Water Rafting - 2005
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
glide along through a strange, weird, grand region.
The landscape everywhere, away from the river is rock.”
Wesley Powell - 1869
(Describing his first impressions of the
region as seen from the Green and Colorado Rivers)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
and I are looking forward to a return trip to Moab for another dance
with the river.
(Date of trip: May 28-29, 2005)
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
(You will be directed to a page outside of this domain.)
To get an idea of our whitewater experience, click here to
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
Moab - http://www.discovermoab.com
Griffith Expeditions - http://www.griffithexp.com
Park Service – Canyonlands / The Rivers - http://www.nps.gov/cany/river/index.htm
Utah Vacation Guide - http://www.whitewaterutah.com/
Basin River Forecast Center - http://www.cbrfc.noaa.gov/
Whitewater Rafting Trips - http://www.rafting.com/colorado-river-rafting.htm
River Rafting in Utah - http://www.raftinfo.com/coloradout.htm
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