After John Wesley Powell’s pioneering 19th century exploration, other interested parties quickly discovered the isolation, adventure and scenic grandeur of the upper Colorado and Green rivers in what is now the state of Utah.
First on the scene were two seclusion-seeking entrepreneurs with extensive banking and railroad interests—namely Butch Cassidy and Sundance. This pair may have vanished into legend, but the remote beauty and excitement of the rivers remains, protected by Canyonlands National Park and unchallenged by human habitation.
Thus, our 21st century expedition set out to follow Powell.
We consisted of a gathering of family and friends from past adventures ranging in age from 10 to 70-something. With the help of five versatile boat handlers from Holiday Expeditions, we would follow the sometimes tranquil, oftimes vengeful river as it looped around red bluffs and finally fell into the roiling adobe-brown currents of Cataract Canyon. On one occasion we took a shortcut hike across the neck of a river loop, meeting out boats on the other side. Other treks revealed primitive art and grain-storage bins placed under sandstone overhangs by pueblo populations.
“Beyond here lie 100 miles of river and no easy out,” warned one of our guides when we put in south of Moab, Utah. Greeting us through the better part of our sequestered week would be scenery unmatched in many ways even by the Grand Canyon, with waters that occasioned a series of lolling, playful interludes in which we would break the heat of the day by swimming and sandbar-scrambling.
At the Colorado’s confluence with the warmer Green River, we marveled at the strict temperature outline dividing the two currents.
Silhouetted against an iridescent dark patina of oxides on the cliff, groups of desert bighorn sheep nodded to us above the thin procession of emerald-green tamarisks hugging the shore. On one occasion a beaver took umbrage at the clamor coming out of our campsite, stalked across the sandy beach and finally glowered at us from the opposite bank.
Added to the menagerie were an unconcerned golden eagle seemingly posed for photographs, and “Catfish” Rodney, of human species, who had abandoned civilization due to matrimonial difficulties. He now hid his features beneath a lush beard.
When passing Rodney’s tiny homestead and yellow kayak, the river guides would often run a humanitarian check on his well-being, occasionally tossing him plastic jars of peanut butter. But on the other hand, they wished Rodney would move on from one of the river’s more prized campsites.
“Need anything, Rodney?” shouted our tour leader, Brin Finnigan.
In robust health, Rodney called back, “Had a catfish snagged today as long as my arm with a head as big as a frying pan…but lost him. I’ll stay until I get him.” No peanut butter today for Rodney.
Much of the trip passed in anticipation of “the big drop,” which consisted of three frenzied, boulder-guarded troughs within Cataract Canyon. These include Satan’s Gut, a voracious 20-foot drop where whitewater is compressed by 600-foot-high sandstone walls. Because changes in the river levels bring stone teeth closer to the surface, the guides held scouting conferences on shore before challenging the tongues of several rapids.
It was time to cinch up lifejackets and hang on with both hands.
Throughout it all, windows carved by nature in the high sandstone walls watched our passage, much the same as they had eyed Powell.
The fury of Cataract Canyon was contrasted at night by the heavenly tranquility of a superhighway of Milky Way stars flowing straight and true between the dark outlines of surrounding cliffs. Other memories, too, would follow us when we alighted on the upper banks of Lake Powell: camp fare and companionship of the highest quality, a 50th-birthday celebration complete with cake and sandstone formations that resembled a howling coyote, the sinking Titanic, a dinosaur and France’s Mount St. Michel.