Solo Boating: Cataract Canyon of the Colorado River
By Christie Glissmeyer
I have had a thing for Canyonlands ever since I was a kid. I grew up in Salt Lake City and would take frequent trips to explore the deserts of Southern Utah with my family. I have great memories of backpacking to Druid Arch, 4-wheeling over Elephant Hill in my dad’s Bronco, and hunting for easter eggs in the Devil’s Kitchen.
I have also always had a thing for the Colorado River. When I was 8-years-old, my dad got a raft and we began floating many different sections from West Water to the Grand Canyon. One trip I had never done, but that had been on my mind for a lot of years was Cataract Canyon. That is where the Colorado flows right through the heart of Canyonlands National Park between the Maze and the Needles District.
Last week I started thinking about heading there for a last minute spring break trip. I couldn’t get the idea out of my head even when I couldn’t find anyone to go at such short notice. The weather forecast of 80 degrees and sunny was so tempting, especially after spending another cold, rainy winter in Hood River, Oregon. That is when I started to consider my first solo trip.
I haven’t paddled alone much in the 14 years I’ve been kayaking, but I’ve always been intrigued by the idea after reading stories of solo descents by whitewater legends like Rob Lesser, Doug Ammons, and Walt Blackadar. The Colorado was running around 11,000 cfs, a nice class IV flow. I decided I could commit to a 5-day, 93 mile solo paddle. I’d just had an especially difficult term of nursing school and I was more than ready to disappear into the desert for a while.
When I ran the idea past my fiance, Drew, he was 100% supportive. Of course, he is a big fan of solo trips himself and every once in a while he’ll plan an overnighter on the Hood River just for a chance to sleep in his bivy sack. I called my parents in Utah to let them know I’d be stopping by for a visit on my way home. Luckily my dad answered. He had been down the run before and gave me some pointers, told me some great stories, and wished me luck.
When my mom got word of my plans I don’t think she was as excited about the good news.”Christina Glissmeyer, I know you are an adult, but I am NOT okay with this,” she exclaimed over the phone. Yup, even at 33-years old I was in trouble and she had just called me by my full name. By that time I had already packed my truck and was well on my way to Moab. “Don’t worry, I have my spot tracker,” I assured her. There was no answer, so I also agreed to get some bear spray (for the lizards?) “Okay, but you’d better call me the second you get off that river!” she requested. Fair enough. Sorry mom, I hope you didn’t lose any sleep over this one . . .
I stopped by the National Park Reservation Office first thing the next morning to get a river permit. I half expected to get another lecture, but their only concern was how I was going to fit a fire pan, breakdown paddle, extra PFD, groover, and all my other gear and food for 5 days into one kayak. I took them out to the parking lot and showed them the 11′ 9″ Dagger Green Boat on top of my truck. They were impressed and sent me on my way.
The next thing I knew, I had sorted out a shuttle, picked up a river map, packed up my longboat, and push away from the Potash boat ramp. It was very liberating to have nothing ahead of me but miles of river, sandstone canyons and white, sandy beaches. The landscape looked just like a set out of an old western movie.
It is a lot of work getting to Cataract Canyon without a motor. There are 52 miles of flat water just to get there and afternoon headwinds don’t help. Then there’s the 30 mile paddle out across Lake Powell. It’s a pretty good workout, even in a longboat. I paddled about 20 miles each day. I was so excited to get to camp the first day that I did cartwheels all the way down the beach.
Camp #1 on a sandbar
The morning of day #2 I heard a motor gaining on me and was soon passed by a commercial cataraft full of college guys, also on spring break. They offered me a beer and ride. If it hadn’t been 10 a.m. I might have taken them up on it, but I was on a mission to find some Anasazi ruins.
I saw ruins scattered across the map and made a few stops to check them out. It was like a treasure hunt and it seemed like almost every side canyon was harboring granaries or pictographs. They were really well preserved from the dry climate and I could even see fingerprints in the hardened clay of the granary walls. Very cool stuff . . .
