This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2004, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Like many families, mine had a reunion in July.
Thirteen of us gathered on a wide section of the Green River halfway down Desolation Canyon, one of the most remote, wild places in Utah. We met to honor a man who died almost 30 years ago, a man most of us never knew - my grandfather.
Here, in 1914, Alfred Seamount and his brothers Bill and Dan started Rock Creek Ranch. Along a flat bench, and just below where clear and cool Rock Creek flows into the slow, silty Green, the brothers built a rock house that still stands - for the most part. There is a log building, where my grandfather oiled his saddles and shaped horseshoes and plow blades over a forge. An orchard the brothers planted continues to bear apples. Although the fruit was a month or two from ripening, one of Alfred's great-grandchildren couldn't resist eating one.
Forty-five years after Major John Wesley Powell made the first trip by boat down the Green River, my grandfather often rode a horse from the towns of Green River and Wellington, into the Tavaputs Plateau and the depths of Desolation Canyon and Rock Creek. Behind him were pack horses laden with ranching necessities: flour and sugar, nails, wire, tools to shape stone into building blocks, and farm machinery disassembled for the trip.
Steve Gerber, a historical researcher whose grandfather acquired the ranch in 1946 and whose father lived there in the late '40s and '50s, has hiked into the ranch many times, a journey that begins before dawn and ends after dark. Portions of what would generously be called a trail are as steep as the back of your head.
Gerber's family referred to Rock Creek as ''the Seldom Seen Ranch'' because of its isolation.
I don't think river runners really understand how remote it truly is, says Gerber.
There is no published history of Rock Creek, but Gerber hopes to write one. What he knows is pieced together from public records, interviews with Seamount descendants, and other oral histories.
One of those descendants, Billie Seamount Rich, Bill's daughter, remembers her mother's stories of hauling a Victrola to the ranch to bring culture to the wilderness.
My mother was crazy about violin music, she says.
The Seamounts came to Rock Creek after working for their brother-in-law, Jim McPherson, a legendary rancher in Desolation Canyon whose own homestead, long abandoned, is a popular destination for Desolation rafters. McPherson, Rich surmises, paid the brothers' wages in cattle and equipment, helping them go off on their own.
Rock Creek was a short-lived dream for the Seamounts. They abandoned the ranch in the early 1920s because of circumstances unclear eight decades later, some combination of tragedy both personal and global: the economic slide that would become the Great Depression; an outbreak of disease among their cattle; a devastating fire in their haystack that consumed their winter feed, accidentally started while branding cattle.
Another tragedy struck one of the brothers: the death of my grandmother just days after giving birth to a daughter, my mother June. Therein lies the reason Alfred Seamount remains such a mystery to us. Unprepared to care for an infant, Alfred agreed to give the child to another couple. The man we called grandfather was actually my mother's uncle who, with his wife, bundled up the newborn and raised her as if she were their own.
Getting to Rock Creek: Rock Creek Ranch is a three-day float down the canyon Powell christened Desolation. The journey takes rafters and kayakers through landscapes of sculpted sandstone amphitheaters and white beaches lined with cottonwood trees. It is a popular trip, requiring a permit from the Bureau of Land Management, that draws thousands of river runners a year.
On the horizon is an occasional arch, and sandstone statues known as hoodoos. Bends in the river reveal great blue herons, which eye boaters warily and lift-off when they draw near. Desert big horn sheep graze the rocky, impossibly steep canyon walls.
The gradual descent into the canyon provides more riffles than rapids. Each day brings the possibility of adventure - a hike to a panel of Fremont Indian rock art, the exploration of a side canyon and creek that feeds the Green.
The slow flow provides an immediate escape from the heat: Leap (feet first!) from the boat and float the current in your life jacket. But the pace also takes a toll on rowers who must pull against afternoon upriver winds.
At Jack Creek Rapid, 26 miles into the trip, Desolation Canyon deepens and narrows. From this point on, the BLM requires life jackets be worn. Thirteen miles later, at Steer Ridge Rapid, Powell himself was dumped into the Green as his wooden boat overturned, leaving equipment scattered and him pulling for shore with his one arm.
With the West in its sixth year of drought, Desolation water flows are a fraction of what they have been historically. Now, boaters must concentrate more on avoiding rocks than on navigating big water.
Back at the Ranch: At Rock Creek, the Tavaputs Plateau towers more than 5,000 feet above the river. At this point, the depth of Desolation rivals that of the Grand Canyon.
Butch Jensen has made the trip on horseback countless times. Jensen and his wife Jeanie Wilcox Jensen now own the ranch. It is part of a 6,000-acre spread where they run cattle and host visitors at their guest ranch in the cool forest up on the plateau.
