Overloaded mini-jetboats, 170 miles of remote riverways, a portable Traeger and a crew willing to stop at nothing- this Memorial Weekend we set out to resurrect “The Friendship Cruise”, a river trip that used to be ran through Canyonlands National Park starting in 1958. We ran 122 miles downriver from Green River State Park to the Confluence with the Colorado River, and then 48 miles up the Colorado River to Potash Boat Ramp. We had to be completely self-sufficient to go this distance with everything we needed to survive for 4 days on the river.
Imagine 600 motor boats attempting this river run through the remote Utah desert in the 80’s and 90s. From what we’ve heard, it sounds like it was an absolute party mixed with total chaos. It started as a way for participants of the Canyon Country River Marathon to get familiar with the course of the boat race from Green River to Moab in the days before the race. They would have a dance party halfway through the run, but also countless participants had to be rescued or towed back up for broken parts or running out of gas in their prop boats. If you take a right instead of a left at the Confluence, you end up in Cataract Canyon, a 14 mile stretch of up to Class V rapids. Three people had to be rescued in 1982, and two men died in 1993 after taking this wrong turn. No wonder this was a bucket list trip for our buddy Dan ever since he learned about it. They stopped running it in 2011, long before either of us entered the mini jet boat world. But with every amazing adventure comes serious considerations and planning to avoid the risks. In my opinion, running this route nowadays is considerably tame compared to the other extreme sports happening in the Moab area. I think the Friendship Cruise died off more due to low water levels and interest levels rather than the risks involved. We wonder if our generation just doesn’t really know that motorized travel is allowed on these rivers at all.
Figuring out a way to communicate with up to 700 boats during the Friendship Cruise in its peak was one major consideration for safety, especially since some of the canyon walls are 1,000 feet high and signals are limited within the canyons. Volunteer amateur HAM radio operators got involved to set up 2 meter repeaters from the best vantage points in extremely remote areas in and around Canyonlands, so that Friendship Cruisers could signal for help. Just like during the Cruise, communication was key for our river trip because we had several technical difficulties when getting the trip started. We rigged our boats with Rugged Radios intercoms – open mic communication within each boat, with push to talk buttons to transmit to the other boats. This was absolutely crucial for a successful river trip for multiple reasons. First, we weighed the boats so far down with all our supplies that we were all having trouble getting on step. having an extra passenger in our boat and in Dan’s boat contributed to that a lot. We shuffled weight around between the boats, but still had to get one of the other boats to come right up next to us and use their wake to push us from behind to get on step. We needed to be able to communicate during this ridiculous process because we were driving our boat up within a couple feet of their swim deck. Once our boat was on step, we couldn’t stop or else we’d have to do that whole process again, so we had to be able to maintain communication without having to slow down our boats. There was also a significant amount of debris in the Green River from recent daily Flaming Gorge dam releases, and that caused all three jetboats to get twigs and debris stuck in our impellers. We could hear Dan’s boat had something stuck in the impeller causing it to overheat, and luckily had the means of communication to tell him we needed to stop and dig it out. In general, our communication setup allowed our three boats to run at varying speeds without having to stop and check on each other, so that we could spread out and allow the water to calm back down between boats. Although this trip didn’t require any directional decisions, except for our one left turn up the Colorado River, we used the radios to alert each other of any low water, exposed rocks, upcoming kayakers we needed to slow down or move over for, and points of interest along the way. These sections of river hold ancient Native American granaries and petroglyphs, as well as remnants of the initial exploration of the river by John Powell. Not only is communication important for safety, but being connected between boats by our Rugged Radios actually made this Friendship Cruise a friendship cruise because we were still able to talk the entire way.
