MOAB — Utah's most famous stretch of whitewater may be wilder this year than any active river runner has seen before. But in the world-renowned rapids of Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River, park rangers are reducing a long-standing commitment to rescue operations.
The National Park Service recently informed river-running companies they need to be prepared for self-rescue because there's no guarantee park rangers will be there to help rafters who get into trouble.
Since the mid-1990s, in high-water situations, park rangers have set up a "rescue camp" near the most dangerous stretch of rapids and staffed it regularly during peak periods. The rangers have often used powerboats to reach boaters who get thrown out of their rafts into the raging rapids. The message this year is that park rangers may be there, or maybe not.
Park officials deny the policy change is related to reduced budgets and lower staffing levels. They've simply chosen not to be tied to a specific location.
"Because of the high water everywhere, we want to not put all of our eggs in that basket," said Denny Ziemann, chief ranger of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. "So we're advising all of the river users that they should plan on us not being there."
Tim Gaylord, director of operations for Holiday River Expeditions, does not object to the park service's decision to back off on the rescue camp.
"It was a nice thing to have in place," Gaylord said. "It lent a bit of security."
But Gaylord believes river-running companies can handle it.
"It's not that the park service is the only one with motorized rafts in there," Gaylord said. "Most companies have the ability to run motor support and have been doing so for a long time."
Cataract Canyon is likely to have its highest flows since the early 1980s and possibly higher. According to Ziemann, a new forecast predicts peak flows ranging from 60,000 to 121,000 cubic feet per second, depending on how quickly the snow melts.
It "could be" the highest water year ever for river runners, Ziemann said. "It's going to go very high, we know that."
"We should have some really exciting water out there," said Gaylord, who has been rafting through Cataract Canyon for three decades. The highest flow he has personally encountered was on a run in 1983 when it was just over 80,000 cubic feet per second. "I describe it as fun, exhilarating and nerve-wracking all at the same time," Gaylord said.
High water has varying effects on rapids, depending on their contours. Some rapids become much more turbulent, while others get washed out and become easier to negotiate.
"There are even a few in Cataract Canyon that will get washed out," Gaylord said, "but there are others that will surprise you and get bigger than you can imagine."
He said a series of rapids in Cataract Canyon known as "The Big Drops" sometimes develops standing waves as high as 20 to 30 feet.
Myke Hughes of Adrift Adventures in Moab said some customers are nervous about the expected high water in Cataract Canyon. According to Hughes, some river-running companies are shifting certain customers to calmer waters such as Desolation Canyon on the Green River.
For many river runners, though, this is the kind of year they live for. Gaylord is getting calls from retired river guides who are eager to get back in action.
"There is reason to have some nervousness, but not a reason to stay away," Gaylord said.
For those deterred by high water in Cataract Canyon, Gaylord said there are many other river-running opportunities in the state that will be less frightening.
Ziemann added that many boaters will fear the high water and others will enjoy it.
"We just hope that the people that are capable and looking forward to it for good reasons go out and enjoy it, and the others go somewhere else that's a little safer for them," he said.
The park service has had discussions about closing Cataract Canyon if the flow rate gets too high, but no decisions have been made.