Cataract Canyon has her own unique song; you just have to know how to listen
Cataract Canyon is a mystical place with transformative and restorative powers. I discovered this during my epic high-water experience down this legendary stretch of the Colorado River in the spring and knew that I wouldn’t be able to stay away for long. So, in the fall, I joined a group of music and astronomy lovers for a Stars & Guitars Colorado River adventure through my favorite place on the planet.
From the moment we pushed off at Potash Boat Ramp in Meander Canyon, I knew I was on a very different Colorado River than the one I had previously experienced. Earlier in the season, the run-off from an unprecedented snowpack in the Rocky Mountains had us flying downriver with little effort, and the energy of the gushing water filled the air with a buzz of excitement and caution. This time around, an easygoing and carefree vibe was set as we crept our way downstream on a significantly more mellow river. And when two of the guides pulled out their instruments at lunch and started noodling around, their melody gently wafting through the chasm we found ourselves in, we all knew we were in for a very special treat over the next six days.
On our first night, we camped at Lathrop Left and were treated to a showstopping stormy sunset frolicking against vibrant red and orange sandstone cliffs; we were being welcomed by the canyon with open arms, a way for her to thank us for being there. Thunder rolled off the canyon walls, and vibrant streaks of lightning danced across the sky in the distance. By the time we finished our Dutch oven mango carrot cake, night had settled in, and rain had begun to fall. Like foxes, we retreated to our dens. But the show wasn’t over. Tonight, our musical guest was Mother Nature. Boisterous thunder clapped and rumbled, a gentle rain danced on the rainfly, and a symphony of crickets swelled up in perfect harmony, providing the most magnificent soundtrack to fall asleep to.
While our first night was cut short, it meant we were all ready to tackle another day on the river. Not long after lunch, we gathered all the boats up and strapped them together, creating what is often lovingly referred to as a party barge. The guitars and mandolin were pulled out of their drybags, and the real fun began. As our little musical flotilla meandered through the canyon at river pace, our guides treated us to well-known tunes, often with new and improved lyrics about life on the river. I stopped and took a moment to look around at my fellow rafters. Everyone was lackadaisically laid back on the boats, some with their hats pulled down over their eyes for an afternoon rest, others gazing up in wonder at the scenery, and all the while, heads were bobbing, feet were tapping, and happy smiles quietly sang along with the guides. I couldn’t help but beam as I thought, “Now, this is my happy place. If heaven were on Earth, this would be it.”
Already the trip had started off with a bang, but we hadn’t even reached my favorite stretch of the river yet. I noticed more and more Titans appearing in the canyon walls as we approached the Confluence with the Green River. On my last trip, the water was raging and very cold. This time around, I knew I had to officially baptize myself in the Center of the Universe, and after a short swim, we headed downstream to one of the most prized river camps in the West, Brown Betty Beach.
I consider Brown Betty to be one of Cataract Canyon’s crown jewels. At high water, Brown Betty is nary a thin strip of beach, but at lower levels, she is ever so vast and glorious. You can’t help but feel enraptured at this beach because the energy there won’t allow you to be anything but.
On this lazy September afternoon, guides and guests bathed in the river while talking and laughing without a care in the world. We pulled our chairs down to the banks of the beach, setting them in the water so we could soak our feet in the cool Colorado as the sun shone brightly above us, sipping chilled beverages and swapping stories. Two of the guides were also on my previous trip, and we regaled the guests with our grand tale of running the Big Drops at 40,000 cubic feet per second (CFS), complete with nostalgic smiles and a contagious amount of stoke. At one point, I laughed so hard that I cried. It was the most perfect day. I could have lived in this moment forever.
When the sun set behind the canyon walls, our adventure for the day did not end. After some tunes around the campfire, we found ourselves fully submerged in darkness, and we set our gaze above us, taking full advantage of being in Canyonlands National Park—a Gold-Tier International Dark Sky Park—during a new moon. Our Trip Leader, Pete Lefebvre, showed us a whole storybook in the stars with his high-powered laser pointer, explaining not only the classic stories of the constellations but also what each one represents to various Native American tribes. I’ll fully admit that I knew all of three constellations I could point out in the night sky before setting out on this celestial Colorado River adventure. Now, I could also point out Delphinus, Sagittarius, and Cassiopeia, amongst others. As educational as it was fun, our star talk with Pete ended up being a flawless way to end our day at Brown Betty Beach.
In the twilight of the morning came the familiar, “Coffeeeee!” It was rapid day, and a giddiness overtook the group. We saddled up and set out to take on the bucking broncos of Cataract Canyon. Another lunch came and went, another hike, another night singing around the campfire, yet another day of wrangling whitewater broncos. Our final night on the river had arrived, and we found our home at Clearwater Canyon. A beautiful, fairytale-like canyon beginning to come back to life after long being buried by Lake Powell, Clearwater is full of moon flowers, canyon tree frogs, and trickling spring water. Wandering between her walls, you can’t help but think about how it could all disappear beneath a silty lake bed once again. After a short nap in the cool shade of an overhang covered in budding stalactites, I returned to camp with a newfound appreciation for how nature can reclaim itself after negligent human interference.
After dinner, we gathered around the fire for our final night of music on the river. At one point, I wandered down the beach, far away from the group. There, standing in the inky blackness of the night, I realized the canyon was singing. Echoing back from the mouth of Clearwater was the sound of the guides and their instruments. It was one of the most haunting and enchanting things I’d ever heard, these songs from the deep. As enticing as this other-worldly voice was, I decided to make my way back to the warmth of the fire.
One by one, guests retired to their tents, and I once again found myself sitting on the beach in solitude as I had done five months prior at Ten Cent camp. I settled into the comfort of the night and gazed in wonder at the vibrant Milky Way above me, trying to absorb as much of the river’s energy as I could to take back to the rim world the next day. I couldn’t think of it as returning home. I was home. As I sat in the sand, I tuned in to the sounds of the river, the crickets, the wind…a veritable symphony. I closed my eyes and let the symphony swirl around me. “I am home.”