It’s been a year since I’ve been down there, down there at the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers. It’s been at least 10 years that I have been keeping track of and visiting what Major John Wesley Powell dubbed “Cataract Canyon.” He named it thus because of the many frightening falls and cataracts found below the confluence.
The good news is that Cataract Canyon is still a pretty wild place, unlike the Grand Canyon downstream, which is squeezed and scraped and exploited and regulated and controlled to man’s best abilities. Even though I was already in Canyonlands National Park when the federal shutdown hit, I would have never known about the park closing.
There is little adult supervision for private boaters in Cataract Canyon, especially in the fall off-season when demand is low. Many times I have run this trip and not seen a ranger and sometimes not even another boater.
This isolation makes it rare and exotic but also somewhat risky should something go amiss because your only way out is by boating many miles, including more than 20 miles across “Lake” Powell, which is returning to being a river as we speak.
You can’t call for help or wait for the ranger to come help you out. Although I am respectful of the rapids in Cataract Canyon, the potential for flooding and vile weather are much more threatening. Mother Nature has been busy in the canyon doing those things this last year. The place looks dramatically different, mostly from weather, flooding and invasive plants.
The many side canyons that feed into the Green and Colorado rivers up to and including the massive Cataract Canyon tell the story. A walk up almost any wash reveals flash flood debris like trees, plants, rocks, mud and silt. Long beaches that you could normally count on seeing along the Green have been pounded by rain and some have been transformed to inhabitable muddy bogs. Some of the higher bogs have dried into natural concrete blocks, cracked like so much dried clay.
Up the short walk to the Olympic-sized plunge pool in Horse Canyon on the Green River, the drainage is polished by fine red sand and pebbles. When you get up to the pool at the end of the walk, mud covers the cliff walls 50 feet up, left over from a mighty orange mist from the massive pour over above. Standing in the pool and looking up you can imagine the power and spectacle that this particular side canyon is capable of.
When our small group got to the campsite registration sign-in below the confluence, it was, as usual a very windy day. Winds were blowing hard enough to make it near impossible to make any forward progress despite a swollen river flowing around 7,000 cubic feet per second (cfs).
The register is a courtesy for boaters letting them plan their campsites according to who was there first. When we got to the registry there was not another group in the canyon ahead of us, although a group from CRMS had been through the week before. That means that the impossibly huge and savage canyon ahead “belonged” to the five of us. Of course, no one “owns” Cataract but it sure felt wild and free to have that much elbow room.
A recent flood of 30,000 cfs has left debris strewn throughout the canyon. There are chunks of cedar and tamarisk and other flotsam and jetsam scattered everywhere. Winds and rains have scoured and scarred the camps. Brown Betty, a dramatic long sandy beach book-ended by roaring rapids was a paradise until last year. Now half of the soft, safe sand is covered with eager tumbleweeds and the wind has created a mighty high dune.
Making the walk to scout the rapids known as the “Big Drops” reveals that the slopes and canyons that created these mighty rapids have been sifting, silting and depositing lately. There are new rock falls and crumblings off the talus slopes that are transforming the river and the rapids.
Years of drought have lowered the level of Lake Powell, revealing more river each year and more rapids. These changes will keep you on your toes.
On our last night we camped at Sheep Canyon. After watching a gopher snake constrict and kill a chipmunk and then eat it earlier in the day, I lay in my tent contemplating my tiny life.
I heard the distant wind howl up the canyon, a short warning I was familiar with. What followed was a gale which filled my tent with sand, followed by sideways rain that brought my tent down upon me. At first I tried to resist. I held my tent up with my outstretched arms as the world raged outside. I finally relented and got into a tiny ball under the covers and let nature have her way with me and my tent, just like the rest of the river.
Steve Skinner thinks change is accelerating. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.