Exploring the rare delights of Southeast Utah’s Muddy Creek

Story: Claire Cripps // Photos: Braden Gunem

The chances seemed slim. Discovering a car full of dead bodies and a million dollars slim. That latter scenario even seemed more likely than the near-impossible chances of floating Muddy Creek. Set in the remote and arid desert of southeast Utah, the location and timing conspired against any paddling excursion on the obscure creek. Especially if you prefer a decent flow and the absence of backcountry boat-scootin’. As years passed by and we still hadn’t caught it during the two-day window that it typically runs, I had damn near given up.

But a few winters ago, Braden and I were way up high on Idaho’s Galena Pass, getting blasted in the face by a blizzard. It had snowed buckets for a week straight. Snowbanks outside our house were over our heads, and Colorado and Utah were getting the same sort of rewards from Father Ullr. I hopped in the van after a lovely evening of low-angle gallivanting, and uttered aloud, “This could be a good year for the Muddy, eh?”

Sure enough, come May, the van was crammed with enough tortillas to feed a family of 16, and we were on our way to the San Rafael Swell. A window of opportunity had opened, with flows that were simply delectable and potentially lasting two weeks. Fortune had favored us after multiple years of waiting. It was time to go get Muddy.

Thirty miles west of Green River, Utah, we headed south on dirt roads through some of the most dramatic uplifts of sandstone I’ve ever seen. It’s a massive maze of sweeping country, where every direction offers another dizzying view of slot canyons and sandstone hideouts. Pinnacles and towers soar overhead, their formations like monkey faces and frog heads peering down on us as the Keepers of the Swell. And speaking of keepers, parts of the Swell are currently being considered for inclusion in a National Conservation Area and a few wilderness areas.

We “ooh” and “ahh,” running low on superlatives to describe this crazy terrain. Next, we pass a herd of at least 15 wild horses pacing alongside us for an afternoon jog. Not even to the put-in, and this place has already wowed us as a wild gem. The roads get rougher, the terrain lonelier. Finally, we hide our bikes at the takeout, stash some soda waters and beers along the route to the put-in as preparation for a lengthy bike shuttle back, and steer the van into a sandpit right next to our launch on the river.

The Chute run on Muddy Creek is short for an overnight: a 15-mile stretch. However, we move at a snail’s pace and decide we could easily kill a couple weeks here. The first few miles of the river meander through an open valley with luscious desert landscape and a grandiose arch. It becomes our recipe for “Muddying” to stop at nearly every beach and explore. We exit the chocolate milkshake stream, frolic around, return to the chocolate milkshake stream, and repeat steps about 10 times before the sky turns to dusk and we finally set camp for the evening. Striking out for a moonlight hike, it ends up lasting a couple hours longer than anticipated as we forgot our headlamps in the heat of the moment.

The next day, the 100-foot walls close in on us as our boats pierce through the climax of the journey. Spectacular sandstone rises to towering heights, and our necks grow sore from too much skyward hawking. We hoot and holler. Echoes of our voices eerily bounce off the ancient hem of the gorge. We follow a slot canyon for a ways, admiring the myriad of curves and textures along its walls. As we exit the gorge and return to open valleys and crumbly rocks, Braden asks if we should come back soon since flows are so good. I can’t respond fast enough: “YESSSSS!”

We take out mid-afternoon, and we’re beyond elated to have stashed some refreshing beverages along our bike shuttle route, considering it’s over 90 degrees. Midday in the desert in May — who would’ve thought?

We leave the Swell and float another desert river within the vicinity that was also on our list of “hard ones to catch.” But with a full moon in the near future, we have that magical Muddy on our minds.

Our return to the Muddy is effortless and inspiring. We quickly land a hitchhike. We don’t see another soul at the put-in. A full moon smiles over the horizon as we launch our boats into the chocolate milkshake once again.

Second time around, for no apparent reason, we’re going for speed. We bomb through sections where we had spent hours on our previous trip, keeping the headlamps off as much as possible.

Traveling through the Chute of the Muddy during the night is purely magical. But the darkness made some sections of Class II more interesting than it should have been. Like the wall that sprung out of nowhere and flipped my boat, leaving me confused and soaked and my knuckles bloodied. Nonetheless, floating through the narrow throat of towering sandstone walls with a glimmering moon shining down is quite memorable, to say the least. Perhaps one of the most amazing strikes of serendipity one could experience.

Every year since, I think Muddy thoughts in hopes of running it again. Perhaps we have to wait another 10 years to get so lucky. If and when Muddy is back, it will be more than worth the wait. And there’s no way in hell we aren’t going for the night float.

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The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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