by Corey Thayn
After owning our inflatable kayaks, the Sea Eagle FastTrack 385ft for a year, it was time for a multi-day adventure. The premier flatwater river trip in the western US is floating the Green River through Labyrinth Canyon, in southern Utah. The canyon stretches 46 miles from the popular put-in spot at Ruby Ranch to Mineral Bottom, just north of Canyonlands National Park.
There are several alternate start points that can stretch the river miles to almost 70 miles, but those extra miles are through rolling hills of sagebrush and farms, not quite as picturesque as the high red sandstone walls of Labyrinth Canyon. Floating this section of the Green River requires a free permit from the Moab office of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This can be obtained through contacting the BLM office, or on-line. The permit requires carrying specific gear (portable toilet, fire pan, safety equipment, etc) on your boat, along with other stipulations to help ensure safety and maintain the back-country conditions of the area.
The flow of the Green River varies widely based on the annual precipitation and season of the year. Ranging from 2000-4000 CFS (cubic feet per second) in late fall and winter, to over 20,000 CFS during the spring runoff. As we monitored the flow in the weeks leading up to our trip, the river flow ranged from 13,000-15,000 CFS. A little high, but within the expected flow rate for an early June trip. However, just days before our trip was scheduled to start, the water managers at Flaming Gorge Reservoir, 300 miles upstream, significantly increased the output from the dam. The purpose was to lower the reservoir level enough to make room for the expected snowmelt runoff. It takes about 3-4 days for increased flow from Flaming Gorge to travel downstream to Labyrinth Canyon, so 2 days before our trip, the flow of the river jumped from 15,000 CFS to 25,000 CFS. This was a slight concern, but after a call to a local river guide and the BLM office, the trip continued as planned. The main downside of the increased flow was a significant reduction in the available campsites along the river and increased difficulty of exiting and entering the river due to the flooded river banks.
The 385ft is the perfect boat for this type of trip. The carrying capacity is adequate for hauling camping gear for a multi-day trip. The geometry and style of the boat allows for easy paddling and control, even when it is fully loaded. The portability of the inflatable kayaks increases the options for setting up the vehicle shuttle for this multi-day trip.
For this trip, my wife, Eva, and I each paddled our own 385ft kayaks. This provided plenty of room for the gear required by the permit and all the other niceties that make for a comfortable camping trip. We chose to launch from Ruby Ranch, a working alfalfa ranch south of the city of Green River, Utah. After a 40 minute drive on gravel roads from Green River City, we arrived at Ruby Ranch. The ranch owner charges a nominal fee ($10/boat + $5/person) to park and launch from their river access. There are also camping sites ($5/night) and a picnic area at the boat launch.
We dropped off our kayaks and gear at the ranch and proceeded to set up the vehicle shuttle between Ruby Ranch and the takeout point at Mineral Bottom. For our shuttle, we chose to use an ATV (all-terrain vehicle) as a second vehicle. We left Ruby Ranch and trailered the ATV to Mineral Bottom. This leg of the trip was 20 miles of pavement and 50 miles of dirt road. We parked our vehicle and trailer at the overnight parking site at Mineral Bottoms and rode the ATV on 40+ miles of dirt backroads back to Ruby Ranch. The entire shuttle setup took almost 4 hours to complete. We made it back to the launch point and were on the river around 2 pm.
The river was running high and fast and we quickly covered the 2-3 miles to the start of Labyrinth Canyon. As we entered the canyon, the riverside terrain changed from flatland desert to sandstone cliffs rising on both sides of the river. The cliffs continued to rise as we floated deeper into the canyon. The canyon was true to its name and the river wound back and forth between the high cliffs. The beauty of the canyon increased as we traveled down the river. The river flow was such that paddling was only required to keep the kayaks pointed down the river.
