Take a rafting trip through Utah’s Cataract Canyon and meet some of the many faces of the Colorado River.
Call it the Day of Wardrobe Malfunctions. One huge wave in Utah’s Cataract Canyon ripped my rain pants from my left ankle to my crotch, and another yanked off someone else’s shoe and threw it into the Colorado River. I was just grateful that there wasn’t a foot still in it. And both of those things happened before we even got to the dangerous part of our whitewater rafting excursion with Western River Expeditions.
As our boat with 14 passengers and two guides approached Big Drop 3, the last and gnarliest of three Class V rapids, I figured the Colorado River would eventually get tired of destroying clothes and turn its wrath on the people wearing them. I gripped the rope in front of me and the rope behind me and wondered what fresh hell Big Drop 3 had in store.
Through the two dozen rapids to that point, the guides had told us to ride the waves like they were bulls. We entered Big Drop 3, and legendary bull rider J.B. Mauney’s voice suddenly popped into my head, as he once told me of his mental approach to riding bulls: “Think long, think wrong.”
I tried to stop worrying and vowed to hold on no matter what. A guide yelled “SUCK RUBBER!” as the nose of the boat started to dip. That served as a command to bend forward, which I did, but apparently not enough. I peeked up as a wall of water — far over my head and as wide as the boat — roared straight at me.
I didn’t have time to think long or think wrong or think at all, really.
Before I could react, Big Drop 3 swallowed me.
The Colorado River starts in the Rockies and flows southwest across a total of seven U.S. states, plus two in Mexico. It runs through 11 national parks, has carved (and continues to carve) some of the most spectacular canyons in the world, and provides water for 40 million people.
I don’t know how many people it has provided thrills for in the 58 years Western River Expeditions has been in business, but on my trip there were 28 passengers and four guides spread across two boats, and the river left us smiling all four days. And not just via adrenaline-spiking thrills.
This whitewater expedition unfolded in Cataract Canyon, a six-mile-long portion of a river that fittingly sometimes goes by “the American Nile” and “Canyon Maker.” Also responsible for carving the Grand Canyon, the Colorado in the Cataract portion of its length flows within Canyonlands National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in southern Utah, beginning at the Colorado’s confluence with the Green River and ending downstream at the confluence with the Dirty Devil River.
But it’s not a place on a map when you’re rafting it. It’s all water and walls.
Before (and after) the rapids we drifted through deep canyons surrounded by steep sandstone masterpieces — God’s Louvre in every direction. I filled pages in my notebook with attempts to describe the canyon walls. I saw dozens that could be called balancing rock, stacks of checkers, a bunch of dollhouses, an arch that looked like the Liberty Bell, etc. When I wrote in my notes that a protrusion on the cliff looked like a bolt with a cat’s face on it, I started to think I had been in the sun too long.
The river ran high and fast, which brought us to our basecamps early and gave us extra time for hiking expeditions. We tromped deep into canyons, searched for Native American granaries, and pondered the accuracy of an ancient pictograph that charted the sun’s path.
On the same day as the wardrobe malfunction on the boat, a group of us hiked 11.6 miles, much of it sloshing through a creek bed, to and from a hidden waterfall. A man named Jim stood under the water and raised his arms in exultation as its ice-coldness pounded on his head and shoulders. On the way back to camp, I added to the clothing carnage by tearing my hiking pants and destroying my shoes scrambling over sharp rocks.
That sartorial sacrifice was redeemed as the smell of steak wafted to me when I was still far from base camp. I arrived at the cookout and was disturbed by the disturbed look on people’s faces when they saw me. “Are you OK?” more than one of them asked me. Apparently my face had fared no better than my pants and shoes.
But I counted it all, well, joy.
Even insomnia brought joy. I never sleep well on adventure trips. I’m always the first one awake. I never want to be That Guy — the guest whose too-early chatter wakes up the whole group. The first morning, I realized I didn’t have to worry about being That Guy because the birds did it for me.
They roused me at 4:10, and by 4:30 there was no end to their jibber-jabbering. I rolled off of my cot, unzipped my tent, and stretched through the nylon opening into a black-and-white landscape. Roars like angry bears came from Rob’s tent behind me and Danny’s to my left.
The cool air tickled my skin. This was the last week of May, a time in Utah when the only guarantee regarding weather is that you will have some, as one guide cracked. Proof: I wore a stocking cap in the morning and shorts in the afternoon.
A sliver of the moon had just ascended over the canyon wall, and the river shimmered with silver frost. I walked upstream, toward the moon. I was wearing sandals, and because I had tromped through a handful of prickly who-knows-whats the day before, I turned my headlamp on to light my path. It washed out the moon’s eerie glow, and later, I regretted using the light (just as I regretted not joining Jim under the waterfall). Picking out a few prickly who-knows-whats from my toes would have been worth it to stroll through that ethereal world a little longer.
The mourning doves and quail continued their conversations. With calls and responses coming from both sides of the river, the canyon became an epic cathedral. I kept quiet during their call to worship, found a turn in the river, and sat on a boulder.
