Run rapids run

Thrill-seekers head to high-water canyons

Published: Thursday, June 23 2005 12:00 a.m. MDT

Rich Packer and his wife, Valerie, hold on as their boat crashes through the rapids during a river trip down the Colorado River in Cataract Canyon as guide Mike Estenson of Western River works to control the boat.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News

It's been awhile since the Colorado River flows were high enough to manhandle a 22-foot boat, loaded with gear and people, as easily as a cottonwood seed in a windstorm . . . sucking it down into deep holes then spewing it out, high in the air, then sucking it back down in rhythmic regularity.

The last time, in fact, was seven years ago.

That was the last time the cry "high water" actually meant it was really running high. A time when, looking down the throat of a rapid unleashed, anxieties ran higher than the waves.

June peaks last year, for example, were somewhere in the mid-20,000 cubic feet per second range.

There were early predictions this year that the Colorado River through Cataract Canyon would top out at around 55,000 cfs.

It actually peaked around 70,000 cfs, which turned waves into walls of water and put more than one of the larger rigs on end before slapping it back to water level.

There were times this past month when the in-flow to Lake Powell was so high the level of the 200-mile-long lake was rising 18 inches a day.

Even now the river is flowing at a rate nearly twice that of its peak last year.

The consequences of having all this water have been a revitalized interest in river running.

"People know," said Brian Merrill, CEO of Western River Expeditions, one of the veteran river-running companies in Utah.

"When the river gets high, people start showing up at our doors wanting a Cataract trip. People know how great those trips are, especially when we get flows as high as they've been this year. It's been a long time . . . 1997 was the last year we had flows this high."

Reports of high water flows here in Utah have not only filters around the country, but word of "high water" has even spread across the oceans.

Myke Hughes, owner of Adrift Adventures, another longtime river company operating out of Moab, reported that there has been a sharp rise in the number of Europeans coming to town looking for high-water trips.

"Right after Memorial Day we started to get calls from people wanting to know more about the high-water trips, and if the river was too high or too dangerous to run," he explained.

"What a lot of them wanted was to run the big water in the small boats. They'd heard about the Colorado in high water and they wanted to run it."

To those passengers on the 22-foot, mini-snout self-bailing inflatable boats, the Colorado River through Cataract Canyon may not appear, at first, much different from what they read in the travel brochure . . . high cliffs reaching up on both sides of the river, accented with broken rock escarpment flowing down to the river banks.

And there, in the center, a river that changes colors almost as quickly as a chameleon, from deep green to chocolate brown to frothing white and then back to flowing green, giving off a perfect reflection of the reddish-toned cliffs when calm.

That changes when the flows speed up and the riverbed turns once-calm water into a churning, frothing field of rapids.

The Colorado River is, this year, a very different river than many of today's boatmen remember.

And, what it does, said Merrill, aside from putting them up against the larger waves, is put a real premium on boating skills.

The key to a good ride in high water, he noted, "is timing. Everything happens so much faster. In mid- to low-water, you may go from rapid to rapid with a break in between. In high water it can be just one continuous ride, so you need to be prepared."

Experienced boatmen learn to read the river, know its habits and can anticipate its ever-changing movements.