My Cataract Canyon trip journal
Jim, Mike, Don, and Robbie, the four who tamed the rapids and conquered Everest (plus or minus 50% truth in the above claims)
For Robbie’s Bar Mitzvah my dad, Don, myself and Robbie went on a 3.5 day raft trip (put on by Western River Expeditions) down the Colorado river through Cataract Canyon. It was a “guys trip” only – no Mom or Ann or Lindsay (Dave didn’t want to go). The raft trip would start out of Moab on a Tuesday morning and was scheduled to end on Friday afternoon. I was excited for the trip as I have never done anything like this, although I was nervous I’d be out of contact with “civilization” for 3.5 days (no cell service in the canyon!).
The map of our adventure
This wasn’t a private trip; we were placed into a small group of fellow travelers by Western River. Our group composed of 19 “adventurers” and 4 guides (more about them later).
We drove out to Moab from Nebraska, stopping in Rocky Mountain National Park on the way. Arriving in Moab a couple days early, we spent some time exploring the area, including a trip to Arches National Park and a Jeep safari into the “slickrock” area to the east of town. On Monday night we attended a brief orientation, where we learned some basics and checked out our fellow travelers (I joked we needed to decide who we would eat first if it descended into cannibalism), had a late dinner of Mexican food and enjoyed our last night in a real bed for a while. The trip left at 7:30 Tuesday morning
Onto the river…
After a short bus trip from Moab to the put-in point at Potash, we saw our rafts for the first time.
There were four rubber rafts strapped together to form a giant raft. The main raft carried most of our supplies (food, water, camping equipment, etc) with a metal rigging system that allowed for a massive amount of storage. This craft had a small motor and was the main raft. Two other rafts carried some supplies and were designed to be rowed in the rapids. The fourth craft was a smaller paddle boat. During normal cruising people could sit wherever on the boats; during rapids we used the two rowboats and the paddle boat (more on that later).
Typical scene on the raft as we cruise down the river on calm water. The green boat is one of the rowboats and the blue boat on the right with all the rigging is the “mothership”
Each person was issued a large “dry bag” big enough to hold a sleeping bag (provided by Western River) and our personal duffel bag. For stuff we wanted to have with us on the boat, we got a small dry bag that could hold things like sunscreen and a camera. The dry bags both work the same way, they are rubber bags where the tops fold over several times then you cinch them shut from the sides. This basically prevents any water from getting inside no matter what. We also brough beer and soft drinks; these went into a large group cooler (the tour just provided water and lemonade).
Western River provided us with 4 guides. All the guides were college kids, interestingly enough two of them (including the group leader Taylor) were originally from Olathe and were KU fans! In addition to Taylor there were Ben, Jon, and Ryan. The guides were amazing, they worked harder then stevedores and were incredible engaging and friendly. Even though they were college aged, these were not “party dudes” – they were incredibly responsible, and when you think about this, it makes sense, they have to run a group of tourists down what can be a risky situation out of contact for 3 days, which requires teamwork, the ability to improvise and make decisions within a framework but outside of supervision, and have responsibility for people’s lives. By the end of the trip everyone had a really great rapport with the guides and they were not outsiders; they were part of the group as a whole. They really had fun with each other (you could tell they were friends who enjoyed working together) and with us. As a side note, all the guides were Mormons, but interestingly enough they were worldly, they knew popular culture and interacted genuinely like normal (albeit very responsible) people their age.
Us bold explorers…
No, this is not the Roman Senate, it is a group of otherwise normal folks who have been addled by the heat into allowing themselves to be convinced to don faux togas for a group photo!
Our group consisted of 19 folks. I am horrible with names, so I do not remember everyone’s name, but I remember who everyone was. There were the four of us, then a father (retired), Eddie and daughter Leah (science teach in the public schools – how ironic is that!) from Massachusetts and Brooklyn respectively.