The unusual high flow of the Green River reduced access to many of the campsites but did have the advantage of flooding the side canyons. Normally these side canyons are high and dry above the main river. Seven miles from Ruby Ranch are the three canyons of Trin-Alcove Bend. Where you would normally need to hike into these canyons, the river was backed into the side canyons leaving calm waters to paddle up the canyon to explore. These side canyons felt like a jungle river as we paddled through the treetops, with the canyon floor buried below the waters. This was a completely different experience from those who travel the river during lower flow rates. We continued until we found the campsite for the first night on the river. We camped on a sandy beach below a high sandstone cliff. We enjoyed a quiet night as we watched the sunset create a glow on the red sandstone surrounding our camp.
The next morning we broke camp and got an early start on the river. The rising sun on the walls of the canyons met us as we left the side canyon and entered the main channel. I estimate the river was running at about 4-5 mph so little paddling was required to move down the river. After several more miles, we took a side trip down 10 Mile Canyon. This canyon wound through the thickets of tamarisk until it opened into a deep walled canyon. We paddled about a mile down the canyon until we found a nice shady spot to beach the boats and have lunch. Again it was a beautiful area as we watched a Blue Heron fly around the canyon, and we were visited by a family of geese as they paddled down the creek.
Hey Joe Canyon was the next stop. This was the site of a historic uranium mine and we explored the abandoned equipment and mining site. There were many other points of interest along the river, but the high water level kept us from finding a place to beach the FastTracks and explore.
We did make a stop at Bowknot Bend. This is a location where the river flows alongside a high sandstone cliff. Over the next 7 miles, the river makes a 180-degree bend and flows back to within 1/2 mile of itself on the other side of the cliff. We were able to find a spot to get off the river and complete the hike to the top of the Bowknot saddle and view the other side of the cliff and river.
After 23 miles of travel, the second night’s camp was in Spring Canyon. The entrance to this canyon is similar to the others, but it quickly turned into a tamarisk jungle. The tamarisks were so thick it quickly became too difficult to move forward, but there was also no place to turn around.
Tamarisk is an invasive species that has invaded many of the western US waterways. The species was introduced in this country to combat erosion but has quickly taken over the banks of many western rivers and lakes. Tamarisk chokes out the native species and prevents other plants from growing. Each tamarisk can produce 200,000 seeds each year and spread quickly along the shorelines. Along the Green River, tamarisk has blocked shore access along much of the river. The tamarisk is so thick that it can be impossible to pass through.
The entrance of Spring Canyon had 2-300 yards of thick, thick tamarisk. I went in first while Eva waited at the entrance. It took 20 minutes to fight my way through the overgrowth of tamarisk, not paddling most of the time, but using branches to pull myself hand-over-hand and weaving the kayak through the mess. The FastTrack kayaks again performed great. The tough skins of the kayak were not damaged at all by the sharp branches of the tamarisk. Once through the thicket, the canyon opened up into a beautiful campsite below the high sandstone walls with a clear pool to park the kayaks. The night treated us to a dark star-filled sky we watched through the mesh roof of our tent.
Day three was another beautiful day with perfect temperature, no wind, and clear blue skies. We only had 15 river miles to go until we arrived at the Mineral Bottom take-out point. We didn’t want to miss Mineral Bottom as the next takeout point was 4-5 days and 60 miles downriver. We were having such an enjoyable time, we did not want to hurry down the river. We rafted the kayaks up and floated the last miles of our trip, with a stop at Horseshoe Canyon for lunch and to explore Hell Roaring Canyon.
The final miles of Labyrinth Canyon was as picturesque as the rest of the canyon. We paddled into the boat ramp area of Mineral Bottom at around 3:30 pm. We broke down the kayaks and loaded the gear to make the trip back to Ruby Ranch to pick up our ATV before heading home.
The Sea Eagle FastTrack inflatable kayaks were perfect for this trip. They easily held all our camping gear and supplies, with room to spare. They were easy to paddle and control as we explored the tight side canyons. The durability and high-quality construction was evident.