My stomach tightens as I oar my 14-foot raft toward the hardest whitewater of the canyon: Skull Rapid. It’s spring and the water is extremely swift, swirly and ill tempered. Ahead of me, I see an enormous 7-foot wave crashing at the entrance, with far nastier whitewater below. Instinctively, I know I am heading into the rapid too slow, so I row my craft forward as hard as I can, fighting to pick up speed.
It was the third weekend of May and several friends and I headed to southeastern Utah to raft one of the state’s famous river gems: Westwater Canyon. The 17-mile float on the Colorado River winds through a high-walled canyon and features amazing geology and rapids like Funnel Falls, Sock-It-To-Me and Skull. “Westwater is the best Colorado river trip there is,” says John Wood, river guide and co-owner of Holiday Expeditions in Moab. “You can get a Grand Canyon type experience in only a 2 or 3-day trip.”
Usually more fun than death defying, Westwater offers plenty of scenic flatwater, along with 13-named rapids mostly in the class 3 range—intermediate difficulty—with one class 4 rapid, Skull.
At high water, Westwater becomes more serious, which is why I was concerned going into the crux rapid. The river flowed at nearly 18,000 cfs, a water level known as the Terrible Teens, or Mean Teens. The waves and features become huge and more technical.
This would be my third run down Westwater and the canyon has always delivered an epic experience. But on this particular trip I would learn a greater appreciation for the old river guide adage: sooner or later, the river wins.
On a Friday evening, several friends and I left Salt Lake City, exited I-70 at dusk, driving through Cisco, which used to be a thriving railroad town. Now it’s a ghost town, with several crumbling buildings and graffiti-laden abandoned vehicles, the place feels like something out of a horror movie.
Which is why I started thinking about zombies. As we drove through the dilapidated town, I imagined several scraggily, glazed-eyed townspeople emerging from their dwellings, moaning with their arms jutted forward, racing toward my Subaru wagon. I hit the gas, but anyone who owns an old Subaru understands the feeble logic of a fast getaway. Soon the Cisco-ites overtake my car.
My friends and I have a difficult time shaking off the image as we continued to drive down Fish Ford Road near the take out for Westwater. We decide to camp there that night, wondering if the Cisco freaky freakies would be paying us a visit.
We awoke early the next morning and drive 45 minutes to the Westwater launch site and ranger station-it’s time to go rafting.
On the loading ramp, we survey a curious spectacle: 3 oar rafts, all loaded with raucous 20-something female passengers wearing pink tutus, tiaras and various other costumes. All signs point to one thing: a bachelorette party. Westwater: I can’t think of a better venue for a wedding party.
At the ramp, a BLM ranger inspects our rafts and gear, rafting Westwater requires getting a permit, which can sometimes be a difficult process. “Westwater is very highly regulated,” says Jennifer Jones, with the BLM Moab Field Office. During the most popular months, private trips are restricted to 5 launches, or 75 people total. The bonus is that boaters seldom, if ever, deal with crowds—sometimes you can go for hours without seeing another boat. The downside is that demand for Westwater permits far exceeds the supply—and getting a permit can be tough.
Before launching the ranger warns us of the high water and its effects on a few technical rapids—especially Skull. “Watch for the hard lateral on the right,” he says rather intensely. “But the wave you really want to watch for is the lateral on the left.”
I nod and smile, trying to memorize his tips. But it would be long time before we hit any rapids.
Floating through flatwater, we raise a makeshift pirate flag and crank some Slightly Stoopid on an MP3 player. After an hour or so we near the high walls of some pristine Navajo sandstone that tower like skyscrapers. I spy lines that look like incredible climbing, a thin finger crack in a dihedral that eventually turns a roof- I don’t think the line has ever been attempted.
Then my attention turns to looking for our campsite. The BLM assigns each party a site; ours is called Little Hole, near a large canyon, and I don’t want to miss it.
When I rafted Westwater in the fall of 2009, my friends and I floated a good half-mile past our site, blissfully unaware. The problem with whitewater is that once you float down river, it is nearly impossible to backtrack.
We were screwed, until an unexpected solution arose. “You guys want to camp with us?” yelled someone from across the river. The group turned out to be a bunch from Crested Butte, who provoked energy reminiscent of a frat party. That night we held a makeshift rave, gyrating and waving our hands to music on the beach, our headlamps lighting the sandy dance floor.
