Montana couple completes source-to-sea epic down Green and Colorado rivers via backpack, packraft and dory

Big Drop 3 in Cataract Canyon; Bego Gerhardt

It was September, about a month into the expedition, when Mike and Jenny Fiebig encountered their first challenging whitewater. The rapid was Hells Half Mile in Lodore Canyon on the Green River. And their boat was a custom dory built by Hog Island Boat Works in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and Eddyline Welding in Moab, Utah. The dory had a roto-molded plastic hull, expertly fitted aluminum decking, and one missing feature the Fiebigs were about to experience first-hand: Unlike other boats Mike had rowed during 20 years of raft guiding, this one wasn’t self-bailing.

As Mike ferried left of Lucifer’s Rock, a wave spilled over the side and water rose to their knees. In an instant, the swift and nimble craft became a low-floating bathtub plodding toward a rock garden. As Jenny furiously bailed, Mike strained on the oars and pulled the dory clear.

“It was a bit of a Franken-boat,” says Mike. “It did everything pretty well, but nothing perfectly.”

“The boat became like a home,” says Jenny, fondly. “It was hard to say goodbye when the time came.”

In August, with permits lined up and two years of planning complete, Jenny arranged an unpaid six-months leave from her job as mental health therapist. Mike took a sabbatical from his job as a Conservation Director at American Rivers. They rented their house in Bozeman for six months and began the expedition by backpacking on the Continental Divide Trail to the headwaters of the Green River in Wyoming. Four days later, they started in packrafts down the upper river through Green River Valley. After 80 miles in five days, they switched to their dory near Pinedale, and the long rowing portion of the expedition began.

Lake Mohave; Mike Fiebig

Jenny and Mike met years before on the Green River in Utah, so this source-to-sea adventure felt like a natural choice when Mike’s fall sabbatical approached. “It’s a river system we both love,” says Mike. “The 150th anniversary of the Powell expedition [in 2019] was coming up. For a few reasons, last fall was the time for us to make it happen.”

“Well,” adds Jenny, “we told people we’re going to do it and then we had to do it.”

During the month of August, the first 300 miles through Wyoming presented some challenges. Finding slivers of public land for camping along the river was tricky, so they used a GIS layer on their Garmin inReach. Then there was that whole rowing-across-reservoirs part. The first two were Fontenelle and Flaming Gorge in Wyoming. Today, along the roughly 1700-mile route, about one third is flooded by a series of 11 dams. Expecting plodding crossings, the couple budgeted extra time for reservoirs. And in anticipation of the typical up-canyon winds that plague this route, they often woke at 4 am to start rowing in the dark under the stars.

For the most part, the reservoirs went better than expected. There were a few storms, but nothing that required a layover. On some days, they had a favorable north wind, which helped push the dory along at 4 mph. They finished every reservoir early and came away surprised by the quality of experiences, including watching a pack of four coyotes stalk a herd of pronghorn antelope on upper Flaming Gorge Reservoir.

“I thought the reservoirs were going to be hard and monotonous,” reflects Jenny. “I wanted to not like them because of the dams. But I recognized it’s not the water’s fault. I actually found them beautiful in their own way.”

“I had never explored the reservoirs before,” says Mike. “I kind of avoided them, like it’s sacrilegious. I love free-flowing rivers, but we had some really cool interactions on the reservoirs. Lots of owls, coyotes, river otters, birds. We slept in amazing camps. Sure, I’d rather have Glen Canyon, but those canyons still have a magic to them.”

Rounding the corner below Deso; Jenny Fiebig

As the trip progressed, they shuttled around dams with friends, who often joined for certain river sections. Below the Canyon of Lodore, where they encountered Hells Half Mile, they enjoyed time in the rapids of Whirlpool and Split Mountain canyons, the Uinta Basin, and Desolation Canyon, spending much of October perfecting maneuvers with a 1,200-pound dory loaded with gear and food. Spread along the 1,700-mile route, there are maybe a thousand small rapids and perhaps 100 that rank Class II to IV, with the difficulty generally building until a last hurrah in Grand Canyon. As Mike found, the trick was hitting waves perfectly straight, using the bow as a splash guard, and running through at just the right speed.

“Too fast,” explains Mike, “and we’d punch through the wave and fill with water. Too slow, we’d get back-surfed. Just right, and we’d dance across the top of the waves.”

Below the town of Green River, Utah, they encountered the remains of Hurricane Rosa while passing through Labyrinth Canyon. The sky darkened as they pulled in to shore. Rain descended — then lightning, thunder, hail. As they hurriedly built camp, the clouds overhead began to rotate, and a funnel cloud formed. They watched it take shape, realizing there was little shelter should it touch down. Fortunately, it soon dissipated.

The river was rising as they rowed through Tower Park, Stillwater Canyon, and past the confluence, where the Green joins the Colorado River. By the time they passed through Cataract Canyon — with white-knuckle rowing and hectic brown-water bailing — the flow was around 11,000 cfs, up from 2,000 cfs on the Green. Here they got their first taste of highwater, beginning with a successful descent of the infamous Big Drop Rapids.

Lake Powell; Mike Fiebig

This being the fall after a low-water year, the level of Lake Powell was down. In the typically flooded Imperial Canyon rapid, a big breaking wave caught them unexpectedly. They back-surfed down the wave face and turned sideways. They flung their bodies onto the rising high-side. Jenny was submerged in silt-laden water and nearly flushed free, but they clung to the rigging. After what felt like an eternity standing on edge, the dory came free and settled down. This high-water lesson begged a distinct question: What might the Grand Canyon be like the following month?

