Paddling Hell: Running the Dirty Devil

06 May 13
Paddling Hell: Running the Dirty Devil

Surfing the Silt: Some call it a “river-accessed hiking trip.” Photo: Jason Blevins

We suspected we were in for a grind when we paddled by the bloated carcass of a black bovine after our first minute on the Dirty Devil. The remote stretch of meandering water that spills from Utah’s Henry Mountains into gorgeous gorges before retching its foul, salty silt into Lake Powell is hardly a paddlers’ paradise. In fact, it’s not much of a destination for anything living.

In our three days on the river—slathered booty to brim in crackled gray silt that left us with the dull pallor of zombies, a comparison only amplified as we lurched through thigh-deep muck–we saw not a single living creature. Not a bug. Not a bird. Not even a track on the pristine sandy beaches.

It was kind of eerie.

But after the first few hours, lolling on ripples with the density of pudding, we changed our perspective. You know how Grand Canyon veterans like to call their month in the great ditch a “river-accessed hiking trip?” The Dirty Devil is similar in that it’s best to not consider it a river trip.

The Dirty Devil is a lonely and committing desert adventure. It’s a mudbath with incredible hiking and lazy, thirsty days. It’s a scenic tour through one of Utah’s most remote canyons, with dramatic landscapes sculpted by millennia-gone torrents. Truly, looking up is the best way to enjoy the Dirty Devil.

The Dirty Devil’s 76 miles from Hanksville to Lake Powell can inspire, with the 2,000-foot deep gorge’s slickrock sandstone offering countless visages of stern Indian chiefs lurking amid towering citadels. Bulbous Chinle clays drip radiant reds and White Rim sandstone jaggedly frames the ribbon of blue sky overhead.

Every few miles, a side canyon unfolds into the river. Some are mere feet wide, requiring more squirming than hiking from floaters eager to find even a splash of clear water. (A fruitless search if it hasn’t recently rained.) About 30 miles in, the spectacular Happy Canyon delivers a glorious reprieve for dingy drifters. The narrow slot canyon is one of the most beautiful in all of Utah’s Colorado Plateau. (And one of the longest at more than a mile.) Hardy hikers who navigate deep into the upper chasms of the desolate slot can find, rumor holds, pools of crystal clear water.

Michael Kelsey, the godfather of Utah canyoneering whose dog-eared guidebooks are essential tools for canyon explorers, considers the footprint-free Happy Canyon akin to the renowned Antelope Canyon near Page, Ariz., which ranks as one of the most trafficked slots in the country.

Still, despite that lonely appeal, Happy Canyon “doesn’t rank too high” on most canyoneers’ to-do lists, Kelsey said.

“It is one of the nicer slots in Utah,” he said. “But it’s kind of hard to get to.”

Just kind of. And Kelsey accessed Happy Canyon from its ropework-required start a mile above the Dirty Devil. He’s already been down the Dirty Devil. Most people don’t do it twice.

Another sidecanyon, Robbers Roost, was the hideout for Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch. Lawmen from across the West never found the remote refuge where the bandits wintered and stashed their booty. Robbers Roost has deep wells that can hold rainwater for weeks after a storm, thus sustaining the outlaws.

We had readied our Alpacka rafts for our first-ever float just downstream of Hanksville. Noticing the thickly turbid morass, we burdened the capable crafts with five-gallon tankards of drinking water. Our water filter was hopelessly defiled after a test pump at the put-in.

The headwaters of the Dirty Devil are fed with cold, clean water from the snowy Henry Mountains. As those waters tumble through the agriculturally vibrant valley above Hanksville it picks up silt from layers of Mancos Shale. When the Fremont River joins the super salty Muddy River at Hanksville, the Dirty Devil forms and earns its name. By the time it reaches Powell, she is spewing 150,000 tons of salt a year into the Colorado River, contributing to the mighty river’s vexing salinity levels.

In 1869, John Wesley Powell asked a riverman in his Colorado River entourage to take a gander up the ravine spilling salty gray dregs into the river just west of Cataract Canyon. He didn’t need to go far. The man reported back, according to his chief’s notes, with: “She’s a dirty devil.”

Late on our demented, parched, mud-caked drag-float, we adopted a pirate interpretation: “Aye, captain, she’s a Dirty Devil.” Except we added some choice adjectives that would make the cast of “Deadwood” blush.