Butch's father bought Rock Creek Ranch in 1956, and the family lived part of each year in the rock house. As a boy, Butch plowed and irrigated fields and tended cattle down there. That idyllic life ended in 1966 when he made the annual June ride into Rock Creek and found the house still smoldering from a fire apparently set by a camping river runner.
I don't know if it was an accident, or intentional, Butch says now.
Up until then, the Jensens had kept the house stocked with bedding and food essentials. They put a sign on the door asking anyone who took refuge there to leave it as they found it.
The buildings at Rock Creek still have a museum quality about them. It is as if the occupants simply left while in the middle of something. A pair of work gloves lies on a bench, boots sit on a shelf. Farm implements are everywhere.
But the Jensens have a different memory, when it truly was a place where time stood still. Every year, visitors take a toll.
Stuff walks away, says Butch with weary resignation. Everybody wants a souvenir.
They ask that rafters get their permission before camping at Rock Creek, although checking up on overnight visitors is virtually impossible. It's hard when you aren't there, says Jeanie.
Still, Rock Creek remains a magical place for the Jensens. This fall, Butch will drive a small herd of horses down to the pasture at the mouth of the canyon where they will spend the winter. He will dismount and lead his horse down the steps the Seamount brothers blasted with dynamite in the sheer sandstone. He will round the corner at the canyon's mouth and see the beautiful rock house.
The fields of the ranch are now brown. The ditch that once carried water from the creek is filled in with sand and rock. What remains of the house's roof sprouts cactus.
Nonetheless, the place my grandfather and his brothers built brings a sense of awe to those who walk among the walls of meticulously cut and placed sandstone.
In her 1975 chronicle of a journey down the entire length of the Green River, Run, River, Run, naturalist Ann Zwinger writes of stopping at Rock Creek Ranch. As her raft pulled away, she was left with this impression:
It is the quality of the green and the quality of the river, the sturdy endurance of what was built here that keep this place from being sad. It does not seem abandoned, only waiting, holding promise of a new green.
Plenty of drinking water. We carried 60 gallons of water for 12 people, and three water purifiers to treat water obtained in side canyons.
l Chemical toilets. You must carry out solid human waste. Toilet paper is to be burned, and the ashes carried out. We had three commodes.
l Fire pan. All fires must be on a pan, and the ashes carried out. The canyon is remarkably free of fire rings.
l Bug spray with Deet. The mosquitoes were a no-show, but gnats and deer flies were a pain.
l Hats, long-sleeved shirts, pants, sunscreen.
l Biogradable soap for people and dishes.
l First-aid kit. You are days away from medical help.
l Extra oar and extra life jacket for each raft.
l Bear-avoidance plan. Sleep in a tent, wearing something that you didn't eat or cook in. Keep food on the boats.
l Desolation River Guide, by Loie Belknap Evans and Buzz Belknap, Westwater Books. Features a mile-by-mile map of Desolation and Gray canyons.
l Run, River, Run, by Ann Zwinger, University of Arizona Press. A naturalist follows the Green River from its headwaters in Wyoming's Wind River range to the confluence with the Colorado.
l Raven's Exile - A Season on the Green River, by Ellen Meloy, University of Arizona Press. Another naturalist, this one married to a BLM river ranger, writes from eight years of floating down Desolation Canyon with her husband.
l Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, by Wallace Stegner, Penguin. The classic biography of John Wesley Powell, the man who explored and named many of the landmarks of the Colorado River and its tributaries.
l The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons, by John Wesley Powell, Dover Publications. The exploration, in Powell's
Travel instructions, things to take with you, a map, and suggested reading inside.
A river trip down Desolation Canyon is actually a journey down two Green River canyons - Desolation and Gray. Boaters put in at Sand Wash, 35 dirt road miles from U.S. 40 near Myton, and take out at Swasey's Rapid near Gunnison Butte, about 10 miles from the town of Green River. The journey takes six or seven days.
During his 1869 exploration, Major John Wesley Powell named Desolation because of its rugged remoteness. The second canyon he dubbed Coal Canyon because of layers of lignite in the rock wall. It was later renamed Gray Canyon.
Sixty of the 84 miles are in Desolation Canyon, which ends near Florence Creek. The red rock, cedar-pinyon majesty of Desolation opens up to the ash and tawny buttes of Gray.
The trip requires a permit from the Bureau of Land Management. Permits are issued by lottery, although cancellations are common, so launch dates become available throughout the summer. For information, contact the Price BLM office, 435-636-3600 (http://www.blm. gov/utah/price/). The Web site also has a list of commercial outfitters and car-shuttle services.
Despite the fact that thousands of rafters run the canyons each year, the camp sites are remarkably clean. BLM rangers' lectures about "pack it in, pack it out" seem to be working.
If you are doing this trip yourself instead of going with a commercial river company, it helps to make a list to ensure an enjoyable, low-impact trip. Here are some things to consider bringing: