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Whitewater Raft Guiding on the Colorado River

Posted by on November 10, 2016

Rowing Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River

Learning the Ropes

In the summer of 2016, I worked in Moab, Utah for Navtec Expeditions as a whitewater raft guide on the Colorado River. I arrived in Moab in April, but spent the first few weeks hiking to and through the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. By the middle of May, I was being trained to run the river. During the first two weeks of training, I went out on the river almost every day with one of Navtec’s veteran guides, Aubrey. The first few trips, she would row the boat, giving me tips on how to maneuver around in the water and how to run a great trip (like providing wilderness interpretation and being personable with the guests), and let me hop on the oars in flat water to get a feel for the dynamics of rowing a boat. Meanwhile, I studied for my captain’s license test, which primarily has to do with the rules and regulations regarding commercial river trips, i.e. types of life vests, required gear, permits, etc… and memorized the safety talk we give to guests before each trip. By the end of the second week, I got my license, Aubrey told the boss I was ready to start running my own trips, and things just took off from there. Here’s a map to show the sections that we run.

The Daily

The “Moab Daily” is the section that I did most this summer. That’s the one right outside of Moab near Arches National Park. It is roughly 14 miles long for the full day trip, has Class 1-Class 3 rapids depending on the time of year (snow melt makes the river much higher and more intense in the spring/early summer), and we serve lunch at the halfway point. In total, I did over 100 Daily’s this year, most of which were full day trips, some of which were half day, and a few were overnights that started another 7 miles upstream at Dewey Bridge. I learned quickly that rowing the boat is only a small part of the job. The hardest parts about river running are rigging the boats in the morning and derigging at the end of the day, and also being knowledgeable about the area enough to talk confidently about the geology, the wildlife, and the human history that make Moab such a popular tourist destination. I tried to be a sponge, listening to and watching everything the veteran guides would do before, during, and after their trips. I learned so much, I could write a whole series of posts about how to rig boats and what my wilderness interpretation was like, but for that, I guess you’ll have to come on a trip with me :). Most days, especially in the heat of summer, the trips consisted of lots of swimming, splash wars with other boats, and of course, getting drenched by the waves in the rapids to keep us cool. People would come on these trips from all over the world, so often, I would just get everyone talking about their different adventures and how they got to Moab, and their stories were usually pretty interesting. I also learned many great jokes, most of which involve pirates, to keep the guests entertained. I got to know a lot of the other guides in town from running the daily, as there are many companies running many large trips every day, and we got to know each other from shooting the shit at the boat ramp and floating down the river together. Surely, being the first section of river I got to know really well, the Daily will always hold a special place in my heart.

Kitchen at Onion Creek Camp on an Overnight Daily

Kitchen at Onion Creek Camp on an Overnight Daily

Overlooking Onion Creek Camp on an Overnight on the Daily

Overlooking Onion Creek Camp on an Overnight on the Daily

Rowing an Overnight Trip on the Daily Outside Moab on the Colorado River

Rowing an Overnight Trip on the Daily Outside Moab on the Colorado River

Cataract Canyon

Just like I did this year, Aubrey ran the daily every day her first year at Navtec too. After training me, she was free to start receiving training for Cataract Canyon, which is the long 1-5 day trip through Canyonlands National Park. It is over 100 miles from boat ramp to boat ramp, but the rapids of Cataract Canyon itself are actually only 14 miles long in the middle of the trip, the rest being flatwater in Meander Canyon to start and the very far upstream end of Lake Powell to finish. The rapids are Class 3-Class 5, and when the river floods, it can be the biggest whitewater in North America. The 1 and 2 day Cataract Canyon trips are done on a sport boat, also known as a RIB (ridged inflatable boat), because their 70hp motors and lightweight hull enable them to fly across the long flatwater sections very quickly. Aubrey, however, was training for the 3 to 5 day trips, which are done on the same style of inflatable row boat that we take on the Daily (picture of me in on of these inflatable row boats in Cataract Canyon at the top of this post). We still take a motor on these trips to get through the flatwater, but these motors have 10hp- enough to keep us moving without wearing ourselves out by rowing for 2 days before we get to the whitewater. The first time I went down Cataract Canyon was on a 1 day sport boat trip during highwater at the end of May. This is the gem trip of Navtec. Our owner is renowned for building these types of boats and Navtec is the only company that offers a 1 day Cataract Canyon trip for this reason. In a nutshell, it was the craziest river trip I had ever been on by far. Here’s a video of Navtec’s lead guide running the river in a similar set of conditions

