Down the River

A Day on the Colorado

Colorado River You can hear the rapids from around the bend in the canyon, but you don't see the true size of them until your raft crests one and faces the dipping swell in front of another.

Waves is the best word to describe them, but don't confuse them with waves on the ocean. River waves stay in place as the water moves. In the ocean, the water stays in place as the waves move.

Ed, a tourist from Houston, and I crested the one wave and saw the swell in front of us. Our inflatable kayak began to surf down one wave and dropped into the hole that proceeded the second. Over to our right, the raft captain and a half-dozen other people were yelling to us, telling us to paddle left, paddle left, paddle away from the wave. Ed, who was in back - where most of the steering is done - stuck his paddle straight into the water on the left side of the boat while I paddled frantically, one stroke on each side. For amateurs, we did pretty good.

The kayak - here on the Colorado guides call them 'duckies' - veered left and we rode on the side of the monster wave, crested it with the boat bending between us as we passed over the crux and into a gully which led up towards another towering wave. On the raft the boaters were again yelling to us - go left, they waved, though their words melted into the pounding of the rapids.

Whitewater Slide Show More waves peaked and dropped but none were as big as the first two in this, the last set of rapids on the section of the Colorado River back of Moab called the 'daily,' since it can be run in a day leaving and returning to Moab. After White's Rapids the river calmed but stayed ducked down deep beneath tall red canyon walls. Soon, we saw a crowd of river people off to the left and paddled towards them. It is the take out. The guides round up the boats, both the duckies and the larger rafts that seat eight or so, and everyone gets on to the bus, tired, thirsty, sunburned and satisfied.

Gateway to the Unattainable

Adventurous tourists have been flocking to Moab for several decades to tackle the region's rough-but-runnable rivers: the Colorado, the Green and the San Juan. Down from Moab is a sort of no-man's land where the canyon is only as wide as the river and the rapids, like those in Cataract Canyon, are formidable. The river settles into Lake Powell but down from there enters Marble Canyon and plunges into the Grand Canyon.

At first a sport only for daredevils, then one for knowing locals, almost anyone now can sign up for a trip like the one I took a few weeks ago with a company called Canyon Voyages Adventure Company. A half-dozen or so companies operating out of Moab offer rafting trips from moonlight cruises to afternoon romps to week-long adventures into the wilderness. Their costs and their qualities vary. Canyon Voyages charged $46 per adult for the one-day fling, lunch and transportation included.

The most famous river runner of them all was a one-armed former Union major who, in 1869, took off with ten men in four wooden dories from Green River, Wyoming and completed what to this day is an awesome achievement: his group, under the auspices of scientific exploration, ran the Green River to its lonely junction with the Colorado and then through Cataract Canyon, Marble Canyon, Grand Canyon and emerged near present-day Las Vegas.

The interior West at that time was, on maps of the U.S., mostly marked 'unexplored.' Including parts of what are now Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada - about the size of France - it was known that the area included spectacular topography and very little rainfall. Through the middle of it ran the Colorado.

A River Hard to Reach

The Colorado River (it was called the Grand for a while) emerges high in the Rockies as a trickle of arthritis-inducing snowmelt and runs 1,500 miles, descending 12,000 vertical feet, to the Gulf of California.* (*Interesting sidebar: Though the river officially ends in the Gulf of California, an arm of the Pacific that nearly touches Arizona, so much water is taken out by American cities, farmers and evaporation that only a trickle of brackish fluid actually flows into the ocean - and that is only really in years of high runoff. The U.S. is building a desalinization plant along the California-Arizona border and looking for ways to give the Mexicans more water.) It is, for much of its journey, not the sort of river you can walk up to and dip your cup in. For one, the intense flashfloods and driving snowmelt that characterize it make its water mostly chocolate-colored and undrinkable. Two, unless you are in it you usually can't get to it - near places like Moab it is hundreds if not thousands of feet below the surface of the earth, shoe-horned into a canyon of its own making.

Powell's company, the Powell Geographic Expedition, set out from Green River on May 24. Running in dories named the Maid of the Canyon, Kitty Clyde's Sister, Emma Dean, and No Name, the group was an odd collection of men. Powell, really, was the closest thing there was to a scientist. The rest of the men were gruff mountain types valued more for their survival skills than their textbook knowledge or schoolboy charm. On the Colorado River, drops of just a few feet per mile can have major implications for the foaming white things called rapids. Soon, their boats had been swamped and wrecked, their provisions ruined or lost, many of their scientific instruments - Powell gauged the distance to the end by calculating the elevation - lost, and their tempers and moods prone to violent swings. On August 28 three of the men, facing a series of rapids one called a 'hell of foam,' mutinied, hiking out a side canyon and towards Utah. The rest pressed on, survived the whitewater, and on August 30 Powell and his tattered group emerged near the Grand Wash Cliffs. The three who fled were killed by Indians.

Scared? Now You're Having Fun

I forgot the name of our guide. He was a wild-haired man who lived out of his van, occasionally driving into the nearby La Sal Mountains to enjoy the cool mountain air. We are in an old school bus, windows down, enjoying the cool morning. Yesterday it was just shy of 100 degrees in Moab but this morning is sweet and fragrant. Far from Powell's salted beef and spoiled flour biscuits, I had bagels and Frosted Flakes this morning at the Gonzo Inn. And just as far from Powell's bunch of mountain men, the other two-dozen boaters-to-be on this bus are teachers, executives, salesmen and software installers - people who readily admit spending too much time in an air-conditioned office.

At the put-in we get a short safety talk, a verbal itinerary and then put on life jackets. We divide up into three rafts and four duckies. You meet pretty interesting people doing things like this. For example, I met a circuit court judge from Illinois who was on a males-only weeklong retreat with his sons. There was a Delta airlines pilot and his girlfriend from Salt Lake. And then there was Ed, who quit his job and, with is wife and three-year old daughter, bought a mobile home and is taking a year to see the country. They post regular Internet updates so all their friends and family can get real jealous and think about quitting, too.

We have a mile or so of easy water, letting every one find their most comfortable spot and warm up in the sun. Lunch is self- serve buffet-style - sandwiches and brownies. After lunch a few of us slide off the rafts and into the drink - darned cold water, by the way. And then things get rather serious with rapids like Professor Creek, New Rapids and Ida Gulch. But the bark is usually worse than the bite, and as a friend once said to me, in a sport like river rafting you aren't having fun until you're scared.


It got hot, we took off our shirts. The canyon turned and crimped, every half-mile offering a new canyon wall to contemplate. Our guide explained the rock layers above us, how old they are and how they formed. He pointed out birds and deer and places where movies had been filmed. A few clouds bubbled on the horizon. We sat back and enjoyed the trip.

A special thanks to Canyon Voyages Adventure Company and Gonzo Inn, both located in Moab, Utah.

Moab Guides and Outfitters
Moab Lodging

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