Deep in the heart of Canyonlands National Park is Cataract Canyon. John Wesley Powell, in his 1869 expedition, portaged around every rapid in Cataract Canyon due to the danger that the rapids posed. During the first week of September, I joined 16 other rafters and five rafting company employees for six days to follow part of Powell’s historic run. This trip was unique, and a man named “Lars” not only took us through the canyon but also told us about the stars and the night sky.
Orientation, the dry bag, and the Groover
We all met in Moab, many of whom are from across the country and from all kinds of backgrounds and experience, ranging in age from 18 to 90. At the orientation meeting, we introduced ourselves and received the bags that would carry our personal belongings down the river and an insulated drink container for “morning” coffee or another favorite beverage. Lars introduced the nonagenarian among us as a river runner in his own right named Bill, who told us tales about Canyon Country and the “old days” of rafting.
We all learned how to pack and seal a dry bag which are designed to be waterproof. We were also told how use a river toilet, called “the Groover,” which is used for “No. 2” and how it was OK to go “No. 1” in the river. No waste of any kind is allowed in the canyon. Our expedition was comprised of three oar rafts, one motor raft, a paddle boat, a double inflatable kayak, and a single kayak.
Excited about the river trip, I carefully packed most of my gear in two large dry bags, keeping everyday items in the small day, dry bag.
Expedition day 1
As the dawn lit up the cliffs just west of Moab, we all met at the warehouse where our bags were loaded onto trailers. Soon, we headed out to the launch ramp in vans. On the way there, we stopped to check out some petroglyphs that were right next to the highway. The desert varnish long ago was pecked from the red sandstone hundreds of years ago by Native Americans to reveal an array of images of people, animals, and geometric figures.
At the Potash Launch Ramp, the rafts were ready for us. Tall sunflowers waved in the sun as jimsonweed blooms unfurled their pure white blooms on the ground. The crew had already loaded the kitchen, lawn chairs and extra gear. All that was left were the passengers’ gear. Soon, we start floating down the river.
The first few miles had no rapids or whitewater. We all tried out the kayaks. Those seeking more of a workout walked or ran in the shallow water and on the sand bars. Light blue dragonflies soon found our rafts and seemed to follow us down the river and hitch a ride on the pontoons. For a change of pace, we went on a short hike to see some fossil shellfish and petrified wood just above the river. The temperatures for the week were in the mid to upper 90s, cooling off later in the week, which was warmer than normal for early September.
High spring flows
The guides talked about the high spring flows down the Colorado River earlier this year which made trips not only more exciting but more challenging. Our rafting crew had run the canyon with a peak flow of around 60,000 cubic feet per second and told us that campsites were limited and more difficult to access. Rescue boats were stationed to help those who ended up “voluntarily swimming” in the rough water.
This early September, the river was flowing 10 percent of the peak, some 6,000 cfs. The crew called it “low water.” At peak flows, the canyon reportedly rivals the Grand Canyon and tests the mettle of the rafting crews. That seemed like too much excitement to me and I was glad to be on the river during fall’s low water.
It seemed the day passed quickly as we pulled onshore to set up camp on a wide sandy beach. On the other side of the river was a thick horizontal white line of gypsum, dividing the red wall in half – a sort of line pointing to the rest of the river. Forming a human chain, or a fire line, we passed all of the gear from the rafts to the shore where we set up our camp. The crew set up the living and cooking spaces. The passengers assembled tents. The dragonflies must have gone into hiding as the mosquitoes got out of theirs. Our guides told us that low water often leaves small pockets of water around the canyons where – for a short time – mosquitoes multiply. They were everywhere in camp and concentrated in the tamarisk thickets above the beach. The Groover, being hidden in the tamarisk, rarely had a waiting line.
With the loud call of “COFFEE” echoing off the canyon walls, our second day started. We spent all day on flat, easy water, taking occasional dips in the water which was cool enough to be refreshing and not numbingly cold as the Grand Canyon. Our dragonfly escorts came back to sit with us. Several times long-necked Blue Herons effortlessly glided below the canyon walls or stood in the shallows seeming to care little about our passage, more interested in a tasty fish. That night, Randall, an oarsman, pulled out a guitar and serenaded us with some chords and melodies, amplified by the canyon walls.
