Apr 9, 2012

The Graveyard of the Colorado, part I

Cataract Canyon, via Wikimedia
 [This is another story from my dad, about the flood of 1983 on the Colorado through Cataract Canyon. I'll be posting it in installments.]

They thought it was probably going to start dropping soon. The river was already higher than any flood since the gauges went in back in the 20’s, so the safe bet for forecasters was to say it had just about peaked. “Highest water ever recorded,” would be a fair statement. How much water that was in actual volume would be hard to say. It was off the graph.

Floods like this are suppose to be a spike in the pattern. Once the level started down it was expected to fall off precipitately, which would be good. The Green River wasn’t anything I recognized at this level. The camps were gone, the side hikes under water.  The river was painfully cold and going so fast it was hard to get all the boats landed in one place. I’d had a sketchy time of it just pulling in to the notch in the tamarisk trees where my boat was tied up and the hissing current still had hold of it, bending it downstream against the branches, everything trembling and creaking. I was tied up to a sprinkler head, and by that I mean my boat was tied up there, as I sometimes don’t make a distinction. There was no other solid feature on the manicured lawn along the river bank adjacent our hotel. It was only a few steps to our rooms at the “River Terrace,” Green River, Utah’s (the town) most luxurious accommodations.   

The River Terrace had room decors in three colors, Too Red, Too Green and Too Gold with fuzzy wall paper, guilded fixtures and the feel of a fin de siecle brothel. The good thing was you could make it cool and dark as a cave inside, even while the sun was turning the parking lot into a shimmering pool of asphalt. Most of the floor space was taken up by coolers full of food for the second half of the trip. A ragtag group of boatmen (gender neutral) were draped over everything, pounding 3.2 beer with little effect and waiting for someone to decide what the hell to do.

We’d already had these passengers for six days through Desolation Canyon. It was a charter trip and they were all related. There were a couple of young kids maybe nine and twelve, their parents and their grandmother, somebody’s sister and her whole family. One lady had only been out of the hospital for three weeks after major cancer surgery. Not your ideal adventure team. There must have nineteen or twenty of them in five boats, expecting a mellow family trip. Not so. It was running fifty-five thousand cubic feet per second, twice the highest level I’d ever seen and screamingly fast. We only needed to spend an hour on the water to make a day’s miles but it was an anxious hour. The rapids were fine, homogenized into lengthy sets of huge standing waves, but the eddies, boils and whirlpools tossed the dories around like little pieces of bark.

And the drift was truly frightening. 

You’d be watching a 200 year old cottonwood tree float by, sixty feet long, root ball as big a Lincoln, in full leaf with birds nests full of twittering squab and the sucker would just disappear. Gone. You’re setting there in your gaily painted eggshell thinking, “Where’s it coming up, for God’s sake?” Then, ninety seconds and a hundred feet from where it went down, the whole crown would suddenly explode out of the water like the skeleton of Moby Dick, execute an agonized pirouette, crash down into the river and vanish. Lordy. There were railroad ties, telephone poles, the entirety of a single-lane wooden bridge, a 5000-gallon cylindrical steel tank that chased us for miles, and seven hundred dead cattle, bloated like bagpipes, all on their way to Lake Powell with everything the river could wrench loose. There was some discussion as to whether it would be wise to continue.

The second half of this trip included Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons on the Green River and Cataract Canyon below the confluence with the Colorado. It’s is kind of an odd trip in that there are 120 miles of  serene flat water winding through spectacular scenery, then all hell breaks loose for a few miles, after which you find yourself in the silted wasteland of the upper Powell Reservoir. You can do most if it in an open canoe, but better not take the Grumman through the “Graveyard of the Colorado.” Cataract is a different story.

I’m not sure how the decision was made or who made it. The chain of command was a bit murky, but it might have been me. It was probably me. We already had a two-boat trip that left a couple days ahead of us on predictions of dropping water. The leader of that trip was one Bego Gerhart, our best Cataract hand and no fool. Other trips were proceeding as usual. Cataract Canyon was five days downstream, and the thinking was, it would be manageable by then. The passengers were clueless and game. We all were. We loaded up and left. 

It was easy to make the miles. There’s not much in the way of gradient for the first couple days, but that didn’t matter. We were hauling ass. The problem was stopping. There was four feet of fast water over the root crowns of the tamarisk and the banks were a continuous thicket of palsied branches, talus and cliff. The river was backed up for a mile into Barrier Canyon, but we rowed to the end of it anyway looking for a camp. It finally cliffed out in the brush and most of us slept on the boats. The mosquitoes were the only happy ones. We camped the next day on a thirty degree pitch, scattered in the boulders like bighorn sheep. We camped where no man had camped before. Everyplace we could actually get the whole trip stopped at once, we pondered the water level like an oracle, the waterline brimming with portent. It didn’t look so good. It was still coming up.

We burned five days getting to the confluence but the water was gaining on us the whole way. It was a colorful convergence. Colorado River really is red. The Green is really green. It takes them half a mile to mix. It was like pulling on to an on-ramp with the Pacific Ocean in the next lane. Some of your boatmen types will pride themselves on their finesse with the river, their ability to read water so well as to be able to make the river do most of the work for them. OK, maybe I even am one of those people, but it was not happening here. Every stroke I took was as hard as I could pull and it often didn’t seem to make any difference at all. Suddenly you’d find yourself on some huge hurtling tectonic plate of water that appeared under the boat and have about as much control over where you were going as if you were rowing say, Greenland. And this was the flatwater, of which there are three miles between the Confluence and Spanish Bottom, a short distance above the first rapid in Cataract.

Spanish Bottom, via Wikimedia
We got to Spanish Bottom at the same time as the helicopter from Channel 2 News, a Salt Lake City station. They set down right next to the semi-permanent camp Canyonlands National Park had set up to advise boaters about the high flow. Big motor rigs had been tipping over. People had drowned. No one had been through Cataract in three days and it was still coming up. Somebody on the helicopter handed me a note from Bego, leader of the trip two days downstream. The chopper had touched down at his camp above the Big Drops to make sure he was OK. The note said:
Do not go below Spanish Bottom. We are evacuating our trip. I flipped somewhere in the North Seas. Paul tipped over somewhere below there and had people in the water right to the top of Big Drop One. Do not go below Spanish Bottom
Bego had finally tipped a boat over, that was about the only bright spot. He’d been doing this for eighteen years and was starting to get a big head about it.

I’m still digesting the import of the note when we hear an outboard engine fire up.  There were a lot of people standing around, and the noise got everyone’s attention.  It was a Moki Mac motor trip whose departure marked the first to descend Cataract in three days.  “Pete said he was going to go today,” one of the Rangers said while everyone was hustling to the bank to watch them leave.  Their people were all wearing two life jackets.

[That's it for now, stay tuned for the next installment!]

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