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Rafting 3: Sneak Preview

Updated: Jun 3

Canyonlands NP, day 3.

Ahh, sitting on the river beach, my feet caressed by cold river waves, sipping an ice-cold soda (a rarity for me), with soaring cliffs hemming us in. I find it hard to imagine a better way to end a day. Such is the life...

But before getting there, we had river miles to cover. I greeted the new day before the sun invaded our meadow, clouds rippling the sky above.

No tent to collapse made it easier to pack up

after a breakfast of omelet, potatoes, and granola with yogurt and blueberries.

We had time to wander before launching. I noticed lizards scurrying about, but failed to capture them on camera. Pam proved much better on this wildlife photography aspect, capturing one at rest.

Another relaxing float/motor down the flotsam-choked river. As we got closer to the confluence with the Green River, red rocks gradually faded into grey.

At mile 11 (measured as the distance from the confluence), our boats took to shore. The river here veered to the north for two miles before making a tight 180° turn, forming a gooseneck. As Owen piloted the boats down the river for four miles, the rest of us took a hike.

The trail - yet another adventure hike (are there any other kind along the river?) - ascended quickly up a slope blanketed with orange globe mallow flowers.

The climb once again featured scrambling and climbing over steep steps.

From the top of the saddle, we could see both channels of the gooseneck.

Descending on the far side - our Loop hike ran only one mile, but at a slower pace than Owen's boat - proved nearly as gnarly as yesterdays's waterfall trek.

Owen awaited us at the bottom. "Now if I remember the writeup on the website," I told him, " you were supposed to have an ice cream sundae bar waiting for us when we got down."

Owen laughed. "Oh, that was only for the people who floated down, not the hikers!" Drats, foiled again!

Seven more miles of leisurely floating followed, a counterpoint to the challenge we would soon face. Craig took out his iPhone and, balancing it on his knees, took a time-lapse video of our transit, making us appear to speed down the river.

Up next: the confluence with the Green River, the Colorado's main tributary.

Though the now-enhanced river didn't appear any wider, we understood that we had just gone from ~35,000 CFS to 66,000. Welcome to Cataract Canyon! Just downstream we came to the Oracle - the Supreme Being who knew how our day would finish. So promised Owen.

In reality, it was a DANGER sign warning of rapids two miles ahead,

with a log book for guides to claim a campsite. Luckily, our first choice, just below the fifth rapid (out of 29) had not yet been spoken for.

As we left the Oracle, the river rounded a bend to reveal - hoodoos! I hadn't expected those whimsical features in the canyon - almost like the rocks from Bryce had visited the river for a weekend getaway.

A short distance further, a competing outfitter had six rafts beached for lunch.

Owen steered us over to his friends and arranged with their leader to run the big rapids together tomorrow. Safety in numbers, he explained - more boats in the water to pick up anyone who might get washed overboard. (Alex later mentioned that the Holiday crew would strap three boats together, with two guides holding one oar apiece on each side of the combi-raft, working in harmony to steer their way down the pending rapids. Wow.)

Within sight of the first rapids, we pulled over for lunch (more salad wraps and apples). We milled about nervously, knowing our first test faced us.

Once we settled on which boat each of us would ride through the whitewater, we received the Essential Safety Talk. Now we heard about all the bad things that could happen (but likely won't) and how to survive Cataract Canyon. It all boiled down to one thing: Hold on with everything you've got!

Time to gear up! The crew handed out wet suits (Farmer Johns, covering you from ankles to shoulders, but no arms), paddle helmets, and optional paddle jackets to protect you from the cold. Sav verified our PFDs fit tightly enough for someone to grab it and haul you back on the raft.

Launch o'clock! We climbed on board, and I scrambled back to grab a seat on the J-rig. (This boat promised a supposedly less-exciting ride, but I wanted to shoot video from both rafts through the canyon, so I'd start there.) Since I had my contacts in, I put on my new goggles - which fogged up as soon as we took off. Finally, I mounted my GoPro and prepared to film.

Once away from shore, the crew uncoupled our two boats. Each would tackle the rapids separately. Owen's J-rig would float first, then turn to make sure Alex survived the raging waters with no swimmers. If anyone washed overboard (from our boats or the Holiday rafts) and ended up separated from their ride, Owen could motor over and pick them up.

As the guides explained, high water significantly alters the waterscape of the river. The third rapid had been tamed to ripples, and the island that made the fourth a challenge now lay under several feet of water.

However, the first rapid gave us a wet and wild introduction to whitewater. A big wave swelled beneath us, raising the front of the boat until it pointed more than 60° from horizontal. Once it crested, it plopped down the opposite slope, and a blanket of cold water washed over Sav and I. We kept our iron grip on the straps as we crashed through several more waves before we finally broke clean and the watery turmoil ebbed. Temporarily, of course.

Owen had enough time to power the boat around and make sure Alex had found his line through the waves, then he turned us into rapid #2, which doused us with more spray. My appreciation for the paddle jacket grew.

So went our sneak preview for tomorrow, with 18 more rapids on tap. For today, they made landfall on an actual beach - a far cry from the difficult moorings of the last two days. Now I'm sitting on the shore, waves stroking my feet, clouds painted on the palette of the sky, waiting for dinner o'clock.

As the guides cooked steaks, grilled mushrooms and onions, boiled corn and mashed potatoes, we customers started a game of bocce ball. Through nine rounds Craig led, but when the call for dinner sounded, we left the balls where they lay and bounded over to the camp kitchen.

In the dunes, Raoul the Raven lurked. With our attention turned to food, Raoul now trotted over to the balls. "Look," I pointed out, "Raoul wants to play." Everyone chuckled. But when Raoul pecked at the white marker ball - sure, it might look like an egg - and then grabbed it in his beak and started hopping away, Craig ran over to shoo him away, sans ball.

The evening passed quickly as we reflected on the whitewater - and wondered about the three Big Drop rapids awaiting us tomorrow.

As the sun disappeared behind canyon walls, the rocks glowed red-orange.

Soon the light faded, and another star-studded sky glowed overhead. (Thanks for the picture, Pam!) Once again, I would sleep sans tent, glorying in the day.

Meet the crew/ALEX:

"I joined the military out of high school - you know, to be brave and honorable." From his home base in Florida, he then moved to Montana at age 21, where he hung out, snowboarded, and got a cool summer job rafting on the Yellowstone River. "The absolute best part of the job is being outside, sleeping under the stars, and waking up in these beautiful canyons."

He's all in on his rafting career. "The best advice I can offer anyone is to have a good attitude. I'm always open to learning. Even if you don't know what you're doing, people will like you - and you'll learn the ropes. Just keep smiling!"

Meet the guests/BRYN:

"This is my second favorite trip of all time," she confessed. "My favorite was last year, when my mom took me to the Dolomite Alps in Italy. That was incredible!"

In school, she studies music. For two semesters, she took piano classes, to build on her skills with classical guitar. "I would also love to play a horn instrument, maybe someday work as a session musician."

What would her dream trip look like? "Ooh, to go to New Zealand and visit all of the spots where they filmed the Lord of the Rings movies. I'm a huge fan." And what is her favorite aspect of this trip? "The rapids are terrifyingly fun! Beyond that, just hanging out with everyone."

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