Listening for echoes of history at Blue Notch
Last Saturday, Ted, Oggie, and I drove to Blue Notch, the clay saddle between two massive red rock formations north of the Happy Jack mine in Red Canyon, hoping to photograph desert wildflowers.
The prince’s plumes bloomed along with a few fishhook cacti, primroses, and, surprisingly, tamarisk, growing in the sediment deposited by Lake Powell, but the flowers were sparse.
What Blue Notch Canyon lacked in plant life, however, it made up for in geology with multicolored shale, mostly lavender, green, gray, and rust, and in rich minerals.
When we came to an old mining road, Ted parked the car, and we headed up the hill to explore the area because we also wanted to see where the famed river guide, Bert Loper, ranched before Lake Powell submerged the area.
On top of the mesa, we found an abandoned mining camp. San Juan County, of course, has a long history of mining, but the last full-production White Canyon mine stopped operations in 2012.
The camp we stumbled on had ceased operations much longer ago than that, but we could see traces of an airstrip, two collapsed outhouses, and rubble around a huge red boulder with a claim marker drawn across its surface.
The men had strip mined, dammed the arroyo for water, run pipes, and scraped out several depressions for ponds.
They had also dug a trash pit, and the tin cans with aluminum tops, the bottles, and even a baby food jar provided evidence that the camp operated in the late ’50s or early ’60s, possibly with some of the miners’ wives and children in residence.
Since I had been thinking a lot about relationships and the health hazards associated with social isolation, I wondered, in that isolated environment, what kind of relationship the miners had with each other, their families, and their bosses, and what about the women in that sparse landscape?
As I tried to recreate their lives in my mind, I could almost hear the hum of the airplane landing with much-needed supplies, the rattle of a semi chugging up the rough road to pick up a load of ore, the rumble of a cat working the earth, the men’s voices discussing how to complete a task, and the women warning the kids not to play with snakes.
I wondered if any fell in love with the earth herself – with her subtle coloration, her desert plants and creatures, her diverse geology, and her deep blue skies.
After we left the camp, we walked several miles along an old road toward Red Canyon and Lake Powell until we came to the Polyanna mine where the area had clearly been strip mined, though we couldn’t see much other debris.
We took our lunch break under a rock overhang since there were no nearby trees and then hiked to a point overlooking Lake Powell and Good Hope Bay, where Bert Loper farmed at the mouth of Red Canyon in the early 1900s.
Born in Missouri in 1869, Loper arrived in San Juan County in 1893, initially searching for gold along the river.
According to Steve Allen’s Utah’s Canyon Country Place Names, after missing connections at Lees Ferry to make a river run through the Grand Canyon in 1907, Loper rowed and pulled his boat 165 miles upriver in freezing water, “wet to the waist for 24 days,” to the Hermitage in Glen Canyon, not too far from Cass Hite’s home in Ticaboo Canyon.
Loper bought the Hermitage from A.P. Adams in 1909 and lived there alone for about seven years, raising fruit and hay.
Because he wrote letters and kept a journal, we know about the relationship he formed with the area, especially the river.
“I lived with the river so much,” he said, “it pretty near became a part of me; I would sit on the banks and watch it; I would boat it; I would do everything; about the only companion I had.”
After Hite’s death, Loper became a guide on the Colorado and Green Rivers along with many other jobs, and he eventually earned the name of “The Grand Old Man of the Colorado.”
He died when he was nearly 80, apparently from a heart attack, while manning the oars of his homemade boat through the 24½ Mile Rapid of the Grand Canyon.
In his book, The Very Hard Way: Bert Loper and the Colorado River, Brad Dimmock quotes the words Loper had written shortly before his death: “If I knew that on a certain day I was to pass on I would get in my boat and would land in the Grand Canyon on that day for it seems to me that it would be such a nice place to pass on to one that loves the whole setup as I do.”
As Ted and I scrutinized Good Hope Bay, we saw no evidence of the Hermitage with its black willow log cabin, but in my imagination, I could almost hear the splash of Bert Loper’s oars as he explored his beloved river.
The canyon’s human drama was mostly silenced now except for the boats churning through Lake Powell’s waters.
On our way back to the car, we spotted a lizard, a remnant of the dinosaur age, on top of a pitted gray boulder, its eyes blissfully closed as it sunbathed, undisturbed by our footsteps or Oggie’s search for shade.