Red Rocks, Blue Skies and White Water
A scenic float down the Colorado can turn dramatic when you find yourself suddenly up a raging river without an oarsman.

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.

We rendezvoused the night before in Moab, the mountain biking mecca in southern Utah, and in the morning climbed aboard a bus at World Wide River Expeditions. At the river, our group settled into the rafts, while two families traveling together climbed onto the S-rig, a big, stable rubber vessel with a 35 hp outboard and a sunning area between the pontoons that's dubbed the piazza.

"It's pretty mellow for two and a half days," Marcus said.

And it is. There are few more luxurious sensations than moving on water through scenic beauty, in summer. The rock formations visible above the rim suggest life beyond the canyon -- like the skyscraper tops of modern Istanbul glimpsed from a Bosporus cruise -- but your world is here: Bake on the fat yellow tube. Sip something cold. Slip into the stream.

The brown water is bracing, in delicious counterpoint to the desert air. Find the current and there's a pleasing sense of acceleration (so pleasing it appears in my notes as "excelleration"). You glide along at the pace of the boat, where Pedro, as everyone calls Pete, reads aloud from "Cadillac Desert," Marc Reisner's masterpiece on water and the West: "until they made a Mesopotamia in America between the valleys of the Green River and the middle Snake."

After lunch we tie on to the S-rig, less idyllic but faster, and there's the piazza. The man at the outboard is huge: Lorenzo is 6-foot-7, 340 pounds. Without announcement, he launches into "A Boy Named Sue," declaiming it, with very little tune involved.

Camp is a rare break in the cliffs, extending back into a grove. While the lasagna cooks, the Aspen boys discuss the best way to field-dress an elk in bow season. Then one of them faces the river and lifts a leg straight out, doing yoga. The New West.

* * *

Day Two unfolds like the first, after a night as cinematic: moonlight like a lens filter, clouds moving across a day-for-night sky neither blue nor black. Cinerama.

The whole 100 miles between Moab and Lake Powell can be covered in a day if you take a speedboat to the rapids. Stretching it to five leaves time for hikes: Lorenzo leads us to drawings left by Native Americans 1,600 years ago. We climb 500 feet to see the famous "oxbow" where the river nearly doubles over on itself. At Indian River, we hike a mile to a natural water park, a grotto of sandstone and falling water that is at once haven and playground. We sit in the bowl formed by the pounding water of the topmost waterfall and take a stab at staying upright beneath the pounding torrent. The Great Lorenzo shows the way, raised fist emerging from the mist.

A few miles down, the Green River joins the Colorado, lighter water curling in from a bend on the right. And a bit beyond that, a sobering sound: water rushing over rocks. We drift toward the rising racket as Lorenzo makes a loud, hurried briefing on whitewater safety. "Rule number one: Don't panic. Rule number two: Hold on."

The light is failing. The rumble draws closer, like thunder. The rafts cut loose from the S-rig, and we coast around a bend and burble over just a few hundred yards of low curls, hang a right and beach ourselves on a gorgeous strand of sand.

Two nights on this beach, outlasting two other expeditions already set up when we arrived like Marines, fire-lining cots and kitchenware and smartly snapping out three parallel lines of recreation: Frisbee, football, horseshoes.

From shore, the sound of rushing water is paradise itself. But bobbing against each other through the night, the rafts groan like they're thinking about things.

* * *

Day Three is ashore. You can sit in the blistering sun, hotter for reflecting off the sand, or make the hard hike to the Doll House, a phantasmagoria of sandstone atop the canyon rim. From the top you also see the La Sal range, almost empty of snow after a week of 100-degree highs.

We return to find the river a couple of feet closer to our cots. When we left Moab it was running at 45,000 cubic feet per second. It's higher now. The record was in 1984, more than 90,000 cfs. The rafting companies ceased operations.

"Oh, these are itty-bitty," Brian said as we hit the first wall of brown water on Day Four. Everyone in the boat got soaked, yelped and loved it, but the initial stretch was so manageable he let two of us ride atop the coolers, the tall orange ones highway crews use.

Ahead, a tree lay sideways in the center of the rapids, held by the current against a huge rock. "That's called wrapping the boat," Brian says, pointing out the furious "back current" curling upstream against the boulder. "You could stay in there forever."

Marcus's boat disappears for a moment. Never a good sign. The river's hydraulics folded it forward at two points, "taco-ing" the raft with a violence that tears open Pedro's toenail, his foot caught in the seam.