To my left, the canyon wall rose black as tar, the details of the cracks and crevices imprisoned by backlit darkness. Over that wall, the light blue sky, almost white, signaled the sun’s approach. I looked behind me, across the river, at the canyon wall. Fresh sunlight set those details free. Starting at the top and working down, the light shown on every crack and crevice as they stretched to greet the new day.
I have gone whitewater rafting twice previously, both times in West Virginia. I did not have fun either time. I spent the entirety of both trips afraid I would catch a wave in the face and disappear into the raging river. After the second trip four years ago, I told myself I would never do it again. I agreed to go on this four-day Western River Expedition in part to face my fears and in part because ain’t no way I’m saying no to four days in Utah, no matter how afraid I might be.
During a hike the day before Big Drop 3, I confessed my fears to Stu, our Scottish guide. He said on a recent trip, his engine stopped running right before three Class V rapids, the last of which was Big Drop 3. He and his passengers coasted along, their fate to be decided by the river’s whim.
They smashed backward into a rock, but everything turned out fine. He told me that story to reassure me: The river is a powerful, dangerous, unpredictable force that one should respect and, yes, fear. But that was a worst-case scenario, and there was no bad consequence.
A worst-case scenario for him, maybe. Mine happened in Big Drop 3. The wave first engulfed Sierra, a recent college graduate who was ahead of me to the left. It knocked her onto her back, and like a domino, I fell backward, too. My feet flew into the air as my back and head hit the raft.
Paco, one of the guides, was responsible for making sure no passenger violated rule No. 1 (don’t fall off the boat) or rule No. 2 (same). If a passenger looked like he or she was headed over the edge, it was Paco’s job to grab the person. For a split second, she thought she would have to decide between saving Sierra and me. She looked at Sierra, looked at me, looked at Sierra, looked at me.
Then Sierra popped upright and into ready position.
I did not.
On the second night, I didn’t set up my tent and instead assembled my cot 15 feet from the river. The sky was clear, and I wanted to sleep under the stars.
I stayed up “late” (late on the river is about 10:30) talking with Sierra plus Koby and Jared, two Canadian college students who were friends and on the trip with their fathers. Every time we looked up, we noticed another star here and another star there, like a leaky faucet adding one drop at a time to a sink. Koby said he had learned in an astronomy class that the universe’s expansion meant stars would eventually be so spread out we wouldn’t be able to see any of them.
I was grateful that was eons away as I climbed into my sleeping bag atop my cot with a canopy of stars as my roof. A meteor streaked across the sky — did you see that! — I blurted out, forgetting more than two dozen people were trying to sleep around me. I did! replied Danny from the cot next to me. Five minutes later, I drifted off to sleep.
I woke up an hour or so later. If the stars had arrived like individual drips earlier, they had fallen by the bucketful as I slept. I stirred again an hour later to another deluge; this one brought the Milky Way with it. Four or five more times I woke up shocked that still more stars had jostled into position above me.
On top of their increase in number, the stars also seemed to be descending, as if each batch pushed the previous batch closer to my cot on the banks of the Colorado River. I sat up and looked around, hopeful to see someone else awake and enthralled as I was by this unearthly show. So far as I could tell, nobody else was.
At dawn, I grabbed coffee and a plate of eggs for breakfast. I told Pat, who along with Danny was part of a group of six hunting buddies from Texas, that I had the worst great night of sleep I ever had. “I slept awesome,” he said. “I woke up every 45 minutes to look at the stars.” He said he fixated on one star, just over a particular cliff and watched as it moved across the sky.
He noticed the increase in numbers just like I had and described their arrival as layering, a word I wish I had chosen. I described to Alora, one of the guides, my feeling that the stars had been descending upon me. She has often had the same experience and picked an even better word: encroaching.
Almost everyone had a story to tell about the stars, as if we had all stayed up late binge-watching the same celestial episode. And it wasn’t just the stars that kept us awake. Said Mark, with mock exasperation: “That river won’t shut up.”
As Paco wondered whether she’d have to jump in the rapids and grab me, I felt like I was sprawling back and to the right. Was I going to fly off the edge?
The wave spit me back out as quickly as it had swallowed me. I was stunned for a second, maybe two. As I regained my bearings, I realized I had barely moved. My right hand still death-gripped the rope in front of me and my left still clenched the rope behind me.
I pulled myself back up into a sitting position, and as I did, the world rushed back. I heard peals of laughter and felt the boat rock and roll again. I was excited, overwhelmed, swamped with adrenaline … and shivering. I looked down and saw that my rain pants were torn almost completely in two. The frigid river water against my bare skin felt awful and perfect at the same time.
Brianna, a recent college grad who took the trip as part of a daddy-daughter trip, suggested the rapid needed a new name after our adventure through it. “The Pants-Ripper!” she said.
Someone needs to make that happen.
For more on Western River Expeditions, visit westernriver.com.
Stay tuned for more outdoor adventures for the upcoming seasons.
From our April 2022 issue
Photography: courtesy Western River Expeditions