Michalak Boats on the San Juan click here to read or make an observation about this  article
By Chuck Leinweber - Harper, Texas - USA

We did not make it to the annual Midwest Messabout as we thought we would. What happened is we got an offer to float the San Juan River in southern Utah. This is not something to be taken lightly as there is a lottery to determine who can go. We were invited by Terry Burgess who was awarded a permit for 16 people.

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our load of boats for the San Juan

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The San Juan River begins in the San Juan Mountains of Southwestern Colorado. It flows south into New Mexico, back up into Colorado very near the four corners, and then into Utah where it ends in Lake Powell which is formed mainly by the Colorado River. The so called lower canyon cuts through Cedar Mesa in a series of entrenched meanders. The most spectacular of these is the “Goosenecks” near Mexican Hat, Utah. Our course would consist of 50 miles of canyon from Mexican Hat to Clay Hills Crossing on a 3000 cfs river traveling at more than 5 mph for most of the way. While described as no more than Class II in difficulty, there were some challenges. One was the sheer weight of gear. The river carries a huge load of silt and filtering water for drinking is not practical, so we had to carry 5 gallons of drinking water per person, making our total load substantial.

The Goosenecks of the San Juan from the State Park overlook.

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Our original intention was to build one of Jim Michalak's RiverRunner designs for this trip. We did this and made it strong by glassing inside and out and stitching the chines rather than using the usual chine logs. Additionally, we coated the bottom with graphite mixed with epoxy for enhanced abrasion resistance. Jim Hauer who built the prototype was a great help in building the boat.

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Sandra puts some finishing touches on our RiverRunner

Shortly before our departure, we learned that our youngest son, Joe (age 23) would be able to go with us. You may remember that he and a friend built a JonJr several years ago. Anyway, we decided that we would need to take Sandra’s Toto to keep from having to put three people and a week of gear on the one boat.

Joe mans the oars.

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Within the first quarter mile, one of the plastic canoes capsized and withdrew from the expedition. Our boats took on some water too, but thanks to the watertight compartments in both boats, we never turned over, though we did have some other misadventures. Of six canoes, three capsized during the trip.

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One of the unfortunate canoes that capsized on our trip

The early part of the river was swift with our GPS showing 6+ mph with us just steering. We used paddles for this section and Sandra used her double paddle throughout. We tried rowing facing forward a few times, but it was not comfortable – probably because we were not used to it. Later, when the water slowed near Lake Powell, we found that we got behind the easier to paddle canoes so we rowed facing backwards and were able to easily catch up with the rest of the group. One big plus is that we were able to stand at any time to scout the river ahead or stretch our legs – when they are over half a century old, legs need stretching now and then.

we were able to stand to scout the river or just stretch our legs.

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The only real excitement with the RiverRunner came when we hit a rock and Joe fell overboard. I was in the front and upon seeing a rock barely submerged, tried to turn at the last minute. This rotated the boat sideways and we hit the rock with the boat's chine. The impact threw Joe into the water from his perch on the rear deck. To his credit, he held onto his paddle and he was able to easily reboard over the stern.

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we did not hit this rock, but there were plenty of smaller ones just below the surface

On that same stretch of river, Sandra completely swamped her Toto yet was able to paddle upright to shore where she bailed it out. You may remember that this boat was build very lightly with ¼ inch ply only on the bottom and 1/8 inch stuff everywhere else. It made for a nice light boat that was easy for Sandra to carry to the water, but not really durable for a river like this. At Ross Rapids, about 2/3 of the way through the canyon, she hit a rock going sideways and punched a hole in the garboard about 18 inches long and 4 inches wide.

Terry did not think we would ever be able to repair the Toto

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I was not too concerned as I had purchased a fresh tube of 3M 5200 before the trip and had brought some tools, screws, and plywood patches. Imagine my concern when the tube of stickum turned out to have set up before it was even opened. Who knows how long it sat on the shelf before I bought it. Sandra suggested Duct Tape but I knew that would not hold to wet wood. Then I thought: why not tape up the hole and screw ply patches over the tape to hold that in place? That is what we did and it worked better than I expected. She did not even have to bail once for the last 10 miles of the trip. One good thing about building your own boat is you gain the skill to repair it.

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Sandra’s Patched Toto

At Ross Rapids Joe and I had a little adventure of our own: we hit a barely submerged rock head on. The graphited bottom had already proven itself on some of our Texas rivers so we weren’t worried about gouging, but we weren’t sure what would happen balance-wise when we ran up on a rock at 5 mph. What happened is the boat stopped, spun around and sat there happily providing entertainment for the rest of the group. I used a paddle to pry us off the rock and we immediately ran up on another one. I think we only got really stuck on three rocks total on that part of the river, but we never felt we were in danger of turning over, thanks to the great stability of this boat.

The RiverRunner and Toto on the beach at our last camp: Oljeto Wash

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Terry is going to try to get a permit again next year and if he does, we may go again – assuming it does not interfere with the Midwest Messabout. This time we are thinking about building two bullet-proof Totos with glass (which Sandra’s did not have except on the chines) inside and out and graphite on the bottoms and garboards. We would take the RiverRunner again but we cannot agree on who is to be captain so we will want to take two solo boats.

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I think Sandra likes her Toto.