I am on the upper San Juan River in southeastern Utah in a kayak – a ducky it’s called, because I wear a bright yellow helmet. My paddle wears into my hands; I dip it into the cool water and propel myself forward. I take the day as it comes, at the will of the Southwest, the weather, and the current, my miles determined by the flow, fast and then slow, and then rapids pick up my speed once more. An adventure like none I have had before, everything I need for the trip is on the rafts our guides oar. Three days in the sun on the river, I find my perspective about access for recreational purposes changing – reading about the landscape encouraged me that everyone should come freely and take part. However, after my experience on the quiet river I realized it is beneficial for the environment and for the experience of those who visit the San Juan River to limit public access through a permit system.

            My itinerary is concise, but my day is full. I move with the sun, I rise with it, and on the river, I go. I make my way downstream as the sun peaks; then as it falls, it’s time to make camp, and eat dinner. When the sun sets the night is chilly. It has been a while since I have seen both the sun rise and set. Usually I am indoors, in front of a screen, in the office, the library, or a classroom. On the river, my course is set, but I feel so free. The current controls my view – what I can take in depends on how fast the water moves and if the sun is just right. Day by day, hour by hour, the sun moves in the sky, and as it peaks, oh, it is so hot. I pour a coffee cup full of river water all over myself, my only relief.

            The landscape is alive; wildlife includes cows, bighorn sheep, burros, and turkeys; tamarisks and cottonwoods line the banks, but also the region feels alive in more ways than this. There is a presence that is tangible through respect and observation. I am quiet, reserved but I do not feel alone. I cannot be when the vast, canyon envelops me and the river is beneath me pushing me along. When I look around, I have to crane my neck to take in the wide landscape. I hold such respect for this riparian region rich with history and a past so evident. The grooves on the canyon wall map out the water level over the years. This landscape has a presence that feels timeless, a unique quality of the desert, an existence crucial, fundamental to life – I am proud the southwest is my home.

            I feel comfortable reflecting in nature; there is something about stepping away on an outdoor retreat that allows for meaningful reflection, my anxious thoughts subside as I focus only on the present. Furthermore, I am busy with my ducky which gives my body something to do. The ducky is a tangent kayak and my partner and I are quiet, except for the occasional panicked, left, left; oh, there’s a branch, ouch! I wonder if she too needed this trip and the peace of being on the water. In the serene atmosphere, my thoughts do wonder, and I ponder questions that have been on my mind. But I face them with less distress; out here the world seems to make sense.

            I have a chance to further connect with my surroundings when we reach River House, an ancient dwelling of the Ancestral Puebloans, still well preserved. The history is not abstract, but right in front me – I can climb right up to the dwelling. The Hopi, descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans, can interpret the language left in the form of petroglyphs and pictographs. Sitting on the ledge, I think about the lives of those who lived in the region and journal. I have been quietly musing about the river, but putting myself in the place of an Ancestral Puebloan outside their dwelling is a unique experience. At this moment I understand, that journaling in peace would not be possible if land management did not control how many people could be on the river at a time.

            The dwelling will not last forever, but in the meantime, the public can reflect on the lives and history of the Ancestral Puebloans. Although the dwelling is within the rocks and will eventually deteriorate there is no need to speed up the natural processes – the structure should not be climbed on, and everything should be left in place. A lesson in anthropology comes to life; I can imagine the lives of people as I continue down the river. The motion of the river reminds me that time is never still, but ongoing and all around me.

            After River House, an exciting challenge arrives, rapids. I now move through the river quickly. The colors are a blurred rush, in my peripherals, I see shades of red, orange, and brown flash past me. The river can teach its riders so much as I lean forward in my ducky taking the rapids head first so should I approach other challenges in life. I was uncertain in my abilities before we embarked, but I never flip. Once a rapid is over the current is unhurried. I can once more observe carefully and clearly. I feel as though I am moving through time maneuvering down the river, through the canyon as it curves, bends, and dips. I watch the ripples in the water, the water breaks with every dip of my paddle, then returns to its same flow once more like I was never there. 

            To raft on the San Juan, my group had to get a permit, which surprised me because I had a misled conception that I had the right to the land, it was public after all, and my access should not be limited I thought. I liked the idea of being able to come to the region any free weekend I pleased, and like other rivers, I have been too. But because of the permit system, my trip offered the opportunity for quiet reflection and was, therefore, more meaningful, especially journaling at River House. The San Juan is not a party scene with music echoing through the canyon, but a tranquil setting – I did not spot one piece of trash in the water or on the banks. The curtailing of public access creates an enjoyable atmosphere.

            Admittedly, even with a permit system, individuals may not research the region’s unique history; however, after spending a couple of days on the river, I would assert it is impossible not to be impressed and have some respect for the region. The San Juan is awe-inspiring and the atmosphere permitting creates is one of peace, the river is not crowded or loud. Permitting weeds out those not serious about rafting the San Juan which leaves those interested in the region and who have planned their trip ahead of time. There is no guarantee who will be on the river, but the hope is it will be those more conscientious, and with fewer people on the river at a time people are accountable for their actions, and human damage will not be as significant.

            The San Juan and River House will wear down naturally, like how the canyons have been shaped and worn over time. Erosion will do its work; however, that is no reason to be reckless. The earth is not here only for recreation, and our responsibility is to care for it. Permitting areas with a high volume of foot traffic because of outdoor recreation will help monitor human destruction. To maintain balance and harmony in considering the environmental, historical, and archeological makeup of the San Juan the public can be guardians of the land. If individuals are to have the privilege to use it, they must not abuse it. On the river I felt accountable since my presence was documented and limited; there was a quiet that allowed for a presence to settle around me as the river took me downstream. Awareness of the voices of Native Americans like the Hopi, whose descendants built River House is critical when determining the future of the region, but I have hope after hearing conversations at camp about issues the region faces. It is reassuring to know there are kind, concerned people equipped with cultural awareness willing to listen to the voices of others ready to take on the future.

Reflections on the San Juan River: Permitting, Conserving, and Respecting the Region

Monica Liddle

Monica Liddle is an undergraduate student studying English at Northern Arizona University. She plans on pursuing a Master's in English Education so she can share her love of language with high school students after graduation. In her free time she enjoys reading, photography, and kayaking.
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