Floating lazily downstream, we had another day of flat water. Just before lunch time, those who wanted to hike the neck of the “Loop,” where the Colorado folds on itself as if it could almost touch, could get off the raft and hike up the trail some 700 feet up to a low point between cliffs. A view of the Colorado on both sides was the reward for the effort. While we were hiking, the crew set up lunch downstream on the other side of the saddle. We were hungry and ready for lunch and a soak in the river by the time we got to the other side. We had a typical river lunch of a salad or some other kind of cold filling in half tortillas folded into a cone. We ate standing in the water since food dropped on shore attracts rodents and insects. More calm waters came after lunch and then we went through our first rapid known as “Brown Betty.”
The hike to Doll House
Lars strategically chose our camp just downstream of Brown Betty, so we could hike to the “Doll House” at the edge of the Maze of Canyonlands early in the morning. We wondered about the 1,200-foot climb since it was so hot. Lars told us we should pray for some cloud cover the following day. Most of the six-mile hike would be relatively flat and easy. The cliff would be the biggest challenge. After dinner, Lars used a laser pointer to show us the night sky and told us about the Milky Way, the stars, constellations, and the planets. The view was spectacular especially since the canyon was relatively wide at our camp.
We woke up to a cloud-filled sky and a cool, damp, still air. The smell of the damp desert welcomed us as we emerged from our tents. After breakfast, donning day packs, we hiked from camp to Spanish Bottom, where Native Americans once lived and farmed, and then we climbed the red cliffs to the Doll House. The trail had many stairs, making it easier to get to the top.
The sun reappeared when we were at the top of the cliff and then we followed several trails to make a two-mile loop in, around and through the amazing array of rock formations, ancient granaries, slot canyons and expansive views of the canyons. As we got to the top, the sun came out. Shade was a precious resource and we took advantage of it when we could and stayed hydrated with water often. Afterwards, we carefully hiked back down to the river, wishing the last mile of flat trail would be shorter so we could soak in the river sooner.
Eating lunch in the river
After eating our lunch standing and sitting in the river, we continued downstream through 10 relatively tame rapids before setting up camp for the night. After dinner, Dave, another oarsman, who once played guitar professionally, serenaded us on his guitar with songs he wrote. After the concert, Lars treated us to another astronomy lesson, despite the capriciousness of the clouds, building on the previous night.
The next day, we put our helmets on and cinched up our life vests as we prepared to run the remaining rapids in the heart of Cataract Canyon, including the three famous “big drops.” Our dragonfly escorts continued to keep us company and seemed oblivious to the whitewater that kept us cool, easy flitting away until the water was calm again. We stopped for lunch and hiked a short loop trail through an arch to pictographs, painted on the rock cliffs.
Becoming a river family
We set up camp at Mile 194 West where we become a group, a sort of river family. As the night darkened, we marveled at the spectacle of a mayfly hatching, right next to our “living room” circle of lawn chairs. Many of us went down to the river and watched carefully as the ground and air filled with small white winged insects, hatching out of the ground. A headlamp showed the cloud of insects coming out of the ground and water. As the mayflies flew off in the darkness, many becoming food for fish, I was mesmerized by one of nature’s performances that I’d never seen.
The next morning the ground was littered with empty egg shells and insects that had expended all of their energy. That night, we let the crew eat first as we prepared for a talent show. Many of us shared stories, jokes and music during our last night in the canyon under the stars.
The next morning, with rafts secured together around the motor raft, we floated on a sort of “party barge” as the canyon continued to become deeper and more impressive. The still water made for some stunning reflections. As the river disappeared under Lake Powell, we stopped to cool of in the water and we had lunch before arriving at the boat ramp.
Farewell to the dragonfly escorts
At Hite, in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, we bade farewell to each other, our dragonfly escorts, the fantastic crew and we were shuttled to the short-paved airstrip, sandwiched between the Colorado and Dirty Devil river canyons. Flying to Moab in three planes over Canyonlands National Park and the Colorado River, our group had one last opportunity to retrace our river expedition, recognizing the Maze, the Loop and the myriad canyons laid out below us. The river seemed to look like more of a creek from the air. As I watched the canyons and fractured landscape pass below, I kept thinking, “So many canyons. So little time.” I’ll just have to do another river next year and get another dose of river life and hike more canyons!