The call of the white [Rafting the biggest white waters of the USA!]

The vast Colorado River winds its way through the metamorphic red stones of the Colorado Plateau where it has sculpted the land for millions of years carving one of world’s most spectacular gorges. If the Grand Canyon had made explorers of the Great Unknown shiver, the shorter Cataract Canyon just a couple of hundred miles upstream had remained one of the most difficult sections of the Colorado River to conquer. In the springtime, the melting snow feeds both rivers, the Colorado and the Green that merge at Confluence in the heart of Canyonlands NP, the starting point of the Cataract Canyon. Both un-dammed for hundreds of miles upstream, these mighty rivers merge to lead to the greatest white waters of the USA this time of the year with Class II to V rapids ranking along with those of the Grand Canyon in power and difficulty. Today they make the bravest white water enthusiasts shrill while riding these exhilarating rapids!

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We arrive in Moab a few days prior to the start of our 4-day expedition down the Colorado River. The outdoorsy capital and mountain biking Mecca of Utah is the perfect location to explore the photogenic Arches National Park and the dramatic Canyonlands NP that we are about to raft through. With its many outfitters, it is also a convenient base to pack smartly for our river adventure. Space and weight are limited. Weather conditions are extreme as we will float down the Colorado River through an arid desert for 100 miles, all the way to Lake Powell. However, it seems that we will be facing rather cold temperatures at night and heavy rain this late May. The winter and spring of 2019 have been very snowy and rainy, compensating in places for up to five years of draught. Updating our weather apps several times a day in disbelief does not seem to be changing anything to it… On the upside the high water levels announce thrilling rapids down Cataract Canyon!

Day 1: 21/5/19 – A placid day on the Colorado River

7:30 a.m. We are ready. After triple-checking the carefully crafted packing list we stuffed as many layers as possible in our water-resistant bags, tucked our camera gear away for the moment and are wearing caps, sunglasses and fast drying clothes. After a short ride we reach Potash Boat Ramp – named after the close-by potassium mine – only 30 kilometers (20 miles) west of Moab, the starting point of our rafting trip down the Colorado River.

With our fellow expedition members we gather by two large rubber J-rig rafts on which our river guides are finishing off the preparations in a well-oiled routine. While basic gear such as tents, chairs, cots, water and food supplies for the whole trip are already loaded onboard the pontoon-style rafts, we are given the largest dry bag we have ever seen to safely protect our belongings. After carefully closing these large bright orange dry bags containing our bare necessities, they are loaded onto the raft. For our daily needs, a smaller day-dry bag contains our camera gear, suntan lotion, and an extra fleece. An aluminum water bottle is hooked up to the bag as it is critical to stay well hydrated.

18 people board each raft, including our captain Steven and river guide Lauren for our raft. We are about 64 miles from Confluence where the Cataract Canyon begins. This is enough time to get to know each other, find the best spot on the roomy and sturdy J-rig and enjoy the placid river views. In this early spring and with the unusual great amount of rain, the red rocks contrast greatly against the dense green thickets along the river banks. Steven maneuvers the engine-powered embarkation on the calm and wide river sometimes connecting both rafts together.

We soon float through Goose Neck one of the many river bends. With the uplift of the Colorado Plateau and the slow carving of the river, it is close to two billion years of Earth’s geological history that is exposed. About 400 meters above us we spot the spectacular viewpoint of Dead Horse Point State Park. At this exact moment, one of the park visitors may be spotting two tiny blue dots floating down the winding brown Colorado River.

It is not only the geological history that can be uncovered here, as we land at the Lathrop Ruins we discover cliff dwellings and paintings. The area has been inhabited as far back as 700 to 1250. Constructions built along the cliffs give us very few clues about how these early Native Americans lived. The Fremont people used to cultivate squash, corn or beans on the fertile banks of the river where alluviums are deposited regularly. After harvesting, they would store them to dry in the well ventilated granaries of red stones that from now on we will try to spot from the river along the vertical rock wall.

A few kilometers further on the river, we stop on a rare sandy beach to have lunch. Within a few minutes, a buffet with freshly prepared sandwiches, fruits, and cookies is set up by our guides and we take some strength before we continue for the last stretch of the day.

Birds start singing and the sky taints orange when we land at the scenic Pumpkin Camp. Lauren firmly anchors the raft to shore with two ropes. A fire line is quickly set up and the whole gear is unloaded from the raft: tents, foldable camping cots, chairs, food, personal gear and even toilets, are passed down quickly and efficiently. Soon we carefully choose an isolated spot close to a cliff and sheltered from the wind to pitch our tent. Our beds are put together quickly and we still have some time till dinner to explore the camp area, boulder up, and take in the beautiful desert flowers. This year’s exceptional rainfall has caused a super-bloom and desert flowers offer an explosion of colors that dots the fragile macrobiotic-crusted soil.

