Moab outfitters pumped up boats and started river trips in early March in the usual spring boating fashion. As usual, it begins with wet suits, splash tops and camping in below freezing temperatures. That is, until last week, when the weather finally smiled on the Colorado River.
One of the most sensational river trips in the Utah is navigating the scenic flat water of Meander Canyon, followed by the extreme rapids of Cataract Canyon, which ends in Lake Powell. The nearly 100-mile trip can take up to a week with rowboats but can be done in one day with Zodiac-style motorboats. The duration of the trip determines how much time is dedicated to hiking the side canyons and exploring the archeology.
After navigating 49 miles of Meander Canyon from the Potash Road boat ramp, the Confluence marks the boundaries of the three districts of Canyonlands. At that point a 14-mile section of rapids begins. During high water flows in May and early June Cataract Canyon is considered an extremely difficult Class V section, with waves standing taller than the 18-foot oar boats, leading most companies to put the guests on motorized J-rigs.
At low water, which is common in spring, the large features like Satan’s Gut or The Button are now boulders standing out of the river and the ocean-size waves are no more. The boatman is now faced with the challenge of dodging rocks and holes in the river with tricky and intense rapids like Ben Hurt and Big Drop 3, a boulder field with a narrow slot of water.
“Cataract Canyon keeps me coming back to Moab and after ten years its still challenging, it seems that I never have a trip that turns out the same, it’s very exciting stuff,” said Benn Watts, a Moab-based river guide.
While experienced guides have to prove themselves every time they get to the Big Drops, second and third year guides are taking advantage of the current low water levels to develop their rowing skills needed for the hardest trips on the schedule.
“The first week I started guiding in Moab, in 2016, I went on a Cataract Canyon trip during high water and it was absolutely crazy, we were stuck in a Purgatory eddy and then went into Satan’s Gut without flipping, it left an impression on me,” said Jonah Boyer, river guide. “Then as I traveled around the world the next year I thought about Cataract and knew I’d be back.”
In addition to being a whitewater and rafting destination, Cataract Canyon features petroglyphs of the indigenous Fremont culture, some of which are nearly a millennium old. The first exploration to travel the length of Cataract Canyon as an organized group was led by famed explorer John Wesley Powell in 1869.