Things didn’t look promising. We’d left pavement behind and I was—not exactly driving—sort of skidding my truck through a mud trough in the rain. Up ahead, a soiled hatchback made like wet clay on a pottery wheel and spun around, slogging back toward the interstate.
Most of the year, this was a dirt road through the recently designated San Rafael Swell Recreation Area. But heavy rain had been falling for days during one of Utah’s wettest springs on record. Now parts of the Canyonlands region looked more like Ireland. Other than this road, the rest of the Swell hadn’t received the message. The landscape beyond our windows seemed as dry as ever. Hopefully, we’d actually find a river to paddle.
Over a slow-moving hour, the road descended 1,400 feet in elevation. We first crossed a sloping plateau and then passed beneath colorful buttes and mesas. At the foot of distant cliffs, we spotted a green ribbon of vegetation.
The rain stopped by the time we parked in a nearly empty campground. There were all the curious signs of a place where paddlers sometimes congregated. Two kayak paddles leaned against an information board, which offered mostly staples holding tattered corners of papers long blown away.
Despite it being Friday of Memorial Day weekend, only three sites seemed occupied. But no people. A single tent had fallen onto its side and flapped in the wind. I walked out to the old Swinging Bridge and was relieved to see about 500 CFS of silty gray water racing between sunken banks of the San Rafael River.