A Desert Awakening

Women's Sports Fitness: Bumping along Canyonland's rough roads and rapids

It’s 8 o’clock on a Sunday morning.  Johnny Cash’s gravely-voiced hymns soar from the tape deck.  The music is our spiritual link as we bounce down the road southbound from Moab, Utah.

My four companions and I are heading with our guide toward Canyonlands National Park.  Today is the first of a five-day backcountry driving and rafting vacation.  After two days exploring the desert in a Chevy Suburban 4×4 and camping out the under the stars, we’ll raft the Colorado River for another three.  Our river route includes navigating Cataract Canyon, which during spring runoff has some of the biggest whitewater in North America.  It’s late May.  The river’s flow is already over 50,000 cubic feet per second.  We know that we’re in for the wild water.

That’s the formidable future.  Right now, we’re content to explore the southern Utah landscape on foot and four wheels.  The unusual combination of surf and turf activities is the perfect way to explore this vast park.  Permits to camp and raft in Canyonlands are hard to come by.  Recent efforts to preserve the park have closed some trails and prohibited human access in some sections.  Visitors are warned to stay on trails and off the cryptobiotic soil, which is actually composed of living organisms.  Looking like a dusting of well-crumbled asphalt over the desert sand, this soil protects against erosion and helps conserve moisture.  It takes about 50 years for the slow-forming soil to regenerate from the damage of a single footprint.

In such a barren environment, going with a group feels secure.  The desert is no place for a novice.  Far from conveniences or means of communications, everything you need must be carried in, and you must be able to to take care of yourself.  Temperatures often rise above 100 degrees; sudden thunderstorms cause flash floods; even experienced campers find the trails difficult to follow.

For the first two days, our route is the White Rim Trail:  Once the beach of a long-gone inland sea, it’s now a 100-mile strip of a sandstone wide enough for our Suburban.  Surrounding rocks form bizarre spires and mesas that reach up and out, like tentacles intermingled with table-tops.  The air is clear enough to see the stratified colors of cliffs dozen of miles away.

Anasazi history graces the landscape.  Our guide departs from the printed itinerary and leads us through cactus and pinon trees to look at pictographs and ruins.  Staring up at the ochre and black figures high on the canyon walls, we are over-whelmed.  Beyond the ancient art and dwellings, columns of rock in bands of red and brown and gray rise hundreds of feet from canyon floors and tops of mesas.  Slabs the size of football fields balance precariously on the edges of skyscraper-high cliffs.

Our first night, we camp on the White Crack, a peninsula of rock and sand.  Formations glow in the last of the twilight:  The Needles, The Maze, The Doll House.  The landscape is silent.  Even the wind makes no noise.  In the morning, mountain bikers wearing determined expressions and water packs pedal past us.  We descend the final track, a 1,500-drop, to the river.

The Park Service strongly recommends that inexperienced boaters travel this section of the river with a commercial outfitter.  Here the churning water is as unforgiving as the desert.  Cataract Canyon is on the dedicated river-runners’ checklist of must-paddle rapids.  For 11 miles beginning with Brown Betty, the river flows through a series of 27 rapids.  This section includes “Mile Long,” a sequence of five rapids that merge into one during high water, and the Big Drops, three closely spaced rapids where the river drops 30 feet in less than a mile.

On a scale from one to 10, the second of the Big Drops rapids is rated a level 10, meaning the rapid is extremely volatile and intended for experts only.  The wave formed by the drop is described as “a solid tsunami” between 15 and 20 feet high.  My companions, all experienced river-runners, are excited.  I am nervous.  When I look at the rolling water, I’m thinking I’d prefer my next challenge to be hunting for a close-in parking space at the shopping mall.  Our boatman, Darren Wallis, tries to skirt the far right edge of the drop.  The river has something else in mind.  The force of the water vaults him out of the raft when he tries to brace his oar against the wave.  I grab his hand in time for him to scramble out of the river and back to his seat just as we hit the tsunami broadside.  We “high-side,” throwing ourselves against the bottom of our now-vertical raft as it climbs the wave, then squirt through the wall of water without capsizing.  Finally we hit calm water and head for the riverbank.  The sequence takes less than a minute.

We camp in Dark Canyon, several miles downriver from Cataract Canyone.  The stillness is a startling contrast to the roar of the rapids, still echoing in our ears.  Channel catfish splash in the quiet water and the morning call of a canyon wren wakes us, but not until well past dawn.

Back in Moab, I find a t-shirt that boasts, “I survived Cataract Canyon.”  I wear it home.  The next time I start gauging my life in terms of parking spaces at the mall I’m going to put it on.