White Water Rafting - 2005

So we had a long weekend and wanted to do something exciting.  How about whitewater rafting?  I recently decided that the Memorial Weekend would be the perfect time for us to take our first ever whitewater raft trip.

After doing some checking, I learned that the best whitewater rafting in the spring is in the Colorado River, namely Cataract Canyon, which lies inside Canyonlands National Park, Utah, noted as being one of the all-time best whitewater locations in the country.  Due to a longer than normal winter, the snow melt from the Rocky Mountain areas of Colorado and Utah are creating water levels in the Colorado River that haven’t been seen for quite some time.  Peak water flows in Cataract Canyon for the recent Memorial Weekend were estimated to be between 58,000–72,000cfs (cubic feet per second) by the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center, a division of the National Weather Service.  According to the National Park Service, the flow hasn’t been this high in Cataract Canyon since 1997 when it reached 70,800cfs on July 10th.

We have a lot of water in and around Louisiana, but, like most things in the south, it moves pretty slowly.  But who could resist the prospect of being on a raft in the biggest, wildest whitewater in the U.S.?  We booked a two-day rafting trip with a highly recommended outfitter, hopped a last minute flight from New Orleans to Salt Lake City, rented a car and drove 4 hours southeast out of Salt Lake City to Moab, Utah, arriving at Sheri Griffith Expeditions just in time for our orientation.  The staff briefed us on the risks and what to expect leaving us with every expectation that, no matter what type of boat we were on, we would very likely flip over in the big rapids of the river.  We were issued separate “dry bags” for our day and overnight things and given directions on how to meet the shuttle boat that would take us to meet up with the group early the next morning.

Sheri Griffith Expeditions had several other groups already on the river nearing the end of 5-day, 4-day, and 3-day trips.  The first part of a multi-day raft trip into Cataract Canyon is usually slow and mellow as you quietly slip past the brilliantly colored cliffs and towering rock formations with time allowed for several stops along the way for short hikes in side canyons to visit ancient Anasazi petroglyphs and granaries and view beautiful waterfalls.

Cruising on jet boatSince ours was only a 2-day trip, we were going to be shuttled on a jet-boat, operated by Tex’s Riverways, to catch up with the expedition.  After a short bus ride to the Potash Launch, we watched as the jet-boat quietly slid off of the trailer into the swift waters of the Colorado.  We were joined by other passengers who were being shuttled to meet other raft groups.  When everyone was aboard, the two 460ci engines that powered the jet drives throttled up and we were on our way, cruising downstream.  The jet-boat makes a short trip of what is known as “Meander Canyon,” the flat water section of the Colorado River heading downstream toward Cataract Canyon.  About 2 hours later, we met up with the rest of the Sheri Griffith Expeditions group at Spanish Bottom as they broke camp and loaded up for a big day in the rapids.

After introductions, we were given another orientation, this one by José Tejadas, the head guide, who has been running the river for more than 30 years and training other guides for over 20 of them.  With safety being the key issue, we were briefed in frank terms as to what our jobs would be (depending on which type of boat we were on), what to do if we were overboard in the water, and how a rescue would be accomplished.  José also explained that some people come on a trip like this to try to conquer the river.  Some feel a need to overcome a fear or accomplish a great feat when, in actuality, rafting whitewater is more like a “dance” with the river and the river leads the dance.
Meeting our guide
Once we had our boat assignments, we put on life jackets and boarded the boats.  The group consisted of two 22-foot J-rigs and three 18-foot oarboats.  We learned that oarboats and J-rigs are the traditional rafts on the Colorado River.  Those on an oarboat have more responsibility than those on a J-rig.  In an oarboat, passengers hang on while the guide, sitting in the center of the boat and typically facing downstream, maneuvers the raft with two long oars.  No special skill or knowledge is required of the passengers, who are essentially just along for the ride.  However, during a large wave or heavy rapids, they may be called upon to quickly shift their weight to the high side of the boat (high-siding) to keep it from flipping over.  They may also be required to bail water out of their boat.  Carrying four to five people, the small 18-foot rafts put you right in the heart of the whitewater action.

Traveling by J-rig provides a stable and comfortable rafting experience.  It is a larger raft, with inflatable pontoons, carries a few more amenities and is maneuvered by a quiet outboard motor.  The exclusive design keeps passengers a little dryer in the rapids.  Depending on the design of the J-rig, there is room for eight or more people per boat.  We would be on a J-rig guided by Arlo Tejadas who was working side-by-side as a river guide with his father.  Being on a J-rig would turn out to be a good decision for our first time in whitewater. 

