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Guide Musings: Westwater Canyon’s Notorious Skull Rapid

With my feet in the warm waters of the Colorado River, I gave my empty paddle boat a gentle pull towards the slow-moving river. Boats afloat, with guests ready to head downstream, I strolled up to the Westwater Ranger Station to check in before launching our trip.

Westwater Canyon is truly one of the most underrated stretches of rafting in Utah. The entire trip is only 17 miles, but that short distance is packed with spectacular geology, beautiful scenery, “guaranteed” wildlife sightings (nothing on the river is ever guaranteed, but you almost always see eagles, river otters, pronghorn, or bighorn sheep on this stretch of river), and some kickin’ whitewater. Nine of the 11 rapids of Westwater Canyon are contained within a 2.5-mile-long gorge composed of 1.7 billion-year-old gneisses, schists, and granites that thrust their way upwards into the surrounding sandstone cliffs to form a narrow chute full of impressive whitewater. Tucked into the heart of this granite gorge is Skull Rapid, Westwater’s most notorious chunk of whitewater.

Business as usual, the ranger checked our gear and signed our permit, ready to send us on our way. “One more thing,” he said. “Have you heard the rumors about the rock fall in Skull?” “No,” I replied, raising my eyebrows and feeling the familiar flutter of butterflies swarm in my stomach, signaling my nervous-excitement. “Don’t worry, they’re not true. The water’s just a lot lower than people are used to seeing. Still the same left to right move, just a little tighter.” I tell him, “Thanks, copy that,” and head back down to the boats to launch our trip, slightly preoccupied with the thought of an even narrower window in which to make an already precise move.

Westwater Canyon rafting near Moab

Skull Rapid is formed by a series of massive boulders lodged in the middle of the river channel just above a sharp left bend in the river. This left bend forces the entire volume of the Colorado River into a sharp rock outcropping, known as the “Rock of Shock” on the right wall of the river. This water piling into the Rock of Shock either breaks left into the main current of the river, or breaks right into the “Room of Doom,” an eddy so powerful that people who have wound up here at high enough flows have been unable to break through the surging eddy line back into the main current, forcing them to abandon their boats and hike up and over the cliff walls to rejoin the rest of their party downstream.

Due to the narrow nature of the granite gorge, at high flows most of the boulders that form Skull Rapid are far enough under water to wash out the rapid, meaning the Rock of Shock becomes the only obstacle to avoid. At medium flows, the boulders begin to come back into play, and boats are forced to run left of a massive mid-river hole (formed by Skull Rock), which sends anything that passes through on a fast track directly into the Rock of Shock. At low flows, boulders exposed at the top left of the rapid force boaters to make a quick right-to-left move to avoid the pour-overs on the top left without cruising into Skull Rock down below on the right. At super low flows, two more rocks come into play just upstream and to the river left of Skull Rock, called Razor and Clam. Some lucky (or maybe skilled) boaters can still make the right-to-left move, squeezing between Razor and Clam rocks to float past Skull Rock on the left. Some not-so-lucky boaters end up missing the move and running to the right of Skull Rock, forcing an eight-foot-wide boat to squeeze through a six-foot-wide opening between Skull Rock and the right cliff wall. Fittingly, this run is called, “The Birth Canal.”

After spending the first eight miles of the trip training my paddle crew, we arrived at the granite gorge feeling like a team of Viking rowers ready to set out to sea. We cruised through the first five rapids of the gorge with some big, splashy runs before pulling into one of the few eddies in the gorge, about 50 yards above Skull Rapid, with the jet black granite cliffs towering hundreds of feet above our heads, shooting vertically straight up from the water. As my paddle crew drank some water and regrouped, I described the move that we were about to make at Skull Rapid. Everyone nods their understanding, and we paddle back out into the current.

We finesse our way over to hug the right wall of the canyon, setting our angle to move from the right wall back over to the left. Floating at what feels like a snail’s pace, we start to hear the roar of Skull downstream and I force myself to be patient and allow the boat to float to the head of the rapid, not wanting to build up any downstream momentum. I start to call out paddle commands to my passengers. “Left side, one stroke backwards. All back one. Left side, one more backwards.” We inch our way downstream, and after what always seems like an eternity (but is probably less than thirty seconds), we reach our marker. Time to make our move.

“All forward, hard!” As soon as I call the move, I know in my gut that I was too late. We shoot from river right towards river left, but instead of coming in upstream of Clam and Razor and squeezing between the two, we smash bow first into Clam Rock at full force, the boat squeezing like a spring before launching us back to the right canyon wall. “Okay, everyone, hang on!” I say, knowing things are about to get sporty. As we approach Skull Rock, I take a stroke to square up the boat and look downstream at the slot between the massive boulder and the cliff wall. Upon seeing the slot, I decide that the people who told me this run goes must have been lying, because there is absolutely no possible way that this boat is going to fit through there. The bow of the boat hits the slot, and the boat comes to a halt. Before I even have time to think about being pinned here, water builds up behind the boat, then miraculously shoots the boat through the slot. We slide over the smooth face of the right side of Skull Rock and into the calm pool below the rapid. Not plan A, but what an exciting ride! Wide-eyed with a huge grin on my face, I look around my boat to see all my paddlers mirroring my shocked, gleeful expression.

That run through the Birth Canal in Skull Rapid wasn’t the first time that I’ve had to resort to plan B (or C…or D) in a rapid and it certainly wasn’t the last. Still, it served as a wonderful reminder of the fluidity of running whitewater, and the need to possess the ability to decide when to act, react, or simply just hang on and go with the flow.

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Westwater Canyon photos: Rob Aseltine and Kent Perillo/American Whitewater