 

Shortly after the sport boat trip, I was sent into Cataract Canyon again, this time crewing for Aubrey as she was being trained to run this section. Training for her was different; she already knew how to rig and maneuver the boat, she just had to become familiar with the features of the canyon and the rapids like she had with the daily. My job was to bail out the water from the bottom of the boat, to throw my weight into the wave to keep us from flipping, and just to “be Aubrey’s bitch”, as the boss put it. I thought the sport boat trip was intense, but running the canyon in a row boat was a drastically different and much more intense experience. Without the illusion of safety that the motor provides, one feels very exposed to the power of the river while in a row boat, and my complete trust fell on Aubrey for getting us through safely. For training, we didn’t have guests in our boat. We met up with a couple sport boats on our second day in the canyon shortly before starting the rapids, and they would run safety for us by waiting at the bottom of each rapid to make sure we made it through, and rescue us if necessary. Cataract Canyon has about 30 rapids, the biggest of which are called the “Big Drops”- giant Class 5 waves that will flip a boat like a paper cup in the wind. These 3 rapids are the 21st to 23rd rapids in the canyon, and by the time we got there, Aubrey was starting to wear out. We got stuck in an eddy, or a revolving upstream current along shore, called “purgatory” because it is notoriously hard to get out of, and back into the main current. So we lapped the eddy 4 or 5 times, each time Aubrey pulling as hard as she could to try to get back over the main channel of the river and into the rapids, but the eddy was too strong and we spent a solid half an hour trying to get out, signaling to the boats below that we were OK, but just having a hard time. Finally, Aubrey pushes out of the eddy, but we are now hurdling straight for a feature called “Satan’s Gut”, which is one of the biggest, crunchy-munchy, gnarliest waves on the river. She tries to pull back into the eddy to get away from it, but we only make it halfway and get stuck with the side of the boat up in the air on a pile of driftwood. Our belly line under the boat was caught, and one oar was broken in the process. I look back at Aubrey and we exchange looks of “oh shit”, then 2 seconds later the belly line snaps, we spin off the driftwood, and fall into Satan’s Gut sideways. Thrashing, pounding, scary huge water falls on top of us, and somehow we pop out of the wave upright, but still going through class 5 rapids. I work as quickly as I could to bail out the boat which is completely full of water, maybe 1,000 gallons? and Aubrey unstraps the spare oar and rows over to the sport boats in the eddy at the bottom of the rapid. Her boyfriend, Ben, who is a sport boat guide, smiles and yells “HERO RUN!!” across the river. For the rest of the trip, Aubrey kept saying with a smile of disbelief on her face “I can’t believe we ran Satan’s Gut and didn’t flip!” To see someone with so much more skill and experience than me, someone that I look up to as my rafting role model, humbled by the river, was a powerful reminder of how much respect the river deserves. Upon our return, the boss told her that they would be sending her on her first trip down Cataract Canyon with guests 2 days from now. At first, Aubrey didn’t want to do it, but basically the boss, who is arguably one of the most seasoned boatsmen in the world, told her that no one is ever totally ready to run Cataract Canyon, but that if anyone was going to run this trip, they thought it ought to be her. So, she changed her mind and prepared for it with a mixture of anxiety and excitement. I got to crew with her for this trip too, and she NAILED IT! Perfectly clean runs the whole time, and the guests loved everything about the trip. Everyone was so proud of her, and I felt fortunate for everything- for getting to go down Cataract Canyon in general, for not falling out or flipping over, but mostly to get to see the potential for growth in the whitewater rafting world. If I continue rafting, I could be trained to do what Aubrey is doing now. And despite, or perhaps because of the intensity of the trip, I became addicted to the idea of going back into Cataract. One day, after rowing the daily, the boss yells at me to sit down right now. “Do you know what I’m going to talk to you about?”, he asks with a stern look on his face. “No”, I respond, running through all the dailies I’ve ever done, trying to think of how I screwed up and what he was about to chew me out for. “You’re going down Cataract!”, he says, and I leap up with joy, pump my fist and whoop loudly. After going down with Aubrey a couple times, rowing the daily dozens and dozens of consecutive days in a row, keeping a strong work ethic, and getting strong support from Ben and Aubrey, the boss decided to train me to run Cataract Canyon too. I went down twice with Ben, the first time I rowed half of the canyon with Ben sitting behind me giving me tips, the second time I did the whole thing in my own boat and it was awesome! I feel pretty strongly that I’ll return to Navtec next season, and one of the main reasons is that Cataract Canyon continues to call my name. It is unquestionably the most intense thing I have ever done recreationally, and it is highly addicting. In a sense, it is like backpacking, where I get into the zone and endure whatever difficulties are thrown my way, but with Cataract Canyon, the stakes can be significantly higher. What an adrenaline rush!