Approaching Brown Betty RapidsDown river from the confluence with the Green River, the rapids begin in earnest, twenty-three big ones in all, lowering the river a total of 80 feet in four miles.  We first maneuvered a few small rapids, starting with “Brown Betty Rapids.”  The guides made a few scouting stops to work out their strategy for the upcoming Class III+ rapids.  During one of the scouting stops, we exited the boats to stretch our legs.  Dark clouds gathered overhead giving a sense of foreboding of what was lying ahead for us in the rapids.  A light rain began to fall.  Our guides decided we should sit tight and wait it out while we were safely moored.  The rain didn’t last long, but we had time for some snacks and refreshments before getting back in the boats.  We dove into “Mile Long Rapid” laughing and cheering as we prepared ourselves for the succession of Class III-IV rapids known as “Big Drop 1, 2 & 3".  Through the “Big Drop Rapids,” the river drops 35 feet closer to sea level in less than a mile.

The game plan was for the two J-rigs to go through the rapids first, eddy out to the side into calmer waters, then turn around and watch the oarboats to make sure they made it safely.  The guides told everyone that Big Drop 2 was the biggest of these rapids with drops up to 20 feet.  The rapids have nicknames like “Capsize,” “Red Wall,” “Little Niagara,” “Ledge Hole,” “Tailwaves,” “Ben Hurt,” and “Hell-to-Pay.”  We were also comforted by the news that, due to the high number of boats that were capsizing in the Big Drop rapids, the National Park Service (NPS) had its own jet-boat posted nearby to assist in any rescue efforts.

We sat back for a couple of minutes while the other J-rig, piloted by Rob Ho, went through Big Drop 1 and Big Drop 2 before we started our approach.  Arlo expertly maneuvered us into the rushing waters and timed each wave to perfection.  My husband, Mike, was sitting front and center and caught each big wave squarely in the chest.  The water was cold and the force of the hits was hard.  He had to remind himself to breathe whenever he could.  Meanwhile, I was sitting behind him, catching the wash of the water as it went over his shoulders and came in at me from all sides.  Arlo whooped and hollered along with the rest of us as we went through the rapids. It was a huge rush for us all!

As we maneuvered through Big Drop 2, one of our passengers, Kris, gave a painful yelp while holding his left foot and leg.  Going through the rapids, the pontoon he was resting his foot on in front of him folded back and folded his foot with it, resulting in a very painful overextended Achilles tendon.  We quickly got Arlo’s attention.  He eddied out of the rapids and checked Kris’ condition to determine severity.  After administering some quick first-aid, Kris was re-positioned to the middle of the boat to protect his foot and leg.  We still had to get through Big Drop 3 as well as keep our eyes on the oarboats.

One of our passengers, Monique, a photographer for "Outdoor Utah" magazine, shot photos of the oarboats as they maneuvered their way through the Big Drops 1 and 2.  The first oarboat, piloted by Chris, with Smitty aboard (a guide in training), flipped over sideways.  Taylor Lawrence, guiding the second oarboat carrying 4 passengers, flipped end-over-end tossing all occupants into the river.  The third oarboat, guided by José, a master on the river, made it through the rapids without incident.  José was later told by the NPS that his was the only oarboat to go through a particularly treacherous area of Big Drop 2 without flipping over, earning him the nickname “Jedi Master” from his fellow guides.

From the side of the canyon, we watched the river as it danced around with our friends before taking them swiftly down river and through the next rapid.  The NPS threw life lines out from their boat as they were being whisked by.  A few were rescued immediately while the others were picked up down river by the NPS jet-boat or our other J-rig that was waiting around the bend.  One member of our group, Brenda, was rescued by another outfitter who had two J-rig boats going through the rapids behind us. 

We went through Big Drop 3, nicknamed, “Satan’s Gut,” the smallest of the Big Drops, before finding a place to tie off to some rocks to re-group and get one of the oatboats turned upright.  Guides and boats from other outfitters on the river stayed with us throughout the rescue and assisted with turning of the oarboats, showing the level of camaraderie between the guides.

Although Smitty managed to stay with the overturned oarboat he had been traveling in, his guide, Chris, was injured while assisting the NPS in rescuing some of the other passengers.  Chris’ injury to his hand was serious enough for the NPS to get him down river to the Hite takeout and nearby airstrip to be air-lifted out of the canyon to the hospital in Moab.

By using a system of pulleys, the oarboat was successfully turned over with all cargo and equipment still securely tied down.  Everyone cheered!  The other guides were thanked for their assistance before continuing on their way.  We met up with the rest of our group and motored a short distance down river to find a place to camp for the night.

