The encounter at Water Canyon was the strangest of all. Two friends and I were floating in an eddy on the Green River, deep inside Stillwater Canyon. It was six pm on a weekday in early June, with only a few more hours of daylight to find a camp for the night.
“It’s full! It’s full!” shouted a woman from somewhere behind the riverside brush.
I squinted through dense tamarisk, trying to spot her. The camp was a mess. An empty two-person rental canoe was floating against the bank, tied up lengthwise in front of the lone landing. Long ropes extended from bow and stern in a way that indicated this area is taken.
Equipment was spread out across what appeared to be the lower two of three sites. The kitchen was so messy—with containers and plates and cups littering a pair of roll tables—it resembled the old raft guide house I lived in during college.
“We’re here,” declared the woman as she emerged in the landing behind the canoe. “It’s taken.”
“Sure,” I said, defiantly rowing upstream and signaling to my friends to land at the uppermost campsite. “But you’re not using all three sites, right?”
“Um, I’m not sure,” said the woman. “Let me get my husband.”
This was not quite the welcome we had expected. For five days and 100 miles, we’d been coming down the Green River, which was running high from spring runoff. Campsites were at a premium, and everywhere we went, friendly groups of boaters had welcomed us with open arms. At Trin Alcove Bend, we received high fives for our plans to run Cataract Canyon at high water. At Turks Head, a pair of families invited us to not just double camp but group hike.
Earlier that afternoon, yet another group of instant friends welcomed us to stay with them, but our goal remained long days of making miles. We hoped to drop into Cataract before flows spiked much higher from peaking snowmelt. Plus, we wanted to have a half-day layover at Spanish Bottom—to rest our arms and work our legs on the hike up to the Dollhouse. So, we pushed onward through the afternoon.
As 5 pm passed, we realized accessible campsites were in even shorter supply down in this part of Stillwater. Our hope became Water Canyon, one of the last established camps before the confluence with the Colorado River.
From the water’s edge, the hike up to campsite #1 was steep and loose. Once on top, a tall, nervous fella who gave off all kinds of mixed signals greeted us. We’re talking floppy camouflage fishing hat and a simple white button-up shirt, tucked into those pants with an identity crisis that zip-off into shorts.
“This spot is alright,” mused the fella. “But there’s a much nicer camp only a quarter-mile downstream. Would have camped there, ourselves, but we were already here.”
We looked skeptically downstream and then back at the ground under our feet. We were tired and just wanted the day to be over.
“Much easier to unload there,” insisted the fella. “It’s up a side channel that you can paddle into. Right up to your campsite. It’s probably even less than a quarter mile. We can walk there. I’ll show you.”
I wasn’t too excited by this campsite song and dance, but I reluctantly followed him up the trail toward Water Canyon. On the way, we passed the woman, who sat silently on a small cliff, watching us.
At a jog in the trail, the man went downhill toward a stand of willows, while I stuck to the main trail. That’s how I got out in front. I came around a curve in the trail, and down below was Water Canyon, deeply entrenched beneath cliffs, one of which I was now walking along. I sensed the fella was right behind me.
“Just a little further,” he said, pointing.
I quickened my steps to put some space between us and finally said aloud what I already knew.
“There’s no camp down there.”
What I saw was a narrow inlet of water, which could barely fit a raft, lined by a fence of willows, which we would have to breakthrough. Next, a channel filled with boulders, which we’d have to scramble over while carrying our gear. And, finally, a tiny patch of sand that could maybe fit a few sleeping pads and a table—where, I guess, we would spoon all night.
I spun around to express my annoyance. Instead, I discovered the fella was running back down the trail toward the three campsites, where my two friends were waiting with our tied-up boats. What the hell was this guy up to?
If you spend enough time in canyon country, whether boating rivers or hiking slot canyons or 4x4ing remote routes, you’re going to have some odd encounters. As I walked swiftly down the trail, memories of strange experiences of the canyon country kind flooded my thoughts.
One hot afternoon, a friend offered a pretty astute observation when we stopped by Trin Alcove Bend. Our plan was to cool off in the spring pool up the side canyon. But after a short hot hike, we found the pool had blown out. We decided to rebuild the short stone wall that had previously dammed the outlet.
We tried a few methods. Lining up large stones, but the water bled through the cracks. Filling the cracks with small stones, but the current pushed those away. Using large stones mortared with small twigs and mud. Adding small stones to armor the twigs and mud. Using mud mixed with more sand in it. Filling any final cracks with muddy sand that had plenty of twigs in it. Eventually, we succeeded in fixing the pool, but, in the process, we muddied the waters. When my friend looked at her watch, she realized we’d spent two hours doing this one thing.
“We have desert brain,” she diagnosed. A combination of heat, dehydration, and low blood sugar, which can lead to all types of odd behaviors. So, we walked back to the boats to drink water, have lunch, and cool down in the silty river.
A few days later, on that same trip, another odd condition of canyon country boating manifested. Our friend, Kev, who mostly prefers whitewater kayaking, got a glassy-eyed look and began to ramble about murder.
“It would be so easy to kill someone down here,” mused Kev. “No one would ever know.”
And so on. For 24 hours.
“Maybe people do kill people here?” he muttered. “Like this could be murder capital of the U.S.A. and no one would ever know.”
Finally, Kev ditched his kayak and reluctantly moved into a raft, where he admitted that the endless paddle strokes on a barely moving river had gotten to him.
“It is a case,” I said, in my best Sigmund Freud voice, “of flatwater psychosis. I prescribe riding rubber and drinking light beer for no less than one day.”