A point-to-point adventure spanning 170 miles requires significant planning, logistics, and effort for shuttling rigs around. You have to be prepared for being 100 miles from help at any moment if something were to happen. There are several launch points along the Green River, multiple ways to hike out, and a jetboat service from Moab that comes all the way to the Confluence almost daily to pick up the non-motorized vessels and shuttle them back to their vehicles, but even if you get to a boat launch, you are still several miles from civilization. We came prepared with extra fuel, water, food, tools and each boat had at least one Garmin InReach satellite device for use in emergencies. The most important planning consideration was fuel. One person in our group drove a trailer down to Mineral Bottom with close to 100 extra gallons for refueling the three boats on our second day. It was a fine line of knowing how much extra gas to bring because each gallon just adds more weight and makes it even more difficult to get our boat on step, thus also consuming more fuel. We would be refueling at our 68th river mile with 102 left to go, so we also had to calculate how much gas we should take with us in addition to our full boat after our refueling stop. Having only had our boat for one summer, and never having run it so heavy before, we weren’t sure how to calculate exactly how much gas we would need, so we picked a conservative number and planned to bring plenty of extra gas. We spent about an hour at the gas station ahead of time filling 14 different containers of gas that would go in the trailer, plus both tanks in our own boat, and diesel in the truck. We parked the trailer full of gas as close as possible to the boat launch at Mineral Bottom, but we still had to walk a few hundred yards uphill and in the midday heat to go get the gas cans and bring them down to the boats, and then bring them empty back to the trailer. For the extra gas that came with us on the boats for the rest of the trip, we used 5 gallon gas bags from Giant Loop, because these are so much more convenient than huge plastic gas tanks. Most importantly they don’t take up any space after you use the gas because you can roll them up and they barely take up any space or weight. They don’t leak, and they don’t stink like gas! We had 4 five-gallon bags plus 2 two-gallon bags for a total of 24 extra gallons with us on the boats when we left our refueling station. Our boat holds 32 gallons within the tanks, compared to Dan’s holds 58 and Dave’s 50, so our Jetstream needed the majority of the extra fuel. Turns out that our boat did better than we thought on fuel, and Dan’s did worse than he thought. We ended up with at least 7 gallons to spare, and Dan’s hit the light indicator shortly after reaching our final destination (we did an extra 10 miles past Potash Boat Ramp on the final day as a bonus). We were really debating if we were bringing too much fuel from Mineral Bottom since all of us were already battling weight issues before we even added the extra fuel, and we hadn’t even gone upstream yet. We almost left the 4th gas bag at the trailer, but then thought better of it and still brought it, and we were so glad we did. Not running out of fuel and bringing all that extra gas in the bags was like the one thing we did right after having several issues on our trip already.
On the first morning of our trip, only a couple miles from the boat launch, Dan’s boat blew a hole in his exhaust from overheating. Out of all the things he imagined going wrong, this was the last, and it was one of the only custom parts on his boat that he welded himself, so it wouldn’t be as easy to replace. After just spending all morning shuttling the rigs and trailers down to Moab and dropping the trailer off halfway with gas, we almost thought all that work was wasted and we’d have to call off the trip. After wanting to complete this trip for so long and spending so many weeks to get ready, Dan felt so defeated. We’d only made it to Crystal Geyser, which does have road access and you could technically get a boat trailer down there, but we’d already lost cell signal. It was already after 2 pm, so we made the decision to set up camp at the Geyser, unload the boats, and then use our boat to take Dan and Clinton back to the launch, where Clinton’s truck was parked. They had to drive all the way to Moab, and got there right before most of the shops closed, but found a guy to weld a fix in the exhaust for an hour’s worth of labor, or $150. They got back from Moab at 8:15 pm and Blake took our boat back to the launch to meet them and got back to camp by 8:30. Thankfully we had long days and light essentially until 9 pm. At that point, camp was already set up and we were able to just sit and enjoy a campfire and plan out our next day.
While the rest of us hung out at the geyser that day, we got to see it erupt multiple times. Each time, we could hear the water flowing over the rocks start to pick up, and then we knew it was coming. It doesn’t erupt as high or frequent as it used to when Blake was a kid, but we did get to see it 3-4 feet in the air. We also went on a search for firewood, being able to transport some driftwood on top of our Ultradeck flooring.
The fun part about this river route is that there are several side hikes along the way only accessible by boat. We stopped for one of the most iconic ones at Bowknot Bend. Half of the passengers got out at the trailhead and hiked up and over a saddle of a u-bend in the river while the rest of the group floated the boats around the u-bend and met us on the other side at the end of the trail. It’s probably about a 2 mile hike, but it goes straight up for 500 feet to the saddle, and the backside has several tricky ledges you have to scramble down. This one was tough in the heat! There was another group on a float trip at the top already that we stopped to chat with. We could see the boats floating around the bend from the top, and they could see us on the saddle from the river. Day 2 didn’t have any catastrophic damage like our first day, but we were still battling the weight issues and debris in the impellers. By the time we finished a hiking activity, and our fuel stop, and dealt with the twigs in the impeller, it was getting late and we had to find a camp spot.
