SALT LAKE CITY — Two canyons are legendary to the professional river runner, though relatively unknown to the neophyte: Lodore in the Colorado/Utah Plateau on the Green River, and Cataract Canyon, cut by the Colorado through Canyonlands National Park in southern Utah.
Yet with equipment, meals and expertise provided by qualified river outfitters, people with no river knowledge can experience the same state of awe felt by John Wesley Powell more than a century ago. River trips through these remote earth cracks are about the only way to experience wilderness canyonlands.
At Lodore, part of Dinosaur National Park, pre-Cambrian rock walls loom 2,500 feet over a sinewy river bordered by white-sand beaches and fern grottoes with waterfalls.
Controlled by Flaming Gorge Dam, the Green River has a fairly even flow from spring to early fall. Depending on the rainfall, it's often a lush, deep green.
At the canyon entrance, called Gates of Lodore, sage of the high desert gives way to pinon, juniper and cedar. A buck in full antlers feeds by the opposite shore and six bighorn sheep graze.
The rock is a deep red, rich in iron oxide, striped by black drapery of magnesium leeched out over centuries.
The first rapid rumbles. Disaster Falls is around a bend. We can't see it, but its thunderous message is clear. It drops 10 feet a mile--more than the Grand Canyon, more than Cataract Canyon.
The boatman pulls on the oars to guide the craft around boulders bigger than our boat, through foam that looks solid, over crests aimed right at us, down the other side to face a churning hole, then pitching up again like a bucking bronco.
"Yahoo!" the boatman yells. "Ride 'em!" We hang on tight.
In relative calm between rapids we pass Pot Creek and hear its story: "John Wesley Powell ran Disaster Falls for the first time in his 1869 expedition to chart the Colorado River system. One of his boats crashed on that rapid and the men and supplies floated to shore. That creek mouth was where they found their pots."
There is no time to contemplate the gravity of that story because Hell's Half Mile is next. Among boatmen its reputation is legendary.
We beach just above it to hike the portage trail and gape at what lies ahead. It drops 30 feet. Boulders make waves the size of haystacks. In a close huddle the boatmen determine a plan. Thunder from the crashing water prevents us from hearing.
Near the rapids, the current sucks each boat into a ride so wild that it's part roller coaster, part car wash in a convertible.
There's no stopping in this sport--no way to luff a sail, sideslip a slope or brake a race car. It's all or nothing.
Lots of Rapids
Afterward, we beach again and the boatmen hug each other in congratulation. Only then do we realize their grace under pressure.
While the Lodore trip is a fairly even combination of calm water and rapids, the Cataract trip bunches all the rapids into one hair-raising day, allowing calm to reign for most of the trip.
The three-day float in calm water through the eerie labyrinth of sandstone crevices of Canyonlands National Park slows our biological clocks to match the languid river.
We learn to appreciate the slow water, the remoteness, the time for camaraderie. Sometimes there's a water fight--adults acting like children--our other lives a world away.
The boats pull onto a beach for a volleyball game, later for a hike to see petroglyphs scratched on rock and pictographs painted with iron oxide that tell of a culture dating from AD 800 to AD 1200. On the way back there's quiet talk of the fragility of the human race.
Cool Off in Water
The river is so gentle that we take to the water to cool off and feel the current. Lazy conversations last for hours between the oarsman and his passengers, jacketed in orange floaters, drifting along nearby.
With gentle observations he encourages us to hone our senses to notice things--the descending seven-note scale of canyon wrens, marmots waddling along the shoreline, evidence of bank beavers, the creak of oars in oarlocks.
When the boatman stops to drift, we hear the hum of insects. Violet-green swallows dart in a wild display of energy.
The fourth day is a wild white-water slalom course. The name of Cataract is apt. We discover that the three-day cruise on calm water has been a preface to a day of unrelenting rapids.
It's like riding a wet bucking bronco with water, bits of sky, airborne oars and flying passengers all flipping past in a dizzy spectacle.
Seek Rugged Route
Boatmen stand up to see where the tongue of water leads to the safest route--or to the most rugged, a judgment each boatman makes, based on his skill and his passengers' sense of adventure.
Three things made Powell consider Cataract Canyon an obstacle course: Big Drop 1, Big Drop 2 and Big Drop 3. At high water (late April, May, early June) they converge, a cause for jubilation among boatmen.