Category Archives: San Juan River Trip

Engine Crime Scenes


The end of the San Juan River Trip has come, and we are back at our car. Almost everything is too hot to touch in the 103 degree heat, and we fumble through our dry bags looking for the car keys. We part ways with our group and head north toward Moab.

“Uh oh,” Alex says, about halfway there. “The car is doing that weird thing with the gas pedal.”

If you’ll recall, we had some issues with a faulty fuel pump in Alex’s car last summer and got a little bit stranded outside of Buena Vista. We replaced the fuel pump and a couple of spark plugs and everything seemed good to go in the last couple months.

Now, the gas pedal stops working again and we coast for as far as we can with no gas pedal…which is about a quarter mile. Then we sit in the stagnant heat for a moment, restart the car, and sputter on down the road. Of course, we talked to the car and gave her the reassurance we could muster while trying to reassure ourselves. We stopped in Monticello to stare at the engine, fill gas, fill all our water bottles in case we got stranded, and let the engine cool off. On we went, with an engine that was working extra hard to go. It kept revving and pulling and we kept thinking it was probably just overheating a little bit (weird gas pedal problem aside, because we still don’t really understand why that happened…again). We stopped a couple times and finally, as Alex backed up in a rest area to get a ‘running start’ onto the highway entrance ramp, we got a hold of our river trip group and told them to wait for us.

As we pushed the old Subaru up to the highway speed limits, we realized that the trouble seemed to be in getting going. Once we got up to 70mph we could coast there, but if we had to go uphill or if we got stuck behind a semi we were once again talking to the car, urging her to make it. The decision to stop and check things out more seriously came when we were revved up past 5 [you can insert unit of measurement here…I don’t know what it is] and only going 50mph.

At a gas station in Fruita, we examined things with a more keen eye and what we found was quite gruesome: blood splattered on the inside of the hood, fur on the alternator belt, and some cooked guts nearby. It quickly became clear that we had killed a nesting critter and that there were probably some bones caught up in some belts. It all made sense! We got to work scraping some guts away with a knife and then Alex had the brilliant idea to go through a high-powered manual car wash and flood the bits of critter out of the engine. We took some back roads over to Grand Junction and the search began. We got sidetracked by Chik-Fil-A, where I went in to order food and inquire about car washes while Alex searched on the smartphone. About an hour and a half after this all began in Fruita, our engine was squeaky clean and we were on our way once again. Lucky for us, the car ran perfectly all the way home and we will always remember to check for engine critters.


At the Oars: Notes on Uncomfortable Moments in Nature

Cece at the oars in a rapid! Yikes...

Cece at the oars in a rapid! Yikes…Photo courtesy of Robyn Thomas

Let me just start by saying, it wasn’t that intense. It usually isn’t. This time, it was in a rocky Class 3 rapid on the San Juan River. Overall, this river is super mellow and relaxing but when the time came to go through the most questionable rapid, I happened to be on the least maneuverable boat: a catamaran river raft.

Before the rapid, we pulled all the boats out and our whole group walked ahead to scout and to choose the best route through the rocks. One of our smaller rafts made it through with no problem and then it was the cat’s turn. Our fate was quickly sealed as we went reeling toward the largest rock and slid right up onto it like an orca whale showing off at a Sea World show. I sat there, surely looking slightly alarmed, as Pam got out to try and push us off the rock. Ryan, Alex’s cousin was still at the oars for a moment before handing them over to me and jumping off to push.

“Pam? Pam?” I called, looking over my shoulder for her. “Don’t you think you should be doing this or something?”

Now I was definitely alarmed. I had no idea what I would do if they succeeded in muscling us off the rock. I had kind of steered this monstrous boat on really calm water in the previous days, but there was actually whitewater here…and rocks. So I just sat there holding the oars. I waited to hear the awful sound of us sliding off the rock, which would mean I might have to do something. Yikes! Then the sound came: the scraping of raft rubber on the gritty rock, the slap of the boat onto the water, and the scramble of feet on the running boards as Pam and Ryan hopped back in.

I slid over onto the running board as Ryan took the captain’s seat. I saw the oar being pulled back toward my head and flattened myself on the running board to avoid getting clobbered with the oar.

As we pulled the boats to shore to wait for the rest of the group Pam, with her usual enthusiasm, pumped up my confidence by making me feel like I was really cool by ‘handling the oars’ in the rapid. I laughed at my fear and my clumsy maneuvers, and I recognized the naïve feeling of learning a new skill in nature.

What was familiar to me was that bumbling that happens as you try to pretend like you know what you’re doing. You feel kind of dumb and uncomfortable, but eventually you get better and then something new comes along that makes you feel that way. When I was 18 I went off to Yellowstone to live and work for the summer. I didn’t really know how to set up a tent, how to pack a backpacking pack, how to filter water, how to cook yummy dinners in the backcountry. Now, those things are like second nature to me, but being at the oars in a mellow rapid? I’ll definitely be bumbling.

