I had the pleasure of doing a September trip down your stretch of the river, (only my third to date), and what can I say? It was excellent. I did some reading in camp, back issues of the BQR, Grand Canyon stories, etc. Having recently become a member and contributing writer to CPRG I had this idea. How about an article swap between publications? You folks could write an article for the Confluence; we could write one for the BQR.
These articles could include stories, history, Park Service policies and trends, etc. I think this could be valuable, interesting, and fun. It is, after all, the same drainage through the Colorado Plateau with similar features and history. I mean no Stanton/Brown story is complete without the loss of their cook boat, the “Brown Betty”, in Cataract. Or how about the loss of Powell’s boat, the “No Name” in Disaster Falls, or the story about Separation Rapid? The list goes on.
Also, folks up here in Canyonlands National Park want to know what is happening down in the Grand. But most importantly, because we are all a bunch of fun loving, adventure seeking people with a common thread, a passion for the Colorado River. I wanted our first article to be about a place often misunderstood or even unknown to many folks down in the Grand - Cataract Canyon.
es, there are a minimum of 50 flatwater miles for only 18 miles of rapids. Yes, more than half the rapids including the infamous Dark Canyon have been drowned by the giant cesspool. However, the flat water goes through the world class scenery of Canyonlands National Park right on down to the heart of the region which some feel is the center of the universe: the confluence of the Green and (formerly named) Grand Rivers, the head of the Colorado. Four miles below, the river begins its big drop through Cataract.
Cataract Canyon. The Graveyard of the Colorado. To quote from Rod Nash’ book, The Big Drops, “For years men have marvelled at the Grand and feared Cataract.” More boats and lives have been lost in Cataract Canyon than any other stretch of the river. Inscriptions from the earliest river runners, the Kolbs, Norman Nevills, the Best Expedition and Clyde Eddy to name a few are found throughout the canyon attesting to the danger and trouble found there.
Now anyone who has been down Cat in low water might say Cataract is nothing. I wouldn’t exactly say that, but with the exception of motor rigs it really isn’t too much trouble. But in high water, look out! High water in Cataract Canyon is when Cat lives up to its fame. The river becomes a wild raging torrent fat with snowmelt, filled with driftwood and trees racing through the canyon.
40,000 cfs seems to be the delineating figure for “high water”. Now that is not to say that the 20s and 30s aren’t kicking, but 40 is where the pucker factor really starts to happen. Over 50,000 you are pinched.
Excepting drought years, the average springtime peaks are between 40 and 50,000. In 1983 it was well over 100,000 and in ‘93 it reached the low 70s. This past season in Cat we saw the low 80s but what was really incredible were the sustained flows over 50,000 for six weeks. Most in Moab agree that the gnarly levels are the mid-50s through the low-60s. And week after week, that is what we saw.
It can be pretty intense just floating down the flatwater. You watch full grown cottonwoods all green and leafy float by. You watch your marker stick at camp go six inches under by morning, and then six more inches the next day. You get to the confluence where you get a bunch more water. Then you get to Rapid #1, Brown Betty.
Upon your entry, you know something is up. Brown Betty is huge, and directly followed by Rapid #2 which is awesome. The eddies are churning messes of boils and drift, the fences raising up and down to heights of three feet. Then the river just speeds on through the washed out rapids #3- #6. Rapid #7, the North Sea is truly awe inspiring, though I’ve never found myself in the middle of it. I was content to drift down the left side gazing into the breaking 20 - 25 foot high waves. Why it’s called Little Hermit, I’ll never know.
From there it’s all washed pretty much to Rapid # 13. There are waves, boils and drift, followed by a brief interlude at Lake Cataract, but Rapid #13 is where it really begins to hit the fan. This is the beginning of Mile Long and from here to the reservoir, a distance of little more than three miles, is one of the most formidable sections of whitewater anywhere. And it’s pretty much non-stop. Mile Long’s six rapids merge into one long mess of erratic breaking waves up to fifteen feet in height. Pulling out of there above Big Drop I with a boat-full of water is no easy task, and to miss it means a blind run of the Drops.
From the pull-in above Big Drop I you scamper half a mile down the steep talus shore to scout Big Drop II. Big Drop I is no problem—it’s where it sends you. And once you’re in, you’re in.
Big Drop II in high water is agreed by many to be the crux of the Colorado River. The current of Big Drop I goes directly into the famous hole Little Niagara. This hole is the size of a house and it is ugly. Little Niagara occupies the right third or so of the channel. The rest is a wall of water. The Ledge Wave, 25 yards wide and at least that many feet high, emanates from the left shore. A lateral comes off Niagara to merge with the breaking Ledge Wave. Where they meet is the so-called Window. Under 50,000, the Window is a little more evident. So just line up, get your momentum and head for the Window. Yeah, right.
But, see, there’s a huge breaking Marker Hole smack in the middle of the channel above the Window. That makes it pretty tight—and remember, you just came flying out of the bottom of Big Drop I on the wrong side of the river, with your boat full of water.
If you survive (80% of the privates and 40% of the commercial single oar rigs didn’t) it then becomes the wildest ride of your life through a chain of erratic 15-footers into the Gut. Satan’s Gut, the huge pour-over in Big Drop III.
After that it’s a mile or so more with five big rapids, and emphasis on big. Then you are on the reservoir. The death of Cataract, and the crippling of the Colorado River.
But that’s a cliche subject and a moot point, eh? My point is, hey, there’s some neat stuff up here too. The Canyon called Dark still exists and it’s as nice a place as anywhere. There’s the Doll’s House, a Surprise Valley, and two sides to float down to Cataract on.
But for many of us, the neatest thing about Cataract is that, until its death in the reservoir, it’s a river wild and alive. Chocolate brown, full of wood, rising and raging in the springtime, dropping by late summer, depositing miles of beaches around every bend.
It’s a marvelous place and there are many more up here. Westwater of the Colorado, the Yampa, Lodore and Desolation and Gray of the Green, the San Juan.. all the same drainage. The complete picture through the Colorado plateau.
We’d like to share it with you folks and we’d like you to share with us your knowledge, understanding and love of Grand Canyon. We would also very much like the benefit of your experience with GCRG. So hey, write us a story and let’s go down the river some time.