MOAB — It's always calm before the fury — on a river, that is ... flat water before the rapids. Rivers are made that way for river runners.
Anticipation is always part of a whitewater trip, thus the calm. The actual running of the rapids is the unknown, the adventure or the fury. Rivers change almost daily, guides will attest. Holes will appear where none were the day before. Rocks will surface, making rollers and backwater
flushes where the river ran smooth the day before.
Rivers are designed around flows, and this year flows were excitingly high and prolonged. This would, of course, include water flowing through Cataract Canyon, which is one of the premier whitewater sections in the country and said to hold some of the biggest and most challenging rapids in the U.S.
In a more normal summer, said Myke Hughes, owner of Adrift Adventures, one of the veteran river companies in Moab, "Flows through Cataract Canyon are between 40,000 and 50,000 (cubic feet per second). This year they were over 70,000. It made for some very exciting runs ... and people responded. Our business, for the shorter one- and two-day trips, is up 20 percent over last year. On the longer four- and five-day trips we are even with last year."
Vacationers, he explained, are pinched for time, "and while they want, very much, to take a river trip, they don't want the longer trips. They want to run a river, then go biking or visit one of the parks or go on a Hummer ride."
A standard rowing trip through Cataract, roughly 120 miles of calm and whitewater, takes five days. Jet boats and motors have made it possible to cut the time to one or two days.
A day on the Colorado River begins early with a bus ride to put in near the potash plant on the banks of the river. After a talk by guides on safety and procedures, boats are launched ... calm water first, then the rapids — 29 in all. A number of rapids were class 3s and 4s at this time of the year. Many were 5s, the highest number possible to still be open to rafts during high water.
The river meanders, flat and calm, for about 50 miles to where it joins with the Green River at the confluence. At the meeting place there is a distinct line where the greenish hue of the Green blends with the silt-laden waters of the Colorado.
This is where boxes are tied down, life vests are tightened, cameras and glasses are put away and more instructions follow ... "If you fall out of the boat, either hold on or swim back to the boat or face down river, feet forward and hold onto the vest — you'll be fine," said Brian Martinez, an eight-year guide with Navtec.
The first of the rapids is "Brown Betty," named after a black cook who drowned in the rapid during the Stanton party river run in 1889. Then comes rapid No. 2 ... then rapids with numbers and names like Little Upset, Seven Seas and the six rapids in Mile Long. The most famous of the big rapids are the Big Drops 1, 2 and 3, with 1 and 2 being good 4-plus rides and 3 being an easy 5, with a hole appropriately called Satan's Gut off to the left.
When Lake Powell is high, the last of the big rapids is Imperial at the base of Imperial Canyon. With the lower lake levels, there's Waterhole and No. 29, named as the 29th rapid in the canyon.
The last 30 or so miles are, again, calm.
And, like the first 50 miles, the river becomes a canvas of artistic beauty. Everywhere you look — at the canyon walls, the riverside vegetation, the lazily flowing water — there are scenic wonders to behold. For those interested in geology, the canyon is a dream. The river has cut through eons of time and now exposes more than 300 million years of rock formations.
Takeout is at Hite, on the upper reaches of Lake Powell. From there river runners have the option of a three-hour drive back or a 30-minute flight to Moab.
Both have their advantages. The flight is quick and follows the river upstream, giving runners a brief aerial view of their trip. The drive offers an opportunity relax and reflect.
The overriding opinion of the Cataract trip at the end for first-time runner is that what he or she expected was a good trip, but what he or she got turned out better then expected.
Vijay Chowgule came to Utah from India to experience the "big" waves and found it "much better than I pictured."
Alex Rogers of Tennessee came to Utah "just to run a river."
The Kravitz family from Massachusetts — Joseph and Marjorie, and sons Steven and Scott — also said the river trip was much more than expected and that they would definitely do it over again.
Mike and Mary Hughes of Florida said it was everything they expected and more.
"These are very common responses from first-time customers," said Martinez.
"Everyone was excited this year. They just knew it was going to be pretty big. How big, no one knew, but every trip down the river there have been big waves and big smiles."
As Hughes alluded to, however, many of today's river runners are looking for more things to do. That is, they want to tie in other activities on their vacations, whether it's riding horseback through red-rock country or taking an ATV on a backcountry road or pedaling a bike over the famed Slickrock Trail.
Hughes said there are other popular options, too. His mother-daughter and father-son river trips have become very popular. He also offers a "Man-cation" trip for men only that is attracting a lot of attention.
"And, we're doing more all-women trips. Our women guides take these trips, and they've become quite popular in recent years," he added.
"We're also seeing where people are coming back and running with people they met on previous trips. River trips tend to bring people together."
Also this summer, as a result of the weakening American dollar, river companies are seeing an increase in the number of customers from outside the country.
Cataract is, of course, not the only popular Utah whitewater trip. Westwater and Desolation are also high adventure rafting trips.
Many of those coming into Utah, though, have heard about Moab and the Colorado River. And, many of those were waiting for the right time and the right year for good flows — and this is it.