A Near Calamity in Cataract Canyon

8 Min. Read
A group of river guides scouting the Big Drops in Cataract Canyon
A group of river guides scouting the Big Drops in Cataract Canyon

High Water Cataract Canyon Trips Will Test Even the Best Guides

In his defense, it was only Steve Haase’s “630-somethingth” trip down Cataract Canyon, but I’d seen prettier runs. He came through clean—no mean feat with just around 50,000 cubic feet of Colorado River careening by every second—but conventional it was not. I’d never seen anything like it in my career.

Hang around Moab guides for all of one night and you’ll hear plenty of stories, advice, and opinions on the Colorado River Basin’s white whale: high water Cataract Canyon. If you’ve caught the ever-rarer big runoff from the Rockies once in your life, you’ve been blessed; especially if you got to run it, exceptionally more so if you managed to keep upright, and exponentially if you ran it clean.

Legendary Moab guide, Steve Haase, has been running Cataract Canyon since 1978 | Photo by Mike Walton

Those who keep chasing high-water runs belong to something of a mad breed; frenzied canines who can’t stop chasing the cars that just hit them. Ask anyone still in the saddle about high-water Cataract Canyon trips and watch their faces invariably muddle into a thousand-yard stare with the glint of a dyed-in-the-wool gambler’s rising hunger for the next dance of the dice. Lord help us all.

Those who have seen it will agree that although 20,000 CFS (cubic feet per second) is absolutely high water, (even the high teens are a wild ride), only at 50,000 CFS does Cataract Canyon get truly hungry. Erratic. Indomitable. Flashing fangs in the face of anyone fool enough to think themselves its master. Ready to flip your rig over at any random point. Bottomless holes appearing out of nowhere. Surging boils popping up just in time to bat you thirty feet off your line right above a foaming feature bigger than a semi-truck. All of this happening to you. You’ve done your best and it should have been enough. None of it is your fault except that you said, “Sure, I’d love to see high water!”

Well, maybe it’s not all that bad. The vast majority of our craft tend to make it through right-side up. But at about 50,000 CFS, the water starts making decisions for you, despite your best efforts, skills and preparation. That first time you make it through makes you feel like you could carve your own canyon, but instead you have to go cook dinner. When it’s all done, most other whitewater feels flabby and cultured by comparison, and you’re stuck staring at the horizon, wondering if and when it will ever rise again to meet you in that same violent and lovely way.

A Near Miss in the Big Drops

But there we were, the first full week of June 2023. Right above some of the biggest rapids in North America all over again. 

The Colorado River’s peak had just passed by the week before, and I’d gotten to lead the trip that threatened 80,000 CFS but settled for 63,000. Luckily for me, my beard looks even better with some gray hairs to add a little pizazz. I was glad to have Peter Lefebvre driving snout alongside me on that high-water trip for corroboration. He and I had each seen low 60’s once apiece, and that particular lap was only my second time driving a snout of my own. Excitement does have a place in education.

A snout raft heads downstream on a mellow stretch of the Colorado River | Photo by Mike Walton

For those unfamiliar with the craft, in high water, the snout is supposed to be our savior. We’re one of the few companies that will actually continue to send people to row rafts and, specific to OARS, those gorgeous dories. Most other companies transition to much larger craft, a veritable battle station of five massive rubber tubes bound together, large enough to carry 30 people, a 33-foot long torpedo called an S-rig. Or, most uniquely, three rafts tethered side by side and driven like the northern sweep boats but with a captain at both ends, one oar a piece. 

The 25-horsepower motor that drives our 22-foot pontoon craft that we call the snout has its work cut out for it. The snout typically turns into a true gear pig, carrying a huge amount of equipment, so our rafts are nimble and not top heavy. This big, heavy rig can feel like a fortress. But out here, fortresses can flip.

