The San Juan/Lake Powell 260 Expedition
Part 1 – Why and How?
Adventure, it’s at the heart of every paddler no matter what discipline. It’s the reason that most of us got into the sport in the first place. The feeling of pure and utter bliss where all thoughts melt away and we feel most alive. No pressure, no rules, no judgment. Simply you, your equipment, and the task at hand. It’s what draws us to the water time and time again and it deepens our love of the sport and our natural surroundings.
Back in 2014 Zack Hughes (co-owner and shaper of Badfish SUP) and I set out to paddle across lake Powell fully self supported. No plans, no time frame, no agenda except to paddle with all of our gear on our boards and have fun. It was the first time in years both of us had done a completely selfish trip(and self support) to satisfy our sense of adventure. We completed 150 miles in 6 days and came out the trip with a renewed sense of adventure, a deeper love of paddling, and a dozen more ideas for trips in the future.
Flash forward almost 2 years exactly and we were back at it again, only with a twist. First off, we recruited a third paddler, Bradley Hilton, to suffer through the endless miles of beautiful pain with us. We had all new self support custom shaped boards, and we added 100 miles of whitewater and moving current on the San Juan into the equation. The trip would total 260 miles, a mixture of somewhat natural riverbed containing over 50 rapids and riffles, followed by roughly 160 miles of flat water on lake Powell.
Lake Powell is no secret to most Americans or the world for that matter. Its stunning landscape and endless water filled canyons is both a mecca for the gas guzzling motor heads that flock to the lake by the millions and a controversial environmental disaster that flooded one of the most pristine Canyons in the US without anyone knowing it, to fuel the countries need for water, power, and control. Whatever your thoughts are on lake Powell, one thing remains the same. The lake is there to stay, the water and paddling conditions are epic, and almost no one travels the lake in its entirety on boards, kayaks, or self propelled devices…..I repeat no one! It’s a perfect place to paddle, camp, soak in epic views, and pound out hundreds of miles with nothing in your way! Since Zack and I had paddled the Lake from tip to tip back in 2014 we needed something else to add to the adventure and quench our river running and whitewater junkie needs. Enter the San Juan.
One of the largest and most sediment filled tributaries to the Colorado, the San Juan enters Lake Powell forming the largest Navigable arm of the lake and meets the Colorado River at mile marker 57.5. The Upper stretches of the San Juan from Bluff to Mexican Hat and down to Clay Hills Crossing are no secret to river runners and is a commercial and private boater haven most of the year, requiring a permit to launch and is heavily regulated by the BLM. This almost pristine river system is filled with countless class 2 and 3 rapids, wilderness style camping, remnants of ancient civilization, mining history, and rich sediment filled water. However, The lower stretch below Clay Hills down to Lake Powell has somewhat been shrouded in mystery for many reason. First off, the next take out for boaters requires around 100 more miles of flat water, the heavy sediment of the San Juan drops as it enters the reservoir over a number of miles creating horrible shallow mud flats that makes navigation difficult at best, and lastly, as lake levels started receding in the 90’s, it created a surreal environment left to fend for itself trapped in-between a thriving eco-system up stream and a man made dead zone below. These are just a few of the reasons why people choose not to paddle downstream of mile marker 84 on the San Juan. We also were educated by a senior river ranger at the put in that very, I mean very few people have been down there in the past few years. She thought we would be the first in the past 2 years as far as she could remember, which added to the excitement and interest of our trip!
Combing these two very different water habitats described above would fill our fix of whitewater/river running needs, as well as provide a place to paddle endless flat-water with ease and no obstructions. The trip was slated for September of 2015, but after the Gold King Mine disaster on the Animas River, pumping toxic mine drainage down the animas, into the san juan and lake Powell, leaving us no clean water for drinking (even after filtering), we chose to postpone the trip for the fall of 2016, giving us time to plan, prepare, and salivate over the trip for another year.
Take one look at the Badfish Sup line up and you will see nothing that resembles a traditional SUP shape. The shapes are the brainchild of Zach Hughes, who performs as well in the shaping room as he does on the water. Whitewater requires different lines, volumes, and outlines, in order to perform and excel in chaotic water environments where traditional shapes are literally swallowed whole. After taking note from our Powell adventure in 2014, we needed a board that would carry around 40-50 pounds of gear and perform well in both whitewater and flat water scenarios…..the Selfie 16 was born! Combining our insight and knowledge of whitewater and flat-water, we melted the two together in a perfect balance in this 16 ft SUP.
