Just picture Laramie in March and April: Crusts of dirty frozen leftover snow, brown stubs of grass, and that relentless biting ice-cold wind blowing up your sleeves and down your neck.
Now picture the Utah desert in March and April: Blue-skied with the 65 degree sunshine soaking into the rocks, nights so warm you can throw your sleeping bag out on the sandbar, and gentle breezes sweeping the canyons – or if you’re lucky, no wind at all.
Utah, with its elbow hooked around Wyoming’s southwest hip, is connected to our state and has been for a long time. The Shoshone and Ute tribes followed game throughout the region with no regard to today’s straight-line borders. The pioneer trails followed water and a low-elevation crossing of the continental divide from Wyoming to Utah. Wyoming’s Green River follows gravity through Flaming Gorge Reservoir into Utah.
Today a new kind of migration takes place. Each March and April, winter-weary Wyomingites follow warm weather to Utah’s sandstone country for spring break.
As a college student at the University of Wyoming I never missed a spring trip to Utah. One year I backpacked Coyote Gulch in Escalante National Monument. The next had me mountain biking Moab’s Slickrock Trail. For my third spring break, I joined a canoe adventure in Labyrinth Canyon, sliding down the Green River between the varnished sandstone walls. That Green River trip drew me back to guide spring break canoe trips for the UW Outdoor Program throughout graduate school. I even took my landlubber parents down the canyon last spring.
At this time of year, the weather is just cool enough to keep the usual desert tourists away for another month or two. No right-minded Arizonan or Californian would jump in a muddy river or sunbathe at these temperatures. But to us Wyomingites, this is a tropical paradise all within an easy 8-hour drive. Come March and April, climbing crag parking lots, mountain bike trailheads, and boat launches around the Beehive State fill up with bucking-horse license plates.
Now as a staffer at UW, I don’t get spring break off. But this year, a few weeks after spring break proper, a friend invited me on a quick permitted raft trip down Desolation and Gray Canyons, the section of the Green just upriver from Labyrinth. Our party of 10 launched rafts at Sand Wash April 12. Still in the off season, we had the staging area to ourselves. The ranger raised his eyebrows when we told him our schedule: be off the river by noon on tax day. That gave us only 3.5 days to cover 84 miles.
We laughed at his skepticism. We were Wyomingites on spring break in the desert. Anything was possible.
The start of the trip was marked by firsts of the year: First time to wear Chaco sandals, first time to put sunscreen on my arms, first green leaves budding out on the cottonwoods, and the first blooming dandelion. That night in camp we even warmed up enough playing Frisbee for a quick, gasping-for-breath swim in the shallow river.
On the second day we entered the first rapids where the current picks up, and we hoped to cover more than 30 miles. I shared a raft with Sarah, a High Country News editor and close friend who’d driven up from Paonia, Colo., and Andy, a recent transplant to Wyoming on his first desert spring break. As one of us happily dragged at the oars, another would nestle into a bed of life jackets in the front of the raft to nap. I was snoozing just like this when the first raindrops started to fall.
An hour later, we were drenched in a freezing rain with an occasional snowflake mixed in, and still had a dozen miles to row to keep our tight schedule. Sarah and I huddled side by side on the drybox at the front of our raft, singing, stomping our feet, and pumping our arms to keep warm while Andy rowed. We wrapped a tarp around our shoulders and legs to keep the rain off and warmth in, but when we finally pulled into a campsite, our hands and feet were numb clubs and our teeth chattered. Snow clung to the canyon rim under the swirling clouds. I was colder than I’d been all winter in Wyoming.
Our camp was littered with cowpies and prickly pear. Two ragged carcasses – one with elk antlers, the other a huge mound cloaked in the curly, redish-brown coat of a bison – were lodged in the river just off shore from where we tied the boats. This is when the word “sufferfest” came out.
Despite these less-than-desirable conditions, we couldn’t help but be happy. Happy to be camping miles away from cell phone range. Happy to watch driftwood burn down to embers. Happy to test our muscles against the oars and our constitutions against the cold.
The following day was brisk but clear. We bundled into the warmest outfits we could piece together and started putting the miles and rapids behind us. Come evening we pulled up to a beautiful camp with a long sand beach, gnarled cottonwoods, and sweeping view around a bend in the river. We even walked barefoot in the sand and found petroglyphs of elk on the canyon wall just behind our kitchen.
This spring break may not have brought the hot sunny retreat to the desert we dream of during Laramie’s lingering winter. But it’s not all about the temperature. We still escaped from the routine of Wyoming’s cold spring to glide past sunlit sandstone cliffs and fall asleep to the whispering river.