"Just below [Henry's Fork] we entered the mouth of the first canyon and encamped amid the cottonwood trees surrounded by bluffs 1200 ft. high and on one side nearly perpendicular. It is the grandest scenery I have found in the mountains and I am delighted with it. . . . The river winds like a serpent through . . . nearly perpendicular cliffs . . . but instead of rapids it is deep and calm as a lake."
George Bradley, one of John Wesley Powell's 1869 crew, was not the first, nor would he be the last, to be impressed with the canyons of the upper Green River. About sixty river miles below the town of Green River, Wyoming, the Green entered a series of canyons that were of rare beauty, and yet were largely unknown except to Indians, outlaws, and river runners.
First was Flaming Gorge, named by Powell for the brilliant, flaming red of its rocks. Here was supposedly the site of the legendary "Green River Suck," said by early river runners to be a cataract that continued for "six or eight miles, making a sheer descent . . . of upward of two hundred and fifty feet." It didn't exist, but it made a good story. After only a couple of miles, Flaming Gorge gave way to two short canyons in quick succession: Horseshoe Canyon and Kingfisher Canyon. The former was a long, U-shaped bend; the canyon walls here were of buff-colored Weber Sandstone, which contrasted sharply with the predominant red shades. Kingfisher Canyon was named by Powell for the many kingfishers "playing about the streams." Sheep Creek entered the river in the middle of Kingfisher Canyon; Powell called it, predictably enough, Kingfisher Creek. After Beehive Point (named for the many swallows who nested there) and Hideout Flat, the river entered Red Canyon.
Red Canyon was the longest of the canyons of the upper Green, and it was also the roughest. In the three short canyons above there was only occasional fast water; in Red Canyon there were real rapids. First and most notable was Ashley Falls, where house-sized boulders had fallen from the left wall, blocking the river. In 1825, when William Ashley and his band of trappers were floating the Green, they portaged their skin boats around the boulders. Ashley painted "ASHLEY 1825" on the cliff above the rapid, and it was visible well into the twentieth century. Although many early river travelers portaged the spot, the rapid looked worse than it was. There was an easy chute on the right at almost any water level; the Todd-Page party of 1926 floated it in their cork life jackets. After Ashley Falls there were many more rapids, including one that cost William Manly and his men their boat in 1849, forcing them to make dugout canoes to continue their voyage to California. When a prospector named Hook drowned in Red Canyon in 1869 trying to follow John Wesley Powell, the Green's reputation as a deadly river was secure for another fifty years.
With time, however, as Ellsworth Kolb wrote, "unreasonable fear of the rapids gave way to a reasonable respect." Cal Giddings, who kayaked the river in the 1950s, remembered a much different river than Powell and Manly had seen: "One characteristic of those canyons--[they] are probably the most ideal places for beginning river runners to get going. They were fairly big waves [but] easy and straightforward. It was very beautiful."
Another notable feature of the canyons was the wildlife and the vegetation. Unlike the sagebrush flats upstream and the deserts downstream, these were mountain canyons, cut right through the heart of the Uintas. Ponderosa pines and willows fringed beaches of white sand; in the bigger bottoms stood stately old cottonwoods. There was no tamarisk. In a number of places, clear, cold mountain streams entered the main canyon, full of native trout. Big squawfish and humpback chub (both now almost extinct) lazed in the eddies. Other wildlife was plentiful, too. Buzz Holmstrom ran the canyons solo in 1937, and in 1938 came back with Amos Burg and ran all the rapids on both the Green and the Colorado (becoming the first to do so). He wrote: "Flaming Gorge, Horseshoe, and Kingfisher canyons were short and rapid-free, filled with sunshine and songs of countless birds, and with the call of geese and ducks high overhead. Many deer and beaver could be seen along the tree-lined shores." There were (besides kingfishers and other birds) deer, rabbits, marmots, bobcats, black bears, and an occasional cougar.
In 1956 Arch Dam Constructors, a consortium of western construction companies, began work on a Flaming Gorge Dam, a component of the Colorado River Storage Project. The dam, about three miles downstream from Ashley Falls, was completed in 1963. It is almost 600 feet high; the resulting reservoir backs up to within five miles of the town of Green River. The wildlife and the trees are gone. Flaming Gorge Reservoir is now a "playground for millions," with fishing, boating, and water-skiing. Below the dam, literally thousands of people now run the remaining fifteen miles of Red Canyon. The wait for a launch is sometimes two hours. That pressure, and the conflict with trout fishermen for the clear, cold water and splashing rapids below the dam, has caused the Forest Service to consider implementing a permit system.
"Ah Well," as Major Powell said, "we may conjecture many things." Better to remember the canyons as they were; to remember that there was once a river beneath those cold, green waters. Ralf Woolley, a usually reserved engineer, was moved to write in 1922: "In places the solid rock walls are almost vertical and rise several hundred feet above the river. . . . The river winding its way between the walls form(s) a constantly changing panorama. . . . The river is like a placid lake, and the beautifully colored canyon walls with their green trees clinging to the slopes are perfectly reflected in the river as in a huge mirror."