As soon as we hit shore, our camping gear was unloaded and the port-a-potty was set up in a discreet location with a nearby washing station.  The kitchen was set up and water was put on to boil so the cold rafters could have hot tea and hot chocolate to warm up with.  Chips and dip were set out while a gourmet dinner of salmon and couscous was being prepared.  Smitty set to work making a huge pan of special “campfire brownies” for dessert.  The rescue of passengers and boats took us a few hours past the lunch break and everyone was pretty hungry and ready to relax.

Beach Camp    Our Tent
Tents, sleeping bags and sleeping pads were handed out and we scouted a place to set up our tent. Mike and I had not put up a tent in many years (much less a bubble tent for two), so we watched others for guidance and copied what they did.  In spite of the light rain that fell on us, it wasn’t long before we were anchoring the corners, stowing our gear inside and making our way back to the main camping area to sit and socialize while waiting for dinner.  Once everyone was together, we were able to swap stories and exchange viewpoints on what happened. In retrospect, the action in the rapids was intense and exciting.  However, from our point of view, it was good to “see” the action and not “be” the action.

During dinner, we learned that the last night on the trip is called “100% night” and we soon found out just what that meant.  Besides drinking and eating to your heart’s content, we laughed, we told stories, and even read a few stories.  Everyone is encouraged to “dress up” on the last night.  This doesn’t necessarily mean what you think.  It could be something simple like a sarong, or perhaps a shirt or shorts with a flowery print.  You might see multi-colored socks or a funny hat.  Perhaps one of your fellow rafters will put on a pink cape to be a super hero for a night.  Sometimes it means your guide will be wearing a white satin dress, or a brocade tunic, or he’ll be decked out as a 1970’s “lounge lizard” in a leisure suit wearing a mullet wig.  Whatever it is, it is 100% fun!  This is also not something that all outfitters do, but this group was out for a good time and they deserved it!

After dinner, the group was treated to readings from a book of American Indian Myths and Legends.  Gabe, a good friend of Rob Ho, stood among us using a flashlight to read aloud the tales of the Coyote, the great trickster, while the rest of us roared with laughter.  It felt good to laugh.  We all needed to loosen up from the tense events of the afternoon.  But we never forgot about Chris.  Many a glass (or can) was held up to drink in his honor.

Camping along the Colorado River in such an isolated area as Canyonlands National Park was a treat we had not fully realized until the sun went down, the moon was up, and the stars came out in numbers a city dweller cannot fathom.  As the evening wore on, it seemed as though even more stars became visible.  We were serenaded to sleep by the chirping crickets and the dull roar of the river nearby only to waken to a cloudless blue sky that seemed to tell us a new day had dawned and yesterday’s troubles were behind us.

Consolidating and Repacking    Repairing the Oar Boat

The smells of fresh coffee and bagels warmed on an open grill permeated our camping area.  We were eager to get up, get dressed and get some breakfast before taking down our tents.  Everyone pitched in after breakfast to clean up, break camp and stow the gear.  The men worked on repairing one of the oarboats and taking apart the one that was unfixable.  After a bit of shuffling and re-packing, a few people were re-assigned to other boats and we got underway for the last day of the trip.  Although it was the 2nd day of our trip, you could see a little sadness in the faces of those who had been traveling for several days as they realized it was getting closer to the time they would be leaving the wilderness and getting back to the real world.

There was one small rapid, “Imperial Rapid,” to traverse before we settled down to motoring through the flat water making our way past the boundaries of the northernmost end of Glen Canyon Recreation Area and into the upper end of Lake Powell.  Below Imperial Rapid, the Colorado River flows from four to eight miles per hour all the way to Hite Marina and beyond.

Our guides stopped at the mouth of a side canyon so we could stretch our legs and hike for a while.  Almost everyone was up for a little exploration.  We came across a dried creek bed which would flow deep and freely into the river if a rainstorm should spring up.  There were huge boulders that had tumbled down from higher places and a small stream than ran among them before pooling below small waterfalls.  I kicked off my shoes and took off my outer shirt, hat and sunglasses before wading waist deep into a clear pool and standing under a waterfall to wet my hair and clothes.  It was so refreshing!  I took pictures along the way in an attempt to savor the beauty of the desolate environment.  After about an hour, we headed back to the boats and continued on our way.

