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Pachelbel’s Canyon

Pachelbel’s Canyon
By Christopher Corbet
Special to the Washington Post newspaper
March 29, 1998, Sunday Travel section

What do you get when you cross a white-water rafting trip in Utah with a string quartet? Listen to this one.

Twelve passengers boarded the Redtail Aviation planes at Grand Junction, Colo., to be deposited an hour’s flight away on the top of a barren mesa in Utah. One of those passengers was a cello. When you travel with a cello, you buy the cello a seat.

Hannah was the cellist. She admitted later that she didn’t actually mention to the clerk in the Denver music store that she was taking the cello on a 100-mile white-water rafting trip on Utah’s Green river, one of the most remote and inaccessible places in the continental United States. Well, she figured, he didn’t ask.

The rented cello, which cost $35 for the week, plus $3 to insure it against any calamity, wasn’t exactly worthy of Yo-Yo Ma. “It’s a really, really cheap cello. It has no power steering, no power brakes and it’s hard to drive,” Hannah said much later, after we had dragged it halfway across the backcountry of eastern Utah in an inflatable raft.

This was all Bill Dvorak’s idea. Dvorak, a wilderness outfitter who runs a rafting and Kayaking operation in Colorado, describes himself as composer Antonin Dvorak’s fifth cousin, a fact that would be difficult, and perhaps unnecessary, to verify. Although he’s got parties of rafters strung out over half a dozen states and 35 guides working for him, every year he takes a string quartet rafting down the Green River for his own musical diversion and for the pleasure of select customers.

Dvorak hit on the idea of taking musicians through the Desolation and Gray canyons two decades ago after he heard someone playing a harmonica up in a box canyon. The sound was so riveting, and the acoustics in these natural concert halls so perfect, the tone so clear and sharp, that it gave Dvorak the idea of bringing along serious musicians to play for his clients. (It was about this time he recollected his fifth cousin, Antonin, too.) Dvorak started with one musician for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and things just took off from there. In recent years he has hauled a whole string quartet along—they come as his guests—to entertain the paying customers.

Last summer, I headed down-stream with the quartet.

The problem with taking a cello (even more than a whole string quartet) white-water rafting is that a cello is not only a musical instrument, it’s a piece of furniture. For the purposes of this annual exploit, Dvorak built a “music box”—a giant watertight steamer trunk into which were packed Hannah’s rented cello, two violins, a viola, four folding chairs, four music stands and a small library of sheet music.

Aside from Hannah the cellist—a young-looking 30-year-old who was taking her first trip away from her 1-year-old child—the other recruits for Dvorak’s improvised string quartet included Mary, a freckled violist and organizer of this musical excursion; first violinist Nancy, who had a natural-foods fixation and brought along a quantity of seaweed to eat; and second violinist Teresa, a non-practicing lawyer. The musicians all belonged to string quartets in Colorado but had never played together. On the morning we left Grand Junction, the six other rafting clients followed in another small plane. We were all going to Sand Wash, Utah, to meet Bill Dvorak.

Travelers in the wilds of Utah, following the route of fames Western explorer and geologist John Wesley Powell, expect amazing sights in a timeless landscape carved out of sandstone by water and wind. But none of the rafters and kayakers hunkered on the muddy banks of the green at Sand Wash on the hot summer morning we arrived expected to see Bill Dvorak rowing his huge music box lashed into a 16-foot raft all its own. Imagine a cross between the Marlboro Man and a surfer dude (cowboy hat, Tevas, bathing suit) and you get the right idea about Bill Dvorak. He has been rafting these canyons for more than 30 years.

Sand Wash was a sudden and spectacular introduction to a landscape that is so alien and otherworldly to an Easterner that the predominant reaction is to stare in wonderment.

Powell was probably not, as they used to say in the exploring game, “the first white man” to see this country. But he was the first traveler to make some account of it, after his trip in 1869. Mountain men and Spanish missionaries had come through, too. Horse thieves were partial to this country in the 1800s. In 1869, Powell took a party of nine geologists, geographers and scouts down the Green River on a thousand-mile trip over the last unmapped part of the United States. He called the area “the great unknown.”

