Exploring & Rafting Arches & Cataract Canyon in Utah
Part 4 – Rafting the Big Drops to Lake Powell
Thursday morning began with a large number of sleep-deprived campers as many had improvised during the night’s rains. The staff, who usually slept in the open on the boats, had huddled down in hastily assembled tents and umbrellas, and many guests needed to dry out. The rain was still coming down, but the coffee was ready on time, and by the time the “Big Breakfast” was ready, the rain had stopped. The “Big Breakfast” was eggs cooked-to-order, hash browns, sausages, and berries. After breakfast, it was time to clean-up and pack-up wet chairs, wet cots, wet tarps, and wet tents, and load the boats for the day of the most serious rapids. We were hopeful that the sun would be available later to dry everything. Rapids #11 through 14 were straight-forward, but rapid #15 – Capsize Rapid – saw us lose our first person overboard. They were immediately recovered, however. We continued through Rapid #20 – Ben Hurt Rapid – before pulling over to the left bank at Big Drop Beach so that the guides could scout the Rapid #21 – Big Drop 1! Big Drop 1 is the first of 3 very large, technical, class 4-5 rapids, and each requires an assessment and plan to negotiate. The guides re-board the rafts and we set off on the rollicking ride down Rapid #21. Then we repeated the process for Rapid # 22 – Big Drop 2 Little Niagara – and for Rapid #23 – Big Drop 3 Satan’s Gut. All goes well for Rapid #22, but our boat takes Rapid #23 backwards, and Mary Jane does not see the drop coming and is tossed out of the boat. Our guide, Colston, immediately pulls in his oars, moves to the side of the boat, grabs her, and hauls her back in! The following few rapids were again of class 2-3 and they allowed us all to recover from our excitement. Next, we pulled to shore for a lunch of cold cuts with fruit. We then re-board the boats for a few minor rapids before reaching the official end of the cataracts and take the boats to shore to re-raft the boats back together and to attach the motors. While this is happening, the guests are allowed to drift/swim down the river to be picked up downstream. Because the height of Lake Powell is so low, a few riffles now exist downstream of this point which allows us to ride feet-first through some minor white-water. After being picked-up downstream, we can again be on the rafts without lifejackets, and we enjoy drying off in the sun. We motor the rafted boats down to “Cove Canyon” where we stop to set up camp for the night. The camp is on a narrow, sandy beach with a small rise, and camp set-up goes fine until a huge set of wind gusts come down the canyon and knocks everything down. Tents turn over, the bathroom tent blows into the river and requires rescuing, and sand covers and permeates everything! The event only lasts 20 minutes, but the mess and chaos it causes has people hauling boulders to anchor their tents, sand being shook out of everything, and causes the bathroom tent to have be repositioned. Despite this, the guides have now dressed-up in “formal” attire, (ties, dress shirts, dresses) and hand-deliver shrimp cocktails to all the guests at their tents, followed by celery and ranch dressing. Meanwhile, the grill is set up and ribeye steaks are being cooked along with corn, broccoli and cheese, shredded potatoes and cheese. Thankfully, the winds die down and dinner is a relaxing and enjoyable affair. To join the mood, Rocky fashions his sheet into a toga and Julie dons her elephant pants – the dressy things we have! Dessert was vanilla ice cream with hot “dump” cake and strawberries. The happy group finishes with a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday” for a young girl on the trip who turned 13 that day! Thankfully, the rest of the night was peaceful and uneventful, and we slept like babies.
Friday morning everyone slept-in a bit given the adventures of the previous day and the peacefulness of the night. Breakfast was coffee, French toast with fruit and grapefruit. We packed up our tents, tarps, sleeping bags, cots and chairs for the last time and loaded the boats. The storms of the previous night upstream filled the river with red sand and the river had turned brown with mud and debris. We navigate our way along avoiding the debris piles past “Dark Canyon”, enjoying the views of the canyon walls. All along this portion of the river, the banks are lined with 20’-high sediments that are remnants of when Lake Powell was so full the it backed all the up the river past here. Next, we pass “Sheep Canyon” where Powell’s Team took sheep in the valley for food in 1869. Finally, the river narrows and begins to clear, and everyone enjoys one last swim. No sooner do we resume the final leg of our journey when we spot a young coyote scavenging along the bank of the river, unbothered by us. Then, we see the first sign of civilization as we cross under the Hite Bridge. The bridge was named for an early gold miner of the area, Cass Hite, who had killed a fellow miner on the Green River and was sentenced to 12-years in prison. After some prison time, he fell terminally ill and the Utah Governor pardoned him to live out his remaining time (and get him off the State payroll!) But Case Hite recovered and started a small settlement at this important river crossing point until he died in 1914.
Past the bridge, we pass the “Dirty Devil River” and then turn right to our “Takeout” location, across from Hite Marina, where we unload and take a final lunch of chicken salad in pitas. After lunch, we take a group photo, say our “goodbyes”, and board an old school bus to make the short trip to a small airstrip nearby where we are met by 4 airplanes. Six of us fill the capacity of our small plane, and we take off and fly a spectacularly beautiful 30-minute flight over Canyonlands National Park to Moab’s airport. Along the way, we observe the “Needles” area of the park and see the “Dollhouse” from the air. We can also see what the storm did to the rivers’ colors as the Colorado River upstream of the confluence is clearly colored “green”, while the Green River has turned a muddy “Red” which then colors the Colorado downstream of the confluence – a “Christmas” effect that is rare in the Park! Upon landing, we take an air-conditioned bus 20-minutes back to our meeting point where we say our final goodbyes to friends, old and new, and the trip ends.