During high water, there are fewer camp spots because the sand bars that you can camp on later in the year are all under water, and most of the shoreline is covered with the invasive tamarisk plant. The tamarisk has gotten worse in the years since damming the rivers because the rivers no longer flood, which used to prevent the tamarisk from taking over. It is a very dense thicket that soaks up all the water and displaces the natural habitat. It actually makes it pretty difficult to find a decent campsite this time of year where either a trail has been cleared through the tamarisk or there is decent boat parking not along a limestone ledge of rock. We’d planned for our second night of camping to get to a place called Anderson Bottom, which is where the party used to be held halfway through the Friendship Cruise. Apparently there is still a cement dance floor there. It looked like there were two camp spots at Anderson Bottom. The first was occupied, and the second was open, but we had just passed a big group of canoers at 6 pm, and assumed they needed that spot more than we did, since we would be able to keep motoring to get another spot, or else they would have to paddle another 5 miles to camp. We let the canoers have that spot, and kept going but didn’t find a good spot for another 10 miles. We ended up finding a beautiful sand bar near a trail and ruins called Turk’s Head, and decided to call it good and set up camp. We just hoped that the water levels wouldn’t rise too much overnight because it was a pretty small sand bar.
As newcomers to the river trip world, there’s a lot of things to consider when picking a camp that I wouldn’t have known about, and was so glad to be with very experienced friends. Dave was a Ranger in the Grand Canyon for 30 years, did Search and Rescue and guided trips. Dan also worked with a Jetboat tour company in Colorado. They’ve taught us so much about how to read the river. The biggest shock to me, even though now it seems obvious, is that river levels can change drastically in a day due to dam releases and water management tactics. I just assumed rivers weren’t like oceans with tides, but in this sense they are! If dam releases are expected, you can expect the water levels to rise, and need to make sure your boat is anchored up high enough on the bank with enough slack if the water rises. If the water is expected to drop, you don’t want your boat to end up on dry land. It is important to know when the dam releases are expected and keep an eye on the water levels. Where we started the trip in Green River, the flow was around 8,000 CFS because of daily releases from the Flaming Gorge, but some of that water hadn’t reached the confluence yet, so the CFS at the confluence was much lower, but expected to rise. Oh and this means you have to watch where you put your tent. At first I thought this would be tricky to manage and had images of our boat being swept away with a huge increase in water, but we did not have any issues with good guidance from our friends.
Anyway, the sandbar we found for our second night ended up being covered with hopping sand spiders. They were in everything, and they made webs on everything by morning. They weren’t biting or anything, just unpleasant, especially for Clinton who was out-posting with a tent. We actually heard beavers all night chomping on wood and plopping in and out of the water. We saw the track of the beaver tail in the morning dragged across the island. Talk about sleeping in nature!
One of the goals of the river trip was to have a layover day, which is rafting terms for not moving camp for two nights in a row. We planned to hang out, play games, and we had the most ridiculous idea of bringing a Traeger smoker with us and powering it off of our BattleBorn Lithium Battery to smoke a Brisket for 10 hours for the whole group. We have a BattleBorn battery and inverter installed in the hull of our boat with a custom aluminum battery tray made by one of our friends. We tested it ahead of time with the Traeger, and found that it only pulled so many amps that we would be able to run the Traeger all day on the layover day, plus grill on it the other nights of the trip. The sand bar we ended up at was beautiful, but not super ideal for hanging out on all day. Most people in the group wanted to forget about the layover day and move camp the next morning to get out of the spiders. So we changed plans, and started smoking that brisket that night at 10 pm so it would be ready for the next day. We let it run all night, checking on it several times, and it smelled amazing in the morning. Dan is a fan of doing ridiculous shit that no one else does, and Blake enjoys any smoked meat, so smoking a river brisket was an absolute requirement of the trip for this group. River Dave, on the other hand, got fed up with it taking too long the next morning, took it off the smoker, cut it, and told us to cook it at home the next time!!! Then he cut up some nuggets for himself and put it in foil as a river snack for later.