Another family was from Georgia, a mom, Janette, and dad, Bob, and their son. Mom did pricing for a brick company, and the dad was in some type of data processing. The son, Jeff, was a salesman for an enterprise software company. Jeff played football for Georgia Tech a few years ago (he was on their Orange Bowl team, as well as the team that lost at KU to Turner Gill) as a tight end and long snapper. Jeff’s girlfriend Mary-Ashley (“Mash”) came too.
These two families were probably my favorites to hang out and talk with among the group. It was great hearing football stories from Jeff, and Janette was just a hoot, a hard-drinking open minded southern tough as nails mom. Leah and Eddie were old school liberals who it was fun complaining about Republicans and telling them tales of how horrible Kansas politics were! Interestingly Leah and Eddie were the only folks I formally “came out” too – no one else asked if I was married or anything that would have given me a reason to say something. Not that any of that matters, just interesting.
The next family was a father, Alan, a cardiologist from Florida, and his two sons, River who was 10 and Merrick who was 18. They mostly kept to themselves. Next we have Bud, a dentist from Salt Lake City and his wife Kate. Then we have a urologist from Florida and his wife, whose names I don’t recall, and their grandkids, Jackson and Taylor, 13 and 11 respectively.
The group dynamics were really cool. Initially it’s all kind of “get to know you” stuff, but everyone really bonded rapidly through the shared experiences. By the first night we were all friendly “know each other” level, but by the second day and forward we became really close with everyone, really a strong, bonded group. I am not sure if all raft groups are like this, my guess is not, we got lucky, we had no assholes or antisocial folks, and we really became friends while on the trip. I know the way these things work it is very unlikely any of us will talk again except maybe a few emails to share photos, but for these three days, we were a little family, a little mini society and that was super neat.
The Silverman/Osborne homestead. The tents were just storage areas; it was way nicer to sleep on the cots under the stars
We started out from the boat ramp Tuesday morning and for the first several hours we motored slowly down the placid Colorado. The guides made a point of each going around to every boat and engaging everyone in conversation, to get to know us. Since we were above the rapid we didn’t need to wear life jackets (except for kids 12 and under – Robbie just lucked out!). The Colorado initially was calm and the scenery wasn’t too spectacular. We stopped for lunch mid-day on a sandbar and got our first taste of the level of catering Western River does for passenger (and how hard the guides work and how much stuff gets stored on board). They pulled out a table and prepared a lunch for us – cold cuts, all the fixings and side, and we ate buffet style on the beach. After lunch we drifted for a while and swam alongside the raft (this is when you peed – enjoy that lemonade, Phoenix!). By later afternoon we had entered the canyon and the scenery got more spectacular – large cliffs on either side of red and white sandstone with the geological layers clearly visible. Rising and falling, and rising again to incredible sheer heights, with random protuberances, spires, caves and rocks, these views would be with us the rest of the trip.
A typical example of the Colorado river landscape with the layered cliffs on either side of the river.
Tuesday evening we stopped at our campsite, a large sandbar on the east side of the river. Camp setup was pretty neat. All the tents, our dry bags (containing the sleeping bags and our duffels) and chairs and cots were transported from the rafts in a team line. The guides yelled “fire line” and everyone formed up a line of folks across from each other. Guides handed an item to the first person, who passed it to the person across from them, back and forth so all the goods ended up high on the beach quickly and no individual had to do more then stand and (easily) pass stuff to their neighbor.
So we then set up our own campsite. We got two tents per person, simple balloon tents then ended up just being used as dressing rooms because it was too hot to sleep inside them and sand got in them everywhere. We had simple fold-out cots that you attached legs to, these were our beds. So everyone picked a camp spot and set up their individual tents. Meanwhile, the guides set up the entire infrastructure of the camp; a complete field kitchen with gas grill, griddle, prep area, water service, and dish washing station.