"I've never seen that happen before," Marcus says. "These boats are really stiff."

It's that kind of day. Another mile down the river, beyond the stretch of water waiting around the bend, both guides will declare that in five years on the river they have never seen a day so intense and chaotic.

We are three rafts now, a second tour from World Wide linking up for the run, bringing a second S-rig. The third raft guide is new and evidently nervous. As we wait to take off, several passengers observe that he keeps needing to pee.

* * *

Brian takes off first. The plan is to swing around the bend, then drop Pedro on the left bank and wait while he photographs the action. But it becomes clear the current is going to carry us past the drop point. Trying to help, Lorenzo steers the S-rig our way, hoping to nudge the raft toward shore.

But the big boat pushes us the wrong way, farther into the current we're trying to escape. Brian looks downstream. "I think I can still make it," he says.

He can't. The river that meandered through the canyons at the rate of one inch per mile is about to drop 30 feet in less than a mile. The first wave buries us. It is an immense amount of water. The three of us in the front of the boat disappear under it. Brian stays put, but nothing looks right. The S-rig, which was going to head down ahead of us, is frighteningly near: just to the left, and, ah, overhead. It's riding the massive, 20-foot "ledge wave" that blasts out from the left shore.

The "compression" waves we face are in the middle of the river, and the next one carries Brian away (Pedro, too, from his seat on the back tube, but he clambers right back in). We have fallen into a hole called Little Niagara. Lorenzo sees the boat go straight upright, its entire bottom visible. But it lands right side up.

"Fletch," I say to my neighbor, who rows float boats on trout trips. "It's time to row." He just looks at me. "Fletch. You've got to row now. That's Brian out there."

His look says: Oh. He hops into the well and bends to the task so diligently that Brian almost has to throw him out when he returns.

I am weirdly cheerful. "We're doing great," I holler, after Brian makes his assessment and says the bad words that will pass the lips of every guide today. Normally they are cocky fellows.

A moment later we are upside down, hit by a torrent so hard that Draper, seated next to me, lands 20 yards upriver. He's the only person I see when I surface, still clutching the line (Rule No. 2: Hold on) attached to the overturned raft.

It's not fun now. I can't see anyone else, including Emily, who is 23 but looks 16 and was in the back. Pedro will feel her, tug her out from under the boat and tell her she's fine, though her nose is bleeding and she's pale as death. Something has hit Brian's head so hard his vision blurs. But everyone makes it back to the raft, which has drifted right, and here comes Lorenzo with the S-rig.

A hand grabs my life vest, and I'm on the piazza, scrambling to pull up my shipmates. But Lorenzo shouts there's no time, so they ride the next set of rapids clinging to the overturned raft.

At the bottom, Lorenzo pushes the capsized raft onto a beach that's the final night's campsite. A quarter-hour later, we're in a western again: a boy on the overlook shouting, "There's a yellow boat coming!" A minute later: "It's upside down!"

The new guy goes into Big Drop 2 sideways, doomed. Nine passengers are scattered across the river, coughing water but all scrambling back onto the lid. "It didn't just flip," says Alex, 15. "It catapulted us."

Marcus watches it happen from Purgatory, the eddy his raft retreated into after hitting a wave so fierce it bent an oar. He grabs a spare, then tries to figure out how to escape Purgatory without being drawn into Satan's Gut, a hole so steep you see only flat water before it. He calculates 70-30 against and offers to put the passengers ashore.

Instead, they go at it together, Marcus pulling on the oars and one of the six-packers, Matt Holstein, pushing. While they row, other passengers throw themselves against the tube, forcing momentum like a kid on a bike until, at the decisive moment, one of them tosses himself against Matt: It's the other Matt (Reid, the Portland physician) screaming and throwing his weight into the push, and it works. The boat shoots past the bottom corner of the gut, soaked by just enough spray to feel like deliverance.

The next day, Marcus is so hoarse he can hardly speak. In the flat water of Lake Powell -- where the passengers will be ferried to planes that will fly back to Moab over the water they've just seen, the whitewater looking from the air like flour spilled on a kitchen floor -- the bragging will fall to Lorenzo. When we come upon guides from a competing raft company, he hollers over: "We had boats run every hole except the marker. We had a boat on Little Niagara."

"Little Niagara!" the competition says.

"We had a boat on Frog's Hole. We had a boat on the Gut. It was sick."

Brian smiles. "Ah, the stories," he says.

Karl Vick is the Post's West Coast bureau chief. He last wrote for Travel about Christmas in Africa.

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