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Thursday, June 17,2010

Cruising the Cataract

By 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

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