Becky conquers the rough
stuff with nary a scratch.

My wine glass is almost empty.  A long, sweet note from the cello signals the end of the first movement.  I stand and make my way to the hors d’oeuvre table as warm sand sifts between my toes.

This ain’t the Philharmonic. 

The rock walls projected Kirstin,
Jackie, Maurice, and Lynn's music
throughout the canyon.

It’s a rafting trip with a soundtrack — or a concert with scenery, if you prefer.  For decades, Bill Dvořák's Kayak and Rafting Expeditions has combined the splendid isolation of scenic rivers with the at-home comforts of good food and relaxation.  The collision with music occurred over 20 years ago when a guest brought a violin.  Bill must have said, “Hey, your classical music is in my rafting trip!” and then discovered that it was a wonderful combination.  The Classical Music River Journey was born.

Rafting on Utah's Green River.

Jane, a massage therapist and outdoor
enthusiast, enjoys the outdoor show.

Desolation Canyon is a wilderness area in eastern Utah, named in 1869 by explorer John Wesley Powell, and it seems almost as inaccessible today as it was then.  A small airplane delivered us to a dirt strip on a plateau beside the river. The musicians arrived on a second plane, and we got acquainted during the short hike down to our put-in point at Sand Wash.   Conversation turned briefly to the local black bears that occasionally make pests of themselves.  How might we scare them out of camp, someone asked.  Maurice, the cellist, suggested, “Make the violist play!”  The violist in the quartet happened to be his wife.  I liked this group already.

For eight days the Green River carried our rafts through Desolation and Gray Canyons to the take-out 84 miles downstream at Swasey’s Rapid.  Guests who wanted exercise could go on hikes with Bill, swim in the khaki-colored water, or paddle an inflatable kayak.  Actually, those last two were one and the same if we weren’t careful: the nimble little “duckies” were lots of fun in the Class II and III rapids, but they could easily be turned and flipped by the waves.  However, I wasn’t worried that my fellow guests might laugh at me from their nice stable rafts, since for the next week I would know where they lived.

Petroglyphs in the canyon are believed
to be 750 to 1200 years old.

Lead guide Bill Dvorak tells us about
the moonshine still that was operated
in the wilderness.

At our first camp, river guide
Mandy prepares salad.

“It’s probably five or six hundred years old,” Bill said of the huge, gnarled cottonwood tree.  We were lunching in its shade.  The sunshine wasn’t hot, but we would be getting plenty of exposure in the next few days and didn’t want to overdo it.  Eying a distant thunderhead, I wondered if we might soon have more shade than we wanted.

The tree was young compared to the petroglyphs we saw during the trip.  Carved by Fremont and Anasazi tribes 750 to 1200 years ago, the depictions of warriors and animals were well preserved in the clean, dry air.  More recent residents left their marks, too: in Fire Water Canyon we visited an abandoned moonshiner’s hideout with the remains of the distillery inside, and the next day at Rock Creek Ranch we walked through the old stone house and mulberry orchard.

The length of this trip compels guests to “hit a stride” in a way that a mere weekend trip cannot.  Settling into new routines, you are more able to leave your everyday life behind and fully appreciate your new surroundings.  The upscale nature of the Classical Music Journey also helps: on most trips, guests partake in camp chores, but on this outing your biggest job is to consume lots of great food and wine so the guides have less to reload on the rafts each morning.  We did our best that first night, but something about camping makes people extra sleepy in the evenings.  After fresh guacamole and chips, blackened halibut, and fresh grilled vegetables, we weren’t too full for the warm brownies — we were too tired.  That was okay, though.  Brownies are great for breakfast.


Violins, violas, and cellos are soft-spoken instruments.  However, place them before the huge backdrop of a red-rock amphitheater, and the sound of a string quartet will carry a long way.  At our first camp, we heard a morning performance of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in a nearby side canyon.  Many of us moved to the far side, several hundred feet away, to hear the music reverberating all around us.  There were no bad seats in this concert hall.

River guide, Kevin, an excellent
guitarist and songwriter, practices
after a day's rowing.

Rowing all day is strenuous work for the guides, and at lunch I observed Bill spreading peanut butter on a leftover brownie for extra energy.  It reminded me vaguely of some old television commercial.  Oh, never mind.