Board Design Notes –
Fast low draft hull – taken from our whitewater racing boards – The Holeshot and MVP designs
Smooth rounded edges and lines – taken from our river running and river surf boards – MVP and River Surfers
Volume profile to keep the board on the surface and cut through chop
Integrated gear storage areas on the front and back
16ft – for optimal speed and comfort while fully loaded with gear and accessories
The Selfie 16 was born and is a one of a kind creation for this unique trip combining whitewater and flat water. Sure, this kind of trip has been done before, but this board was the perfect combination made to increase performance, speed, user ability, and gear storage. Take one look at the Selfie 16 and it screams adventure!
Self Support means everything we need for the trip was on our boards and we would receive no help along the way unless something drastically went wrong. Packing for these trips can be difficult to keep weight low and your mind at ease. Here’s a quick rundown of almost everything we personally took give or take some random personal items.
16ft – Badfish Selfie
Fins – River Flexi as well as Flat water Race fin – FCS
Boardworks Race Paddle / Spare Breakdown paddle – 1 per 3 people
PFD – Astral type 3 YTF – legally had to wear it on the San Juan – on board on lake
Watershed Drybags – 5 fully waterproof drybags for everything
Throwbag – safety on whitewater – Astral
First aid kit – personal and group size
River shoes and Camp sandals – Astral Brewers and Filipe
Hydration – Vestpac as well as Nalgene and MSR Dromedary to carry on board
Goal Zero Nomad 7 plus /Venture 30 – charging all electronis
Maps for Navigation and mileage
Clothing – river and camp clothes
1 person tent , bag, pad
Water filter – MSR
Jetboil Stove – Fuel
Backpackers Pantry – easy dehydrated meals Breakfast and Dinner
Protien Bars, Beef Jerky, small snakcs – Lunch
Energy gels/water tabs
Candy – must have for me
Permit – on hand for San Juan
Board Repair Kit – Solar Res/Rail tape, etc
Fire Pan – required for san juan
Personal Toilet – required for san juan – PVC Tube with Wag Bags
As you can see, the list can get rather large in a hurry, so packing and repacking multiple times pre trip is the key to shave weight and get rid of unnecessary items. However, there’s always stuff you don’t need and every trip gets a little lighter
Fears and Concerns
Although a pretty easy trip as far as paddling conditions, projected weather, and given the experience of us three paddlers, there are always some unknowns involved…
Low water – Roughly 500 CFS average in September (the projected dam release out of Navajo Res for endangered fish habitat) Making navigation on a 16 without damage a concern
River Section below Clay Hills – Stories of endless shallow, braided mud flats, making travel slow and painful
Maintaing 30 plus miles a day with 40+ Pounds of gear for 8-10 days with no resting
Running into typical Lake Powell storms making travel not possible for days on end.
The fears and concerns of self support trips in the wilderness are always what make it exciting and give it that extra edge and we were ready for about anything that could be thrown our way!
On September 17th of 2016, Zack Hughes, Bradley Hilton, and Myself (Michael Tavares) launched into the San Juan River, paddling roughly 100 miles of river(whitewater and moving current) and 160 miles of flat water finishing at BullFrog Marina on the upper section of Lake Powell in 8 days. Averaging 32.5 miles a day, the trip was both challenging and rewarding. Lessons were learned, our bodies and minds were challenged, and a renewed sense of adventure and love of the sport was gained.
The San Juan
Starting high in the San Juan Mountains of SW Colorado, The San Juan gains volume and mass as it rambles through The Four Corners region of the US before its abrupt impoundment in Lake Powell by the Glen Canyon Dam. Before it enters the Lake and becomes drinking and irrigation water to feed the ever growing appetite of the Western States, its serves as a lifeline for both the Navajo Nation and a number of small cities along the way and stands the test of time as one of the most beautiful and enchanting SW rivers in the US. Its heavy sediment load is unique to its SW geology and provides ample recreational opportunities. River Running from Bluff to Clay Hills is one of the most spectacular mixtures of easy to medium whitewater and jaw dropping landscapes around every bend.
