continue to think my thoughts the moon is making its slow arc between the canyon walls.  The Big Dipper sinks imperceptibly over the hours until its bottom star makes a visual connection to the canyon.  A slight breeze brings a chill into the air and now I’ve entered the depth of the cold desert night.

Movement.  My own body heat is the only tool I have and I must move.  I stand and begin a regimen of upper body calisthenics.  I swing my arms side to side, counting out in estimated one-second intervals to tell the passing of time.  Five minutes of that exercise and then switch it up—move my arms back and forth.  Five minutes of that then torso twists… one… two… three… four.  Five minutes of that, then…. I do about twenty minutes and then sit for five, enough time for the chill to return, then I stand up and do it all over again, minute after minute, hour after hour, as the night creeps along.  It’s the longest night of my life.

The moon is my friend on this night.  It is now approaching the opposite canyon rim from which it arose just after dusk.  Its impending disappearance brings worry.  The night is getting colder by the minute and soon it will become a different world—not illuminated by lunar glow, but black as a closed casket.  There is a man in the moon, I often tell my daughter.  He smiles down at the world and brings peace in the night.  But, the man in the moon must now go bring his peace to other lands.

The afterglow of the moon fades behind that canyon wall until all is blackness.  The river just below me has become an infinite abyss.  The canyon walls have turned black, only distinguishable from the sky by the absence of stars.  But, those stars.  Oh, the stars!  You’ve never seen stars like those in a Western canyon on a moonless night.  The Milky Way is unfurled like a celestial tapestry from the canyon wall behind me to the distant cliffs to my front.

The river is unseen now, but it is heard.  It bubbles and gurgles here and there.  Every now and then a chunk of sand breaks from the dune across the river and crashes into the water with a great splash like a calving ice burg.  It’s a peculiar thing when it can be seen, the way the beaches and sand bars are constantly shape-shifting, the big Green River eternally at work carving this canyon.  In the dark night the sudden splashes are menacing.  It feels like the canyon is closing in on me and the river is about to swallow me up.  But, I keep my composure, reminding myself that each breath and each swing of my arms to keep warm brings me a bit closer to dawn and salvation.

As this long night continues the chills hit more quickly and I must stand and move more frequently just as I grow more weary.  My tongue feels like dry cotton.  Crashes in the river startle me.  The Big Dipper has finally disappeared completely over the canyon rim.  I begin to anticipate the dawn that I know is near but this is the hardest time–the coldest time—of the night.  I feel that I’m an alien creature perched on a ledge on some bizarre planet, swinging my alien arms in weird circles and twists.

I look up and finally The Milky Way is gone.  The faintest blue is appearing to my left.  I allow myself to end the calisthenics, knowing that I’ll grow cold in the next hour, but be warmed soon by the returning sun.

I’m shaken by voices from upriver.  A woman’s voice, clear as can be, from around the bend.  I stand and gaze into the darkness where I can now start to make out the faintest boundary between river and land.  Could it be?  Could someone really be paddling down the river so early?  I call out, “help!” There’s no response.  I watch for several minutes, but no one comes.  I sit back down on my lonely ledge.  The unrested mind can play cruel tricks.  So, I wait.

The highest rock pinnacle across the river alights in a blaze of glory.  SUN!!!! The canyon has brightened and the day has arrived.  I wait for the boat that I know will come soon.  And, about an hour later, as the rising sun moves the shadow line onto the river, a canoe drifts from around the bend.  Two jovial men with a cooler in the middle.  I wave my arms calmly and motion for them to come over.  It feels like a cheesy Monty Python skit.

“Would you mind giving me a lift across the river?” I yell sheepishly.

One of the guys glances over to me and then to the other side of the river and sees my kayak and cooler on the beach.  They paddle up to the bank where I stand shirtless and weary.

“Did you spend all night over here?” the man asks.  He has a perplexed look on his face.

“I sure did, and I’m really glad to see you guys.”

“Okay, well, hop on the cooler here and we’ll get you over to the other side,” says the other guy.

Grateful, I step into their canoe as one of them hands me a glorious ice-cold bottle of water.

A few hours later I stand under a cool shower in a Moab motel and watch the water wash layers of mud and sand from my skin.  I’m human again.  After turning off the shower, I call home to hear my daughter’s sweet voice.

“I love you, Daddy”

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