Not much has changed. In “The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons,” he described the landscape:

We pass through a region of the wildest desolation. The canyon is very tortuous, the river very rapid, and many lateral canyons enter on either side. These usually have their branches so that the region is cut into a wilderness of gray and brown cliffs. In several places these lateral canyons are separated from one another only by narrow walls, often hundreds of feet high—so narrow in places that where softer rocks are found below they have crumbled away and left holes in the wall, forming passages from one canyon into another. These we often call natural bridges…the walls are almost without vegetation; a few dwarf bushes are seen here and there clinging to the rocks, and cedars grow from the crevices—not like the cedars of a land refreshed with rains, great cones bedecked with spray but ugly clumps, like war clubs beset with spines. We are minded to call this the Canyon of Desolation.

Every evening the rafting party made camp only after Bill and Mary had selected a perfect site. This was taken to mean insect-free (that was Bill’s call) and acoustically suitable (Mary’s). Then the great music box would be opened and out would come the instruments and the music stands and four honest-to-God folding metal chairs right out of a church basement and reams of sheet music. One evening there was a brief moment of panic and an extensive search when the quartet’s tuning fork was reported missing. It was recovered.

Our first night on the river, after a long, hot day of flat water and much hard rowing and paddling, the musicians were worried about the heat. It was 110 in the shade, and there wasn’t much shade. The upper waters of the Green were not so much the strong brown god of poetry but a wide, languid, sandy ribbon. At these altitudes—we were more than a mile high—the midsummer sun was ferocious.

“My violin is warm,” Nancy said with some alarm when the music box was opened (although she’d confessed earlier that this violin was the least valuable in collection of 13). We were camped on a sandbar in a deep, narrow sandstone chasm between Stampede Flat and Peter’s Point, just downstream from a grove of cottonwoods.

The musicians conferred briefly, and it was decided that no harm had been done (although we were all allowed to touch Nancy’s violin to verify that it had possible sunstroke). Fortunately, the sun was now behind the canyon wall and soon the light on the deep gorges was softening into a deep rich pattern of browns.

The guides—there were four in addition to Dvorak, his wife, Jaci, teenage daughter Anika and 12-year-old son Matt—quickly assembled our campsite as they always did, with tents and tarps and an elaborate portable kitchen.

John Wesley Powell’s party lived on flour biscuits and black coffee. They nearly starved to death. We made no attempt to replicate that aspect of the trip. We were carrying enough Merlot to float a kayak, enough Jose Cuervo Gold for a half-dozen Cinco de Mayos and a larder of grub that included fresh salmon, steaks, shrimp, smoked oysters, clams, fresh brie. We are lumberjack breakfasts, enormous picnic lunches. We ate all the time. The only complaint about the food was that if we lived to tell the tale of this trip it might be at Weight Watchers.

And so, while two enormous salmon (Bill claimed he’d caught them himself, which drew a big laugh) were grilling over an open fire and a spirited but civilized cocktail hour was in progress, we settled down to hear for the first time what I came to know as Bill Dvorak’s All-Girl String Quarter. (Bill was the most politically incorrect person you can imagine.) The sky was a clear Western azure and there was a soft evening breeze, ideal for keeping the insects away. Here, under Wishbone Wall, a million-year-old sheet of sandstone carved over the eons by the elements, we gathered for our first concert.

The first request was Pachelbel’s Canon. Pachelbel’s Canon! The scourge of classical musicians everywhere! It was like asking a torch singer to do “Feelings.” Bill Dvorak’s All-Girl String Quartet, experiencing the first awkward twinges of playing together in its debut, nearly did a synchronized double take. But, seasoned by years of weddings and receptions, the quartet rallied. And the first, so-familiar notes of music rose up and reverberated through those lonely, barren canyons. Never did Pachelbel’s Canon sound so sweet. Bill Dvorak had been right about the acoustics. The music was moving and eerie in a setting that was like a natural cathedral that we in no time became comfortable with the extraordinary incongruity. Far from a symphony hall or Tanglewood or even Wolf Trap, we were in the middle of a stretch of government and Uintah-Ouray Indian Reservation land that is terra incognita on even the most detailed maps. But after the initial oddity of the performance wore off, the wilderness itself, the awesome and sobering landscape of the river, began to upstage our musicians.

