In the 50 years he’s been at it (he started when he was 16), professional river runner Myke Hughes, owner of Adrift Adventures, has successfully piloted boats through Cataract Canyon, the famed whitewater stretch of the Colorado River that empties into Lake Powell, at least 200 times, probably more.

But it’s only the one that dumped him that is commemorated by a plaque hanging on his office wall. 

The plaque recognizes “The survivors of the Satan’s Gut tragedy.” It was sent to him from the five people he was guiding down the river that day. Cataract was at its orneriest, running at or near its all-time peak of 114,900 cubic feet per second (an average year in Cataract peaks at about 50,000 CFS — equivalent to 350 million gallons of water per second. Double that and you’re in the boat that day with Hughes and his passengers).

In sheer terror they’d made it through every rapid the narrow canyon with walls 80 million years old could throw at them — and now they were at Big Drop 3, a Class 5 rapid that serves as Cataract’s coup de grace before the river becomes sane again.

(Of historical note, when John Wesley Powell led the 1869 expedition down the Colorado for the first time in recorded history, they carried their boats around every last rapid in Cataract. When they got back in their boats, it was Powell who gazed back and gave the canyon its name: cataract means “A type of waterfall with a large single, vertical drop.”)

If it had been today, Hughes and crew would probably have made it successfully through Big Drop 3, but it wasn’t today, it was 1984, and unlike modern river running rafts with self-bailing features, this one you had to bail by hand. After being pummeled while surviving Big Drops 1 and 2, the raft was much too heavy to properly maneuver. 

To the left of Big Drop 3 there’s a hole called Satan’s Gut that, as the name implies, should be avoided at all costs. They dropped into it and flipped. 

This thought raced through Hughes’s mind when they all went overboard: “I don’t want to drown a customer.” As soon as his head popped out of the freezing water he started counting. To his relief, every passenger had paid attention during their safety training session, because each one had grabbed onto a rope dangling off the boat. In an instant, they were all on top of the capsized raft.

This plaque commemorating “the only time I ever flipped a boat” hangs on river runner Myke Hughes’ office wall, remembering the high water of 1984. | Lee Benson, Deseret News

From there, Hughes maneuvered them safely to shore.

We’re bringing all this up now, 39 years later, because Cataract hasn’t seen anything even close to the kind of high water it saw in 1984 … until now. 

All the snow that set records in the mountains this past winter is heading downhill, much of it racing pell-mell toward the Colorado River.

The high water attracts “the thrill-seekers,” says Hughes. “It’s on their bucket lists. And at high water, Cataract is as big as anything in the Grand Canyon; as big, really, as any whitewater in the world.”

There’s a chance this year’s Cataract crest could challenge the high-water marks of 1983 (104,700 CFS) and 1984 (114,900) — the two biggest water years since record-keeping began in 1928.

Typically, Cataract peaks around June 10, give or take a week or two either way.

“We’ll see if that (the high water of 1984) was a once in a lifetime experience, or if we get another one,” says Hughes. “A lot depends on how warm it is at night and if a high pressure system comes in. If it gets really warm at night in the high country it will all start to come down.”

The river guides at Adrift Adventures, like all the outfitters in town, are waiting for it, preparing for it, relishing it, respecting it.

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That includes the dean of Moab river runners.

“I don’t get on the water as much as I used to,” says Hughes, who has his hands full running a company (adrift.net) with 30 employees that in addition to whitewater rafting offers guided hiking and Jeep tours, kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding. But as soon as the water gets big enough, he plans to take a training trip down Cataract with his new guides “so they can see what high water looks like.”

He’ll be sure to point out Satan’s Gut.

“Oh my gosh, every time I’m down there I remember,” he says. “That is the only time I have ever flipped a boat, knock on wood. I know where not to be.”

A river guide pilots an Adrift Adventures boat through the Colorado River rapids. Record high flows are expected this year. | Adrift Adventures
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