Cruising the Cataract

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Tom Winter

Colorado River’s Cataract Canyon features beauty and solitude, along with a dose of adrenaline

In Green River, Utah, the Colorado River runs through a vacant landscape of piñon, rock spires and empty salt flats, the water a cool thought as the sun bakes down on dusty earth, grit blowing in the wind. The shade of a cottonwood provides small relief.

I’m camping out under the cottonwood, in my car, in the parking lot on the edge of the Holiday Expedition headquarters. As the sun sets and the heat of the desert gives way to the evening, I crack a beer and start to trade stories, lies and jokes with a motley crew of individuals who have made FREE the $25 Team Hat river and the desert their lives.

They’re drawn to Green River by the power of big rapids and the haunting beauty of the land, scratching out a meager living by guiding the more adventurous down the river. They are the River Rats.

I had had some experience with the Rats who were going to take us into the frothy hell of the Colorado’s Cataract Canyon. I had been one myself in a way, having spent a summer living on the upper Colorado at a dusty outpost called Rancho del Rio.

The “ranch” wasn’t
much, just a low point on the bank that served as a takeout point, a
couple of cabins, some tents pitched in the sage, decrepit school buses
that served as shuttle vehicles and a shed that operated as the Soggy
Dollar Bar.

The
bar’s hours were fickle, opening up when a bunch of Rats rowed their
rafts up to the takeout and disgorged a cargo of Texans who were all too
willing to cough up three bucks for a Bud after a day of being scorched
under a hot Colorado sun.

The upper Colorado has its wild bits. Places like Gore Canyon,
where only fools venture in high water and where more than one has lost a
life. But as rowdy as the rapids of the Gore are, they are small fry
compared to the big stuff in Utah.

The Colorado River in Utah is deeper, faster, more
beautiful and more dangerous. So one hot summer, years after I had sold
the VW bus that served as my home at Rancho del Rio, I packed up and
headed out to sample the real stuff and meet the hardcores who were
drawn to the burning desert, beyond the last vestiges of civilization.

The Rats are different
than the people they guide.

Tougher and more leathery. Burned by the sun and
hardened by days behind the oars. They regard us with a kind of disdain.
In the real world, their clients might be doctors or lawyers, big shots
who run the show and aren’t afraid of anything. But out here in the
high desert, with nothing but sage and rocks and coyotes and the slow,
sluggish brown strip of a river pulsing through the vacant land, the
Rats are the bosses. The Rats load the gear, tell us where to sit in the
shuttle vans, so we sit down, shut up and head for the put-out.

We unload at an empty
stretch of the Colorado outside of Moab. The water here is silty and
thick, flowing through the canyon at a leisurely pace. It’s deceiving.

In the middle of the
channel the water moves with a powerful purpose, sweeping everything in
front of it with a force as strong as Mother Nature. We push off in our
rafts and are quickly sucked down the canyon, the red walls flecked with
sunlight, insects dancing across the water and the Rats pulling on the
oars.

When rafting
was in its infancy, with many rivers yet to be run, the Rats who build
their lives around the water gained legendary status. They were people
like Ken Warren, a prickly outfitter and hunting guide from Portland,
Ore., who led expeditions to the Ganges, making the first descents of
the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda — the western and eastern forks of the
Ganges — and who also attempted the first descent of the Yangtze, only
to finish up 800 miles short of the East China sea.

Or there’s Richard Bangs, a
fanatical river runner who claimed radical first descents in Africa,
including the Awash and Baro rivers in Ethiopia.

The Colorado River was
first run by the granddaddy of them all, a one-armed tough-as-nails
character named John Wesley Powell, who set off from Green River on Aug.
13, 1896, thus accomplishing what could be considered the defining
river trip of all time: the first descent of the Colorado, through both
Cataract and the Grand Canyon.

Today the Colorado is more accessible. The modern
technology of self-bailing rafts, and the fact that most stretches have
been run thousands of times, make it so. Still, it’s no surprise that
most of the Rats on this trip are refugees from more civilized climes.
The desert and the rivers suit them, and they all are embroiled in a
love affair with the canyons and rusty water. It’s not a bad existence,
turning your life to the river’s clock.

From the put-in, it takes three days to reach
Cataract Canyon. On this stretch the water is smooth and calm, each
twist of the labyrinth brings into view another impossible vista: hidden
side canyons, towering rock castles, endless stone walls, a maze of
rocks and cliffs and canyons, all leading deeper and deeper in the
wilderness. Underneath the calm of the stately landscape is our
knowledge that eventually we will have to face the seriousness of the
big water ahead.

Cataract
Canyon features 23 rapids, including monsters like Mile Long, The North
Sea and The Big Drops, which suck you 80 feet closer to the ocean in
less than four miles and which rank as one of the Colorado’s steepest
descents. Powell’s words echo in my brain: “The rushing waters break
into great waves on the rocks and lash themselves into a mad, white foam
. . . we blast down another hundred yards through ferocious breakers —
how, we scarcely know.”

Still, after three days of floating mindlessly with the current,
we’re ready for the big stuff. We pass the confluence of the Green and
Colorado rivers, and camp below the Doll House, a trippy collection of
rock spires that looms above our finest campsite yet, a huge sandy beach
where we play volleyball as the roar from the rapids ahead echoes up
from deep in the canyon.

The next morning dawns early, and as we stumble from our tents
the excitement and stress in the air is palpable. Cataract Canyon is big
water. Big enough to flip a raft. Bigger than even the egos of our
guides and scary enough to pump even an experienced Rat full of
adrenaline and fear, jacking him up like a thousand cups of coffee on a
hot summer morning.

The
current takes us before we know it. We feel the boat leave the shore,
and suddenly we’re in the middle of huge dark waves with a power beyond
understanding. We make it through the first section as well as the
second. But on the third, disaster strikes. One of the rookie boatmen
hits a huge wave at an awkward angle. He’s a young kid, powerful from a
rural life on a Utah farm, but his strength is no match for the wave. We
watch in horror as his boat is sucked backward into the frothing mouth
of a hole, upside down with the passengers tumbling out, toothpicks in
the maelstrom. When we finally catch up to them in calmer water, their
exhausted bodies lie limp on the rocky shore.

The rest of the canyon
passes without incident. We run it clean and beach the boats upstream
from Lake Powell, an insult to the river runner whose name it bears.
Powell liked his rivers wild and free, untamed by dams. We’ve lived
through the journey, and as we organize our gear and prepare for the
last stretch of the trip, a tow by motorboat across the lake to the
take-out, we’re already dreaming about the next stretch of rapids, the
next trip and the next canyon.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

Details,
details

While multi-day trips on
the Colorado River through canyons like Cataract are great, you can also
find whitewater closer to home. Here are some options:

Holiday Expeditions
offers a wide range of trips throughout Utah and Colorado.
Bikeraft.com

Clear Creek Rafting
Company
can get you wet and happy closer to home, with trips within
an hour’s drive of Boulder on Colorado whitewater. Clearcreekrafting.com

Timberline Tours can

take you to the Upper Colorado River, the Eagle and Arkansas rivers.
Timberlinetours.com