Launching from the BLM Ranger station in Bluff, Utah, our trip would take us roughly 86 miles down the San Juan to Clay Hills and about another 15 miles of unknown riverbed into the San Juan Arm of Lake Powell. As we paddled away from the put in, our questions, concerns, and thoughts of daily life seemed to slip away. All that mattered anymore was paddling, eating, enjoying the trip, and making it to our cars 260 miles away. The simplicity of self-support trips is just that, its simple. All that matters is in front of you and the basic necessities of life matter the most.
After a restless night filled with dreams of what lie ahead, we awoke in the dark to unpack all of our gear on the BLM boat ramp in Bluff and met Linda, a Veteran BLM river ranger for check in. Linda is one of the most knowledgeable, pleasant, and fun river rangers I have met to date. She could tell this wasn’t our first rodeo dealing with multi day trips, so we spent a while chatting, checking goods, and talking board designs. She was intrigued and delighted that we were choosing a different style of trip (SUP) and filled our heads with knowledge and intrigue about what would lie ahead in the coming days!
After a delightful morning at the boat ramp filling our dry bags to the gills and arranging weight on the boards, it was go time. We slipped away from the boat ramp fully loaded, waiving and smiling at a number of people wondering why in the world we were paddling 260 miles on boards… We were stoked!
As the low angle hills and cliffs in Bluff got bigger, so did the whitewater and the scenery. We spent the day picking our way down 20-30 rapids ranging from easy riffles to class II-III rapids, paddling past ancient petroglyphs, early settlement ruins, and the town of Mexican Hat, know for its iconic hat rock that stands alone in the red rock landscape. As we paddled rapid after rapid it became very apparent that while the whitewater was easy to manage, visual placement of rocks was a different story in the heavy sediment laden water. There was almost zero visibility below the surface and at flows of around 500 CFS, we had to be extremely careful and confident in our river reading skills in order to not touch any rocks. After one minor rock impact above Mexican Hat in a junky rapid ravaged by a recent flash flood, we pulled over for a little emergency repair. After some rail tape and a quick reality check about being very careful while choosing our lines, we paddled our way to camp in the Iconic Goosenecks State Park section of the San Juan. Aerial views of the goosenecks are mind blowing at the very least, but being in the heart of the gorge with no one in sight or sound is even more amazing!
We set up camp at mile 31.5 across from the old Mendenhal Mining Cabin(interesting story- Google it) for the night and soaked in the day’s events over some quick food and a raging fire.
Day 2 was almost a repeat of the day before. Mind Blowing views, countless rapids, and pounding our way farther from civilization. We portaged 3 rapids on day 2 (Ross, Twin Ledge, and Gov Camp) and waded down another few in the knee deep junk. The lines were easy, but rocks and shallow ledges that other crafts could easily scrape down was not an option for our lightly glassed boards. We happily walked rapids we would otherwise paddle blind and hurried our way to camp at mile 64 adjacent to Government Rapid (one of the largest rapids on the section)
Waking up to epic views while still in our sleeping bags, Government Rapid Camp served us well as our bodies were feeling the hurt and needed some adjustment to the weight and miles we had done the previous days. We spend what seemed like hours filtering water out of the sediment filled river, had a quick visit from a rafting river ranger to check our permit, and slithered into the lower and less travelled section of the San Juan. The ranger and his biologist friends (checking bat populations) were the last sign of human life we would see for almost 2 days as we entered the lower section past clays hills take out into the wasteland of the receded lake Powell.
Government Rapids down to Clay hills was one of the most beautiful sections of river I have every seen with deep colored rocks and geology changing at every corner as the valley began to open up. The most noticeable change was the character of the river as it slowed down its pace and signs of the old lake Powell high water marks began to show its face. The Lake once reached the clay hills take out area and the river began dumping its massive sediment load around Slickhorn Rapid, changing the river gradient from a maximum of 11 feet per mile to a now 0.4 ft. of gradient per mile of sediment sludge. This sediment once flowed freely into the Colorado River and has now been impounded by lake Powell changing the landscape forever. What was once a rocky riverbed filled with rapids and life is now a man made delta slowly snaking into the reservoir. These were drastic changes to see first hand as we could feel the change beneath our feet.
