Rapid Musings: The Big Drops at 65,000 CFS
Veteran river guide Lars Haarr recounts a high water adventure through the Big Drops in Cataract Canyon
My eyes cast downward, heart pounding, and I carefully coiled my bowline. Trying hard to keep the nervous flutter out of my voice, I hollered over to the other guides, “Everybody ready? Big hits, big fun! Let’s go!”
I assume they were feeling the same as I was. We were halfway through a high-water Cataract Canyon trip and the Colorado River was flowing at an epic 65,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). The Mile Long Rapids were behind us, but the Big Drops were yet to come.
After a scout at Poop Rock we decided on the far-right “sneak.” For this move, you keep your boat straight as you crash through the big, but relatively straightforward haystacks of Big Drop 1, then turn sideways as the waves taper off and the horizon line of Big Drop 2 looms just downstream. Once you get to the right spot, with the proper downstream ferry angle you pull your guts out and hope you’ve got the perfect combination of luck and skill so you can slide onto a thin ribbon of water between a feature called Little Niagara (about as friendly as it sounds!) and the right shore. No problem.
That’s just the entry move. Up next is Big Drop 2 ½ and its long list of named features like “The Claw” and “The Black Hole.” There are several options here, but all of them force you to respond and react to whatever the rapid throws your way as you try to keep yourself square to the enormous waves, and high-side when necessary. All of this is right above Big Drop 3, where much of the main current heads directly to Satan’s Gut on one side or the enormous “catcher’s mitt” of Brahma’s Wave on the other. No wonder we were nervous.
With us we had two motor rigs that would run first and eddy out between Big Drops 2 and 3. Their role was to pick up swimmers, if necessary, and to push upside-down boats to shore in the event something went wrong. We boatmen were very happy to know that Christian and Joe, both incredible motor guides, would be down below to help pick up the pieces if need be.
Christian yelled to me over the roar of his twin 70-horsepower outboards, “If you guys are ready, we’re gonna head down! Good runs!”
When he and Joe peeled out of the eddy and disappeared into the haystacks of Big Drop 1, I knew time was up. No more procrastinating. Or as my good friend Steve Kenney said from the cockpit of his dory, “We’re on a date with the devil and it’s time to dance!”
As we rowed out of the eddy I briefed my four guests as to what to expect down below. “Okay gang, remember to lean into those waves, no matter what! If I say get right or left, do it! And bail when you can, or if I start yelling!”
I’ve always loved the feeling I get in the calm water above big rapids. All extraneous thoughts are pushed out of my head, and all I see is a vivid picture of the rapid itself and my line through it—absolute clarity. Oh, and butterflies the size of condors trying to escape my insides!
As we drifted down the tongue—a smooth V-slick that lead to muddy brown chaos—waves exploded around us, in front of us, and over us. The bow and stern footwells started to fill up.
Over the roar of the water I yelled,“Bail! Get this water out.”
Then, staring down the horizon line of Big Drop 2, I turned the boat sideways. About all I could see from this point was an exploding wave at the top center called the Marker Hole, and the occasional shot of spray coming from Little Niagara, directly below my little craft.
“Okay guys, stow those bailers,” I commanded. “We’re going in. Hold on!”
I had what I thought was the perfect downstream ferry angle and I buried my oars and began to pull, slowly at first, then as my momentum built, harder and harder. We crashed through the lateral that guards the right sneak, then inexplicably my dory spun bow downstream. It’s as if an unseen hand had grabbed the dory and shoved us back out into the middle of the river. The sneak wasn’t an option anymore and I would have to “thread the needle” instead…something I had never done at these flows.
At this point, my brain shut off and I went on autopilot. As I lined up to the Marker Hole, for some reason the only thing that popped into my head was, “$#@!’s getting weird,” which I yelled aloud to no one in particular.
We slammed through the edge of the Marker and I spun the bow to the right to square up to the enormous brown wall of Niagara and the Ledge wave, just hoping we’d come through. We did, but now, full of water, we were a runaway freight train and it was all I could do to point the bow downstream and pray that the momentum of a full boat would carry us through – no steering involved.
I could see that we were now headed way farther left than I wanted. Still brainless, I yelled out like some deranged conductor, “Next stop…the %$@#!*& Claw!”
In we went. Down, down, down, and then a wall of brown collapsed on us and all went dark.
Maybe it was because our boat was already full, or perhaps the river gods took pity on us. Or maybe we were simply lucky. Whatever the reason, we floated out the backside of the Claw, mostly underwater, and with water still pouring over the gunwales back into the river…but still upright! The boat was impossible to control, but at least I knew we were headed back toward the tail waves of safety.
I issued one final command to my dazed crew, “Everybody get…” But I didn’t finish my sentence. I could see that we were square for the waves ahead and no one needed to high side. We were through Big Drop 2.
Still too heavy to move, we entered Big Drop 3 in the right spot—all luck at this point—and wallowed down through the standing waves between Satan’s Gut and Brahma’s. Easy peasy.
In an eddy, breathing hard, laughing maniacally, I shouted at my passengers, “Bail, bail, bail!”
While we watched the rest of our team row down through the madness I apologized to everyone for my profanity.
“Oh, no problem,” one of my guests laughed. “I wasn’t worried until the end, when you said, ‘Everybody get…’ and didn’t finish. That had me worried. Get where?”
Since that crazy trip I’ve had many dozens more runs through the Big Drops, with varying degrees of success, but none quite as exciting as that fateful day in June 2011. But you never know what the future may hold. As I write this it’s winter in Moab and I’ve been staring out the window watching snowflakes drift lazily down from a leaden sky. With any luck, it’s snowing in Colorado too.
Maybe this spring we’ll see 65,000 cfs again…