Boats on the Beach in Meander Canyon on the Dory Trip

Boats on the Beach in Meander Canyon on the Dory Trip

Interp on the Boat in While Motoring Through Meander Canyon

Interp on the Boat in While Motoring Through Meander Canyon

Rowing Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River

Rowing Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River

Cheers in Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River

Cheers in Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River

And one more video just for fun. This is Cataract Canyon in 1984 when the river swelled to over 100,000 Cubic feet of water per second. To put that in perspective, the peak for 2016 was around 40,000.

 

Westwater Canyon

Westwater Canyon is upstream from Moab, close to the Colorado border. The canyon is 17 miles long with the rapids running through a narrow canyon comprised partly of 1.7 billion year old Vishnu Schist, a shiny black rock that gave the canyon its former name of Hades Canyon. The rapids are Class 2- Class 4, but the narrowness of the canyon can make for a much greater challenge than some of the Class 4s in Cataract Canyon. The first time I went down Westwater was also in the very beginning of the season when the water was high, with Tory, who taught me a lot about how to most efficiently rig a boat. The key, as I learned, is to rig to flip. Assume the boat is going to roll over and everyone is going to be tossed out and all the gear is going to be upside-down and under water, then strap everything down accordingly in the simplest manner possible. Once in the rapids, it became quite clear why rigging to flip is so important. We didn’t flip, but I got to see just how easy it would be to make that happen. There are some places in Westwater that scare the living shit out of me. The “room of doom” is one of them. Just below “Skull” rapid, the room of doom is a vertical, cylindrical room cut out of the corner of a bend in the river. The whole Colorado flows into a vertical knife-edge rock called the rock of shock and peels of lateral waves on each side. One wave continues downstream, the other is sent into the room of doom. If you didn’t make exactly the right move, or even worse, did the wrong move, and went over the wave created by a house-sized boulder in Skull Rapid, and you didn’t flip, then surely the waves off the rock of shock would flip you. If you flip on the river side, then it was scary and intense, but then you have an opportunity to flip the boat back over and keep going. If you flip into the room of doom, the swirling, sucking eddy of despair would thrash your boat around, suck you underwater, and make for a really, really bad time. The potential for such violent forces acting on your boat makes rigging to flip essential. After that first trip in the beginning of the season, I didn’t go down Westwater for months. There were so many other trips going on, especially dailies, that I was needed elsewhere during the peak of the season. When things started to slow down in September, the boss decided to train me and the other first year guides to run Westwater. For this training trip, we were given a boat of our own- just guides on a short, lightweight, easily maneuverable boat. It was so much fun, and even though the rapids were still very big and intense, the room of doom was not very doomy this time of year at all. In fact, it was a safe place to eddy out if necessary. After a handful of these training trips, I did my first commercial Westwater trip where I followed Tory in a boat with my own guests. Thus I completed the tri-fecta of Moab commercial rafting trips.

 

Moab River Rats

Moabs river guides are a unique conglomerate of people. Almost none of them are actually from Moab, but many of them would likely struggle to give you a concrete answer about where they are from, since as a whole, they are a very well traveled group. Rafting is a seasonal job, so naturally, most of the guides have adopted a transient lifestyle, and like me, live in broken down campers or buses or in the backs of their cars throughout the season to save money (affordable housing in Moab is hard to find). Some of my favorite times from this season have been hanging out in the boat yard with all the other guides after we all worked a full day. We jammed, we joked, we would go play pool at the bar, or see a band in town, and generally find adventure wherever we looked. Many thanks to all my homies at Navtec for making this summer amazing, and a shoutout to all the folks from Tag-a-Long for the best boat yard get-togethers around. See you guys next summer!!

One Response to Whitewater Raft Guiding on the Colorado River

  1. Terri

    Glad to hear you had a good season.,liked reading about your adventures and especially what you had to say about Tory. I’m his mom and we miss him a lot. Hopefully we’ll get to meet you the next time we come to Moab.

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