The bathrooms were essentially large tanks the height of a toilet with a toilet seat on them, called “groovers.” Two were set up, one enclosed in a small tent, and the second behind a sand berm out in the open. You could tell if they were occupied because the tent flap was closed, or for the outdoor one, a floatation cushion was the “is it free” indicator – you took it with you when you went so if the cushion was missing, you knew the toilet was occupied. There was a small pump hand wash station nearby as well. Using the groovers wasn’t bad. They didn’t smell too much and there’s nothing like taking a shit while watching the river go by. And yes, guys only used them for number 2; if you had to pee, go downstream and feed the Colorado. This helped so there wasn’t as much “odure” to haul out – the toilet boxes themselves sealed up and were carried with us – you cannot dump solid waste in the river or a national park!
The meal service was pretty neat. The guides shouted when dinner was ready, and issued us all plates and silverware that would be ours for the duration. Dinner was not “camp food” – they cooked marinated chicken breast, with a side of rice pilaf, fruit salad, and grilled garlic toast – all fresh, all prepared right there. This was true for all meals; there was no processed or pre-made food, everything was made right in front of us – including the desserts, which the first night was freshly baked cake. Dessert time was also when Taylor would go over our plans for the next day, tell use what we would be doing and imparting any other news.
After dinner folks hung out, talked, had drinks, read and played cards. The guides set up a couple little soccer goals and produced a soccer ball and a spirited friendly soccer game was played barefoot on the sand (turned out all the guides were sports fans). Bed time was basically sunset. I hit the hay around then, but stayed up a while, just resting on my cot and looking at the sky. Thunderstorms were around us, so it was cloudy and I saw no stars. We didn’t get rained on, but the view of the lightning flashing all about the dark canyons and the distant thunder was just spectacular. The sounds, too, were inspiring. There was the normal camping insect sounds (side note – I didn’t use bug spray or get bitten the whole trip, very “biting bug”-free at least for me), but the coolest thing was some bird or other animal was screeching or cawing, this distant, wild inhuman cry that just echoed through the canyons as a light wind blew.
Hiking the loop…
Don was snoring at a level to wake the gods, so the middle of the night I moved my cot to a spot higher up on the sandbar and the moon had come out, which was ridiculously bright, making the camp and canyon visible in a dark way. It was beautiful.
The wind started to howl late at night – it seems like in the canyons, there are patterns where a wind blows during the day, stops in the evening and picks up late at night before subsiding again; perhaps thermally-driven.
Coffee call (cowboy coffee, just the grounds dumped in hot water, and deliciously strong) was early – you get up with the sun. Breakfast followed, fresh made pancakes, and we broke down camp, did the fire line again to get our gear (which was rapidly becoming infested with sand everywhere) back to the rafts as the guides broke everything down. When we left, all that remained behind were footprints.
A strange aquatic creature ascends from the murky depths
After rafting for an hour, we came to a tight loop in the river; this was a hiking opportunity. It was the first hike of the trip for those who wanted to go, 400 feet up a light trail, over the land bridge and back down the other side where the raft would wait. This was my first taste of desert mountain hiking and it was rough; going up you basically use various rocks as stairs with short windy paths in between, carefully bracing yourself and pushing up side to side, sometimes scrambling with your hands over tougher parts. It’s steep down too – you really need to be careful. It is amazing looking down and seeing how far you climbed, and the views were incredible. The climbing itself is way fun, a real mental and physical challenge. On the way up we saw a couple ruins from the Native American tribes that lived in this area over 600 years ago. First a granary – these small adobe brick structures were scattered all through the canyons in high up nooks. We also saw a few pictograms painted by the aboriginal residents. The climb was exhausting and at the top we enjoyed the views for a little while before climbing down. Going down is easier cardiovascularly but harder on the muscles then going up, as you constantly have to brace yourself and be sure of your footing. After getting down we went for a swim and the raft trip continued.
The remains of a native American cache used to store corn and other grains. These were common in the area, always located in hard-to-reach places high up in the cliffs.
