Expedition St. Croix Part Three: Dinosaurs and the Jaws of the San Juan

Whoa there, cowboy! If you haven't read Part One, check it out first. For Part Two, head this way.

A rumor spread around camp that night. Somebody is going to make the run—Jarrett Edwards maybe? First one boat, then two and eventually four from our expedition sign up for the journey. Nobody is quite sure who started it. Getting there will take over an hour from our houseboats: we’re going up the San Juan.

The San Juan River is a legendary tributary of the Colorado River. The two collide in the northeast corner of Lake Powell over 50 miles from our camp. For much of its 383-mile course, the San Juan is a fabled fly fishery in Utah and New Mexico. Making the run to sink a line there is a huge risk. But the rewards are high. The hour-long run isn’t the only rumor wafting through the smoke of our campfire. No, the San Juan promises more than a long ride, for its banks were once the home of the “Ancient Ones”, the Anasazi. And overlooking our foray—some say—the ruins of that great and mysterious people will watch.

The campfire is doused. Tomorrow, we ride.

[divider]Into the Jaws of the San Juan[/divider]

A new day dawns, and I’m keenly aware that time is ticking away—St. Croix is taking their gear back when the sun goes down. Today, it’s do or die. Catch or be caught by Father Time.

I’m anxiously downing my third cup of coffee when boat assignments are handed out. Today, I’m leaving Kip Bennett behind. Today, fellow writer Jeff Samsel and I will be under the wing of Phoenix-native and Arizona fishing expert Russ Dupper. (He’s the guy wearing the epic wind sock on the cover photo of this story.)

As Samsel and I board Russ’s Ranger, the bustle around camp is in stark contrast to the day before. Yesterday, single boats sporadically darted away from our quiet cove in the early morning light. Today, a squadron of fishing vessels assemble and blast out of camp simultaneously. If yesterday was a scouting party, today is an all out war band. Each boat carries three warriors; each warrior is equipped with a quiver of St. Croix rods. A pair of St. Croix Legend Elites and an Avid X have once again joined me today. And we’re on the hunt for serious bass.

For over an hour, we fly.

The scene from Independence Day—where Will Smith is chasing alien space fighters through the Grand Canyon? This is basically that. We’re going flat out as the smooth, contoured canyons of Lake Powell give way to the mouth of the San Juan. And as Russ punches us into its channel, a monstrous, jagged tooth seems to welcome us into a new landscape. This is the San Juan River, and it promises to be different.

Several miles upstream, Dupper brings the Ranger to a halt. In the chaotic climb to this bend, we’ve lost a few members of the hunting party. Bewildered, but in the midst of what appears to be an incredible fishery, we locate Kip Bennett’s boat—the loan member of our party in sight—and decide to get down and dirty. Literally.

Our first stop is a thick, scummy bend of the river that looks absolutely wretched. Most of the San Juan is crystal clear. This looks like the kind of water you find in a cesspool. If ever there was a place to pull up some sinister denizen of the deep, this would be the spot.

Predictably, a massive “thud” echoes down my line as, somehow, a blue Bandit crankbait finds luck in the scum.

Predictably, a neon green catfish rises up. We decide to leave.

Soon, our trio locates better water. This water is clear. For the next several hours, we busy ourselves pounding the San Juan’s rocky banks using bluegill-colored crankbaits with great success. Cast and coast. Reel and crank. Fish after fish is landed under the sun-scorched crags. The smallmouth love this new, faraway landscape. A few hundred yards away on Bennett’s boat, his crew is reeling in striped bass from the river channel.

The new St. Croix rods bend but never break. By noon, they’ve all had quite a workout. (Especially the Legend Elite that hauled in several dozen smallies in addition to the catfish that it probably wasn’t ever designed for.) They’ve all passed with flying colors.

As a bonus, almost all of the San Juan’s rumors have come true: it is indeed a splendid fishery, and it is also a long way from our camp, but there’s no sign of the Anasazi. If the ruins of an ancient city are above us, we cannot see them. And without the rest of our party, we also have no idea where to look. But soon, the ghosts of an ancient people won’t matter much.

Lake Powell has one last gift to give us, and it’s something far more mysterious than even an ancient city.

[divider]What do they have in there? King Kong?[/divider]

Ice cream is one of those gifts. However, it’s not the big one. The big one is a recently discovered rock formation in an obscure canyon wall that appears to be a dinosaur. Even on an incredible fishing expedition like this, something that peculiar will make you put down a rod.

On Lake Powell, a forgotten dinosaur is a real possibility. Time is frozen here. Off on a search we go.

The bare canyon walls sit on the very doorstep of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. From the gleaming surface of the lake you can look up and see it. Near the top, I’m told, lie the remains of ice age creatures like sabretooth tigers and mastodons. Thousands of feet below them? That’s where we are—shooting through the sandstone canyons on a watery road that was never meant to be.

In a very real sense, we are at eye-level with something older than old and more ancient than any people. We are at eye-level with prehistory. Somewhere in the labyrinth, a mystery is about to be revealed.

Except, it almost isn’t. The water on Lake Powell is maybe 100-feet below normal. Really, that’s the only reason we might be able to see the supposed fossil. But low water could also prevent us from reaching it. As we jet, bob and weave through the nameless gorge that leads towards prehistoric treasure, navigating becomes tense. Our breakneck pace slows to a crawl as spotters are deployed to the bows of our boats to (hopefully) avoid a shattered hull on the canyon floor.

This is real Indiana Jones stuff.

And just like Dr. Jones, we eventually find the treasure. Though, to be fair there are no snakes or damsels.

As Dupper’s Ranger rounds a bend, we see Bennett’s boat scoping out the find. Sure enough, we perceive what seems to be, at least in the adrenaline-filled desert heat, the impression of a massive skeleton on the sandstone wall. Having seen Jurassic Park at least 267 times as a kid, I confidently declare it a plesiosaur.

As a group, we collectively glare at the bones, or impression or plesiosaur for several minutes, take a few pictures and decide to get ice cream. For a group of grown-up kids with grown-up toys, what better way to end an expedition?

Tomorrow, we tie the boats up and head home: back to Wahweap, back to the fearless jack rabbits and back to the real world. But for now, there’s ice cream, fantastic fishing and a new series of incredible fishing rods to celebrate.