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Rafting San Juan River, Sand Island to Clay Hills
By Arnold Tran
| Four of us – Kay and Arnie Tran, Beth Blattenberger and Dave Vance - began our journey to the San Juan River---Sand Island to Clay Hills---from Salt Lake City to Sand Island campground with a brief lunch in Helper, UT, where Dave entertained us with stories of his childhood and relatives who had been prominent community members. We arrived at Bluff in time to deliver keys to the shuttle driver, claim the last reasonable campsite and inspect the nearby petroglyphs. It was a windy night for cooking quesadillas and pitching tents but good sleeping with the anticipation for the morning launch.
At the launch ramp Ranger Rick checked for the fire pan and groover and provided friendly advice. We had a 14-foot oar raft and a ducky from WMC, and Beth's small hard-shell kayak. On May 8 we traveled 9 miles, stopping for an extended hike at the River House to see the archaeological site and pottery chards. Our intention was to camp at Chinle Wash with our Navajo permit but a large commercial group had taken that spot. At Lower Big Stick Camp we were delighted to find our camp mates to be friendly horses. Mister Ed didn't like Arnie’s apple slices although he sampled them. It was a cold evening and we were glad for insulation and rain suits.
Day 2 was cold and rainy and we traveled 23 miles in wet suits and foul weather gear to Mendenhall prospector cabin campsite, a campsite with easy access. A wildlife highlight was Mother Goose with 7 goslings. They had to paddle hard upstream against the 2300-cfs flow. We liked the river level which was quick with many easy rapids and ripples. Kay did 4-foot Rapids in the ducky and Arnie did 8-foot Rapids in the ducky; quite an exciting day. Ice cream at Mexican Hat had no appeal but hot coffee and hot chocolate did. Kay and Arnie got some exercise lugging several gallons of fresh water down the dirt road from town. That evening we had homemade chili and were happy to be warm and dry.
On day 3 we paddled 13 miles to camp at Lower Honaker. We pitched our tents and took shelter inside during torrential rain for 2 solid hours. In the afternoon the storm cleared and Kay, Arnie and Beth headed up the Honaker trail hike 1200 feet of vertical ascent 2 1/2 miles each way, fairly technical in steep spots, and we summitted just before our turn-around time. We saw two vehicles, a friendly dog and his humans visiting Gooseneck State Park from the topside. We made it back to camp at twilight and were delighted to find Dave had river nachos ready for us.
Day 4 we woke up to beautiful warm sunshine. We stopped to take photos of the beautiful waterfall at John's Canyon camp but we decided to continue down river as a large group had already claimed that camp. When we checked out Furnace Flats it was so overgrown we decided to move on which meant that we would do Government Rapids at the end of our day. We scouted the rapids from the left side. Kay on the ducky followed Beth, Arnie paddled the raft and it was actually less technical than 8-foot Rapids. We made camp at the attractive Government camp. This campsite comes with entertainment as other groups proceeded to shoot the rapids. The kitchen was right by the shore of the river so Government Rapids camp was a favorite.
We woke the next morning to portage our kayaks up to the top of the rapid to do repeat runs, and success was had by all in the party. A short hike up the canyon was awesome too. We proceeded down the river just 2.5 miles to Slickhorn B, our reserved campsite, another good one with the rock canyons being a nice backdrop for fabulous star gazing. We hiked up Slickhorn Canyon and went swimming in the clear pools. Chicken curry was a highlight of the menu that night.
On our final day we paddled from Slickhorn to the take out at Clay Hills, spotting several bighorn sheep by the river along the way, and arriving around 4:00 PM. There were some sand bars at the lower end of the river but the wind was kind to us and our truck and trailer were waiting for us, shuttled by Wild Expeditions. We made terrific time arriving back in Salt Lake by midnight.
We sincerely thank the Wasatch Mountain Club, especially the boating coordinators who helped us create a successful trip.
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