Cataract Canyon- Blissful Days on the Colorado

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Cataract Canyon was one of the last places the white man explored in America. No small wonder, as it truly is in the middle of nowhere. Nowadays, you can four- wheel into the Doll House, about twelve hundred feet above the river and just upstream from the beginning of the river canyon. This usually takes hours, but still does not get you access to the actual canyon. To experience Cat you have to be on the water, and to get there is a three day float- under most circumstances. A motorized rig can do it in hours but this belies the escape from the mechanizations most of us head to the river for in the first place. The only reason to bring a motor into it is to save time, and while that may be a factor for tourists in a hurry, it does not weigh in for those who truly want to experience the river and feel it the way it really is.

Nothing beats winding up the ski season with a river trip, and last spring we got to do just that, pulling a Cat permit for early May. After a week of tuning up the boats and getting everything else together we headed down to Green River, stopping for the customary river runner’s burgers at Ray’s Tavern before finishing the drive to the Mineral Bottom put in.

Eight of us heading to Cataract for prime spring runoff after a fat winter, nothing record breaking- but still very high water. We’d float for three days and hit Cat on day four. To make The Big Drops safer we’re running a triple rig, three big boats lashed together at numerous points in numerous ways making one giant boat, to try to decrease the possibility of flipping. The three-in-one giant makes for easy socializing between rafts, just step right up. You can move around freely and we had plenty of room to begin with, only eight of us on three eighteen footers.

Putting on at dusk, we float until midnight, definitely a new experience. Sushi on the river for meal one! Eat the perishables first. Planning is the key, and this aspect of river trips often takes on military characteristics. But once all said and done, being on the river ain’t nothing like being in the army. Fortunately for us, Paul our trip leader, spent several years guiding, a lot of it on this stretch of water, and our equipment and menu is all in place.
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To me, being on the river reminds me of going on tour following a band. You’re traveling by day to the next venue and every night is the show. Except that when we pull off the river at midnight the first night, the only show I’m gonna see is the one going on the inside of my eyelids. Ferrying pads and bags up the short embankment takes a few minutes but it’s not long before we’re all flat on our backs staring at a sky brilliant with stars. At dawn I pop my head up and see that we have bivvied right next to another group of boaters- we had no idea they were even there when we pulled off in the total darkness.

Back on the river in the morning the stove and griddle are broken out and we have bagels and lox as we float–the triple rig makes for an awesome restaurant. It’s a great privilege and comfort of this life to wile away the hours with friends floating down the quiet Colorado with nothing to do and nowhere to be. Along the way we pull off and break out the clubs for a little whiffle ball river golf- hole number one. A bail bucket serves as the hole, you don’t have to putt it in, you just have to make contact. John Wesley Powell should have been as lucky as us.

The second night we make camp on a series of ledges, a little upriver from a camp known as Jasper. There’s a small beach but it seems like the water might rise on it so we set our bags and pads on the rocks. Dinner is served and dishes are cleaned. Something about this camp is so classic, the multiple little ledges serving as the different floors of our river hotel, our little nook on the Colorado. The sound of the river flow is the lullaby of the eons, serenading our souls while we sleep.

