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)

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