A taste of Brown Betty…
Lunch was Mexican build it yourself tortilla wraps (all fresh ingredients) and after lunch we entered Canyonlands park. There’s a sign at the park entrance on the river warning of the rapids ahead that also has a box attached to it where rafters can reserve preferred sandbars for campsites. Our guides were headed towards this when another boat, rowed by a guide with a single family was also heading that way. We got into a little race with them, with the rower pulling like satan himself was pounding the pace drum and we were motoring – slowly because our motor wasn’t too big – the same direction, with the rower trying to cut us off. We won though and our guides sprinted up to the box to reserve sites for the next two nights
Thursday after lunch we had a taste of the first rapid. Here’s how it worked. Everyone had their life jacket on, cinched tight. Then the boats were separated. The main raft (with the motor) basically scouted and sort of managed the situation. No passengers. The two row boats each had a guide rowing and several passengers,these are smaller then the motor raft. The paddle boat was the tiniest, it has passengers who also were active paddlers while a guide gave instruction (left side forward, right side back!) and steered. The guides gave us all instruction on what to do if we fell in and basically how to be properly rescued.
This massive area of dead tamarisk trees looked quite spooky, even in the daytime. At night, they come alive and eat the souls of all who trespass
Although not too important on the first rapid since it was small, on other rapids, the skill and knowledge of the guides was key; you don’t just plow into a rapid, you have to come at the rapid at very specific angles, and shift direction and orientation at the right time to make it through safely the best way. Do this wrong and you hit rocks or flip. Do it right and you get a wild wet bumpy ride that is also safe. For bigger rapids the guides actually stopped in advance and scouted them out to plot a good course. For most rapids there is a known best approach but since the river changes constantly, there’s active skill and recognition involved, not just memorization.
The first rapid I chose the paddle boat; we rowed into to the rapid, called Brown Betty (all the rapids are numbered, and some have names too) and it was wet bumpy fun, but not anything “oh my god” – those would be the next day!
After this first rapid we camped on a large sandbar. Camp was set up early, so there was time to recreate in the hot sun. I hung out in the water and drank beer, some more energetic folks turned the small paddle raft upside down and made it into a waterside – you’d run from the beach, jump face first on the slippery raft, and folks would lift the other end of the raft while the slider was on it, resulting in the person flying through the air into the water. Afterwards they played “king of the mountain” on the bottom of the raft…supper slippery…about 8 guys including a few big folks like Jeff…and Robbie won! He was the king! Later some people (mostly the guides and kids) played football in the shallow water while everyone else watched and cheered.
As an aside it was so cool seeing Robbie have such a great time, he really was blossoming, sometimes he can be shy but here he was eager to have new experiences, he played with the other kids, tried new foods, went on all the hikes, jumped off the waterfall and basically really experienced the trip. Really nice to watch.
Playing in the Doll House…
Dinner was grilled salmon, which was awesome (and I don’t even usually eat salmon!). After dinner I played scrabble with Eddie and we talked politics. Digging around randomly in the sand I found a horseshoe which I gave to Robbie! Dessert was cobbler – as good as what you’d have in a restaurant!
At dessert Taylor suggested a hike the next morning up to a geological feature called the dollhouse, on the top of the canyon – this was a much more serious hike then that morning, and we’d have to start at 5:30 AM. Initially I didn’t want to but later I thought that it would be a unique experience, and I thought it would be good to challenge myself, so I said I would go.
That night I stayed up to see the stars (it was clear) and the sky was amazing – more stars the. I have ever seen in my life, a stunning ceiling of light, with the occasional satellite. Eventually the Milky Way itself became visible, which I saw for the first time in my life. It was really amazing, laying there, staring at the sky, with the roar of rapids in the background, finally falling asleep.
The moon was so tiny during the day, but at night, it was so bright not only could you easily read by it, but it actually woke me up when it hit my eye. (that’s amoré!)