On day three there’s plenty of time to kill on the flatwater, so we stop a couple of times to play some more river golf. Then about a mile above the confluence we pull off and hike a trail which winds up and up and leads to the rim above the Colorado, just below the merging of the Colorado and the Green. It’s a steady climb but not too long, a bit more than 1000 vertical- about an hour hike. We top out on giant slickrock boulders that step to the edge of the Canyonlands, the little spaces between them make you realize they are basically just perched, hanging there right on the edge. Fantastic views all the way around—the Doll House to the south River right, Needles to the south River left, buttes and mesas that hide most of the Maze to our southwest, the Anticline overlook area across the river. After the hike it’s only a few miles float to camp, and we pull off into an opening in the tamarisk at the top of Spanish Bottom. We set up the kitchen in the shady alcove, all tucked in and protected from the sun, boats tied to tammies floating on the river’s edge. Just yards up from camp it opens up and golf clubs come out and the river golf tourney continues. The rivalry takes on a name-the Cataract Canyon Open. A trail here links all camps along the shore in the Spanish Bottom area and leads up to the Dollhouse.
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The River Gods have willed us a layover here so tomorrow we have the option of hiking up to the Doll House. Everyone but Paul and I take the hike; we opt for some shade and R & R. I fall deep into my book and barely hear the rangers pull up. They chat us up a bit and advise that the river will be coming up a couple of feet to about 50K CFS, big water. Paul inquires about the new feature we’d heard about which appeared over the winter in Big Drop II, what is being called “The Claw”?

That night it’s Thanksgiving Dinner, giving thanks for being on the river, giving thanks that tomorrow we run Cataract Canyon. A feast ensues, featuring barbequed turkey breast, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, the full fixins’. Chairs line the shore, a small fire is in the pan, its story tellin’ time and time to tip a few back.

The next day in Cat goes by fast. We get into a stream of rapids not long after putting on the river, they call them 1 to 10, then there’s a flat section by White Canyon before we hit “Mile Long”, you guessed it, a mile of steady rapids.
Then it’s the Big Drops, the biggest rapids in Cat, some of the biggest in the lower forty-eight. We stop to scout Big Drop I and then Big Drop II. There we see “The Claw”, a wicked sleeper hole that you can barely see, just wisps of water hovering over it where the river drops out, and the giant backwave on the downstream side- the water looks like a claw waiting to rip your boat apart. Always a threat, the run on Big Drop II now requires more finesse and care than ever.
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You still ride the left eddy line in and have to thread between the Marker Hole and the Ledge Hole to come in underneath Niagara (Hole) but now instead of a roller coaster cruise in the wave train on the way out, you must contend with “The Claw”. The move under the Marker Hole has to be quicker and tighter so you don’t ride the wave train into “The Claw”. The two guys on this trip who used to guide Cat could not stop talking about it.

We enter the rapid in good position and cheat a little right to make sure we avoid getting sucked in. It’s a good clean run, an exciting ride with a lot of water in our faces. Going by the hole of “The Claw” Paul is yelling, “See it? There it is…see it? Man that hole was deep.” We ride out Big Drop III into the wave train and on into quieter water. There is a lot of hootin’ and hollerin’ as the crescendo of our trip passes, and we look for a beach to spend the final night. We find a nice sandy bar on river left and pull off, get dinner going and break out the clubs for the final round.
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While we’re sitting around we’re still feeling the excitement of Cataract Canyon. A couple of hours go by and we notice that two groups that were right behind us never come through and it starts giving us the creeps. They were walking up to scout Big Drop II as we were heading back to our triple rig to run it. They didn’t come through in the few hours of daylight that remained while we wrapped up the Cataract Canyon Open. Sadly, the next morning we heard, and then saw an NPS helicopter fly in up river a bit, and we knew it meant trouble. The next day we found out someone lost their life in the rapids, probably from one of those groups right behind us. It was another reminder that taking on the river is exciting and fun but it’s serious and dangerous, you try to go with the flow and do things right, but in the end there’s so much that can go wrong so fast. All you can do is respect the river and try to stay on your toes.

And the winner of the 2009 Cataract Canyon Open?? Our buddy Mike, winner of the 2003 Masters, edging out the field of ski bums by a considerable margin.

Why do we love the River so much?

Not everyone is lucky enough to have the experience of going on a river trip, but for those who have the answers, it’s so obvious. We love it because it’s relaxing. It’s adventure. It’s fun. It’s good times and good people. It’s another world, one that’s magic and puts you in the moment as completely as any other world out there can. You might not be getting much work done on the river, but it’s time well spent. River therapy is therapeutic for the soul.

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