OUTDOORS: On the river again

Preparing to launch from the Mee Canyon camp along the Ruby/Horsethief section of the Colorado River. (Photo/Bill Harris)

Earlier this month I participated in a three-day rafting trip on the Ruby/Horsethief stretch of the Colorado River supported by the Colorado Canyons Association (CCA).

Some readers may recall my article from June 2020, derecho wind and all. We did not learn our lesson, so back at it again this year. I was one of the birding guides, the other was Fred Blackburn, a long-time friend from Cortez.

When Dawn Cooper, CCA’s River Program director, asked me about adding another birding guide to the trip I suggested Fred. Fred has served as a guide for the long-standing Ute Mountain/Mesa Verde Birding Festival in Cortez. He also has a long resume of outdoor experiences I thought would add some unique opportunities for conversation.

I met Fred in the fall of 1984. At the time he was an outdoor educator for White Mesa Institute in Blanding UT. He was the leader of a five-day backpack into Grand Gulch in S.E. Utah. I had learned about the trip from friends of mine who were members of the Colorado Archaeological Society. That trip established a solid base for our friendship and led to some of my most memorable backcountry adventures.

Our paths crossed again four years later. I had asked Fred to organize a trip into Canyon de Chelly National Monument for the Chipeta Chapter of the Colorado Archaeological Society. This trip would go down in infamy and earned me the nickname of “floating Bill”.

To make a long story short, I managed to bury a 1972 Jeep Wagoneer in 4 feet of quicksand. Our crew safely extracted our gear before the Wagoneer went down. That evening, as we sat around a campfire, our Navaho guide, Dave Wilson, with a straight face uttered, “That’s why we call it Canyon de Chevy”. To Dave’s recollection my vehicle was the 16th to go down in the canyon. My wife did not think it was so funny.

A year later I re-united with Fred as a member of the Wetherill/Grand Gulch Research Project — a ragtag bunch of desert rats on a quest to visit the original sites dug by the early archaeological expeditions in southeast Utah. Some of the members of those expeditions inscribed their names and dates on the rock walls of the caves, so we started recording those inscriptions. Members of the team also visited the museums back east that held the expeditions’ artifacts.

As it turned out, those inscriptions became a key component in tracing the sites from where the artifacts came. In the museums team members were given permission to view the field notes and photograph many of the artifacts. The project team was able to match the dates in the expeditions’ field notes with the inscriptions. In archaeology provenience is critical component of interpreting a site. The term “reverse archaeology” was born. The result of those efforts became to guts of a book “Cowboys and Cavedwellers” written by Ray Williamson and Fred.

At that point Fred went on to do other historical writings including the book “The Wetherills: Friends of Mesa Verde.” I turned my attention to mountain bike advocacy. We again came together in the fall of 2001.

Fred had drawn a coveted hunting tag for a desert bighorn ram in Dominguez Canyon. Fred didn’t know the country, but I did, so he invited me to join him along with his son, Forrest, and another friend, Hoyt. We accessed our campsite at the mouth of Dominguez Canyon in canoes.

The trip gave me the opportunity to shed my “floating Bill” moniker. Hoyt and I handled our canoe with ease. Fred and Forrest took on some water shooting a small riffle — they ended up bailing water from their canoe. Fred harvested a fine ram after 3 days of negotiating rugged terrain — we hauled out the ram in the dark in our canoes. Best hunting trip I ever went on and never fired a shot.

It wasn’t until 2013 that we again teamed up for an adventure. Fred was working on the Navajo Nation documenting early military expeditions in New Mexico and Arizona. We were looking for inscriptions left by members of those expeditions. He had a permit that allowed us access to parts of the reservation most people never see. We found some neat inscriptions, as well as untouched prehistoric Anasazi villages and rock art.

So that brings us to our recent trip on the Colorado. As usual, the river presented a few challenges, namely low flows, and head winds. We had a chance to do some good birding, met some great people and best of all had a chance to catch up and reminisce.

Fred and I lead separate lives, but when our paths cross it’s on a spectacular landscape, observing the wonders around us, appreciating the beauty, and dealing with the little curves Mother Nature throws our way from time to time.

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