Everyone sampled the brisket. It was delicious, and we packed it up along with the rest of camp and got back in the boats for another 25 miles to find a better camp spot for that night. We weren’t going to make the same mistake as the day before and not find a camp spot until 6 pm. Especially because there aren’t as many camp spots in the last few miles of the Green River, so everyone would be trying to find a spot at the confluence or a few miles below at Spanish Bottom. We motored all the way to the end of the Green River and parked at the beautiful sand beach right at the confluence with the Colorado. This spot is underneath towering canyon walls on all sides, and you can see the different colors of the two rivers coming together and flowing south. We saw all the kayakers and rafters that were ending their floats come by, and they’d be getting picked up by Tex the next morning in a jetboat from Moab. That afternoon we took the boats a couple miles up the Colorado from the Confluence, barged the boats together and floated down, enjoying the silence of the canyons. The entire 170 mile trip is flatwater with zero whitewater. There is a “rapid” just up the Colorado from the confluence called the Slide, and back in the old days it used to be a class 3 rapid, until apparently some enthusiasts blew it up and now I wouldn’t consider it a rapid at all.
Since we had to motor all the way down to the Confluence to get a camp spot, we skipped some of the hikes we wanted to do, so after we’d unloaded and set up camp, we drove a mile back up the Green to hike a steep trail up what was called Powell Canyon. We tied our boat up to some dead bushes and a boulder, and started the hike, which had some scrambling and amazing views back down to the Green. We didn’t make it all the way to the view over the Colorado because it was already dinner time and it took so long to tie our boat up, and we wanted to collect some driftwood to bring back for the fire. We got back in time to heat up brisket for dinner and start a fire and enjoy our last night on the river.
After so many problems getting the trip started smoothly, and so much effort beforehand, Saturday was finally our day to relax on the river. Sunday we motored back the 48 miles all the way to the Potash Boat Ramp, making one stop to check out the Grotto natural amphitheater, where Moab holds a concert series at late summer and fall only accessible by jetboat. It would be an amazing place to sit and listen to music.
This last section of river is honestly the best of the whole trip. It goes underneath the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands and Deadhorse Point State Park. The layers of canyon walls are absolutely stunning. You also pass by Guillotine Arch and several ancient granaries. We drove past another group of motorboats that were camped by the arch, and we stopped to say hi because they were waving so much, and turns out they used to do the Friendship Cruise, and still come down the river every Memorial Weekend as well. This just made Dan’s trip to meet people that did the Cruise and hear their stories, and I’m sure they’ll be invited on our trip next year.
At the boat ramp, River Dave and Cari loaded up his boat and had to get home for work the next day. Clinton went back with them to get his truck and pick up the trailer at Mineral Bottom. The rest of us stayed another night at Potash because we just didn’t want the trip to be over. With our remaining gas we drove the boats the next 15 miles along Potash Road to where the canyon walls end and you’re almost back in the town of Moab. We checked our phones, having service for the first time since Thursday, and with nothing eventful needing our attention, we drove halfway back to the ramp and floated the rest of the way. This section of river is really spectacular as well. The walls along Potash are beautiful red vertical walls, and normally we don’t get to see the extent of them because you are driving directly under them on a curvy road and looking out for climbers crossing the road. The water was really glassy here, even though we could tell a storm was blowing in. We beat the storm and loaded up our boats. We had just enough water in the camper left to offer the 5 remaining people in our group an outdoor shower. We unloaded what was necessary, but pushed off most of the cleaning until we went back to Dan’s the next day and could use the power washer.
On our float back, we thought about all the work that went into making this trip happen, from every single one of us. The boys did hours and hours of prep on the boats, while Shannon and I prepped food for 6 people for 4 days and packed coolers. Clinton probably drove an extra 6 hours that weekend just to get fuel in place for us. River Dave put up with our shit and carried the dead weight (me and Shannon) when our little show pony boats couldn’t handle it. There’s an article in the Times Independent from 1978 quoting the opinions of several Friendship Cruise participants, emphasizing the trials and tribulations of putting on an event of that size in an area that remote, but one crusty older man is quoted as saying “Anyone who doesn’t love this is nuts!” That’s us. We had a couple things go differently than according to plan, but no one got hurt and we made it to our destination. And that makes it all worth it.
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