A Ducky Love Story



I jumped off the boat and swam to Alex, who was enjoying some alone-time in the Ducky. I scrambled onto the one-person vessel, causing the back to sink lower into the river. We were laughing and messing around, trying to tip each other off the boat. We went along like this for a while: Alex paddling and me sitting back and enjoying the view. Until he decided that I should do the work of paddling and he should sit back and enjoy the view. Problems: I couldn’t see anything ahead except for his head and I couldn’t reach far enough for a good dig because his body was quite close in front of mine. So, when I heard Alex saying the word ‘rock’ over and over as the current pulled us forward, I tried to spot the obstacle but didn’t have much luck and I tried to dig deep in the water to steer us away from the unseen obstacle but also didn’t have much luck. Within seconds, we were sideways on a smooth, slanted rock, laughing so hard we didn’t come up with a strategy right away.

“Uhhhh,” Alex finally muttered, before he started wiggling his butt, which would gently wiggle the boat, hopefully, off the rock. A couple of wiggles and that boat was tipping off the rock. And we were swimming.

“Hold on to the paddle!” Alex was shouting to me from his position downstream. “Hold on to the boat!”

Who’s doing the work now?

I succeeded at holding onto both of these things and keeping my head above water- thanks to my handy dandy personal flotation device- until the current got a little calmer. We floated down the middle of the river, again laughing hysterically, this time at the fact we had flipped a boat that was said to be ‘almost impossible to flip.’

Pam and Ryan came up next to us on their raft.

“You flipped the Ducky,” Pam said, laughing. “It’s like, impossible to flip that thing.”

“Yeah, well, you know, when Cece and I get together we can pretty much do the impossible,” Alex joked back to her. “We can really do things you’ve never seen before.”

I too was surprised that the Ducky flipped; I went through a Class 3 rapid in that thing and just bumped and bobbled over all the whitewater, water splashing up in my face all the while. Out of the three watercraft I was on on this trip- catamaran raft, river kayak, and Ducky- the Ducky was my favorite. Not only was it a stable option for a river newbie like myself, it afforded its one and only captain some quiet time to think things over. I didn’t have much thinking over to do, but if I had I knew the Ducky would be there for me. Additionally, it’s quite cool in the Ducky because you’re really low-down and close to the water, and with each stroke of the paddle you get a little splash of river water on your hot legs. And I can’t forget to mention the maneuverability of the Ducky. For the sake of exploration and shade-seeking it could go places that a big raft couldn’t, like under the low cliff overhangs of the canyon walls.



One Idea of a Beach Vacation

Lunchtime on the rafts! Photo Courtesy of Robyn Thomas.

Lunchtime on the rafts! Photo Courtesy of Robyn Thomas.

When we were first invited to join Alex’s family on the San Juan River trip, we both figured it was in southern Colorado. Hearing ‘San Juan,’ we assume ‘San Juan River in the San Juan Mountains.’ Lucky for us, we were wrong. While the San Juan Mountains are quite dramatic and beautiful, a river running through them would have been much. Southern Utah, on the other hand, is very, very hot in June, and this is where the San Juan River is.

We left Fraser on Friday after work, at about 6pm. We turned on the music and drove and drove. I was ecstatic to find Coke in the bottle at City Market in New Castle, Colorado; For us, Coke in the bottle signifies vacation. America doesn’t sell Coke in the bottle often, but I remember sipping on one while waiting for buses in Costa Rica or washing down some Tanzanian rice and beans with one. So, we were officially on vacation! We drove on into the night, turning off of I-70 at the Moab exit. Through Moab we went, admiring the cute stucco-sided restaurants and patios lit by white Christmas lights. The night was so dark out here that we couldn’t even make out the shadows of all the rock formations we knew lined the side of the road.

Finally, at about 2:30a.m, we reached Mexican Hat, Utah. You could almost miss Mexican Hat if you looked down for a moment to change the radio or yawn or check the time. Not knowing exactly where our group was camped out, we followed a small sign to the boat launch. As soon as we turned off the highway, a creature pranced across the road.

“A fox?” I asked Alex.

“I think it might have been a ring-tailed cat,” he said. “That’s cool.”

“A ring-tailed lemur?” I asked, giggling.

“You’re delirious.”


Late-night digressions aside, we found our group and slept in the back of Alex’s Subaru for the next 4 hours until the sounds of morning woke us. The temperature was climbing toward 100 degrees, and a few hours later we were on the river. We were to spend the next 5 days soaking up the sun, swimming in water as warm as any heated pool, and burying our toes in the sand on the shore. Sounds like a typical beach vacation, right?

River mud fights. Photo Courtesy of Robyn Thomas.

River mud fights. Photo Courtesy of Robyn Thomas.

But we also did things that you probably wouldn’t do on a typical beach vacation, like having mud fights, going through whitewater, and pooping on a small, portable toilet called a Groover. And instead of palm trees to shade us in the heat of the day, we sought shade from the red canyon walls. Coming home a little crispier, wiser in the subjects of geography and watershed, sweaty, and covered in sand, we knew that this was one idea of a beach vacation.

River sunset just as good as any on the beach. Photo Courtesy of Robyn Thomas.

River sunset just as good as any on the beach. Photo Courtesy of Robyn Thomas.