The River Knows Everything

The River Knows Everything: Desolation Canyon and the Green

James M. Aton
Photography by Dan Miller
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 246
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  • Book Info
    The River Knows Everything
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-87421-736-0
    Subjects: History, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[vii])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-9)

    Desolation Canyon defines what a wilderness river trip should be. It has it all: remoteness, rapids, steep walls, bears, Indian ruins, old-growth cottonwoods, and quiet.¹

    In Desolation Canyon, the Green River cuts a 118-mile, serpentine swath through a larger geomorphic unit called the Tavaputs Plateau. The region’s massively crumpled topography of steep canyons and deep ravines has eroded out of hundreds of square miles of forested plateaus. At its nadir at Rock Creek, Desolation measures deeper than the Grand Canyon. Its “gorgeous layered geology” and sharp-lined, castellated ridges are unique in canyon-country geology. Desolation also features the largest debris fans...

  4. Chapter One Lizard-Gnawed Desert: Natural History
    (pp. 13-33)

    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...

  5. Chapter Two Walls of Rock Art: Unfolding the Native Story
    (pp. 37-61)

    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...

  6. Chapter Three Exploration: From Exploitation to Recreation
    (pp. 65-97)

    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...

  7. Chapter Four Bunchgrass and Water: Settlement, 1880 to 1950
    (pp. 101-147)

    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...

  8. Chapter Five Governing a Wild River: 1950 to the Present
    (pp. 151-183)

    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...

  9. Epilogue: The Shape of the River
    (pp. 187-193)

    In the thirteen thousand years of human occupation of Desolation Canyon, people have trod relatively lightly on the landscape. For a simple reason: the river snakes through a deep canyon that is somewhat difficult to access. Yet access it people have—for another simple reason. It has water, and water is gold in an arid land. Lately, another kind of gold has lured people: oil. Therein lies one big, knotty problem for Desolation’s immediate environmental future. Yet each group of people who lived in Desolation over the past thirteen thousand years faced environmental problems of one sort or another: not...

  10. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 197-199)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 200-224)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 225-238)
  13. Illustration Sources
    (pp. 239-240)
  14. Index
    (pp. 241-246)