We socialize some more with our team over crispy bites with fresh guacamole before dinner is ready: a delicious barbecue-chicken grilled on an open fire, slow cooked green vegetables and home-made chocolate pie baked in a Dutch oven. The logistics of the expedition are quite impressive! As the day has been colder than expected and the air is getting quite chilly at night, such a good warm meal is very much appreciated and discussions and new friendships warm up the atmosphere. At night we fall asleep to the sounds of crickets, the call of an owl, and silence.

Day 2: 22/5/19 – First splashes & drops past Confluence

I am awaken by the smell coffee and pancakes… I must be dreaming. When I leave the tent and get closer to the river I realize that Steven, Lauren, Stu and Derek – respectively captain and river guide of the second raft – are preparing breakfast bundled up in their down jackets. Coffee, tea and hot chocolate are already awaiting us in the early morning light. We eagerly fill up our thermos bottles and thoroughly enjoy the coffee warming us up from inside while the sun rays start warming up our skin. The red rocks take even warmer tones as the sun slowly comes up from behind the vertical canyon walls tainting the clouds in an orange hue. Magic. Even more magic is savoring freshly baked blueberry pancakes and melon while enjoying this complete remoteness!

Even if it is only the first morning we are breaking camp, it seems that our group is getting used to the process swiftly. The gear is efficiently packed and piled up, and the colorful bags fly from arm to arm along the fire line into the rafts. There, they are well tucked under a thick tarp: today we are expecting our first rapids.

Before getting wet, we stretch our legs. Hiking The Loop brings us to a stunning viewpoint: from this saddle-like rock formation we can shortcut a 4-mile bend of the Colorado River on which both J-rigs manned only by their captains float. This gives us a sense of scale, and a sneak preview at the weather forecast… From the watercourse the high walls of the canyon make it hard to anticipate the clouds that are getting very dark and packing up quickly in the distance.

At Confluence two of the largest river systems of the Western USA merge: the Green River and Colorado River. In hardly any wake nor noise, the flowrate is roughly doubled marking the start of the Cataract Canyon. A danger sign welcomes us. It is time to gear up and wear the mandatory life jackets: the 15°C (60°F) rapids are unforgiving.

We land just before the first rapids to grab lunch at the scenic Spanish Bottom just below the Doll House rock formations. While we are eating burritos with fresh guacamole, chicken and veggies, we listen to Steven’s safety instructions. The next 14 miles will be thrilling with no less than 30 rapids.

Today is barely a warm up on the first 10 rapids of the Cataract Canyon before camp – or a cool down given the rain! We hold on tight as we go through the whitewater. The splashes chill us down but provide a great adrenalin kick. The 12-meter (37-foot) J-rig handles the waves perfectly and Steven maneuvers it like the pro he is. Only a small amount of surface area of the raft is exposed to the river contrary to conventional rafts so we are blasting through holes and waves that could easily stop and flip a conventional raft. The rubber tubes deform and bounce back onto the river violently challenging us to stay onboard.

It is a short but wild ride to where Steven steers the boat to shore with the river still raging in the pouring rain. The raft is anchored fast despite the heavy currents, gear flies even faster along the fire line as we are all longing for a dry spot. We pitch by a nice beach protected by a few trees. We are wet because of the rapids and starting to get wetter because of the rain. We change into dry clothes to try and stay warm. The rain gets worse and worse: we are in a constant downpour without any dry spot but inside our tent. As we are all shivering and wondering how our clothes will dry and if the tents will hold, our unperturbed river guides are simply starting to cook in the rain! The salmon they grilled swims through our plate straight into our stomach as we stand in the deluge. Desperately staring at the sky we hope for the clouds to dissipate. Beaten up, soaking wet, and still shivering, we get into our tents early, glad the sleeping bags are dry.

Day 3: 23/5/19 – Rapidly soaking wet & all hail (!) breaks loose

Happy to be sleeping on cots and to still be relatively dry, we wake up early listening to the raindrops on the tent. When it seems to stop for a few minutes, we dash out and break camp fast, packing the soaking tent in our still wet clothes. The only good news is that our camera gear is still fairly dry.

We run to the coffee table to warm up with a hot drink and savor a hearty breakfast of hash browns, sausages and scrambled eggs. Despite the heavy rain from the previous night and the dark grey clouds looming above our heads, spirits are up. Today is the big day!

On the menu some of the best and most classic rapids in the world: Little Niagara Falls, Satan’s Gut, Ben Hurt, Big Drop… The latter drops by 10 meters over slightly more than a kilometer of river, making it one of the steepest stretches of the entire Colorado River. On the raft, different spots offer various experiences: 9 adventure seekers can ride the rubber tubes, another 6 can be seated a bit higher up for a slightly less wet ride while a few can take place on the princess pad behind for the quietest possible ride.

