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A first-person account of rafting Westwater Canyon of the Colorado

Putting in. This part of the Colorado is regulated to control the amount of raft traffic. Not all river outfitters have a permit to run this section, and those that do often are limited on what days they can run it.
Putting in. This part of the Colorado is regulated to control the amount of raft traffic. Not all river outfitters have a permit to run this section, and those that do often are limited on what days they can run it.
Liane Ehrich

Everyone knows that the Colorado River runs through the Grand Canyon, and many people believe that to raft it, you must raft the Grand Canyon, an expensive, time-intensive proposition. But the Colorado River runs 1450 miles from the Rockies to the Gulf of Mexico. In its 10,000 foot drop to the sea it carves numerous canyons and passes through three national Parks.

Rafting Westwater Canyon
Liane Ehrich

Rafting the Colorado River, then does not need to entail a great deal of planning. All summer long Moab, Utah has half day and full day excursions from pretty much its front doorstep. What follows is a first hand account of a raft trip down Westwater Canyon, which is located in Utah just west of the Colorado Border. The Outfitter mentioned in the story is Canyon Voyages out of Moab, UT.

The story teller is me - I haven't gone on another raft trip since.

"I am not a rafter, actually, truth be known, up until recently my idea of water sports was limited to deciding whether to turn the jets on or off in the spa. But, my husband loves kayaking and canoeing, and so, as I believe that any adventure is worth having, I decided to ride along.

My first raft trip prior to Westwater was a class I-II ‘float’ down the Colorado just outside of Moab, Utah. I had to handle the paddles and everything, and honestly, I was a bit freaked out, because if your hands are on the paddles they are not available to keep you from plunging into the Colorado and being swept down to Glen Canyon Dam as nothing but a tattered corpse. But, as children and old ladies were on the boat with us I decided that my fear was irrational. And, as I did not die, and was only popped off the edge of the raft once, and that was into rather than out of the boat, I called the whole thing a success.

What I could not believe was that boats could run water rougher than class II, not at least with normal people on board, and certainly not with me on board. So when my husband decided that on our next trip to Moab we should run the class IV rapids of Westwater Canyon, I thought he was delusional. But I am not a wimp. So, I agreed, and secretly hoped we could not get reservations.

We got reservations. But, and I do believe this made all the difference; we were permitted to make a choice between an oar and paddle boat. The difference as I was told is this: paddles would be just like the last trip, I would hold onto the paddle, but this time in class IV water, and with a death grip on the paddle and nothing else, I would be bounced out of the boat and die clinging to a paddle. Or, we could choose oars, where an oarsman holds the oars, allowing me to cling to the boat in any way conceivable and hopefully avoid a gruesome demise. I chose the latter before my husband could finish inhaling to speak.

I was still concerned. I was still fairly certain that death awaited someone. I also knew that logically these outfitters couldn’t stay in business if they kept killing people.

The drive out to Westwater canyon took a while, and took us all the way to the Colorado border, before turning southward across the flat sage studded landscape towards the river. Off in the distance could be seen towering cliffs of red sandstone.

After arriving at the launch point and going over all of the normal safety information — why oh why hadn’t I brought a pen and paper to write this stuff down? We dropped the boats into the languid stream and let gravity take us west.

The trip starts off fairly benignly and the view is of course stunning. The day was hot and the water cool, and it wasn’t long before those not as death focused as I, were drifting lazily alongside the boats. Our Guide was fairly well informed though he did misinform us about a certain geologic feature, but I will let it slide, as any thing he did in addition to not drowning us was just icing on the cake. And actually while double checking my facts for this article I came across differing ideas of what the metamorphic rock that makes the rapids is, Vishnu Schist (what I thought it was, and Wikipedia agrees) or metamorphic gneiss as the Bureau of Land Management and our oarsman contends. Some sites have opted for both rocks to keep everyone happy. Regardless, the first part of the trip was quite wonderful and I actually had time to ruminate on the possible geological inaccuracy.

On either side of the raft high above the contentious metamorphic rock, red sandstone walls rose over a thousand feet in places. We looked for eagles, and peregrine falcons. In places, great blue herons lurked in the shallows, and watched us slide by with mild disdain. We heard the story of Outlaw Cave where according to legend two brothers hid out for 18 months after robbing a bank in Vernal, Utah.

Then came the first of eleven named rapids. I cannot in all honesty tell you which is which, or which ones our guide felt needed hard hats (yes hard hats)! I can tell you that one was called Skull. Some of the other more colorful names were, Sock-it-to-me, Surprise (as badly named as a horse I once knew called Gotcha), and Last Chance, which has a bit of a dire ring to it.

I remember, in between the rapids thinking about John Wesley Powell and his run down this same river over a hundred years ago. I have always admired what it must have taken to run a river that no one had ever run, and to run it through inescapable cliff walls where there was no portage, but being this close to the river added another layer of respect. There are no dams above this section of the river, what you get is what he got. It lends an awesomeness and proximity to history.

I grew more and more confident after each rapid that our oarsman wasn’t going to flip our boat (a boat did flip, but it wasn’t ours) or kill us in any way. And though at every rapid I could feel my pulse begin to race, and my chest tighten, I did begin to almost enjoy them.

There is the roar first, as the cliffs rise and the water is squeezed between contested geology and broken boulders of sandstone. The Oarsman starts to position the boat with more urgency (but not alarm - I took this as a good sign). Then the falls would appear: a turbulent foamy maelstrom of water, spray and rock. I would hold my breath and wonder how anything could go into that powerful seething roaring monster and survive, never mind want to repeat it.

The water we would be on would be smooth and in no seeming hurry, yet with shocking suddenness, the boat would slip past the smooth green and into the rush of upheld waves and endless whirlpools. The boat would rush wildly like a half mad horse, and the oars strained to disobey, but our guide would power the raft through some invisible line of safety. As I clung to the ropes along the edges of the boat for dear life, I watched our captain for the slightest sign that doom was imminent while silently confirming to myself that this was not this guy's first rodeo — he had been here before, and since he still held his job, no one must've died.

Actually, after several rapids failed to kill me or upend the boat, I began to look forward to them. They were awesome in their power, and the roaring unstoppable rawness was breath taking. Huge endless waves of water stood against boulders of red, furious that this chunk of earth stood between it and its rush to the sea. The cliffs stood as reminders of the fury that this river possessed. It and it alone carved out these canyons, stood this geology here and continues its endless war against the rock, wearing it away grain by grain, dying itself red in the process.

Finally after the last rapid, we took off our helmets and slipped into the cool water to drift alongside the rafts. It was glorious, lying on my back watching the red sandstone slip by against the deep clear blue of the sky. The water is cool and quietly powerful and it seems, at this point to be in no particular hurry.
After a while of this we got back in the rafts and motors were fixed to them to get us past the flat water. Without motors, this trip can become two days, allowing more time for side trips to see ancient stone carvings and side canyons. We did not have two days, and actually as the terrain began to drop away at the banks, widening the river and leading to tamarisk-choked sandbars, I was rather glad of the motor. At first I thought that motoring any part of the river was somehow sacrilegious (and I am certain many probably still do) but even with the motors, the ugly invading tamarisk sand flats went on seemingly forever.

And then, before I knew it, we were pulling the boats onto shore, and readying ourselves for the long trip back to town. We were all slightly sun burned, and uniformly exhausted. All in all it had been a glorious experience.

My husband wants to run the Numbers section of the Arkansas in Colorado next year. It is supposed to be seriously wicked with six class IV rapids within a five-mile stretch. I cannot wait to go."

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