Outdoors: White water rafting on the Colorado River

Courtesy Photo/Mary Gayle SartwellEntering Repeat Rapid on the Colorado River.

Moab, Utah--The front of the J-raft plunged down into a hole that marked the front of the huge wave in the center of Repeat Rapid and just disappeared from view. The four youngsters in front of us sucked rubber and vanished under a wall of brown water and white foam. People around us were screaming, hollering and laughing as the spring-flooding Colorado River tried to strip us from the raft. 

The steep walls of Cataract Canyon were forcing this swollen river through a narrow channel and the huge boulders that defined the bottom were standing their ground. The resulting clash of energy created powerful hydraulics that formed a series of class IV/V rapids that were bound to get your heart started. 

The air-filled pontoons struggled up to the surface through the torrent, giving the front line a chance to catch their breath, but it was like riding a submersible roller coaster. As soon as we were lifted up and over a huge wave, we were diving down into another. Our guide Stephanie was doing her best at the back of the raft to keep us square to the waves, but sometimes we slammed into these powerhouses a little off kilter and the result was a whipping motion that had us white-knuckling the safety lines. 

The flat water came to soon or not soon enough depending on your view of things, but all of us had a chance to relax a few minutes before the next incredible drop. We pulled into a long back eddy and watched as the second raft pounded on through. Then we found out why they call this section Repeat. Stephanie aimed the raft upstream, hugged the shoreline to keep us out of the main current, hollered for us to hold on, and then simply drove our craft out into the maelstrom again. 

Mary Gayle and I were guests of Western River Expeditions (www.westernriver.com) in Moab, Utah. They offer a wide array of adventures to meet every pocketbook and physical ability. We chose a guided hike of the Fiery Furnace in the Arches National Park and had taken an evening Hummer tour into the backcountry, watching the setting sun cast a red shadow over an incredible array of geological formations.  Now we were ready to take the four-day rafting adventure down the Colorado River through the famous Cataract Canyon.

My dictionary defines cataract as “a descent of water over a steep surface.” This is an apt (but totally understated) description of our trip. It would be like saying that an Olympic downhill ski run was simply “a glide on snow down a steep hill.” Another definition of cataract is is “an abnormality of the eye.” As in, “you will never see anything like this again!”

We met our guides and raft mates at a required meeting at the Moab Adventure Center the night before our trip. We went over all of the safety information, last minute guidance  on what to bring, and signed our life away on a series of forms. Early the next morning, we loaded onto a bus and drove to our debarkation point down the river a bit. There we were greeted by an enthusiastic crew of young men and women who were there to insure both our safety and comfort. We loaded our gear onto the rafts, pushed off into the current and headed into the middle of the Canyonlands National Park. 

Our first day was easy-peasy...just swiftly floating along on fairly flat water as we entered the canyon. The heat of the morning sun soon turned into scorching desert temperatures of around 100 degrees! Many of our raft mates donned life jackets and jumped into the cold water for a refreshing dip. The river was running at spring flood conditions of about 37,000 CFI which was quite a bit above average for this time of year. 

At one point where the river made a u-turn, we went ashore and many of our party hiked up over the saddle and were picked up on the other side. Frequent stops were made to see the ancient native artifacts of those that lived along the river hundreds of years ago.

In the afternoons we found beaches along the shoreline where we set up camp for the night. The tents, cots and sleeping bags provided were top quality equipment. Because of the heat, however, most of us slept outside under the stars with just a sheet for a cover. The trick was to find relief from the intense sun. Every ledge overhang or patch of scrub brush was utilized. The night skies, free of incidental light, provided a canopy of stars.

On the third day of our trip the river really started to show off. The boulders in the river in this section are there as a result of debris falling off the steep sides of the almost vertical sandstone walls. The spring runoff is strong enough to move these house-sized impediments until they find a resting spot on the mantle of large boulders that cover the bottom. Although this section of the river is noted for it’s rapids, two impressive boulders have to be carefully negotiated.

Niagara Rock in Big Drop Two is huge, but nothing compares to Capsize Rock in rapid #15. This baby in high water can really “make your day!” It is so bad, in fact, that the Park Service requires the guides to land upstream of the hole, walk down the shoreline and study the rapid before they are allowed to take their clients through it. Stephanie and Ben talked in hushed tones about the line they would have to take through this technical section.

We loaded back onto the rafts, tightened down everything including ourselves and pushed out into the swift water. The roar of the river slamming into the hole ahead filled the canyon, drowning out  even our senses. In a matter of seconds our guides had to get our rafts into the right lane before the power of the current overcame their ability to maneuver them. 

Down we went, straight into the boiling whitewater that spouted up from the floor of the river. It was hard to hear your neighbor’s screams as the bow of the raft just disappeared under the water. The top of the wave just washed over the length”of the raft, and we all hung on for dear life, trying not to get swept off into the surging torrent. Slowly the pontoons struggled to the surface as we went whipping through the pool, a quick check revealing everyone was still aboard. Shouts of laughter and nervous chatter followed as we adjusted our gear and headed into the next rapid.

“Here in one of the world’s most spectacular natural playgrounds, September can fool visitors into thinking we have endless summer,” explained Jamie Pearce, longtime resident and manager of the one-stop shop for outdoor activity, the Moab Adventure Center (http://www.moabadventurecenter.com/). “The climate is still great with daytime temperatures averaging in mid-80’s.”