1,000-year-old caves of the Anasazi line the San Juan's banks

UTAH'S RIVER OF THE ANCIENTS

February 03, 1991|By Eric Hyypia

I could almost feel the spirits of an ancient tribe whispering in the rushes as I softly pushed through the thick undergrowth. Ahead, a faint path wound among the red boulders and up the steep, sandy slope to the cliff face. The ripple of the river and the sighing of the breeze faded to silence as I climbed into the echoing, open cave of sandstone, 30 feet high and 100 feet long. Low adobe walls rose in memorial their creators who lived and died here nearly a thousand years ago.

I had found the home of the Anasazi.

Shards of pottery littered the ground -- some painted, some pinched and corrugated. Overhead on the vast arch of the roof, red spirals and crude human figures mixed art and religion, and handprints of men 1,000 years dead called out silently. I placed my palm over a red hand-petroglyph. His hand was smaller.

Overlooking the San Juan River in southern Utah, these caves formed the homes of the Anasazi "Pueblo People," basket-making hunter/gatherers who explored rudimentary farming. Anasazi is a Navajo word meaning "the ancient ones." The overhanging cliffs protected them from weather and enemies -- toeholds and handholds cut into the cliffs were the only access to the dwellings. Stones used to grind grain still sat in shallow grooves in the flat rocks where they last were used, their perfect fit, smooth underside and rough top side leaving no doubt of their authenticity.

I reached these caves, which are protected from desecration by the Federal Antiquities Act, by river raft. While travelers can tour such well-known "administered" ruins as Canyon de Chelly and MesaVerde, only here in the wilderness can one sit alone above the rolling river, doze in the rooms of people who lived 500 years before Columbus, and absorb their quiet, rich history.

The San Juan is an easy river, visited more for its beauty than for its minimal white water. Camping spots are plentiful. Great blue herons waded the shallows, eagles soared the thermals and deer stared from the underbrush. Beaver slides and a variety of ** paw prints carved the banks. Two of our explorers hiked up a side canyon to some ruins and, retracing their steps a few minutes later, found large cat tracks overlaying their own footprints.

The two- to four-day run from Bluff to Mexican Hat, Utah, started in a wide valley surrounded by wind-carved cliffs. Anasazi steps, often no more than pounded-out toeholds, angled precipitously up the cliff faces to high washes and other dwellings. Carved and painted petroglyphs adorned the overhanging walls. Trails led our explorers off through the brush to the vast, "undeveloped" cliff dwellings.

Halfway into the 27-mile trip, canyon walls closed in and the current picked up speed. In high water, 3- or 4-foot-high "sand waves" formed by the shifting river bottom popped up and disappeared at random.

At our last river camp, near Mexican Hat Rock, we were awakened by the loud sound of a large rock thrown into the shallow water near our tent. Although we scanned the camp in the starlight, we found no intruder. Only in the morning light did the truth show its brown head as a wary beaver slapped his flat tail on the water once more.

Because the San Juan is an easy river, it is an excellent place for first-time rafters to try their hand at rowing or paddling. The moderate currents make it hard to get into trouble, and the variety of camping spots and access-by-permit-only ensure a true wilderness experience. Beginning canoeists and kayakers can find the riffles both playful and non-threatening.

Rafts, canoes and kayaks can be rented in Moab, Utah, along with other gear. Plan to bring all your food and drinking water with you, since you should not drink river water or the alkali streams. Bring sleeping bags and tents, and a warm sweater or jacket if you travel in early spring. To preserve the pristine environment, all human waste and ashes must be carried out. Most groups carry a portable toilet in the form of large ammunition canister lined with trash bags, known humorously as the "honey bucket" or the "groover."

Permits should be obtained a month or two in advance from the Bureau of Land Management. The river map and guide map and guidebook you will receive show the locations of some of the more prominent ruins. Many more dwellings exist, however, so keep your eyes open.

Remember that all historic sites are legally protected, and that visitors must not remove antiquities or deface the ruins. Other suggestions: Carry out all trash and waste, leaving the area untouched. Remember to bring plenty of film. The desert sun can be intense, even on cloudy days, so use lots of sunscreen, and drink at least two quarts of water per day to keep from becoming dehydrated.

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