All Photos: Michael Tavares and Bradley Hilton
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 4.
An iconic scar on the landscape of the Southwest, Lake Powell serves both to feed our need for drinking and irrigation water as well as being one of the biggest recreation meccas in the region. It’s a hugely contested place in the environmental world, but that’s a story for another time. It’s a network of canyons, bays and narrows that make it the perfect place to pack 30 people on a houseboat and party till the sun comes up, or—in stark contrast—paddle SUP’s for days with nothing in your way, camp on sandy beaches and show those drunk onlookers that yes, it’s OK to not have motors. And no, we are not crazy! After successfully navigating the San Juan, we hit the flats with big ol’ grins on our faces and mentally prepared for 160 miles of flatwater ahead. The San Juan Arm was a real treat for all. Because of its distance from all marinas on the lake, it takes a real mission to get into the upper reaches by boat, which keeps the crowds down.
The plan was simple: paddle down the San Juan Arm, hang a left and paddle “downstream” towards the dam at least until Mile Marker 25 before turning around and paddling back to Bullfrog Marina where our creature comforts awaited. Simple. Right?
After paddling most of the way down the San Juan Arm the previous day, we awoke perched a mere 12 miles from the main channel of the lake on the Colorado River. After prying ourselves away from a classic Powell campsite, we paddled the 12 miles to the main channel without taking much of a break, only taking in the dramatic landscape and enjoying the last bit of the uncrowded and less-traveled waters.
We hit the main channel with a resurgence of energy knowing that the views would be epic and the houseboats entertaining. We had a slight tail wind all the way down to mile marker 30 where looming darkness forced us to camp in a magnificent rock cathedral.
We knew there was a storm coming at some point in the trip, but the exact timing with spotty cell service forced us to guess exactly when. We knew it was supposed to blow from the SW up to 50mph at some point during the day, which would provide perfect downwind conditions back up the reservoir once we hit our 25-mile marker and turned around. When we woke up, there was a slight southwest wind and by the time we packed up and got on the water it was in full force in our faces. Fortunately we only had five miles to hit our mark and we pushed hard for a few hours then happily turned around and took the wind at our backs.
The next few hours we were graced with a tail wind pushing us back up the reservoir all the way to Dangling Rope Marina for a quick pit stop and moral boost.
Dangling Rope Marina is a surreal environment, especially after being on a SUP for six days. The marina is positioned mid-way through the reservoir and is only accessible by boat or helicopter. It’s a water-world oasis where boaters refuel, buy beer, pringles, snickers and over-priced souvenirs. Everything is brought up or down the reservoir to the marina on barges. It felt odd to say the least.
We hung out and mingled with the staff and junk-food hungry boaters for a few hours and talked about our trip before starting the afternoon grind up to mile marker 50, and what I would eventually dub “Demolition Camp.”
The heavy winds of the storm held off until the night. We’d secured the boards as well as possible, built rock walls around our tents, secured the living shit out of everything we had and then hunkered down. Around 11 pm, the full fury of desert wind was unleashed on our camp. The gusts ravaged our boards, flattened our tents and kept us up almost all night pacing around camp trying to reinforce what we could. It was a pretty rad display of desert power!
After shaking 50 pounds of sand out of our tents, we awoke to blue skies and more light tailwinds that would grace us all day. We patched up a couple fist-sized holes in my board after a dance in the wind and got on the water fast to take advantage of the tailwind.
One of the hardest parts of this trip was the fatigue that slowly creeps up on your after a paddling day-in and day-out with no rest. Days 6-7 were some of the hardest days on the water as our bodies cried for a break.
We passed the San Juan arm again, this time heading up the reservoir. We settled on a camp around mile marker 80, near dark We were in striking distance of the marina for the following day.
The most noticeable change when paddling most of Lake Powell is the increase in boat traffic when you get closer to each end. The middle stretches of the lake are almost vacant, but the within 30 miles of the marinas, every nook and cranny is filled with houseboats, parties and speed boats zipping around looking for … something. Hopefully they find it.
With about 20 miles to go until the completion of the trip, we could almost smell the end. The last 20 miles would be some of the most pleasant for me. I wanted to savor every last mile of the trip before its completion, allowing time the soak in all that had happened. Doing a trip of this style never feels quite real at the time. Knowing that we had to head back into whatever form of reality we live in, we savored those final miles with big smiles on our faces.
As we approached Bullfrog Marina and the boat ramp, we knew we just did a trip that we would remember forever. Our bodies were slightly broken and our minds tired, but we were already scheming the next adventure.
See you on the river,