Don woke me up 5:30 sharp the next morning for the hike. They were not kidding about the challenge (glad I brought extra water). To even get to the trailhead was a 2 mile walk on a path through sometimes dense brush. When we got to the base of the cliff wall, it looked like a mile high! (Actually it was about 1250 feet). Climbing this was intense; folks spread out and everyone kind of climbed at their own pace, with a guide leading and another trailing. There was little conversation, you had to concentrate on just moving upwards, through an endless series of switchbacks and boulders. It felt like doing set after set of “box step ups” over and over. You had to be really careful, the path was close to some really severe drops and a fall would probably seriously injure or kill. Every now and then you’d have to stop to drink some water, and it was cool these stops looking down and seeing “oh my god I climbed that far!” Then you look up and it’s like “ugh, so much further!”
After 30 minutes or so of really hard climbing we got to the top of the main cliff. This was just “half time” – we still had another half mile or so up a rocky path (speaking of paths, the trail is not always obvious; hikers leave piles of little rocks along the trail both as a guide and I think just to say ‘we were here’). We eventually got to a super quiet beautiful desert meadow, and approached the doll house – a rock formation which from the river looked tiny and high but now loomed humongous in front of us, easily a third mile around the base. Hidden in the base of the formation was a little cave called the ice box because it always stays cool; rumor is Butch Cassidy hid out there after a heist. After leaving the doll house, the group got separated where the trail loops around the base. My part of it, with Don, Robbie, Leah, Merrick, and Bud, and Ryan ended up kind of forging our own trail, including some pretty tight jumps down 15 foot rock walls (assisted by Ryan). This was pretty cool, we eventually made it back to the upper trailhead where we waited for the other group, which had Leah’s dad in it (although Merrick took off down the mountain on his own).
This photo is actually from an earlier hike, but gives some idea of the heights of the cliffs. The “loop hike” (this one) was I think about 500 feet; the doll house hike was over 1250.
The climb down was difficult, but the worst part was the long walk back to camp from the trailhead. Those two miles seemed like forever – I have never been so exhausted. Robbie developed a talent for spotting these little desert lizards and we saw a few of those along the trail. All in all we were gone for about 4 hours, probably walked about 6 miles, and climbed up and down over 1250 feet of rock and boulders. It was an amazing experience, I didn’t think I was capable of doing, but it was so much fun and a real sense of accomplishment. We even got cheers when we got back to camp. It was only 9:30 in the morning, and we had a long day of rapids ahead of us!
The next few hours were rapid time. There are 31 rapids and since we want through the one the previous days, that meant we had 30 to go, including all the big ones. Tired from the hike. I rode in one of the rowboats (where a guide rows). So, rapid after rapid. I sat both on the side of the boar or on the front (called “riding bull”), although most of the bull riding was handled by Robbie. No matter where you sit, you get wet. So, the rapids are like being on super choppy lake water – you bounce a lot since you are on a smaller boat, and get wet, but not terribly exciting. Some of the others, especially with rocks and drops, are more intense – there are huge standing waves and turbulence with massive bouncy wave where you ride high and just get slammed by a mountain of water. (this video from a few years ago, not of our group obviously, gives a fair example of the power of the rapids)
In between rapids, the boats grouped up and splashed each other with oars as they were nearby. We also rendezvoused with the other Western group for the big rapids. They were like a bizarro version of us, not nearly as cool though.
There were no flips on the rapids, but the paddle boat (which I wasn’t on at the time) got hung up on a rock for a bit and tipped, dumping Eddie and Janette into the rapids. Eddie quickly drifted to the shore, but Janette rode though two rapids in her life jacket. It was scary – she was fine, just swallowed a lot of water, but she said it was as scared as she had been in her life. Neither person was injured and they both have great stories now to tell back home!
After lunch we had a few more rapids to cover. I switched to the paddle boat to experience that and at the end we all stood on the boat and as we went over the last (pretty mild) rapid we all jumped in and laughed and floated for a while. The rapids were a lot of fun, a really memorable experience that felt mildly dangerous but that we were in good hands and could really enjoy ourselves.
Just chillin’ after a long day of rapids and hiking and sun and sand.