When Bill Dvorak tells clients that traveling down the Green with a string quartet will be an unusual musical experience, he is not overstating.

“A lot of musicians have never camped out before,” he noted. So the trick is to find musicians who are competent but who will also be willing to spend eight days sleeping on the ground, going without hot showers and using a portable toilet (required by stringent environmental laws, and the subject of considerable earthy humor among the travelers).

“Not all musicians like camping,” said second violinist Teresa. “You’ve got to be willing to roll with the punches, the sun, bugs, wind, sand. …Mary was looking for people who were used to playing in an outdoor environment.”

Fortunately, in Colorado, it is not as difficult to get good classical white-water rafting musicians as it might be in, say, Reston.

Teresa, for instance, a serious outdoors type—skier, hiker, runner—had won a famous mountain bike race in Colorado, which made her something of an Iron Woman celebrity among the others. And let the record show, our string quartet paddled most of our route themselves, in inflatable kayaks. (I’d like to see Midori in a kayak.)

None of Dvorak’s clients on the “Classical Music River Journey” was a declared aesthete. We were plainly faithful listeners of classical FM stations and occasional concertgoers, but this was no highbrow crew. In truth, a love of classical music was an asset for trip down the Green River, but the aficionado also had to be willing to do a fair bit of roughing it.

“The music was the reason we came along,” said Doug, a fiftyish retired electrical engineer who with his wife was among the three couples on the trip. “We like white-water rafting and we like string quartets, so we figured, you put white-water rafting together with string quartets, why not? So here we are.”

Every evening, usually before dinner, we would assemble under a big cottonwood tree or in a natural amphitheater of sandstone and listen to our quartet. And after a few days they had indeed become a string quartet. The sounds of Bach and Beethoven and Mozart would rise magnificently here in this wild place. But it was not Carnegie Hall.

“Instead of strawberries and champagne, at our concerts we have tequila shooters,” noted Jaci Dvorak. Dress was always informal, beach wear preferred. But the seats were great.

Sometimes the ladies played heroically, under adverse conditions.

“I think this is the first time I have ever heard Mozart played while I watched the musicians swatting mosquitoes,” Myra said on the evening we camped at Cedar Ridge Canyon. First violinist Nancy had wrapped her head in cheesecloth.

“Nancy, you look like an Arab sheik,” Mary said.

“I’m armed and I’m dangerous,” added Nancy, who was carrying, in addition to her violin and bow, an enormous can of insect repellent.

It was our second night on the river and the quartet was limping. Mary, who had classic Irish features, was badly sunburned. Teresa had a really serious cold. Everyone was swatting mosquitoes, which were ferocious. Bill, who prided himself on finding campsites that were bug-free, was chagrined. He deputized son Matt and daughter Anicka to man the Smudge Pots, but that didn’t do the trick. The air was thick with Off! and Cutter’s. Right after the concert, even though it was still daylight, everyone took refuge in the tents and went to sleep. In the morning the bugs were just as bad, so the breakfast cello solo was canceled.

Aside from this episode, we began and ended each day on the Green River with music, a little “Carmen” here, Handel’s “Water Music” there, lots of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Telemann. (The musicians determined the program, although they took requests.) Sometimes the concerts dragged into the late hours, and the ladies wore flashlights resembling miner’s lamps on their heads to illuminate the sheet music.

Because our string quartet was versatile, the players would segue into tangos or polkas or waltzes. Hannah also offered what she called “five-minute cello lessons” free to anyone who wished to try the unwieldy instrument.

After the initial shyness wore off and the members of our little band began to relax, we had the hopefully named “talent night.”

