This archived article was written by: Scott Frederick
“Check it out river right,” Steve Christensen yelled as I rowed my raft around a curve in the Salt River. It was Friday afternoon March 21, on our last of four days on the Salt and my boat-mate Chris Jensen and I looked up, we saw eight head of desert bighorn sheep including three mature rams grazing on whatever the desert had to offer not more than 40 feet away.
They seemed unfazed as I put the pedal to the metal and eddied out river left, directly across from them and changed lenses on my camera to snap a few shots. Even though I grew up in the Sonoran desert in a mining town in southern Arizona (Ajo), I had never seen big horn sheep in the wild. Seeing them on the banks of one of the most scenic desert rivers in the country under towering saguaro cactus, was an unexpected treat.
My love affair with rivers is still in the honeymoon phase. It started when I moved to Moab in spring 2006. I landed a job as a photographer at Moab Action Shots in March 06. I moved from my house in SLC to the back of my truck parked at the Lazy Lizard Hostel in beautiful Moab Utah.
As the commercial rafting traffic picked up on the Colorado River and as the river level rose, my job was to get in a small cataraft just above Whites’ rapid on what is called the Moab Daily portion of the Colorado River, run it, and then pull over on the far side. I hiked up to my spot on a cliff above the Second Hole (the biggest part of the rapid) and then photographed all the rafts as they navigated their way through or around it. I nearly had to pinch myself each time I launched my boat, “you mean I am floating in a raft down the Colorado River … and making money?”
The owners and my bosses at Moab Action Shots were Laurie and Tom Okeeffe. They owned at least 13 river boats and on many occasions, we would leave the shop after work on Friday, camp on the Colorado River that night, and then float the Moab Daily the next day. It was on those cool nights, telling stories around the campfire with the moon glistening on the river, my love affair began. I was filled with anticipation when I signed up for the river guide prep class taught by Steve and offered by CEU Recreation Department every spring.
My anticipation grew when a former member of the class, Brandalyn Karren (Brandi) offered everyone in the class a spot on her San Juan River trip during the first couple days of spring break. Later my excitement grew when classmate Tommy Ward scored one of only three permits for the Salt River which we would run immediately after the San Juan during the final four days of spring break.
Our first night of camping was March 15 at Sand Island near the town of Bluff, Utah was memorable … because it was cold and the wind was howling. No one seemed to mind because it was the night before we were to “put in” and we were excited and anxious to get on the river in the morning.
Steve’s son Bo and his friend Kellen Spillman fired up some charcoal and cooked pork chops while Brandi and Steve’s friend Kathy Kelly made a rice dish. The chops and rice were delicious and we finished the meal with chocolate pudding.
Bo and Kellen were the life of the party. They kept everyone laughing as they playfully slammed each other and tried to one up each other at every opportunity. “How long will it take you to rig your boat in the morning?” Steve asked Kellen “bout five minutes” answered Kellen. “How bout you Bo?” Steve continued, “bout two minutes less than Kellen” Bo shot back.
Around the campfire, Steve, Bo and Kellen were demonstrating knot tying to anyone interested. Steve started showing us a tricky knot and asked Bo how much tail was needed “two times a week,” Bo said with a sly grin … everyone busted up.
We scattered around the camp site and pitched tents or found other accommodations. Some of us used existing structures as shelter against the wind. Steve got the primo spot in the gear trailer, I crashed in the back seat of the van. Brandi slept in her car, Kellen was in the bed of the truck, Bo was on a picnic table, Bowdy McMullin and Chris snuggled among some bushes on the ground with everyone else in tents.
The next morning was cold, but no wind. It was the only morning I got up before Steve. On every other morning Steve had the coffee going and breakfast laid out when I got up. It’s always fun observing your fellow campers crawling out of their tents and sleeping bags groggy and feeling self-conscious. I took the opportunity to take pictures of everyone I could. I’m sure they will laugh at the pictures … someday.
Breakfast on this morning and on every other morning was fruit (apples and oranges) oatmeal, bagels, cream cheese and lots of coffee or hot chocolate. Because of the amount of exertion it takes to rig boats, paddle or row all day, and the stress of being at the mercy of the elements, I found myself eating about three times what I normally eat. For breakfast I had an orange, three packs of instant oatmeal mixed with cashews, two large bagels with cream cheese, and enough coffee to wire a small army.
After Steve, Brandi, Kathy and Scott Phillips ran the car shuttle to Mexican Hat, our take out point, we launched around 10:30 a.m. Even though the air temp was around 40 degrees and the water temp was around 50 degrees, Bo, Chris, Scott and Bowdy decided to start the day in kayaks.
Bo’s spray skirt was damaged on the dock by a well meaning person from another group trying to help him into the river and Chris’s spray skirt was leaking from the get go. By lunch time, the kayakers were wet and freezing. “I have never been so afraid to get wet” Chris said as we climbed out of the boats to make lunch. Lunch was deli sandwiches, potato chips and was delicious.
With everyone in dry clothes and lunch finished, we strapped the kayaks onto the rafts and headed down to our first camp on the river. About three p.m. clouds gathered and it started to snow. The snow storm lasted about five minutes and didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits. Undaunted, Brandi got into her kayak after the snow and spent an hour in it until we found our camping spot for the night.
The wind was whipping as we pitched our tents and set up the kitchen for the evening meal. We fired up some charcoal for burgers and Bo made some of his famous bean dip. The Bo and Kellen show had not let up the whole day and culminated in each of them eating six hamburgers trying to outdo the other.
With the temperature dropping fast, Bo, Kellen and I found ourselves in their big tent telling stories about other river trips and many other adventures. Each story was told with gusto and we laughed and carried on until bedtime.
Thankfully the wind was absent on the next morning, although it was overcast and cold. After breakfast Scott, and Derek Van Hatten decided to give kayaking another try and got into their wetsuits. The water was fairly mellow and they had no trouble navigating the smallish rapids encountered.
Around noon the sky turned dark and we floated right into a snow squall. We all had good clothes and gear and the snow didn’t add much discomfort to the already cold day. We continued to float through low misty clouds with occasional beams of sunlight illuminating the snow flakes with huge dark wet canyon walls behind.
We arrived at Mexican Hat around noon. It took us two hours to eat lunch, de-rig the boats and separate and load the gear that would be going with us to the Salt, and gear that would be headed back to Price.
This was prime time for Bo and Kellen to show off and continue one upping each other. “Wanna see the easy way for you to get your boat to the trailer?” Bo asked Kathy with everyone watching and her raft deflated, rolled and strapped up tight. “Sure” she said. Bo grabbed the 130 pound raft, hoisted it above his head and carried it to the trailer himself.
All during the process of sorting and loading the massive amount of gear it takes to do a river trip for 15 people, Bo would ask Kellen how far it was from some arbitrary point to another. Kellen would answer by flexing his muscles like a body builder and extending his arms and hands would say “about this far” then Bo would flex his muscles and say “you mean this far?”
With the gear sorted and loaded into the vehicles, we headed back to Sand Island to drop off the people that would not be going with us to the Salt. We said goodbye to Josh Taylor, Scott and Ashley Phillips, Leticia Mitchell, Kathy and Bowdy; and then hit the road for Show Low, Ariz.
Read part two in the next edition of The Eagle.