As we past clay hills boat ramp, we noticed that the gradient began to pick back up slightly as if there was something big downstream, which there was! Besides the signage at the ramp that downstream travel is somewhat prohibited due to a massive waterfall, there is little information about this waterfall online or anywhere for that matter. Due to sediment rearranging the riverbed, the San Juan was forced out of its original channel and over a series of ledges that overtime wore away into a very large cascading waterfall 20-30 ft in height. The waterfall also shrouded in mystery serves as a point of contention between government agencies as it now blocks all migratory fish passage upstream. Since this has been a direct impact of the lake and sedimentation issues, no one seems to talk about it. It’s a hefty read online, but a very interesting story of how the lake has changed the landscape forever.
An obvious portage or us, we marveled in the strikingly out of place waterfall and wished we had some kayaks to run it. After lugging all of our gear and boards around the waterfall, we took a few more moments to take in the landscape and moved downstream farther into no mans land, with lake Powell looming ahead. We pounded out some more river miles and watched the landscape change as the San Juan attemps to reclaim what was once a thriving riverbed in the now sandy sediment filled flat lands. We found an exposed sand bar and let the Mosquitos carry us into the night, only waking to the hissing sounds of angry beavers as we encroached on their mucky oasis tucked in the middle of no where.
On our last day of the San Juan as its wild and natural course cut back into the receding mud flats of lake Powell, we paddled about 10 miles to the lake level with the last 3 miles being some of the worst mud flats I have ever seen. The rangers had warned us that this was the thickest mud they had ever seen and it would potentially be over our heads if we fell in the wrong spots. As we attempted to pound through the deep mud flats visions of getting lost forever in the mud were running through my mind, but luckily we escaped high and dry with only sore muslces as we pushed through the muck. We reached the edge of lake Powell around lunch and were met with nothing but flat water and the strikingly different landscape that has become of the Lake
We took a quick break, switched fins, changed mentalities and paddled flat water ending 12 miles shy of the confluence with the Colorado river about 120 miles into the journey.
There were a lot of magical moments on the San Juan. The mind blowing desert landscape, the ever changing sediment filled river, countless fun and exciting rapids, and more history that I can possibly ever learn. It was a lesson in and of itself to see up close and personal what mankind has done to this once wild and raging river as it enters Lake Powell. The desert is unlike any other place and paddling a SUP through its rugged landscape carried by water is an experience that everyone should enjoy! The San Juan is truly a special place for many different walks of life and should be protected for its mysterious powers forever.
An Iconic scar on the Landscape of the Southwest, Lake Powell both serves to feed our need for drinking water and irrigation and serves as one of the biggest recreation meccas in the Southwest. Sure it’s a hugely contested piece in the environmental world, but that a story for another time. We were there to paddle! Its vast network of canyons, bays, and narrows makes it the perfect place to pack 30 people on a houseboat and party till the sun comes up, or in stark contrast, paddle SUP’s for days with nothing in your way, camp on sandy beaches, and show hundreds of drunk onlookers from their boats that yes, its ok to not have motors on the lake and no we are not crazy!
After successfully navigating the San Juan with Minimal damage to the Selfie 16’s we hit the flats with big ole grins on our faces. We popped in some larger fins and mentally prepared ourselves for 160 miles of flatwater ahead. Zack and I knew what to expect on the main channel of powell from our trip in 2014, but the San Juan Arm was a real treat for all. Because of its distance from all marinas on the lake, The San Juan arm takes a real mission and planning to get into the upper reaches by boat which keeps all but the seriously motivated to motor far up into the arm.
The plan was simple, paddle down the San Juan Arm, hang a left and paddle “downstream” towards the dam at least until Mile Marker 25 before turning around and paddling back to Bullfrog Marina where our creature comforts awaited. Sounds Simple right?
After paddling most of the way down the San Juan Arm the previous day, we awoke perched a mere 12 miles from the main channel of the lake on the Colorado River. After prying ourselves away from a classic Powell campsite, we paddled the 12 miles to the main channel without taking much of a break, only taking in the dramatic landscape and enjoying the last bit of the un crowded and less travelled arm of the San Juan.
We hit the main channel with a resurgence of energy knowing that the views would be epic, the houseboats always entertaining, and we had a slight tail wind all the way down to mile marker 30 where looming darkness forced us to camp in a magnificent rock cathedral area.
