Ode to the San Juan River

A short excerpt from Sagebrush Empire

The San Juan River near Bluff, Utah, on Aug. 28, 2021. It was somewhat swollen by summer rains in the high country as well as increased releases from Navajo Reservoir done to attempt to slow the decline of Lake Powell’s levels. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

The following is excerpted from my new book, Sagebrush Empire: How a remote Utah county became the battlefront of American Public Lands, which was released just over a week ago. It is a small piece of a chapter titled “The River,” which recounts a somewhat ill-fated trip down the San Juan I took with some friends several years ago.

The San Juan River is tempestuous, silty, shallow, polluted, and teeming with weird fish. It’s also a lovely body of water. The Diné call it Sa Bitooh (Old Age River), Tooh Bika’i, (Male Water), Bits’iis Nineezi (One with Long Body), Bits’iis Nteeli (One with Wide Body), and Nooda i Bito (Utes’ River). The Utes, who followed the seasonal rounds throughout the San Juan watershed, call it, among other things, River Flowing from the Sunrise, since it runs east to west for most of its length. Spanish explorers called it Rio de Nabajoo before rechristening it after Jesus’s favorite disciple. It is the carotid artery of the Four Corners country, draining a good portion of the San Juan Mountains and the South San Juans, and is therefore an indicator of the region’s health. Its tributaries include the Navajo, Blanco, Piedra, Los Pinos, Animas, La Plata, Mancos, and Chaco Rivers, along with hundreds of intermittent streams, each of which become raging rivers after a thunderburst. If the snowpack is scant in the mountains, then the San Juan’s flows will be weak, and vice versa. If mines are blowing out or draining heavy metals and acidic soup into mountain streams, then those pollutants will eventually wind up in the San Juan. The river is a shapeshifter, shallow and languid and warm at one moment, raging and violent the next. After one particularly big winter and the ensuing spring runoff, Albert R. Lyman wrote, “the old river seemed bent on retaking every acre of its ancient dominion.”

In the 1880s, the “Bluff Excitement” erupted when someone decided that the tiny gold flakes that had been carried down from the high mountains and deposited in the silt on the San Juan River bed could be extracted and marketed. Thousands of men, and a few women, too, descended on the river and Bluff, bringing their greed, whiskey, and Gentile ways with them. Like most gold rushes, this one was spurred on by hyperbolic newspaper reports, which in turn were fueled by those who stood to benefit from a mass movement of people, namely the railroads, merchants, and stage lines. 

Fortunately for the day’s Bluffites, most of these morally bankrupt souls wouldn’t linger. The prospectors found what they were looking for, sure, but it was primarily in the form of “flour gold,” tiny particles mixed with thick silt. While the metals could be recovered, the process was costly and time-consuming. Promises of easy money were blown. By mid-January 1893, the same newspapers that had fed the boom were declaring the whole thing a fraud, a “Fractured Boom,” and “The San Juan Fake.”

The handful of hangers-on who remained continued hauling themselves from Bluff and even Farmington to their downstream prospects via boat. Bert Loper, who would later become known as a whitewater river-running pioneer on the Colorado River, got his boating start looking for San Juan gold.

The gold-diggers would come and go. The river, however, wasn’t going anywhere, and it would prove to be a far greater obstacle to the Mormon settlers. The San Juan near Bluff certainly looks friendly, particularly on a hot early summer’s day before the monsoon arrives: the current is slow, the water warm and silty and shallow enough that it can be crossed on foot in places. It—and the warm climate and sandy soils along its banks—seem tailor-made for irrigated farmland. And so, shortly after they arrived, the Hole-in-the-Rock folks started building canals, ditches, and diversion dams to tame and harness and put the river to good use. But all it took was one good rain way up in the mountains to bring water levels up and wreck all the fruits of their hard work. A really big rain or a bountiful snowmelt would push the river out of its banks, washing fields and the occasional house away. The river’s anger culminated in 1911, when eight inches of rain fell on the high San Juans and elsewhere in the region, causing the San Juan River to swell up to 150,000 cubic feet per second—which is more than ten times the typical volume of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon—as it literally ran through the streets and houses of Bluff. The raging river inundated and ate away a good portion of the tiny city and ripped out the brand-new bridge at Mexican Hat, which, when it was built, stood thirty-nine feet above the river.

Water scarcity was just as likely as overabundance, and in the 1890s a region-wide drought so reduced the flow of the San Juan that, according to Lyman, “small pools were writhing with dying fish, and hunting them out of the larger ponds became a winning sport. Navajos offered them for sale by the sackful. In fact they learned, contrary to their old traditions, that fish are good to eat.” 

By the 1930s the population at Bluff had dwindled so that a traveler called it a “ghost city.” The arduous and sometimes terrible journey across the desert may not have diminished the Hole-in-the-Rockers, but Old Man River sure as hell did.

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The water was calm and slow, the winds nonexistent. Finally, I could rest my weary shoulders, lay back, look up at rock and sky and listen to the water lapping against the boat and geese honking in the distance. I thought about an old roadmap, from the forties or maybe early fifties, that I was looking at as part of some research on the area. At first glance it looked like a page out of a current road atlas. But as I looked closer I saw subtle, and not so subtle, differences: Highway 95 from Blanding to Natural Bridges National Monument followed a much different route than it does today, and it was gravel. The road to Halls Crossing Marina didn’t show up at all, because the marina, and Lake Powell, for that matter, didn’t yet exist. The stretch of highway from Bluff to Mexican Hat, traversed now in less than a half hour, was labeled in red: “CARRY WATER.” Most heartrending for me, however, was a little piece of text that appeared far from any road, right along the squiggly line representing the lower San Juan River. It was just ten words long, yet read like a poignant eulogy to something that is no longer possible: 191 MILE SCENIC BOAT TRIP MEXICAN HAT TO LEES FERRY. Oh, the things we have lost, I thought, as I watched a raven ride a thermal inches away from a sandstone cliff, hundreds of feet above. Oh the things we have lost.