The impish river was rolling when we put in. Close to 400 cubic-feet-per-second. Ideal flows. An hour later it was 200 cfs. By the afternoon, it was less than 100 cfs and we were dragging our laden boats across hardly dampened sandbars. As we crawled on our bellies across 30 feet of quicksand at the take-out three days later, the river was less than 40 cfs. (We checked the downhill trajectory of the flow chart after our exit/escape.) Experts recommend flows of 100 cfs. I’ve read trip reports of people who did it at 10 cfs.

I would say 200 cfs is a much wiser minimum for those looking for a more manageable level of irritation to their Dirty Devil adventure. Anything less and a paddle becomes a walking stick on a boat-towing hiking trip.

Nailing the Dirty Devil at a sustained peak flow is key and not easy. Catching the spring surge—which can last a mere day on lousy winters—requires persistent gauge watching and a down-to-the-minute trigger pull. It can drop from torrent to trickle in hours.

Now there are hardy explorers out there who notice nothing but glory in the Dirty Devil. They are hardly bothered by the impenetrable walls of tamarisk that line the quicksand beaches for the final 12 miles. They don’t remember the grueling open-lake paddle to the take-out at Hite Marina. They didn’t have any trouble sipping from a single water bottle on their lazy float. They dribble Clorox into the muddy gruel and gargle it down. And they are the awesome adventurers. The type of tough guys—with names like Doom—who ride their bikes from Durango, disassemble their ride, float the Dirty Devil in a single push and then pedal home. Solo. In a weekend.

They are the modern-day Butch Cassidys who are drawn by the desolate appeal of nowhere and relish places that rarely host heartbeats. For them, the Dirty Devil is a training ground, a place to prepare for grander adventures in Alaska or beyond.

For weekend warriors, the Dirty Devil can be a perfectly grand adventure on its own and worthy of inclusion on any desert rat’s to-do list. Once.

Dealing With the Devil

Logistics: You need to catch the right flows. There is anywhere from a two to eight-week window each spring where the Dirty Devil can float a boat. And it’s all about the boat on the Dirty Devil. A canoe works, especially with decent flows. A raft will not. Hard-shell kayaks work too, but it’s hard to carry enough water and supplies in a kayak. Inflatable kayaks do very well, but nothing beats the Alpackas. Load them with 300 pounds, drag them across rocks and roll them up into a pouch when it’s over. The big challenge of any Dirty Devil descent is the drinking water. There are very few inland paddling trips in the world where there is so much water yet nothing to drink. A rain storm can provide opportunities for fresh water supplies in side canyons. When pondering food, don’t forget about the water situation. You don’t want to boil ravioli in precious fresh water. We heated Tasty Bites—ooh, Aloo Palak—in the rank river water. Think light when you pack. You will likely be dragging your boat.

Put In: The put-in for the Dirty Devil is the Utah Highway 24 bridge over the river about three miles north of Hanksville. But it’s easier to shave a few miles of featureless flatland paddling and put-in off the Dry Valley Wash south of town. It can be a rough road, though. There is only one road that bisects the Dirty Devil, which anchors a 61,000-acre BLM Wilderness Study Area. It is both a way-out for those who found the first half sucked or a put-in for those looking for a less intense experience. But it’s not an easy access. Poison Springs Wash Road is a 16-mile crawl that challenges most four-wheel drives. Putting in at Poison Springs cuts the best side canyons from the trip: Happy Canyon, Robbers Roost, No Mans and Sams Mesa Box. There are side canyons and slots downstream of Poison Springs, but they sneak up and often require on-the-fly eddy-catching.

Take Out: The final leg of the Dirty Devil is heinous. Lake Powell used to reach up the canyon back when it was healthy. Today, the last 12 miles of sediment-choked canyon is lousy with thick curtains of tamarisk and offers almost zero camping spots. There’s a mudslide rapid in there that disrupts the Dirty Devil’s Class I-II ranking, with a Class III-ish move that could trouble a beginner paddler. It’s not hard to portage. Since the lake has receded, many of the formerly waterfront campgrounds on the right side of the lake just beyond the Hwy 95 bridge offer a good spot to take out. A good planner would leave a take-out car there. A bad planner would take out there and hitchhike to Hite Marina. An oblivious planner would spend hours navigating the half-mile of rubber-piercing salt cedar punji sticks and quicksand before the two-mile open-water traverse to Hite. The hero leaves cold beer—really cold anything—in the take-out.

Jason Blevins writes for the Denver Post.

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