Moab’s river community is heading to the area’s canyons and drainage systems, from the Little Grand Canyon along the San Rafael River to the dramatic chute of the Muddy Creek, as ephemeral rivers and creeks swell with melting snowpack from the record-setting winter and become passable for rafts, kayaks, and lightweight packrafts.
Chad Niehaus, who works as a river ranger along the San Juan River, noted that the “stoke is high” among local boaters. Most of these ephemeral rivers run at some point during every year, he said, but typically only for a few days in monsoon season.
“It’s relatively unique to have these long stretches of runnable flows with great weather,” he said.
Brett Sutteer, owner of Cliffs and Canyons guiding service, agreed: the ephemeral floats are scenic, mostly flat floats—much different than The Daily, a stretch of the Colorado River that turns into exciting whitewater during high water years—but what makes them worth floating is their infrequent nature.
“There’s just so many great little stretches that we have here that run heavy every few years,” he said. “It’s awesome. It’s great that everybody’s getting out and experiencing that.”
As of May 25, the San Rafael was flowing at above 500 cubic feet per second—particularly high for a waterway considered possible for canoes at 100 cfs. Muddy Creek, which runs through a slot canyon near the Swell, may have reached its peak flow last weekend but is still between 200 and 250 cfs, according to U.S. Geological Service data (stream gauge data is available at https://waterdata.usgs.gov).
During most of the year, both the Little Grand Canyon and Muddy Creek are dry enough to hike. But when they fill with water, they each give boaters a unique view on how the canyons were formed as water flows between cliff walls.
Niehaus said one of his favorite things about living on the Colorado Plateau is the ability to float ephemeral rivers.
“It’s hard to beat the excitement,” he said. “Especially when you know how relatively rare of an experience it is to travel that way through those kinds of landscapes.”
Niehaus mentioned that these waterways are also unique in challenging ways: because of their transitory nature, they can have unexpected features and they aren’t as regulated as permanent waterways, which often require permits and have clear safety regulations.
“I think the fact that it’s a very short-term thing and is a rather spontaneous decision to go do it sometimes lets people not take it as seriously. I’ve seen people who have the attitude that ‘it seems like it’s okay to do it on an inflatable donut, what’s the worst thing that could happen?’” Niehaus said.
“My suggestion to everybody is to treat it like any other river trip,” he said. “Even if it’s only 100 cfs and it’s something that only lasts a couple of weeks. Consider safety and things we can bring to make sure we take good care of the place.”
Sutteer agreed with Niehaus, saying that although flows are high, he “wouldn’t call any of these rivers especially easy at flood stage.”
At flood stage, Sutteer explained, water overtops vegetation that has been growing in the canyons and existing undercuts in the stone rock faces. This can create invisible hazards that are made more significant by waterflows that veer from side to side in canyons.
“People may hear it’s pretty easy, but when you get there [it can be]much different than anticipated,” he said. “The crucial things are to have good information and to pair up with somebody that’s been down it before who can prep you for all the little things that might not be obvious.”
Part of the increased attention on these ephemeral floats is likely the popularity and increased access to lightweight boats like inflatable packrafts.
“This is one of the first big high water river seasons that we’ve had since those things have gotten so ubiquitous,” Sutteer said. “So I’m interested in seeing what that looks like.”
Sutteer noted that packrafts are appealing to beginning boaters as they are easily portable and fairly forgiving.
“They offer a low admission price for entry into the sport,” he said, “but it’s important to be prepared in any craft you take out.”
Sutteer and Niehaus urged boaters to bring repair kits, proper safety equipment, and WAG bags for human waste to have a safe trip that limits the impact of visitors on these areas.
“We’ll find out at the end of the season what the fallout was in terms of impact,” Sutteer said. “For now, it’s great to get out.”