This year, to my relief, we found our campsite fairly easily.
Later that night the eight of us try to reenact the beach rave, but even Kesha’s dance tunes can’t reawaken the same energy. Not long after we turn in for the night.
The next morning I awaken to my friend Nick’s unique breakfast creation: Westwater Hash—a delightful combo of eggs, cheese, maple sausage and potatoes. The abundance of protein and fat prep us for a day of rowing in the coldwater.
Our talk soon turns to the high water and the rapids, and our adrenaline begins to surge. My friend Austin will pilot the paddle raft of 7, while I’ll take the oar boat, weighed down by all of our heavy gear. We strap things down extra tight, in case of a flip, and shove off.
Soon the canyon narrows and the high rocks turn a darker color—almost a foreboding sign of the rapids to come.
Strangely, a strong headwind picks up as we enter the first rapid, Little Dolores. At this level there isn’t much there, but the wind really pushes us around. A few rapids later, I hit a wave in Funnel Falls, which knocks my boat sideways.
Then a little later I see it: Skull Rapid, and that’s when I found myself headed into the nasty 7-foot wave.
That’s not even the tricky part, further down the rapid a wave train leads into Skull Hole, a churny hydraulic notorious for flipping boats, and then into a cliff wall called the Rock of Shock. From there the current splits in two—left into the main current or right into a terminal eddy called “The Room of Doom.” Boats that go in there can have an extremely difficult time getting out. In the Mean Teens, some boaters have had to deflate their boats and hike gear out.
I desperately try to pick up speed as I enter Skull, but the wind and heavy gearboat make it incredibly difficult. Like a toddler picking a fight with a Sumo wrestler, I don’t have a prayer. The wave pushes my boat right and then promptly flips it, tossing me into the water. As I swim through the meat of Skull hole, I helplessly watch my raft, wondering if it will get sucked into The Room. Like a pinball flipper, the raft stalls on the wall that splits the current, then swirls left, floating into the main current. I climb on top of the raft and ride through the remaining three rapids, relieved, yet humbled.
This was the first time I’ve ever flipped a raft. In more than 11 years of river guiding, including 6 seasons as a professional on stretches much harder than Westwater, it had never happened. I’ve been in several boats that have flipped, but this was my first time at the helm.
The river won.
There is a saying with river guides: There are those who haven’t flipped, those who will, and those who will flip again. Not having flipped wasn’t necessarily a fact I was proud of, but more an inevitability. No guide is always an iceman. Sooner or later the river wins. In a way, I felt like the monkey was finally off my back.
After the rapids eased into calm water, we flipped the raft back over, and surveyed the damage: two lost chairs, a few soggy Oreos. All in all, the damage wasn’t too bad. We chalked it up as another great Westwater memory. On the bright side, one of the best parts of Westwater was still ahead: the 5-mile scenic float out. It’s a great time to lounge in the sun, sip a cold one and enjoy time with friends.
The battle was over.
Besides, the scariest event of the trip waited for us on shore. At the takeout, we had the girls run shuttle, while the guys cleaned up the gear. After rolling rafts, the guys and I start getting impatient and increasingly curious about the loud music and circle of RVs in a nearby clearing- we approach.
We’re greeted with whoops and clapping as a pack of several old women surrounds us. There must be at least 40 of them. This isn’t the same group of bachelorettes from the ranger station—if they are one in the same, it’s like they suddenly aged 30 years. Our curiosity evaporates into terror as we brace for what the mob will do to us.
“The strippers are here!” They shout.
The ladies insist on having us sign their t-shirts as “stripper 1”, “stripper 2”, and so forth. They turn out to be somewhat civil, albeit creepy. We quickly make excuses about packing up the boats and then get the hell out of there. Unlike the zombies, this actually happened.
Five minutes later our shuttle shows up, late. We don’t mention the incident to our friends; some traumatic memories are better left unspoken.
We pack up our cars and leave the circle of RVs far, far behind us. Aside from a sketchy take out experience, Westwater delivered just like other years—good scenery, great rapids, and certainly enough stories to talk about until we come back again, and we will be back.