Ranger Kathryn's Arches

June 4, 2010

Westwater Canyon II

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 5:09 pm
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At the take-out upon completing Westwater

{continued from previous post}

I could see the thought-balloon over our guide’s head: ‘Chris is the likeliest candidate to go overboard this trip.’ Poor guides. I don’t think they get paid enough to handle idiots like this. Oh, well, I thought… he’s lived a couple of decades already, and may live through this, too.

I peppered Colin with questions about the natural history and cultural history of the place, and about the unconformity in the geologic layers. Some of the oldest rock on earth lies immediately below rock that is far newer than the sandstone in Arches NP, and all the layers between have gone missing. Enigmas like this keep geologists’ journals full of conflicting theories.

We stopped for lunch immediately above the first rapid, where the guides spread out a feast for us of sandwich fixings, fruit, and salty stuff. A dozen hungry people enjoyed a picnic along the river and endured Chris’s senseless angry rantings. The folks from the other boat shot inquiring glances my way, as if to ask how I was doing with this nincompoop. I shrugged.

And then Colin launched into his all-important safety talk, which started with the completely serious but slightly anthropomorphic assessment, “This river is pissed off.”  Ten solid minutes or so of scaring the crap out of us — but we knew what we had to do to stay in the boat, to rescue self or others if necessary, to swim to safety, to survive a flip, to get out of a whirlpool. It was good solid training and I hung on every word. We put our wetsuits and life jackets on and headed for the first rapid.

All I can say is, the next six miles went by faster than anything I can remember — roaring plumes, swirling eddies, sucking whirlpools that spin you around, and wild boiling flumes where water is bouncing off the vertical walls and pounding the boat from the side. Waves would break over the bow and splash every last one us, even in the stern. Violent ups and downs, troughs and peaks, with my camera safely stashed in a watertight box under the seat. In between rapids we’d take the 5-gallon bucket and bail water, clipping it quickly back into the carabiner as we’d approach the next whitewater. At the infamous Skull Rapid, where a veteran guide had her first capsize in three years last week, Colin shouted, “If anything goes wrong here, swim for the left shore! Don’t go right! The whirlpool will eat you!” I clenched the raft rope just a little more tightly. This was everything I hoped it would be. And, yes, we made it through Skull — no trauma, just drama. Lovely.

The final few miles are quiet waters. From my lone perch in the stern I saw the paddleboat approaching us full steam ahead, and they were making pirate sounds as they came alongside us. Two of them grabbed me by my life jacket and kidnapped me from my craft as the others paddled furiously. “We thought you needed a break from Mr Psycho,” they admitted. I thanked them profusely and enjoyed the rest of the trip with non-mushroomed people, which was a grand relief. It was fun to pick up a paddle and propel the raft to the take-out.

Great day, great day. I hear there is an even wilder ride, called Cataract Canyon, that may have my name on it…

Westwater Canyon I

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 4:27 pm
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Westwater Canyon from the bow of our oar-boat

It’s my last unspoken-for day in Moab before moving to Canyonlands National Park; peak river flows draw me inexorably onto the Colorado. I walked into Navtec Guides the day before with cash in hand, plunked it down, and said, “I know your river trip tomorrow costs more than this, but you’ll be going with or without me, and is it enough?” Of course their answer was Yes. This made me happy.

The Wingate sandstone makes gorgeous cliff walls along the upper canyon

Westwater Canyon was named by National Geographic as “The West’s Best Short Whitewater Rafting Trip,” due to peculiar geology: a short, narrow, extremely scenic cleft which the Colorado River has gouged and polished through an ancient uplift of black Precambrian schist. Soaring red sandstone cliffs cap the jet-black schist, providing a striking and unlikely contrast. Twelve sharp, technical rapids with names like Funnel Falls, Sock-It-To-Me, Surprise and the infamous Skull challenge one during this seventeen-mile trip. With only 75 total commercial passengers in the canyon per day, I knew it was going to give me a feeling of being “out there” that is different from local rafting.

18,000 cfs (cubic feet/sec) is moderately big for this section, and plenty of Class III and some Class IV rapids awaited us today. The weather was perfect: low 90s for air temp. I had rented a wetsuit due to the 55-degree water temp.

A monkey kissing Yogi the Bear, accompanied by a stork. Maybe.

Ten paying passengers, two guides, and two rafts headed upriver about 90 minutes. One is a 16-ft paddle raft for the group of six friends from Oklahoma, and the other is an 18-ft oar raft (rowed by our guide) for the other group of three young Salt Lake Citians plus myself.

It was while we were waiting for the boats to be rigged that I detected a problem. Chris, one of the Salt Lake trio, was agitated and annoying. He was gesticulating wildly and making ridiculous statements to nobody in particular. He railed against the government, cops, and rules. He pointed out with pride how rebellious he was, and I’m not talking about your typical 21-yr-old. He was over the top. I meandered away and breathed deeply.

After a life jacket check we clambered aboard, having secured our belongings in drybags that would be clipped to the boat. The first seven miles are mainly flat water and small riffles, where we would learn the geology of the canyon and a few things about the river’s history. The bald eagle nest (with a pair on it) near the beginning let me know we were indeed off the beaten path.

And then Chris proudly announced to our boat that he had taken psychedelic mushrooms to enhance his rafting experience.

— Continued in this post —

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