You could hear the roar now. The river bend ahead blocked our view of the approaching rapid but there was no doubt it was there. Jackson pulled on the oars as the emerald water around us accelerated and we drifted around the wide bend into the sunlight. The canyon walls stood hundreds of feet above us as we crashed into the white water.
The Colorado River meets the Green River in southern Utah at Stillwater Canyon in Canyonlands National Park. The area below the confluence is known as Cataract Canyon. Within its hallowed walls is a stretch of rapids known around the country for their veracity and beauty. Our small group had set out on rafts three days prior out of Moab to row these rapids and float the river to Lake Powell and the Glenn Canyon Dam below.
We were following in the footsteps of John Powell, who led the first expedition of the Green River as it ran from the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, south into Colorado and Utah. His expedition attempted to be the first to paddle the length of the Green River until it met the Colorado – mapping the river's many features and geography. From there, the expedition would continue down the great unknown river through what is now known as the Grand Canyon. In 1869 it was still unknown where exactly the two great rivers met and what white water rapids seized the river. The vast area of the Grand Canyon was marked unexplored on the maps of the day. His journey is a frightful tale of white water and lost supplies and like most ‘firsts’ he and his crew barely made it.
White water rafting is a chaotic affair. The river is constantly changing, and you must quickly and aptly adjust your raft position, speed, and angle to make it through the nest of obstacles that fill the river. Once you commit to running the rapid there is no second chance or do over. The moment the raft slips into the channel the options are few – one way or another you are going to be carried down river.
We meet the first rapid with a smack of the bow and a shower of cold water. The waves rise up to meet us as we shoot through the middle of the river, rising and falling fast as Jackson pulls hard on the oars to shift us away from boulders and into the still water past. The canyon walls stand proud around us as we drift from rapid to rapid, ever further into the sandstone cathedral.
As we followed the path of Powell’s expedition, I couldn’t help but imagine how this river would feel if you didn’t know what lies beyond the next bend. Each turn of the river offers a new and unknown first look at the mighty canyon walls and rushing river. We have maps now that detail how to safely run the rapids ahead. Powell and his crew had nothing but courage and the daringness for an adventure.
Powell and his crew had little to no experience running white water when they set out on their expedition. Rowing wooden dories laden with hundreds of pounds of supplies and gear they often swamped their boats and had to repair broken keels. When it came to rapids they would portage the heavy boats and supplies along the river bank. If this was not possible they would guide the boats through the white water from shore using ropes.
We arrive at the final set of rapids in the late afternoon. Big Drops 1, 2, & 3 are class III & IV rapids that stack one on top of the other for half a mile of river. The sun has past over the canyon rim as we scout the first of the Big Drops. Jackson searches the white water for a route through the boulder field and churning waves. We decide on our line and push back into the river. From my view in the front of the raft, the river ahead is smooth as glass for 20 yards then abruptly falls away into a muddy brown chaos. Waves explode around us, in front of us, and over us, as we are pulled deeper into the rapid. We hit a haystack at the center of the river and crash over it with surprising speed. Jackson keeps us on our line and we are quickly past the danger and heading down river to Big Drop 2 and 3. The next quarter mile of river is a boiling sea of rising waves and swirling eddies. The chaos of the moment is totally enveloping – the river controls each of your senses and commands raptured attention. When the roar suddenly fades and the raft stops dancing I find that dusk has firmly settled itself deep into the canyon.
Past the rapids now I take the oars from Jackson and settle into the steady rhythm of the river. He pulls out his banjo and props a leg up on the side of the raft. As we float through the narrow canyons his music echos over the water and between the rocky walls, leaving the splash of the oars in the water and a country ballad of those Hills of Mexico.