We knew there was a storm coming at some point in the trip, but the exact timing with spotty cell service forced us to do a little bit of a guessing game. The same storm that hit Baja California and SoCal was slowly creeping up from the SW and was due to provide some serious winds and weather to give a little run for our money. We knew it was supposed to blow from the SW up to 50mph gusts at some point during the day, which would provide perfect downwind conditions back up the reservoir once we hit the 25 marker and turned around for Bullfrog. When we woke up, there was a slight SW wind and by the time we packed up and got on the water it was in full force in our faces. Fortunately we only had 5 miles to go to hit our mark and we pushed hard for a few hours then happily turned around at mile marker and took the wind at our backs.
The next few hours we were graced with a tail wind pushing us back up the reservoir (the opposite flow of the Colorado) all the way to Dangling Rope Marina for a quick pit stop and moral boost.
If you have never been to lake Powell and specifically Dangling Rope Marina, it’s a surreal environment and a sight to be seen for sure. The marina is positioned mid way through the reservoir and only accessible by boat or helicopter in emergencies for its workers. It’s a water world oasis where boaters refuel, buy beer, pringles, snickers, and over priced souvenirs. Everything is brought up or down the reservoir to the marina on barges and after being on a SUP for 6 days, its odd to say the least.
We hung out and mingled with the staff and junk food hungry boaters for a few hours and talked about our travels and trip before starting the afternoon grind up to mile marker 50 in what I have recently dubbed demolition camp.
The heavy winds of the storm had been postponed till overnight and we were in for a treat as we snuggled in our little tents. We knew the 40-50mph winds were coming after being warned by passing boaters, so we secured the boards as well as possible, built rock walls around our tents, and secured the living shit out of everything we had. Around 11 pm the full furry of wind was literally unleashed on our camp. 50mph wind gusts ravaged our boards, flattened our tents, and kept us up almost all night pacing around camp trying to reinforce what we could to keep everything in one piece. It was a pretty rad display of what can whip up out of nowhere in the desert!
After shaking out the 50 pounds of sand that was in our tents, we awoke to blue skies and more light tail winds that would grace us all day in the right direction. We patched up a couple fist size holes in my board after its dance in the wind and we got on the water as fast as we could to take advantage of the tailwind.
One of the hardest parts of this trip was the body abuse that slowly creeps up on your after a few days with no rest. Days 6-7 were some of the hardest days on the water as our bodies cried for rest, but we pounded through more miles with our eyes on the prize.
Day 7 was a bit of a blur as we passed the San Juan arm again this time heading up the reservoir towards Bullfrog. We settled on a camp around mile marker 80 nearing dark that would put us in easy striking distance of the marina by the following mid day.
The most noticeable change when paddling most of Lake Powell is the difference in boat traffic when you get closer to each end. The middle stretches of the lake are almost vacant, but the within 30 miles of the marinas, every nook and cranny is filled with houseboats, parties, and speed boats zipping around looking for something that they hopefully all find.
With about 20 miles to go till completing the trip, we could almost smell the end. The last 20 miles would be some of the most pleasant paddling on the lake Powell section for me. Its almost as I wanted to savor every last mile of the trip before its completion, allowing time the soak in all that had happened. Doing a trip of this style almost feels like a blur and nothing feels real at the time. Knowing that we had to head back into whatever form of reality we live in in a few short hours, we savored the 20 miles back to the rigs with big smiles on our faces.
As we approached Bullfrog Marina and the boat ramp, we knew we just did a trip that we would remember forever and while our bodies were slightly broken and minds tired, we were all thinking of our next adventure that loomed on the horizon.
Adventure can happen in any from. 1 day or 20 days, it really doesn’t matter. All that matters is that feeling that overtakes all aspects of daily life and transforms your experience into something deeper. The San Juan/Powell trip still feels a bit like a dream, but will no doubt continue to influence our love for the sport and spark more trips fueled by our insatiable love of the water. SUP had taken me to some pretty amazing places in the world and continues to shape my life in ways I still don’t understand. It’s a simple interaction with the water that produces much deeper experiences, relationships, and directions in life. The three of us will take away experiences from this trip that will be hard to replicate, but the next adventure is always around the corner. Shred on!
See you on the river(or lake),