View from raft, Cataract Canyon, Western River Expeditions, Utah, USA 2

Steven is focused. Still a discreet grin betrays his excitement. It all comes to sheer experience now; to scouting the rapids properly; to maneuvering the raft precisely. The canyon walls seem to close in on us. I firmly secure the hood of my rain-jacket. Our J-rig picks up speed on the fast currents. I am anticipating every incoming wave. I tighten both hands around the straps. Staying dry is a lost cause. “Suck rubber!” Lauren shouts. Immediately the 9 rodeo riders duck: a massive wave hits the raft that folds under the water pressure. I lean forward too. I am peeking through the splashes to see what is coming. A huge wave smacks me in the face. “Here comes Big Drop Number 2! Suck rubber!” Lauren yells with her voice covered by the raging river. In front of us the river drops into a sheer hole… I take a deep breath. The current sucks the raft in. A wall of water lifts its tip back up. Before I know it we are in the middle of Big Drop Number 3. Back to back there is hardly a quiet moment. The screams of excitement mixed with a bit of apprehension echoing off the canyon walls cannot cover the thundering sound of water.

View from raft, Cataract Canyon, Western River Expeditions, Utah, USA 1

As fast as we got into these rapids the river changes as it widens. This smooth stretch getting into Lake Powell gives us time to reflect. How reaching these calm waters must have felt for John Wesley Powell and his team of 9 going down the Great Unknown from the Green River on wooden rowboats in 1869 after battling for 12 full days down Cataract Canyon! The contrast is striking: for four days on the river, our J-rig can carry about 30 tons (66,000 lb.) including 19 passengers while the team of 10 early explorers left with enough food and supplies for 10 months, totaling “only” 3 tons (7,000 lb.)…

View from raft, Cataract Canyon, Western River Expeditions, Utah, USA 3

The sun eventually breaks through. Soaked to the bones we all strip off our wet gear to dry it. The atmosphere is playful after this awe-inspiring ride. We land by a side canyon near a waterfall to warm up and take some strength. Dark clouds are already piling up again: it looks like the weather will not give us any breaks. Soon all hell breaks loose in a huge rainstorm. All our efforts to dry have proven a useless endeavor. Back on the J-rig we desperately try to protect ourselves under a tarp. It holds for no more than 10 minutes as raindrops hit harder and harder. Rain turns into hail. The wind howls as we shiver and curse seated down in a fetus position. The few miles downriver feel like hours until Steven lands the raft by our camping spot. Cold we unload fast to warm up and pitch our tents – still wet from the morning – in a mud field. It is a challenge as the slippery and sticky mud sucks us in ankle-deep. Like an unexpected gift the sun shows itself! We scatter our wet belongings (thank God, the content of the dry bag is still dry!) and dry the outer tent. It is only at this moment that we can take in our surroundings and appreciate the many impromptu waterfalls along the steep canyon walls.

If every meal has been delicious, this last dinner on the Colorado River is a real feast. The food is of the best choice and quality: shrimp cocktail, grilled steaks and vegetables, and homemade brownie with vanilla ice-cream after three full days in the wilderness with no power. Incredible what one can do in the middle of the desert with 1,360 kilograms (3,000 lb.) of ice! We chat with our new friends while the sun sets.

Day 4: 24/5/19 – Cataract Canyon from the sky & back to civilization

After a quiet and surprisingly dry night, it is time for the last breakfast all together by the river banks. A beaver swims by carried by the fast current. We take our time to break camp, make sure we leave only footprints behind, and pack the gear. We scan the rock walls for some Desert Bighorn Sheep. We enjoy the strong sense of camaraderie that has developed over the past few days. As every morning Lauren is adding air to the 21 separate air chambers of the J-rig while Steven is starting to organize the massive storage area in the center of the raft

We have a few more miles to cover before arriving to Hite Bridge, our end point where light aircrafts will fly us back to Moab. It is a smooth stretch with the towering red rock walls rising higher as we go deeper into the canyon. The palette of colors is stunning: the deep blue of the sky we were so eager to see, the warm tones of the canyon walls lit up by the sun, and the snowy peaks in the background with touches of lush green bushes along the banks.

As we land in Hite, happy to end in the sun, we say our goodbyes to our river guides. Their adventure is not over yet. They have 8 hours to ride on Lake Powell before dismantling the rafts, loading them onto a truck to get back to Moab for another exhilarating adventure – maybe down the Grand Canyon this time.

Boarding the 6-seater GA8 Airvan we enjoy panoramic views of the Colorado River and the dramatic landscape of Canyonlands National Park with towering cliffs, buttes, and plateaus from above. We retrace our tip downriver, recognizing some of the rapids and side canyons, identifying the majestic Confluence, and admiring this stunning landscape from the sky. Soon colorful solar evaporation ponds appear: the deep royal blue, green and brown pools resemble a surreal painting in the endless red rocks. We are flying over the potash mine: we are back at our starting point after four days in the wild with no electricity, cellphone signal, settlements nor roads. It has just been the river, its banks and being exposed to nature – a memorable adventure.

Text and photographs: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau

Travel tips:

  • To live this adventure please refer to Western River Expeditions.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.

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This article was published in the Beyond Boundaries e-magazine by Xtreme Adventure:

Beyond Boundaries Cataract Canyon

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