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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News
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.

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.

The entry into a rapid, for example, is at the "tongue" or "V" formed as the waters narrow. From there the boatman positions the boat in the rapids that will allow him to "ferry" right or left, as required.

The introduction of new and safer equipment, complimented by an experienced corps of boatmen over the years, has made it so today's runs, even at high water, are exciting but safe.

There are, of course, other advantages to the higher flow, among them the fact that the higher water levels cleanse the beaches and speed the ride, which allows for more time for things like hiking and camping along the water's edge.

The Cataract Canyon river trip is roughly 120 miles of untamed river running through the very heart of Canyonlands National Park,

Along the way there are roughly 20 miles of water where boaters encounter some of the fiercest rapids in America. During high water, they are often ranked among the world's roughest.

The rapids begin a few miles below the confluence and end near the northeastern-most tip of Lake Powell at the Hite Marina.

In all, there are 28 separate rapids. The most formidable of the rough water stretches is Big Drop One, Two and Three. In less than a mile the river drops 30 feet, which is one of the river's steepest sections. On a scale of one to five, Big Drop is typically ranked a five.

Once floating the canyon took a minimum of three days. Today, thanks to high-tech boats and the quiet four-stroke motors, people can make a Cataract trip in a day — put-in to take-out.

There is, said Merrill, a growing number of people looking for the one-day Cat trip, choosing to mix it with other activities in what is a growing interest in a jam-packed travel schedule.

Western River Expedition has introduced the 22-foot mini-snout rigs just for the one-day trips. Passengers are motored to the confluence, then run the 20 miles of rapids.

One-day trips certainly give passengers the opportunity to see the rugged beauty of the canyons and feel the exhilaration of the rapids. Longer trips allow for camping, more hiking opportunities and the chance to gain more of the river experience.

And, this year, whether for a day or a week, the flows make it possible for parties to really experience "high water."

Ch. 5 reports

For more on river running, tune in to KSL-TV newscasts Thursday night and Friday morning.

E-mail: grass@desnews.com