Wednesday, October 24, 2018

A Return to Cataract Canyon

In nineteen hundred and eighty three the biggest El Nino ever had slammed the Southwest with snow over the winter - including some unusual late storms - and a fresh-faced young engineer who had recently moved to Utah for the skiing got invited on his first river trip ever.  Brother Paul Diegel eagerly accepted, and not being much of a river guy yet he didn't really understand that the copious powder he'd skied at Snowbird that winter meant that not only were the Colorado and Green rivers  experiencing record high water levels, but that Cataract Canyon itself was notorious for being unusually huge and dangerous (arguably more so than in the Grand Canyon, that itself was experiencing huge flows - as documented in the great book The Emerald Mile  -as the dam keepers endeavored to keep Lake Powell from over-topping the Glen Canyon dam).  However, as it turned out, for better or worse, Paul wasn't able to experience the fearsome power of the rapid section of Cat at 120,000 cfs; after floating the flatwater section his trip discovered that the Park Service had literally closed the river at the head of the rapids, shut down all trips, and made everyone on the river get rides on jet boats back upstream through the flatwater back to Moab.  Paul later made a low water descent in '98 and has since done dozens of other rivers in all sorts of crafts since, but he hadn't been back to Cat in 20 years. 

A few years later another fresh-faced young lad named Scott Martin was brimming with all the confidence that a recently-awarded Ivy League diploma conveys, but after graduation he very distinctly chose not to follow his classmates into the high brow world of East Coast corporate finance or grad school and instead came back home to Utah to put that high-falutin' education to a river guide. 

Despite the fact that Scott's dad had helped financed that expensive education, Pepper Martin was supportive of Scott's decision, and in fact gave Scott something that even today is one of Scott's most prized possessions, and is worth a look:
Written in 1959, 10 years before publishing the iconic Desert Solitaire, it is basically the template for idealistic aspiring river guides' applications ever since, written in Abbey's trademark laconic style.  And it was all Scott needed to jump into the dirtbag world of river guiding. 

The first few seasons were relatively uneventful as Scott rowed plenty of trips down Cat at flows that ranged from low to medium.  Then 1993 came along; another big snow year in the Intermountain West!) and Cataract roared again.   As the snowpack melted and the river came up the company kept running trips at ever-higher levels and the guides got ever-more excited, as they shoulda been; there have been at least a dozen flush drownings of swimmers after raft flips in Cat, and the odds of flipping an oar rig at high water are quite good, even with those weirdly-huge and flat big water boats they use down there.  Here is a great quick video of a high water raft hole ride and flip: 

Scott did indeed flip a raft at the peak flow of 77,000 cfs, but he and his passengers survived the harrowing swim.   Here's a pic of he and his pals reveling in their relief:
Scott's on the left holding the sign.  
After one more season, which probably pushed his total number of trips down Cataract Canyon to over 100, Scott finally decided to get real and go to law school.   Since then he's gotten a family and taken them on many other rivers around the West, but he hadn't been back on Cat since 1996. 

So I knew when I threw out the concept of doing a self-contained pack raft descent on Cat this fall to a buncha folks, I had a pretty good hunch that both Paul and Scott (who both had new boats; Paul got a Gnarwal and Scott bought Paul's old boat) would be the ones who would be keen enough to actually make it happen.

Our trip started with a rappel to get down the "Lower Jump" of Salt Creek, a couple of miles from the Needles visitor center (where we got our way-too-expensive river permit). 
it's usually safest to rappel with your pfd on!
Our stalwart shuttle drivers were able to take our anchor and rope back for us, and were stoked for their own adventure in Moab for the weekend while we were on the river

going down into the drainage proper I put my hand on a big rock to brace on it, and the multi-hundred pounder - loosened by big rains of the last few days - suddenly rolled down towards me.  I was able to sorta spin out of the way and it only grazed my shin, but as it tumbled down and slammed into hard into another boulder I realized that I just barely avoided my own Aaron Ralston moment.
big rock.  fragile leg.  
Soon enough we were on a nice hike down Salt Creek

that was punctuated by another short rappel
the bros lapping up Salt Creek
Apparently there was so much water in the creek over the last few days that there were some microfish that got a bit stranded

Once at the river there was no inviting beach, but we shoved our way through willow and tamarisk to find a weird clearing to camp:
that Scott guessed was an old high-water camp.  

