“Oh home… Let me go home… Home is where ever I’m with you” Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros played low on the radio as sandstone sentinels guarded the nearly mythical stillness of Monument Valley in the dawn’s early light.
Stillness, broken only by our roaring vans headed north to Utah, and by twenty-one students excited to not be in chemistry class on a Friday morning. We were headed toward Mexican Hat to put-in for a five night rafting trip down the San Juan River. Our backgrounds were diverse – some of us had been on many a river trip before, and others had never caught Z’s in a sleeping bag. Yet, upon reaching those gloriously silty brown waters, something seemed to take over – a mild chaos, I would call it. A mild chaos, that for some reason, ran very smoothly, and calmed my soul. This is the story of that smooth-floating chaos, and the beautiful moments to be found within it.
As the vans unloaded at the Mexican Hat put-in, student projects, hats, glasses, and bags began to fly everywhere as the process of packing all of our belongings into bright blue dry bags began. Nevertheless, we packed all of our supplies in record time, inflated our trusty rafts and duckies (two-person inflatable kayaks, for all intensive purposes), drank some water in the hot desert sun, loaded up, drank some more water, and set off down the river.
The first couple miles of our float meandered fairly quietly through a relatively low-lying floodplain surrounding Mexican Hat; however, after just a few miles high canyon walls rose up around us and left only a thin strip of clear blue skies visible between the canyon’s red sandstone jaws. This, for many of us, was the point at which we understood what our surroundings would be like for the next couple of days. There were no more buildings, roads, restaurants, or bathrooms. Just us, our supplies on the boats, and an apathetic canyon full of mysteries.
Fully intending to solve a few of those mysteries, I pulled out our trips science kit and… was quickly interrupted by a more pressing need: commandeering duckies. My partner in crime, Ninja Quinn, and I lured an unsuspecting couple of students paddling duckies close to our boat, and leapt. Without much effort, we were in the ducky and in control of paddles! However, we did have a bit of a problem – the pesky students whose boat we had taken over were clutching onto our bow like spiders – a tangle of limbs wrapped around the back of the boat in any spot they could gain traction. As supportive teachers, we quickly pushed them off into the river and paddled away.
As the sun sank behind the red rock walls, the canyon blew a cold breath down the backs of our necks. That, of course, did not stop 15-year-olds from continuing to jump into the river, and to find giant methane bubbles emerging from under the mud on the banks. The bubbles pushed the mud up into a large dome, which obviously was meant to be jumped on. Shivering, we pulled into camp and broke into crews. After a delicious dinner, Josh and Jake presented on Leave No Trace principles, Levi presented a self-created water filter made of rocks, sand, and activated charcoal, and finally mafia was played under the stars in our river families' grand outdoor living room.
Soon after setting off for the day, Cole told me from another boat that I had a giant spider on my life vest - he needed to get it off IMMEDIATELY. He proceeded to leap from his boat and grab my life vest, and pull me in the water. He claimed there actually was a spider. I am skeptical.
Later in the day we pulled out the pH test kits to test the waters - and were successful this time. Josh (see video below for picture of the student in huge glasses with a mini-burger stuffed in his mouth) predicted that the water would be acidic because of the dirty colors of the water. We soon found out, however, that the water was highly basic! So, we all learned together about the 'carbonate buffering system'. Limestone, a rock type that is abundant in the canyon and is essentially old exoskeletons from millions of marine organisms that lived when this area was still the bottom of a giant ocean, is made of calcium carbonate (makes sense that these tiny marine organisms exoSKELETONS were made from calcium, right?). The carbonate in these rocks will dissolve quickly when water runs through it (no wonder there is a huge hole in the ground called the canyon, right?), and it actually neutralizes acidity upon dissolving in water, turning the acid back into water and carbon dioxide.
Later in the day we did a hike up John's Canyon that was simply amazing. We ascended a steep trail along the canyon wall that included a few sections of low rock climbing grades. Eventually, we reached the side canyon, and this time descended down rock climbing grades into the canyon. We even used the help of a body rappel to get down into it.
John's canyon was a remnant of flash floods long past. A huge pool of bright green water lay just underneath a large cliff, telling of the tremendous force of the waterfall that must have carved out the pool during the flash floods. Beyond the pool was the large, flat plateau that the water clearly flowed over after filling the pool, and beyond that was another giant drop - straight into the river. Here again, a waterfall must have carved out the rocks below it, as the river had a rather unnatural bay just below the drop off.
The pool of course became a favorite swimming hole of the trip. Thank you, again, nature.
After breakfast, we hiked up a another side-canyon and had some personal reflection time. What a thing of beauty.
To find a side canyon and explore it is to be a youth, time-traveling back to the land of dinosaurs and just attempting to grasp an understanding of the era and its mysteries. Side canyons take the shapes and processes of main canyons and scale them to a size that the human experience can (almost) comprehend with just our five senses. The tops of the canyon are sloped and eroded, at times having vertically dropping cliffs and at other times flat plateaus near the 'river' (here just a slight trickle of water). The canyon walls fall vertically just before the river, leaving only a small, limestone floodplain with the stream running through a well cut drainage. Drops that aren't found with the same pompousness on the real river exist here in miniature, yet still grandiose glory. The stories are here. It's up to us to find them.