Staring down fear on the Colorado River: A personal journey through whitewater rapids

Times-Independent contributing writer Aidan McClean faces one of her worst fears – water – taking the trip of a lifetime down the Colorado River. Photo Courtesy of Dave Maxwell

I am a changed woman. That is because on Saturday, I faced my biggest fear and lived to tell about it. I went whitewater rafting in class 4 and 5 rapids on the Colorado River with record-breaking swells due to high water.

My fear of water and waves only started in my teenage years when I tried to learn how to surf. Over a few years, every time I tried I got slapped in the face with the board or hurled under the waves, only to end up in the “scorpion” position, bent backwards to a point that my fingertips touched my heels. With an eight-foot board attached to my ankle, keeping me down, I didn’t stand a chance. I had only ever tried it by myself and obviously didn’t know what I was doing. Regardless of my attempts with or without help, I became hardened against any presence of waves and the thought of ever doing anything like it again.

When I reached out to NAVTEC, an expedition company in Moab, about going on an adventure to share with readers, I asked if they could preferably squeeze me in on a canyoneering adventure. Nevertheless, whoever was emailing me on the other side had a different idea.

They offered up only a 100-mile trip down Cataract Canyon, which included a 30-minute cruise, breakfast, a little hike, maybe another little hike, lunch, and then class 4 and 5 rapids, followed by one hour of speed boating to the takeout site. My stomach sank as I realized that for some reason I had to do this; it was time to regain a healthy relationship with water. I replied to the email, “I’m IN,” and resolved to meet at NAVTEC at 7 a.m. that coming Saturday.

In the days prior to the trip, I crowdsourced information from friends who had rafted Cataract before, noting how fearful I was. I received advice that spanned all categories. My roommate said, “When you fall overboard, take as big of a breath as you can, hold it in and stay calm, you don’t know when you’ll get to breathe again.”

A good friend said to wear lots of sunscreen and she loaned me her wide-brimmed hat. A coworker equated water to emotions and said that I probably was afraid to face my own. I also heard that I’d be safe so long as I was in one of those motorized boats that NAVTEC is famous for. The one thing they all said was that they wished they were going, but I couldn’t sympathize. Staying calm while holding my breath, potentially baking my Irish skin under the hot sun, dealing with my emotions, and determining the stability of the boat were all additional fears to potentially breaking my back and drowning. As the fears piled up like a neat little stack of junk mail I needed to throw away, I began to dread going.

I arose at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, fears still running deep, just waiting for the part of the day when I’d be flung off the side of the boat into raging waters, crawl ashore and live naked in the woods for three days off of squirrel meat and shrubs. There aren’t even woods on the Colorado. Still, with concern in my heart, I hopped in the NAVTEC vehicle with the other adventurersand our guide, Brian Martinez, and the driver, Brandon. As we drove to the launch site they talked casually about the current high-water levels.

“When Cat’s high water, they’re the largest rapids in North America, possibly the Western Hemisphere,” said Dave Maxwell, one of the older men. Brian excitedly celebrated that we were going to get into some 20- to 25-foot waves. I silently started tearing up in the backseat, hiding my face in the bandana tied around my neck, sealing my fate.

When we launched the boat we had a truly serene cruise filled with archaeological and geological facts Brian told us about as we went downriver. There wasn’t another boating soul out there; the National Park was just ours for the moment. Among the facts about the land, Brian told us about the vessel we were on, The RHIB, or, the Rigid Hulled Inflatable Boat. It is NAVTEC owner John Williams’ original design and when he started the company, he made sure to design his own boats. They are similar to the boats that Navy SEALs use, but have been adapted for whitewater rafting. NAVTEC helped to pioneer the rafting culture that exists today in Moab, John Williams’ parents being Mitch and Mary Williams, founders of now-defunct Tag-A-Long Expeditions,who instilled in John and his brother a love for Moab.

The boat is extremely stable. “It can take big hits and turn on a dime,” said Brian, adding, “So even when the river has “bubbles” where the water pressure goes from 50 CFS (cubic feet per second) to 60 CFS in a matter of milliseconds, this boat can handle it just fine.”

When we were getting close to stopping for a hike, I was sitting on the bow of the boat, mesmerized by the stunning beauty of the landscape engulfing the Colorado River when I heard Brian shout, “Aidan! Come over here a sec.” I scuttled over to him in the back and he said respectfully, “This trip is all about attitude. If you go into it with a perspective of fear, it’s going to be scary, and it’s going to be no fun. If you go into it with excitement, it’s going to be a blast! I will take care of you, you don’t need to worry. I promise you’ll be safe.”

And with a squeeze of my hand and a sincere look in his eyes, my mindset changed completely. I gave him a fist bump and said, “Okay, I’m with you, I’m excited.” Had he yelled at me and said to shape up or ship out I would have shipped out right then, but he treated me like an old friend, and from that moment on, my perspective was flipped and I felt exhilarated.

Now, I don’t want to reveal all Brian’s guiding techniques so as not to spoil it for anyone, but we had the time of our lives out there. Having the right guide, like Brian, with his booming (slightly maniacal) laughter, his energy, and his positive attitude was a contagious cocktail of fun as we whipped up, down, and all around the class 4 and 5 rapids. Rightly named “Big Drops 1, 2 and 3,” or “The Panic Button,” the whole group was mirroring Brian’s energy as he sent the boat through waves of 6, 7 and yes, 25 feet tall. “The stoke is high!” said Annie, one of the teenage passengers.

The boat trip came to a close with an hour-long scenic cruise along Lake Powell, where we saw two bighorn sheep up the canyon slopes and discussed the fact that it’s the 150th anniversary of John Wesley Powell’s expedition through what is now the lake. Although I didn’t even get the other passengers’ names until we were off the boat, I felt like I knew them. I also now know myself a little better.

Fear is oftentimes-misplaced excitement, and when I finally saw that I was going to be just fine, I was able to have a great time. So, dear readers, if you are scared of trying one of Moab’s many adventures, or even the slightest bit excited to do something you’ve never done before, I recommend going on a guided tour, come hell or high water.