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Healing waters

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Floating for miles, making stops to explore side canyons, cooking meals among the coyote willows and basking in the early morning light: This is a trip on the San Juan River.

The sounds of cliff swallows echoes between rising walls as the birds swoop above a glassy river. A mist slowly climbs off the river’s surface, evaporating with the morning sun. At a camp on the shore, dew has settled on a stove, a coffee pot is cold to the touch. Someone is doing yoga on the riverbank.

Guide services like Wild Rivers Expeditions, established in 1957 in Bluff, Utah, routinely take groups of people down the river. Louis Williams, a guide for the last five years, grew up along the water’s edge. Sharing the river with others is how he preserves the land.

“This is how I protect it,” he said. “My contribution is bringing people out here, and they gain respect and they take care of it.”

Williams, a Navajo who has spent his life in the region, spends his time equally in and out of the water, launching his 16-foot raft or beaching it. When he’s not cooking, making or breaking camp for guests, he makes desert big horn fetishes out of sticks in between impromptu lectures on geology.

“I love the water,” he said. “And this river draws me to it. It draws all this wildlife. It’s ever changing – it’s not the same.”

The lush corridor of the San Juan is home to a dense ecology, and the stone the river cuts through is more than 115 million years old. The very history of the earth is revealed along the water’s drift. Man’s presence here dates back 8,000 years. Cliff dwellings and rock art are abundant, along with byproducts of Western expansion, ranging from 19th-century Mormon settlers, a turn-of-the-century gold rush, then the expansion of the oil and gas industry. By the mid-20th century it was uranium.

“It’s an economic source for a lot of people,” Williams said. “That’s just one aspect. The other is its power.”

The river is a metaphor for life.

“You kind of could picture your life like that, be strong, help out people but never stay the same, you’re always forever changing for the good.”

It’s a peaceful existence. Eat, pack and float. Take in tiny seconds among the incomprehensible scope of the river’s time. The sight of a big horn sheep. The tall stalk of a yucca. The blue belly of the ornate tree lizard. The fossils. The sky.

Like so many of the guests he leads down the water, Williams said he finds solace in the canyon.

“It heals itself, so you kind of take that into your daily life,” he said. “Wake up and thank the river. Say, ‘Wow, river, you’re a pretty strong river, I’d like to be like you. Give me strength.’”

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