The Big Drops of the Colorado in the Dagger Stratos
I began kayaking on the Colorado and its tributaries as a seven-year-old on the San Juan. My brother and I thrilled at paddling the river’s minor rapids, propped precariously in our oversized kayaks sans spray skirt. I quickly became enamored with the sport and grew all the more keen after hearing stories of the Big Drops of the Colorado Plateau: thrashings in Lava Falls deep within the Grand Canyon, cold flips in Snaggletooth on the Dolores, and, of course, high water thumpings in the Big Drops of Cataract Canyon.
Fifteen years after I began paddling, I finally had the opportunity to explore Cataract Canyon and its 14 miles of big-water, desert rapids. The waters of Lake Powell have buried nearly half of the section’s historic whitewater, and boaters have been forced to navigate nearly 20-miles of current-less lake to reach the take out at Hite. However, the present derth of water in Lake Powell has restored much of the lower section and current now reaches all the way to the take out at the Dirty Devil River (the Hite takeout is no longer usable, as the lake has retreated so far that the concrete boat ramp now sits hundreds of feet from the lake).
The rapids of Cataract Canyon are big-volume, pool-drop fun, characterized by an ominous horizon line, a smooth, fast tongue, followed by a thunderous mélange of crashing waves and hidden holes. I was a little nervous about tackling such steep whitewater with our expedition boat, the Dagger Stratos, which is geared more towards our long lake crossings and heavy gear loads. Just downstream from Spanish Bottom, in the first wave train, however, I found the boat to be surprisingly nimble. Pointed downriver, it smashed through big breakers and made easy work of sticky holes.
The rapids of Cataract Canyon are big-volume, pool-drop fun, characterized by a an ominous horizon line, a smooth, fast tongue, followed by a thunderous melange of crashing waves and hidden holes.
We took our time and completed the rapids over the course of two days. Big Drop 3 provided the most excitement. I watched from shore as John Weisheit, of Living Rivers and Waterkeeper Alliance, slotted his 19-foot J-Rig deftly down “Satan’s Gut.” John eased his massive craft through two steep ledge holes and then let the current swing his nose across the face of two nasty rocks that, from my vantage point, I was sure he would become stuck on. A perfect run. Although, he has done this stretch of river nearly 400 times, including a single year with 49 trips.
I was up next, and I opted to explore some of the big features off of the river-right shore, near the far bank. As I ferried across the slow moving pool at the head of the rapid, the sun broke out, and I was forced to squint downstream in search of the marker holes I had picked out from shore to guide me away from the nastier features. By the time I sorted out my line, the current had picked up pace in the rapid’s glassy tongue. My marker holes shot by, and I noted them in my head: one, two, three. Then it was time to paddle for all I was worth and hope I was in the right spot. A few crashing diagonals later, I squeaked past the last churning hole and was free in the tail waves, all smiles.