Enjoying the hike    Hiking in the side canyon    Enjoying the hike

To give the oarsmen in the smaller boats a chance to rest, their rafts were tied to the J-rigs and we floated lazily through some Class II riffles, braided channels and sand waves.  Since all of the camping and beach areas were now under water, it was difficult to find a place to put to shore for lunch.  Instead, our guides mixed cans of beans, corn and salsa with fresh avocado and filled pita breads and tortillas for a cold lunch as we floated along.

“We glide along through a strange, weird, grand region.
The landscape everywhere, away from the river is rock.”

John Wesley Powell - 1869
(Describing his first impressions of the Canyonlands
region as seen from the Green and Colorado Rivers)

I laid back on the boat to enjoy the sunshine and watched 300 million years of rock history go by.  The rock walls towering above us showed signs of the many changes the canyons along the Colorado River have endured.  Changing levels of the river left layers of sediment turned to solid rock.  Wind and water cut the vertical and horizontal lines in the sandstone rock.  Heat and cold made the sandstone spires expand and contract causing sections to break away leaving unusual shapes to remain.  We watched erosion in action as big sections of the sandy silt walls that rose up out of the river on either side of us gave way and fell into the river.  The top of those dried mud flats was once the lake bed.

Slow float down the Colorado River    Nearing the end of our trip

According to our guides, the peak water flows won’t last very long.  By July it should be back down within normal ranges and many of the smaller rapids in Cataract Canyon will reappear.  The result down river is that the height of Lake Powell will rise about 50 feet with half of that being lost to evaporation.  However, despite this spring's runoff, Lake Powell Reservoir is still far below its normal level.

Before making the last big bend in the river, our guides silently signaled to one another before finding a place where they could tie off to some big rocks near the walls of the canyon.  Once we were tied off, bottles of champagne appeared and our guides stood to speak of an awesome trip, and toasted to the dance with the river, and to their fellow guide, Chris, who was injured in the dance.  The bottles were passed around for each and every person to speak from their heart and drink a toast.

Our trip ended at the new takeout across the river from Hite Marina, near the upper end of Lake Powell in Glen Canyon Recreation Area. Hite Marina is no longer accessible since the receding lake waters forced the removal of the floating store, docks and boat rentals.  The new takeout, formerly an old access road to the river, is worked daily with a dozer pushing dirt and rocks down into the river as fast as it is being washed away.

Once we climbed out of the river and helped unload our personal gear from the boats, we trekked up the hill to meet up with the bus that would take us to an airstrip on the top of a nearby plateau.  The adventure continued with a short scenic plane ride to Canyonlands Field in Moab in a Cessna single prop plane, operated by Slickrock Air.  We got a bird’s eye view of spectacular Canyonlands National Park and the rapids of the Colorado River we had just experienced.

We were met at the airport by representatives of Sheri Griffith Expeditions who tended to our needs and loaded us and our gear into vans for the ride back to the outfitter offices.  Our personal vehicles had been shuttled back there and parked in a secure area.  Chris even managed to meet us at the office so that we would know he was well and would recover from the accident in which he lost the tip of his thumb.

Mike and I are looking forward to a return trip to Moab for another dance with the river. 

Patty Poupart
(Date of trip: May 28-29, 2005)

Patty Poupart is a free lance writer from New Orleans. She and her husband, Mike, enjoy outdoor activities including hiking and photographing the beautiful scenery of the southwestern United States, keeping a special place in their hearts for the Grand Canyon, where they were married.

This story was published in the The Villages Daily Sun newspaper
on August 28, 2005 in the Travel Section.  View Page 1.  View Page 2.

Visit our site "Poupart Photos" at Printroom.com to
view and/or purchase fine art photos taken in Cataract Canyon.
(You will be directed to a page outside of this domain.)

To get an idea of our whitewater experience, click here to view
video footage of our trip taken by the National Park Service
on May 28, 2005 (see clips three and five) of
"Big Drops" and "Satan's Gut" in Cataract Canyon.
(You will be directed to NPS pages outside of this domain.)

Additional Information and Resources

Discover Moab - http://www.discovermoab.com
Sheri Griffith Expeditions - http://www.griffithexp.com
National Park Service – Canyonlands / The Rivers - http://www.nps.gov/cany/river/index.htm
Whitewater Utah Vacation Guide - http://www.whitewaterutah.com/
Colorado Basin River Forecast Center - http://www.cbrfc.noaa.gov/
Utah Whitewater Rafting Trips - http://www.rafting.com/colorado-river-rafting.htm
Colorado River Rafting in Utah - http://www.raftinfo.com/coloradout.htm

to Aggressive Home
Back to Travels, Hobbies & Interests