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The River Knows Everything: Desolation Canyon and the Green

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Desolation Canyon is one of the West's wild treasures. Visitors come to study, explore, run the river, and hike a canyon that is deeper at its deepest than the Grand Canyon, better preserved than most of the Colorado River system, and full of eye-catching geology-castellated ridges, dramatic walls, slickrock formations, and lovely beaches. Rafting the river, one may see wild horses, blue herons, bighorn sheep, and possibly a black bear. Signs of previous people include the newsworthy, well-preserved Fremont Indian ruins along Range Creek and rock art panels of Nine Mile Canyon, both Desolation Canyon tributaries. Historic Utes also pecked rock art, including images of graceful horses and lively locomotives, in the upper canyon. Remote and difficult to access, Desolation has a surprisingly lively history. Cattle and sheep herding, moonshine, prospecting, and hideaways brought a surprising number of settlers--ranchers, outlaws, and recluses--to the canyon.

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CHAPTER ONE Lizard-Gnawed Desert: Natural History

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Desolation boasts steep, dramatic walls.

The formation E. O. Beaman of the Powell expedition called Sharp Mountain.

I sit inside a million acres of remote, lizard-gnawed Utah desert.

—Ellen Meloy, Raven’s Exile

The thing that most strikes you about almost any Colorado Plateau river is the rock-walled canyons. There is nothing else quite like them in the world. In that way—and in many others—Desolation does not disappoint. Geology surrounds you every foot of the way. Desolation boasts steep, dramatic walls. It also contains the largest debris fans and the widest river bottoms in the Colorado system, and it is deeper than parts of the Grand Canyon. Its side-canyon hiking may not hold the kind of jewels found in the Grand Canyon at places like Elves’ Chasm or Nautaloid Canyon, but Desolation’s drainages offer the most numerous and some of the longest and most varied hikes in the system. You could spend months following the trails of the Tavaputs Fremont Indians, climbing thousands of feet from river to rim. Along the way, you would discover thousands of their houses, rock art panels, and food-storage sites and encounter diverse biotic zones and microenvironments.

 

CHAPTER TWO Walls of Rock Art: Unfolding the Native Story

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Before the opening of the Ute Reservation in 1905, more people called Desolation home than at any time in the last century.

Tavaputs Fremont granaries are large, remotely located, and, in some cases, elaborately camouflaged.

O, you have lived in desolation here,
Unseen, unvisited, much to our shame.

—William Shakespeare, Love’s Labor’s Lost

When John Wesley Powell floated into and named Desolation Canyon in early July 1869, he described it as “a region of the wildest desolation.”1 Explorer and scientist Powell found the natural features of Desolation and Gray Canyons and the surrounding Tavaputs Plateau anything but inviting. Today, now that the last few settlers have departed, the area lives up to the dictionary’s literal definition of its name: devoid of inhabitants or deserted. Yet from thirteen thousand years ago through the opening of the Ute Reservation in 1905, more people called Desolation home than any time in the last century. Water drew people in.

Even in prehistoric times, Desolation Canyon and the Tavaputs Plateau were never the population centers that Mesa Verde was for the Ancestral Puebloans, commonly called Anasazi, or Utah Lake was for the Timpanogots Utes. Native American adaptation in Desolation was similar to that in Glen Canyon: overall the area was only sparsely occupied except for a fluorescence by Puebloan-like people generally included in the imprecise designation of Fremont between AD 1000 and 1300. It is also possible that groups prior to the Fremont used the area as much as they did: such earlier people were the Clovis, Folsom, and Archaic. The subsequent Shoshoneans or Numa—umbrella terms used to describe the ethnically related Northern and Southern Utes, Northern and Southern Paiutes, Goshutes, Shoshones, and Comanches—entered the region at least a few centuries before historical records. Utes definitely used the region, but at various times, Shoshones, Comanches, and Paiutes may have been there as well.

 

CHAPTER THREE Exploration: From Exploitation to Recreation

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BLM river ranger Jim Wright rows toward shore to inspect a campsite.

When river runners today leave Sand Wash they may feel like they are entering Powell’s “Great Unknown.”

The river, narrowly confined, drove them onward with
horrible speed and a frightful roar.

—Voltaire, Candide (1759)

When today’s river runners row away from Sand Wash, they probably feel as if they are entering Powell’s “great unknown.” In personal terms, perhaps many are. Current boaters, however, have all the technologically advanced (some say decadent) equipment that Northwest River Supply’s and Cascade Outfitters’ catalogs can offer. They carry French presses to brew Peet’s coffee and battery-operated blenders to mix margaritas. They sleep on thick, inflated pads inside of tents designed to protect them from the hardest rainstorms and fiercest mosquitoes (though not bears). They use waterproof river maps that show rapids, explain and visualize relevant history, and indicate fine terrain details. Roughing it in comfort, they hardly qualify as Lewis and Clarks or John C. Fremonts.

 

CHAPTER FOUR Bunchgrass and Water: Settlement, 1880 to 1950

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Down by the Green River, where Paradise lay.

—John Prine, “Paradise”

More than a half century after William Ashley and his men nosed their canoe into upper Desolation Canyon, Anglos began to settle there. Yet no one lives there now. The canyon between Willow Creek and Green River, Utah, is uninhabited country (unless you count the seasonal river rangers at Sand Wash). As you travel the river, however, signs of Euro-American settlements pop up more often than you might expect. Following millennia of occupation by Native Americans, during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Desolation became a place of last resort. Ignored in the big rush to settle the West after the Civil War, Desolation was rediscovered, and for about sixty years between 1880 and 1950, the canyon saw ranches, ferries, and a few mining and dam operations spring up. Three resources lured most Euro-Americans to the West: grass, water, and minerals. Desolation promised all of these, although in small amounts. Most of the history of Euro-Americans in Desolation, however, revolves around livestock.

 

CHAPTER FIVE Governing a Wild River: 1950 to the Present

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The law protects “wild free-roaming horses and burros” as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West,” but only on public lands.

As more people crowd onto this public-land resource, the wild character of the landscape becomes more and more a human construct.

Is the river an outlaw or the northern conduit of an aqueduct extending from
Wyoming to Mexico, federally neutered, designer-plumbed by
Bechtel Steel and the Bureau of Reclamation?

—Ellen Meloy, Raven’s Exile

The settlement era had petered out by World War II. One by one, family by family, people left Desolation Canyon to seek greener pastures elsewhere, figuratively and sometimes in a literal search for better grass. Often families moved to more-settled areas. That could mean a village as small as Myton in the Uinta Basin, where moonshiner Frank Hyde became a blacksmith. Or it might mean a large city like Salt Lake, where Bill Seamount got work with the railroad. Many young ranch hands, like Lew Ackland, were drafted, or they sought better jobs in the defense industry along the Wasatch Front or on the West Coast. After the war, the GI Bill and other economic opportunities made ranching life much less attractive. In addition, the demand for wool decreased as new synthetics replaced it. Moreover, per capita consumption of lamb fell from six pounds per year to less than one. That meant fewer sheep along the river and on the East and West Tavaputs Plateaus and less need for ranch hands.1

 

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