On this particular trip, Haase and I had snouts and swampers of our own; JC with Haase, and Mollye serving as my “person plucker.” Chefy was coming down as well in his nimble sport boat. We would all back up the man of the hour, Russell Schubert, the only one out of four boats that would row that day. But this story wouldn’t turn out to be about him.

OARS guide Russell Schubert at the oars of a dory in Cataract Canyon at high water | Photo by Mike Walton

Trips come amazingly close to running themselves when you’ve got an Olympic-level team backing you up. Russell’s been guiding about twice as long as I have and, boy, does it show. Meanwhile, Haase’s commitment to the craft seems devout.

So there I was, holding my snout at the top of the massive eddy called the Duck Pond just below the Black Hole, a true trip stopper of a feature, waiting with Chefy in his sport boat to see our other two craft through. 

Until now, we’d had clean lines with grand hits in the upper curls of Brown Betty and the ravenous Mosh Pit. Clean cuts around the cruel chop of the North Seas, flawless dances with the monsters lining the Mile Longs, and most importantly, a clean pull into Big Drop Beach for lunch.

After lunch, Russell and I hustled the half mile downstream to get a chance to watch our colleagues with another outfitter run their triple rigs through Big Drops 2 and 3, Cataract Canyon’s wicked heart. Their lines were glorious. Haase stayed back. I assumed he stopped making the scouting hike around trip 500 or so.

With a snout full of gear, guests, and an unsuspecting manager, Haase was floating idly with a dead motor, right above the Black Hole, Brahmas, and Satan’s Gut, all waiting to have their evil way with him.

Now it was our turn.  I made it through Big Drop 2 clean. The move is to tuck below the Marker beneath Little Niagara. Then, dip below the Black Hole and after a little taste of the tail waves for fun, hang out in the Duck Pond and don’t think too much about the maelstrom of Big Drop 3 below. That massive rapid will be there when you have to run it. Watch your boats. Watch your heart rate. Mine beat relatively mellow for being halfway through the big stuff. It stayed that way until I looked up and saw Haase coming through Big Drop 2, beneath the Marker, and charging straight at the Black Hole. Backwards.

With a snout full of gear, guests, and an unsuspecting manager, Haase was floating idly with a dead motor, right above the Black Hole, Brahmas, and Satan’s Gut, all waiting to have their evil way with him. My pulse picked up.

I’ve witnessed and helped handle the aftermath of a flipped snout years ago up on the Main Salmon, which hosts large, calm, and, most importantly, frequent eddies. The exact opposite of what we were in the thick of here.

Wet hell was breaking loose all around Haase as he fiddled with the fuel line fittings, played with his primer, toggled the throttle—all with the urgency of a man trying to match a pair of socks. I’d never seen Haase so calm.  Then, as if by his quiet command, he slipped right by the Black Hole, lazily ruddering with all the effects a skag and lower unit could have on the 22-foot rig. I swear I saw him scratch his cheek and wrinkle his nose in quiet contemplation. A Norman Rockwell in high water.

Campsiste along the Colorado River in Cataract Canayon at night
A groups shares stories around the campfire at Tent Cent Camp | Photo by Mike Walton

I couldn’t tell you what I was yelling, or describe Russell’s subsequent, probably textbook, line. I was resolving how to get past Haase’s snout to pick up the presumed coming carnage, but Haase waved off any offer of help and had that rig running with boat lengths to spare above Big Drop 3. 

We had a hell of a time telling the story to each other down at Lower Ten Cent camp, a grand last night to an unforgettable high-water adventure. It wasn’t his first dance in the big stuff without a motor, and I’m sure not looking forward to mine. But when it comes, I hope I remember to take a moment to scratch my cheek. It may just save my butt.

OARS guide Adam Walck

Adam Walck

Adam Walck spends most of the year guiding with OARS all over the Colorado Plateau. In the winter he loves cooking everything from barbeque to broccoli soup, reading Sci-Fi, and stumbling upon archeological sites with his wife and dog.

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