Red Rocks, Blue Skies and White Water

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 6, 2008

For the first three days, you kind of assume you're in a western.

The rock is red. The sky is blue. The clouds, when they show up, are puffy white. It all glides by at the languid, satisfyingly informative pace of a panning shot. When the gaze drifts above the canyon rim, what appears is the signature iconography of a John Ford film: butte, mesa, chimney rock.

And then, on the fourth day, you look up and the oarsman is gone.

How odd. That looks like him downstream, swimming frantically back toward the yellow raft no longer drifting languorously on the famous Colorado River. Swollen by the largest snowmelt in recent years, the waterway has meandered to the point in southern Utah where there are no more banks to wash over and simply enrich with silt. When the Colorado reaches Cataract Canyon, the stone walls draw closer, the bottom pitches forward and the river accelerates, churning massive waves from left and right to crash together in the middle. These waves are tall, angry and of profound concern to Brian when he reappears, almost magically, in the little boat, grabs the oars and takes a long look downstream.

"Oh [bad word]!" he says. "Oh [bad word]! Oh [bad word]!"

Turns out we're in an adventure film. And no one is ruling out disaster.

This is why you buy a rafting trip: $800 for five days in June, when the water is highest, on a stretch of the Colorado routinely overshadowed by a more famous section farther west and south, which Cataract in fact resembles in just about every way except depth.

"Did you see that movie 'Thelma and Louise'?" asks Marcus, the guide from the other raft. He points toward a towering rock wall just ahead on the right. It is Day One.

"That's the Grand Canyon they drive off of in the end."

"Where's the blue car?" someone cracks.

"They drove it off twice," the guide continues. "Once to see what would happen. Then they cleaned it up and did it again and cleaned it all up and left."

We are a party of nine, eight men and a woman, ages 22 to 50, divided between two rafts. It is a sporty bunch (ridiculously fit in some cases; men in their mid-30s with six-pack abs?) connected through college or childhoods around Aspen.

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