Side hike to the Indian Creek swimming holes
More anasazi ruins camouflaged in the red rock
Camp #2 at Elephant Canyon
I’ll admit that I didn’t sleep great the first few nights. With no one else around, all of my senses were heightened. As soon as it got dark the winds would die down and it was uncomfortably quiet. I’d wake up in the middle of the night to hear coyotes howling off in the distance and it would send a chill running down my spine. The stars were amazing though. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many shooting stars.
On day #3 I reached the confluence of the Colorado and Green. The river doubled in size and the canyon walls were towering above me. I began to feel very, very small as I entered Cataract Canyon. As if that wasn’t enough to make me feel a little uneasy, there were two vultures circling overhead for the first few miles. C’mon, was that really necessary? Then I saw the Doll House off in the distance and I forgot about the vultures. This place was so neat!
Looking up at the Doll house
The Doll House is a group of cool rock formations in a district of Canyonlands know as the Maze. To get there you hike straight up and out of Cataract Canyon (from Spanish Bottom) to the rim. It’s steep going, but so worth the hike once you get up there and the views are incredible. I spent about 3 hours exploring the caverns and passageways in the sandstone. It was really hard to leave.
I heart Canyonlands
I did run into a bear after all
Headed back down to the river
Then the fun really began. I got back in my boat and headed into almost 10 miles of continuous giant class IV wave trains. All that flat water finally paid off and it was so worth it! I don’t know the names of the rapids, but they were all pretty awesome and there were a ton of good surf waves. I made it to camp just before dark and decided that day was definitely a perfect 10.
Camp #3 at Big Drop Beach
The next morning started off with a bang, literally. The top of my struggling water pump blew off and refused to purify any more drinking water. I pulled a bottle of backup iodine tablets out of my emergency kit only to find that it had seen one too many river days. The tablets had dissolved into a crusty powder that was now cemented to the bottom of the bottle. I considered my option of boiling river water, but I was running low on fuel and the sandy Colorado River water full of floaties and nasty grey foam wasn’t too appetizing. I remembered reading about some year-round springs downstream, so I crossed my fingers and decided to try and hold out.
The rapids also started off with a bang. First thing in the morning I got to run all three Big Drop rapids. I wish I could start off every day like that! I love waking up and having nothing to do all day but go kayaking through giant crashing waves. It was just what I needed. The fun continued for about 7 more miles and then the water slowed into a big pool that I could only assume was Lake Powell. Then I was faced with 10 miles of flatwater to camp, it was getting hot, and I was getting very thirsty. Where was the party barge now? I could have really used a ride and a cold beer right about then.
I was just starting to feel a little bummed out when I heard a trickle coming from somewhere near the mouth of a side canyon called Easter Pasture. I paddled over but the wash was as dry as a bone. I followed the noise to a rock pile just upstream and sure enough, there was a fresh water spring gushing out of the rocks right into the river. I didn’t even have to get out of my boat to fill up my Nalgene and Camelbak full of the delicious cold water. Thanks to this little oasis in the desert, I had enough water to last me for the rest of the trip. Wahoo!
Camp #4 at Dark Canyon
The morning of day #5 was bittersweet. It was time to paddle my last 13 miles across Lake Powell and head back into the real world, but I was also getting just a little homesick for the gorge. First, I headed up Dark Canyon to check out what the map called some “irresistible” swimming holes. The map was right.
Then it was time to put my head down and finish my paddle across the lake. It seemed to take an eternity but by late afternoon I finally reached the Dirty Devil River and was happy to find my truck waiting for me there.
Spring break at Lake Powell. Whoop whoop!
It was crazy to think I had hardly seen anyone in 5 whole days. There was something about solo boating that really allowed me to appreciate the remoteness of the river. I definitely enjoy doing trips with a big group of family and friends, but it was pretty exciting to launch out on my own and I’m so glad I had a chance to experience that. What a great adventure.