Ranger Kathryn's Arches

November 13, 2011

Cataract Canyon 6: Big Drops

Famous last words: "Oh, this doesn't look so bad." Water-covered rock across river in left center is enlarged below.

(Continued from Cataract Canyon 5: Rapids)  

“On starting we come at once to difficult rapids and falls, that in many places are more abrupt than in any of the canyons through which we have passed, and we decide to name this Cataract Canyon.”

Explorer John Wesley Powell’s journal entry on July 23, 1869, barely hints at the severe trepidation that beset all nine of them upon seeing Cataract. His intrepid party had been warned by Indians that a boating attempt would be suicidal. A crux point was the Big Drops, where the gradient for this interval is a whopping 30 feet/mile; these rapids at high water rival the biggest in the Grand Canyon for danger and power. Twenty-two years later the Best party pecked an inscription: “Camp #7, Hell to Pay, No. 1 Sunk & Down.” And here I was.

I'm not a fan of jutting rocks. Big Drops is full of them.

Trusting Kyler implicitly, I sat as low as possible on the exposed decking, swathed in rain gear. I had one meager strap end to grasp. Our vessel was tailor-made for the task, but anything can happen — a submerged obstacle, damage to the boat, a quick miscalculation in our angle — and, potentially, in an instant, up is down and down is up.

‘Opportunistic’ is the word that came to mind for the agitated and cloudy water, rather than ‘menacing’ or ‘ominous.’ In a few blinks of the eye, we were through Big Drop 1. Big Drops 2 and 3 sucked us in and spit us out, happily upright, Kathryn still clasping rodeo-style the blue strap wrapped around her hand. No concept of time — was it even a minute per rapid? Even at only 9000 cfs, exhilaration blurs reality. I wanted to re-wind the clock and do it again, and then again.

I can’t imagine it in 1984 roaring at 114,900 cfs — or the 1884 spectacle of 225,000 cfs scientists infer from dating driftwood piles.

Leave a comment about emotions you experienced while running whitewater. 

(Continued in Cataract Canyon 7: Concord)


  1. Ohhhhhhhhh, yeeaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhh . . .
    Hang on tight, daughter!

    Comment by Leroque — November 13, 2011 @ 11:11 am | Reply

  2. Hello,
    I have really enjoyed your musings on wilderness. I was wondering if the NPS archaeologists have confirmed false kiva as actually ancestral puebloan? Although I have not been there it sure doesn’t look authentic. I’d love any thoughts you have on this subject.

    Comment by John Morrow — November 27, 2011 @ 11:08 am | Reply

    • I will check with the archeologist again, but it is my understanding that it has indeed been classified as ancestral Puebloan. Very little original material remains, so what we see these days includes plenty of modern rebuild by ‘helpful’ visitors. This kiva was never below ground like normal excavated ones.

      The Puebloans had a rough go of it in Canyonlands, as there were not a lot of resources with which to work, nor a lot of manpower to shape the stones and do the building. Hence, our park is not known for its cultural artifacts — unlike Mesa Verde, Hovenweep, Chaco Canyon, and other wonderful ruin-filled places. Thanks for asking! If I can be of further help, let me know.

      Comment by Kathryn Burke — November 27, 2011 @ 9:19 pm | Reply

      • Thank you for the response. Your explanation makes a lot of sense. Nice to have a NPS desert southwest resource on the net! I appreciate the help.
        John M.

        Comment by John Morrow — November 29, 2011 @ 1:55 pm

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