That night, Kev fell backward in his camp chair down a small slope, and after that—plus, drinking some water—he was miraculously cured.
Another time, on a canyon-country side hike, we were looking for some ruins. I became separated from my group, who decided to search for me by following my sandal prints. Except, they weren’t mine. The prints my friends followed were fresh. The exact same size, same tread, same stride length and step pattern. The only difference was these prints went in the opposite direction around the Turks Head.
This would have led to me eventually, had I not turned back to search for my friends. We ended up circling around this massive rock outcrop, without meeting, for about a half-hour. Each time one party rounded a corner, and didn’t see the other party, we turned back, like a pair of moons orbiting on either side of a planet. Until finally, we started shouting and following the sounds.
It’s always the side hikes when the odd encounters happen. On other side hikes, I’ve been chased by a wild mustang, stumbled across a praying mantis devouring a lizard, watched lightning start a forest fire. Witnessed bizarre behavior by other more quirky river groups, like the party of retiree-aged nudists who wore nothing but lifejackets. For about a week, we progressed with them down the river, watching their butts become alarmingly sunburned as they splashed through whitewater.
I’ve also seen retiree groups race one another. About six rafts, each with a retired couple on board, pulled into camp. While the husbands unloaded the rafts, the wives sprinted onto shore, frantically searching for the best tent sites. They dropped personal gear—life jackets, dry tops, dry suits—to claim their spots. Apparently, this race had begun early in the trip and evolved into a serious competition. I called it The Running of the Wives.
So, back to Water Canyon and the strangest encounter of all. As I approached campsite #1, the odd fella was lurking in an alcove, pacing in circles. My two friends were sitting on rocks, looking bewildered by the situation. Before I reached them, the odd fella made a beeline for me, asking if we could speak in private.
“If there’s any way you can camp somewhere else, I’d really appreciate it,” he said. He explained that the woman was the wife of his best friend, who had recently died. They had the best friend’s ashes with them and tonight they planned a goodbye ceremony.
I said I understood. Our group had lost a friend that spring, on the river no less. I went to share the situation with the others. When I explained, my friends said he’d told them something similar but different.
“He told me that was his wife, and they had the ashes of her best friend.”
“He told me that she’s his best friend, and the ashes are her husband.”
The three of us stared at each other, then glanced back at the fella, who was back to his pacing. Was this desert brain? Campsite psychosis? Or maybe there was another explanation.
I recalled another trip of ours. There were five of us, sitting in camp at appetizer hour. Our first course had been some special brownies, and they were just kicking in when a pair of pack rafters arrived, looking for a nearby water source. I offered them some from our containers, but they wanted to try to pump first, so they wandered up the trail into a side canyon looking for a spring.
They returned without water. The spring was dry, they said. Of course, silt clogged their pump. So, they weren’t sure it would even filter had they found water.
On this return visit, we got a better look at them. Muddy clothes, wild hair, glassy eyes. They slouched from exhaustion, looking longingly at our spread of appetizers, giving dirty glances at their dirty boats.
They appeared to be in over their heads. So, I extended an invitation for them to stay the night. But my friends seemed less than enthusiastic about my offer, which surprised me. Out here, in the middle of the desert, it was pretty common for us to offer help when needed. But this time, our group was reticent.
The pack rafters explained they had to keep moving to reach their ending spot. They’d get a few hours of sleep before hiking up and out of the canyon during the coolness of night.
Like most raft trips, we had plenty of food, so I suggested they visit our appetizer table. But they had plenty of food and weren’t hungry. We were short on water ourselves, but we had buckets to settle silty river water, should it come to that, so I suggested they refill from our supply. A few of my friends watched nervously, as they filled their bottles from our containers.
That’s when I remembered, everyone in my group was stoned off special brownies. And we were giving off our own odd vibe. I wouldn’t have stayed either if I were with the pack rafters. Once they had paddled downriver, a collective breath of relief went through our small crew. We then began laughing hysterically at the situation. A pair of exhausted pack rafters, with a silt-clogged water filter, stumble across a stoned glamping group drinking cold microbrews and having hors d’oeuvres in the middle of the desert. We were like an oasis of oddly pampered individuals.
Back in the moment in Water Canyon.
“A bad trip?” whispered one of my friends, glancing at the odd fella, and not meaning the overall adventure.
“Could you sleep knowing that guy is lurking around all night?” asked another friend.
Our decision was made. It was 7 pm now, with maybe an hour and a half of light left. Unless we found another site almost immediately—unlikely, in a part of the canyon with mostly sheer cliffs rising from the river—we’d be setting up camp in the dark.
“Taking off?” asked the impatient fella in an excessively innocent way.
“How come you didn’t just tell us your situation right away?” I blurted, without thinking.
“Yeah,” said my buddy. “We just lost an hour from this little show.”
The fella gave us a wounded look, like we had caught him in the act—of what, we still weren’t sure.
“I just wanted you to get the best campsite possible.”
“Uh huh,” said my other friend. “And now we’re going to go search for a site in the dark.”
So, off we went. Down the river at 7 pm, searching the sheer banks for anything that remotely resembled flat ground. Of all my experiences in Canyon Country, this one was by far the strangest.
Fortunately, we found a site only a mile down river, high up on a ledge, which required a ridiculously steep walk up a sand hill. That evening we saw the fire from the odd fella and woman’s camp flicker in the dark, and our voices probably echoed along the cliffs back to Water Canyon. We pondered our latest strange encounter, wondering what was the truth, and what, if anything, was the lie.