As they floated out from Narrow Canyon, the second part of their mission continued. They’d titled the expedition One River, Many Voices in reference to a theme of connection — between upstream and downstream river residents, between people and the river they live near or visit for recreation. Already Jenny and Mike had interviewed a half-dozen people. By the end of the trip, their total would reach 16. These interviewees would include several ranchers, a riverside city councilman, an artist, a river ranger, a trip outfitter, a conservationist, and more.

As they rowed across the water of Lake Powell, their next encounter was with a group of 12 men, house-boating on Lake Powell near the Escalante arm. The men waved them over around dusk, inviting them to cocktail hour and dinner, which transitioned to an onshore campfire and poetry reading.

“The interviews were one of my favorite parts of the trip,” says Jenny. “People were so excited to sit down and talk about the river and how they’re connected to it.”

Among the individuals they interviewed, Jenny found there were more commonalities than differences. Users shared things like how the river calms them — that it provides peace and solitude, even spirituality and religion.

“There was a shared sense of responsibility or stewardship,” adds Mike. “No one was screaming, no one was polarized, no one was angry. The news can paint the picture of polarized extremists. That is not what we experienced at all.”

“Most people said, I hope [the other users] get the same water quality I do,” says Jenny. “And this despite politics. Both sides were recognizing other users matter.”

Rain in Labyrinth Canyon; Mike Fiebig

The rain continued while crossing Lake Powell, which turned depressions in the cliffs into waterfalls that plummeted into the reservoir. After two weeks of off-and-on rain, the sun finally broke through. While the couple took the opportunity for a swim, so did a family of four river otters which scurried down the bedrock and swam into the same pool to fish while the couple bathed.

In late October, a friend shuttled them around Glen Canyon, and they joined 13 other friends at Lees Ferry to launch on a four-week Grand Canyon trip.

The first week of the trip, through Marble Canyon, went perfectly. But after passing Bright Angel Bridge, the dory they named Green River encountered its next test at Horn Creek Rapid. After starting down the right line, a crashing hole typewriter-ed them into a strong eddy against cliffs called the Room of Doom. In a split-second decision, Jenny hopped onto the cliff as the boat slammed against bedrock. Mike high-sided, then pushed on the oars, and the boat spit out into the current. Downstream, the couple reunited in an eddy and discovered a lightning-like scratch across the right side of the hull, which they called the Harry Potter Scar.

Grand Canyon; Mike Fiebig

A week later, the group camped at Crystal Rapid to watch the High Flow Experiment. In the course of several hours, the flow rose from 6,000 cfs to 38,000, and the famous holes of the rapid shifted downstream. “It was like seeing the old Crystal Rapid emerge,” remembers Mike. “The dragon’s back rising from the waves.”

In late November, they rowed out from the Grand Wash Cliffs on Lake Mead. Using a vehicle, they shuttled around the Class V Pearce Ferry Rapid, and their final segment down the lower Colorado River and reservoirs began. Friends had told them to expect a favorable northern wind to kick in along with cool temps during the late fall. Luckily, these friends were correct. During the few hundred miles down to the U.S.-Mexico border, a pattern developed: sections of reservoir; portages around dams; sections of river; portions of development; and sections of barren desert.

“It was hard to see,” said Jenny. “Just because of all the development. The economic diversity of the haves and have-nots. There in particular, but across the whole river system. But that’s part of the river’s story.”

Below Imperial Dam, they switched again to packrafts for a long paddle through Yuma to the border. From there, the hope was to continue in packrafts, and on foot, following the diminishing waterway to the Gulf of California. But an official discouraged them from paddling the “Limitrophe” section, just south of the border, due to safety reasons.

“Too much lead in the water,” the official said, making the sign of a gun with his hand.

Instead, Jenny and Mike volunteered with Pronatura Noroeste and drove with them through a dusty region that includes friendly towns, squatter settlements, shacks lacking electricity, industrial agriculture, and wetlands-in-progress that several organizations are working to restore.

Colorado River estuary in the Gulf of Mexico; Mike Fiebig

“It was incredibly sad to see the river shrink down to a trickle,” said Mike. “[It’s] filled mostly with runoff from agricultural fields. Heartbreaking, where the remaining trickle of the Colorado disappears into the sand. We expected this, but it was still viscerally shocking. Seeing the resiliency and ingenuity of the folks in the delta region turning what little water they have into restoration sites was inspiring.”

On the winter solstice, Dec. 21, the couple reached where the dry channel of the Colorado intersects the Gulf of California. In 135 days, they’d traveled about 1,700 miles of river, beneath canyons and across reservoirs, amidst late summer heat and early winter chills, through winds and storms. The Sea of Cortez stretched blue and gleaming in the sun, resting in its barren basin of desert hills.

After five months, it was time to head home.

The Wilderness and Waterless: Two Source-to-seas down the Green and Colorado rivers
A Winter Paddle Across the Lake Formerly Known as the Colorado River
The Return of the Colorado River Delta’s Green Lagoons
Paddling the Colorado River Pulse Flow
Emerald Mile Dory Oarsman Rudi Petscheck on Grand Canyon Speed Descents

Read more by C&K contributing editor Mike Bezemek, who is also the author and photographer of Paddling the John Wesley Powell Route.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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