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  • Writer's pictureBlaine Hoppenrath

Same River, New Canyon

I was smitten with the Colorado River years ago when I first hiked down to Phantom Ranch. I fell a little harder on my first commercial trip on the lower half, and by the time I was on my second commercial trip on the upper half, the river stole my heart forever. It has been a privilege to get to go back time and time again and walk from the rim of the Grand Canyon to the River.

Late last year I saw the river again but in a new state and a different canyon. I ventured north to Moab and spent a little bit of time in Canyonlands National Park as well as a scenic drive along the scenic byway the follows the river. It was the same river, but a different way to see it. In Moab it has yet to reach the confluence of the Green, the dams are unlike Hoover or Glenn so the river is in its most organic state.

Then there was an opportunity to float through Cataract Canyon.

Four days and three nights on the River.

I wasn't sure what to expect, I figured that it would be somewhat similar to my trips down the Grand Canyon, but also different. When I got to the put in it I was able to just soak in the scenery. Our trip would start out by floating roughly 50 miles on flat water through Meander Canyon. Our boats would be tied up (in a package) and we would use an outboard motor to navigate the shallow slow moving water. After we put in we cruised the river. It was perfect. There was enough cloud cover that it made the float enjoyable. The canyon was beautiful. The red canyon walls against the gray sky was the perfect backdrop to get to know the 'clients' who chose to float this river and the guides who dedicate their summers to the river.

This trip had four guides, Dave, Annabelle, Ernie, and Bridget. They came from all over and somehow ended up on a trip with us on the river. On the three trips I've taken I've found that there is always a guide like Dave. I knew that to be in Dave's boat would mean that I am going to end that day knowing more about life than when I started and the guide who is most likely to stay calm under pressure. Mostly about the canyon, the history of the rapids, the way they navigate through, how the longstanding drought in the West is affecting people's way of life. But he also was the one who, with the help of Annabelle, played over an hour and a half of music for everyone on the last night of the trip. But most impressively he gave one of the most incredible TedTalks about the stars in the night sky. He talked about the difference between an asterism and a consolation, and how the moon rises and how the signs of the zodiac work.

Then there was Annabelle. She grew up on rivers, her parents were Park Rangers in both Canyonlands and Grand Canyon. She had a personality that would just suck anyone in. She was the first guide to introduce us and I was pretty drawn to her. I wanted to be on her boat at least for a bit so that I could see what she was all about. One of my favorite parts about her was he bright pink skirt/crop top outfit on the last night that seemed more Coachella and less Cataract Canyon, and I was mostly jealous that I had missed the memo.

Ernie was the guide that I probably spent the shortest amount of time with but he was also the one that set up the Slip n Slide on the second to last day. He was quiet but in a few years I would imagine that he would remind me of Dave, the one who likes to pass along their knowledge. Bridget was on the gear boat so I spent less time with her because she was either running the motor or on the baggage boat by herself. But she ran the Kern last year and it was a reminder of my extended zero day in Kernville running the same river.

On the first day we set up camp and right as dinner was starting it poured. Monsoon poured. I was not in a good mood. I love rain. But I do not love camping in rain. Eventually the rain passed, we went to sleep, and got ready for a second day on the river.

The second day, we packed up camp and took off down the river. We made it to the confluence of the Green and the Colorado. It was beautiful. I had seen this massive canyon wall and when it was announced that was where the rivers merged it made my heart pitter patter a little on the inside. And when we got there we could visibly see that the colors of the two rivers merging. That merge also meant we were officially in Cataract Canyon.

We found a beach where we were able to break the boat down and about half of the guests hopped in the paddle boat. I originally thought the paddle boat was where I wanted to be, but I at the same time thought that the oar boat would suffice. I hopped in Annabelle's boat with another guest and we hit the first 11 rapids of the canyon.

The river was low (roughly 3700 CFS) so the rapids were fun, but not anything crazy. We found a beach and enjoyed the night. There was a huge eddy that we were able to float in (think natures lazy river) for about an hour before dinner. Then at dinner Bridget told us about the Trahna. Back in the 70s some people decided to release the pet piranhas when there were too hard to take care of and then they bred with the trout. It only took us about three minutes too long to figure out that she was messing with us, but we enjoyed the joke. That night Dave gave his astrology TedTalk. There is something magical about being in a canyon with no light pollution. There are so many stars and I can see the milky way, more stars than I can imagine, but the really beauty is that there are so many stars that I can see the outline of the canyon walls.

The morning of the third day we started with the remaining whitewater. It was great and I enjoyed just riding on the oar boat. We pulled over about halfway through and Ernie convinced me to paddle (I was really enjoying chilling on the oar boat). It was more of a bargain, I would ride the bull for the first rapid and then paddle the remaining. For context, riding the bull is when you sit front and center on the boat with your legs hanging over the front. You hold onto one of the line and if you hold it with one hand it resembles riding a bull. Turns out it wasn't much of a hard bargain because Ernie didn't put up much of a fight. But I did get to ride for the longest rapid (27-Imperial Rapid) and love every second of it. I went back to paddling and when we made it through all of the rapids we stopped for lunch and Ernie set up the Slip n Slide which we all had a lovely time on.

We set off again and about 10 minutes after we got on the river we were in an absolute downpour. It was cold and miserable. But absolutely stunning. The rain let up about 45 min after it started and that was when the waterfalls started to appear. The poured over the walls, cascading down. When we saw on on a lower wall, we would see more tiers the closer we got. It was something that I had never seen before and something that I am not sure I will ever get to see again. There was a massive waterfall close to our camp, but in a matter of an hour it was gone. It was such a special moment.

The last night was filled with music, laughter, food, and sleeping under the stars. Then on the last day we floated out of the canyon. We hopped on a very small plane and that took us back to Moab via flying over the river we just rafted. That was an experience that I will never forget. It was magical to see the confluence and the loop and the rapids we had floated from a whole new perspective.

Being on the river is a blessing. I am so glad the opportunity presented itself and that it was more than my wildest expectation. It leaves me wondering when the next trip will be and where it will be and who I will get to meet along the way.

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