Thursday evening we camped at a smaller campsite that was a natural outdoor amphitheater with a dried up spring pond in it. It was the last night so everything was a bit silly. The guides outdid themselves by serving hors d’vours in “formal” wear – pants and even ties. We rafters had to be formal too, so at the request of our guides, we took the bed sheets from our dry bags and wore them as togas. Yes, a “toga party” in the middle of Cataract Canyon. Everyone looked ridiculous (especially Bud whose “toga” had little monkeys all over it), and our little “Senate” enjoyed steak for dinner followed by ice cream and bananas jubilee for dessert.
After dinner Taylor said that Western would set up a shutterfly account for the trip so that we could all share photos and videos (they had a go pro to get good whitewater action) but they can’t give out email addresses, so I went around and got everyone’s email so that we could stay in touch after.
Over and out…
I slept like a rock Thursday night – Friday would be the end of the journey. There was one last cool little diversion in order – a hike up a stream bed to a waterfall. The stream bed started out dry, and as we made our way further up, we started seeing pools of water, often filled with tadpoles. We also saw a ton of tiny baby toads hopping about; apparently this stream is part of their life cycle, with eggs being laid when it is high and then the tadpoles develop in the pools as it goes down, hopefully turning into toads before the pools dry out. After hiking a couple miles along the stream bed (which was beautiful, in a canyon shielded from the sun and filled with pools and green plants) we got to a small waterfall. I was not planning on diving in it from the cliff above (about 25 foot drop) but Robbie went right into it, and I decided on the spur of the moment, I’d never be back here, I should try it, so I did. Looking down at the water from above I kinda freaked out, got second thoughts, but then everyone counted down, “three, two, one” and I had to jump. So I did.
A panoramic shot of the area around the Dark Canyon waterfall.
After the hike back, we drifted down the rest of the river to what used to be Lake Powell, and what is now just a dried up lake with the Colorado running down it, due to drought. At this point we were all super filthy – almost four days of sand and sweat and grit and sunscreen and dirt and river water. I joked that we’d probably ruin the water pressure in Moab when all of use turned on the showers after getting back to town!
We got out of the river at Hite boat ramp, said goodbye to our awesome guides, and were immediately bussed to the tiniest “airport” I have ever seen – a strip of asphalt, and a windsock. There were a bunch of Cessna’s waiting to take us back up to Moab. Only 6 of us could fit in each plan, and the ride (about 45 minutes) was really interesting as the pilot flew along the Colorado. The giant canyon walls looked very small, and the mighty rapids we ran looked like little ripples from 7000 feet. The flight back also gave me a chance to see the rest of Canyonlands from the air, a fantastic fantasyland of colored rock shapes, like a Super Mario level.
Hite airstrip is lacking in the amenities. No Starbucks, but also no friendly grope from the TSA!
We landed in Moab at their tiny airport (which is about the size of Lawrence’s) where we were bussed back to town. The trip was over, we said our goodbyes and the real world returned.
Worlds big and small…
I didn’t approach the trip as any kind of opportunity for personal growth or anything, I just wanted to have fun and have a memorable time, which I did, but I did discover a few things about me.
I found that I really could survive (at least for a few days!) without being part of the Matrix. I am a person who is always on Twitter or Facebook or texting with friends or checking work email, and is wondered how I would be without that. It was actually fine – I didn’t miss it while on the trip. It’s like you are in another world, where that stuff doesn’t matter, like, well, an exploration, where the entire universe is your group and your experiences, and you are so immersed in what you are doing you don’t miss things from the outside and don’t even know what time it is; sunrise and sunset define the day. It is hard to think about the regular world; I missed Dave, but I didn’t have much time to think about it while actively on the trip.
I wasn’t too worried about the rapids, but the giant hike and climb to the doll house was something I didn’t expect to do. Getting up at 5:30 am – on a vacation nonetheless – for a grueling hike and climb? Not my style, but if did it, I wanted to see what it was like, and it was so much fun, and such a sense of accomplishment. The other moment was diving into the waterfall pool at the end. That was scary, so I am proud I did it, although it’s hard to understand the spontaneity of my thought process, I just kinda suddenly needed to prove I could do it, and I did.