“I want to be Bobby Short when I grow up and play the piano at the Carlyle Hotel,” Paul, a Harvard MBA, suddenly confessed. Doug allowed that he knew all the words to satirist Tom Lehrer’s songs. And then Van, a vice president at Princeton University, spontaneously assembled a quartet with his wife, Myra, and Doug and his wife, Carol, to sing an old Princeton song.

The wilderness and the music of our very own string quartet had somehow removed most inhibitions and so on our second night at Rock Creek Rapid, after a day spent exploring the countryside, our voices were raised in song. We sang show tunes. Two of the guides, Fletch and Rebecca, tangoed. Another guide, Janelle, played the cello. Another guide, Chris, played the violin. Bill Dvorak recited a very saucy version of Robert Service’s “Cremation of Sam McGee” that, alas, cannot be shared with a family audience. I sang an old music hall song, “They’re Moving Father’s Grave to Build a Sewer,” and a certain anti-English broadside acquired in my Irish American childhood. Paul read a passage from Robert Fulghum’s “It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It,” which under any other circumstances we might have hooted at, but it sounded just perfect for this occasion. And then Nicky (Paul’s wife) sang “Summertime”. It was a hell of a night.

And hand in hand on the edge of the sand, we danced by the light of the moon.

In the morning, Bill or Chris, a professional rafter and fly-fishing guide whom Bill had imported from New Zealand for the season (the idea being that one good Kiwi was worth about eight American college Students), would get up and build a fire and put the water on in a big old black coffeepot and then when it was boiling they’d just throw the coffee grounds into the water—“cowboy coffee,” Bill Called it.

And then there were the wonderful morning smells of bacon frying outdoors and potatoes simmering on the grill and Chris might have the Dutch oven piled with coals baking a kind of apple coffee cake. The light at that early hour was soft and clear, the sun just touching the tips of the canyon walls thousands of feet above us. It was still cool. Hannah and the $35 rented cello would commence a sweet sunrise solo that would drift up to join the other early-morning sounds of birds singing and the Green River rumbling past. Bach was the favored composer for our morning concert. Hannah’s face was so somber and serious that it was almost as if she were praying, her eyes slightly closed.

After breakfast, just before we launched for another day on the river, someone would shout “Beef Call”! This was the signal that all hands would assemble and hoist the music box onto Bill’s raft, where he would lash it down.

We were never in a hurry on the river. Some days we simply stayed put and explored the countryside. Bill knew the territory intimately and took us up long, narrow box canyons to see pictographs and petroglyphs—timeless, ancient etchings scratched or painted on the sandstone. One afternoon we climbed the side of a steep canyon to see a moonshiner’s cabin, long abandoned but still intact. And we say, too, the ghostly remains of ranches built here in the 19th century, when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid really lived in Desolation Canyon.

After the Green River, we knew that we would go back into the world and hear Bach and Beethoven played in other places, and maybe played better. But when we camped in Lion’s Creek in a natural sandstone amphitheater, we knew we would never hear music played in a finer place.

In the fading light that each minute changed the rich, dark, subtle colors of the canyon walls, the string quartet was cousin Antonin’s American quartet in this natural cathedral. By this point I think we all really believed that Bill was Antonin Dvorak’s fifth cousin.

It had rained and the smell of sage was sweet and fresh and the high desert air was clear and cool and the early evening light was golden and soft on the canyons. When the concert was over, after the applause, no one said anything, and we just walked in solemn silence back down to the banks of the Green and stood around the campsite with only the sound of the river rolling by.

Bill Dvorak is offering two classical music rafting trips this season: one on the Dolores River in southwest Colorado, June 7-13, at $1,660 per person (or two half-week trips at $940), and one on Utah’s Green river, July 25-Aug. 1 ($1,705). Prices include meals and some equipment. Details: Bill Dvorak’s Kayak & Rafting Expeditions, 17921 U.S. Highway 285, Nathrop, Colo. 81236, 1-800-824-3795, or