Self-Supported Southwest, Pt. 1: The Idea

Deep in the belly of the San Juan River, Zack Hughes takes stock of his surroundings. Photo: Bradley Hughes

Deep in the belly of the San Juan River, Zack Hughes takes stock of his surroundings. Photo: Bradley Hughes

Self-Supported Southwest, Pt. 1: The Idea

In the Fall of 2016 Michael Tavares, Bradley Hilton and Zack Hughes launched into the San Juan River in southeastern Utah for a 260-mile journey into and across Lake Powell. Tavares wrote a four-part series for SUPthemag.com on the adventure. This is Part 1.

Why and How?

Adventure, it's at the heart of every paddler no matter the discipline. It's the reason that most of us got into SUP in the first place. The feeling of pure and utter bliss where all thoughts melt away and we feel most alive. No pressure, no rules, no judgment; simply you, your equipment and the task at hand. It's what draws us in again  and again, and deepens our love of the sport and our natural surroundings.

In 2014 Zack Hughes (co-owner and shaper of Badfish SUP) and I set out to paddle across Lake Powell fully self supported. No plans, no time frame, no agenda, except to paddle with all of our gear on our boards and have fun. It was the first time in years both of us had done self-supported trip just to satisfy our sense of adventure. We completed 150 miles in 6 days and came out with a renewed sense of adventure, a deeper love of paddling and a dozen more ideas for trips in the future.

Read about their first trip here.

Two years later, we were planning to take on Lake Powell again, only with a twist. We recruited a third paddler, Bradley Hilton, to suffer through the endless miles of beautiful pain with us. We all also had new custom-shaped, self-support boards. And to top it all off we’d added 100 miles of whitewater and moving current on the San Juan River—which empties into Lake Powell—into the equation. The trip would total 260 miles, a mixture of somewhat natural riverbed containing over 50 rapids and riffles, followed by roughly 160 miles of flat water on Lake Powell.

Man didn't create the beauty, but they created the lake. Bradley Hilton, somewhere between nature and civilization on Lake Powell. Photo: Michael Tavares

Man didn’t create the beauty, but they created the lake. Bradley Hilton, somewhere between nature and civilization on Lake Powell. Photo: Michael Tavares

The Idea

Lake Powell is no secret to most Americans. Its stunning landscape and endless, water-filled canyons is home to both millions of gas-guzzling motor heads and the controversial environmental disaster that flooded one of the most pristine canyons in the US without anyone knowing it. Whatever your thoughts are on Lake Powell, one truth remains: the lake is there to stay. That leaves epic water and paddling conditions with almost no one traveling the far reaches of the lake on boards, kayaks or self-propelled devices. It's a perfect place to paddle, camp, soak in fantastic views and pound out hundreds of miles with nothing in your way! We thought we’d add more adventure and a hit for our river-running needs by adding the San Juan to the equation.

One of the largest and most sediment-filled tributaries to the Colorado, the San Juan enters Lake Powell and from the largest navigable arm of the lake. The Upper stretches of the San Juan from Bluff to Mexican Hat and down to Clay Hills Crossing are no secret to river runners: these stretches are a commercial and private boater haven most of the year, requiring a permit from the BLM to launch.

This almost-pristine river system is filled with countless Class II and III rapids, wilderness-style camping, remnants of ancient civilization, mining history and sediment-filled water. But the lower stretch below Clay Hills down to Lake Powell has somewhat been shrouded in mystery. First off, the next take out for boaters requires around 100 more miles of flat water paddling; the heavy sediment of the San Juan drops as it enters the reservoir over a number of miles, creating shallow mud flats that makes navigation difficult at best. Second, as lake levels started receding in the ’90s, it created a surreal environment trapped between a thriving river ecosystem and a man-made dead zone below. We were educated by a senior river ranger at the put in that very few people have been down there in the past few years. She thought we would be the first in the past couple years as far as she could remember. That only added to the excitement for our trip!

Combing these two very different water habitats would fill our fix of whitewater/river running needs, as well as provide a place to paddle endless, beautiful flatwater. —Michael Tavares

More from Michael Tavares.

Look for Part Two later this week.