DENVER POST: Time Traveling in Utah’s Cataract Canyon

This article first appeared in The Denver Post on July 25, 2021

The Same River Twice: Time Travel in Cataract Canyon

By Joshua Berman

The sign on the bank was the same as how I remembered it from my last time here, when I floated by this spot on the Colorado River 24 years ago. It reads: DANGER: CATARACT CANYON HAZARDOUS RAPIDS 2 MI, PERMIT REQUIRED FROM SUPERINTENDENT CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK FOR BOATING BELOW SPANISH BOTTOM. 

To reach this point, in 1997, my friend, Sean Gaughan, and I paddled a canoe for seven days down the Green River, which joins the Colorado just upstream from here. This time, however, I’d returned with my 13-year-old daughter, Shanti, on a four-day rafting trip out of Moab with OARS (oars.com), a venerated outfitter that runs trips on most major rivers in the US West. 

Of course, when I last visited, the Great Drought was just beginning; water levels in rivers and reservoirs were still high and I remember a strong, quick current pushing our canoe for those 120 miles. But since 2000, Lake Powell, into which the Colorado River spills via Cataract Canyon, has decreased by 140 vertical feet, a result of steadily decreasing snowpack in the mountains. One of our guides said it was the lowest he’d ever seen it in a decade and that it dropped several feet each time he returned. 

At these levels, we didn’t get to experience the boat-crunching Class V gnarliness for which Cataract is famed at high flows, but we had a blast as we bounced down the canyon, splashing through several series of wave trains, small rapids, and technical turns in a section called Big Drops. On flatter, slower sections, we tied our rafts together and stuck a motor behind us in order to make our miles. 

Shanti and I weren’t there for the rapids or thrills though; rather, I’d wanted to share with her the enormity of the canyon experience and the rhythm of the river, which I’ve remembered so fondly from my first time here. You float, you find a place to camp, cook some food, then sleep under the stars and do it all over again. And again. 

On this OARS trip, our campsites were all atop soft sandy beach bars and meals were grand affairs of salmon, steaks, and charcuterie. On the second night, it rained and my tent collapsed; on night three, a sandstorm tried to blow our camp apart, stinging our eyes and tearing at our tents. But afterwards, it left a clear sky, and most of us slept on the sand to watch for shooting stars.

The final miles, motoring into Lake Powell, the canyon walls were as tall and awesome as anything I’d ever seen, and then we passed under the Hite Crossing Bridge, pulled up to the steep boat ramp, and boarded a van for the 10-minute drive to the airstrip. There, two small aircraft landed to shuttle our group back to Moab.

My thoughts mixed with the excitement of lift-off and then there was Cataract Canyon below.

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man,” goes the ancient Greek saying. The wing of our plane tipped, the Canyonlands stretched forever, and I thought, it’s the same for the rocks—these cliffs and canyons and mountains that are as solid as anything, yet also shifting and crumbling before us, sometimes even blasting sand into our eyes. 

Sean and I dropped our canoe into the Green River several lifetimes ago. This past week, my daughter, Shanti, and I got in a boat and we continued downstream from where I’d left off. But we’re on a completely different journey—and it’s far from over.

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Here’s the video I made on this trip, enjoy:

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