And after a dewy night we dried off and rigged for floating a couple hundred yards from the river
And we were off! 
Scott's first strokes in a pack raft.  
We had a few miles of flatwater to warm up on before we started into the rapid section
And then the rapids began:
boat-based pictures are invariably bad....
the rapid section of Cat starts small and builds up, with a couple of the rapids providing a bit of a kick before culminating in the "Big Drops" of BD 1, 2, and 3. The sunlight reflecting off the muddy water made it hard to see and we dropped into a couple of meaty-ish holes inadvertently, but quick recoveries ensued.  And the Big Drops went just fine:
what looks like a mini boater perched on a rock is Paul lining up for Big Drop 2
sliding on through 
and then we were through and off to a nice beach camp:
celebrating Alive Below the Big Drops!
To be clear, the difference between the 7000 cfs that we had in Cataract Canyon and even 20,000 cfs is huge, much less the awesome power of 50k or 77k.  At 7k it's mostly class 3, with a couple of places where it's sorta pushy class 3+ or maybe 4-.   And this time of year the water is 60 degrees, so a swim is not very breathtaking. 

Once below the rapid section the river returns to it's formerly placid state, and we had a long paddle out, but now river runners are at least blessed with current.  Back in the day Scott's crews would mount motors on their rafts right after the big drops to motor "down" the lake. 

The Colorado River Compact was a 1922 agreement with all of the states that were reliant on the river for its water, and that agreement drove the development of the various hydro projects for the next 40 years.  In hindsight, water managers now realize that period prior to 1922 was unusually wet so the agreement was predicated on relatively rare large snowpacks and flows, and of course the crafters of the agreement could never have envisioned the extraordinary growth of river-dependent cities like Denver, Phoenix, Vegas, Salt Lake, Los Angeles, and their respective vast suburban communities that would become ever-more thirsty.  Couple that with a few droughts, and basically the reservoirs along the way have been in perpetual decline.  Lake Powell  -the terminus of Cataract Canyon (and the San Juan river) is now 60 feet below its average for this time of year, and 108 feet below full-pool, and considering that it's shoreline is 1900 miles, that's a lotta water that's not in the lake. 

As a result of the lower lakeline, the river in lower Cataract Canyon is back.   Not only are there rapids below the old lake line but there's actually current all the way to the takeout....for 30 more miles! Which is great, because while I feel like I'm allergic to lake paddling, if there's even a little current in flatwater I'm happy. 

There used to be a boat ramp called Hite on river left (the name was transferred from the small town of Hite that was inundated by the lake in the first place) but that outpost is now high, dry, and deserted.  And the silt that was deposited in the upper reaches of the lake now constitutes the river bank, though it's gradually calving off back into the river each spring when the high water starts licking away again at the base of the silt banks.  Paul had at least been to the Hite area over the last few years that he's been away from the river so he's seen the takeout area at the low lake level, but Scott was continuously amazed that what we were paddling through was literally 80 feet under the surface of the lake. Near the takeout he pointed out a spot where sister Michele had shown her collegiate diving prowess back in the day by throwing some stunts off a cliff; now the landing zone is a pile of rocks that are 50 feet out of the water. 

With sore shoulders from the unpracticed grind of flatwater paddling we hit the takeout where our erstwhile shuttlers awaited, and our little adventure was over.  Thanks again to Scott and Paul for being great pards on a fun trip, and I hope that we will again soon Return to Cataract. 

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