Besides the musical instruments and wine, the crew had brought another unusual bit of baggage: a massage table.  A professional massage therapist was on this trip, and she offered everyone a complimentary five-minute sample of her skills.  Guests could receive longer massages for a fee, and I opted for a half-hour working over.  Tonight was Italian night, and I later slouched like a wet noodle in my beach chair, enjoying Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons and the aroma of baked lasagna.

The storm had caught us
just as we landed,
but it passed in time to allow
an afternoon concert.

I still can’t say I’ve ever seen a bear in the wild, but I know what they sound like.  Late that night I dreamed a freight train was passing by my tent.  I awoke in time to hear a large animal crashing carelessly through the nearby woods and headed in my direction.  I sat up, peered out the mesh window, and just made out a round shadow, a hole in the night.  It grew closer until it was about ten feet from me.  The loud snuffling and snorting could only have been from a curious bear, since no properly maintained freight train would make such a racket.  More annoyed than apprehensive, I made a loud noise of my own: “Pssssst!”  The cowardly shadow bolted — knocking down several large trees in the process, to judge by the sound.  I felt a bit sorry for him as I went back to sleep.  It’s a good thing roots and berries don’t have ears.

The quartet couldn’t spend a week in Bill’s company without playing the music of his famous cousin, Czech composer Antonin Dvořák.  In camp that evening, with the sky turning violet and the fire going, we heard Antonin’s Third Quartet played by the light of headlamps.

Stalked by thunderheads.

Maurice, Becky, and
Mandy follow the trail.

Mandy guides her craft
down the river.

Ever been stalked by a thunderstorm?  For most of the next day it seemed as if one were following us downstream, and when we stopped to camp at a place called Wire Fence, the squall caught up with us.  No worries — we relaxed on the beach for half an hour, drinking cold beer in the warm rain until the sunshine returned.  After a superb dinner and another performance of Dvořák (Antonin, that is), we enjoyed fresh rum cake as the setting sun lit up a huge mesa directly across the river.

“It’s only a short hike,” said Bill the next morning.  He is also a fishing guide and has the angler’s propensity for bending the truth a bit.  By the time we had hiked up to a large boulder decorated with fascinating petroglyphs, the foremost question in my mind wasn’t whether the carvings were Fremont or Anasazi — it was whether we were still in Utah.  We hung our feet over the lip of a deep side canyon and wondered how many humans had ever set foot on the landscape before us.  Probably not many — it’s too long a walk.

Back in the rafts, we now entered Gray Canyon, where the red walls gradually gave way to lower sage-covered mesas.  Still, the only signs of human impact were two old ranch properties.  We checked out the abandoned McPherson homestead, now part of the Ute Indian reservation.  The next day we stopped early for a relaxing swim, and then some of us hiked two miles to the edge of the Wilcox Ranch to look for more petroglyphs.

On our last full day, we savored our omelets and got on the water for a lazy morning drift.  A mother bighorn sheep and her lamb were having a drink on the left bank, and a covey of chukar took flight from the other side.  Those of us daring (i.e., foolish) enough to brave the Three Forks Rapid in the “duckies” got quite a ride and worked up an appetite for lunch at Nefertiti Rock.  That evening, after linguine and clams and the six beautiful movements of Mozart’s Divertimento in E Flat, we watched the river turn silver under the full moon.  At last we began to think about returning to civilization while reminiscing about how we had brought the best of it with us.

Bill Dvořák’s
Kayak & Rafting Expeditions

Bill Dvořák provides domestic and international trips and training courses, including special trips for families, fishermen, and yoga enthusiasts.  There are two music journeys each year, one on the Green River and a shorter one on the Dolores.  This trip would have been spectacular enough with just the scenery and the good food, but the inclusion of the quartet added two special benefits: the inspiration of seeing four ordinary fellow rafters transformed into noble artists when they took up their instruments, and the comfort of knowing that, if necessary, they could scare off a bear - with a viola.

Classical Rafting Photo Page— Feature and photos by Robert LaGrone, Las Vegas Correspondent.

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Churning The Kern

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Desolation and Gray Canyons River Guide: Green River, Utah (Book) by Thomas Rampton

Desolation and Gray Canyons River Guide: Green River, Utah (Book) by Thomas Rampton

New mile-by-mile guide to the Green River between the towns of Ouray and Green River, Utah -- a good wilderness stretch for rafters and kayakers of average ability. Info on water levels, rapids, camps, history, geology. 68 pages.

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